As I’ve expressed before, I make a better “critic” of film than I do of music. I better understand the medium of film on a technical level and have a more thorough knowledge of its history. With music, I’m a biased and emotional listener who spends nonstop weeks with a brand new album but refuses to go back in time to listen to the “classics.” I’ve knowingly brushed over much of music history. And though I have a well-trained ear for good melody-writing as well as a talent for pointing out when songwriters are becoming repetitive or formulaic, I also get laughed at for listing Backstreet Boys and Barry Manilow as two of my all-time favorite artists.
In the countdown of my five most essential albums of the year, I’ll mostly be talking about music that’s been highly praised (at least in some circles) in conversations that I have very little to add to. I don’t work for Pitchfork or A.V. Club. I’m no Stephen Thomas Erlewine from AllMusic or Craig Manning from AbsolutePunk. But what I do have are my stories, and that’s what I have to share with you today. For all five of these albums, I know exactly what my motivation was to purchase it, where I was when I listened to it for the first time, and why it’s still important to me today.
As I also explained in the introduction to my top 5 films of the year, I hope you enjoy reading why I love what I love. At the end of this post, I would be honored if you’d subscribe to this blog. That way we can stay in touch as I continue doing what I do throughout 2016: namely, telling stories. Whether I’m writing about music, making up fictional tales, documenting my upcoming move to Nashville, or (fingers crossed) premiering a podcast about songwriting, I hope you’ll join me in experiencing the many stories that are to come.
5. Reality Show by Jazmine Sullivan
September 4th was the single most defining day for my musical tastes this year; while amidst a citywide manhunt for physical copies of the newly released Wonder Years and Dear Hunter CD’s, I happened upon good deals for two more CD’s that I’d been wanting to hear for a while: my #4 pick (I can’t say what it is yet) and Jazmine Sullivan’s Reality Show, which comes in at #5. Ironically, two of my most anticipated albums of the year were both eclipsed by these last-minute same-day purchases. (Basically, I wrote mildly content reviews for both the Wonder Years and Dear Hunter albums, then moved on.) I’d been wanting Reality Show since hearing its lead single “Dumb” back in January, but instead of hurriedly buying the album, I decided to do my homework first. I’d spent too long criminally ignoring the woman known as R&B singers’ favorite R&B singer, so I purchased Sullivan’s 2008 debut Fearless. I surely didn’t have the taste to enjoy good rhythm and blues back in ’08, but I do now. I loved Fearless–enough so that I forgot my original plan to buy Reality Show, and eight months passed before I purchased it on September 4th. Yet now that I owned all three of Sullivan’s brilliantly good albums, I can say that Reality Show might be her best.
Knowing that Sullivan puts thought and care into each aspect of her songs, I decided to listen to the album my first time through with the album booklet in hand, reading along with the lyrics (which is something I’ve rarely ever done, especially on the first listen). Throughout the dozen tracks, (the closing number being the only song I don’t love), I was pleased to see Sullivan downplaying her trademark vocal histrionics, letting loose only at a few choice times. Mostly, she finds tasteful melodies that suit each song, from the pessimistic ballad “Forever Don’t Last” to the optimistic midtempo jam “Silver Lining.” At times, her lyrics seem to be treading typical rap culture topics, such as the gotta-look-good attitude of “Mascara” and the gotta-please-my-man proclamations of “#hoodlove.” Both songs, however, make such surprising left turns during their conclusions that they’re elevated from pop song to narrative, putting Sullivan in the same territory as the novel-in-4-minutes work of Jason Isbell.
Free of distractions, I sat next to my fireplace (it wasn’t turned on, it was September in Texas) and did my best to soak in each detail of the sonically-rich album. I had learned by the halfway point not to be deceived, that each song was liable to contain a lyrical gut-punch, whether I saw it coming or not. Each time I thought I’d picked a favorite song, it would be one-upped, especially considering the strength of back half gems “Stupid Girls” and “Stanley.” Yet with an artist as talented as Sullivan, picking favorites is nearly foolish; I might as well enjoy her art as it was intended to be enjoyed, one full album at a time.
