Top Albums of 2016 – Part 2

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Onward to my top ten favorite albums of the year!

10. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

It sure seemed like Bon Iver was breaking up a couple of years ago. Justin Vernon even said as much at various times. But the truth was that he had another album in him, a very different album. Here, Vernon moves even further away from that cabin in the woods and into a dystopian, electronic future where cryptic lyrics and numerology are scattered around his strained falsetto. I think this album is a grower, but it hasn’t put its roots down too deeply for me yet.

9. Andrew Bird – Are You Serious

Still one of the most musically talented indie artists today, Andrew Bird’s albums are master courses in the art of layering and writing. There are many lovely melodies here and his violin prowess never fails to impress. “Capsized” is a great single and “Roma Fade” is probably my favorite track.

8. The Album Leaf – Between Waves

The Album Leaf have returned. After letting the band lay rather dormant for a few years, Jimmy LaValle dusted it off and recorded this gem of an album. Leaning more toward the ambient side of the spectrum rather than pop, there is a sense of comfort and purpose here. It’s been in my rotation since it dropped in August. A great autumn record to be sure.

7. Minor Victories – Minor Victories

What makes a good super group, anyway? When you take members of bands you like and put them together, will they sound like one of their original bands? Or something different? Minor Victories features members of Slowdive, Mogwai and Editors, so that should give you an idea of what to expect. It’s a shoegaze affair with great vocals and interesting guitar work. I discovered them sometime in the spring and have returned to the album often, finding new things to like each time.

6. Wilco – Schmilco

Jeff Tweedy can’t or won’t slow down and we’re all the better for it. With the grinning title Schmilco, I thought this would be a bouncy, goofy album. There’s definitely fun to be had, but overall this is a sad Wilco album. Nice melodies, nostalgia and a lo-fi production plan make the album feel intimate and wonderful.

5. Hammock – Everything and Nothing

Hammock is a mainstay on my EOTY lists. I just love this band and their approach to music. On Everything and Nothing, there’s a sense of dissonance to go with the lush beauty of their walls of sound. This is an album I listened to many, many times this year, sinking further and further into the sea of sound they produce.

4. Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness

After a 5 year absence, Explosions in the Sky are back with a full length record! As expected, it’s an epic journey through crushing guitars and pushing/pulling rhythms. I agree with those critics that said this is their best album since 2003’s now-classic The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place. I sincerely hope that we don’t have to wait another 5 years for the next album!

3. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein – Stranger Things Soundtrack

I want to live inside this music. The perfect backdrop to the creepy happenings in Netflix series is this dark synth-filled tapestry that Dixon and Stein created. Evoking the scores of many great 80’s horror films (especially John Carpenter), they strike all the perfect tones and work hand-in-hand with the Duffer brothers to complete their vision for the show. The title theme music is a wonderful entry point into this analog universe.

2. David Bowie – Blackstar

It’s pretty rare that an artist is able to write and release his own eulogy ahead of his/her unexpected passing, but Bowie did that this year. He released Blackstar on his 69th birthday. He died two days later. He had been fighting liver cancer for months, but that fight was done in private. He recorded the songs of this album as his health allowed and he clearly knew the end was near. These songs are windows into the mind of a dying artist and a rarefied genius. The music video for the song “Lazarus” is breathtaking and heartbreaking and the lyrics of the album’s closer, “I Can’t Give Everything Away”, are a brilliant coda to a brilliant life.

1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

New Radiohead! I wrote a longer review of this one when it came out, so I won’t prattle on too much about it. It’s great and depressing and uplifting and everything a good Radiohead album should be. I spun this album a lot this year and never got old.


What did I miss? Did you have a favorite album that I didn’t mention?

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Top Albums of 2016 – Part 1

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I thought it was a pretty great year for music releases this year, but 2016 will probably be remember most for what the music industry lost. The deaths of a few iconic musicians in the last 12 months were hard to grapple with. David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones were some of the all time greats and they will be fondly remembered through their wonderful music.

Anyway, here is part 1 of my top 25 albums of the year! Check back soon for the top ten!

25. Citizens & Saints – Through a Mirror Dimly

This electro-pop worship band has never disappointed me with their energy and creativity while also imbibing their songs with good theology. This album dials back the energy a bit and leans into the more somber tone. The members of this band were involved with Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which sadly imploded a couple years ago. These songs reflect some of the lament and doubt that grew out of that sad situation, but always turn towards Christ and the hope the gospel brings.

24. Lisa Hannigan – At Swim

Lisa started out as an integral part of Damien Rice’s music before spinning herself off into a solo act. Her voice is extremely lovely and her folk arrangements, while not as raw as Rice’s, are well crafted and satisfying. At Swim is another nice entry in her growing discography.

23. Gungor – One Wild Life: Body // Spirit

Michael and Lisa Gungor dreamed big with this project: effectively a triple album released over the course of about 1 year. They brought some politics, some liturgy and some struggles to the table and created a sprawling piece of art. Not every song is a winner, but when they hit they hit hard.

22. Conor Oberst – Ruminations

The Bright Eyes moniker has been dead for 5 years now, but Conor Oberst has been releasing music steadily since then under his own name and as part of some other bands. Ruminations was recorded live in the span of only 48 hours as Oberst was wintering in Omaha following a health crisis. It’s raw, somewhat bleak and very personal.

21. Weezer – The White Album

It’s crazy to think that this is Weezer’s 10th album! It’s also their 4th self-titled LP. They’ve been experiencing a creative renaissance of sorts over the last few years and this album continues that trend. It’s “good Weezer” and it was a great summer album this year.

