As 2015 has drawn to a close, I want to take a look back at some of the albums that I just couldn’t stop listening to. They all tell a story, which alone is enough for me to want to listen to them 100 times over. The music that backs up the lyrics is what connects them all together in one big sonic picture. The listener can feel the emotion (or, in one case, the humor/love of satire) that went into the making of the following albums. Check out my list of top albums below and why I thought they deserved a place on this list. In no particular order:
1. twenty one pilots – “Blurryface”
twenty one pilots is one of the more creative bands in the scene right now, as there is only two of them, lifelong friends lead singer Tyler Joseph and drummer Josh Dun. You’d never guess it by listening to their albums, which feature multiple instruments and odd sounds, mostly played by Joseph. Not only have the two of them created a masterpiece about overcoming their own insecurities and struggles, they are set to make 2016 one of their biggest years ever, as the Madison Square Garden date of their upcoming summer tour has already sold out. They also recently had a special on cable music channel Palladia called Blurryface Live that trended on Twitter during the broadcast.
One of the intriguing things about this album is the concept behind the title, “Blurryface”. Said Brandon Rike, the graphic artist who designed the logo for the album, when explaining the character of “Blurryface”:
[Blurryface is] elements of ourselves that we hate, and the constant battle against these traits. In order to add clarity to this internal struggle, he [Joseph] gave a name to these negative attributes: ‘Blurryface’. This way, we can attempt to define the struggle, and to see the battle we are actually facing.
twenty one pilots is also fond of saying “we are twenty one pilots and so are you”, meaning that both they and the fans who listen to their music don’t have to struggle alone. They want to encourage fans to be a community as their music seems to attract, as they say in their single “Fairly Local”: “the few, the proud and the emotional”.
Sometimes music has a way of saying exactly how you feel at a certain point in time or even just making you feel less alone. twenty one pilots was that band for me at the beginning of 2015, when “Stressed Out” came out as the first single off “Blurryface” (“Stressed Out” was also the first number one song for the band when it debuted on the Billboard Top 200. It recently cracked the Top 10 of the Hot 100.). I’d seen twenty one pilots perform “Car Radio” on the APMA’s the year before and I didn’t get it.
It wasn’t until I became Internet friends with someone who’s arguably one of the biggest twenty one pilots fans I know that I started learning more about them. So when the “Stressed Out” video popped up in my Facebook newsfeed one morning, I clicked on it out of curiosity. That was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I love when bands mash a lot of different genres into a whole new genre. It makes the listening experience way more interesting and gives you more levels to discover each time. Like in “Out”, the eerie sounding synths, other out of the ordinary instrument choices, understated piano and the relatable lyrics made me fall in love with this song instantly. “Out” is all a part of “growing up” and “figuring out what you want to do with your life”, which was a big theme in my life in 2015.
I like that they don’t even stick to one genre on “Blurryface”, as on track six, “Lane Boy”. “Boy” starts off with reggae influenced guitar and then goes into an electronic dance-y instrumental break halfway through the song. It makes it more interesting and it’s one of the things that keeps me coming back to listen to the song.
Two other songs that immediately stood out for me were “Doubt” and “Not Today”, which speak about Joseph’s struggles with anxiety and depression. I deeply related to these songs as someone who’s struggled with anxiety and depression all of her life, but had no idea that anxiety was the name of what I was feeling until I had my first panic attack in 2012. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in 2015 and Joseph’s lyrics put words to what I’d felt all my life in a better way than I ever could have. Both songs made me feel a lot less alone [less like a “freak”, if you will] while I came to terms with what was happening to me. Musically, though, the songs couldn’t be any more different.
“Doubt” starts off with a mysterious sounding synth that sets the tone of the song. The music behind the lyrics is the perfect soundtrack to what it feels like when anxiety gets to run around your brain uncontrolled. Think of uncontrolled anxiety as if you’re walking a dog and he’s been tugging at his leash to go sniff something on the ground for most of the walk and then maybe you start talking to a friend you meet on the walk. While you’re doing that, the dog manages to break free and you have to run and catch him before he jumps on or bites someone.
