Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
This album, I imagine, will likely be quite high on many people’s lists. The simple answer is that it deserves to be there. I view this album like it’s one of my favorite films: enthralling upon the first viewing, immediately warranting revisiting, and then over time coming back to it regularly and continually rediscovering new things to love about it. After not listening to it for a couple months, I put it on again and was reminded of why I loved it so much back in March. The hype surrounding this album when it first dropped was enormous (for good reason), and it is likely to stand up as one of the great albums of the decade.
Starting Points: The beginning (this album is really a full course meal, sit down and listen to it all the way through if you haven’t already)
2. Leon Bridges – Coming Home
What a delightful year it’s been for Leon Bridges. From playing coffee shops in his native Texas to touring the country, performing the award show circuit, and having his debut album nominated for the Best R&B Album Grammy. I love this album so much because it goes with practically everything: you can clean the house to it or just lay on the couch and take it in. It’s an album you can share with basically anyone and you can be assured they’ll enjoy it. It was the first album I put on after Thanksgiving dinner, and also the first I reach for at the end of a long day. It’s just the right length, and floats on by. Smooth sailin’, indeed.
Starting Points: Coming Home, Smooth Sailin’, River
3. Twenty One Pilots – Blurryface
I came late to the Twenty One Pilots party, when I started paying attention, the boys from Columbus had already garnered a huge following. Blurryface, the follow up to their major label debut Vessel, truly catapulted them to a higher level, from clubs to arenas. On stage is where this group thrives, and the energy of their live performances come through on this album. It has wordplay to last through multiple listens, and infectious melodies that’ll get stuck in the back of your mind if you’re not careful. Their genre-blending style isn’t for everyone, but try it out and see if you like it.
Starting Points: Heavydirtysoul, Stressed Out, Not Today
4. Mat Kearney – Just Kids
Mat’s last album, Young Love, was pure pop perfection. His follow-up this year digs a bit deeper into more personal areas. Kearney is most successful when he’s using songs to tell a story, whether that be about his relationship with his wife, the loss of a family member, or growing up in Oregon and starting a career in the music business. While his last album seemed to go by a little too quickly, Just Kids comes in at a respectable 13 tracks. With songs as tonally diverse as these are, you’re likely to find something you enjoy on this album.
Starting Points: Billion, One Black Sheep, Just Kids
5. Gungor – One Wild Life: Soul
The first in a series of three thematically connected full-length albums (Soul, Spirit, Body) from the Colorado music collective, One Wild Life: Soul continues the transformation of Gungor’s style. The album melds the styles of their previous works: the stripped back nature of Beautiful Things, the world building of Ghosts Upon The Earth, the computer infused instrumentation of I Am Mountain, and uses them to a great effect. The album is diverse, yet cohesive, and will be heavy in my rotation until part 2 drops sometime next year.
Starting Points: Lion Of Rock, Light, Land Of The Living
6. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Carrie & Lowell has been heralded as a return to form for Sufjan, as this album is about as stripped back is it gets (in stark contrast to Age Of Adz). This album can only be considered “easy listening” if you aren’t paying attention to the lyrics. The album plums to the depths of depression by zooming in on a relationship fraught with pain. It’s heavy to take in, but in a sense deeply comforting as well. You’ve got to be in the right mood, but if you are, there’s nothing better.
Starting Points: Fourth Of July, No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross, Should Have Known Better
7. Jon Foreman – The Wonderlands
Released as four separate EPs over the course of several months (Sunlight, Shadows, Darkness, and Dawn), The Wonderlands contains 24 songs that correlate with different moods of the day. Foreman collaborated with over 100 artists in the years-long production process of this collection. The diversity of the instrumentation and style alone make this album worth the listen, but there’s a certain relatability to the way Foreman deals with big questions and topics that make each listen its own interesting experience.
Starting Points: Caroline, When We Collide, Beautiful Pt. II
8. Mumford & Sons – Wilder Mind
A stark departure from their established style, Wilder Mind saw Mumford & Sons branching out from folk into the world of alternative rock. While many found the results to be underwhelming and/or uninspired, I thought the album transferred their writing and performance style rather well into a new genre. I certainly preferred this album to the direction they could have gone if they had continued down the path set by Babel. As with my U2 recommendation last year, give it a shot. You just might find yourself enjoying it.
Starting Points: The Wolf, Snake Eyes, Broad Shouldered Beasts
9. Passion Pit – Kindred
Passion Pit returns with an album that is perfect for summer sunshine listening. As always, Michael Angelakos creates a collection of fantastic infectious tracks that will have you humming for weeks on end (much to the annoyance of friends and loved ones, but if you show them the album, they’ll understand). With the cold winter months approaching, use this album to keep yourself in a healthy state of mind.
Starting Points: Until We Can’t (Let’s Go), Lifted Up (1985), Whole Life Story
10. JR JR – JR JR
Their first album with their new name, JR JR’s self titled effort reminds the world that whatever they decide to call themselves, they’ll continue to pump out fantastic music. Having the opportunity to see them live only made this material even more of a delight to listen to. This album will make you dance, sway, and feel as cool as James Dean. Let the music move you, and you’ll be in for a good time.
Starting Points : In The Middle, Gone, In My Mind (Summertime)
Kings Kaleidoscope – Live In Focus EP
Live versions of select cuts from Becoming Who We Are, breathing in new life to the music.
NeedToBreathe – Live From The Woods
A wonderful encapsulation of one of my favorite live bands’ electric shows.
Rend Collective – As Family We Go
A continuation of the mission to bring people together, moving forward.
Chvrches – Every Open Eye
It defies the idea of a sophomore slump and laughs in its very face.
The Brilliance – Brother
A wonderfully cohesive, reflective, and relaxing album.