20. Cloud Cult – The Seeker

Minneapolis-based Cloud Cult joined the crowd-funded album trend this year, raising support to release The Seeker, their 10th album. Fans obliged and the album dropped in February accompanied by a feature film starring Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother fame. I haven’t seen the film yet, but the album has a lot to like and doesn’t deviate too much from the established Cloud Cult sound. Which is a good thing.

19. Thrice – To Be Everywhere is to Be Nowhere

Thrice is back. After breaking up in 2012, the band members kicked around other projects to varying success. Frontman Dustin Kensrue had a gig as the worship pastor at Mars Hill in Seattle. When that church imploded, Kensrue decided to reform Thrice and they recorded this album in short order. You’ll find themes of faith and culture, but also politics here as the band comments on the state of the union.

18. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues

I love Jimmy Eat World, but I haven’t been blown away by an album of theirs in ten years (not since Futures). And frankly, their last two albums were big disappointments. With Integrity Blues, they seem to have gotten back to basics a bit and recaptured some of the magic of their early catalog. I like this album more every time I listen to it.

17. Polica – United Crushers

When a great Minneapolis band releases an album that references semi-famous Minneapolis graffiti, I like before I even hear it. Fortunately, Polica’s album is easy on the ears too. With a protest song bent to it, the album still oozes cool with the dark arrangements and the vocal work of Channy Leaneagh.

16. All Sons and Daughters – Poets & Saints

This Christian band decided to take a trip to inspire their new album. They visited various European cities and read the works of the various Christian writers who called those cities home. Working off those manuscripts, they wrote an album that is full of history and theology, but also the singable choruses they are known for. Worship leaders, like me, appreciate the effort.

15. James Blake – The Colour in Anything

Blake’s music is perfect for autumn, sparse and minimal melodies with piano and electronic elements beneath his wavering vocals. With guest appearances by Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean, this might be his best album to date.

14. S U R V I V E – RR7349

Stranger Things arrested the cultural moment this summer and it launched a formerly-unknown band to internet fame. SURVIVE is a synth-wave band and some members contributed the score to that show. Their band work is similar, but more propulsive and crunchy. Listening to it stoked up my interest in this genre and I spent plenty of time searching around for me!

13. Amiina – Fantomas

We haven’t had new music for Amiina since 2010! Originally a string quartet, they’ve expanded their sound (and roster) into a diverse collection of unique instruments over the years. Their music is a wonderful collage of textures and melodies. This album just continues to prove that they are very, very talented.

12. Phantogram – Three

It’s kind of amazing that Phantogram’s sound is produced by only two people! Their music is a mutation of trip-hop that has a lot of energy and pop to it. Their single from this album, “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore”, was a great radio play this year.

11. M83 – Junk

M83 is coming off their most successful album to date with 2011’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. There’s a sense that Anthony Gonzalez wanted to deviate from that pillar a little bit with this year’s album Junk. It’s not as radio-friendly, for sure, but there are some real jams here and I appreciate that they didn’t just clone their hits.

Top Television of 2016

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I thought it was a great year for interesting TV shows this year. Many established shows had stand-out seasons and some new, compelling shows made their debut. As the medium evolves, limited/anthology/miniseries have become a new form that can really pull viewers in. I enjoyed quite a few of these types of series this year, so I’m splitting this list into my top 5 limited series and my top 1o-ish regular series! Here we go!


Top Five Limited / Anthology / Miniseries

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5. The X-Files (Fox)

They decided to make more episodes of one of my favorites shows ever: The X-Files. Rather than order up another 22 episode season, they made this a limited run “event series”, which was probably a good call. This set of episodes was more “miss” than “hit”, though we did get a new classic with “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”. Beyond that, it felt tired and didn’t satisfy as much as I hoped. They left the door wide open for more story later, so we’ll see what comes of it.

4. Channel Zero – Candle Cove (SyFy)

SyFy ordered a horror anthology series based on an internet genre called “creepypasta”. Their first choice was a story called “Candle Cove” about a kids TV show that causes some very scary and violet happenings in a small town. The vibe was very skin crawling and the mystery was compelling throughout. It’s hard to do suspense/horror well on TV, but they did a great job on this one.

3. The Night Manager (BBC/AMC)

John Le Carre’s spy novels have provided some rich source material for movies in the last few years. Why not a slow-burning TV miniseries? This story of a hotel manager who gets embroiled in an operation to take down a crime kingpin was intense. The fact that they got A-listers like Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie made it fantastic as both actors nailed their roles. Great, great series.

2. 11.22.63 (Hulu)

I read the Stephen King novel this year that the series was based on and I fell in love with it. I new the adaptation couldn’t live up to the greatness of the novel, so I tempered my expectations for watching it. And that was the right decision. Still, it’s a great story and they did a great job bringing it to the screen. James Franco did well with his character and Sarah Gadon was great as Sadie. If you’re interested in a story about a guy going back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, read the book first and then check out the series.

1. American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (FX)

This series got a LOT of press in the early part of the year and for good reason. Almost every cast member was amazing in their difficult roles (and they nabbed a bunch of Emmys to prove it). Culturally, the issues raised by this trial (and the writing on the series) became very relevant again this year. Race, gender roles, distrust of police, injustice in general, it’s all there. I loved this series, from the writing to the directing to the acting.


Top Ten  Eleven Television Series

11. Atlanta

Honestly, I haven’t watched all of the first season, but I’m tacking this show on here because it is pretty fantastic. It’s got a bit of a Louie vibe, which is great – meandering stories that focus on the characters as their experiences serve as social commentary. Donald Glover is just brilliant as the brains behind this show.

