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:


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”

…from nine to nineteen

Title: Cloud Nineteen
Artist: Braille & Symbolyc One
Label: Hiphop is Music
Length: 16 Tracks / 55:35
For More Info: |

Fresh off his fourth LP, 2008’s The IV Edition, Braille has teamed up with S1 aka Symbolyc One to deliver this new project entitled Cloud Nineteen. The most immediate benefit of teaming up with a single producer like this is that it results in a cohesion and togetherness of the record’s sound that was lacking on The IV as well as 2006’s Box of Rhymes.

In the role of beatmaker and production heavyweight, S1 brings his A game. Cloud Nineteen boasts some of the best and most enjoyable beats on any of Braille’s releases, at times rivalling 2004’s Shades of Grey, widely considered to be Braille’s finest album. Actually, it’s fair to say that every release since Shades has been held up against it – and in this regard I don’t feel that Nineteen takes the title as “best Braille”. With that said, Cloud Nineteen maintains the high levels set by Braille’s other post-Shades releases – no small feat. In short, the music here is fresh and enjoyable – with songs like “Megaphone Phonics” and “That’s My Word” standing out as highlights.

What is there to say about Braille’s rhymes that hasn’t already been said before? As always, he brings honesty, true-to-life experience, and an increasing breadth of wisdom to every track. For quite some time, Braille’s vision for Cloud Nineteen has been to give away freely to folks in schools, correctional facilities, and community centers. This vision seems to have informed the content and the topics of the record, which revolve around the idea that if ‘Cloud Nine’ is the best this world has to offer, then Christ offers us something much greater… Cloud Nineteen, so to speak. Throughout the album’s 14 non-interlude tracks, Braille shares from his life and learnings to encourage and challenge his listeners. A great example of this is “Found Her”, which shares his own fledgeling mistakes with women and eventual success in meeting and marrying his wife. It’s also a great follow-up to the only track on The IV Editon produced by S1, “Blessed Man”. Another highlight for me personally was one of the albums most polarizing tracks, the atmospherically dark and brooding “Heart of God”, wherein Braille asks:

How many times have I failed to represent the heart of God with my filthy rag righteousness
It’s painful to admit my lack of discipline when I commit sins, it’s shameful, I can’t live like this

…and later…

How can I dumb down the heart of God?
He sent his Son to come down and die for me.
I was in dire need.

…and finally…

All I really want is the heart of God
But I don’t live my life like I really mean the words that I say,
I want the heart of God to speak through my lyrics,
Why should you listen to me, when I don’t listen to the Holy Spirit?

To me, this track was the album’s highest highlight – brutal honesty from Braille about his own weakness and inability to do anything truly valuable apart from what God does through transforming his heart to be more like Christ.

Between S1’s consistent and engaging production and Braille’s consistent and precise vision for Cloud Nineteen, this is one of 2009’s best hip-hop records and will retain that status despite being released early in the year. Once again, I find myself impressed by and thankful for Braille and his desire to be a voice for hope and our need for the redemption and heart-level transformation that can only come through Christ. His vision to share this record freely with kids in group homes and cons in prison is to be applauded, and much more than that, it’s something to support. Here we have a guy who, rather than trying to cash in on his abilities, feels called to share his life, his talent, and his Saviour with the broken and outcast. That’s something worth getting behind. Getting behind it requires that you pick up a copy of this great album to enjoy, and that goes way beyond ‘cloud 9’ status and on to Cloud Nineteen. I’ll see you there.

Four clouds out of five.

Standout Tracks: It’s Nineteen, Broken Heart, That’s My Word, Heart of God, Megaphone Phonics, Hardrock.

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
June 13th, 2009

…top ten records two thousand eight

Here’s my top 10 records released in 2008.
They are IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, and are followed by a few lines about each.

## – Artist – “Album Name”

01 – Thrice – “The Alchemy Index Vol. 3 & 4: Air & Earth”
If their 2007 EP “The Alchemy Index Vol. 1 & 2: Fire & Water” hinted at anything, it was that the experimental direction begun on their previous record “Vheissu” was but a portent of things to come. “Vol. 1: Fire” revealed that Thrice can still melt faces with blistering post-punk rock even when they play with bizarre timings and unique structures, and “Vol 2: Water” revealed an entrancing, largely synthesized, beautiful ambient Thrice we had never heard before. In a
similar fashion, “Air & Earth” pushes that envelope further, with “Air” glistening and crackling with quiet energy and what can only be described as a whirlwind of light and atmospheric crescendos. Conversely, “Earth” shares much more in common with frontman Dustin Kensrue’s solo work and is full of acoustic sounds akin to Johnny Cash and old-school folk and country records than anything else in Thrice’s catalog. In a word, breathtaking.

