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”

Top Albums 2009

Without much ado, here are my best beloved musical albums of the year 2009. In descending order, building up to an apex of musical happiness.

In Shallow Seas We Sail
10. Emery – “In Shallow Seas We Sail”
Although this record doesn’t really jump forward on Emery’s generally uncomplicated lyrical themes, it is a wonderful example of a band returning to their roots while incorporating everything they’ve learned in the meantime. Even though this won’t win awards, it’s a gutsy rocker with just the right amount of tenderness to make it all come together. Definitely a great record to throw on.

Hope Rising
9. Fee – “Hope Rising”
I first heard of Fee this past spring after we began singing one of their (then unreleased) songs “Glory to God Forever” at Harvest York Region. By the time “Hope Rising” came out in the fall, I was stoked to hear it. The more I listened to it, the more stoked I became. My only critique is that it comes off a little overdone (particularly the production), but otherwise this is an anthemic, thoughtful, and lyrically excellent collection of original worship songs. As a plus, they work great when sung by a big crowd of people.

III
8. Maylene & the Sons of Disaster – “III”
Maylene is just all kinds of fun. Take former Underoath vocalist Dallas Taylor, mix his insane gutteral vocals with a whole truckload of southern twang and smash-you-in-the-eye guitars, and you have Maylene and the Sons of Disaster. This year’s “III” continues their pattern of putting out stuff that just ‘southern rocks your world’.

Identity Crisis
7. Tedashii – “Identity Crisis”
With the Cross Movement focusing on solo projects primarily now, it’s been interesting to see successors to the Holy Hip Hop legacy rise up in their wake. Other than those on their own Cross Movement Records, cats like Lecrae, Shai Lynne, and Tedashii have really impressed me with deep, theologically informed yet immediately accessible lyrics. “Identity Crisis” isn’t the best example of this new wave of HHH (that goes to Lecrae’s 2008 disc “Rebel”), but it’s this year’s finest.

Picket Fence Cartel
6. Project 86 – “Picket Fence Cartel”
Hard to believe this year brought Project 86 all the way to album number seven. “Picket Fence Cartel” wins points for bringing back a lot of the heavy that was missing on 2007’s “Rival Factions”. It also wins points for some great apocalyptic and devotional lyrics. Songs like “The Black Brigade” mean that this one will see repeated plays for quite some time.

Son of the Morning
5. Oh, Sleeper – “Son of the Morning”
Metal record predominantly ‘voiced’ by Satan but made by Christians. Nine tracks on this record are written from the perspective of the Devil himself, with the final track being from that of the risen and living one – Jesus Christ. Conceptually this pushes the envelope (if that idiom even means anything anymore), but trust me when I say that it’s full of Bible and theology, full of great moments, and full of excellence. Closing track “The Finisher” is a blistering, potent reminder of the all-consuming power of the Almighty One.

Vancouver
4. Matthew Good – “Vancouver”
Ah, Matty Good. He’s kinda the odd one out on this list, and not just because he’s Canadian. “Vancouver” does a lot of what 2007’s “Hospital Music” did, only better. The only thing it’s really missing is a blow-your-face-off rocker like “I’m A Window” was for that record.

5print Mixtape
3. Deepspace5 – “5print Mixtape”
What happens when an unknown but skilled producer has a whole whack of beats NOT used for Jay Z’s “The Blueprint 3”? He, Alex Goose, puts it out for free online as “The Blueprint Outtakes”. What happens when rap supercrew Deepspace5 gets ahold of those beats? Magic. This mixtape is freely available at Deepspace5 dot Com.

Church Music
2. David Crowder Band – “Church Music”
After the letdown that was 2007’s “Remedy”, it was great to hear the return of the sprawling, almost experimental David Crowder Band ala 2005’s “A Collision”. Unlike that watershed record, though, there’s no bluegrass or Americana to be found on “Church Music”, just delicious electronics, top-of-your-lungs stuck-in-your-head choruses and a whole lot of heart and soul.

Beggars
1. Thrice – “Beggars”
It’s no secret that I’m an avid, blathering, emphatic fan of Dustin Kensrue and his band Thrice. Between Dustin’s biblically-conscious, thoughtful, high-grade, genuinely epic lyrics and the band’s brand of toe-tapping groove-infested rock… it’s all win. “Beggars” is my Album of the Year with a vengeance. It’s also, in this fan’s opinion, Thrice’s best offering yet.

…sailing shallow


Title: In Shallow Seas We Sail
Artist: Emery
Label: Tooth & Nail
Length: 13 Tracks / 41:10
For More Info: http://www.emerymusic.com | http://www.toothandnail.com

I’m going to come right out with it: this is Emery’s finest album, and it all started in 2004.

