The Best of 2016: Ben Kunz
Here’s my personal list of favorite albums that came out in 2016. This wasn’t as incredible a year for music as 2015 was for me, but it still ended up being pretty solid. I’m a long-winded guy so for the sake of anyone who might read this I saved the descriptions for the top 15 only. Check it out and let me know your thoughts below!! Secular artists who have little or no ties to the Christian music world have asterisks beside them. Hope you enjoy. :)
30. Miserable Love – Rocky Loves Emily
29. Campfire II: Simplicity – Rend Collective Experiment
28. Awakened to the Sound – Future of Forestry
27. Lone // Grey – Comrades
26. Integrity Blues – Jimmy Eat World*
25. Songs For the Late Night Drive Home – Anchor & Braille
24. The Mutemath Sessions EP – twenty one pilots (feat. Mutemath)
23. Mistaking Sunshine For Warmth – ElisaRay
22. 1001 – Zach Bolen
21. Dear Me – OWEL*
20. Far Side of the Sea – Eric Peters
19. Life Screams – Lacey Sturm
18. Types & Shadows – Wolves at the Gate
17. Relativity – Archabald
16. Beyond Control – Kings Kaleidoscope
15. Where the Light Shines Through – Switchfoot
Admittedly, this album hit me delayed. As a longtime Switchfoot fan, this album was near the top of my most anticipated of 2016 list. But between my pre-order never coming in the mail and going through an unusual amount of stress at the time of its release, I think it was just an unfortunate time for this one to come out for me. I listened to an online stream and ended up being pretty disappointed on the first couple listens. It wasn’t until I delved further into the lyrics and let some of the riskier moments on the album (like “Bull in a China Shop” and “Looking For America”) grow on me that the whole thing finally clicked. Not only is this the best Switchfoot record since 2009’s Hello Hurricane, it also might be the band’s most uplifting record to date. And that’s saying a lot from a band whose biggest hits are songs like “Meant to Live” and “Dare You To Move”.
14. The Passover – Eshon Burgundy
Rap isn’t my genre of choice by any means, but almost every year there seems to be that one rap album that I absolutely love. In 2013, it was Beautiful Eulogy’s Instruments of Mercy. In 2014, it was Jackie Hill Perry’s The Art of Joy. Last year, it was JGivens’ brilliant record Fly Exam. And this year, it’s Eshon Burgundy’s The Passover. I don’t know enough about rap to really break the record down from a critical standpoint, and since this album was a late bloomer for me I still have a ton of lyrics to delve into, but his flow and knack for melody in these songs makes this record stand out above the rest of what rap had to offer this year. I’m sure this album will climb this list over time as I continue to dig deeper.
13. Okay, For Now EP – Stay Outside
I don’t know where this band came from or where they’re going, but I like them. A lot. I wouldn’t have ever found out about these guys if my buddy Allen hadn’t introduced me to them and I’m so glad he did. Their heavy brand of indie rock is definitely influenced by bands like Manchester Orchestra and From Indian Lakes, but there’s something distinct about them that makes them stand out all on their own. First of all, the choruses are some of the biggest and most distinctive I’ve heard since Anberlin broke up. Songs like “Braveheart” and “Void” (two of my favorite songs this year) give me that same giddy feeling I had when I first listened to Cities. It’s not that they’re a similar band to Anberlin by any means, but right off the bat they have the same gift that Anberlin had in their ability to write melodies that are equal parts powerful, catchy, and beautiful. And this is only six songs into their career! Of course, that aspect of the EP—the fact that it’s an EP and not a full album—is also what keeps it from being any higher on this list. It’s frustratingly short. I want to hear more from this incredible band. Like, right now.