10. Preacher (AMC)

AMC needed another prestige drama on Sunday nights and decided to go back to the comic book well. With Preacher, they adapted a beloved book in a creative way. Basically, season one was a prequel of sorts to the book. Jesse Custer was perfectly cast and the supporting characters were a joy. You never know what this show is going to do next and that’s a very good thing.

9. Detectorists (Netflix/BBC)

I found this absolute gem of a show on Netflix this year. It’s like a melancholy Christopher Guest movie about a small town chapter treasure hunters and the people who love them. Mackenzie Crook is known for his role in the original UK version of The Office and he is the brains behind this delightful show. Gorgeously shot and scored, it’s a comfortable and enjoyable British comedy with a low cringe-factor.

8. Silicon Valley (HBO)

HBO’s lineup of Silicon Valley, Veep and Game of Thrones is one of the best in the business. I love Veep, but I loved Silicon Valley more this year. The guys keep trying to make it the biz and getting tangled up in the nitty gritty all the time. The frustration is so uncomfortable and real. And, of course, the supporting characters chemistry is amazing. More please.

7. Luke Cage (Netflix)

Marvels’ Netflix show to watch this year was Luke Cage (Daredevil S2 let me down a bit). With Luke Cage, a brand new vibe was so great to see. From the setting to the actors to the soundtrack, this show had an identity all its own. It did black culture in Harlem in a way that was organic and real. And once again, a strong supporting cast made it great.

6. Narcos (Netflix)

In season 2, Narcos upped the stakes significantly by depicting the years that Pablo Escobar was on the run, ending with his final downfall. It was violent, gritty and engrossing. The terror of his reign was on full display, but also the questionable tactics of those who wanted to stop him. It looks like the show is headed for a major reset in season 3, but I’ll be there.

5. Westworld (HBO)

HBO is trying to plan for a post-Game of Throne world. They thought Vinyl would be a net tentpole, but that show was terrible. Westworld had a long and winding road to the screen as production was stopped and started a couple of times. In the end, a challenging first season set the table for a fascinating world. With their Memento meets JJ Abrams Mystery Box approach, they gave their viewers the task of untangling the story and gained a following. Now that that’s over with, they’ll need to move the story forward. I’m in.

4. Last Man on Earth (Fox)

It’s kind of amazing to me that this show is now in it’s 3rd season! Usually Fox kills my favorite shows before they get this far! Last Man on Earth is amazing in how it uses the apocalypse to make a silly show instead of misery porn (The Walking Dead). This year, they incorporated a PTSD narrative to ground themselves a bit, but they still lean heavily on the quirks of their players and Will Forte’s juvenile foolishness. My wife and I both love this show.

3. Black Mirror (Netflix)

Black Mirror returned this year to a new home at Netflix. The new set of episodes was a little bit scatter shot, but it still had all the elements that make this show so amazing. In a year when it seemed like the real world was an episode of Black Mirror, these stories reminded us that things could be much worse. Also, with the episode “San Junipero”, they gave us a story that actually contained some hope (and great music). No other show makes you think quite like this one.

2. Game of Thrones (HBO)

This was the season that fans had been most interested in from the very beginning: the one where the show finally pushed past the books in terms of storylines. Everything from here is uncharted and unexpected. Clearly the showrunners were ready for this and the pace of the action ticked up. As they move the chess pieces into position for the final game over the next couple years, nothing is certain and that injects a new energy into a show that didn’t even need it.

1. Stranger Things (Netflix)

For me, the year belonged to Stranger Things. This completely original Netflix show from The Duffer Brothers was everything I love. Cool story, great visuals, amazing (completely amazing) cast and incredible music. It had heart, goosebumps, thrills and comedy. It had kids riding bikes at night through the woods. It was the show we didn’t know we needed until we got it. I watched the series twice I loved it so much. I can’t wait for season 2 and I have to believe that the Duffer Brothers will be in high demand for the big screen soon!


What did I miss? What was your favorite show of 2016? Any recommendations?

Top Films of 2016

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As the era of “Peak TV” rolls on, the movie industry has lost a step. For me, I go to the theater for blockbusters that I think get a boost from the big screen. For the more independent films I enjoy, I wait to stream them later or see them second run. That’s just the way it is. But I did see quite a few good movies from 2016, so here are my top ten favorites!

10. X-Men: Apocalypse

First Class was excellent. Days of Future Past was good. Apocalypse was okay. With a stellar cast (again), you’d think that the stakes and the story would have been able to play up to their strengths, but it was a struggle. Oscar Isaac was under-served for sure and Lawrence/Fassbender/McAvoy just didn’t carry it. Franchise boredom? I am interested, however, to see if they push forward with the young generation they introduced here. What I really want is a proper Dark Phoenix saga.

9. Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers’ new movie was one of their screwball comedies, this time centered on old Hollywood. It was a bit scattered, but very, very funny with plenty of standout performances. After getting a lot of enjoyment out of the podcast “You Must Remember This”, which is all about old Hollywood, this movie was even cooler for me.

8. Zootopia

Lately it seems like the Disney Animation films have been even better than their Pixar sisters. While Pixar has leaned into sequels, Disney Animation has crafted some brand new and interesting stories. With Zootopia, they brought some nascent cultural talking points to the big screen along with colorful characters, action and funny gags. The kids enjoyed it and we adults mulled over the themes for a long time.

