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”

…if you got soul


Title: Deepspace5oul
Artist: Beat Rabbi & Deepspace5
Label: Illect Recordings
Length: 22 Tracks / 63:21

Have you ever wanted to time travel? Do you love relevant, conscious, thinking-man’s hip-hop? If you answered “YES!” to both of those questions, Beat Rabbi and Deepspace5 have concocted the perfect cure for your ailments in the form of their late-2007 Illect Recordings release cleverly entitled Deepspace5oul.

Made up of 22 tracks, about 10 of which are interludes (some are short songs, some are instrumental) – the record is jam-packed with more Deepspace5 than you can handle. Recorded during the summer of 2003 prior to their sophomore release Unique, Just Like Everyone Else, Deepspace5oul is a blast from the past equivalent to the manic time-travel episodes of Bill Watterson’s classic serialized comic strip Calvin & Hobbes. The album gives us an unique presentation of the DS5 crew since it is the only release to feature singular production. Where all other DS5 releases have featured production from DJ Dust and Manwell, as well as rappers Fred Bruno, Playdough, and others (highlighting the multi-disciplinary talent of the crew), Beat Rabbi handles all of the beats on this project with only supplementary scratching and the like from others.

Thus, Deepspace5oul is an interesting side-release of the crew that highlights the excellent sounds coming out of Rabbi’s lab as well as sharing some circa-2004 raps from the crew. This is a remarkable listening experience for any fan of the group; the lyrics are excellent as always, and you can really hear by contrast just how much some of the guys’ vocals have improved since then. It’s a study in improvement and change, in that sense.

Musically, Rabbi sends up some of his best work ever on Deepspace5oul, sampling and fusing extensively from sounds such as soul, jazz, funk, and breaks – harking back to that classic (and rightly so) 1990’s rap sound. Sonically, the album traverses a wide landscape of areas – from full horn sections tickling your subconscious (“Deepspace 5oul”) to brilliant vocal tracks forming the backbone of a beat (“Beautiful”) to amazing bassline-driven rhythms (“On A Side Note”), Deepspace5oul is an exercise in production excellence. It’s plain that much time and thought and perfectionism was focused on this project, and the results are quite frankly thrilling.

Lyrically, the DS5 crew brings it as tight as they always have. Hearing new-to-us verses from almost 5 years ago is a very interesting experience, as it not only highlights the great strides of improvement made since (which has already been mentioned), but also just how amazing DS5 was even prior to that forward progress. Most notable is when the difference isn’t really even in the realm of “improvement” but of just plain difference – see The Listener’s verses, which definitely sound much more akin to his more traditional Whispermoon and The Night We Called It A Day style than to his present manifestation as heard and enjoyed on Ozark Empire or Return to Struggleville. Overall, between the shiny verses and the smart choruses, there’s food-for-thought and phonetic wonder here for weeks of repeated listens.

With the recent release of Bake Sale (an EP by DS5 standards at 10 tracks) and Greatest Beats & Unreleased (a b-sides and beat record), both in 2008, as well as 2009’s soon-coming and much-anticipated third album The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be, it’s becoming clearer than ever that Deepspace5 is one of rap’s undisputed supernovas of talent and an incredible machine that churns out hip-hop happiness in a way few other crews could ever hope to come near.

Deepspace5oul is a blast from the past that seems carefully designed from the top down to remind us that Deepspace5 pumps out quality, mind-and-heart-blowing hip-hop not only in the present and future, but the past as well. If you love rap and time-travel, you owe it to yourself to pick this puppy up and let it explore your soul with sound.

5 Souls out of 5.

Standout Tracks: Deepspace 5oul, Beautiful, On A Side Note, Double Dog Dare You, Downtown Connects, Say Yeah.


Jerry Bolton – for The Phantom Tollbooth.
January 10, 2009