12. Stage Four – Touché Amore*
This is the third of five bands on this list (the first two being Jimmy Eat World and OWEL) that don’t really have any association with the Christian music world to speak of. I’ve heard Touché Amore’s name a lot, but this is the first record of theirs I’ve found myself listening to between the acclaim it received and the fact that Julien Baker (whose music I’ve fallen in love with this last year) has a guest spot on the last song. Come to find out, Stage Four isn’t just a great post-hardcore record, it’s an incredibly deep and powerful reflection on death—and particularly a reflection on when vocalist Jeremy Bolm’s mom succumbed to cancer. In a sense, it’s intense autobiographical nature makes it feel like the hardcore sibling of Sufjan Stevens’ amazing record Carrie & Lowell, which was written in the aftermath of Sufjan’s mother’s death. It’s heartbreaking and heavy but it isn’t hopeless. And even though the band doesn’t necessarily espouse faith, Jeremy Bolm’s wrestling with God in the wake of tragedy on this record feels more sincere and earnest than much of what you hear from blatantly Christian artists. It’s a truly beautiful record.
11. Ghost of a King – The Gray Havens
Early last year, this husband and wife duo called The Gray Havens came out of nowhere and released Fire & Stone, one of the most original sounding folk records I’d heard in a long time. I wouldn’t have guessed that they would be releasing another full-length just over a year later. While Ghost of a King isn’t quite as gloriously quirky as Fire & Stone (not quite as many sudden time signature changes and Frank Sinatra-esque melodies this time around), it ultimately feels a little tighter and easier to wrap your head around. And if it’s a little short, it still feels incredibly well-rounded as a full album. Fire & Stone introduced David and Licia Radford as serious players in the singer-songwriter game, but Ghost of a King confirms that they really are some of the best in the folk genre. And that’s all without talking about how beautifully they weave the Gospel into their songs. “At Last, the King” is especially one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard all year. I can’t wait to see where these two go next.
10. I Believe, Help My Unbelief – Rival Choir
This is one of those records that hits me on a purely lyrical level before it hits me on a musical level. It’s a pretty relentless hardcore album in the same vein as Oh, Sleeper and The Chariot which, granted, is a serious compliment. But similar to rap, it takes a lot for me to really fall in love with a hardcore album. And this album is heavy. But it’s the lyrics that take center stage on this record and really pull you into the music itself. It almost reminds me of As Cities Burn’s Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest with the way it incorporates deep biblical truth into its intense Psalm-like pleas for deliverance. As much as the album doesn’t let up, it remains beautiful and poetic the entire way through. And it resonates with me. More so, in fact, than any other hardcore album I’ve heard this year.
9. Real Emotion – Paper Route
Man, it’s been too long since the last Paper Route album. Or maybe it’s just felt longer because this album has been talked about for so long up to this point. But now that it’s been released, it’s pretty easy for me to declare this as my favorite album of theirs to date. The band’s hybrid of indie pop rock (or whatever genre you place them in) has always been tight, but here it feels like they’ve reached another level. All of these songs sound like they could be played in a huge stadium, and not in a generic sense. I thought they could blow up when they released The Peace of Wild Things, but with this album they really do feel like they could be one of the biggest bands out there right now and they’d be completely deserving. “Pretend” and “Real Emotion” are the best examples of how epic the band is able to sound. And “Untitled” is one of the best ballads I’ve heard all year—it took me completely off guard at first listen. These guys need some exposure so they can finally get the recognition they deserve and hopefully this album does it. Now that I think about it, Twenty One Pilots should just take them out on their next album cycle. I’m going to call it right now.
8. 22, A Million – Bon Iver*
Another artist on this list who doesn’t have any Christian ties. Bon Iver is one of my favorite artists so I was really disappointed when I heard he was going the abstract experimental route and prepared myself to really dislike 22, A Million the same way I dislike Radiohead’s Kid A (I recognize the brilliance of that record, I just don’t love abstract music I can’t connect to on a human level). That said, I was surprised to love this album on first listen. As with his previous record Bon Iver, Bon Iver, it’s more immersive in a strictly musical sense than it is in a lyrical sense. I don’t understand half of what Justin Vernon writes about and I wish he didn’t use as much language as he uses on a couple of the songs. Both the ambiguity and occasional vulgarity in his lyrics can be frustrating. But musically and melodically, it really is brilliant, and even the more abstract elements don’t feel purposeless or lifeless. And like his previous album, there’s a hopeful component to the music that’s moving even when it’s hard to understand what’s being said. It’s not something you can necessarily delve into for a lot of lyrical meaning (at least not instantly) but it feels like the soundtrack to something meaningful. It’s a hard thing to explain fully, but it’s his ability to create epic soundscapes with such bare bones instrumentation that makes Justin Vernon one the best musicians out there today. This album isn’t quite to the level of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but it’s another worthy addition to his short but incredible discography.
