Finding Faith: Top Ten Albums of 2015

It’s that time of the year again, time for another top ten albums list. The […]

Carl L. / 12.30.15

It’s that time of the year again, time for another top ten albums list. The more of these I write, the more I realize how futile it is to attempt to pick ten albums to represent the year in music. This year the task was made even harder by the launch of Impossible to Say, Blake Collier’s and my music podcast. Thanks to the podcast, I listened to probably twice the amount of new music I listened to last year, which made winnowing down this year’s list an arduous task. So, without further ado, here are the albums that have impacted me the most this year—you’ll see some obvious picks, some not-so-obvious ones, and some that, surprisingly, seem to be getting no love from other top ten lists scattered about the internet.

10. To Pimp a ButterflyKendrick Lamar

While Kendrick may be running away with number one honors on the majority of lists this year, To Pimp a Butterfly just didn’t hit me as hard as his last album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Certainly, TPAB resounds with the depth and wit I’ve come to expect from Kendrick, one of hip-hop’s most intriguing and talented personalities, but his ambition on TPAB occasionally gets the better of him, as a few tracks feel unnecessary and slow down the album’s momentum. That said, there’s no shortage of fantastic songs here, including my favorite of the year, “King Kunta,” an insanely catchy blast of funk that’s guaranteed to get your toe tapping. More significantly, TPAB enters into the current political and racial turmoil of America but does not offer easy answers or platitudes. Rather, Kendrick tries to clear a path through the fog to illuminate the people and ideas often obscured by bumper sticker sloganeering and political interests. TPAB resists easy interpretation, but the sheer intensity of the album makes one thing clear: Kendrick has things to say about racism, politics, and religion, and he’s saying them with a righteous fervor that’s impossible to ignore. For proof of this, just check out any of Kendrick’s performances from this past year—it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.


9. Sermon on the Rocks—Josh Ritter

In contrast to his last more autobiographical album, The Beast in Its Tracks, Josh Ritter returns to his storytelling roots on Sermon on the Rocks, crafting an album that touches on the complicated intersection between American culture and Christianity. Starting with the dark, brooding “Birds of the Meadow,” Sermon on the Rocks grows increasingly joyful, as Ritter makes his way through the backwoods and open fields of America, weaving tales of glory and mistakes, nostalgia and beauty. A few songs combine all these elements into near perfect bursts of Americana: the rollicking “Cumberland,” an ode to the blue skies and open air of the country, and “Homecoming,” a slow-burning tune that calls forth images of late nights and sunsets spent with a youthful love. But none of these compare to “Getting Ready to Get Down,” Ritter’s ballad of a girl who comes back from Bible school with a different kind of experience than her parents expected. A rousing honkytonk romp, “Getting Ready to Get Down” indicts the idea that legalism will create good behavior, with some of the best lyrics of the year in its bridge: “To really be a saint, you gotta really be a virgin/ Dry as a page of the King James version…Just turn the other cheek, take no chances/ Jesus hates your high school dances.”


8. Bazan Monthly Vol. 2—David Bazan

After last year’s stellar Bazan Monthly Vol. 1, I was very excited for Bazan’s second installment in the series, which began with two songs in January and continued with two more songs each month until May. While Vol. 2 does not quite reach the heights of Vol. 1, it is another solid collection of songs that rewards repeated listening. Musically, Vol. 2 continues what Vol. 1 started, blending Bazan’s low-key indie rock with electronic elements to create a varied soundscape for Bazan’s lyrical musings. These, of course, are also typical Bazan, touching on relationships and religion with a vulnerability that most lyricists cannot pull off. The subjects on Vol. 2 vary from Bazan’s achingly melancholic take on marriage on “Here We Are” to his rejection of Pascal’s Wager on “Someone Else’s Bet.” Yet, among all these ruminations on the sadness and difficulty of life, Bazan, as he tends to do, highlights some amazing truth on “Animals.” Driven by a tense acoustic guitar riff, “Animals” delivers some cutting lyrics halfway through its running time: “Delusion all but covers up/ Hiding from the light in our superstitious clubs/ The Kingdom’s all around you, dear/ It was never somewhere else, always right here.” With just a few lines of lyrics, Bazan reminds us all to look for the Kingdom everywhere…if we do, we just might find it when we least expect.