7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

What a surprisingly brilliant film! Taika Waititi is a genius and the cast of this film, particularly the young Julian Dennison, was amazing! Cast in the mold of a Wes Anderson movie, Wilderpeople has adventures, big laughs and plenty of heart. My wife and I fell in love with it quickly. Waititi’s next project is Thor: Ragnarok and I can’t wait to see what he brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

6. Sing Street

John Carney is back, 10 years after making one of my all-time favorite movies: Once. Here, he presents a semi-autobiographical story of a misfit teenager with a crumbling family who forms a band to impress a girl. It’s a coming of age story with fantastic music and an amazing cast of young actors. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and I highly, highly recommend it. Especially if, like me, you were once a teenage musician.

5. Doctor Strange

I never got around to writing a full review of Doctor Strange, but I thought it was great. A somewhat cookie cutter origin story with predictable beats was redeemed with great performances and staggering special effects. It was a coup to get Benedict Cumberbatch for this role and he knocks it out of the park. Plus, Strange’s journey from being a great doctor who was completely self-absorbed to a mystic who was willing to suffer eternal defeat to save others had a lot of gospel in it.

4. 10 Cloverfield Lane

Oh man, this movie. It kind of came out of nowhere for me. Essentially a big “bottle episode”, the construction of the story and claustrophobic/panicked feel of this one evoked Alfred Hitchcock to me.  Winstead and Goodman were incredible in their roles and the mystery didn’t just take over the story (like sometimes happens in these Abrams-verse movies). If you haven’t seen this one, I highly recommend it.

3. Star Trek Beyond

While JJ Abrams was busy helping reboot another “Star” franchise, Star Trek soldiered on with a 3rd entry in the new series, but things didn’t go smoothly. Lots of internal problems led to restructuring the writing/directing team. Eventually, Simon Pegg and Doug Jung were the writers and Justin Linn of Fast and Furious fame took the directors chair. The result was a great Star Trek movie that is built on the chemistry of this young cast. It’s optimistic, fun, action-packed and a joy to watch. I loved how they handled the death of Leonard Nimoy and paid homage to franchise history. I’m hopeful for the future of this franchise with Simon Pegg in the fold and this cast (sadly, minus Anton Yelchin).

2. Captain America: Civil War

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a recurring problem with presenting worthy adversaries for their heroes to fight. With this entry, they pitted the good guys against each other! Based on a well-known comic event series, this movie did a great job of making the central argument as a difficult philosophical question that even the audience had trouble taking sides on. So while the stakes didn’t seem terribly high as the action unfolded, we still cared about everyone involved. And the airport scene is still one of the best action set pieces the MCU has put together.

1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

What can I say? This movie was amazing. I had tried hard to avoid any discussion or spoilers for this one and I’m glad I did. There were so many surprises that put big smiles on my face. And some moments that made my jaw drop. It is the best looking Star Wars movie ever, without a doubt. And I loved that they matched some of the characters looks to the 1977 looks of Episode IV. It had just enough connective tissue to the core saga, but really stood on its own as a great story. K2SO was an amazing character and totally stole the show. And the music throughout was astoundingly good, using the John Williams leitmotif templates but venturing out into original territory perfectly too. It depicted the complexity of war and politics and rebellion very well, making it quite relevant. I so badly want to watch this and Episode IV back-to-back. Actually, I just want any excuse to see this movie again.

Top Albums of 2015 – Part 2

Albums part 2

10. Pacific Gold – Sing My Welcome Home

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If you listen to “worship” music at all, you’ll find that you’ve got your pop-worship songs and you’ve got your rebooted hymns. A lot of times, neither subgenre is very compelling, but I gravitate towards the rich lyrics of hymns with interesting music as my favorite. Pacific Gold (previously known as Wayfarer) is a California outfit that imbues hymns with a Beach Boys-esque sheen that’s really quite something. Their arrangments are very, very fun.  And that cover art is something else too!

9. Josh Garrels – Home

I’ve listened to Josh Garrels before, but I’ve never been struck by any of his albums until this one. Garrels’ voice is fantastic and the songs he’s written for this album are extremely poignant and arresting. I’ve learned and played a couple of these for our church and gained an even deeper connection to them through the performance.

8. Gungor – One Wild Life: Soul

Gungor are probably one of the more musically talented “Christian” bands right now. After taking a bit of time off to grow their family, they returned with the first in a series of LPs. This one, called “Soul”, has some really great tunes on it. Then you reach the end and are presented with the song “Vapor” and it’s a beautiful, beautiful moment.

7. Passion Pit – Kindred

This was a great summer album. Passion Pit is known for their electro-power-pop sound and the soaring vocals of lead singer Michael Angelakos. This is their 3rd album and may be their strongest overall. And the lead single “Lifted Up (1985)” is a total jam. Just a very fun, hooky album.

6. Wilco – Star Wars

The coolest thing for bands to do these days is to drop new albums without warning. Radiohead has done it. Beyonce has done it. Now Wilco got in on the act, springing this quixotic collection on the public and giving it away for free! It’s a fun, off-kilter jaunt of an album that the band clearly had a lot of fun putting together. Naming it “Star Wars” and putting a painting of a cat on the cover are just two examples of the gleeful weirdness.

5. Low – Ones and Sixes

It was good to have Low back in my life this year. I didn’t love their 2013 album all that much, but this one grabbed me right away. The chilling, thunderous resonance that Sparhawk and Parker conjure up is so lovely. And I’ve really fallen in love with the song “No Comprende”.

4. Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi

I think Death Cab had their “back to the shack” moment (copyright Weezer) this year. Ben Gibbard experienced upheaval in his personal life over the last couple of years after he and Zooey broke up and founding DCFC member Chris Walla left the band. “Kintsugi” is the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery in a way that preserves the cracks for all to see. The band re-emphasizes their knack for creating good guitar riffs (that have been missing for a few years) and creates their best album Plans.

