This series of three posts (Part 1 and Part 2) doesn't hew to the usual "ranking" format of most year-end best-of lists. Instead, since we're quite a ways into the new year already, 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.
Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus // Beauty Will Save the World
A label's interest in reissuing 1987's The Gift of Tears reportedly precipitated the reformation of Liverpool's mysterious Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, and their music has only grown more emotionally and spiritually powerful after a decades-long hiatus. Recalling Popol Vuh and Talk Talk, the ambient soundscapes on Beauty Will Save the World are evocative and tinged with the sounds of world folk music, drawing listeners in with Godspeed You! Black Emperor-like audio recordings. The Middle Eastern influence is strong on the intense "Suspended on a Cross", and on the mesmeric closer "Before the Ending of the Day", radiantly peaceful cellos and the slow toll of a bell accompany a liturgical prayer for divine protection as night falls. Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus's music is deeply concerned with the loss of the sacred, but these numinous meditations on the are stark reminders that Beauty really will save the world.
Sufjan Stevens // Carrie & Lowell
Well, you knew this would be on here somewhere. Sufjan Stevens' first non-collaborative, non-holiday release in five years, Carrie & Lowell was greeted by those who perceived The Age of Adz as an aberration from the artist's (actually rather capacious) wheelhouse as a welcome return to folky form. But Carrie & Lowell did away with more than Adz's sequenced drums (and Illinois' glockenspiel) - it's the first Sufjan record to drop the gimmicks he has employed so adeptly in the past - there's no Chinese zodiac, Michigan trivia, or apocalyptic outsider art here to act as filter. Instead, these eleven skeletal ballads are an exorcism, with Stevens' emotional fallout following the death of his mother coming through raw and poignant. Carrie & Lowell is a classic in a career already full of them.
Sandra McCracken // Psalms
Sandra McCracken has been working the singer-songwriter fields for over 18 years now, but Psalms is the fruit of a reorientation toward church music she's made since becoming worship minister for an Anglican church plant in Nashville. Recorded over just two and a half days in a Brooklyn apartment, McCracken's interpretations of these psalms aren't born from fine musicianship alone, but from a deep acquaintance and mundane reliance on them in everyday life. Like the prayer book itself, the emotions on Psalms span the spectrum, from godforsaken despair to exultant triumph, but they're anchored by time-tested faith. The words of these sacred songs are borrowed, but the sentiment behind them on tracks like the beautiful "We Will Feast in the House of Zion" sounds earned.
Twenty One Pilots // Blurryface
Columbus, Ohio duo Twenty One Pilots went into overdrive last year with Blurryface, a concept album centered around the shadowy eponymous character who acts as the embodiment of modern narcissistic insecurity. He, as the album says, cares what you think. Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun double down on pretty much everything that distinguished their previous record 2013's breakout Vessel - there's the frantic, sugar-rush pace, the tightly-wound harmonies and suburban-white-boy rapping, and the conscious, purposeful genre-schizophrenia that never lingers on a specific style for very long. And for once, the coherent theme helps to anchor their honest, neurotic lyricism more firmly and meaningfully than it has in the past. Despite the plain efforts to push their sound further, (and the oft-repeated put-downs they aim at supposed Top 40 pap, which seem misguided now that "Stressed Out" is apparently perched at the top of those same charts) Twenty One Pilots is accessible bubblegum pop, and some rather catchy bubblegum, at that.
Evan Mazunik Trio // Restoration
Denver-based composer and keyboardist Evan Mazunik has worked with a host of excellent acts from Danielson to The Welcome Wagon (his CV includes many other projects such as providing scores for silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc), but in December he shared this wonderful collection of hymn interpretations recorded with his jazz piano trio. Mazunik's playing is by turns blissful, reverent, and jaunty, and he and his bandmates' improvisations can turn on a dime - the ascent-descent-ascent of "Sons and Daughters (O Filli Et Filiae)", for one, is captivating. The same goes for the ebullient rendition of "The Glassy Sea (Holy, Holy, Holy)", where Mazunik's piano imitates the titular sea, eddying, rippling, and settling like water itself.