“Not Today” is the complete opposite of “Doubt”. While “Doubt” has Joseph scared of what Blurryface might make him do, “Not Today” has him taking ownership of his anxiety and depression. The listener can see this in some of my favorite lyrics: “oh don’t you test me/no/just because I play the piano/doesn’t mean I, I’m not willing to take you down/I’m sorry/I, I’m out of my mind, oh/I’m not seeing things right, oh/I waste all this time trying to run from you/But I, I’m out of my mind…”
2. Bring Me The Horizon- “That’s The Spirit”
Bring Me The Horizon has had quite the musical evolution since lead vocalist Oli Sykes got clean. They’ve gone from straight deathcore in 2008’s “Suicide Season” to experimenting with more electronic and melodic influences in 2010’s “There Is A Hell Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is A Heaven Let’s Keep It A Secret” and then dedicating themselves to that electronic/melodic direction in 2013’s “Sempiternal”. 2015’s “That’s The Spirit” is yet another new direction for the band as it’s their first release on a major label. The music sounds like it’d be right at home in stadiums and arenas. It all works beautifully, showing off Bring Me The Horizon’s talent at composing both music and lyrics.
Said Sykes in an interview discussing his getting clean, “and when I got out of rehab, I didn’t want to fucking scream it anymore, I wanted to sing it from the fucking rooftops.” The result was “Drown”, an honest, dark look at living with and overcoming the grip depression and addiction can have on your life. It was the first song Sykes sang instead of screamed on, and as I said in my 2014 Top Singles list, he has such an amazing voice that it makes you wish he’d been able to do this before.
This trend continues on “That’s The Spirit”. Every song, with the exception of “True Friends”, is a well-written “celebration of depression”, as it was described when “That’s The Spirit” came out.
From the foreboding intro with people panting and sighing to the eerie sounding synths to the ominous lyrics and vocals, the album opener, “Doomed”, sets the tone of the album perfectly. It also has one of the best descriptions of being suicidal and not going through with it I’ve ever heard: “the devil told me/no room for cheats/I thought I’d sold my soul/but he kept the receipt”. This shows that many people who struggle with depression feel alone and like there’s no way out, yet, often when they get to the point of being suicidal, there’s usually a moment of regret and, if they don’t succeed, there’s usually a mix of emotions ranging from relief to confusion to being grateful that they get a second chance.
I remember when “Happy Song” was released as a teaser for “That’s The Spirit”. I eagerly typed in the password to my laptop and loaded the website it was premiering on. By the end of the song, I wanted to listen to it on repeat another couple times.
It illustrates the stigma and, to a degree, the misunderstanding that follows sufferers of depression: “I’ve had enough/there’s a voice in my head/says I’m better off dead/but if I sing along a little fucking louder/to a happy song, I’ll be alright…” Those with this condition are often told to “cheer up” or that they “have no reason to be depressed”, as if positive thinking or needing a reason to be depressed could “fix” someone with the condition instead of treating it like the mental illness it is.
Often, sufferers of depression have no reason for being depressed and they don’t know why they feel the way they do… they just do and they don’t know what to do about it. They might feel trapped inside their own mind, feeling as though they simultaneously need help but are also too scared or don’t have the energy to look for the best help for themselves. It only takes a friend saying “if you ever need to talk, I’m here” or a recommendation for a good therapist (it’s very important to find a therapist or psychiatrist that you connect with and seems truly interested in doing what’s best for your situation).
“That’s The Spirit” and “Happy Song” in particular tie together this frustration with a sarcastic elegance that is so fitting of Bring Me The Horizon’s new musical direction. The album also dips into the depth of Sykes’ love for his wife, Hannah Snowden, on track five, “Follow You”. It should also be said that this song doesn’t sound like a Bring Me the Horizon song… and that’s great. The odd instrumental effects, the haunting guitar, the opening bass from the drum all come together with lyrics that are truly “aww” worthy.
