"And now, God, do it again— bring rains to our drought-stricken lives so those who planted their crops in despair will shout hurrahs at the harvest, so those who went off with heavy hearts will come home laughing, with armloads of ble ssing.” (Psalm 127:4-6 MSG)
One of the most difficult places to live is between what God has done in the past and what you’re hoping God will do in the future. It’s the place that’s often referred to as the desert — the place of the dry spell and the drought. Maybe you’re there now.
When we find our self in this place, our eyes instinctively go to what we don’t have and what seems to be missing. Our focus goes to our frustration, instead of His faithfulness.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. You have a choice in every season, even seasons of drought. You get to choose your perspective.
You get to decide if you will complain about what’s missing or thank God for what’s available.
You can decide to turn the dry ground into a training ground – a place you can learn to rely on God more than ever before.
You get to decide if you will stare at the parched, dry ground or fix your eyes towards the skies heavy with blessing. There’s always supply in sight, if we train our spirits to recognize it.
A season of drought can actually drive you to greater devotion. It can bring you to a place of as king God to “ do it again.” To plead with God to come through in the ways that only he can. But, it doesn’t happen naturally. It’s a choice — and the choice is yours.
You can download the title-track from Elevation Worship's There Is A Cloud on our Free Music Page!
"A sad face is good for the heart / Go on cry, does it seem a cruel world?
A sad face is good for the heart of a girl / A sad face"
- From "Sad Face"
If you were to listen exclusively to Christian radio and view only Christian television, and have no other connection to the world, then you would likely think that the world was a shiny, happy place with only vague “struggles” every once in a awhile. And these marginal, infrequent struggles would be over at the end of a three minute pop song, and be overcome by simply having more faith and pushing through the doubt with the power of a killer keyboard line and soulful backup vocals. Anything can be overcome with the power of music (and the Lord, of course), and seeing the world through this particularly rosy lens keeps the bad thoughts at bay, and the curse of sin under wraps. There are exceptions of course (Hillary Scott’s great “Thy Will”, about her sorrow over a miscarriage comes to mind). But there are 90% shiny, happy songs to every one song with real grit.
All this sunshine is, of course, a complete fabrication, though it is very well meaning. When you keep things “safe for the whole family”, you need to keep the edges well sanded down, least little Johnny or Susie ask “what’s addiction?” or “what’s depression?”, and “why do people who believe in Jesus struggle with it? Aren’t we called to overcome?”
And little Johnny and Susie’s questions would be valid, because in this fallen world, real struggles don’t fit into a pop formula, and are far messier and longer than we care to admit. Real life throws curve balls at everyone (those of faith included), and loved ones get sick with cancer and die. Couples experience infertility and miscarriages. Children rebel, marriages crumble, democracies shake. Good, church-going folk also struggle with prescription medication abuse and infidelity. The real world must be reckoned with in the art that Christians produce. That’s not to say a song of victory and overcoming is not a good subject matter, it’s just the balance of the dark and the light that need adjusting. The word of God speaks to all moments in a lifetime. Many books, like Lamentations and Ecclesiastes mine the dark moments of the soul, and sit next to Psalms of praise and prophetic books of doom. It’s all there, and the music that believers in Christ make should reflect this complexity.
That’s where The Choir’s 1988 masterpiece Chase The Kangaroo hits all the right tones for me. Despite its whimsical title, it’s a beautiful and haunting album about sadness, the kind that you can’t shake in an afternoon, the kind that clings to you for a season and won’t let go. “Kangaroo” is an album that lays bare the melancholy times that we all go through, and shines a real light of grace on those time, yet does so without preaching or talking down to the listener. Lyricist Steve Hindalong’s musings on the darkness are set against some of the most epic musical backdrops in rock and roll history (that's not hyperbole, this is one of the most artful, beautiful and rocking records I've ever heard). With U2 and The Cure as alternative music touchstones, the album weaves swirling dark tones of confusion and loss into every corner, and asks the big questions to God, but in a respectful and artful way. Yet the band still manages to shine a light too.
Opening song “Consider” roars to life on a circular, pounding drum cycle and driving, ghostly guitar figure, and finds lead singer Derri Daugherty giving one of his most impassioned vocal performances. In “Consider” Steve Hindalong (the band's drummer and main lyricist) extols the listener to think about all of it, the dark and the light, grace and sin, glory and depravity:
Consider one small child
Consider your cross
Consider the hope that withers like a flower
Consider my loss
Consider the fire
Consider the night
Consider the truth
Consider the light, my love
Consider your heart
Consider the ghost of the living savior…
Big questions of doubt appear in the next song “Children Of Time”, with Hindalong pointing out that the "astronauts (or "cosmonauts" as Hindlalong cheekily refers to them) were first in space, to look for God and find no trace.” That’s a dangerous sentence for someone firmly in the CCM fold (as The Choir was at the time) to write, but Hindalong has always been one to push the envelope for what is “acceptable” subject matter for Christians to talk about. I have a dear friend in the faith who struggles mightily with doubt, and he says that the Church does not talk about this idea enough. He says it’s as if “were afraid to admit that nothingness is a distinct possibility.” Hindalong admits it, and is not afraid to talk about it in the light of faith.
But the real gem of sadness and faith is the masterful “Sad Face”, where Hindalong writes about his wife and the couple’s recent miscarriage against the backdrop of the verse in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes chapter seven that says “Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” That’s a heavy verse, from an equally heavy part of the Bible, yet it fits perfectly into the sorrow and heaviness of the soul that accompanies this sad event that befalls many couples. Hindalong masterfully writes about the weight of this event:
There's a woman in my kitchen
With a rainbow on her cheek
Well isn't that a promise?
Still I never felt so weak
There's a tiny spirit in a world above
Cradled so sweetly in our Father's love
So you don't have to cry
No there's something in my eye
That “tiny spirit in a world above, cradled so sweetly in our Father’s love” line gets me every time, and though my sweet wife Julie and I have never experienced this small, yet devastating tragedy, I feel along with Hindalong and his wife, and say a prayer for anyone I know who’s gone through this all-to common life event.
Hindalong bravely states later in the song that “maybe just now I don’t understand”, and that encapsulates the struggle of faith as succinctly as any statement that I’ve heard in a song.
The rest of Chase The Kangaroo dives into equally deep and troubling waters, but never with a hopelessness that’s common to modern man. It’s always with one hand gripping the cross, and one outstretched to the confused and lonely, looking to see if this faith thing can change their lives. “Cain” deals with crime, and the evil in the hearts of “those who wait with knives for fools” while “Rifleman” takes a hard look at revenge and the celebration of “settling the score” in American culture. “Look Out For Your Own” bemoans the exploitation of the weakest among us and “So Far Away” is an honest look at the difficulties of life on the road, separated from the ones you love.
The epic title track is the pinnacle moment, where Hindalong bemoans having to work a construction job on the side to make ends meet. The epic “Kangaroo” (which is the band’s most epic, U2-like moment of all if you ask me) builds with a throbbing bass line and finds Hindalong musing if he digs his ditch too deep that he might hit Australia and “chase the kangaroo”. But then he muses on Jesus and his digging for lost souls:
See what sparkles in our world
Never mind the stars
Mercy is the silver pearl
Vengeance is not ours
Gold glistens bright enough
To render greedy nations blind
But Jesus buried diamonds in
A land where love is rare to find
Shovel go deep
Heart be true
Chase the kangaroo
Shovel go deep
Heart be true
Chase the kangaroo
Chase the kangaroo
The Choir is still making fantastic records, and Chase The Kangaroo was the beginning of their self producing and writing all their own material stage, one that’s still going some thirty years later. Nobody writes more epic, beautifully sad songs than The Choir. But, ironically, their most hopeful record, Wide-Eyed Wonder, (celebrating the birth of children and the wonder in life) would come next, showing that they understood the dual nature of this life down here. “Kangaroo” rocks and swirls and soars, and is a gem of an album. It is an album that deserves your full attention, and a quite space to turn it up and consider all the many facets of this life under the sun. The world is not yet fully redeemed, and until that glorious day, the dark and the light are both equally valid subjects to talk about in light of the grace of God. Go over to Spotify and listen now, and then head over to the band’s website (www.thechoir.net) and help fund the next Choir album. You will be glad you did.
May we all “consider the truth”.
Dig up those hidden treasures of albums, and revel in all they have to offer.
If there is one idea that keeps drawing me towards the gospel, as presented in the Bible, it’s that the Lord can make good out of the crazy messes that we as humans (and me, specifically) find ourselves in time and again. Grace says that you will never get it all together, and that salvation needs to come from without, from another source. And that grace needs to keep coming, even after saving faith in Jesus. I need God’s grace as much today as I did the day I gave my life to Jesus and decided to follow him. The characters of the Bible all had back stories that should have precluded them from being used by the Lord (Moses, David and Paul, three writers who wrote 1/3 of the whole Bible, all murdered someone). But the Lord, in his power and in his grace, can take the mess of our lives and turn it into something beautiful. It takes time though. Moses needed forty years in the wilderness before the Lord visited him in the burning bush. Paul might have had a miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, but some scholars say that it was about fifteen years till the early church trusted him enough to send him out on his early missionary journeys. Grace in action takes time. The beautiful mess of our lives is sorted out by the Father, day by day, and made into something that can be used to change the world.
I fist got a hold of this “beautiful mess” idea from Sixpence None The Richer’s best album, and magnum opus on grace, the dark, heavy and beautiful This Beautiful Mess from 1995, an album that has taken up a place in my soul.
It’s a shame that Sixpence is almost exclusively known for their 1999 novelty hit “Kiss Me”, because the band has such a depth of writing and musicianship that is overlooked. It’s like knowing U2 by their 1998, throw away pop hit “The Sweetest Thing”. There is so much more. Even the album that “Kiss Me” hails from (the band’s self-titled third album) is fantastic, and in no way mirrors that frothy, light-weight hit.
But it was hearing This Beautiful Mess that changed my view on what spiritual music could be. Here was an album that dove into darker themes of depression, loneliness and guilt (the moody alt-rock is the perfect background for this treatise on the darker themes of faith), yet shined a light of the gospel on all those dark place and talked about the redemption of all things.
And man, did it rock. The lighter Sixpence of their later years pales in comparison to the moody, alt-rock band represented on ‘Mess”. The guitars alternately swirl like the classic Christian alternative band The Choir, and crunch like Pearl Jam, yet the pop center is never lost. Add to this the other-worldly vocals of Leigh Nash, and you have an album that sounds both powerful and groovy in every decade.
I first heard the band, a few months after the album was released in 1995. I was at a festival in upstate New York, and the guitar crunch and angelic vocals of first track “Angeltread” summoned me to the main stage to mosh and dance with abandon. In those days of disposable income, I immediately raced to buy a CD and a t-shirt, and I absorbed the dark and beautiful tunes of This Beautiful Mess for months afterwards.
