It’s really hard for me to narrow the amount of albums I listen to down to two albums! My process, I write down everything I listen to over the year, and then I make another smaller list, and pretty much make it smaller till I get down to 10. When the EIC said two, I was like really? We did 5 last year, but it was only us. We are now joined by Chris. The two albums I picked were ones I’ve listened to since they were released multiple times.
I hope you enjoy these albums. Remember to go out and find some more awesome albums that aren’t listed. Go out and listen to American Wrestler, Courtney Barnett, and Torres. Happy 2015, and may the music of 2016 be just as plentiful.
Album of the Year:
The Epic – Kamasi Washington (Brainfeeder)
This is a beautiful jazz album, orchestrated in a month long recording session. It includes a 32 piece orchestra and 20 singers. It is truly an epic of historical proportion. Much like Homer had the Odyssey, Kamasi has The Epic. The album is on 3 CDs. It has made me want to start playing my instruments again.
Washington pieces together an arrangement that is epic in both skill and scale. It has highs, it has lows, and like every great jazz musician before, you can truly tell the love and emotion he put into it. It’s not only Kamasi that sticks out, bassists Thundercat and Mike Mosley both show off their wonderful jazz bass skills. The bass solos are incredible.
You can also find Washington’s work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
My Love is Cool – Wolf Alice (Dirty Hit Records)
I have been waiting on this for years! I’ve listened and relistened to Wolf Alice eps for sometime now, longingly awaiting for a full length, and to me it didn’t disappoint.
The one thing that has always drawn me to Wolf Alice is Ellie Rosewell’s voice, she can go from hunting to upbeat in a beat. My Love is Cool showed plenty of that range.
My Love is Cool is a rock oriented album filled with pop melodies, harmony and catchy bridges. Once you listen to this album you will instantly fall head over heels for this band.
Album of the Year
Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty)
When I first volunteered to write about my top album of the year I already knew what it would be, I had known since March 31 and the first time I heard it.
Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is a true masterpiece. This is a hauntingly beautiful and painfully gut wrenching album, in turns it is hopeful and cynical, joyous and depressing, sparse and layered. All of this complexity is anchored by the songwriting, perhaps Sufjan’s greatest strength.
My previous writings and my friends can attest that I have a very broad taste in music. If I place my music library on shuffle and let it go one never knows what’s going to come up, it’s even been turned into a game on road trips before. In all of that I can say with full certainty that my favorite musician is Sufjan Stevens, he’s truly an exceptional talent. I’m sure many will disagree with me, but I find his songwriting as poetic and impactful as Bob Dylan’s while his singing and musical skills are miles better. There, I said it. So, I may be biased in picking this as my top album of the year but I have truly given it a lot of thought and can’t think of anything better to have been released this year, and it’s been a wonderful year for music.
Carrie & Lowell was Sufjan’s attempt to move past the loss of his mother to cancer. However, it’s much more than that. His mom abandoned him and his siblings when they were children, leaving them in a video store. This and her battles with mental illness meant he rarely saw her growing up, save for a few summers he spent with her in Oregon when she was married to Lowell, hence the title of the album. Carrie & Lowell is Sufjan struggling to come to terms with everything that has happened. The abandonment, the pain, her death, his internal turmoil and guilt at never reaching out throughout his life, him questioning his faith because of all of these events, and even suicidal thoughts that all of this pain has driven him toward.
To accomplish this Carrie & Lowell is his most minimal album, featuring simplistic and refined sounds of guitars, banjos, pianos, and just a few others. But while it sounds simple it often has many layers, makes use of reverb and electronic sounds, and features more complexity than one may hear on first listen. This folksy and bare sound allows the lyrics to take front and center, for Sufjan to tell the story of his suffering and pain. If his brilliant album Age of Adz revealed his internal chaos through its complex sounds and songs, Carrie & Lowell is trying to reveal it through the words. One exception to this was his live show for the album, which I was lucky enough to see in April. During his tour the songs of Carrie & Lowell were much longer, and much more Adz like in their use of electronics and lots of instruments. This can be heard a bit in the remix of ‘Blue Bucket of Gold’ he recently released, though the live version I saw stretched almost 15 minutes.
I think what I like most about Carrie & Lowell is the ultimate message of it. Sufjan forgives his mother, even sings of how he wishes he could’ve save her from her sorrow, he shows that he can find joy and beauty in the small things in life, remarks on the happiness he experiences just seeing his niece. It’s telling that after having been through so many negative things in his life he expresses nothing but love and forgiveness to everyone else by the end of the album. This is an album Sufjan poured his heart and soul into, he cried several times during the live show, and it shows. It shows it the sound of the album and it is apparent throughout the lyrics. This is one of his best albums ever and my top album of 2015.
Elaenia – Floating Points (Pluto)
Elaenia is the first full-length album from British electronic music producer / composer and PhD holding neuroscientist Sam Shepherd. He creates music under the name Floating Points. This album was inspired by a dream in which a migratory bird strays from its flock and is swallowed up by the forest, which Shepherd felt mimicked the way our atoms are absorbed into the fabric of the universe when we die. This is apparent in the sometimes random sounding and flowing sounds, with frequent tempo and texture changes.
