Top Albums 2011

It’s been a year. Blogging is so last decade, it’s all about the Twitters. Same as last time, you’ll get the countdown, the cover art, my thoughts, and a music vid. And without further ado:

TOP ALBUMS 2011

10- 116 Clique – “Man Up”

Honestly, this album is only #10 because there’s only seven tracks. In more traditional terminology, they’d have called it an “EP” but that’s such a “physical media” thing of me to say. Basically, the 116 Clique is all your ravourite rappers from Reach Records – Lecrae, Tedashii, Trip Lee, PRo, Andy Mineo, Sho Baraka and KB – doing posse cuts non stop. This album, apparently, is a soundtrack for a curriculum & documentary – all aimed at, you guessed it, helping this generation of young men to “man up” – to lead and love boldly with grace. It’s a much-needed rallying cry, and the beats and rhymes are only outmatched by the heart behind it all.

09- Gungor – “Ghosts Upon The Earth”

Some of my in-laws turned me on to Gungor earlier in the year – specifically their debut album “Beautiful Things.” When I met Gungor, I met great harmonies, folksy vibes, and a well-honed sense of when to be quiet and restrained and when to be free, loud, and relaxed. Gungor excels at using variance in volume, pacing, and tone to capture emotion (or more accurately, capture worship) and this is true of 2011’s “Ghosts Upon The Earth” – a generous, difficult-to-describe multi-layered hyphenated-word-deserving album. Not exactly a worship album, but not exactly not one either. Delicious, in other words.

08- Emery – “We Do What We Want”

I keep thinking that Emery is gonna fall off. Hardly the case at all – We Do What We Want is arguably and in turns their most aggressive, loud and intense album and at the same time has perhaps their greatest “slow song” to date (I’d even argue it tops “The Ponytail Parades”). This is a band that has matured remarkably in… wow it’s gotta be close to a decade now! Anyways, the closing track on the album, “Fix Me” is one of the most heartfelt, earnest songs they’ve ever done and it’s my personal favourite on an album that is otherwise marked by a serious case of THE HEAVIES. Brace yourself, buckle up, and check it out. You’ll be glad and wear a grin.

07- Propaganda & Odd Thomas – “Art Ambidextrous”

Most people first heard of Propaganda when his video “G.O.S.P.E.L.” went viral early in 2011. Some of us (myself included) have been familiar with the dude since his days with the Tunnel Rats in the early 2000’s. Much to my joy, Props has gone in a decidedly Christ-centric direction with his content, and the results are great. This is not your average rapper – Propaganda is the sort of emcee who can put together a brilliant spoken word piece just as quickly as a boom bap attack. Needless to say, the lyrics on Art Ambidextrous are (generally speaking) rather heady. Not one to shy away from polysyllabics and weirding rhyme schemes, there’s a lot to sink your brain into here. Definitely worth a careful listen when you’ve got time to digest meat rather than “just some rhymes”. Oh, and did I mention that this album is FREE from HumbleBeast Records? No? Well, it is.

06- Matt Redman – “10,000 Reasons”

Frankly, there was a sizeable portion of my life where I didn’t care at all for worship music. Needless to say, those days are gone. In terms of what my generation would call “normal worship music” – Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons is by far the best effort of the year. Personal favourites on the record are “Never Once” (about the faithfulness of God), “10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord)” which is about as anthemic as they get, and “Holy” (you can guess what that one’s about). Either way, they’ve been standards at church this year and for good reason – they strike great notes and (with the help of God’s people) bring down the glory.

05- Braille – “Native Lungs”

You’ll be glad to know that one of this year’s best is also one of this year’s… FREE. Braille’s been a constant companion of my hear-drums since high school and for good reason – excellent beats, excellent rhymes, and a knack for excellent guest artists. Native Lungs is, in my opinion, his best to date (closely followed by The IV Edition) – stuffed with head-nodding rhythms and brain-happy wordsmithery. There’s a decidedly West Coast flavour to this album (that’s not unusual for Braille) and there’s plenty of transparent, vulnerable honesty (quite usual for Braille) and far from a weakness, the honesty makes the record what it is. Did I mention this album is FREE? Get it here from HumbleBeast Records.