4. All Your Favorite Bands by Dawes
I’ll be straight up when I say that this is the point in my top 15 list where the album ratings I’d theoretically distribute move up from 4.5 stars to a perfect 5 stars. I’ve really enjoyed this year, especially these past few months, and Dawes’ album All Your Favorite Bands is the perfect explanation as to why. I’d listened to the 90-second iTunes clips of this album back in June when it was first released, which were enough to convince me that I’d love this album. But I didn’t truly know what I was in for until All Your Favorite Bands became the other album I purchased on that fateful morning of September 4th. I also chose this as the first of the four albums to listen to. As I drove from south Arlington to north Arlington to Fort Worth and back, I got to hear this album in three-song segments, perfectly dividing the nine-track album into thirds. From the first song, I was pulled into the album’s realistic 4-instrument production and the impressive guitar work. Then “Somewhere Along the Way” stole my heart with its Eagles-huge harmonies, fading away after six minutes yet leaving me wanting more and more. Following that, “Don’t Send Me Away” blew me away with its hooky chorus, darkly dynamic bridge, and dirty guitar solo. And all of this happened in only the first three songs!
If I had the time, I could gladly rave about all nine of the gems on this impeccably written and performed record. I hadn’t even finished listening to All Your Favorite Bands before coming to the conclusion that this album contained everything I love about music. Everything. First off, this album is all about the songs. Harmonies, guitar solos, nor even the jazz-flavored drumming of Griffin Goldsmith ever detract from Taylor Goldsmith’s core songs. Secondly, the arrangements and additions to the songs improve the impact of each. If I tried to figure out which song has the best guitar solo or the best lyric or the best melodies and harmonies, it’s likely that all nine songs would tie for it all. These songs are almost too good, and in combination they create an album that’s as suitable for road trips as it is for solemn, contemplative listening. The dual possibilities can be seen in the cleverly written nature of this lyric: “To be completely honest, I think I know how it ends: the universe continues expanding while we discuss particulars of just being friends. And maybe that makes everything okay, remembering the defect at the heart of every promise. Well, maybe that’s the only way to be completely honest.”
When I’d finished the album, my immediate desire was to show this album to every single person I knew. I’d finally found an album with such good songs and with such an inoffensive mix of pop, rock, folk, americana, and jazz, that I couldn’t imagine anyone disliking it. This was one of the first times I’d found a new album that both of my parents could enjoy, along with all my friends and peers. The universality of these songs and sounds is a wonderfully unifying thing, and this album also reminded me of a very important lesson: no matter how much I love experimentation, and regardless of how exciting the ideas of new genres might be, there is nothing more important and more impactful in music than a good song. And these are nine darn good songs.
3. Falling Up by Falling Up
This is how every band deserves to go out: with a crowd-funded, self-titled effort that is undoubtedly the band’s greatest work. A flawlessly crafted collection of modern rock, Falling Up marks both the end and the high mark of Falling Up’s career. Having spent the second half of their career attempting different ways to flourish as an independent band, the members of Falling Up decided to raise the stakes and start a Kickstarter for a $40,000 album that would be the band’s highest quality independent release. When I found out this Kickstarter was for the band’s final album, I gladly supported the campaign… before forgetting about it for while. I hadn’t been an active fan of the band since my freshman year of high school eight years prior, so I wasn’t particularly anticipating anything. To my surprise, what I received when the mp3 album hit my inbox was a listening experience so dynamically adventurous and engrossingly beautiful that it actually revived my hopes for the future of rock music.
Seriously, it’s that good. Even my brother, who had always disliked or at least been indifferent toward Falling Up (the band), flipped out over how good Falling Up (the album) is. The opening track was slightly disorienting, particularly because I didn’t know what to expect, but the second and third tracks “Flora” and “The Green Rider” really allow the brilliance of the songwriting to sink in. An immediate standout is how inventive the drumming is throughout each song, supplying a strong backbone for the off-the-walls guitar work and the massive harmonies from vocalist Jessy Ribordy. There’s so much to absorb and enjoy from these songs that, to this day, I’m still soaking in Ribordy’s lyrics, which weave a vague narrative that invites listeners into its details more than it deters.