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7. Harmlessness—The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die

As the final track of Harmlessness, “Mount Hum,” comes to a close, lead singer David Bello repeatedly whispers, “We’re all gonna die.” A few months ago, a beloved friend and mentor of mine passed away, and “Mount Hum” was playing in my car as I drove home from church the Sunday after I learned of his passing. This line has remained in my mind ever since, along with several other moments on Harmlessness that directly address death and depression. These sensitive topics are backed by a vibrant emo soundscape, with song compositions that recall post-rock more than pop-punk, lending the appropriate depth to the weighty issues the album tackles. Yet, Harmlessness does not give into sadness, but pushes through it to find the light. The penultimate track, “I Can Be Afraid of Anything,” starts slow and melancholic, but progressively makes its way towards a climatic ending, mirroring the its lyrics about climbing out of a pit of depression. While Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell may be more well-known this year for tackling death and grief, Harmlessness was the album that I turned to find catharsis and some hope in the face of death.


6. Age of Transparency—Autre Ne Veut

Simultaneously beautiful and broken, Age of Transparency marks the second excellent album of unconventional R&B from Autre Ne Veut, the project of New Yorker Arthur Ashin. Through static and garbled vocals, the album’s first track, “On and On (Reprise),” foregrounds Ashin’s provocative stance toward the listener on Age of Transparency—sometimes the album just does not sound pleasant. Yet, Ashin juxtaposes these moments of unlistenability with gorgeous, layered vocals and stirring arrangements, drawing beauty out of chaos and noise, setting up this fragmented soundscape as a metaphor for modern life. The emotional journey of Age of Transparency comes to a stirring conclusion in its final two tracks. The second to last track, “Over Now,” flirts with beauty, but unexpectedly bursts into a moment of distorted, static-ridden cacophony, voiding its emotional payoff. This flagrant disruption during “Over Now,” however, allows for the final track “Get Out” to reach even higher heights. Over seven minutes long, “Get Out” evolves into a stirring communal anthem, as Ashin and a gospel choir conclude the song, their vocals intertwining and rising upward, all singing, “When the light shines out, and you don’t know why, you really need people to tell you what it’s all about.” To combat the noise and frantic pace of modern life, Age of Transparency suggests an antidote: human relationships.


5. Poison Season—Destroyer

The creative force behind Destroyer, Dan Bejar, has an ability to fashion pure pop out of and alongside chaos, both in his work with The New Pornographers and Destroyer. As soon as you think you’ve figured out one of his compositions, the song stutters and jukes, spinning off in an unexpected direction. Poison Season is packed to the brim with vibrant musical textures, a relentless assault on the ears. Saxophones spiral in and out of “Dream Lover,” as the song morphs into a euphoric, jazzed-out noise fest by its conclusion, while bongos accompany distorted fragments of guitar and a blazing sax solo on “Midnight Meet the Rain.” Surprisingly, Bejar combines these disparate sounds into truly compelling compositions on almost every song on the album. Although Bejar’s lyrics are typically oblique, penultimate track “Sun in the Sky” resounds with a cautious hope and optimism, and the three “Times Square” tracks that appear at the beginning, middle, and end of the album invoke religious imagery to point toward love. In contrast to some of this year’s dark, despairing indie rock, Poison Season is unabashedly joyful, overflowing with creativity and passion.


4. Something More than Free—Jason Isbell

On Something More than Free, Isbell crafts a tightly wound album of folk/Americana that explores many of the same religious and cultural themes as Sermon on the Rocks, but with an emotional sincerity that Ritter tends to dance around. Where Ritter defaults to irony, Isbell addresses difficult issues with a bracing honesty, no more so than on the chilling “Children of Children” and brutally authentic “Speed Trap Town.” Musically, Isbell make the album’s emotional intensity felt through little flourishes like the piercing steel guitar on “Speed Trap Town” and the playful fiddle on “If It Takes a Lifetime,” just to name two examples. Amidst these tales of those struggling to find hope in the wide expanses of America, Isbell audaciously encourages listeners to conceive of God and religion in new ways. He does so emphatically on “24 Frames,” in the song’s blistering chorus: “You thought God was an architect, now you know/ He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow/ And everything you built that’s all for show/ Goes up in flames in 24 frames.”