The second song, "Love, Salvation And Fear Of Death" rocks one of the best bass lines in all of rock and roll, and the great songs don’t let up till the stunning “I Can’t Explain” ends the album with a cacophony of sounds, showing the mess of our lives colliding with the grace of God. “Melting Alone”, with it’s moody instrumentation and spooky nature spoke to the self-conscious, unsure teen that I was, with it’s no-holds barred take on late night angst:
“Tonight the lamplight swirls and glistens
Melting itself upon my face
I'm hanging my silhouette near the shoreline
I'm swimming underneath in the noontime
Will I ever know what's wrong with me
Will I ever see your hand again in mine
Tonight the rain is pelting rooftops
There is no fire to melt the cold
I'm straining to hear a human whisper
And I'm painting images on the soft stone
Now I'm drinking alone
Amidst these figures of stone
I'll raise the glass once again
Then lay my head on the pillow”
The fact that “Melting Alone” did not offer an immediate resolution to this late night ennui resonated with the teenage me, who liked to stay up late and brood about the world and my place in it.
The following “Circle Of Error” could be a theme song to my life:
“And I'll admit that I do not try
When it's easier to sit down and cry
I'm so full of doubt, want to let it out
Let it out all over you
On my circle of error, I go round and round
On my circle of error, I go round and round again”
I thank the good Lord for a grace that is “outside” my fickle actions and moods. On my own, the “circle of error” would just endlessly go round and round.
In “Love, Salvation And The Fear Of Death”, I found a prayer for life as a young man, and one that still resonates now:
“Well I'm staring straight into the face of hell
You're so close and you can't even tell
I'm so wrapped up inside
Because I don't have much to love
Horrified I feel from pits unseen
Falling off my pedestal of plentiful deeds
As it crumbles down on top of me
I contemplate my lack of love
Come and save my soul
Before it's not too late
I'm not afraid to admit
How much I hate myself”
I need grace to step into my life every day, to “save me from myself”, and this will never cease to be a relevant prayer for me.
This Beautiful Mess is a masterpiece of an album, a moody-yet-tuneful slice of alternative rock that sounds like a cross between Nirvana and Enya, and deserves a listening audience as big as a stadium. With timeless themes of grace amidst painful times, this classic album is a top ten, all-time album for me (even the art work is epic and haunting), and one of the best evidences that faith, artfully rendered, can be a tool of the Spirit that changes hearts and minds. It rocks, sooths and haunts in equal measure, like a fine piece of literature.
That festival is also where I first encountered Jars Of Clay, The Prayer Chain and The Lost Dogs, three other groups that would radically challenge my faith, and show me that that gospel is a tune for all times, the good and the bad, the clean and the messy. Grace truly is the most powerful force in this world, making holy things out of this beautiful mess.
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ”
Philippians 1:6 KJV
This text breathes life into me. Particularly during such a crucial time in my life, career and ministry. I'll admit there is subtle, underlying desire for acceptance and approval of men (people). We ALL want to be liked. We all want to be celebrated. Especially after we've accomplished something we've painstakingly aspired for. Something like The Runway Project.
I've come to accept that everyone will not love it. Everyone will not 'get it' or truly appreciate it. But I'm so glad that I can take courage in the text! I can be confident in knowing that the greatest artist is still busy creating a masterpiece of my life; my story. And it's a GOOD WORK that He is perfecting.
I don't have to be consumed with the acceptance or approval of men. GOD is working and HIS stamp of approval is all that matters! Only what we do for Christ will last!
Today, remember to do everything for HIS glory. You've been stamped by the King! ACCEPTED, APPROVED, LOVED.
After taking some time to focus on her family, former Gotee recording artist Asiesha Woods returned to music-making with her 2014 album It's Time, released through her independent label Original Peace Music Group. The Runway Project EP, also released through Original Peace, finds the artist continuing to create anthems of love and peace, delivered through her own style of pop and soul. Watch the lyric video for "Hope Again" from The Runway Project below, and grab a download on our Free Music Page!
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again; Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all, the Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” -Phil 4:4-7
I was on a jet bridge waiting to board a Southwest flight to when I got the text. Scrolling through Instagram, drinking a coffee, and this long message popped up on my screen. It was from my dad to our whole family and my heart sank as I read the words. The tests had come back, and it was cancer. The tears welled up, I tried to hold them back and breathe, as I found my way to my seat on the plane. I couldn’t talk. Mercifully, my husband was with me on that flight, and I was able to lay my head on his shoulder and let the tears just stream down my face. I was praying, asking God to keep fear at bay, but it was banging at the door of my heart. Those words, that diagnosis, are never what you want to hear. Is anyone ever ready for that kind of news? I was shocked and scared.
I’ll never forget talking to my parents after that sad flight. They explained that they felt like their job was to praise God through this journey. I remember my dad saying, “No matter what happens, we know the end of the story. Because of what Jesus did, there is healing ahead whether it’s on this side of glory or the next, and we are going to thank God for that hope as we walk through this together.”
A few weeks later they hosted a praise and worship night in their home. The room was full of friends and family, young and old, and I had the powerful privilege of watching my mom and dad run into the unknown and potentially very scary darkness ahead of them with their hands raised in the air, praising God. Following them felt irresistible, even though it struck me as unnatural in light of the circumstances, and that night, as we lifted our voices together, I encountered the peace and the presence of God in a way that will mark me for the rest of my life.
It didn’t make any sense. I walked into the room that night full of fear, worrying about my dad and my mom, and the journey we were all about to take together, and I encountered the peace of God in a way that I didn’t know was possible. “The peace of God which surpasses ALL understanding.”(Phil 4:7). He was drawing near to our breaking hearts, bringing comfort into our chaos and covering our deepest fears with His faithfulness. I distinctly remember my dad leaning his head back, a genuine smile spread across his face, and taking this deep, peace-filled breath, like a contented sigh you’d release after drinking a cold cup of water on a sweltering day. And I lifted my head to the sky and let out this surprised and delighted laugh that God was meeting us like this in the middle of such a scary and unstable place.
Here in the middle of the lonely night
Here in the middle of the losing fight
You’re here in the middle of the desert place
Here in the middle when I cannot see Your face
Here in the middle of the deep regret
Here when the healing has not happened yet
Here in the middle with Your outstretched arms
You can see my pain and it breaks Your heart
That command from scripture, to “Rejoice always” seems harsh at times, in the face of a cancer diagnosis, or depression, or a lost life, or a lost job, or a broken and trampled on heart. In the face of sickness or sadness or loneliness, it seems so unnatural, and almost cruel to ask people to “rejoice”, but the second half of the verse comes crashing into every terrible and unforeseen circumstance we might face,
“The Lord is near.”
God’s heart broke when He saw all that we would encounter as broken people in a broken world, so He sent His son to be broken for us, so that when we’re breaking, we’d know that we are not alone. We can rejoice because we have a rescuer who has already been to hell and back for us. We can rejoice because whatever we are facing, we can be certain that “the Lord is near”.
I wrote “Find You Here” a few days after this profound experience of God’s peace. We actually recorded the vocal for the song the day my dad went in for a major and very important surgery. He came out of the operating room, and I was there with a little MP3 on my iPhone, and he and mom and I wept at God’s kindness, to continue to draw near to us in a hospital room when we didn’t know how things would turn out. My prayer is that whoever you are and whatever you are facing, that you would be encouraged to lift your hands and “Rejoice!” And that as you rejoice, you’d be reminded of His faithfulness. Because, no matter what mess you are in the middle of, “the Lord is near”. His heart is breaking with yours, and His healing is coming for you as you lift your heart and your hands to rejoice in who He is and what He’s already done for you.
For those of you who are curious, my dad is currently cancer-free. We are so grateful, and yet, we know full well that this isn’t the end of every cancer story. Our hope is that as you listen to this song, you’d be reminded that God draws near to the broken-hearted and that you’d experience the gift of His nearness and kindness and compassion in the midst of every battle you’re facing. Many blessings on the journey as we rejoice in what our rescuer has already accomplished for us.
Find You Here - Philippians 4:4-7
Ellie Holcomb, Rusty Varenkamp, Benji Cowart
It’s not the news that any of us hoped that we would hear
It’s not the road we would have chosen, no
The only thing that we can see is darkness up ahead
But you’re asking us to lay our worry down and sing a song instead
And I didn’t know I’d find You here,
In the middle of my deepest fear
But You are drawing near
You are overwhelming me with peace
So I’ll lift my voice and sing
You’re gonna carry us through everything
And You are drawing near
You’re overwhelming all my fears with peace
You say that I should come to you with everything I need
You’re asking me to thank You even when the pain is deep
You promise that You’ll come and meet us on the road ahead
And no matter what the fear says, You give me a reason to be glad
So begins a story that has enraptured millions and millions of fans around the world, to the point that the mythical universe created in that story has transcended mere movie-making and for many, has become the passion of their very life.
Count me among the fans who love the Star Wars movies. I was twelve years old when the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977. At that age, robots, spaceships and laser pistols were right in my wheelhouse. They could not have created a more meaningful movie for a soon-to-be-teenage boy and so I saw it eight weeks in a row, one Saturday matinee after another. It was easy for me to see myself in the character of Luke Skywalker, searching the distant horizon of Tataouine for some meaning and higher purpose. I remember longing to go with the young moisture farmer on his incredible transformational journey to see if I could find where I belonged.
Alas, we don’t stay twelve years old do we? As wonderful as the movies are, we soon realize that there is no “force” to help us move the world around us, or to pick us out of the crowd and to fulfill our ultimate destiny.
Or is there?
I grew up in church but honestly, at the age of twelve, I wasn’t very interested in what the preacher had to say. I was all about comic books, bicycles, sports (it was the era of the Big Red Machine- Cincinnati Reds baby!) and sci-fi monster movies. I was a bit of a nerd, loooong before that was cool. I didn’t mind church, but it wasn’t until I was about sixteen that I started listening to what the preacher was actually saying. Maybe it’s because in your high school years you really become aware of the larger world around you. Suddenly, hurting people and their very real problems reveal themselves to you, or at least, you gain the cognizance to become aware of them. You begin to find yourself wondering what this world is all about. The planet earth grows very large very quickly and you realize that it would be easy to be swallowed by the insanity and the noise unless you develop a plan, and even sometimes if you do.
So now the preacher’s words come back to you. You remember something about all this being created eons ago and that back then, everything was perfect until one of God’s greatest generals got jealous and challenged the Creator of the universe. That a cosmic divide was created and armies of angels chose sides and to this very day, there is a hidden war taking place above and below us. That God created us humans in His own image, meaning not just in our outward appearance but in the way that we process thought and are aware of our world. And then, God sent His own Son to save all of the real Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias of the world. And amazingly, He did it victoriously in a way that no one expected, without a powerful army or by lifting a sword. He did it by sacrificing Himself to His enemies. He won with love. I have to tell you, as a young man in a turbulent world, I wanted to know more.
The comic books and movies are fine for entertainment and to perpetuate a child’s wish fulfillment. But there comes a time, when the real world comes crashing in on top of us, that we need more than imaginary lasers, starships and wookies. We need more than an imaginary “force”, we need a real one.
It’s true that there are many in todays culture who would have you believe that you are nothing special in the grand cosmic picture; that you are just an arrangement of ingredients that could just have easily been a rock, a tree or a bumble-bee without that one slight variable in the genetic code. That you are in effect, an accident. But in your heart, you feel, nay… you know that there is something more. Maybe that’s because there is. And so, you stand in the twilight, looking out across that horizon, aching to be reconciled with your higher purpose, confident from somewhere deep within that there is a voice whispering to your heart. Maybe it’s the “real force” that calls to you, just as it has for every generation.
