Truth be told, I spent a lot more time this year listening to albums from years gone by – albums either missed entirely until now, or rediscovered like an old friend. That being said, 2010 was not without its bright spots in audio sensory stimulation. The following is, in a particular and descending order, what I consider to be the best of the best of albums released in the year of our Lord, Two-thousand-and-ten aka TwentyTen aka two-zero-one-zero. We’ll start with the tenth-finest and work our way to the finest finest. I will include cover art (so you know what the branding looked like) and a youtube video – either of a music video from the album or, if that’s not possible, just one of the great tracks from it.
10. Hillsong Chapel – “Yahweh”
For those who tire quickly of the compositional, instrumental, and arrangement predictability of Hillsong releases, this album is a breath of fresh air. I’ve never made it much of a secret that I’m only lukewarm to Hillsong as a whole. I only find myself really drawn to perhaps half their songs lyrically. That said, they’ve collected essentially all of my favourite Hillsongs-songs here, and better yet, they have ventured into the hitherto-unforeseen geography of acoustic arrangements. Having shed their electric guitars and cacophony of harmless electronic foolery (for the most part), what emerges is a collection of songs far more listenable than anything they’ve released to date. Better yet, these songs are actually accessible for use by 99% of their audience – namely, churches that aren’t 500+ deep with multiple worship teams equipped with state-of-the-art everything. In short, they’ve done something for normal churches here, and that’s to be commended. Quite possibly the best thing they’ve released.
09. Derek Webb – “Feedback”
Leave it to Dwebb to turn another weird corner and do something unexpected. I had a few hair-brained ideas about what he’d follow up Stockholm Syndrome with, but an instrumental/experimental “worship” album wasn’t what I had in mind. Needless to say, I was surprised and glad to lay my ears on Feedback. It’s got that good juxtaposition of elements that is absolutely necessary to make instrumental music compelling (without the character and meat of vocals and words, the beautiful collision of elements often falls to the wayside). Webb pulled it off nicely, though, I’d say. Hoping he gets back to singing soon though, we need his gravelly tones and hard words in music these days something fierce.
08. Lecrae – “Rehab”
Rehab is a bit of an enigma to me. We’ve played it to death around the Bolton household for its earhole-friendly infusion of R&B choruses and its considerable number of “non-hip-hop-head-friendly” subdued and contemplative tracks. It’s the first rap album that my wife has ever professed to enjoy (and that is significant to me). Perhaps that’s the best way to explain things – Rehab is absolutely fantastic instrumentally and in terms of vocal arrangements. The choruses are “stick in your head” and “sing/hum/harmonize along” style, and the beats are top notch. The real letdown (if there is one) is simply that Lecrae & Co. don’t come across half as passionately this time around. The lyrics are alright, but the Reach Records guys are more than capable of way beyond alright. Rehab is missing the hunger we heard on earlier releases, even Rebel (think “Desperate” as a prime example of hunger on that album). So it’s really a mixed bag. This could have been #1 for 2010 with ease, but it’s a rap record and the raps are only alright. Choruses and dope beats do not a classic make, there’s gotta be some lyrical skeletons to hang that meat on, if that makes sense. Here’s hoping that “Rehab: The Overdose” (due early 2011) shows some of the passion that was absent here.
07. PND (Poems & Dust) – “Dirty Words”
This is the record most of you will have never heard of. You’re probably all “Poems who?” and “Dust who?”. Poems aka Sareem Poems aka the artist formerly known as Sharlok Poems of LA Symphony is, well, all of the above. Dust aka DJ Dust is half of the rap euphoria two-man supercrew known as Mars ILL. When their powers combine, I am… err… they make great music. Dirty Words is a great example of how to throwback to “old school” hip hop without coming off corny and wannabe. It’s chill and sublime and has delicious samples and is many, many kinds of good. I’m not really sure what else to say except that more people need to pay attention to these guys. This thing is clean sounding (if that makes sense), gritty in a good way, and is probably this year’s standout example of a “sit back and chill” album. Great guest spots too.
06. The Chariot – “Long Live”
I’m getting old. The amount of time I have left in life where I’ll be able to rock out to the “Cha Cha” is drawing to a close, I fear. In all of time, no band has more encapsulated pure, unadulterated energy and adrenaline-charged furor than this band has. Long Live, their first album post-SolidStateRecords, is a continuation on The Chariot’s previously well-established themes: Play guitars until they fall apart, scream at the mic until it overloads, record everything live in a single take for maximum organic-ness and unbridled joy, and do it all fueled by barbecued meat. Their live show is a spectacle of hyperactive creativity being expressed in furious, joyous tones and inhuman quantities of action… and Long Live captures just enough of that avant-garde-blow-your-face-off to be possibly their best since their lengthily titled debut, “Everything is alive, everything is breathing, nothing is dead, and nothing is bleeding”.