The band’s penchant for dark lyrics is infused with black, sarcastic humor in track six, “What You Need”. The lyrics tell the story of someone who frustrates you to the point that you consider, as Sykes says in the song, “kill[ing] yourself just for the fucking point.” They build on that with the purposefully garish lyric: “Yeah/hell yeah/you make me want to slit my wrists and play in my own blood.”
No one is saying this is a healthy way of dealing with this, but it is nevertheless a well-constructed lyric that anyone who appreciates dark lyrics will love. And, on a more serious note, if you are feeling like this, please reach out to an organization like To Write Love On Her Arms, whose entire mission is to help those struggling with depression, self-injury, addiction, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. Not only do they have a team of interns whose job is to respond to messages/comments sent to their Facebook page, they also have a list of help lines according to country on their website.
Along with this organization, there are also private, online chat rooms if you just need a sympathetic ear, such as my favorite, 7 Cups of Tea. And if you’re in the Orlando area, Aspire Health Services has plenty of trained professionals willing to help residents of Orange County, even those without insurance (who are required to undergo a benefits screening to see if they qualify for help from the county before they are seen by a doctor). Aspire also has offices in Seminole, Brevard, Osceola, and Lake counties.
Anyone who has struggled with living with a mental illness can find something relatable in track seven, “Avalanche”: “Cut me open/and tell me what’s inside/diagnose me/’cause I can’t keep wondering why/I know it’s not a phase ’cause it happens all the time/start over/check again and tell me what you’ll find/’cause I’m going out of frequency/can anyone respond?”
There is a continuing theme of railing against people who use their “faith” as a prop to justify their hateful or holier-than-thou attitudes on “Blasphemy”, track 10 on “That’s The Spirit”. This theme was first introduced on “House of Wolves”, track two off “Sempiternal”.
The closing track, “Oh No”, perfectly fits with the snarky theme of a good portion of “That’s The Spirit”. According to Sykes’ Spotify track-by-track, “the song is meant to sound like you’re walking into a club and I wanted the irony of it being something you’d hear on a night out when lyrically it’s saying ‘none of this way of life makes sense to me anymore'”. Bring Me The Horizon show this brilliantly in instrumentation of the song as well as the backing vocals. This is contrasted by the lyrics that call out people who look for fulfillment in “living for the weekend”.
3. The Maine – “American Candy”
This was the album that made me pay more attention to The Maine. It became the album of the summer for me. I listened to it either on the way to my college classes or on the way back and when I did, it made the day that much brighter.
From the major key guitar riff of opener “Miles Away” to “English Girls” to “Same Suit, Different Tie”, to “My Hair”, the album exudes all of the exuberance a listener would want from a pop rock record. You can’t help but have a smile on your face while listening to the first couple of songs on “American Candy”, especially “English Girls”.
It also balances more serious issues like contemplating suicide and finding a reason not to, as in “24 Floors”, and dealing with insecurity, as in “Am I Pretty?”
“(Un) Lost” is a vulnerable look at just wanting to figure out where your life is going. From the instrumentals to the well-written lyrics to the almost wistful music box type of sound at the end, this has become one of my favorite songs on the album.
“Diet Soda Society” begins with a refreshing amount of honesty: “To be honest/I am full of shit/but that’s all right/because everyone else that I know is.” That made me chuckle and say “what?” the first time I heard the song. I was immediately drawn in and needed to know where this song was headed. The lyrics also have some great figurative language/phrasing, which is something I always appreciate: “Oblivion/is where I’m headed/my mind is on the brink of going supernova/just shut up/that’s when she said it/she told me just shut up and drink your diet soda…” and “Between you and me, the psyche and the soma/my mind is on the brink of going supernova/I asked her what she thought of person vs. persona…”
4. Broadside – “Old Bones”
I’d already thought “Old Bones” was a solid first full-length, but the second “Damaged Kids”, track nine off “Old Bones”, started playing, I was entranced. The urgency of the opening rhythm section to the way lead singer Oliver “Ollie” Baxxter’s voice draws you in, it makes you want to know how the song ends. I also love it because, although it wasn’t Joy Division (as Baxxter sings about listening to in the song) in my case, it was definitely music that got me through my teenage years and the minute I heard that opening verse, my first thought was “how are you inside my head right now?!” That thought lasted for the rest of the song. The way certain things are phrased is also what drew me in. My favorite line of the song is “am I a recluse, or just a damaged kid?” That line and, really, the whole chorus perfectly describe what it’s like to feel like you’re different from everyone else and you don’t know why.