I guess that I am still a bit of a geek after all these years. I like a good story. Maybe that’s why the songs I write tell stories. I’ve raised my daughters to enjoy nerdy thing too, like Star Wars and hobbits and old Disney movies and such. But above all that, they also know about the greater truth and the most fantastic love story ever known. That in the end, stories are just stories, but real love from the universe’s Creator can bring real peace to troubled minds and real hope to hopeless situations. It is a “force” that causes us to love our enemies and encourages us to find strength when circumstances are rooting against us.
There are no star destroyers looming overhead. There is no Death Star. But what there is is a world filled with hurting people who are searching for the way, lost in a very noisy, mixed-up, cultural turbulence that sucks them up and spits them back out, used up and hollow. And they are standing on their own horizon, longing, aching for answers.
You my friend are Luke Skywalker; you are Princess Leia. The world needs someone to show them some love; someone to set a good example. The time has come to separate yourself from the background players. The hero’s journey is never easy, but it is essential. There is a cosmic battle that has raged for generations where the stakes are very real. Is it an accident that God has placed you here, in this place and in this time? Or as you silently stand looking out across your own future, do you see the inevitability of the job before you?
Many are called but few answer that call. God give you strength.
Mark Bishop is a singer/songwriter who has enjoyed a three-decade career in Christian music. He traveled for seventeen years in the Dove-Award winning band The Bishops. He continues to record albums and travel as a soloist and last year recorded an album with his daughters in a band called Mark Bishop and Forget The Sea, a unique pop-appalachian-folk ensemble that still performs from time-to-time. His music tells down-to-earth, intimate and accessible stories. He reside with his wife Carolyn in central Kentucky. They have a cat named Spock. And oddly, his birthday really is May the 4th. May the fourth be with you…
Check out this behind-the-song look at Trip Lee's new mixtape, The Waiting Room, written by Trip himself!
This song is about the roller coaster process that comes with big dreams. You might wake up in the morning feeling like a million dollars, only to have your dreams dashed as the day goes on. Chasing dreams is always a tough road, but it’s worth it— because when you’re headed in the right direction it feels like you’re “way up in the clouds.”
2. Too Cold
This song is an anthem for those who stand firm and can’t be moved. Those around us may push us to conform and be like everyone else, but “we ain’t gon let the world mold us.” Even when they turn up the heat on us, we’re frozen in place & moving forward.
3. Lord Have Mercy
This one calls attention to all the brokenness in our world, and calls out for God’s mercy. I start out talking about me in the first verse, the second verse hits on our hatred for one another, including racism in America. And the final verse points towards our hope for Heaven. All throughout the repeating cry is “Lord have mercy!”
This song is a soundtrack for those times when everything seems to be going wrong, and God doesn’t seem to be listening to our prayers. I’m basically playing an exaggerated version of myself, emphasizing the pain and abandonment we often feel. The intro and outro quote Psalm 13, where David asks a similar question, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me? Forever?”
This song is two letters in one— a grieving letter addressed to my dad, and a defiant letter addressed to death. In the verses I reflect on my dad’s life and death, and how tragic it is that he died early. But in the hooks, I speak directly to death, saying that I’m ready whenever it comes. Verse 3 is the culmination of the song, where we’re reminded that death has died, and no longer has real power over us.
6. Still Unashamed
This song is an anthem for the unashamed. Some have questioned whether or not Romans 1:16 still characterizes what we do. This song is a reminder that our anthem hasn’t changed, and we’re still as unashamed as we’ve ever been.
7. Money Up
In this song, I do a bit of role playing. I speak from the perspective of a typical rapper who hopes to make it big and get rich so all his problems will go away. Throughout the song the character makes more money, but doesn’t get rid of all of his problem. It’s meant to challenge the false narrative that more money is the solution all of life’s woes.
8. Out My Way
This is a song aimed directly at any weights, weaknesses, and sins that stand in our way. In the first verse I focus mainly on problems in the world, and in the second verse I focus mainly on internal problems. All of them are only obstacles to living the life I was made to live. So I tell them to “get out my way.”
This is another song full of lament. It’s meant to express the grief that comes with prolonged suffering, and I cry out to the Lord, “How long will it be till you take it away?” The hooks are the response to my cries. The listener can take them as words from a friend, or from God himself. It’s a reminder that the problems we face, don’t have to last for eternity. Healing is on the way.
10. Billion Years
This song is the climax of the whole mixtape. The songs have been filled with lament and grief, with hope sprinkled throughout. This final song points to the ultimate hope that answers all the questions I raised. Though our life’s journey is hard, our future is bright. We can endure the pain in this world because we have hope for a brand new one. Why dwell on the past, when we have forever in our future?
Looking For America - On A Spiritual Journey Through 2016 With The Best Albums Of The Year
A look back at the past year is what we journalist and writers do. Trying to “get a handle” on what just happened is an age-old task that is always just beyond the reach of even the most senior reporter or cultural critic.
And then there was this year, one that, in many ways defied the odds as being a “weird” year. The U.S. presidential election took new twists and turns almost every week, and the other stories of the year (the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued fragmenting of our once monolithic pop culture into little bits and pieces of entertainment, etc.) form a chaotic whole that defies any attempt to categorize them.
And then there is the personal level. Every year that passes brings personal triumphs and failures, new family members and lost ones too. Jobs are gained, degrees earned, while in other spheres marriages splinter or a child passes away suddenly. One bad car accident can define a year, or conversely, one serendipitous, chance meeting can lead to a new love and the course of a life altered.
And so, as a music journalist, it’s ever so much easier to define the year by the great music I heard and absorbed into my soul. 2016 might have been an up or down year for me (I’d characterize it as an “up” year for the Caldwell clan), but it was also the year I heard “Live It Well”, “Balconies Of Grace” and “Local Construction”, three fantastic songs that have already embedded themselves in my soul’s DNA and inspired me to “live a better story” for the Lord, because, truly, “life is short“, I’m constantly “under construction” and always, desperately in need of “grace.” Traveling back through the year in music is always a joy, because the music that you truly loved marks the days and months (as in, “I remember where I was when I first heard this song!”).
The following are my favorite albums and songs of the year. This is not a “best of” list, as much as it is a “favorite” one. I make no claims to the greatness of these albums and songs (though many of them are), but to how much they moved me and settled in a place in my heart.
1. Switchfoot - Where The Light Shines Through
Every four years the U.S. goes through a presidential election cycle, and it’s almost always greeted with the question of “what kind of country do we want to be? Likewise, turning 40 years old (something I experienced this year) elicits the same kind of questions; am I who I want to be? Do I need to make a change?
For nearly half my life, Switchfoot has provided me the music to go along with those questions and searches, the bigger questing for the divine in the real world:
“This is your life. Are you who you want to be?” - “This Is Your Life” from Beautiful Letdown
“I want more than my lonely nation” - “Lonely Nation” from Nothing Is Sound
“I’m living for more than just the afterlife” - “Afterlife” from Vice Verses
And now, I’ll add:
“Life is short, I want to live it well”
“America, who are you?”
“The wound is where the light shines through”
Jon Foreman and company speak to my soul like no other band, and when they ask hard questions about themselves and their country, it makes me want to do so as well. But in asking tough question and making tough observations, they never skimp on the creative rock and roll. The blistering and epic guitars of “Holy Water” (a clever way to weave a song about baptism in with surfing, but it’s so much more than that) bleed into the fantastic bouncy baseline of “Float”, and then into the sun drenched and poignant title track. This might be Switchfoot’s most California album ever, with Beach Boy harmonies set against an alt-rock backdrop. “Live It Well” may be the closest the band gets to U2, and it’s deservedly turning out to be their biggest hit in ten years, because it inspires without cloying, it uplifts without preaching. Not many artists can do this well.
And in the searching for hope amidst the tough questions (“Looking For America”), Foreman comes down on a God who wants to gather the “poor, tired and huddled masses” (a play on the Statue Of Liberty’s famous motto) into himself. A country, as great as it is, is no substitute for a relationship with the Creator of all things.
And so, the answer to all that searching, is hope in a loving God.
“Hope's a seed you have to sow
When you let it go it comes to life
So you stretch your arrows on the bow
And you pull them back and watch them fly”
Any institution, person or thing I put my hope in down here is ultimately going to fail me. I put my hope in the Lord, and do my best to love my neighbor as myself. I place my life in the hands of the “healer of souls”, and with his divine help, hope to take my life and “live it well”.
2. Paper Route - Real Emotion
If I had experienced any sort of breakup this year, Real Emotion would have been my favorite album of the year. A song cycle about a relationship that’s ended (this I’ve gathered from clues both in the bands comments and in the song lyrics and placements in the album), Real Emotion is a bird's eye view of the cycle of disappointment and renewal that comes when any relationship is fractured. It ends with my second favorite song of the year, “Balconies Of Grace”, where the narrator gives his struggles to the Lord in a terrific, anthemic melody, and prays for the person on the other side of the relationship split:
“Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace
Raise your arms and hold what you can't replace
It's the simple things that I can't get right
It's the hunting heart trying to survive
And for every wound there's a hill to climb
Can we reach that high, reach that high
Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace
Raise your arms and hold
There is loneliness in the things we need
But inside your eyes I am reflecting
There is grace to hold over you and me
There are balconies, balconies”
May we all celebrate the grace that “holds you and me”.
3. Crowder - American Prodigal
I guess I’ll make it official: I like the band “Crowder” more than I did the “David Crowder Band”. That might be blasphemy to many longtime fans, but David Crowder is a much more focused songwriter on his new band’s first two outings than he was over the course of his other band’s seven albums.
American Prodigal is a case in point. It has a strong theme, both musically (southern swamp-rock and bluegrass-like folk music) and lyrically (the redemption of a wanderer).
David Crowder mines Southern folklore and gothic themes for traces of God, and uses the musical form in his songs of praise. “Shouting Grounds” (a reference that Southerners of charismatic background will get) takes an old religious tradition and imbues it with new life. The fact that I had to look up what the shouting grounds were is a testament to an interesting album. “Run Devil Run”, with its acoustic blues guitars (and fine music video) is a hoot of a song, and “Praise The Lord” redeems its lackluster title with terrific lyrics about a spiritual awakening, realizing that the Lord is so much more than the box our minds put Him in. These are among my favorite lyrics of the year:
“And I don’t buy that any more.
You’re not who I thought you were.
Praise the Lord…”
4. Needtobreathe - Hard Love
Many see Hard Love as a letdown after four great albums of gritty and heartfelt Southern rock, but the album, with its 80’s era synthesizers and left-field songwriting (just check out the auto-tuned opening vignette “Mountain”) was a needed change of direction for the band. The great title track addresses what is needed to make a relationship (be it a marriage, family or band one) work, and that’s “hard love”. The divisive history of this band over the past few years (something that they are more than candid about) makes this statement of purpose one of the most interesting songs of the year. It’s become a theme song of sorts in my house (I have two tween daughters in the midst of growing into young women, who require a “hard love”, not to mention their frequently grumpy dad) and I hum it often in the midst of any family drama. “Testify” is a wonderful worship song that uses a hammer dulcimer to great effect (something the Rich Mullins fan in me appreciates), and “Great Night” is the best dance song of the year (and made for a great concert opener on their latest tour).
Not everything on Hard Love holds together (the ending song “Clear” is nice, but strangely meanders on and on for almost seven minutes of nothing, and is a vague “is-he-talking-about-the-Lord-or-his-wife” tune), but the highs and good moments are right there with the best of what these fellows from South Carolina have done.