3. Chvrches – Every Open Eye

I love this band. Their first album was great from front to back. There was some worry as to whether they could keep the momentum going for a sophomore album, but they hit this one out of the park too. It’s another gem. Lots of cool beats and melodies with Lauren Mayberry’s astonishingly vibrant vocals leading the way. They’re one of the best bands going right now.

2. Mew – +/- (plus/minus)

Full disclosure: this album’s ranking was definitely influenced by the fact that I was able to see them live this fall – and they were outstanding. Mew crafts some of the more unconventional arrangements you’ll find with choppy guitar riffs and intricate drumming. Then you’ve got the sky-high falsetto vocal lines. This album takes all of those things and explores some new territory too. After the show, I spun this album until it was dizzy. I particularly like “Water Slides” and the crushing chorus specifically.

1. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Yeah, the year belonged to Sufjan Stevens. After dabbling in the spectacle that was Age of Adz and the wild circus of the Christmas albums and tour, no one knew where Stevens would go next. Maybe he didn’t either. Then his estranged mother died and he was consumed by the event. His grief gave birth to this haunting and beautiful album. Full of loss, regret, longing and hope, it’s his most blatantly personal work in a career filled with questionably fictional story songs. I’ve found that once I start listening to it, I almost have to play it out to the very end. The journey of the album is vivid and compelling. I find that the albums I really fall in love with are the ones that are born out of an artist’s story. And I fell in love with this album.

Top Albums of 2015 – Part 1

Albums part 1

2015 was a banner year for music in a lot of ways. A bunch of my favorite bands all managed to put out records this year and many of them were very good. Like in years past, I’m putting together a list of my favorites with some quick thoughts on each one. Here we go with part 1!

25. Metric – Pagans in Vegas

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Metric remains one of the best bands out there and this album didn’t deviate much from their established formula. I felt like it lacked that indelible song that many of their albums feature, but still a great effort from Emily Haines and company.

24. Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?

This is really the first Hotchip album that’s stuck with me longer than a couple of spins. It’s got a great vibe a couple of jams that got stuck in my head for sure. Now I feel like I have to go back and give some of their past albums another chance. Maybe I do like this band!

23. Slow Meadow – Slow Meadow

One of my favorite bands is Hammock, who didn’t release an album this year. Instead, they actually started a little record label and put out this album by a new band called Slow Meadow. The music palatial and gorgeous. Soft vocal and string melodies float above droning guitars to create an emotional tapestry. Check them out.

22. Bjork – Vulnicura

Bjork returned this year with a break-up album. She had recently split from her longtime partner and these songs were composed out of that sense of loss. The result is an album that relies on organic strings paired with electronic beats and is reminiscent of her late-90’s work.

21. Citizens & Saints – Join the Triumph

As the worship leader at Hiawatha Church, I try to find worship music that’s actually good and worthy of inclusion in our Sunday gatherings. It’s often a difficult quest. Citizens & Saints were once involved with Mars Hill Church before it fractured and they continue to make good worship music. This album is another collection of electro-pop songs that contain theologically sound, Gospel-centered lyrics. We’ve done a couple of their tunes and will probably adapt more in the future.

20. Beach House – Depression Cherry

Beach House actually put out two albums this year, but I fancy this first one a bit more. Their reverbed arrangments, guitar effects and the lovely vocals of Victoria Legrand combine into quintessential dream pop.

19. EL VY – Return to the Moon

Does this qualify as a supergroup? EL VY (like the plural of “Elvis”) is comprised of The National’s Matt Berninger and Menomena’s Brent Knopf and actually does sound like a mashup of the two bands’ sounds. I really like the resulting vibe and the title track from this album is a fun jam.

18. Modest Mouse – Strangers to Ourselves

Well look who decided to show up. The last time Modest Mouse released an album was… 2007! This year, they picked up where they left off with another slightly overstuffed album of tunes that don’t stray too far off the reservation. To me, it doesn’t touch the greatness of their previous work, but it’s nice to have the zany Isaac Brock back in our ears.

17. Of Monsters and Men – Beneath the Sea

2011’s “My Head is an Animal” was a surprise hit for this Icelandic pop rock band which yielded a few radio hits like “Little Talks”. They’re back this year with more cool jams with dueling vocalists. The lead single “Crystals” is a very good song.

16. Original Mark Edwards (OME) – Distortion

Full disclosure, Mark Edwards is a good friend of mine. He decided to try Kickstarter this year and funded this album, which is very good. Incorporating influences from the Beach Boys, David Bowie and Radiohead, he produced a set of songs that has something for everyone. You should get it. 

15. Sandra McCracken – Psalms

McCracken has been putting out good albums for a number of years, but she really outdid herself this time. Penning a collection of songs influenced by the book of Psalms in the Bible, Sandra captured the spirit perfectly. Unlike many worship music people, she doesn’t shy away from the sadness and pain that Christians experience – she leans into them and lets them direct her towards God. It’s a truly beautiful album.

14. Ben Folds – So There

Ben Folds has become a sort of quirk-pop godfather in recent years, emphasizing his musical proficiency and pulling younger musicians into his eddies. Here, he embracing the collaborative nature of music by partnering with yMusic on some great tunes. He also includes an actual concerto that he wrote. It’s his best work since “Rockin’ The Suburbs”. And I’m in love with the cover art.

13. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

Brittany Howard and her band burst onto the musical stage in 2012 with a fantastic debut album that featured awesome guitar work and a powerful vocalist without fear. They’re back this year with a stellar sophomore album that really propelled them into the national spotlight. Just listen to “Don’t Wanna Fight” and you’ll hear a band firing on all cylinders.

