Top Albums 2010

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”
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”
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
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”
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”
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”
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”
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)”
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”
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”
Hymns
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.

…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”

…must listen/learn

Current Tunage: Mars Ill – 2 Steps
“He’s just another couple steps from where he needs to be…”

I was thinking this morning that there’s a short-list of musical artists that I love and/or respect so greatly that I must own whatever they release as soon as they release it. Case in point, this morning Dust of Mars ILL announced via their mailing list that he (and Beat Rabbi) had just done an 18-track double-disc remix of Mars ILL’s 2003 EP “Blue Collar Sessions” entitled “Black Listed Sessions”. I ordered it immediately. You see, Dust is in the habit of remixing his own work, and the results have been consistently amazing – sometimes the remixes are even better than the originals. No small feat, when you consider Mars ILL is behind such underground classics as “Raw Material”, “Backbreakanomics” and “Pro Pain”.

Anyways, I thought about it a bit, and here’s my short-list of “musical artists/groups so awesome I buy whatever they release as soon as they release it”:
x. Mars ILL
x. Project 86
x. mewithoutYou
x. Thrice
x. Deepspace5
x. Underoath
x. Sintax the Terrific
x. DJ Dust
x. As Cities Burn

…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 LOST IN THE SOUND OF SEPARATION – underoath
x II – maylene and the sons of disaster
x BAKESALE – deepspace5
x CURB APPEAL – sintax the terrific
x SLOW FLAME – mars ill
x THE ALCHEMY INDEX VOLS. 3&4, AIR & EARTH – thrice
x THE SILVER CORD – the classic crime
x THE IV EDITION – braille