It feels like a cliché at this point to introduce a list along with a meta commentary on the nature of lists, etc, but I still feel the need to clarify that as much as I love making lists, the order of my picks have swapped more places more often than I can count, and will probably change tomorrow. It’s also a bit more diverse (between indie and established artists) and, well, random than my previous years have been. IVM favorite bands who a few years ago would have been shoe-ins on my year end list released albums this year that never clicked (Relient K, House of Heroes, Paper Route, Switchfoot, Showbread, Future of Forestry, etc) — and as a caveat for IVM readers expecting Christian artists, many of my picks are decidedly not religious, though I hope you’ll give them a chance regardless.
It’s just a snapshot of the music I’ve loved this year. I didn’t listen to all that many new releases, so it feels odd to make a list ranking the best albums of the year, when I’m sure I haven’t heard most of the best. But it’s also music that I’ve kept returning to, music as a balm in the midst of depression, uncertainty, and pain. It’s also the music of rejoicing, or great joy and peace. It’s the music of artists I’ve followed for years, who I feel I know and have shaped me, and it’s the music of people who are nothing more than strangers.There is music that I’ve listening to on repeat all year long, and albums/EPs I’ve only discovered in the last two weeks, and couldn’t help but love.
*Recommendations in the comments on the albums I should check out, or missed out on last year, are most welcome.
1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds “Skeleton Tree”
Nick Cave has never been quite so sorrowful, nor his lyrics cut to the quick with such ease. A gaunt, hollow-cheeked sense of beauty haunts the album like a spectre, transforming tracks such as “Distant Sky” and the title track, much the same way as Cave’s personal pain burrows in to “Jesus Alone” and “I Need You.” It’s an album that sits with me, weighing me down with a droning melancholy, yet there’s a hope nestled among the anguish of loss and death.
2. The Gray Havens “Ghost of a King”
One of those bands I feel personally connected to, discovering their first EP on Noisetrade and watching them grow has been a delight over the years. It’s their most mature work, showcasing their gift for vaguely inflected storytelling and weaving mythic imagery into individual songs without committing to a concept album outright. Centered around desires; both good and misplaced, it lightly wrestles with the question of how to approach longings and lusts within the cadence of soulful folk cadence and the sensibility of pop songs. Dave Radford’s voice has a clear, resounding substance, effortlessly carrying the songs along their course and balancing Licia’s lilting, graceful notes. It’s an album which is fun and easy to listen to on the surface, even as it rewards careful listening with a depth to its songwriting.
3. Heath McNease “Who Knows? Who Cares?”
McNease’s latest pays homage to Local Natives, sampling their work to great effect, but it also feels like he’s at the top of his game lyrically. Always a clever and innovative songwriter, playful but introspective, this EP strips away his persona to dig deep into his soul. From riffing on the theodicy in the Book of Job, to struggling with his own hopes and fears, McNease is ultimately laying his heart on the table and letting go his worries of the future.
4. Chance the Rapper “Coloring Book”
The perfect summer album, it’s what I turn to whenever I need a smile. Chance is a consummate performer, and the infectious energy of his approach is embedded throughout. Yet, for all its joyful noise, it’s also a thoughtful reflection on his own faith, family, love, and an Ecclesiastical celebration of a good life.
5. Moda Spira “Moda Spira”
Known for her work with Page CXVI and The Autumn Film, Latifah Phillips’ solo project is a slow burn, twisting and turning through various soundscapes while grappling with the intimate grief and joy of marriage. Whorls of synth envelop Phillips’ voice one moment and sink away the next, echoing the vulnerability and strength of in her storytelling. It’s an album to lose oneself in, only to be pulled out of a reverie by the aching beauty of her voice. Without a trace of cynicism while bearing the truthful pain of working through love, the reconciliation of hope against the fading embers of a relationship is joyfully realized.
6. Leonard Cohen “You Want It Darker”
One of the greatest songwriters we’ve had, who with this album delivers a daunting swan song.. A dark staring contest with the Abyss, Cohen imbues his music with a robust dose of soul searching at the apogee of his belief in the goodness of the world. It’s also a rich, magnificent record, full of moments of grand beauty which echo alongside the darker lyricism.
7. Lauren Mann “Dearestly”
Lauren Mann’s much awaited follow up to “Over Land and Sea” sees her truly come into her own as an artist. The right balance of folk and pop, she sings instinctively about the pursuit of a home, of roots, and of the paradoxical cycles of our time in the world; all with a striking effervescence that imprints itself on my heart and mind.
8. Birds of Chicago “Real Midnight”
Produced by Joe Henry, JT Nero and Allison Russell’s album is a rich collection of humanistic hymns. His songwriting, along with her powerful voice, forges a collection of songs that feel simple even as they’re rooted in the delightful paradox of intransience — of taking joy in the time we have even as time slips through our fingers. An Americana-blues-gospel album about taking hold of our present and future even as their memories and dreams fade away. Beautiful, sadness with a smile.
9. Allison Stone “Waves”
A minimalist, beautiful EP I stumbled across on Bandcamp — her soulful voice trails off over sparse piano accompaniment or synth loops. They’re intimate songs full of yearning that’s personal enough to feel universal.
10. Muriah Rose “Beneath the Clay”
Perhaps known best for her collaborations with husband Bill Mallonee, Rose’s debut album reflects her years of experience and a knack for infusing personal stories with a powerful empathic resonance. It’s a slice of Americana peppered with insightful turns of phrase, beautiful melodies, and a wistful melancholy.
11. Bon Iver “22, A Million”
12. John K. Samson “Winter Wheat”
13. Branches “White Flag”
14. Wovenhand “Star Treatment”
15. Michael Kiwanuka “Love and Hate”
16. Childish Gambino “Awaken, My Love!”
17. Sam Rocha “Fear and Loving”
18. Starflyer 59 “Slow”
19. Kishi Bashi “Sonderlust”
20. Whitney “Light Upon The Lake”
21. Marissa Nadler “Strangers”
22. Parker Millsap “The Very Last Day”
23. 2814 “Rain Temple”
24. The Neal Morse Band “The Similitude of a Dream”
25. Mary Halvorson “Away With You”
26. Lucy Dacus “No Burden”
27. Not Blood Paint “Believing is Believing”
28. Gabe Dixon “Turns to Gold”
29. Allen Toussaint “American Tunes”
30. Cory Dauber “Turned Into A Mountain”
31. Sho Baraka “The Narrative”
32. Wilder Adkins “Hope & Sorrow”
33. Angel Olson “My Woman”
34. Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers “Mule” / “Slow Trauma”
35. My Epic “Viscera”
36. Anchor and Braille “Songs for the Late Night Drive Home”
37. Jordan Klassen “Javelin”
38. Madeleine Peyroux “Secular Hymns”
39. Tedeschi Trucks Band “Let Me Get By”
40. Steve Taylor and the Danielson Foil “Wow to the Deadness”