I mentioned this in my review of “Old Bones”, but you can practically feel the passion, energy, and struggle with the experiences contained in this record. There’s usually an excited energy found in a first full-length, but it’s rare that a band have such a professional sound and direction on that first full-length. Broadside has a rare quality that made me excited to see what they’d do next, and that doesn’t happen for me very often.
Other songs definitely worth your time are “A Place To Lay Your Head”, “Human Machines”, “A Better Way”, “Playing In Traffic”, and “Coffee Talk”.
5. Jarrod Alonge – “Beating a Dead Horse”
YouTuber and satirist Jarrod Alonge came out with a fan-funded album that poked fun at genre cliches. Alonge up to that point was mostly known for videos satirizing pop punk such as “Every Pop Punk Vocalist Ever” and “12 Days of A Pop Punk Christmas”. He also did a skit called “I Have Tissues Ft. Tyler Carter and Michael Bohn”, which single-handedly made a friend of mine a bigger fan of Issues (as Carter and Bohn are the two vocalists of that band) after watching it.
Fans contributed $20,000 to an Indiegogo campaign to make this album a reality and not only was it clever and funny, the songs could also stand by themselves as actual songs in the genre they’re making fun of. The lyrics are ridiculous on purpose, but the music is serious and the contrast is part of what makes the songs on the album so funny. He shows a great understanding of not only what the cliches are, but also involves bands who are in on the joke and don’t mind poking fun at both themselves and their respective genres.
“Save My Life”, a riff on so-called “hopecore”, is one of my favorites in this respect. “Hopecore” is a trend in alternative music that features lyrics that have the writer using his or her own experiences with bullying, depression/suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, and other traumatic experiences to connect with fans who may be going through something similar. On the surface, this is a good thing. There are a few artists, fans, and others who are genuine about their experiences and how music is the only thing that has kept them sane at times.
What “Save My Life” is parodying is a larger, more manipulative group who, on the artist side, has seen the success groups like We Came As Romans or Of Mice and Men have had and decided they wanted to use what those bands did to make money off of this same audience, just minus having the actual experiences and empathy that contributed to the lyrical content. On the fan side, it’s also raised an insincere population, mostly on social media like Twitter, who does basically the same thing for attention from their favorite band or artist. This particular fan trend has caused some bands who genuinely do feel these experiences to change their sound while putting intense pressure on others.
Musically, there are always the cliches in “hopecore”: empowering sounding clean yells or screams, uplifting guitar tones, “hope”, and “woah-oh-oh”, which older We Came As Romans is definitely guilty of, as in the song “Hope”, from 2013’s “Tracing Back Roots”. “Save My Life” uses “Hope” as the basis for a lot of its sound, especially the “woah-oh-ohs”, but I feel like that’s where the similarities end. The band also appear in the official “Save My Life” video holding signs that say “woah” “oh” “oh” and that alone was satire gold.
Alonge seems to feel the same way I do and puts it into a song that is both funny and can stand by itself at the same time. The song starts out as a lot of hopecore songs do, but then toward the last few choruses, gets a little, shall we say, psychotic: “reborn from the ashes/you are who I say you are/look up in the sky/my unstoppable power guides you/lift up your hands/and bow before me/through your insecurities/I will reign supreme…”
The song ends shortly after that and you can hear a voice whispering: “worship me” “buy my records” and “blegh” (a running joke in almost all of Alonge’s songs).
I love a good satire plus I’m a huge fan of pop punk, metalcore, post-hardcore and occasionally some punk/hardcore, plus Alonge just seems to have a direct line to my funny bone, so it was practically a given that I’d love this album. Take his riff on metalcore in “Hey Jarrod, What’s That Song Again?”. He spoofs popular songs by bands such as Pierce the Veil, Asking Alexandria, Falling in Reverse, Of Mice and Men and many others and then ties it all together by making the main theme of the song about plagiarism and copyright.