7. From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees – DENS
There were three obscure indie rock bands this year (Stay Outside, Archabald, and DENS) that really surprised me with some terrific music. Of the three, DENS’ debut record From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees is my favorite. I wouldn’t have known about it if Brandon Jones hadn’t posted a status about them (thanks Brandon!!) and I was blown away right off the bat. My Epic is the first band that comes to mind when listening, mainly because they similarly combine ambient indie rock with worshipful lyrics. But that comparison is only by default because DENS has an incredibly unique sound. At times it almost feels like they’re on the verge of sounding like a commonplace indie rock band, but there’s always something unique that keeps the music consistently original throughout the entirety of From Small Seeds Come Giant Trees. Multiple listens later and I still can’t put my finger on it, but I think some of this is because of the vocals which at times sound like they’re being sung in a contemporary worship service. If that sounds like a bad thing, it’s not. The fact that it sounds like the vocals are being sung in a huge room adds to both the epic and worshipful tone of the music and helps the record stand out more than it already would have. “Hopebringer” is the highlight. That chorus in particular is hands down one of the coolest things I’ve heard all year. After just one album it seems like DENS has their sound pinned down enough to go anywhere for their next record. And most of all, it’s deeply edifying in a way that more music of this caliber should endeavor to be. Thankful for this band and this album.
6. Viscera EP – My Epic
My Epic. Since Anberlin broke up these guys have taken their place as my personal favorite band and I know my friends wish I would shut up about them the same way they probably wish I’d shut up about Andrew Peterson. But I don’t know another band who can write music and lyrics that are as purely reverent as My Epic does. There were multiple songs on Behold—which has held up as one of my favorite albums of all time—that were so Christ-centered it legitimately made me uncomfortable (“I want to be a dead man/Just a body You can live in”). That’s about the biggest compliment I can give. And these guys, like DENS, aren’t even a worship band. They’re a heavy indie rock band with a tendency to delving into both ambient and post-hardcore elements. But they have a mind for Christ and it’s seen in every song they write. As for the Viscera EP, as a whole it isn’t quite as heavy as 2010’s Yet was, but it does boast the heaviest moment in any My Epic song thanks to Shane Oschner from Everything In Slow Motion and his awesome guest spot in “Ghost Story”. As for the other four songs, there’s not a sour note on the EP. “Memoir” is my personal favorite song of the year—I can’t describe in a short write-up how much that song has meant to me since it was released. “Cesura” is a beautiful interlude that can only be described as “otherworldly”. “Wives Tale” is not only a uniquely fast-paced My Epic track, but it’s the first time I’ve heard someone tackle theology and Alzheimer’s in a single song. It’s heart-wrenching and encouraging all at once. “Open Letter” is a darker ending than is typical for a My Epic release, but it’s a stunningly beautiful reflection on the problem of evil. The reprise of “Cesura” at the end in the form of a short worship song is an awesome bonus too. While my heart still aches for another full-length My Epic record, this EP is a more than worthy inclusion in their discography. They’re already my favorite band and they really do just get better and better.