5. Relient K - Air For Free
I ranked these Ohio boys behind Needtobreathe, but if I had it to do all over again, I would switch their places. Are For Free is a great, cohesive comeback for these beloved, former pop-punkers. But while they were away they added a few new tricks, and the album is full of off-kilter songs that retain the puckish (a Shakespeare reference, and where the word “punk” comes from) spirit of the band. “Local Construction” is a bouncy tune that Wes Anderson would be proud to have in one of his movies. It also contains some of the finest lyrics Matt Theisen has put to paper:
“Days rolling by like local construction
I'm watching the tenements increase by increments
Work on it, work at it, work, but it's never done, no no
Fix the car, fix the house
Fix the flaws in myself
It's never done, no no
It's never done, no no
Like local construction
It's never done”
Wherever you may call home, there is undoubtedly a construction project around your town that is never quite done. So too are our lives. Praise God he’s still working away on us, though the days may seem long at times.
6. John Tibbs - Dead Man Walking
There isn’t nearly enough “heartland” rock and roll in Christian music. The honest, blue collar kind of music that refuses to gloss over the tough reality of life, the kind that speaks to you in its authenticity and honesty.
Indiana’s John Tibbs made that kind of album this year. A little Bruce Springsteen, a little John Mellencamp, a pinch of Creedence Clearwater Revival and a whole lot of heart, Dead Man Walking burns with energy and integrity, and never glosses over anything with fancy production or vague lyrics about “struggles”. Instead “Silver and Stone” bursts out of the gate with grit and verve, celebrating the God who makes beauty out of our messes. In “Abraham” Tibbs has one of my favorite lyrics of the year, sung with vocal cord-shredding intensity:
“It's not where you've been
It's not what your eyes have seen
It's not who you are
It's not what you're becoming
It's not what you say
It's not what your hands have held
It's the grace of God who makes this fallen place whole.”
7. Unspoken - Follow Through
Unspoken played perhaps the best one hour festival set I’ve ever seen this past summer. Maybe it was because they were playing a rare hometown gig (on a Mountain in Maine), or maybe they were just excited to be playing through their new album. But whatever the cause, they rocked and rolled through most of their new album with a humble swagger (I know that’s a contradiction in terms) I’ve not seen in a long time. This lead me to listen to their new album Follow Through with more curiosity that I normally would give something this “pop”.
But darned if they didn’t hand in the sharpest pop album of the year; a jubilant mixture of uplift and grit, of heartache and praise. With great melodies and the fantastic vocals of Chad Matteson (who channels Maroon 5’s Adam Lavine), Follow Through jumps out of the speakers. The extended version (which really should be the only one) has “Roots”, a great Paul Simon-like number that uses an African choir and a great agricultural metaphor that, if their record company had the temerity to do so, would be the best thing Air1 or K-Love played put on their play lists this year.
8. Tyson Motsenbocker - Letters To Lost Loves
A folkie based in the Northwest and debuting on Tooth And Nail Records, Motsenbocker had the best opening song of an album I heard this year. In the gut-wrenching “In Your Name” (a song inspired by the news of his saintly mother’s cancer diagnosis) he sings about praying for healing:
“Well maybe he is occupied with other people's wars
Or he's organized militia to fight the war on Christmas
or maybe he's protecting our children from the gays
Who have promised to destroy this utopia we've made
In His name
In His name
In His name
Well I hear that you've been speaking through the man on the TV
And you've helped the Dallas Mavericks with their field goal percentage
So when my mother's doctor calls again with more bad news
It's an honest heart's reaction - who, my God, have you been listening to?
In His name…”
Letters To Lost Loves is a travel log of faith, and takes you through the dark times (and the light) of trying to hold onto your faith. Christian music needs many more Motsenbockers to speak to the full spectrum of what it means to believe. Even the album cover, with a picture of his parents embracing, is devastating.
9. Sho Baraka - The Narrative
Humble Beast Records continues to put out some of the best and most challenging music from people of faith. Baraka’s The Narrative is a great title, and the album makes a great use of a historical motif, with songs that correspond to historically relevant events (like “Maybe Both, 1865” which is about the Emancipation Proclamation and the modern day Black Lives Movement), and with songs that demand repeated listens to get the depth and rapid fire maturity of the lyrics. The Narrative shines with fantastic, live instrumentation and an intensity of purpose that stuns.
In the afore mentioned “Maybe Both, 1865” Baraka spits out a rapid fire assessment of the troubles of the narrative of American history:
“Why stop now?
I haven't caught the holy ghost yet
Sing a little louder, we can drown out the protests
We build an antebellum, they too busy to listen
I hear disturbing things come from so-called "Christians"
Quick to justify your man's death
Because of a criminal record or how a man dressed
Thugs I guess, only perfect people get grace
If that was the Lord's way, there'll be no one in the faith
True flaw, America kills and hides behind the law
They purchase this land with violence, but never count the cost
Put a dollar to your ear, you can hear the moaning of a slave
America the great was built off the labor that they gave
Jefferson and Washington were great peace pursuers
But, John Brown was a terrorist and an evil doer
Oh yes, God bless the American Revolution
But, God ain't for all the riots and the looting?”
There are surely angles to debate here, but white Evangelicals would do well to consider Baraka’s words, and try, just for a moment, to see things from a different perspective and listen for another “narrative” that is out there.
10. Judah & The Lion - Folk Hop ‘N Roll
Folk Hop ‘N Roll is just about as experimental as a bluegrass album can get. With dance rhythms and zany turns of instrumentation (mostly done on acoustic instruments like mandolins and banjos), Folk Hop ‘N Roll is a down-home party record that grew on me as the year rolled along. There’s no better album I heard this year to dance on the front porch of your cabin along with. I’m happy these guys are getting such good exposure this year (they are opening for 21 Pilots on a world tour this coming spring).
Music is soul food, and one of the Lord’s neatest inventions. May you hear many good songs this year, that make you want to “live life well”, celebrate God’s “balconies of grace”, endure the endless “local construction” of you life (it’s never done), and be a blessing to the world “in His name”.
10 years ago, I was an independent artist, working a full-time job while working part-time as the worship pastor at my church. I was playing 2-3 shows a weekend, hustling with my band to get our name "out there", sometimes getting no sleep on a Saturday night because we were driving back to Greenville, SC so I could lead worship at my church on Sunday morning. And then we'd play shows a lot of Sunday nights, too.
Those were the days. There was hope and there was an innocence to what I was doing. I wasn't making music to try to have a radio hit or to try to work through the politics of the music industry -- I was just trying to learn as much as I could while making the coolest music I could. It was seriously that simple then -- just make music I thought was cool and - on the back end - hope people liked it.
Then this weird thing happened. I was a finalist on American Idol - despite never ever watching Idol and being about as anti-American Idol as any contestant had ever been - and suddenly I was famous and I was making music that other people told me was cool and then there were managers and labels and distribution and marketing people and... the list goes on. And I seriously got to work with so many incredible people. But the innocence was lost. We were suddenly talking about the mysterious Christian music listener, Becky, and we were talking about how to make her cry in 30-second clips and we were planning out my albums not by what song naturally flowed into the next but by which songs in succession on iTunes would make people want to buy the album 1st and we were putting the 5-6 singles at the front of the album and we were doing photo shoots to make me look cool (they failed) and we were paying massive amounts of money for me to be on tour with this artist and that artist and...
The innocence was lost.
It wasn't anyone's fault. My manager - who had managed Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant - told me many times he'd never met an artist who understood the music industry more than I did. I knew what I was stepping into. I was prepared for it.
But what I didn't know is what the journey into the center of the music world would do to me. It wasn't anyone's fault - these people were doing their jobs (and they did it incredibly well I might add). But what I hadn't accounted for was the cost of this innocence lost. I steeled myself to the pain with arrogance and with over-confidence that my knowledge of this business could make me successful. I studied pop songs and learned how to write the best hooks from the best writers and I wrote with all the best writers in Nashville and L.A. and New York and I was proud of my skill. And yet it felt so empty.
I knew so much to know so little. I had made my career and being great an idol that could never match the beauty and innocence of what I'd felt 10 years before, practicing with my band in my attic, just making music that spoke to us. I could never match the feeling of leading my campus of 4-500 people in worship, no matter how many big shows I played, no matter how "awesome" I made my show, no matter how many hits I wrote.
Because the thing I felt then was so innocent... and maybe you can never regain the innocence. Maybe you can never have true humility after true arrogance. Maybe you can never turn the ship around.
But now I'm in the phase of life where I realize how little I know. How little all that knowledge of the music industry did for me. How fleeting the "success" I had was. And I find myself desiring to be the learner again. And I find myself making music that means something to me again. I find myself writing what is true about God, to me, and for the first time in years I stand on stage not arrogantly like I have something to offer, but humbly asking my audience to join me in discovering something new about God and maybe about myself. Oh, and maybe you'll like these songs that I really like, too.
And when someone comes to me and says, "Have you heard of Celebrate Recovery? I'm in Celebrate Recovery and your songs, man, they speak to me. It sounds like your recovering from something, just like me." And I look at him and I say, "I am recovering from me, man." And we both laugh and pat each other on the shoulder and he gives me a hug.
And this thing I do feels innocent again.
Chris Sligh is an artist, speaker and church Creative consultant. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids and writes about God, the Church, music and creativity at chrissligh.org and thechurchcollective.com. You can get his new album "Mighty Roar / Healing Flood" on his website or iTunes.
Magnified Plaid signed to Tooth and Nail Records as high school students in the Bremerton area of Washington State. While the original trio with Andy Husted didn’t make it past the first album, Mike, Tom, and Yuri have had a pretty successful career. And while the band has now been together for 24 years, they released their hallmark third record 20 years ago. Life in General put Tooth and Nail Records on the map in a big way and gave MxPx some serious notoriety, complete with MTV airplay -- especially with the hysterical video for “Chick Magnet.” Personally, dcTalk’s Jesus Freak opened me up to a whole new world of music. This new world paved the way for MxPx and similar bands to become the favorites for my formative years right on through to today. MxPx singlehandedly sparked an undying love for punk rock in me that still burns bright.
These days, MxPx is known as a pop-punk band, and they certainly added a lot of pop elements into their music, but back in 1996, MxPx was way more influenced by skate punk. The guitar, bass, and drums were set to a blazing pace for most songs and it was in an era just before pop-punk started to dominate the airwaves. Tooth and Nail had struck gold. Life in General has so many standards that are beloved by fans and still played at MxPx shows regularly. “Middlename,” “Do Your Feet Hurt,” “The Wonder Years,” Your Problem My Emergency,” “Doing Time,” and Southbound” really highlight the best of what the album has to offer. The album’s title is also quite fitting as the lyrics to these songs, as well as the others, are just about life -- generally speaking. Themes range from love, having fun, minor problems we all face (especially when at that age) in life, to some slightly deeper issues.
One of the best things about the album is that is still holds up after 20 years. Those who loved that type of punk rock sound in the 90s will still dig it today, but it also plays nicely to new punk listeners wanting to discover some “older” punk music. While not every person likes the direction MxPx headed after Life in General and Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo, most still look back with fondness, or at the very least with appreciation, to the earlier days of MxPx.
