Top Albums of 2016
It's that time of year again. I often base my top albums of the year off of the memories that I have associated with listening to them. I feel like what you are about to read will not be as much a review of each of these albums, as it will be a reminiscing of the times that I experienced them, and the things that most affected me in those moments.
As per usual, I didn't keep track of all that I loved throughout 2016. I could probably save myself a lot of anxiety come years’ end if I would just write out my experiences with the music I fall in love with at the time that it actually happens, and then simply assemble it all when the time comes. I suppose that would be too simple. At any rate, this is still one of my favorite posts to write each December, and getting to spend the hours that I do going back through the records I've chosen is always fun. It was a good year for music. The following is in no particular order, and there may or may not be more than ten albums by the time all is said and done.
Wet - Don’t You
I love this album. Wet's Don't You has received a huge amount of my listening time this year. I love the memories associated with it. Driving through the mountains just east of Santa Barbara to celebrate my mom's new marriage at a ranch house in some SoCal paradise. Or walking through the beautiful city that is San Francisco just last week, quasi-R&B dreamy as the rain that fell and reminding me of how much I loved living in the bay as a kid. I was in fifth grade then, and I probably would've hated Wet. Back then, I listened to a radio station called Live 105 that played Korn and Godsmack and Creed and Puddle of Mudd and Limp Bizkit all of the buttrock that I loved at time. (I still like Korn and who can't get down to Fred Durst, you know? But overall, I think we can all agree that my music tastes have improved substantially.) When my friend Caleb started doing alternative artwork for Wet's records (here, here, and here), he told me about the song Deadwater. I find out – I think – about most of the music I love from Caleb. I adore Kelly Zutrau’s inflections on that track. Gosh. I hope that I can catch a live show next year.
The Hamilton Mixtape
I discovered Hamilton: The Musical for the first time this year. The original play as well as the mixtape. I was hoping that I would be able to put the original on this list, because I have never heard anything quite like it, nor has anyone accomplished the task of making me enjoy a musical. I think that I said something to that affect online not long ago, and got more backlash than I had imagined for it. It's not that I think of musicals as an illegitimate art form or anything like that. It's just that, for whatever reason, I've never really liked them all that much. I had a friend in high school who loved Fiddler On The Roof. He always wanted to watch it, and it drove me nuts. Anyway, I know that Hamilton isn't Fiddler On The Roof. And I know the Hamilton Mixtape isn't Hamilton: The Musical. But I really love this story. I am fascinated and dumbfounded by the artistry on display anytime I hear or read anything associated with Lin-Manuel's masterpiece. I first dove into the narrative driving cross country on the second chapter of my Don't Sink tour just following Audiofeed Festival this July, and was so excited when they started to release tracks from the mixtape. I am especially fond of Sia’s Satisfied, and it is so dope hearing Dessa on the mix. She’s always been one of my favorite’s on the Doomtree crew, and I’ve thought her voice was gorgeous since the first time I heard it on an old mix that they put out with P.O.S. and Atmosphere years ago. Manuel couldn’t have dropped Immigrants at a more appropriate time, and Busta Rhymes verse on My Shot gets me every time. In short: into it.
Bon Iver - 22, a million
I have been surprised by the amount of people disappointed in this record, but as far as I'm concerned, it's the best thing Justin Vernon has ever done. And I don't think that he got there easily. I have been sitting here for twenty minutes trying to read through different articles on this record... I don't know – maybe in hopes of summarizing something worth contributing else to the praises or criticisms – but most of it has already been said. As a lyricist, I am at times annoyed by Justin's (apparent) disregard for actually communicating anything understandable. And yet, for the very same reason, I am all the more deeply in love with it. For all of the lipservice that I pay to appreciating mystery, I sure do drive myself insane trying to rationalize everything. This record is something else, entirely. Call it myth or mysticism or call it whatever you want. Justin creates his own words if nothing else seems to fit. Everything - from the musical 180 to the collaborative symbolism that Eric Timothy Carlson partnered to create to the trancelike lyric videos - all of it is pure genius.
Kendrick Lamar - Untitled. Unmastered.
When KDot dropped this tape, I had just completed the first show of my 2016 touring year, and was packing bags in Ada, Oklahoma. We had an overnight drive to someplace in Arkansas for a conference the next day, so I bought the album and listened to it the whole way. I will admit that I didn't fall in love with Untitled. Unmastered. The same way that I did To Pimp A Butterfly, but it has grown on me to a definite point of inclusion here. Every track carries something different with it. Untitled 03 left me remembering watching it for the first time on Colbert, claiming he wouldn't release it because that track was only for him (this was, of course, before King James happened to mention that he'd love a new Kendrick EP for his birthday). I still think Kendrick has completely changed the game over the course of the last couple of years. I don't know what exactly he's doing features with Maroon 5 for, or weird commercials (at least Shaq's in one of them), but hey...
Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
I’m not going to go on too much of a Kanye rant, but I will say a couple of things that have proven to be unpopular. One, my first thought, after having listened through The Life of Pablo a time or two, is that it’s really a pretty special album. Two, I think that Kanye is a genius. Three – and I was talking about this to my brother-in-law over the holiday who initially suggested that it would be a fun experience – Kanye is definitely a dude who I’d love to have a private conversation with. No cameras, no paparazzi, no Obama and no Trump and no polarizing stunt. Just a cocktail and a conversation. I was in LA when Pablo came out. All of the Tidal stuff was annoying and dumb. I'd lose a lot of the ridiculousness that makes Kanye the phenomenon he is, and I think he could stand to make some changes for his own sake, too. Frankly I think the dude’s more of a softy than he lets on, and I’m worried about him. I’m all for the #Pray4Kanye tag. He did some stuff with this record that’s super bomb - even lyrically. But then, he also pulled some traditional Ye and wrote some of the stupidest lines I’ve ever heard before (that verse about comparing betrayal to someone eating your last sandwich from the fridge will forever blow my mind). And… it’s just straight hard to hear some tracks - so dehumanizing at times. I always wonder what Kim thinks. Like, is she just stoked about Kanye talking about having sex with everyone all the time? Usually the response is: "they’re perfect egomaniacs who can suck fame off of one another," but that seems to smell like dehumanization, too. I’m always interested in who people are beneath all the publicity and clickbait. I’ll tell you this, though, when that dude actually smiles, it’s just the best. Who else has a smile that cute?
Amnesia Scanner - AS
Again, I have Caleb to thank for this find. If This Will Destroy You was my writing music in 2011/2012 – going into Seasons – then the current background vibes for whatever is next in my (agonizingly slow) creative process, currently, are more along the lines of Amnesia Scanner.
My favorite track on the record is No. 02: AS Chingy. I sat in a coffee shop about a mile from my house and listened to that song over and over again as I wrote a short and upcoming collaboration piece that I'm sure we'll share more about in the coming months as the project unfolds. I'm thankful for good instrumental music that clicks right off the bat for me when it comes to writing, because more often than not, I get distracted by music when I am trying to be creative, myself, even though I really want to listen to it. This seemed to drive the creative process, as opposed to hindering it.
I don't really know what's going on with this album cover. I'm glad my nose isn't that sharp and my eyebrows don't stick out that far and I don't have a bunch of heads all over my body. It's probably something very important that I've just accidentally offended. At any rate, I think they just put something new out mid-December, as well, so I'll have to check it out going into the new year.
Sho Baraka - The Narrative
This record is fire and nothing that I can write here will do it justice. Sho / Humble Beast's The Narrative is a perfect release – especially for 2016. Sho is an intelligent communicator who has done well to understand and pay forward a much needed addition to the conversations that have surrounded race, politics, urbanism, poverty, culture, supremacy, and the state of our States, as compared and contrasted and woven into the kingdom of heaven that speaks a different hope than moth and rust and men and power. I got to meet Sho twice this year - once in Chicago, and again in Portland. He intimidated me. Haha. But then we hung out some and I feel less intimidated. I know, personally, that I need records like this. Records that stretch me, and who I am, and my understanding. I know I’ve spoken highly of Sho’s label-mate Propaganda in the past, and I value what Sho has to say for much of the same reason… I don’t understand a lot that I long to, and he’s speaking clarity. This year and so many of the events therein has acted as an openhanded slap to so many people – myself included – who are waking up to discover a depth of brokenness we hadn’t seen before. It’s painful, albeit necessary, to open your eyes, but the disillusionment - the way that it can throw you off your equilibrium - can be paralyzing. This album, and some of the work that Sho is doing through The & Campaign and other projects, have acted as a sort of education for me, personally, and I hope that people continue to tell The Narrative.
Daughter - Not To Disappear
This might be the one release that Brandi and I actually came to agree on this year. We used to have such common tastes when it came to the music we liked, but somehow, we’re all over the place now, and rarely align so well as we have through Daughter’s Not To Disappear. I wrote a public letter not long ago about the impact that some of these lyrics have made on my thinking in recent months. There’s one track, in particular, called “Numbers,” that always seems to hit home. I have no idea what it's about, but I remember walking a tunnel that felt miles-long at Atlanta's airport on my way to baggage claim when I flew out to go to a Kanye concert (I know, the musical contrasts are stark), and the lyrics "I feel numb in this kingdom” seemed to summarize my life. And however melodramatic that sounds, it was comfort to me. I stood on the moving walkway late at night with next to no one else in this humongous airport, just floating, and listening, and watching myself pass through decorated corridors, made up with light and color and stillness save the train passing by through the tunnel to my back. It was a surreal experience, and one that I come back to every time the album begins to play.