Most of these songs hit the 5-minute mark, but not a single song overstays its welcome. Almost as a musical theme, most of the songs taper off into a soft, musical outro, but Falling Up were wise enough not to let this become predictable; some songs fade quieter and quieter, others unexpectedly explode back into their choruses, and others land somewhere in between. This is an adventurous listen from a seasoned band willing to throw all of its best ideas onto the table. It’s sad to know how underrated this album will likely always be, having already gone completely unnoticed by the world at large. Someday, I can only hope that such a masterful record will receive the recognition it deserves. Until then, if you’re reading this, don’t sleep on Falling Up.
2. Floodplain by Sara Groves
In August, I wrote a short post documenting my excitement for the albums I anticipated most for the remainder of the year. As autumn unfolded, many of these albums were thrown on a growing pile of disappointments. Some of these albums were notably good, but even the worthwhile efforts from Caspian, Defeater, and Deafheaven weren’t enough to captivate me for more than one or two listens. I’ve already mentioned how the new Wonder Years and Dear Hunter albums did not meet my expectations, and then there were other anticipated albums that were never even released. Following September, there was no competition concerning which remaining albums I anticipated the most: The Burning Edge of Dawn by Andrew Peterson and Floodplain by Sara Groves.
There are lot of reasons to compare these two albums. The two are friends and play similar styles of music. They both have albums that would likely square into my top 10 favorites of all time, Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy and Groves’ Fireflies and Song. 2015 marked the 20th anniversaries for both their marriages. Finally, I received the commentary editions for both albums during the same weekend in October. Peterson arrived first, and my initial reaction was, well, “meh.” I loved two songs but wasn’t so sure about all the others. I then listened to the commentary edition, a 21-track bonus CD that contained an introduction track for the whole album along with commentary tracks for each of the ten songs. Listening to the commentary made me love the album, but ongoing listens to the regular 10-track album brought me back into a love-hate relationship. There were constant things that irked me, such as an over-reliance on the word “darkness” or the fact that track 3 stole a melody straight from track 3 of Peterson’s previous album. Minutiae such as these made The Burning Edge of Dawn harder to love over time, even though the album as a whole is prettily recorded, pleasantly sung, and nicely encouraging.
A day or two later, on a Saturday night, I received the digital preorder of Floodplain. As always, wanting to have a complete, uninterrupted first listen of an important album, I decided that I would wake up early the following morning to begin the journey. (Ironically, thinking about the album made it hard to fall asleep.) So on Sunday morning, I left for church about an hour early, picked up some Starbucks followed by some donuts, then got back into my car and began track 1, “This Cup.” “This challenging reality is better than fear or fantasy,” Groves sings in the chorus, thematically beginning an album that tackles depression, laziness, writer’s block, and the fears of not being loved and of dying with nowhere to go afterwards. Each topic is handled with wisdom and honesty, presented with Groves’ strongest melodies to date, not to mention the stellar support of her friends on guitar, bass, and drums. Quite frankly, not only is Floodplain possibly her strongest album, it very well might be her ninth time in a row to release a career-best album.
Let that sink in for a second. In a long-lasting career with over 150 songs under her belt, Sara Groves is still releasing some of her absolute best. And in a year that’s been filled with many disappointments in my camp, I couldn’t be happier that the artist I love the most released the album that pulled through the best. Musically, the songs are inventive in subtle ways, while lyrically she seems to have reached a whole new level. On album highlight “Expedition,” she’s daring enough to have a time-signature and tempo change on the bridge, with a chorus lyric that anyone can relate to: “We’re going on an expedition, looking for lost time.”
Rivers are used as the album’s primary motif, nowhere better than on the gorgeous title track, where people who struggle with depression are correlated to the land on the floodplain of a river. The floodplain is often the most beautiful plots of land, yet anyone who tries to grow fruit or build a home or start a business on that patch of land may wake up one day to see everything flooded and destroyed. Similarly, Groves suggests that people with depression are the people most sensitive to others’ emotions, which can be a beautiful and powerful trait, albeit with its own dangers. Elsewhere, the most anthemic track, “I Feel the Love Between Us” builds around the refrain, “Love is a diamond, hidden in mountains, covered in danger and dirt. I’m on the outside, digging and digging, I’ve seen and I know what it’s worth.”