The year 2004 was the year most people were introduced to a fledgeling genre we now remember as “Screamo”. Screamo blends the screamed vocals and technical guitars of post-hardcore with the pop sensibilities and pretty singing of mid-nineties Emo. It quickly fell out of fashion because of a litany of talentless copycats and extreme overcommercialization, much like Rapcore did in the late 90’s.

Emery’s 2004 debut, The Weak’s End, garnered quite reserved reactions. At first glance, they seemed to be another Screamo band sporting dual vocalists. I think this rubbed a lot of critics and listeners the wrong way because it seemed like a cash-in on the popularity of other acts of the time – after all, 2004 was the year of Underoath’s They’re Only Chasing Safety, as well as Dead Poetic’s New Medicines, and ultimately it was the year Linkin Park’s Meteora solid a gajillion copies.

The Weak’s End was a decent debut – nothing spectacular, but since Screamo was the flavor of the year it sold quite well. The melodies were pretty good, the screamed vocals were satisfying, and the heart-on-sleeve, honest lyrics resonated with many. The record was ultimately driven forward on the strength of its most visible track. That track is “The Ponytail Parades”, and it represented Emery at their best – soaring harmonies and impassioned, agonizing screams told the story of a broken heart in a way that continues to resonate with fans to this day. Emery has since released the song in both acoustic and live versions on subsequent albums.

Just as violently as the Screamo tides came in, so they left not too shortly after. Pioneers in the genre such as Underoath quickly abandoned it, largely citing what it had come to represent – a stale, pigeonholed genre that held little long-term interest.

Emery was right alongside such bands in leaving Screamo behind, and they did it quite quickly. Their sophomore 2005 effort The Question focused much more on sonics, melody, and songwriting… and left behind almost all of the screaming. Their third release, 2007’s I’m Only A Man entered more experimental territory, adding in electronics and dancehall beats (among other things).

Then came 2008’s While Broken Hearts Prevail EP… which, if you heard it, you heard a significant shift in their sound back toward where they began.

What makes In Shallow Seas We Sail the finest record that this band has put out is the very thing that they’ve been largely avoiding for all these years since The Weak’s End – that being the proverbial “Heavy”. This is a record that starts with a rather delicious, throaty yell. The opening 30 seconds of “Cutthroat Collapse” set the stage well – covering more than a few screaming styles, and hailing in the return of a more confident, more mature Emery.

One of the things that’s allowed Emery to survive and thrive in the years since 2004 is that they have had at their disposal two extremely talented vocalists – both of whom are excellent singers and screamers. This has allowed them a great deal of flexibility and freedom both to experiment and to push themselves in ways inaccessable to most. Throughout In Shallow Seas We Sail, Both vocalists are at the peak of their craft, trading harmonies and conjuring some impressive back-and-forth intertwining lyrics and styles all throughout. In addition, the band’s rediscovery of heavy musical intensity rises up to match their ever-present lyrical boldness and heightened emotional appeals. The combination of these factors, which is ultimately a culmination of the lessons and progress recorded on all of their previous albums, results in an extremely impressive, challenging, and enjoyable collection of songs.

I believe that they have finally laid to rest “The Ponytail Parades” as their magnum opus. From its subject matter to its hooks to urgent crescendo, “Inside Our Skin”, is proof positive that Emery is presently in the best place they have ever been. When the song’s climax hits, and you hear the appeal “WISDOM LIGHT MY WAY INTO THE DARK / WE CAN’T MAKE A CHANGE ‘TIL WE KNOW WHO WE ARE”, these conclusions are utterly inescapable. A close runner-up is also on this record – the incredible “Dear Death”, which is split into two parts, the first quiet and sombre, the second pulsating, energetic, and impassioned.

If there’s one downside to this outing, it’s that Emery’s lyrics often don’t stray from the mold they set five years ago. Much of the album’s textual content is spent on relationships, and without much in the way of insight… instead focusing largely on venting emotions and feelings that most (myself included) would associate with high-school drama. Frankly, Emery’s most impacful songs are the ones where they deviate from that path – and although this record has a decent number, it would have been nice to see a wholesale shift in emphasis.

Ultimately, Emery builds on years of experience and their handful of previous releases and delivers to us their finest work to date. If it is truly In Shallow Seas We Sail, the seas are calm, the water is perfect, and the music is just right.

Four and a Half Sailboats out of Five.

Standout Tracks: Inside Our Skin; The Smile, The Face; In Shallow Seas We Sail; Churches And Serial Killers; Dear Death (Parts 1 & 2).

Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
September 10th, 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.

Format:
## – 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”