The band’s last full-length album, Plans Within Plans, was released 4 years ago. While the album had some classic sounding tunes and plenty of enjoyable moments, it couldn’t really compare with Life in General. Even though there hasn’t been a new album in a while, MxPx did surprise fans on September 18th with a completely re-recorded version of Life in General. There aren’t a lot differences in the song’s recordings overall, but there are some subtle nuances here and there that are different. As a whole, the biggest difference in the 1996 version and the 2016 version is the tone of the instruments. The distortion on Tom’s guitar is meatier, Yuri’s drums are bigger sounding, and Mike’s bass seems to stand out in the mix a little more (but not in bad way). The re-recording is an interesting listen. It’s the same Life in General, but any fan of the band would pick the songs out as sounding different immediately. The purest in me is quite happy that the songs stayed exactly the same, but the album is set to modern recording techniques and the band is using their current effects (such as distortions). It’s different enough to be noticed and appreciated, but it’s the same album.
It’s hard to believe it’s already been 20 years since Life in General was released, but Mike and the guys came up with a pretty cool way to celebrate. As of now, this download was only available for one day -- September 18th. If you missed out, see if one of your friends was able to snag the download. Hopefully the band will release a 20th Anniversary vinyl (with a digital download), or something similar, with this recording. It would be a shame to put all that work into this project with only some of the fans getting a chance to listen. The fact that it was a free grab for one day only may just be leading to that type of scenario. Fingers crossed! As a long-time fan, though, celebrating 20 years of Life in General with this re-recording has been fun. Something tells me that I’ll be rocking this record for another 20 years to come.
We certainly take music’s relationship with the internet for granted now. Previously, we had to wait until we could take a trip to a local Christian bookstore or music seller to pick up an album on release day. Now, we can buy the album digitally on our computer or phone at midnight of release day from literally anywhere -- as long as our phone has a signal or we have internet access.
And back in the late 90’s, record labels were still trying to figure out what to do with online media. At one point, someone at a label (and unfortunately, I can’t really recall which one) told me they couldn’t send us music as often as we needed it because they didn’t believe the internet was an legitimate form of media.
Ha, times have changed, haven’t they?
But the first record label to really take note of JFH was Forefront Records (home to DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Rebecca St. James, DeGarmo & Key, Bleach, etc), and we started up a friendship with the label that would last a few years. In the summer of 1998, while I was helping out the label’s street team (called “The Buzz”) at Creation East Festival, the head of the team offered to help us migrate the site to an official dotcom with server space on NetCentral in exchange for JFH helping to do grassroots promotion for DC Talk’s brand new “Supernatural” album. They'd cover the costs to help us get going and give us any server space we needed. It was a dream come true for a broke 18-year-old Christian music enthusiast fresh out of high school… and since we’re all Christians here, it just couldn’t get any better… right?
JFH front page in August, 2004
Aside from stating the obvious that promises that had been made were not kept, I’ll just say that the experience was a life lesson and an unfortunate one. However, the silver lining to the whole mishegas was that it did help us get the site onto Jesusfreakhideout.com officially (and… by 2001 -- almost three years later -- I was able to fianlly get the ownership rights back to it…).
Life for me has changed drastically since being a 16-year-old kid with a minimal social life who started a very time-intensive website in JFH. I started college in the fall of 1998 and majored in Advertising/Design. And after 5 semesters there, all I knew is that I’d wanted to just work on JFH full-time. I took a part-time job doing web support type work at a local company in 2000, got engaged to my girlfriend in 2001, married in 2003, bought our condominium in 2006, quit that job later that year, and finally took JFH full-time. In 2010, our son Will was born (after a miscarriage the year before), and life changed dramatically yet again. All the while, the music industry was going through its own growth spurts… and then deep dives. Twenty years in, JFH is a part-time project once again and the time I’ve had to spend on it has been cut down drastically from a decade ago. But thanks to the incredible staff of volunteers who help out on a regular basis, JFH prevails. And hopefully it will continue to do so for as long as God allows or wants it to.
So, with that said… here’s to whatever the future holds in store next for Jesus Freak Hideout! Thanks to everyone who has supported us over the years!
In early 1996, my family got the internet at home for the very first time (dial-up! Ugh…), and I used to love scouring the new sites on the web dedicated to the individual bands or record labels and the few existing Christian music media sites at the time, like CCM Magazine or a pretty cool little independent one called The electronic Lighthouse Magazine (or “TeLM”). But I remember visiting artist sites and wondering what was newly added to the site, as they didn’t always list what was changed, so I had to spend time browsing multiple pages in an effort to find something new.
On August 13th, 1996, a couple hours before my family was going to take us to a Jars of Clay / Duncan Sheik concert at Tink’s Entertainment Complex in Scranton, PA, I read a tutorial on basic HTML on Angelfire.com and started my own website. I still remember sitting in the car, on the way to the concert, and turning to my dad who was at the wheel and telling him “I started a website today!”
My goal for the site was a one-stop place for all things Christian music. If you wanted the latest news, it’d be there. Tour dates? Sure, I’ll copy them from every artist site I could find and paste them onto one page. (THAT time-consuming idea was short-lived. Ha!) The Yankees won the World Series? (My dad’s favorite baseball team) Sure, I’d slap that on the front page. Why not? It was just a little webpage, but there were no rules as to what had to or didn’t have to be on there.
But that name, “The Jesus FREAK Hideout.” What’s the deal?
Before I started the site, I would frequent the Christian chat rooms at NetCentral.net, and at one point, they offered free private chat rooms. I used to use the handle “Jesus FREAK” in chat rooms, and then got sick of the “Are you a male or female?” questions every time I met someone, so I changed it to “mR. Jesus FREAK” (which didn’t stop some people from asking, of course). When I created a free chat room, I called it “The Jesus FREAK Hideout.” It seemed fitting. I ended up never using it, but when it came time to naming my new little free web page on Angelfire.com, “The Jesus FREAK Hideout” just kinda seemed to work for me.
The following year, in 1997, the site had started grabbing the attention of publicists. I remember the very first press kit we ever received -- it was for the band Eager, which featured one of the original members of one of my favorite bands, PFR. But in addition to PR, the JFH started also getting the attention of record labels. And the very first label to contact us would change the course of the site’s history forever…
Twenty years. It’s kind of amazing to even think about doing ANYthing for two decades. I’m hesitant to say “any job,” because Jesus Freak Hideout was born out of a passion for something and was never meant to be a job – even if that’s what it did become for some time.
I had always grown up with a knowledge of Jesus and what He meant to us, but I didn’t really invite him into my life as my Lord and Savior until the early 1990s. And then, my mom’s love for the classic rock act Foreigner and a list of “If you like this artist, then try this Christian artist” in a magazine called “YOU” lead us to a Christian bookstore where we could listen to demos of Christian music and pick out music we were interested in.
It all started with a band called Idle Cure. They were popular in the early 90s for being a Foreigner sound-a-like with an overtly Christian message (and it’s a slightly guilty pleasure to revisit those albums from time to time ;) ). After we exhausted the Idle Cure discography, return trips to the bookstore cultivated a love and appreciation for Christian music we’d discover – not on the radio, mind you – but via demos and magazine articles and advertisements (and endcap displays at the store). I also loved a Christian music video show called “Signal Exchange” (which was hosted by the super talented Cory Edwards, who went on to direct an animated film called Hoodwinked years later). It was through that show that I’d see music videos by artists like Audio Adrenaline, Dakoda Motor Co and Switchfoot and would soon fall in love with each of those – and many more.
I’ll save you ever minute detail in my personal history of being introduced to Christian music, but the fact is, these artists – and a burgeoning love for Jesus – sparked a passion that still remains today (although it’s certainly changed).
Which was the first CCM artist you ever heard (that introduced you to Christian music)?
In September, I released Part 1 of a look at the lyrics of Jon Foreman and Switchfoot. With Switchfoot just about to release their 10th album, Where The Light Shines Through, and Foreman having released a steady stream of great EP’s over the last few years--and to honor such a prolific and heartfelt songwriter--I’d like to examine the Jon Foreman songs and lyrics that mean the most to me. This is part two of a multi-essay (okay “blog”) effort to wrestle with the life of the mind, with what happens when other’s art and your own heart collide. You can read part one of this series here.
This Is Your Life (From The Beautiful Letdown)
“This is your life / Are you who you want to be?”
Socrates is reputed to have said "the unexamined life is not worth living." Yet so much of the time I'm not really giving much thought to why I do what I do. It's all too easy to fall into familiar patterns or let my desires control what I do. Some call it "the chasing of the belly and the bowl." And all that unexamined life can lead you to being the shell of a person, broken and wondering how you got here, shipwrecked. "Where did it all go wrong?" you think.
That may be overly dramatic, but so is breaking down on the roadside after you've been ignoring the "check engine" light for a month. You knew there was trouble, all the signs were there, but there were just other things to do. (And sometime, in my younger years, I would just turn up the music if my car was making a funny sound.)
But asking yourself hard questions is important. There are only so many days in your life left, and if I want to “live them well.” I have to ask the questions and pray the hard prayers. “Lord, search me, is there more you have for me?”
I’m about to hit the big “four-oh”, and asking myself this question everyday is critical.
“Live It Well” (From Where The Light Shines Through)
“Life is short / I want to live it well”
“Teach us to number our days” the Psalmist says. The clock is ticking down, and all those years you thought you had are drifting away, minute by minute. My life is short (especially measured against that rock my daughter found on our hike the other day, or that massive oak tree we passed).
Foreman hits this theme time and time again over the course of his band’s albums, but he never ceases to find new ways to say it. If you combine that important sentiment against the swelling, U2-like structure of the song, and you get an anthem that not only uplifts, but challenges. Theme songs don’t come much better than this. It’s the soundtrack to my days this summer; getting in shape, loving my family well, working hard at the gifts God has blessed me with.
May we all “live it well”.
“Company Car” (From New Way To Be Human)
“I've got the company car / I'm the one swinging at two below par
Yeah, I've become one with the ones / that I've never believed in
But I've got the company car”
In college, I had the nicest car I will probably ever own. It was a sporty black Saab that was completely ridiculous and bought with trust fund money that should have been spent on something more practical, and modest, to drive. I stood out like a sore thumb at my Bible college, where most ministry majors were driving beat up cars and focusing on more important issues.
But I thought I needed to have it. In my insecurity about who I was, a flashy car seemed like some kind of answer, and since I could buy it outright, why not?
What you drive is a measure of success here in the U.S., and Foreman’s lyrics about a person who thinks they’ve made it because they are driving the company car (most likely a car that is nicer than one they could afford) speaks to the vanity and confusion of our times. A nice car is nothing to live for. It rusts eventually. The motor goes south and all you have left is the payments.
Foreman has long made status symbols a theme of his writing, with terms like “Lexus cages” sprinkled throughout. On each album, you can count on at least a song or two where Foreman is urging his audience to live for more, and it’s a theme that cannot be overstated. Life is about so much more…
“Adding To The Noise” (From The Beautiful Letdown)
“If we're adding to the noise / turn off this song
If we're adding to the noise / turn off your stereo, radio, video…”
The 21st century is sure noisy. And it’s become even more so in the 12-plus years since this song came out in 2003. There was no social media then (not in the way there is today) and there was still music on MTV. But Foreman got this right. If the stuff we consume just adds to the chaos of our lives, it’s time to turn it off.
Silence is going to be the great currency in the future, the thing that people crave and will seek out. And the reality is that the Lord’s still small voice comes through best in silence. Elijah in the cave sat through a tornado, an earthquake and a forest fire, but the Lord was not in those things. I listen to music a great deal, and much of it is music that relates to my faith directly. But turning it off to listen is imperative now and again.