02 – Brave Saint Saturn – “Anti-Meridian”
Not only the best BS2 record, but the best thing Reese Roper has ever written and performed vocals for – and that includes Five Iron Frenzy. A brilliant ending to the loose story arc begun back on “So Far From Home” and continued on “The Light of Things Hoped For”. Lyrically strong, musically strong, and very highly rated independent release out of the remains of what will always be one of Third Wave Ska’s greatest memories.

03 – Underoath – “Lost In The Sound Of Separation”
Blistering, anthemic, organic, pulsating with purpose, raw, passionate, and ultimately the best Underoath record to date. Structurally remarkable as it almost unilaterally avoids the trappings of traditional verse-chorus, and sonically/lyrically impressive as it comes across with a remarkable juxtaposition of distortion and clarity.

04 – Emery – “Where Broken Hearts Prevail EP”
Quite simply, this is a wonderful hybrid of the sounds explored on “The Question” and “I’m Only A Man”. In short, they’ve taken the best parts of both, made a hybrid, tightened up the screws, and unleashed their best album ever – the only downside is that it only lasts 7 tracks.

05 – The Classic Crime – “The Silver Cord”
Not exactly known for pushing envelopes musically, The Classic Crime do manage to outdo their previous work both in terms of scope and in terms of sound – with the tasteful appearance of quite a few new instruments (the least of which is not frontman Matt MacDonald’s visceral yells, a welcome addition). Overall, there’s a whole lot more depth and maturity here, resulting in one of the best rock albums in recent memory.

06 – Becoming The Archetype – “Dichotomy”
Quite simply, Becoming the Archetype finally realized their remarkable potential on this album. Moving out of riff-city and into epic-metropolis, and from “we can write sweet bits for songs” to “we do write great complete songs”. Consequently, this is the year’s must-have metal record. A completely mind-blowing re-imagining of the classic hymn “How Great Thou Art” stands as an example.

07 – Dustin Kensrue – “This Good Night Is Still Everywhere”
Thrice frontman Dustin Kensrue releases his second solo effort, this time a Christmas record. Questionable choice? Sure. Fantastic results? Absolutely. Eight covers (only one or two that are unremarkable) and two amazing originals. This one will see regular rotation for many years to come.

08 – Mars Ill – “Black Listed Sessions”
Mars Ill’s producer and deejay extraordinaire DJ Dust has been remixing their records since 2003, and the results are consistently as good or better than the original mixes. In this double-take on their previous “Blue Collar Sessions” EP, Dust provides us with some amazing reimaginings of classic tracks. They are so good that they might as well Blacklist them, for their release upon unsuspecting eardrums might cause the musical equivalent of a hydrogen bomb attack.

09 – Deepspace5 – “Bake Sale”
Upon finding themselves label-less after a brief stint on Gotee Records, rap supercrew Deepspace5 set out to record and release their third album independently. To fund the effort, they recorded and released this incredible 10-track equivalent of a grade school bake sale (hence the name) to raise funds for putting out album #3 (which will be called “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be”). The results, as always, are spectacular. Challenging beats coupled with humorous/convicting/clever raps, and brief enough to leave you hungering for DS5#3 in 2009.

10 – Copeland – “You Are My Sunshine”
Copeland finds itself on Tooth & Nail Records, being produced by Aaron Sprinkle. Awesome, overwhelming serenity results. Hands down the smooth, sleepy, ambient, vocal-driven hit of the year.

Honourable Mentions:
GZA/Genius – “Pro Tools”
Coldplay – “Viva La Vida”
City & Colour – “Bring Me Your Love”
Brandon Heath – “What If We”
Sev Statik – “Shotgun”
Death Cab For Cutie – “Narrow Stairs”
Braille – “The IV Edition”

…a list or two

Current Tunage: Underoath – The Only Survivor Was Miraculously Unharmed
Lost In The Sound Of Separation is incredible.

So. There’s about a month and a half left in the Oh Eight, which may be a bit early to do this, but I feel like doing it now.

