Singing the Human Condition: My Top 10 Albums of 2015

December 16, 2015

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One of the best parts about Advent is that we call upon the Lord to enter once again into the chaos of our lives as we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  Jesus Christ was not born in a pristine palace, a fancy mansion, or a sterile hospital room.  On the contrary, the King of the Universe was born in a messy stable in Bethlehem.  That’s great news, because it means that God desires to meet us right where we are, which is often in a place that we’d rather not be.  He comes not to condemn us, but to save us. 

Advent is also the time of year that I compile a list of my favorite albums for the readers of Word on Fire.  The majority of the albums on this list are by secular artists, and I include them not because they are secular, but because they are artists.  I am not endorsing any particular behavior, lifestyle, or philosophy by including such artists on this list; I am simply saying that these men and women released some great music in 2015. 

The kind of space that many of these artists present in their songs is the exact place where Christ wants to be, in the brokenness of life.  Over the past year the following albums have helped me to better understand the human condition, our need for a Savior, and the Incarnation, not to mention that they all sound awesome.

Enjoy this Top 10 list, and please don’t forget to remember these artists in your prayers this Advent.

1. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett tops the list because this record has the most unique, authentic, poetic, intellectually stimulating, and sonically gratifying sound of anything I’ve heard all year.  She writes like Dylan, plays guitar like Cobain (left-handed too!), and does absolutely nothing to hide her beautiful Australian accent.  Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit not only contains eleven great tracks, but also eleven genius song titles, including “Aqua Profunda!”, “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)”, and “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party”.  Barnett plays straight-up rock ‘n’ roll, and “Pedestrian at Best” is one of the best songs written in the last decade – the video offers prophetic warning against the ultimately unsatisfying but ever attractive trap of fame.  If you don’t like your music loud, skip the first two tracks.

2. Carrie & Lowell – Sufjan Stevens

Carrie & Lowell is an eleven-track, autobiographical memento mori.  According to Pitchfork, Stevens’ mother, Carrie “was bipolar, schizophrenic, and suffered from addiction and substance abuse.” She left him when he was only one, and then again a few years later.  Stevens didn’t reconnect with his mother until she was on her deathbed, and this record is his first-hand account of their relationship. “Death With Dignity” and “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” are great, but “Fourth of July” will break your heart.  If you’ve never lost anyone you’ve loved, this album may make little sense to you, but if you have, you’ll find Mr. Stevens to be an empathetic friend.  It’s a whisper of a record, so listen without distraction.

3. Nashville Obsolete – Dave Rawlings Machine

Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch look like they walked out of the Dust Bowl, and they play a style of music that never grows old, yet it’s always old, even if the songs on the album are new. DRM prohibit cameras, phones, screens, or any type of recording device at their live shows, which allows you to enjoy Americana music with your own eyes and ears, without filter.  “The Trip” is the gem of this record, although all seven tracks are special. The only thing that would make this album any better would be if it included their live cover of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” as a bonus track. Read my full review of “Nashville Obsolete” here. 

4. And The War Came – Shakey Graves

 I was at a baptism party last December discussing my favorite albums of 2014 when the uncle of the baptized asked me how I discovered new music.  I told him, “From people like you.”  He said, “Do you ever listen to Shakey Graves?”  I said, “Nope. Should I?”  He nodded, “Oh yeah, you’ll love him.”  He was right.  And the War Came held its position as “disc four” in my car stereo almost all of 2015, and it’s in my range so I sing along.  Shakey Graves is the moniker of Alejandro Rose-Garcia, and I’m pretty sure he was raised Catholic, as he references his “Catholic blood” on “Hard Wired”.  My favorite tracks on this record are the duets with Esmé Patterson, and “Dearly Departed” is my absolute favorite song of the year.  

5. 1989 – Ryan Adams

This is the second year in a row that 1989 has sat in the number five spot on my Top 10 List, but this year the artist is not Taylor Swift, but the insanely prolific Ryan Adams, who creatively covered all thirteen tracks of Swift’s record in his inimitable style.  If you’re familiar with Adams, 1989 sounds a lot like Demolition (2002) but the lyrics are all from Swift’s pop debut.  I sampled a bit of Adam’s 1989 for the students in my epistemology class and they had a good time arguing about whether or not the songs on Swift’s 1989 are the same songs that are on Adam’s 1989.  To my ears, “Out of The Woods” remains the best track on both albums. 