Learning To Breathe (from Learning To Breathe)
"Hello, good morning, how you do? / What makes your rising sun so new?
I could use a fresh beginning too / All of my regrets are nothing new
So this is the way that I say I need You / This is the way that I'm learning to breathe"
A fresh beginning is another constant theme with Foreman. “Dare You To Move” (“I dare you to move like today never happened“) and “Always” (“every breath is a second chance”) hint at this theme too, and show Foreman to be a man who is in touch with his sinful nature.
And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t need a new beginning too. Grace says that there is always a fresh start, always a cleared path ahead of you if you will only ask for it. Sometimes it's easy to get in a funk when personal failure and you are intimate friends. But as the book of Proverbs says “a righteous man gets up seven times”. It’s about the getting up and not the falling down. Because falling down is pretty much guaranteed. It’s those who finish the course that change things.
Grace says “get up”, I’ve got this, you just keep going.” And as I grow as a believer, I realized that grace is the constant wind in my sail that I forget is even there. Growth is realizing how free I am because of Christ‘s death on the cross, free to fail, free to get back up again. It’s not up to me, so why pretend that it is.
It’s like breathing, sometimes you have to remember to do it. Learning to live in grace is learning to breathe, learning to do something naturally. If I lived in grace, and showed it in everything I do, if I reflected the grace I’ve been shown, how would that change things, my relationships, my work?
It would change everything…
Thank you, Jon Foreman for constantly making me think, reflect and sing along at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing you in concert this summer.
-- Alex Caldwell, Jesusfreakhideout.com staff writer
Great Comfort Records is an indie label that has been releasing organic indie projects since 2009. Founder and singer/songwriter Lenny Smith spoke with us recently (interview below) and shared seven releases with us from Great Comfort Records catalog (starting with two compilations from 2009), as well as a solo release from Smith from 2000.
Looking over the collection of records, we'll start with Lenny Smith’s Deep Calls To Deep; the album is an independent release (pre-Great Comfort days) that has a southern, folk sound. Lenny captures a bit of the essence of Johnny Cash in his work, while resembling a hint of Burl Ives, vocally.
The first Great Comfort releases--the two compilations from 2009, Come O Spirit! Anthology of Hymns and Spiritual Songs: Volume 1and Salvation Is Created: A Christmas Record from Bifrost Arts--are a nice mix of indie artists and even some well-known names. There’s a quirkiness to most of the music that Great Comfort Records offers (which isn’t surprising, considering their affiliation with the eccentric Danielson Family) and there’s a little here that’s carried over into both of these collections. My favorite of the two is the hymns collection, Come O Spirit!, which even opens with a track that features Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer fame. Other notable performances include songs from Kate York, Denison Witmer and The Welcome Wagon. Salvation is Created is a Christmas compilation that is more melodic than most of the Great Comfort projects, but still has a very unique presentation that’s outside of the norm or what’s expected for Christmas music. Derek Webb even makes an appearance on this collection.
Next we have Glen Galaxy’s 2011 album, Thankyou. This may be one of the more out-of-the-ordinary worship albums you’ll lend an ear to. All of the songs came together in worship at the Abiding Place Church in San Diego (as the liner notes detail), and the album offers a folky acoustic styling with layered vocals by Glen and unusual sound effects and instruments adding texture throughout the album. The multiple layers of gritty vocals aren’t intended to harmonize, so it sounds a little dissonant at times (and there’s a surprising amount of lyrical water references that may rival Dan Haseltine and Jon Foreman), but overall the album remains refreshingly unique.
In 2012, Lenny Smith released a new worship album, Who Was and Is and Is to Come, which incorporates female accompaniment into the mix on much of the album. It’s a higher quality recording overall than his 2000 release, and offers a nice mix of folk, rock, a little rockabilly, and even a softer approach, like in “Arise My Love,” which is one of the album’s best.
Possibly the oddest of the albums is Frog In The Reeds’ 2013 album, Walking Tour of Spiders in the Woods. Quirky may be the best way to describe this one, which features female fronted vocals from Mary Brewer in an often dissonant manner. However, songs like “Driving and Smiling” are more tame and melodic. The lyrics are also rather dreamy and strange, as evidenced in the song “Fish Tank Dream,” where Brewer sings, “You are keeping my cat alive / In a cellar closet / Must have gone through 40 lives.” But most of the lyrics are quite worshipful, like this line in “Melt Like Wax,” “He is a light to expose all, see and tremble / Praise Him who keeps the soul of those / Who bow before Him… The mountains melt like wax before the Lord of all the earth.”
Finally, we have 2015’s Sing To Your Mountain by Rachel. Rachel Galloway is a mult-instrumentalist who performs guitar, ukulele, keyboard, flute and bells on her album. Stylistically and vocally, Rachel reminds me of Bon Voyage meets Dakoda Motor Co. There’s some surfer rock (“Oil of Joy”), but most of it is acoustic based and rather dreamy. Lyrically, the album is very reverent and worshipful.
If you’re looking for music out of the norm for Christian music, you need look no further than Great Comfort Records and their eclectic array of music makers. For more details on all of these artists and for the latest on what the label is up to, visit www.greatcomfortrecords.com
I also spoke to Lenny Smith about the label and his own music career...
John DiBiase (JFH): Why did you start Great Comfort Records (and how long ago)? Lenny Smith (GCR): Years ago, Daniel (Smith) and I used to have monthly meetings at a local barn-like structure. We called the meetings, Great Comfort Evenings. When we decided to start a worship label, Great Comfort Records seemed like the right name. We started the label in 2009, initially to be able to offer the Bifrost Arts albums to the wider church. We later added titles and continue to add titles.
John (JFH): How long have you personally been making music? Lenny (GCR): I started writing worship songs and leading worship with my guitar in 1965 while in Mt. St. Mary's Seminary, Emmitsburg, Md. My son, Daniel, started his music career in high school and college bands, eventually starting the Danielson Famile band with his siblings. He now owns Sounds Familyre Records and Familyre Studios.
John (JFH): What inspires you the most when making music? Lenny (GCR): Most of the time, I am first moved by lyrics, which I later try to put to melody. Occasionally, a rhythm will grab me first, but usually inspired words move me to write a song.
John (JFH): Do you have a process for working with artists for Great Comfort Records? Also, What have you learned about music-making from your experiences with the label and other artists on it? Lenny (GCR): We are not actively looking for artists, but we are open to signing artists. We find that few nowadays know how to write real melodies that actually go somewhere and even fewer can add to that inspired, poetic lyrics. However, when we find them, we want them. I personally think songwriters need to read poetry on almost a daily basis. Worship songwriters need to also read theology and spend lots of time in the Bible. I am really done with shallow praise and worship songs. My heart now is all about songs TO God, ABOUT God. I don't want to sing about me very much anymore.
John (JFH): Are there any new releases on the horizon for Great Comfort Records? Or any other exciting happenings? Lenny (GCR): My own new album of original songs will be released around June, followed by a new album from Rachel in September of this year. We will also be releasing a compilation album of 16 songs by 16 different writers/artists.
John (JFH): What are your thoughts on the current state of Christian music - or music in general? Lenny (GCR): Christian worship music has become entertainment because the leaders are choosing a bad paradigm. God is not sitting on a throne, watching and enjoying us as we sing to Him and dance about and raise our hands in adoration. That would put us on the stage and God in the audience....as an Audience Of One. Reality is just the opposite. We Are The Audience, watching God performing his cosmic show of provision, guidance, healing, restoration, creation, evolution, adaptation, recovery, inspiration, and on and on, wonder after wonder. WHEN we see His deeds and His nature, we rise spontaneously to our feet and applaud and cry-out "Wow!" We could call our response "worship." True worship is not an action, it is a reaction.
John (JFH): Any other comments? Lenny (GCR): We here on earth are just imitating what has been and is going on in the heavenlies, singing and praising and worshiping our Maker. Even here the birds and the whales and the elephants, puppies and babies are worshiping their Maker. The church is actually late coming to the party. In fact, most of the church doesn't even know the party has already begun. They are waiting for the rapture or death before they join the banquet. I blame the teachers, not the people. Our teachers are mostly self-taught and have embraced a pop-Christianity, or are stuck in traditional structures that will not allow the Holy Spirit to improve and refine their thinking. Yet, we progress steadily :)
Switchfoot And Needtobreathe - The Warriors and Spurs of Christian Music
There are a few distinct things I’ve been a fan of since childhood (good books, good movies, good Chinese food etc.), and chief among them are basketball and music.
There were no real outdoor courts in my small Maine town growing up, so my crafty father built me the most beautiful and rugged outdoor court you have ever seen. I spent hours a day firing away at that hoop, imagining hitting buzzer beaters and playing one-on-one against whoever was around that day. To this day, a hoop in the driveway is a mandatory item for me, and my daughters and I spend a lot of time out there when the weather is cooperative.
Likewise, music was a huge part of my childhood. My parents owned a Christian bookstore during a pivotal period of my life, and brought home new music pre-releases almost weekly (early Michael W. Smith, Petra, Whiteheart etc.). I’d put my huge boom box (remember those?) out by the hoop, and that made for a killer afternoon in my world.
To this day, music and basketball make up a huge percentage of whatever “free time” I have, and I try to work them into the daily lives of my family, to try to pass on the love. (No pressure here girls.) I coach my girl’s basketball team in the winter months, and one of my favorite things to do is making practice play lists to blast during warm ups and drills. It makes the cold gym that much warmer, and that much more positive a place. This year Blanca, Britt Nicole, Tobymac, Owl City and Capital Kings made up a good chunk of the tunes cranked out, and it was also a neat, non-threatening way for my family to spread the gospel and to talk about our faith.
I also love to watch basketball, and this year in the NBA, there were two teams that were heading towards breaking the all-time wins record for a season, held by the Michael Jordan-led 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls, who went an amazing 72-10.
Both the current champions, The Golden State Warriors, and former champs before that, the San Antonio Spurs, had a chance to beat that record, (the Spurs are now out of the running, but the Warriors still have a chance to do it), and watching two teams play the game to perfection, with all the right kinds of passing, defense and selflessness on display, is a fan’s dream come true. Two teams doing it is a one-in-a-hundred years kind of thing, like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig going after the home runs record in baseball while being one the same team nearly 80 years ago.
Which brings us to the music.
Though it’s not a “competition” in terms of the art, Christian Music (loosely defined as music that is created by Christians and gets play in that genre’s outposts, though both bands mentioned here exist in a few different genres) has a version of these two teams; artists who seem to be at the peak of their game, releasing a string of great albums and songs that show spiritual rock and roll at its best and most uplifting.
Since both bands have topped JFH’s “Best Of” album list in the past few years, and both are releasing new albums this July (also, they just toured together at length), the two bands seem inexorably linked, and discussing them together just makes sense.
For Needtobreathe, I think their current hit streak goes from their third album (The Outsiders) to their last one (Rivers In The Wasteland) and quite possibly their upcoming one as well (July’s Hard Love). Switchfoot has been in full stride since Hello Hurricane.