These songs feel lived in. These truths sound earned. Groves has been doing this long enough to know exactly how to format her songs and craft her chorus melodies, yet there’s not a single moment here that comes across as scientific or calculated. And as far as the album’s commentary goes, listeners will discover how Groves was recently in a dark period of depression and writer’s block, considering giving up on her musical career. That’s when a few friends (the musicians on the album) booked some studio time and invited Groves to come join them for some pressure-free jamming. The gentle support and comfort of her friends reinvigorated her, bringing these songs to life. And now that the songs have been captured in pristinely-produced form, I hope they will spend many years supporting and comforting those who need it.
1. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
If I thought I had nothing critically to add to the previous four albums, that couldn’t be any truer of To Pimp a Butterfly, peerless in its unprecedented conquering of year-end lists. Rarely does an album come around that the whole world agrees upon, especially when “the whole world” includes me, an undedicated fan of random rap artists and certainly not at all Kendrick Lamar’s target audience for this culture-defining work of art. I’ve listened sporadically to other rap albums this year, including J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Donnie Trumpet’s Surf, and Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth, and I’ve also listened to work by Butterfly collaborators, specifically Bilal and his strangely, weirdly beautiful In Another Life. But I didn’t buy To Pimp a Butterfly because I wanted to stay current with hip hop music. I didn’t even buy the album because of a fondness for its predecessor Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, which (I apologize for this act of heresy) I haven’t even listened to in full yet.
My admiration for Lamar, and the ensuing desire to hear his new album, came from a steady appreciation for his talent by hearing him in guest spots. Most notably for me, this included “Autumn Leaves” by Chris Brown and “Better Off” by Quadron, a highlight from one of my all-time favorite soul/R&B records. These songs and more built up to the release of Big Sean’s “Control,” which featured a verse from Lamar that has become one of the most praised and controversial verses in rap history. After reading up on Lamar and learning about his fascinating life story and his views on race, Christianity, and other hot-button topics, I was hooked–and more then ready for his highly anticipated new album.
I was in Austin, Texas for South by Southwest when To Pimp a Butterfly had its surprise early release, giving me the pleasant surprise of running into a copy of the album in an Austin record store a week before I thought I’d see it. At this point in time, the rave reviews were beginning to flood onto the internet and I knew the only way to do this right was to carve out an 80-minute chunk of time to hear this record front-to-back. Conveniently, my brother and I had more than enough time on our late night drive from Austin back to DFW. Sliding the CD into the front console, we began the highly rewarding experience that is To Pimp a Butterfly: one of those rare first listens where an album doesn’t simply meet high expectations but demolishes them.
The album was almost too good to be true. Remove all the vocals and you’d still have a great jazz album. Remove all the music and you’d have a fantastic spoken word album. Altogether, it can be suffocating. Opening track “Wesley’s Theory” accomplishes more than most rap albums do as a whole. “For Free?” is occasionally hilarious, “For Sale?” is realistically terrifying, while in a single song “Hood Politics” switches gears between being funny and frightening. The religious leaning (and personal favorite) “How Much a Dollar Cost” approaches being inspirational, but this moment is balanced by the sobering and saddening “u”, where Lamar yells at himself, complaining about everything that makes him hate himself, hovering around the refrain, “Loving you is complicated.” Almost every song is a mini-masterpiece. “You Ain’t Gotta Lie” is the only track that doesn’t stand well on its own, yet on the album it serves the much-needed purpose of being the buffer between “The Blacker the Berry” and “i”, which are two of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, filled with insights that make Lamar appear nearly mythical.
As the year has continued on, I sometimes find myself craving a full listen of this album, while sometimes I just want to revisit the thrills of “King Kunta” and “Alright.” It might seem like I’m jumping on the bandwagon by placing this album at #1, but it’s no lie that this album had a profound impact on me. And I never want to forget how ecstatic I was the first time I heard this album and realized, “Music is still changing; music is still improving; and music still has the power to change minds and improve the culture.” As a songwriter who would love to someday write for established artists and potentially have songs that reach larger audiences, I would be discouraged to the point of giving up if I did not believe that those three statements were true. Music changes. Music improves. Music brings change and improvement. Music as good as Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly keeps my desire to create music alive.
Thanks for reading!
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