04- Great Awakening – “Songs In Secret”

Ok… so this one falls into the “worship” category, but it’s not in the “normal worship music” category I mentioned above. Great Awakening’s first album (Cities) would have largely fallen into that category. Songs in Secret, much to the contrary, is subtle, paced, quiet, meditative, pleasant, downtempo worship that is full of earnest heart. Which is to say, this album’s excellence lies in the intricacy, in the stillness, in the excecution of well-timed silence and the strange first track “Explore” which fools you into thinking that you’re about to hear an uptempo indie rock worship album. Which you aren’t. Get this album FREE from Come&Live! Records here.

03- Sovereign Grace Music – “Risen”

I’ve never kept it secret (in person, at least) that I’m a huge fan of Sovereign Grace Music. Now, in part at least, this is because most of their songs are in keys I can sing along with (unlike Chris Tomlin, for example). I like to sing, so selfishly that makes sense, right? Anyways, Risen is their 2011 album centered around the Resurrection of Christ. Fittingly, it came out just before Easter, but don’t be surprised if a grip of these songs are just starting to hit the air more visibly as we head into Easter this year (2012). Fantastic writing, theological depth, thrilling harmonies, and a load of modern hymns / spiritual songs to lend your vocal chords to. Trust me, your vocal chords are stoked to sing along.

02- Shai Linne – “The Attributes of God”

Honestly, if there could be two #1’s, this would be #1. Choosing between these two albums left me conflicted. Let’s get to the basics, shall we? Shai Linne has released the best hip hop album of 2011. The Attributes of God is not only a 15-track sendup to the character and nature of Almighty God, he’s done it with class, substance, and serious music to match. When I say “serious,” I mean these beats have my head bouncing even when I don’t have the record on. Highlights on the record are “The Glory of God (Not To Us)”, “Taste and See”, and “Mercy and Grace”, but you won’t find a dud on this one. Non-stop glory to God, non-stop beat rock.

01- Thrice – “Major/Minor”

This shouldn’t be any surprise. I love Thrice and I’m not sure if they’re capable of anything below excellence at this point. I’ll admit that I’m probably biased and blind to it, but everything Dustin Kensrue and company touch turns to ear-gold to me. Personal favourites are “Words in the Water”, “Treading Paper”, “Promises” and “Anthology”… but I could listen to the thing on repeat all day and not get tired. The lyrics, as usual, are solid “good plutonium” for your eardrums – packed with biblical allusions and weight that is difficult to describe. To say that Dustin is one of the best lyricists in music today is an understatement. To say that Thrice is one of the best rock bands in music today is, also and likewise, an understatement. Miss this one at your own expense.

Honourable Mentions:
Lecrae – “Rehab: The Overdose”
Playdough & Heath McNease – “Wed, White and Wu”
Hillsong Live – “God Is Able”
Hillsong United – “Aftermath”
Blindside – “With Shivering Hearts We Wait”
August Burns Red – “Leveler”

The Renaissance of Holy Hip Hop

Currently listening to: “It Is Not Death To Die” by Sovereign Grace Music
Total disconnect from the content of the post you’re about to read, but SGM makes some amazing worship music (better yet, they write thick, deeply theological lyrics for that music). Definitely a go-to group of musicians in the Bolton residence.

Let’s start with the obvious: I’m white. I’m middle class. Suburban. Only gun I’ve ever shot was my dad’s hunting rifle at target practice out in the woods at grandma’s. I draw graffiti on paper, not illegally on walls. I’m anything but “rough rugged”. Certainly not a “Playa” of any significant Game. I have soft spots in my heart for indie rock and uptempo metal (not that I should call any metal “uptempo”, doing that’s not very metal of me). Oh, and for folk, electronic, and (recently) jazz.

Apparently, that makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. And I do. Boy do I love me some deep bass, a sharp snare, and clever instrumentation all slathered together into tasty beats. I have no affection for a lot of the ‘culture’ that usually gets packaged with it (after all, hip hop is not on the radio) – the bling and sexploitation and violence and whatnot. But I have a great deal of affection for the sounds of hip hop.