TOP TEN RECORDS RELEASED or discovered by me IN 2008 (mostly no particular order):
x II – maylene and the sons of disaster
x BAKESALE – deepspace5
x CURB APPEAL – sintax the terrific
x SLOW FLAME – mars ill
x THE SILVER CORD – the classic crime
x THE IV EDITION – braille


Title: The IV Edition
Artist: Braille
Label: Syntax Records
Length: 17 Tracks / 58:02

It’s been a long road, driven by purpose / and I know, I know, I know that it’s worth it.
(from “Calculated Risk”)

I was first introduced to Brian Winchester a.k.a. “Braille” back in the hallowed days of the late nineties and early 2000’s – the days of the original, 56k modems, and a noticeable explosion in quality positive, underground, Christian hip-hop. Many names that are now revered were first heard during that time, names like Mars Ill, Deepspace5, Tunnel Rats, and Grits. For me personally, I’ve always numbered Braille amidst those top-notch groups and artists.

It’s been a long time since then, and a lot has changed – not only in hip-hop, but in the music industry as a whole. However, even as the industry and the art forms involved in bringing music to the masses have changed and evolved, some things have remained constant. Braille is an example of this constancy and stability. The IV Edition, released in April on Syntax Records, is Braille’s 4th solo record. His past records, 1999’s Lifefirst: Half the Battle, 2004’s Shades of Gray, and 2006’s Box of Rhymes, are all textbook examples of positive hip-hop done right. Even better, sitting and listening through them from beginning (Lifefirst) to end (The IV) reveals what is perhaps the most secure and constant element of Braille’s work: Progress. Braille is dedicated to improving not only in his life, but in every facet of his music.

Practically, this manifests itself in many ways on The IV Edition; which in its name refers to four related ideas. First, the idea of an IV that distributes “musical medicine for social illnesses directly into the veins of society”. Second, the idea of “International Vision” – improving our global awareness and activity. Third, the idea of an “International Version” (referencing the international audience as well as the international crew involved in producing the record). Fourth, the number four (this is, after all, Braille’s fourth record). With IV, More than on any other outing (including his group work with Return to Sender, Acts29, and Lightheaded), Braille demonstrates an unapologetic commitment to pushing himself lyrically, stylistically, and even in terms of the kind of production he acquired for this record.

Let’s start with the music: Every beat on the record comes from a different producer, including such notables as Ohmega Watts, Marco Polo, DJ Spinna, and Kno. I’m always wary of records that have a multitude of producers (much less a record where every track has a different one), and for good cause: they tend to suffer incredibly from a lack of continuity of sound. There are times when The IV Edition falls prey to this, but for the most part it holds its own… in part I suspect due to the pedigree of the producers. Generally, the sound of the record is rather large: street beats, plenty of turntablism, tastefully implemented cuts that add to tracks rather than detracting, gobs of deep bass, etc. Overall, the sound is punctuated and diverse without being overbearing, and ultimately quite accessible. Musically, this is the hip-hop you throw on to chill to, to rock to, and maybe even to dance to just a little bit. Even better, this is the hip-hop you don’t mind sharing with your fam because it’s clean without being childish, fun without being absurd or unimportant, and most importantly challenging.

‘Lyricism don’t sell no more’, that’s what they say, but I just ignore it: I won’t forfeit…
(from “The IV”)

The challenge is in the lyrics. Braille has always been a talented lyricist, and has certainly taken things to another level with this disc – but, in being consistent with himself and his progression, Braille brings the same approach to textual content he always has. For those unfamiliar with Braille, that approach is to weave truth and insight and thoughts throughout what can only be described as the story of his life. Braille’s lyrics don’t read like a story though, it’s more that his way of presenting is very relatable and down to earth. Braille is a normal guy with a marriage, children, problems, failures, victories, and all the rest of it that we all live on the daily. This is a major feature of his writing – normal stuff, and it’s in this normal stuff and through it that he relays his observations from living, and the lessons he’s learned and wants to share. As a result, although he’s certainly underground, his lyrics aren’t overwhelmingly cerebral (you won’t have to bust out the dictionary or wikipedia to figure out what he’s talking about), but neither are they the banal testosterone frenzy we’d find on your typical radio rap single. For those who prefer tongue-twisting mind-bending wordplay in their hip-hop (and I’m admittedly in this camp most of the time), this isn’t really what you’ll find on The IV Edition, but that’s not to say that Braille is anything less than challenging. Part of what makes his lyrics connect and knock you over sometimes is precisely that they are so immediately relatable. This has always been a strength for Braille, and on this record it really shines. Particularly, it shines on The IV Edition because Braille has been through a lot lately, as since Box of Rhymes he’s both experienced the joy of becoming and being a father and the pain and struggle of losing one (Braille’s father died while the album was being recorded).

There’s a handful guest rappers on the record, many of whom have shared time with Braille on previous releases. Namely, you’ll find folks like Manchild from Mars Ill, Speech, Mr J from The Procussions, Poems from LA Symphony, DJ Bombay, Theory Hazit, DJ Idull, and a couple appearances by Rob Swift. All of the guests hold their own, and for the most part they fit really well into the tapestry of the disc and the overall direction of each song.