12. The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

You know what’s crazy? This is the first Decemberists LP since 2011! And they’ve still got it. The theatrics of their earlier album have (rightly) been pulled back a bit in favor of just featuring good songwriting and arrangement. I wasn’t as caught up in the songs as I was on their previous album (The King is Dead), but you’d be hard pressed to find more literary songwriting than what Colin Meloy pens. The band also released a nice little EP late in the year! I guess they’re back!

11. Dustin Kensrue – Carry the Fire

Kensrue fronted the band Thrice, did some solo stuff, became a worship leader at a megachurch, left the church as the ship started to sink, recorded this new solo album and is now putting Thrice back together. What a wild, symmetrical arc! With this album, Kensrue pulls from his experiences as a husband and father to great effect. I love how he weaves the romantic and mundane moments of married life into the song “Back to Back”. I’m glad he’s still making music.

Look for my top ten in Part 2!

Top Films of 2015

top films

I saw a bunch of movies this year that I really, really enjoyed. As we opened 2015, it seems like there were about a dozen highly anticipated films on the release schedule and many of them actually lived up the some of the hype. I expanded on a few in longer posts this year, but here are some quick thoughts on my favorites:

 

 

#10. The Good Dinosaur

So Pixar actually released two films this year. Inside Out, the creatively unique and universally praised masterpiece was first. Then in the fall, they dropped The Good Dinosaur, a throwback coming-of-age western with a species-swapped duo at the center. What? I thought it was very good, not great. It still had a lot of heart and some very touching scenes that Pixar is adept at creating. Still, critics and audiences haven’t latched onto it like they did to Inside Out. Sure, it’s no Toy Story 3, but it’s definitely not Cars 2. I recommend it.

#9. Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first Avengers film was just so much fun! For the sequel, they tried to raise the stakes and create a new super-scary villain for our heroes to fight. Marvel partially succeeded, but the whole film felt a bit messy and loud. In fact, the best parts of the film are the quiet scenes during the groups retreat to set up Act 3. I loved diving a little deeper into Hawkeye’s character and how they depicted his marriage and family life. Otherwise, the movie ended up being rather forgettable, sadly.

 

 

#8. Jurassic World

It was the highest earning movie of the year (until Star Wars was unleashed). Clearly people were ready for another movie from this stagnant franchise! Newly minted superstar actor Chris Pine leads a very entertaining action flick that gives nods to the original classic (while ignoring the dumb sequels) and also blazes slightly new territory.  I enjoyed it.

#7. Ant-Man

Against all odds, I liked Ant-Man better than Age of Ultron. Sure, it was sort of a re-hash of the Iron Man origin story, but Marvel excels with imbibing their stories with a light, fun feel. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, they created a very good blend here of action and humor. Edgar Wright’s influences are still there in shadow form, which is nice to see. I still wish he could have directed the whole things. Still, a very fun movie with replay value.

 

#6. The Martian

I loved, loved the book and was anxious to see it adapted by Ridley Scott, whom I consider a very good director. The movie didn’t disappoint and was packed with science, ingenuity, teamwork, wit and action. It’s a love letter to space travel engineering that actually has broad appeal. It was incredible that Andy Weir’s book hit all those marks and it’s incredible that the film was able to as well. Plus, the best use of 70’s pop music since Guardians of the Galaxy!

#5. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Wow, probably the best MI film of the series so far. Great action sequences, great spy story, good banter. And two standout performances from series newcomers Sean Harris and Rebecca Ferguson. Both of those two brought some fresh air to the film and were totally believable in their characters. I liked Ghost Protocol a lot, but Rogue Nation is the superior film.

#4. Mad Max: Fury Road

Many are calling Mad Max: Fury Road the best movie of the year. I think part of that is the perceived relevant cultural message of “feminism” that many people have drawn from the movie that is fanning those flames. It’s surely a very good movie and very entertaining. The visual are stunning and the story is simple yet relevant, yes. But I’m still annoyed that “feminism” now means just valuing women and seeing them as important enough to fight for. I think those things should also be seen as masculine views. Anyway, Max is a great ride.

#3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Remember Avatar and how the effects were awesome but the story was cookie-cutter? Remember how it was basically Pocahontas in space? Well, James Cameron could learn something from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The special effects here are often staggering in how good they look, but they are NOT over the top at all. And the story is a familiar trope in some ways, but it plays out so well that you fall right into the allegory of “different = bad = kill them”.

#2. Inside Out

I wrote up a long form review of this movie because I saw it in the theater with my kids and was deeply moved by the great storytelling and visuals. Plus, they had so many fun, creative concepts were thrown in here and there that were pitch perfect. Pixar had been on a bit of a downward trajectory with some stale sequel releases, but this one showed that they still have a solid brain trust that can come up with fantastic stories.

#1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A movie that probably needed no marketing to become a hit got the most saturated marketing campaign ever. The hype was ridiculous, but incredibly the movie lived up to it. This was easily my favorite movie of the year. Perfect, no, but it didn’t need to be. When the credits rolled, I was legitimately sad that there wasn’t more. So, so good.

Top Television of 2015

top tv

Television is experiencing something of an arms race with good shows. Blame Netflix and AMC. Netflix realized a few years ago that their success will become a threat to the studios that license content to them and become a problem. So they made the decision to start making their own content to plan for the future. As some movies and shows were whittled off their library, they began replacing with original offerings – and many of those were very, very good. AMC gambled with Mad Men years ago and have built a reputation for great dramas like Breaking Bad and now their prize is The Walking Dead. Other cable networks have followed suit and started putting out good original shows too and now every network seems to have a prestige drama to its name. And competition means that the viewers have more options than ever. Here are some quick thoughts on television shows that I really enjoyed this year.