The vocalist in “Hey Jarrod”, Mike Martenson of alternative/pop punk band Boys of Fall, also perfectly imitates both Vic Fuentes of Pierce the Veil’s and Ronnie Radke of Falling in Reverse’s voices, which, even if you’re a fan of the bands, is too funny. I can’t listen to any metalcore after listening to this song because it’s such a good parody of the genre.
I grew up listening to pop punk and until recently, I hadn’t realized just how prevalent certain cliches were until I listened to an audio collection of “I hate this town” someone on Tumblr had put together. Alonge capitalizes on the hilarity of these cliches in “Pop Punk Pizza Party”, a purposefully generic pop punk song by a fictional band called Sunrise Skater Kids, who were originally introduced in the “Every Pop Punk Vocalist” video.
Two other stand out songs for me are “Unbreakable”, a hardcore spoof that pokes fun at how tough most hardcore bands claim to be while having not-so-tough lyrics, and an emo/indie spoof called “The Distance Between Me And You Is Longer Than The Title Of This Song”, which uses Jaden Smith tweets as lyrics.
6. Neck Deep – “Life’s Not Out To Get You”
“Life’s Not Out To Get You” contributed to the trend of happier pop punk as the genre is usually characterized by happy sounding music and sad lyrics. The title of the album could also be considered its “mission statement”. It’s even a lyric in “Gold Steps” and a great reminder when you’re feeling down.
“Gold Steps”, track five and the lead single off the album, is the epitome of what pop punk should be, or as I said when I was first saw the music video, “the most pop punk thing to ever happen”. Most, if not all, of the video takes place on skate ramp the band builds at the beginning of the video. Then there’s a party by a lake towards the end of it with a huge crowd. If happiness ever had a specific sound, it would be this song.
“Serpents” draws the listener in with its melancholy guitar riff. Although the song is about a girl who lead the song’s narrator on, Neck Deep tells the story in a way that’s unique for the genre: “Don’t get too close/that place is haunted/fear not the ghosts/’cause she sent them running/she sleeps beneath the surface/consorting with the serpents/she strikes without a purpose/A dark face in a corridor/deceptively beautiful/she’s watching you/she’s in everything you do…”
“Kali Ma” continues with this unique story telling, using the villain from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” who rips victims’ hearts out by invoking Hindu goddess Kali (though in the movie, Kali is more of a cult than a goddess) to tell the story of a failed relationship.
“Citizens of Earth” starts off more punk than pop punk and is a great song to listen to when you need to get pumped up for something.
This album, State Champs’ “Finer Things”, Roam’s “Viewpoint” and Jarrod Alonge’s “Beating a Dead Horse” are my go-to albums when I need to put a smile on my face. It’s impossible to feel sad while listening to any of these albums.
7. Hit The Lights – “Summer Bones”
As with a lot of pop punk music, “Summer Bones” is about growing up, but it also adds another layer of depth by talking about becoming disillusioned with your life and feeling like you’re stuck in a rut. That feeling spreads and infects your mind and your surroundings, as in title track, “Summer Bones”. Lead singer Nick Thompson sings the lyrics in this reassuring tone that hits a peak of frustration and distress in the pre-chorus and chorus but then realizes that, at the end of the song, that maybe things aren’t as bad as he thinks they are. He has the opportunity to do anything since he has nothing to lose.
“Blasphemy, Myself, and I” is a creative play on the saying “me, myself, and I” and is what first got me to click on the song. What kept me there was the way the drums come in and build up to the wistful guitar riff that leads up to the almost regretful but not apologetic tone of the lyrics. I relate to the lyrics of this song as I’ve often been told that I have a dark sense of humor and I’ve had to learn how to hold my tongue in certain situations as, when I was in high school, I would often get told I was “fresh” or that my mouth would get me in trouble one day. Even now in my reviews, I try to offer constructive criticism and it still manages to make people mad, but I’ve learned that you can’t make everyone happy and there is a balance to be struck with everything.