The depth and creativity of the songs these two groups have released in their “prime” stand alongside the best in any period of Christian music. Switchfoot’s “Your Love Is A Song”, “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight”. “Vice Verses” and “When We Come Alive” are just four examples of the kinds of theologically rich, soul-searching songs that represent true artistic and spiritual depth. (Likewise with Needtobreathe’s “Something Beautiful”, “Lay ‘Em Down”, “Keep Your Eyes Open”, “Difference Maker” and “Brother”.)
Add to this some great cultural commentary (one of rock and roll’s great tasks) in Needtobreathe’s “White Fences”, “Where The Money Is” and “Money And Fame” and Switchfoot’s great take on the fear mongering of the modern news cycle (“Selling The News”) and the Church’s bad habit of emphasizing Heaven to the detriment of spiritual engagement down here (“Afterlife”), and you get two fully-formed artists plumbing some great depths of the human condition.
And what I think is the greatest achievement of both these bands, is that they have managed to exist simultaneously in the secular marketplace (I hear both on the overhead speakers at my local grocery store) and Christian music marketplace alike. A song like Needtobreathe‘s “Brother” hits on a universal truth that we all need each other, (like the theologian R.C. Sproul said, “all truth is God’s truth”) and is the kind of unique song that crosses over barriers. (Likewise with Switchfoot’s anthemic “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight.”) I wish more “Christian” bands could write these kinds of universal songs that show the depth of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. (Like Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman said to The Rolling Stone, “We’re Christians by faith, not by genre.”)
But it is also refreshing to turn on Air 1 radio and hear Needtobreathe and Switchfoot, (and to see them at my local Christian music fest.) They represent some of the best music on that station, and they are comfortable in that world too, doing interviews and “behind the music” background spots. I’m glad they make an effort to be in this neck of the radio dial too.
Both bands represent the best of what good art in the hands of a believer can do, and that they are both firing on all cylinders at the same time is a unique moment to be savored.
The consumption of music has changed immensely in 20 years. In early 1996, I remember hearing new music from Audio Adrenaline and Newsboys in tiny snippets on their new websites on the internet--which was a surreal and entirely new way of hearing music at the time. I remember hearing how raw and edgy the music sounded from both bands and getting really excited for what was ahead.
On Tuesday, February 20th, 1996, I remember going to my favorite local Christian bookstore to pick up copies of both Audio Adrenaline's "bloOm" and Newsboys' "Take Me To Your Leader." I also remember getting my hands on a free "Take Me To Your Leader" promo poster from the music section of the store and standing on my bed to hang it in on the wall in my room while listening to these albums (on the stereo on my desk) for the very first time.
Not only were these two very popular Christian musci acts that you could hear singles from on the radio, but they were rock bands. And it was a time when the music--at least to this writer--felt gritty and real, and lyrically visceral. A song like "Lost The Plot" from Newsboys was not a typical song you'd hear from a band like them -- and especially not now. Co-written by the band's drummer and co-vocalist Peter Furler and producer Steve Taylor (who currently fronts Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil with Furler as the band's drummer), the song was a clever rock ballad about the complacency of many believers... something that's far too relevant today still. Check out a portion of the lyrics here (and the full song lyrics here):
Let's be blunt.
We're a little unfaithful.
What do you want?
Are you still listenin',
'Cause we're obviously not.
We've forgotten our first love.
We have lost the plot.
And why are You still calling?
You forgave, we forgot.
We're such experts at stalling
That we've lost the plot.
There's still new music today that releases that's worth curling up on your bed and listening to while pouring over liner notes and digging into the music deeply, but it's a rarity--not only because music has changed so much (and the politics of how it's created and released), but because the WAY we consume music has changed so much too. We're less likely these days to have a musical product to hold in our hands to immerse ourselves in, considering how we can just instantly download the music to our phone, mp3 player, computer, etc at midnight on release day morning instead of having to wait to get to a store to grab a CD, cassette, vinyl, etc.
But, two decades later, I think these two albums have held up tremendously well. Unfortunately, Audio Adrenaline is virtually no more, existing mostly in-name-only with all new members and a more contemporary/worship sound (Original vocalist Mark Stuart had to quit due to vocal ailments), and Newsboys sound immensely different with DC Talk's Michael Tait on vocals (and there being a much greater focus on worship songs), while the rest of the members in the current band were present for "Take Me To Your Leader." Music production has also changed dramatically, with these albums displaying little imperfections and sound changes that wouldn't make through a pass in ProTools these days (You can actually hear the volume shift lower near the end of Newsboys' "God Is Not A Secret"). Even the structure of how albums were created and laid out has changed dramatically. Due to musical vendors like iTunes where you can buy just one song from any given album, labels and bands have had to rethink songwriting to try to write each song as singles.
These albums most certainly hold a special place in this reviewer's heart, especially since they were significant chapters in the soundtrack of my teenage years. And they're excellent albums to revisit to this day.
Do you own either of these historic records? Sound off with your favorite songs and memories below! We'd love to hear about them.
Being a music reviewer (or film or any other kind of art) can be a downer at times, because your intake of mediocre art can be too much. If you let it get to you, then you can wonder if there is anything good happening in your little corner of the music or art world, like somehow all the lights are slowly going out and you’re standing there trying to make sense of what is happening.
So it’s a needed joy to take into account all of the things you liked in the year that has past. It’s refreshing to unabashedly talk about what you thought was great art, and why it has lightened up your soul. Good music can be the best thing in the world. It can speak to your heart and brain like few other art forms, and when you bond with a particular piece of art, it comes to feel like an old friend. Many of the albums on my list already feel like that, like I’ve been listening to them for a long time, though they may be only a few months out of the proverbial womb.
And if your list, like mine, contains a lot of your long-time favorite artists, then it's critical to ask the question, “Do I love this album because I love the artist?” (in the same way I love one of my young daughter’s drawings because I love who it came from), or is this truly a stand-out piece of work that changes my life (not to put too dramatic a point on it).
It’s a salient question, and for me, the question of my musical year. With all these returning artists on my list, what is it about their latest offering that got me so jazzed up? It’s hard to separate the love of the artist and the love of the album, and knowing where one starts and the other stops is difficult. It’s a subject worth tackling.
By my mental arithmetic, eight of the listees (including honorable mentions) are "old friends" of mine (Andrew Peterson, Plumb, Jon Foreman, Matthew Perryman Jones, Mat Kearney, Josh Garrels, Burlap To Cashmere, Sara Groves), two are "acquaintances" that are rapidly becoming "good friends" (Rend Collective, Andy Mineo) and two feel like an artist I just met at a party and had a terrific conversation with (Lauren Daigle, The Gray Havens). So old friends and new, you all made my 2015 a year to remember by putting out the very best offerings these ears of mine heard. It’s a list of what I liked, not a defining “best of” anything (Adele, Darlingside, Mutemath and Coldplay put out a really great albums in the mainstream, too), but a list of spiritual pop that made my heart sing (and convicted it too) and my mind think deeper, rounder thoughts.
1. Lauren Daigle - How Can It Be
It’s pretty easy to write off a pop album. An “Album Of The Year” should be “dark” and “weighty” and have some kind of epic artwork that shows snowy mountains in the background, or so goes the conventional thinking. But I’ve been writing about music for almost twenty years now (thank you college newspaper!) and I can usually identify my “album of the year” upon first listen, and this year was no different. I liked Lauren Daigle’s song “How Can It Be” on the radio in the late winter, but it didn’t knock me out right away. The Adele comparisons were there, but when I queued up the album, that voice just filled up the room and the songs were a perfect fit. “First”, “Come Alive (Dry Bones)”, “O Lord” and “Salt And Light” are dynamo song sung to pieces by Daigle. Add to this the fact that she was the writer (or co-writer) of 90% of them, and you get a home run the first time at bat.
But the prospect of such and overt pop album being the best thing I heard this year troubled my egotistical writer’s nature, and I had to find something else. This couldn’t be it. What would the other critics say?
So I searched. And I searched some more.
I thought that Andrew Peterson’s “The Burning Edge Of Dawn” might be the challenger I longed for. And for a while there, it was touch and go. To break the stalemate I took both albums on a long drive with my lovely wife and listened to both back to back. Julie and I both agreed that Peterson’s album was great, but I didn’t hold together the way Daigles’ does, it doesn’t burst out of the speakers in quite the same way.
So I pulled into my driveway, switched off my minivan and accepted that the best thing I heard this year was a pop album that I never expected. Thank you Lauren. Your tunes were an encouragement to me and my family all year.
Before I bring my need / I will bring my heart / before I lift my cares
I will lift my arms / I wanna know You / I wanna find You / in every season
in every moment / before I bring my need / I will bring my heart / and seek You first
2.Andrew Peterson - The Burning Edge Of Dawn
I was eating in a restaurant with my family after a particularly tough basketball practice for my girls, when I saw that there had been another mass-shooting in California. I quickly asked the waiter if the TV could be switched off for a while so that my family could just eat in peace and enjoy each other’s company on a rainy Tuesday night in late November.
If only the evil in the world (or in my own heart) were that easy to turn off. But it will plague us till this world is made new again. But I’m tired to trying to explain evil acts, like a mass shooting, to my two daughters. I long for a day when there is only good news continually. Andrew Peterson has made this theme the strongest thread of his career. From his first album fifteen years ago to now, the longing for the world to be made new again is common thread through all his music (and books too) and is a message that will not, till that final day, be irrelevant.
I’ve been waiting for the sun / to come blazing up out of the night like a bullet from a gun
Till every shadow is scattered, every dragon's on the run / oh, I believe, I believe that the light is gonna come / and this is the dark, this is the dark before the dawn
3. Plumb - Exhale
Plumb is always a welcome voice in my house, and Exhale is an excellent worship album that comes from a hard-won bit of hope. Plumb has made no secrets about her difficult few last years (she’s written a book about it) and the lyrics to the title track, along with its fantastic melody and soaring, honest delivery, make it one of the best worship moments of the year. The rest of the album matches suit.
Just let go let His love wrap around you / and hold you close / get lost in the surrender
breathe it in until your heart breaks / then exhale / exhale
The world of Christian Music could use a lot more albums like Exhale; albums that portray an honest journey of faith and doubt, of hope and pain. In the near-future, when a veteran artist's sound, sensibilities and history collide like they do here, the result should be compared against this album as the metric of how to create a worshipful document of God's faithfulness through personal upheaval.
4. Jon Foreman - The Wonderland EPs
Though I always miss Switchfoot when he plays without them, Foreman is one my favorite lyricists and songwriters of all time, and I always welcome a visit from him. The Wonderland EPs are an epic idea for an album cycle that never quite matched its ambition to its songwriting. But it is still great in many places, and there are wonderful, folky songs all around, especially “Patron Saint Of Rock And Roll” (There’s a park downtown / where the homeless get ignored / where the church next door is a crowd
singing “Blessed are the poor” / where the Mercedes drive away / muttering, “druggies, drunks and whores” / where the bumper sticker displays / “My copilot is the Lord”)and “Your Love is Enough” (Who can find me in this darkness? / who will alone can help me stand? You could find a way to find me / even love me as I am / your love is enough
Your love is enough)
5. Mat Kearney - Just Kids
Kearney is five for five (or “four-and-a-half“) with quality albums, and he continues his run with the theme of taking a hard look at the past, then saying goodbye to it. With Just Kids, Kearney takes his most in-depth look at the subject yet. “Hearbreak Dreamers”, “Moving On” “Black Sheep” and the title track mine the fruitful subject of what it means to truly “grow up”. With shades of Paul Simon’s wondrous Graceland album, Just Kids is an opus to what it means for “life to be too short to stay where you are.”