Overall, this is a great album that showcases the progress Braille has continued to make throughout his career. The myriad of producers fork over a heaping helping of great beats, the guest rappers come with a lot of heat, and most of all, Braille shares himself with us once again… and once again, it’s a blessing.

The IV Edition is difficult. It’s certainly not perfect – the plethora of producers do hand us a couple of dud beats, some of the hooks are kind of annoying (I’m thinking primarily of “Main Squeeze”, but that may just be because I was really never into James Brown!), and of course, there’s plenty of room here for improvement. However, Braille’s made my job easy because in the closing moments of the record he says the following:

And to all the critics: You don’t gotta give this a perfect score. On a scale of 1 to 5, maybe call it a four. You know, ‘cuz it’s IV. I mean it’d be appropriate, it’s kinda like you’d be giving in to the wordplay, plus it gives me room to keep growin’. If you think it’s lower, I mean… that’s on you. I ain’t gonna argue. Everybody’s got their own opinion.
(from “ADDvice”)

…I’m inclined to give in to the wordplay.

IV out of V.

Standout Tracks: Calculated Risk, The IV, Counter Attack, Mental Guards (Snitch Blade), Get It Right.

Jerry Bolton

…abolish honesty

Current Tunage: Thrice – The Messenger
Here I am – Send me.

Back, safe + sounding.

Gas = stupid expensive.
Body = stupid worn out.
Mind = stupid tired.

Trip = bliss.
(Loot = generous + remarkable.)

Currently reading: Vintage Jesus (Mark Driscoll), The Language of God (Francis Collins), Beyond Opinion (Ravi Zacharias).

Mother-in-Law-to-be + Zao album as a gift = epic win.

Current project = Review of Braille’s “The IV Edition”.

But first: TF2. <3

…noctournal beats in my headphones now

Title: Night Owls 4: A Shot In The Dark
Artist: Various
Label: Syntax Records
Length: 20 Tracks / 69:57

This is what compilation records should be.

For somewhere closing in on a decade now, Syntax Records has made a name for themselves by becoming synonymous with positive, quality underground hiphop. The Night Owls series of compilations is in many ways their showcase piece: collections of tracks recorded specifically for these compilation by members of

Syntax’s label roster as well as other significant members of the underground hiphop community.

Night Owls 4, the fourth (surprise!) in the series, consists of twenty songs, only one of which might be called an “interlude”, and it’s a very excellent DJ cut. Thirty (plus) emcees, showcasing most of Syntax Records’ roster (ie. Braille, Kaboose, RedCloud, Man of War), but also a handful of other non-Syntax talent such as Manchild from Mars Ill, Listener from Deepspace 5, and CookBook & UNO Mas of L.A. Symphony. Top it off with a handful of DJ’s and producers and you have a recipe for greatness.

Reviewing compilation records such as this one is difficult for one primary reason: the variety. There’s no one emcee rapping on every track, nor is there one producer behind the boards, nor one DJ scratching up a storm. Rather, you have a multiplicity of all of the above.

So first, some generalizations about the entire album:

The recipe works – Night Owls 4 is excellent. Every track on the album is exclusive to it and you won’t see them anywhere else. This is not a collection of songs from albums you might already own, nor is it a bunch of second rate b-sides or demos. This is a collection of rap songs from some of the positive underground hiphop community’s best, many of whom are at the top of their game right this moment. Additionally, Night Owls 4 boasts a variety of producers on the record, which ensures a wide variety of sounds. Consistently, regardless of style, the beats are on point.

So, now that I’ve told you that the compilation is great, here are some of my more pointed thoughts:

    Some of the tracks are quite a bit better than others. My own preferences are listed below.

  • It’s great to see the return of old-school supercrew “thePride” (Recon and Sintaxtheterrific from Deepspace 5, and Manchild from Mars ILL). I don’t think they’ve done a new track since 2001’s On Def Ears). They absolutely nail their track.
  • I’ve never been much of a RedCloud fan, but his track “21 Jump Street” converted me all by itself.
  • Listener’s track “Older Than I Was Before” features some of the best socio/religio-political commentary I’ve heard in a rap song in quite some time.
  • The choir samples on Cookbook & UnoMas’ track “Always Shine” win for best-in-album and makes for an incredible beat.

Four deep bass beats out of five.

Standout Tracks: For You, Always Shine, We Will Not Stop, Knuckle Up, Older Than I Was, Test Market, 21 Jump Street.

Jerry Bolton