It’s also obvious that Thompson is a talented vocalist with the difficult vocal key changes in the chorus of “Keep Your Head”. The vocals elevate the song and tie the lyrics to the theme of drowning in a person who just saps all your energy when you’re around them. Hit the Lights bring a more punk than pop energy that’ll get your heart rate up in “Keep Your Head”, “Sitter”, and “Revolutions and Executions”. “
Even “Fucked Up Kids”, while cliche in subject matter, has a certain amount of energy, bad boy charm and enough of a story to be interesting and worth a listen.
I picked this album because, as with “That’s The Spirit”, “Blurryface” and “Old Bones”, I hadn’t heard something I related to so much in a very long time. Figuring out what you want to do when you “grow up” and even just learning how to be happy/make yourself happy is one of the hardest things you will ever do in life, and I was trying to figure out exactly that when “Summer Bones” came out. I had gotten laid off my job the year before, and while it wasn’t my dream job, it was a steady source of income while I figured that out. So when I got laid off, I was at a loss as to “what to do with my life”.
I knew I didn’t want to do what I’d studied in school, and I’d always been interested in music business, so my quest began. I studied music business for about a year before realizing that not only had the curriculum changed from what I thought it was, but it also required me to be at a level of musicianship that I just didn’t feel like I was at. Still, I tried to tough it out.
That ended up being an awful plan because not only was it one of the hardest summers of my life, I was also broke, unhappy and felt I was wasting time in a place I didn’t feel like I belonged (my hometown, I know, how pop punk cliche of me). That’s where songs like “Summer Bones” came in, even though I live in Florida not Ohio and can’t relate to the snow part, these lyrics will hit anyone who’s ever felt like I did: “I used to know/when I was home/I used to be invincible/so damn sure of everything/when time alone was so few and far between/we held the world/the world just got too heavy for me/where do I go?/I’m so tired of the same roads/I know that it’s home/but I can’t take the snow anymore…”
The song continues by talking about the moment after you find your way out of the seemingly never ending bleakness that is hitting rock bottom. It was only after I realized I had nothing to lose by pursuing my dream career that I began to commit more to going after it.
8. The Kenneths – “E”
I’d been missing some straight up punk from my life until I got the chance to interview lead singer Josh Weller at the West Palm date of the Vans Warped tour back in July. I had the opportunity to listen to their newest EP, “E”, shortly after. I immediately wanted more after the ending notes of track six, “Not Good Enough” and it made me hope they put out a full-length album soon.
The Kenneths bring an element of fun back to punk, a genre that can be plagued by both bands and fans who take themselves too seriously.
Track one “Action”, is a great tone-setting introduction. And true to the punk style of music, it’s very short, clocking in at only four seconds.
Their sense of humor comes in on “Bad In Bed”, where the first words out of Weller’s mouth are: “You didn’t need to tell me I’m bad in bed.”
The next track, “Cool As You”, is a takedown of people who take themselves too seriously, as in: “all the fellas with the slicked back, dyed hair, I just wanna be as cool as you”.
They’ve had a meteoric rise as a band as well: they’ve been together less than a year and were hand selected to be on Warped Tour by Kevin Lyman this past summer.
9. Roam – “Viewpoint”
British pop punk band Roam could best be described as the lovechild of State Champs and New Found Glory. They take State Champs’ upbeat, fun attitude and combine it with New Found Glory’s energy and the end result is a fun, entertaining journey that will leave the listener wanting more.
Album opener “Over Your Head” is gold as track one. The opening guitar sets the upbeat tone of “Viewpoint” very well. It goes back to the early days of pop punk in its vocals and musical composition but with their own unique spin on it and it’s just a joy to listen to.
“Warning Sign” is my favorite of the four tracks on the EP because I love how the guitar leads into the drums, which then leads into the bass and the main structure of the song. It also holds up well live and it’s just fun to watch and listen to. Their first full-length, “Backbone”, is out now through Hopeless Records. The newest single off “Backbone”, “Hopeless Case”, is up on YouTube. I’m interested to see what this band does in the future just based off “Viewpoint” and their live performances.