5. To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere – Thrice
This is one of two comeback albums to make my Top 5 this year. Ever since Thrice announced that they were going on hiatus in 2011, I’ve eagerly awaited their return. They never officially broke up, but there was no telling when they were going to come out with something new. It could have plausibly been ten years before they’d get back together. So when they announced To Be Everywhere Is to Be Nowhere, it shot up my most anticipated list. Not only does the album live up to the high expectations set for it, it also might be the band’s best album outside of Vheissu. It’s not the most dynamic or diverse Thrice record ever. In fact, it’s one of the first albums I’ve heard in a while that I can only really describe as a straight-up rock record. It’s so accessible, in fact, that I could see a few of the songs getting radio airplay. But this isn’t a dime-a-dozen radio rock album. It’s Thrice through and through, firing on every cylinder and giving us a terrific comeback album that happens to be one their most consistently heavy records to date. The sheer power and tightness of the record make up for any lack of experimentation that might be present. It’s like Thrice has just released their The Force Awakens album. They can feel free to innovate on the next record the same way Star Wars can feel free to get innovate in Episode VIII, but for now let’s just be pumped that they’re back and as good as ever. I know I’m going to be giddily playing this record over and over until the next is released. In fact, just writing this has inspired me to put it on as I type. “Hurricane,” man. What an opening track.
4. A Mirror Dimly – Citizens & Saints
We are sorely lacking good modern worship music. I haven’t personally gotten into much of David Crowder’s stuff since David Crowder*Band disbanded, Gungor has left the worship scene entirely after pretty much severing their ties from the scene, and other than Phil Wickham and Rend Collective and a few others, it just doesn’t seem like there are many straight-up worship artists that are both musically and lyrically solid in a Christian music world that values safety above scripture. This pretty much leaves us with Kings Kaleidoscope and Citizens & Saints, both halves of Gospel Song Records. I really loved Kings Kaleidoscope’s new record Beyond Control, but my enjoyment of it was a little marred by the (more than understandable) controversy surrounding the profanity in “A Prayer” and the lingering frustration that I can’t share the album with as many people as I would like to. That being said, Citizens & Saints’ new album A Mirror Dimly is a virtually flawless worship record, both musically and lyrically, without the controversial baggage. It has that distinct indie rock feel that’s defined their past work and feels completely modern, but also like their past work, most of these songs could easily be modified for a church setting. Zach Bolen’s vocals are also a huge part of the band’s sound. They’re the perfect blend of raw and powerful and it really enhances the rich lyrics that are being sung. Worship has always needed to be willing to be broken and it’s encouraging to me to find a set of songs that are relatable in their brokenness and theologically and musically rich all at once. Every year there’s that one special album I put on when I deeply need encouragement, and this year it’s A Mirror Dimly.
3. Everything Feels Better Now – From Indian Lakes*
Here’s the last band on my list that doesn’t have any Christian ties to speak of. Over the last couple years, since the release of Able Bodies in 2012, From Indian Lakes has become a top 5 favorite band of mine. The melodies that Joey Vannucchi writes and the time signatures he uses have both had a huge impact on how I personally write music and his overall sound incorporates everything I love about bands like Copeland, Manchester Orchestra, and even mewithoutYou while remaining completely original. Everything Feels Better Now feels like a natural progression from the more low-key indie rock on 2014’s Absent Sounds, which itself was a progression from the more aggressive Able Bodies. This time From Indian Lakes’ signature sound includes a lot more electronic instrumentation and spacey effects. The incredible thing is, rather than sounding like a more watered down version of From Indian Lakes, the music and songwriting still has a very raw, organic sound to it that stays true to the core sound of the band. It also helps that there’s not a single misstep on the record. There are definitely highlights (“The Monster,” “Hello,” and “Sunlight” immediately come to mind) but every song sticks its landing and is immensely listenable. In fact, even though this record was released in October, it’s probably the album I’ve had on replay the most this year. Time will tell if this album holds up better than Able Bodies, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say it’s at least on par.