3. Strangers to Ourselves—Modest Mouse

From my first listen to the album in March, I’ve had Strangers to Ourselves on my mind. The band’s brand of quirky, off-kilter indie rock provides plenty of musical excitement on the album, but it was Isaac Brock’s lyrics that unexpectedly stuck with me, coming to mind constantly over the course of the year. Brock’s lyrics encapsulated how I often feel on a daily basis, trying to find my way through this world in all its confusion, beauty, and terror. As the album reaches its midpoint, the lyrics begin to get deeper, before reaching their apex with a couple tracks near the end of Strangers to Ourselves. During the bridge of “The Tortoise and the Tourist,” Brock delivers the sentiment behind the album’s title: “We are strangers to ourselves/ We sneak out, drip by drip/ Through paper cuts on our hands/ Day to day, nothing’s quite the same/ We are tourists in our own heads.” Not only are we often unaware of our own devices, but as Brock points out on “The Best Room,” our focus on “Western concerns” leave us “tired every time we try” to measure up to the various pressures of our culture. While fans of Modest Mouse are no strangers (pun semi-intended) to Brock’s ability to diagnose societal ills, the album’s final track, “Of Course We Know,” offers some humility and, perhaps, a moment of grace. Over crashing cymbals and wailing guitars, Brock raises a lament of sorts, “Lord lay down, Lord lay down, Lord lay down your own damn soul/ Lord lay down, Lord lay down, Lord lay down your only soul.” Is Brock pleading with the divine or merely mocking the idea of God? Ever elusive, Brock finishes the song with an enigmatic “of course we know,” leaving open both possibilities…and that, on a Modest Mouse album, speaks volumes.


2. Summertime ‘06—Vince Staples

Filled with fractured samples, rumbling bass, and staccato drums, Summertime ‘06 is not a listening experience for the faint of heart, as Vince Staples weaves his tale of growing up in inner-city Los Angeles. He utterly inhabits the dark, sparse beats of the album, his flow molding to the crags and crevices of the album’s narrative. Spread over two tightly wound albums, Summertime ‘06 unfolds like a film, filled with an incredible attention to detail in both its lyrics and music. For example, “Birds & Bees” morphs over its running time, adding ominous synths as Staples raps, “They found another dead body in the alley,” while the reflective “Summertime” completely eschews the hard, compact production of the rest of album to allow Staples an all-too-brief moment of vulnerability. Ultimately, Summertime ‘06 paints a bleak picture largely devoid of hope, although, in moments of desperation, Staples reaches out for something beyond himself. The chorus of “Jump Off the Roof” finds Staples admitting, “I pray to God cause I need him, I need him, I need him,” and “Lift Me Up” says much of the same, “See, this weight is on my shoulder, pray Jehovah lift me up/ And my pain is never over, pills and potions fix me up.” While Staples has not found peace or hope by the end of Summertime ’06, he has not completely given up the search either. And that search, coupled with one of the most visceral hip-hop albums of the past few years, makes Summertime ’06 a truly powerful experience. (Explicit lyrics below.)


1. Faith in the Future—Craig Finn

Along with Strangers to Ourselves, Faith in the Future seems to not be on any year-end lists, which just leaves me with one question: did anyone listen to this album?! With his distinctive voice and clever lyrics, Craig Finn weaves his way through death and depression with relentless optimism and humor, bringing light into the darkness. Faith in the Future matches Finn’s dynamic lyrics with equally exciting alt-country, providing a musical texture largely absent from his last solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. The horns on “Roman Guitars” add a playful feel, while the tremulous guitar solo on “Maggie I’ve Been Searching for Our Son” relays the anxiety that permeates the track. Of course, the star, as on any Craig Finn album, are the lyrics, and they do not disappoint on Faith in the Future, speaking of redemption and hope in a year desperate to hear of them. On “Newmyer’s Roof,” Finn discusses 9/11 and his experience of the tragedy, trying to convince a “Doubting Thomas” to abandon his “cynical take”: “Look at these mountains/ Look at these trees/ Tom, there must be something you believe.” The album’s final track, the painfully honest “I Was Doing Fine (Then a Few People Died),” takes death seriously, but not too seriously, as Finn blends sadness, reality, and Jesus in a way that few can: “It was the last of the bottle/ It was the third of the evening/ She said, ‘Some nights I wonder/ If anything means anything’…some night I try to see Jesus/ I do it by crossing my eyes/ I was doing fine, then a few people died.”