Nathan Partain // Jaywalker
If this album by Indianapolis' Nathan Partain had been forty minutes of white noise, it still would have scored a spot on this list thanks to that amazing cover art. Happily, though, Jaywalker a terrific record loaded with crunchy roots rock and suffused with Partain's grace-addict conviction and fervor - "Jesus suffered and paid blood to buy the lowest of the low/Hallelujah! Amen! That's me!" he sings on "I Am One of Those". The same goes for "Love is a Gift" where he screams himself hoarse over a ferocious electric guitar, and for the lovely closer "The Lord is My Joy", where wisps of backing vocals harmonize euphoniously with the singer.
Andrew Peterson // The Burning Edge of Dawn
After publishing the 700-page final installment of his Wingfeather Saga quadrilogy in 2014, troubadour-author Andrew Peterson was understandably tuckered-out. But record contracts wait for no man, and in early 2015 he found himself back in the studio starting almost from scratch. The writing and recording of The Burning Edge of Dawn were nearly simultaneous, but amazingly, the setup worked. Peterson's thoughtful poetic flair is fully intact, and one of the record's many striking lyrical moments comes on “Every Star is a Burning Flame”, when he runs across the spot in Louisville where Thomas Merton had a mystical experience, and prays for the same transfigured vision: “I wanna look into the night and see a million suns rise”. And while he's always seen himself as a songwriter first and a musician, the album is no sonic slouch - the pyrotechnic closer "The Sower's Song" is one of the very finest things he's ever recorded. The songs on Burning Edge of Dawn have an immediacy and unity thanks to the particular season of of life they sprang from; as Peterson shared in an interview, the record is not about finally emerging from the dark woods of depression, but rather the moment "when you see there's an end to the woods." Accordingly, they're some of the most despondent he's ever penned, but always eclipsed by hope and a sort of grave joy in the sunrise that's setting fire to the the horizon.
Circle of Hope Audio Art // Finding Home
The Philly/Jersey-area church Circle of Hope has an active community of over two dozen musicians serving i, and while they focus most on actually facilitating worship, in December they released this diverse collection of some of the community's favorite pieces. Coming Home's nine tracks are all over the aesthetic map - the spoken-word piece "The Buzzing of the Bee" is a bit overwrought, but its indictment of drone warfare sits comfortably among these often justice-oriented worship songs. Similarly, Matt Sowell's hypnotic solo guitar on the wordless "Luke 7" makes you want to go read Luke 7 again. The standout, though, is the dynamite world-punk praise song "Rest in Your Walls", which could pass for a new recording by Philadelphian neighbors Psalters.
The Innocence Mission // Hello I Feel the Same
The Innocence Mission's music has such an impossibly warm sound, it's like they record to analog tape from directly beneath a sitting mother hen or something. It's been five years since their last album proper (the Peris' both released solo efforts in the interim) but Hello I Feel the Same has everything you love about the group in spades: that incredible warmth, their unhurried living-room folk timbre, and Karen Peris' unmistakable croon, which only grows more ineffably soothing with time. Her songwriting is similarly comforting - the title track is a refreshing affirmation of empathy rather than alienation, while on "Fred Rogers" she dreams of meeting the unshakably kind man, who "would smile on me and tell me how I could make things better".
The Brilliance // See the Love EP
2015 was a banner year for The Brilliance thanks to their excellent pseudo-debut Brother, which came out in January and a stint touring with John Mark McMillan later on. They couldn't let the year run out without sharing a little bit more, though. Ten days before Christmas, they dropped this lovely four-track EP, which couldn't have been more timely - the brief but intense “Run” features a striking couplet reminding us of our infant Lord's refugee flight from Herod, while the gorgeously harmonic title track is a holy protest song calling listeners to embody the love that's been given to them in Christ. The kicker is the terrific remix of “Brother” featuring Humble Beast's Propaganda, who steals the show with a perfectly-pitched verse that elevates the subtly reworked track. Here's hoping these guys work together again in the future.