Elaenia sounds like a refinement and extension of his previous works, more than anything revolutionary. It’s hard to call it only electronic, it certainly has dashes of modern jazz and maybe a touch of post-rock mixed in, and sometimes Shepherd’s training as a classical choral singer and pianist also shines through. The electronic elements are downtempo and borderline ambient, which all lead to a calming and contemplative album that is good to work to but even better to just sit back and listen to and allow yourself to be absorbed into the flowing of the music.
The album clocks in at just 43 minutes but runs a gamut of sounds in that time. Some songs are sparse while others are much more layered and complex. The whole album reminds me of the currents in a big, wide river; seemingly calm on the surface but swirling, complex, and multifaceted underneath the surface. One can float across the top and be little unaware of the depth or allow themselves to be sucked down into it. This album almost demands close listening to be truly appreciated.
Its structure leaves it devoid of lyrics and short on melodies. Much like an ambient album its beauty shines in its textures, tones, and moods. But especially in this album those moods rely upon a veritable army of wonderful minutia and tiny details that add up to something much more. Though there are also big, boisterous parts that grab your attention and cause that familiar chill up your spine characteristic of frisson, this is especially true right around the halfway point of ‘Silhouettes.’ In other places the album creates tension and then just switches, never allowing for a climactic release.
The details, the complexity, and the obvious care it required to craft it all makes Elaenia something unqiue on the sonic soundscape of 2015. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is my runner up for album of the year.
Album of the Year:
Uncomfortable – Andy Mineo (Reach)
It’s been awhile since a hip-hop album has impressed me, let alone contended for Album of the Year accolades. It’s not that I don’t like hip-hop, in fact, I grew up nodding my head to Christian based MCs nobody ever heard of: The Cross Movement, Knowdaverbs, John Reuben, and Pigeon John to name a few.
In short, I like my hip-hop to have passion and meaning. I don’t want to hear how many cars you have or the square footage of your mansion. I want to be challenged and enlightened when I lay my headphones down. When I get done with any great hip-hop album I, personally, want to look at the world differently and, just maybe, be inspired to change it for the better.
Andy Mineo’s Uncomfortable is what hip-hop should be: truth tipped darts that dare to pop modern day hip-hop’s self-indulgent and pride filled balloons.
Mineo wants to shatter your reality with his own realizations on how relax his life had become, as he states in the title track:
I think I got too comfortable/I know I got too comfortable.
He then proceeds to write an essay printed on beats that challenges the listener to look at themselves and question the world around them, just like he did. In the same title track, Mineo sets the table for the uneasy dinner he invited you to:
So if you wanna live a comfortable life
Make sure you never love nobody, be selfish and never sacrifice.
This is the course the whole album takes as Mineo continues to hit you with lyrics just like the one above accompanied by one of the best flows I’ve heard in a long time. Whether it’s talking about discovering real world realities (“Now I Know”), wanting to pluck his generation out of “this apathy” (“Vendetta”), or his fear, and reality, of being left by the ones he cares for the most (“Ghost”). Each track is an education on how to craft a hip-hop album with the main focus is to humbly inspire without pulling any punches to soften the blows he boxes your ears with.
At the heart of each track is Mineo’s Christian faith. It’s the substance that the truth darts are coated in before he unleashes them in his next lyric. A faith that challenges him to be better in every phase of his life from his rhymes to his marriage (“Love”). It’s refreshing to hear a hip-hop artist have no fear in sharing his passion and hoping that people will be changed by his anointed bars.
Hip-Hop needs truth. Hip-Hop needs Andy Mineo.
Come In – Children 18:3 (Tooth and Nail)
Children 18:3, a band made up of siblings, has had a permanent place in my personal pop punk rolodex for quite some time. I’ve been on board this train from the beginning. I’ve jumped around my house to them and I’ve seen their amazing live show a couple of times, singing along with with every song.
When they announced that Come In would be their final album, I quickly decided to participate in my first, and only, Kickstarter by contributing to a band that has made my life’s soundtrack a bit more meaningful.
Children 18:3 has never strayed form their Christian faith (you may sensing a theme by now) and how it inspires their song writing, but they also never embraced the “Christian” label as far as musically. They didn’t go the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) route because, lets be honest, their is nothing even slightly representing pop punk on that boulevard of unoriginality. Instead, they crafted pop punk songs that represented their faith with crunching guitars, driving drum beats, and unique vocals that made this pop punk fan stand up and take notice.
And Come In isn’t any different. The band never strays from their bombastic style on the album and continues to cement themselves as one of my personal favorite pop punk bands of the last decade. Soaring anthems like Bethlehem, Afterall…, Watch Over Me, and Hold Your Breath show the band can write catchy choruses without losing any of their edge. For This We Ride and Let There Be Light show their straight up rock n’ roll side, while Long Ride Home and Don’t Stop Moving shows the band slowing it down to reflect on their career as a touring band.
Come In is the final chapter in the Children 18:3 story. And it makes you want to go back and start from the beginning.