This series of three posts (Part 1 and Part 3) doesn't hew to the usual "ranking" format of most year-end best-of lists. Instead, as we move into the new year this is an effort to round up 30 excellent releases from last year that deserve attention but due to time constraints we just couldn't get around to penning full-fledged reviews for. Enjoy, and happy new year everybody.
The Most Serene Republic // Mediac
Toronto's The Most Serene Republic sure took their sweet time with Mediac. It's been six years since their last full-length, ...And the Ever Expanding Universe, but their brand of elaborate brand of indie rock has lost none of its flair. Neither have lead singer Adrian Jewitt's cerebral-traffic-jam lyrics, like on “Love Loves to Love Love”, where he takes on rapacious neo-capitalism's unreasonable demands on humanity and the planet (“Earth's cigarette is down to the filter”). The brassy, compulsively listenable “Ontario Morning” is by far the album's most accessible track, but faithful listeners will be rewarded as each listen helps to reveal the melodic strands buried within Mediac's tangled cacophony.
Jon Foreman // The Wonderlands
These Jon Foreman EPs are as high-concept as they come: eight year ago, the Switchfoot frontman released a cycle of brief albums inspired by each of the four seasons, and similarly, each of the twenty-four tracks on 2015's Wonderlands series of EPs corresponds to an hour of the day. That works as a framing device, but Foreman's real stroke of genius with this new project was to recruit a different friend/collaborator to produce each song. While the Seasons EPs didn't stray too far from an acoustic folk sound, there's a different sonic flavor to each of the tracks on The Wonderlands - "Good For Me" sounds like Bone Machine Tom Waits, and the static bloom of electric guitar on "Ghost Machine" recalls My Bloody Valentine. And that diverse instrumentation is always accompanied by Foreman's humble and perceptive songwriting, which has lost none of its wit. As he sings on Sunlight's opener with that unmistakable vocal fry, "Whenever I start cursing at the traffic or the phone/I remind myself that we have all got cancer in our bones/Don't yell at the dead, show a little respect/It's terminal".
Son Lux // Bones
Ever since Ryan Lott's 2008 debut as Son Lux, the project's sound has been growing steadily more experimental and intricate, and for his fourth LP, he finally recruited some help in the form of drummer Ian Chang and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia. The new trio setup is apparently working like gangbusters, because the head-spinning array of sounds on Bones is willfully strange yet accessible. That goes for the bizarrely jutting symphonic chorus of "Change Is Everything" as well as for the industrial trip-hop of "Now I Want", where Lott sounds like Odysseus lashing himself to the mast: "Is this less of me, crying out to be free?/Don't believe me".
Cardiphonia // Songs of the Psalter: Volumes 5.1 & 5.2
Over the last several years, the Cardiphonia collective of songwriters and musicians has been the fount of - not every - but many, many blessings for the Church with its crowdsourced worship compilations. Each one is organized around a different theme, and this year saw the release of the first volumes of a project aimed at producing fresh musical takes on all 150 psalms (these two albums cover 135-150). The takes on Songs of the Psalter are all over the folk/Americana spectrum, and there are new songs from well-known acts like The Welcome Wagon, but a lot more from musicians you may never have heard of. That means that, on top of the wonderful tunes themselves, Cardiphonia is a great pathway even more excellent devotional music down the road.
Low & Behold // Uppers
Low & Behold is a duo of Starflyer 59's Jason Martin and Demon Hunter's Ryan Clark, but the sound of their debut is nothing like either of those claims to fame. Recalling both Depeche Mode and New Order-y darkwave, Uppers is full of driving, low-to-the-ground basslines and atmospheric synths, with Ryan Clark putting on his most menacing Ian Curtis cant. This ten-track record apparently took seven years to finally come together in the form we're hearing it, but hopefully Martin and Clark can carve out some time for a follow-up, because the seemingly-mismatched pair has some serious chemistry.
J Han // Tower Ivory
First things first: for his debut full-length, rapper J. Han didn't miss the opportunity to title one of the tracks “Han Solo”. Now that we have that out of the way... Han's goofy and earnest persona is present all over Tower Ivory, especially on “Chukkas”, where he spends the song extolling his favorite footwear. That song, along with “Shalom”, form the album's one-two punch thanks to some solid guest verses from, respectively, Mickey Cho and John Givez, who vibe well with their host. Han has been rapping for a while with his Good Fruit Co. labelmates in AMP, but Tower Ivory shows he's got the MC chops to go it alone, too.
The Gray Havens // Fire and Stone
Sometimes it's tough to place the lyrical influences of bands, and sometimes it's not. Folk-pop duo The Gray Havens is definitely in the latter category – it's like Dave and Licia Radford were locked in a basement with a Bible, The Lord of the Rings, and the collected works of Jonathan Edwards, and stumbled back out months later with Fire and Stone. The Chicago-based couple's songs are pretty much wall-to-wall literary/biblical references, and they're at their at their best in the show-stopping last half of “The Stone”, where the “heart of stone, heart of flesh” metaphor from Ezekiel is mashed up with the image of the stone rolled away from Jesus' tomb.
My Brightest Diamond // I Was Wild EP
My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden has spent most of the last half of the year putting on her opera “YOU US WE ALL” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but in April she shared I Had Grown Wild, the third and final release in a series that started in 2014 with both None More Than You and the full-length This Is My Hand. Most of the six-track EP is remixes of songs from the latter album (including an incredibly good French version of “This Is My Hand”), but the two originals are essential listening for fans, especially “Say What”, where Worden matches lines from Billie Holiday's “Strange Fruit” with a reference to Eric Garner's final words (“I can't breathe”) in an appeal for empathy between white and black Americans.
John Mark & Sarah McMillan // You Are the Avalanche EP
John Mark McMillan recorded a ripper of a live album (Live At The Knight) this year, and while it features a couple of these songs, it'd be a shame to not mention this little EP. John Mark collaborated with his wife Sarah on You Are The Avalanche, and it's drawn with the same sonic palate as last year's reverb-heavy Borderland, where the drums are like bowling balls hitting hardwood. These five tracks lend themselves more to corporate worship than the songs on that record, but “Walk Around My House” is quite personal. After the birth of their first child, Sarah found herself under de facto home imprisonment thanks to the baby, and the song is a cry for God to show up in all his fullness and reality in that cloistered environment just like he does everywhere else.
Michael Van Patter // Songs in the Night
The Lord gives and the Lord takes away in many different ways, but it's hard to conceive of one more baffling or brutal than childhood cancer. Michael Van Patter's son was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just ten months old, and the Dark Night of the Soul Michael went through in the following months was when the music that makes up Songs in the Night started pouring out of him. These tracks are as raw as they come - Van Patter's confusion and grief are like an exposed electrical socket - but his spare, elegant folk arrangements and direct lyrical approach give them a terrible beauty. When he sings "Little boy, you were beautiful, with your bald head and your bright eyes" and then "Little boy, facing a giant/It was not a fair fight, was it?", the sadness is almost too much. Impossibly, though, it's shot through with a luminous and paradoxical hope in God and his faithfulness. Songs in the Night is one of the most unpretentious, honest, and devastating things I have ever heard, but I can only imagine the balm it might be to those already devastated by the kind of pain Michael Van Patter is singing about. And there will be those people, because suffering is the only constant in this world, next to the great love of God.