Let’s make matters worse: I’m an English and Philosophy major with a background in Biblical Studies. I LOVE words. My brain plays with words. Sentences are like playgrounds to me – places to frolic and laugh exuberantly and enjoy life. I’ve always been enamored with communication and the means by which we accomplish it. Most of all, I’m dumbfounded by how God has chosen to communicate Himself to me (and the rest of you humans) through words – recorded in text, preserved through aeons of history, study-able, deep deep depths of words. As I’ve been reminded much lately – God wrote a book. It is written – “it” being the communication of God to man, the holy Scriptures. Inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, complete… profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, exhortation… all of it communication from God, put in human words for humans to read, know, and understand. We serve a God who communicated his Word with perfection – we should strive for excellence in our communication. It should be our goal to grow in clarity, conciseness, robustness, ‘copiousness’ (depth and breadth), and total self-control.

A love for words makes me a prime candidate for loving hip hop music. See, rap is the music of words in a way unparalleled by other forms. Hip hop is the modern theater for poetry – it really is. I don’t read modern poets, I listen to them “spit rhymes” (read: recite) over beats. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy such (otherwise neglected) vocal magicks as cadence, flow, rhythm, meter – all the hallmarks of performed poetry. Through hip hop I am able to enjoy sonnets and rhyme schemes and rhyme forms of all kinds – polysyllabic, internal, complex, couplets – the list goes on. In terms of structure alone, rap is responsible for so much remarkable innovation in poetry. Besting that, hip hop provides the ideal theatre to showcase thoughts and treatises on subjects far more detailed and technical than most other forms of music. Long words aren’t frowned upon, but indeed are often celebrated (this is significant when we consider the potential for proper theological, philosophical, scientific, or linguistic use).

I love hip hop. Particularly, I am drawn to hip hop that honours and glorifies Christ Jesus the King of Kings. I was first introduced to what is sometimes called “Holy Hip Hop” back in the late 90’s when my bimonthly copy of now-defunct music mag 7ball arrived in the mail, sporting its usual compilation CD filled with usually unheard-of artists. Although the mag focused primarily on rock and alternative music, it sometimes ventured into the then-risque territory of hip hop. This particular issue featured a song on the pack-in compilation called “Cypha The Next Day” by The Cross Movement. I was hooked – great old-school beat, clever and talented emcees busting out wonderful God-honouring rhymes, and to top it off, theological depth. This wasn’t some campfire “sing-songs to Jesus” deal, this was a bunch of Pastor-Rappers roughing me up with biblical insight and not only dropping poetry, but sermonettes, expositions, and commentaries on biblical passages in their verses. Average people like me started calling it “holy hip-hop” (hereafter “HHH”) and the name stuck.

Here’s something that excites me greatly – there’s been a real renaissance of HHH over the course of the last decade. What began with artists like P.I.D., SFC, and Dynamic Twins in the 80’s and continued in the 90s with artists like¬†The Cross Movement, Urban D, and Corey Red & Precise… has experienced a renewed fervency and urgency in the last five years in particular. Artists like Lecrae, Trip Lee, 116 Clique, Shai Linne, Sho Baraka, Flame, and Tedashii (not to mention solo efforts by Cross Movement members Ambassador, Phanatik, and Tonic) are quite literally tearing things up. The beats are amazing, the rhymes are full of bounty, and the biblio-theological depth, missional focus, and Christocentric emphasis is both refreshing and disarmingly confrontative.

So, this post (which has been on the backburner for two months) is just a simple expression of my thankfulness for how God is using men (and women) that he has greatly gifted in wordplay and music to glorify Himself through hip hop; to glorify Himself through the proclamation of his word and his Gospel through skillfully crafted poetry put to the kick and the snare.

Thank you, Lord:

  • for the gift of living at such a time as this
  • for the gift of ears to hear the kick, the snare, and the wordsmithery
  • for the gift of a mind to follow and comprehend what’s being said
  • for the gift of faith to believe in the biblical truths being expressed through your servants
  • for the gift of hip hop music, the gift of rap

James 1:16-17 ESV
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

I’ll close with a personal favourite. There’s this one guy named Shai Linne, and you won’t have to watch for long to see that God has given him a remarkable gift for compacting complex biblical truth into memorable, remarkable, mind-blowing rhyme schemes.

Check it.

Shai Linne with The Greatest Story Ever Told (live) from Grace EV Free on Vimeo.