Kings Kaleidoscope - Beyond Control
I always feel such an inflated sense of camaraderie with other post-Mars-Hill-people, and especially those who have continued to push forward and create art over the last few years. The things that I hear Zack Bolen and the Citizens guys going after in their most recent endeavor, and the stuff that Chad is working through on this Kings record are expressions that I find myself empathetically glued to. This is not to say that I understand what every song is about, and it is not even to say that these songs have anything to do with a common experience. But there are themes of doubt and deconstruction and reconstruction and longing and hurt and healing and pain and joy and longings and hopes and faith that can even feel blind and a sort of abandonment to the mystery that I feel inside of my chest when I listen to these songs. Perhaps I am crowbarring my own assumptions into the narrative. That’s fine. All I am saying is that they help. And that two years removed from all that we went through in relation to what was commonality, I am still not quite as whole as I thought I'd be. And so again I find myself the most thankful for art that is deeply honest and brazenly vulnerable, sometimes even to the point of offense. Here, for example, I am so thankful that Kings decided to keep the explicit version of A Prayer. I’ve sat resonating time and time again to the ache in "fear that is fucking violent” – a cry answered by a Savior who understood the fear and the violence at a depth that all of my rage and anxiety and fear and confusion can't touch. I am thankful for the opportunity to be able to listen in and empathize with that same violent fear while simultaneously longing for and finding comfort in the mysterious Person who responds to the call in that song. Beyond Control speaks deeply and sympathetically with a hope that does not discount pain, and a rest that does not seem quite as empirical as my once-tidy Hope was.
Thrice - To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere
I had the honor of seeing two Thrice dates this year - one just outside of Washington DC this summer, and one here in Albuquerque, NM where I live just over a month ago. Full disclosure: I did not grow up a diehard Thrice fan, and though I can honestly say that I have come to enjoy their their entire discography over the last couple of years, I'm definitely not the guy is hell bent on their first album being the best one, and making sure that you know that I knew about them before you did. I'm more of the guy who likes the most recent thing the most. And then the next most recent thing the most after that. I never got tired of this record. In fact, the more I listened to it, the more I loved it. The more I wanted to keep it playing over and over again. Dustin is, to me, another writer who, like Bazan below, can shape words in such a concise way so as to speak a story worthy of thousands of them, in three. His lyrics are layered with depth and create a sense of intrigue that keeps me coming back, to hear them one way, and then another. My friend Jamie wrote a cool story about the lyrics to Hurricane - the opening track on this record, and probably my favorite - here. Per usual, I find myself entranced with the way that words can be crafted to express exactly what I long to but come up lacking on my tongue.
David Bazan - Blanco
I took a while to go back and look at what I've written about Dave's work in the past, because every time a new record of his comes out, it always makes my list. Two years ago, whenever he was doing his Bazan Monthly releases, I just wrote, “Try to tell me that any time Dave releases something, it shouldn’t make the list.” Not long ago, Bazan was on my friends' podcast: Ink & Echo. Well, he was on twice, actually. You can listen to the second one to understand why they did away with the first, but there was a moment in the original recording when Dave said something to the effect of, “I thought I made a really [bleeping] good record,” and I would like to validate that claim inasmuch as a genuine fan is able to. Blanco is superb. Musically, I am a huge fan of the electronic direction he took this collection of songs, and lyrically, he never fails to amaze me with his ability to say so much with so little. What I continue to lack in precision he seems to have no issue nailing, and I can’t wait until the day that I am able to paint a picture in a few lines that would normally take me a few pages to get to. I continue to appreciate what I know of Dave as a person as well. and my respect has only grown. The love and humility with which he seems to desire to both create and care for people has been – I think – the repaying of condemnation with kindness, and the heaping of burning coals upon quite a few heads. I finally got to see him perform live in Albuquerque this year - a bucket list dream - and I hope that it won't be the last time. Somehow this dude from a band I never really paid any attention to - Pedro The Lion - when it was all the rage among the Christian music world that I grew up in has come to be a part of my life in ways that have challenged me immensely throughout the years. His music is not easy to face, and it gives you a lot to wrestle through, think about, practice discernment and ever pray through - as I’ve found myself with words by which to extend questions of my own to the Lord through this other person’s journey. Ultimately, I am thankful for art that has the ability to do that, and have the utmost respect for its creator.