05. Living Sacrifice – “The Infinite Order”
One of the most musically noteworthy happenings of 2010 was the return of the mighty, mighty, mighty Living Sacrifice. Known for ushering in a new epoch in metalcore, LS hung up their guitars in 2002 after releasing a payload of high quality metal/metalcore. They returned this year with “The Infinite Order”, and metal is better for it. If you enjoy being yelled at by your music, as I do, it’s difficult to find a better tenant for your iPod than Living Sacrifice.
04. Shad – “TSOL”
Shad’s a Canadian boy, so he gets bonus points for reinforcing the fact that “hip hop isn’t dead, it’s up north with me” (to quote a recent Canadian radio anthem). Better yet, he’s a wordsmith in the truest sense of the word, fond of utilizing homophones and multi-syllabic rhyme schemes. The beats are alright, the chorus are alright, but it’s really Shad’s flow that shines on this record. It’s essentially the reverse of Rehab (which shone in the other areas and fell flatter vocally), and since the common music between the two is the rap music, that should explain TSOL’s superior position on the list. Rap is always going to be ultimately about the emcee, not his supporting context.
03. Underoath – “Ø (Disambiguation)”
Not Underoath’s best (that still goes to 2008’s “Lost in the Sound of Separation”), but Underoath is the kind of band where, even when it’s not their best record, it’s still one of the best records of the year. Disambiguation is noteworthy because it marks the departure of the final founding member of the band, drummer and clean vocalist Aaron Gillespie, who has moved on to pursue his band The Almost full-time (in addition to some other opportunities). I had my share of concerns that this would not bode well for the band, but U/O pulled it off with this disc. Disambiguation is their usual combination of raging introspection, hummable/memory-worthy melody lines, and discord-driven unpredictability. Oh, and the breakdowns are, as always seems to be the case, wondrous for your ears.
02. Trip Lee – “Between Two Worlds”
Since we’ve already talked about Rehab, it should come as no surprise that the year’s best rap album is Trip Lee’s release “Between Two Worlds”. The beats fly, the guests hit their marks, and Trip takes us on an articulate, theologically-rich lyrical journey with his smooth southern drawl. Reach Records has a roster chock-full of incredible talent with all cylinders firing for the Gospel, and for that I rejoice. Between Two Worlds is ultimately a record about Jesus Christ and his “invasion” mission to rescue humanity. It’s also ultimately an amazing sophomore outing for this relatively-unknown emcee.
01. Ascend the Hill – “Hymns: Take The World, But Give Me Jesus”
What to say? I grew up on hymns, and although I never had much affection for what accompanied them musically (organ and piano aka the “wooden brothers”), I always appreciated the theological depth and provocativeness they contain. So, it should be no surprise that when everyone’s favourite indie-worship-band Ascend the Hill put out a Hymns record, it was the best thing to come gurgling out of the year 2010. Which is to say, if Ascend the Hill isn’t your favourite band that writes original worship songs and plays them in an indie-ish vein, they should be. These guys load up on the quality level, as well as a transparent reverence, and a musical accessibility that is a really hard mark to hit. Their self-titled debut was quite good, with its main weakness being how repetitive some of the songs were. Since this album consists of Hymns with pre-defined lyrical content, it meant that the repetition was avoided wholesale. This is a great thing, and it makes the record shine all the more. Ascend the Hill gives these old standards fan-tas-tic new arrangements that are engaging and yet they don’t seem to get in the way of, well, worship taking place. It’s rather uncanny. The addition of choruses and bridges to some of the Hymns is both appropriate and well-executed. So, having said all of that, I should point out one more thing. Ascend the Hill releases all of their music for FREE (the real free) through their record label Come & Live! Records. So, you can acquire my most-favouritest-album-of-2010 free of both charge and guilt. All you have to do is click here and do what comes naturally.
That’s it for 2010. Hope the year was as engaging for your eardrums as it was for mine. God is a giver of good gifts, and music is one of them. I’m thankful more than ever for artists who create things for me to listen to, be stretched by, thank God for, and best of all, worship Jesus Christ to.