6. Sermon on the Rocks – Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter told Salon in a recent interview that Sermon on the Rocks is a collection of “messianic ocular honky tonk”.  That’s an apt description of Ritter’s eighth studio album.  Sermon is filled with so much biblical imagery that he might win a Dove Award for this record.  Not really though.  The truth is that Ritter is a seeker at best, but this Oberlin College graduate has a command of the English language and packs so many words and images into his songs that he almost makes you dizzy. Listen to “Getting Ready to Get Down” and “Cumberland” and you’ll see what I mean. If Ritter ever has a conversion, he’ll be a saint.  The man’s heart is too big to be anything less. 

7. Saints and Sinners – Matt Maher

Chances are that if you are a regular reader of Word on Fire you are no stranger to Matt Maher, as he’s likely the lone “practicing Catholic” on this list.  But if you asked him, he’d probably tell you that that he’s still practicing because he’s hasn’t mastered it yet.  In other words, the only way to be a saint is to first recognize that you are a sinner, and that’s the theme runs through all eleven tracks of the percussion driven album.  Maher’s inspiration runs wide on this record, as he credits “Oscar Romero, Woody Guthrie, Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, St. Francis of Assisi, Henry Francis Lyte and you” in his liner notes.  Maher has the unique ability of knowing the tradition and building on it, as it witnessed by “Because He Lives (Amen)” and “Rest”. In addition to being an excellent songwriter and musician, Matt Maher is also a smooth apologist, as you can see here.

8. Servant of Love – Patty Griffin

I will openly admit that Servant of Love is not my favorite Patty Griffin record, as I tend enjoy the louder, brighter sounds of Living with Ghosts (1996), 1,000 Kisses (2002), and American Kid (2013), but it’s still one of my favorite records of 2015.  It’s dark, heavy, and stark, but like Good Friday, it’s real.  Griffin was raised Catholic, and it’s hard to listen to this record and not catch it, especially on the title track and “Shine a Different Way.”  A voice doesn’t get any more honest than Griffin’s.  I reviewed Servant of Love earlier this year here.

9. Blurryface – Twenty One Pilots

Only Twenty One Pilots could open an album asking the question, “Can you save/ can you save/ Can you save my heavy dirty soul?” and mean it, and garner critical praise for the record.  Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun are clandestine warriors who are doing some of the most creative evangelization that anyone has done this century through their hard-hitting, synth-rap-rock-pop-bang-bam music. If you are involved in any way ministering to teens or young adults, pay attention to this band and learn from them.  Don’t miss “Tear in My Heart”, “We Don’t Believe What’s on TV” and “Goner”.

10. The Fool – Ryn Weaver

At twenty-three years old Erin Michelle Wüthrich, who records and performs as Ryn Weaver, is the youngest artist on this year’s list, and her debut album takes the final spot.  I first saw Weaver on a Jimmy Fallon rerun this summer and was immediately impressed by her sound, energy, and stage presence, so I ordered her record.  The Fool is a coming of age pop album, with vocals reminiscent of Joni Mitchell and Regina Spektor.  I had a hunch that Weaver was Catholic, and my hunch was confirmed at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC last month, when she told her audience that she was raised Catholic and proceeded to invite them all to put down their phones and share in the sign of peace, as Catholics do at Mass.  Although I doubt that she practices her faith, it is obvious that Weaver comes from a good family, as she writes lovingly about her Grandpa, her parents, and her three brothers in her liner notes.  Life in the music industry can be tough, so I hope this talented young woman can stay grounded and true to her art (and maybe even reconnect to her faith) as her fame increases.  Check out “Promises” and “Traveling Song”; the later is dedicated to her recently deceased grandfather.

Honorable Mention or “The Sturgill Simpson Award”: Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

A Word on Fire reader wrote me last year after reading my 2014 Top 10 List and told me that I should listen to Jason Isbell.  It took me a while, but I recently picked up his 2015 release Something More Than Free and I’m really enjoying it.  He’s a great songwriter and storyteller, showcasing his gift on “Children of Children” and “Speed Trap Town”.  I started listening to this album too late in the year for it to make the top ten, which is exactly what happened with Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music last year, hence, Isbell receives the Simpson Award.