Established Shows

Fargo

Season one of the FX Original was a very pleasant surprise. Another surprise was when a 2nd season was commissioned and word came out that it would be set in the 1970s and follow one of the characters from season 1 in his younger days. Showrunner Noah Hawley has done a masterful job with this show and season 2 was probably the best show of the season for me. Extremely well written, acted, paced and shot. It was edge of your seat tense and laugh out loud funny (sometimes in the same minute). And I thought the conclusion was a perfect one. A 3rd season is now confirmed. I’m ecstatic.

Homeland

Homeland has had its share of troubles in the last couple of years. After a fantastic first season, the show fumbled around with figuring out what to do for the next few seasons. This year, they’ve finally found a real winning formula of action, social commentary, and spy intrigue. Carrie Mathison is still the focal point, but they’ve spent time sketching out supporting characters a bit more, which helps. Plus, they’ve opted for a more “ripped from the headlines” approach, which actually suits the show very well. If you gave up on the show a couple years ago, you’d probably like this season.

The Walking Dead // Fear the Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is the most popular show on cable. It’s been good for a while now and this season has been quite good as well, but has felt a lot like a long lead-in to a bigger arc beginning next year. Still, it’s a fun and brutal show. Now that Mad Men has concluded, AMC decided to double down on the zombie apocalypse and order a spinoff show to keep up appearances during TWD’s off season.  Fear the Walking Dead explores the very beginning of the zombie outbreak through the lens of a blended family. It’s an interesting concept that a short 6 episode first season couldn’t fully realize. Still, I think there’s some potential for new ground to be broken there so the show doesn’t just turn into The Walking Dead: LA.

Game of Thrones

Ah, Game of Thrones. Everyone’s favorite epic fantasy show. This season was a bit hit or miss, but it all built up to a cliffhanger of an ending that has had everyone talking all summer. What makes it that much more arresting is the fact that they’ve finished all the material from the published books. So even the book readers don’t really know what’s coming now. The characters are still mostly despicable and nothing good ever really happens, which is part of why it’s so hard to look away.  How many more seasons will they have? And is so-and-so really such-and-such?!

New Shows

Last Man on Earth

There are a few shows that my wife and I really enjoy watching together. And this is one of them. It’s so, so good. Will Forte and Kristen Schaal are delightful in their portrayal of very crazy characters in a very crazy world. What I like is that this show often trots out some sitcom tropes, but they’re all tilted to a post-apocalyptic world where a small group of survivors are all we have.  In a world… where post-apocalyptic settings are a dime a dozen, this show has a refreshingly funny and sometimes touching take on the genre. Plus, their mid-season cliffhanger was very well put together.

 

Daredevil  //  Jessica Jones

Netflix finally debuted their much-hyped Marvel shows this year! They kicked it off with a Daredevil show that establishes itself as the most brutal things Marvel has done. It’s violent, bloody, shocking, and compelling. They built a hero, sure, but it’s the time they spent building up the villain that made the show so good. And the opening credits and gorgeous! Then, they rolled out Jessica Jones, a show just as shocking, but not because of its bloody violence. No, this show relies on demented psychological drama. Again, the hero is interesting and flawed, but the villain is so twisted and evil that you are drawn in instantly to the storyline. These shows prove that Marvel knows what it’s doing in the TV world as much as they have a plan on the silver screen.

Narcos

Netflix commissioned a show centered on the drug empire of Pablo Escobar. The famous kingpin ruled a portion of Colombia in the 80’s and raked in millions of dollars selling cocaine. I have read an account of his crimes in a book called “Killing Pablo” and was shocked by the reach he wielded. This show is perfectly crafted to depict the ruthless nature of his crimes and the tactics used to try to stop him. And it’s mostly presented in Spanish, something many other networks would shy away from, making it seem all the more real.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

So Netflix has done very well with dramas like House of Cards and Daredevil, but what about comedies? This year, they gave us Tina Fey’s project Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The set-up is wild: a woman has been held captive by a cult leader for years and is finally liberated and starts an independent life in NYC. It’s got the feel of 30 Rock, but with more sweetness from the main character and the underlying darkness of the premise too. I love that the first season arcs back and tackles some of the fallout from her past captivity. I can’t wait to see more from this show next year.

Master of None

Since Louis CK broke out with his great FX show that took a melancholic, semi-autobiographical approach, other comedians have coveted a similar vehicle. Aziz Ansari put together this show for Netflix that hints at “Louie”-level self-depreciation. But Aziz is not Louie and has a very, very different outlook on life. These episodes shine because they lean into issues like race and singleness and mid-thirties ennui. In some ways, it’s less like “Louie” and more like a subdued “Seinfeld”. And he casts his own parents in the roles of his on-screen parents and it’s priceless.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Besides putting out some good originals, Netflix has pushed some chips the way of resurrecting existing shows or properties (with, albeit, mixed results). Here, they took an underground cult classic movie and made a prequel series. Somehow, they managed to get all the principle cast back in some capacity (though many are big, big stars now) and just sort of turned them loose together for a wild and random set of episodes. I loved that it was all a big inside joke, especially because the characters are supposed to be teenagers but are clearly in their 40’s. The guest stars are fantastic and the story is just so bonkers. I loved it.

The Jinx

Ho boy, The Jinx was super weird, super creepy and super good. Capitalizing on the phenomenon that was the “Serial” podcast, HBO released this true-crime documentary series and happened to hit gold when the case kind of blew up again just as they were concluding the show. Viewers were immersed in the twisted murder mysteries as they unspooled and, eventually, tightened around the subject of the show’s neck. It was really incredible to see. Expect more true-crime docu-series from other networks after the success of this one (Netflix dropped one this month already).