2. Fault Lines – Andy Gullahorn
This is the one I’d slept on all year. I’ve been well-acquainted with Andy Gullahorn’s name since I started following Andrew Peterson’s career closely but for whatever reason I’d never actually given any of his records a good listen. Now in my defense, I did listen to Fault Lines not too long after its release earlier this year, but since Andy Gullahorn isn’t a high-profile artist, the only place I could listen to the album was a YouTube stream where commercials played between each song, which really keeps you from getting immersed in a record. It wasn’t until earlier this month when I saw Andy Gullahorn on the Behold the Lamb of God Tour with Andrew Peterson that I was able to snag a copy of Fault Lines and his previous album Beyond the Frame. Both have been on repeat, but Fault Lines in particular has come to have a huge impact on me in just the short time I’ve had listening to it. Come to find out, Andy Gullahorn has the same knack for writing beautifully mundane songs that makes Andrew Peterson my favorite songwriter. I know that sounds like a weird thing to praise, and maybe I’m just getting old because 23 really changes a man, but I’m finding more and more that it’s the writers who are able to find beautiful stories that weave the Gospel into the most mundane areas of life that have the biggest impact on me and give me the most encouragement. On Fault Lines, Andy Gullahorn sings about a lot of commonplace things and makes them into profound pieces of storytelling. “Dad Like Mine” might be the best example. At first glance, it’s a simple song written to a friend whose father was never there for him. But as the events in the song unfold, and the true subject of the song is revealed, it’s overwhelmingly powerful (I openly wept). “Freedom” is another excellent song about his family that incorporates both heart and humor (I audibly laughed). “I’ll Meet You There” is a contender for the flat-out most encouraging song I’ve heard all year. For all this though, my favorite sentiment has to be in the song “Not Going Anywhere” where Andy humbly sings: “Some of us were made to stay down.” The line really seems to sum up Andy Gullahorn and the artists like him that have brought me so much comfort. These songs feel so grounded and relatable and gentle, and there’s a freakish power in gentleness that no amount of frills and instrumentation can beat. And as such, Fault Lines is definitely one of the best records I’ve heard this year, only outdone by…
1. Air for Free – Relient K
I’ll try and keep this short (but who am I kidding?). Back in 2008, two of my best friends introduced me to an album called MMHMM by a little band called Relient K and there was no going back. The end. But seriously, when I look back Relient K’s music has had such a far-reaching impact on me, being the gateway to bands like Anberlin and Switchfoot who would themselves become the gateways to a whole host other bands leading me to become the 23 year old music junkie I am now. But Relient K has had a bumpy road. Since 2009’s Forget and Not Slow Down (one of the best break-up records you’ll ever hear), Relient K has been pretty inactive. There was a decent covers album, and then a not-so-decent LP released in 2013 (Collapsible Lung does not hold up well over time and I’m pretty easy to please). So I’ve waited for Air for Free with a mixture of caution and excitement. Part of me wanted to believe that Collapsible Lung was just a weird misstep in a fantastic discography. But I couldn’t help but think there was no way Relient K would be able to get back to the quality of the one-two-three punch of excellent records that were MMHMM, Five Score, and Forget. Boy was I wrong. In fact, even if this album isn’t as perfectly cohesive as MHMMM, it is almost immediately their best from a musical perspective. First of all, the band seems to be having the most fun they’ve had since 2003’s Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do (a.k.a. their first truly great record). There isn’t really much humor to speak of, but the songs are eclectic and just flat-out fun to listen to. As a whole, it feels like the album that Collapsible Lung was trying to be (it seemed like it was trying to be fun but it felt weirdly downbeat) by incorporating the pop elements from that album in a much more effective way. Second of all, the songs are all so complex. I can’t go into the specifics in a short write up, but at times the songs are so cinematic and layered it almost feels like The Dear Hunter wrote an indie pop record and succeeded on every level. Last of all, it’s brave. The songs are fun and complex, but they’re also all over the map stylistically to the point where it’s shocking that all 16 songs actually work. There’s the auto-tune on the piano ballad “Empty House,” the multiple time signature changes on “Runnin,” and the near sing-rapping Matt Thiessen does at the end of “Elephant Parade”. And this isn’t getting into the lyrics which are finally back up to the Matt Thiessen standard. I really have to stop because there’s so much to this album that could be dissected, but Air for Free brilliant comeback album that manages to be both the most enjoyable album I’ve heard in 2016, and certainly the best. Welcome back, Relient K.