Better Call Saul

Breaking Bad is gone and is greatly missed. But, as I mentioned before, AMC needed to backfill some of these heavy hitters fast. So in addition to a Walking Dead spinoff, they put together a Breaking Bad prequel centered on scumbag-with-a-heart-of-gold attorney Saul Goodman. And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s really good! Bob Odenkirk is great at his character and the supporting cast is also stellar. Plus, we actually care about seeing how Saul got from rock bottom to where he is in Breaking Bad.

Farewells

Mad Men

Mad Men sort of defined the era of the anti-hero for awhile. Don Draper became a case study in how to write that new standard for flawed leading men. At its core, Mad Men was kind of a workplace comedy, but with a lot of drama and an exploration of the tectonic cultural shifts of the 1960’s. As the show came to a close, viewers were gifted resolution for many of the characters they’ve followed for 7 seasons, but some characters were left a little more open ended. Show running Matthew Weiner worked on The Sopranos, so you know he’s willing to let the viewers fill in the blanks. And that’s what he did here perfectly. I thought the final season and the final episode were the perfect way to send off one of the best shows of all time.

Parks and Recreation

It was another almost perfect send off for Parks and Rec. The last show standing from the Must See TV quartet of The Office/30 Rock/Community/Parks and Rec from a few years back. This show started as a shambling spinoff of The Office, but quickly settled itself and built its characters and its world into something truly special. For their final season, they time-shifted ahead and spent time in the future, which gave them a chance to do some more social and political commentary. By the time the finale rolled around, everything just felt right. And the way that they gave us a few things outright and kept others more veiled was perfect. Plus, they gave a number of bonafide movie stars their big breaks! I miss Pawney already.

EOTY List Stats

I’m a bit of a numbers geek and I love compiling data about random things. Case in point, the historical numbers I keep on my fantasy football league.  Anyway, after putting together this year’s EOTY Music List, I wondered what the data would show if I compared all of my lists from previous years and did some number crunching on them.

Here are my top five bands according to the number of releases from the last 10 years!

Band # Entries Average Rank
Hammock 6 7.33
Sigur Ros 5 2.40
Stars 5 9.00
Waterdeep 5 17.00
Sufjan Stevens 4 6.50

Probably a pretty good summation of the more prolific bands.  Of the less prolific bands, their average rank speaks more highly.

Bon Iver 2 1.50
Arcade Fire 3 3.00
Explosions in the Sky 2 6.00
Radiohead 2 6.50

It’s kind of fun to sort through the numbers! And I can’t believe that I’ve been making lists like this for 10 years now! That’s wild. In any case, look back on my EOTY lists if you like. Also, here’s a link to the complete data breakdown spreadsheet if you’re really, really geeky. 

Top Albums of 2014 – Part 2

EOTY albums 2

And here are my top ten favorite albums of 2014!


 

10 – St. Vincent – St. Vincent

Annie Clark has finally ascended to the top of the world. This album is her craziest and probably best yet. Awesome arrangements, demented lyrics and beautiful vocal work.

9 – Waterdeep – Waterdeep

WD COVER

 

I’ve been following this band for 16 years now. This year they put together a Kickstarter campaign to produce this double album – half Don songs and half Lori songs. It’s a sprawling work that’s clearly been a labor of love. They’re making the songs just how they want them and it’s a joy to hear.

 

8 – TV on the Radio – Seeds

TVOTR has been off the grid for awhile, but they stormed back with “Seeds” this year. It’s a great collection of classic TVOTR sounds. After a few listens, it’s not quite as good as “Dear Science”, but not many things are.

7 – Jenny Lewis – The Voyager

Jenny Lewis has been involved in a lot of awesome projects over the years. Here she’s all on her own and sounds confident in herself to pull it off. And her confidence has paid off with a very, very good album.

6 – Phantogram – Voices

Phantogram only has two members, but their sound is big and complex. There are some legitimately awesome songs on this record and I found myself listening to it a lot during walks.

5 – The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

This band has been around for a few years now, but this album may eventually be regarded as their master work. It’s a sprawling and lush collection of melancholy tunes that unfold slowly and pull the listener in.

4 – Damien Rice – My Favorite Faded Fantasy

Where has Damien Rice been the last 8 years? Who knows. What I do know is that he hasn’t lost a step. With more songs about broken hearts, unrequited love, self-doubt, etc, Rice has grown older but still wrestles with the same stuff. I hope it’s not 8 more years before we hear from him again.

3 – Spoon – They Want My Soul

Man, Spoon really knows how to make music. They just hit this one out of the park. They have a signature sound, but I feel like they jacked around with it a bit more on this album than on their last couple. “Inside Out” is one of my favorite songs of the year.

2 – Jeremy Messersmith – Heart Murmurs

Local guy makes good! Messersmith put together this awesome album of songs that many are calling “new classics”. With every listen a new turn of phrase will catch my year and a new chord progression will tap my foot. We played “Tourniquet” at our church this year and had a ball learning it. Great job, Jeremy!

1 – Beck – Morning Phase

My favorite Beck album is “Sea Change”. I love the Nick Drake-esque nature of the stripped down acoustic format. Sure, Beck is great at ramshackle rock, but his grasp of the folk style is underrated. So when he returned to this style for “Morning Phase” I was all in. This is an awesome album and I’ve probably played it more than any other complete album this year.


 

Again, am I missing something from my list that you think should be there? Let me know in the comments. I love giving new music a chance!

2015 is already shaping up to be a great year for music with a front-loaded release calendar featuring the likes of The Decemberists and even Modest Mouse! I can’t wait!