And the best part of the whole package? Kearney’s hysterically terrible dancing in the Heartbeat video.
6. Josh Garrels - Home
How do you follow up one of the most ambitious albums of the last ten years, the one that put you on the map and won you legions of loyal fans? Well, if you're indie sensation Josh Garrels, you go slightly smaller. Home, the follow up to the massive (both in scope and theme) Love & War & the Sea In Between, is a decidedly scaled back effort, though not without its loud moments and big theme. But gone are the booming instrumental sections and dense word-play, and in their place are slightly mellower tunes reminiscent of Garrel's earlier releases, like Jacaranda and Over Oceans. But if album titles are any indication, Home was almost destined to be a more down-home work that the epically-titled Love & War.
7. Rend Collective - As Family We Go
These clever lads and lasses from Ireland have energy to burn, and they do it in service of some of the most upbeat and charged worship songs around. As Family We Go is pure nitro from the first song on. It would be nice if they moderated their tempos a bit, and I look forward to a slightly more nuanced batch of songs. (Actually, their Christmas album has a bit more depth of sound, which portends good things ahead.) But for pure uplift, Rend Collective is the place to go. The film companion for this album is one of the best intros to the band that you could get, and serves to fire me up if I’m finding myself dragging spiritually that day.
8. Sara Groves - Floodplain
Sara Groves is a quiet treasure of an artist, one who doesn’t overwhelm the senses at first, but grows on each listen. She’s like a gourmet meal, and Floodplain is a wonderful course in that meal. With a strong theme of battling anxiety and depression, Floodplain mines a fruitful geographic metaphor to talk about how some people’s lives are lived with a level of anxiety that most of us could never dream of.
Some hearts are built on a floodplain / keeping one eye on the sky for rain / you work for the ground that gets washed away / when you live closer
May we have compassion on those who’s emotional makeup is different than ours.
9. Andy Mineo - Uncomfortable
Live it up, live it up / nobody ever told us we could die like this
Live it up, live it up / corrupted by the comfort we (love, love)
Andy Mineo takes on false prosperity gospel straight on all throughout Uncomfortable, and it’s a welcome broadside against the subtly-evil teaching that God wants to bless you to the point of constant leisure. Now for sure, an over-correction can cause folks to be martyrs and reject all pleasures, Puritan style. But one of art’s best roles to play is to speak truth to power, and Mineo speaks (and raps, spits, sings and yells) loudly against an American Christianity all to often (and I’m including myself in this critique) more concerned with comfort and safety than in living the kind of life that Christ did. Being uncomfortable from time to time is a sign you’re heading in the right direction
10. Burlap To Cashmere - Freedom Souls
Veteran artists crowd-funding their new albums continues to be a great story in the world of music. Signed to Steve Taylor's influential indie label Squint (home of such great artists as Sixpence None The Richer and Chevelle) back in the late 90's, Burlap wowed audiences the world over with their breakneck acoustic mix of folk (particularly the Greek, World Music kind) and rock and roll, and sold over a half-million albums on their first trip up to bat. Lead singer and main songwriter Steven Delopoulos's meditations on the darker sides of spiritual life, combined with worshipful moments, made for a potent stew that continues with Freedom Souls, the band's latest release.
Freedom Souls is an excellent record, full of both bold, eclectic music (filling a particular need in a Christian Music scene filled with so many sound-alike artists) and a strong, story-like theme of wandering and redemption.
Music is one of God’s best gifts, and I’m glad to reflect on all the great albums and songs that have moved me (in many different ways) this year.
Have a great 2016, and may your ears keep finding good things to hear.
2015 may not have been the most exciting year for Christian music, but there are plenty of albums released that are worth celebrating! These 10 albums have impacted me in some way, whether they have challenged me to draw closer to Christ, made me think from a different perspective, encouraged me in my faith, or even just entertained me. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on these albums! Have any of them made your personal list? Are there any you haven’t had a chance to listen to yet? Let me know in the comments at the end of this post :)
1. Fire & Stone, The Gray Havens - The Gray Havens, a new indie band made up of husband and wife David and Licia Radford, have crafted a masterpiece with their debut LP Fire & Stone. Most bands need time to grow and mature before they put out something they are truly capable of--just look at the DC Talk, or even more recently Lecrae. The idea that Fire & Stone is the beginning of The Gray Haven's journey is extremely exciting to me. With lyrics that are thought-provoking, beautiful, moving, clever, and lighthearted, they present the Gospel in a poetic and artistic fashion. This is matched perfectly with their self-defined "narrative folk-pop" sound which contains so many musical intricacies that only dozens of listens could possibly uncover. This has been the go-to album for car rides with my wife, serving as pleasant background music or as a catalyst deep conversation. I've recommended it to just about every person who has asked me about new music this year--it is really an amazing piece of art. If you don't believe me go check out their Soundcloud or Bandcamp page where you can listen to the songs for yourself.
2. Mansion, NF - This young rap artist completely blew me away with his raw emotion and hard hitting beats. Mansion the only rap album to make my list this year (I haven't taken the chance to listen to Derek Minor's Empires all the way through and Andy Mineo made my honorable mentions), but man is it a good one. Of the 70+ reviews I've written so far for this site, this is the only one I've given a full five star rating. This album gets me excited every time I put it on, but it is also hard to put it on repeat because it so ridiculously weighty. The whole album is rock solid, but I especially love the songs "Paralyzed," "Face It," and "I'll Keep On." Side note: I found it quite funny how "I'll Keep On" was such a success on Christian radio. I was definitely happy to hear that people were hearing this amazing song, but it is by far the only "radio-friendly" song on the album. I can't imagine how many people bought the album for that song and startled themselves with the intense drop on "Intro."
3. Falling Up, Falling Up - It was hard enough to materialize words to describe this album the first time for a review, so I don't even want to try to do it again. Here is my 2 cents review: "On Falling Up's self-titled final album, lead singer Jessy Ribordy's delicate, emotional vocals are paired with stunningly beautiful and dynamic experimental rock landscapes to create an otherworldly musical experience. The meanings of these songs may be elusive to most, but these masters of the mysterious still manage to captivate with their extraordinarily intricate world of silver lawns and moon dogs. Falling Up's evolution over the past 11 years has been intriguing to witness, and it is only fitting that they close their journey with one of their most remarkable achievements to date." On a somewhat related note, their acoustic EP with five different versions of these songs and a B-Side called "The Harbor" make a nice accompaniment to this album.
4. Blurryface, Twenty One Pilots - This band is one of a kind. They aren't being marketed as a Christian band, but their lyrics are saturated with their faith. Tyler Joseph, who makes up half of Twenty One Pilots, is a fascinating front man who leaves a strong impression with his creative lyricism, energetic delivery, and heart-on-his-sleeves personality. The drum beats, courtesy of former live drummer of House of Heroes Josh Dun, are ridiculously fun and dynamic, and definitely part of the reason this music that makes it so addictive. They also do whatever they want. Ukulele? Sure! Time change? Done. There are no rules here. Blurryface was my first exposure to the phenomenon of Twenty One Pilots and while I've since checked out their label debut Vessels, there is something truly exceptional about this one.
5. You Were Never Alone, Emery - If you know anything about me, you know that I love rock music. It's easily my favorite genre. I recently named my Top 15 favorite artists of all time and the top 5 are all rock bands. The past few years have been somewhat disappointing for the genre, but as long as bands like House of Heroes and Emery exist I will be happy. There was no song of "Studying Politics" caliber on You Were Never Alone, but front to back this album is amazing. And even at that, "Pink Slip," "Rock, Pebble, Stone," and "Thrash" are really close. The album is catchy, thoughtful, and creative and Toby Morrell's voice is so impressive, and somehow even better when paired with Devin Shelton. Also, if you haven't taken the chance to check out the Break It Down podcast by Emery's own Matt Carter, it is really really interesting to learn how these songs came together. Each song is discussed for a substantial amount of time, but it is definitely worth listening!
6. of Beauty and Rage, Red - It took a long time for me to appreciate End Of Silence, but eventually I came around. I thought Innocence & Instinct found Red at the top of their game, but I became less and less interested as Until We Have Faces and Release the Panic were released. I wasn't sure what to expect going into of Beauty and Rage, but I listened with an open mind. Few albums have impressed me as quickly as of Beauty and Rage did. Even Fire & Stone (my number one pick) took a lot of time to get acquainted with and to fully appreciate its significance. But this album shot past all that because it encompasses everything I love about Red--hard hitting rock, emotionally charged vocals, and beautiful strings. "Darkest Part" is one of my favorite songs to come out this year, and there are plenty of other highlights like the spine-tingling ballad "Of These Chains" and the heavy-hitting "Falling Sky." It was also absolutely epic to listen to "Ascent" while driving through the Jotunheimen Mountains in Norway with my wife.
7. Breathe Again, Spoken - I've liked Spoken since A Moment of Imperfect Clarity first came out (it's still my personal favorite record from the band). Though Illusion contains a couple of my favorite Spoken songs ("Through It All" and "Shadow Over Me") for the most part it didn't grab my attention the way Echoes of the Spirit Dwell, A Moment of Imperfect Clarity, or Last Chance To Breathe did. With that in mind Breathe Again was a pleasant late year surprise. I've played it every chance I've had since I first received my Kickstarter download--it energizes me while I'm out running, serves as a great sing-along soundtrack riding in the car, and gives me a chance to do think and pray while walking to work. There are so many ways to enjoy this album. This was definitely a late addition to my list, so it's position here at #7 is not nearly as certain as the rest, but I'm confident it is somewhere between #7 and #10.
8. Into The Sea, Attalus - Into The Sea is Attalus' first release on a national label (Facedown) and they've already started on a such a strong foundation. This album will convict you of the sin in your life and challenge you to bring it to Jesus in surrender. Just reflect on these lyrics from "Desolate Aisle," "Are we so righteous we can make all the wrongs right? / Are we so enlightened we can turn darkness to light? / We're just the cynics proclaiming the flaws / We aim our polemic at political laws / We're fighting the symptoms because we can't see our greed is the cause." Not only does Attalus have a striking perspective of the human condition, but they know how to creatively communicate it. One song that positively and tangibly shook my faith was "Breath Before The Plunge" which tells the tale of a Christian martyr dying for his faith—and although it's fictional it provides a real sense of the unshakable faith of those who are at risk of being violently persecuted. I literally have cried while listening to this song, longing to have that kind of faith. But lyrics aren't all that is exciting about this band--Attalus' music uses typical alternative rock instruments to powerfully create reflective and chaotic soundscapes. This concept album is extremely lengthy, but it's a rewarding listen every time.
9. This Is Not A Test, TobyMac - Phew! After such a weighty album it's kind of funny that the "feel good" album of the year is next on the list. You just gotta love Toby's catchy beats, infectiously cheerful songwriting, and diverse pop landscapes. Some tracks ("Til The Day I Die," "Move") are stronger than others ("Undeniable") but overall this is a great album that proves Toby still has A LOT of passion and creative juices left in him. One cool thing about reviewing this album was receiving an exclusive B-side called "Love Of My Life" which is a fun dance-pop love song that I'm surprised didn't at least make it onto the deluxe edition!
10. Science Fiction, Jonathan Thulin - Prior to listening to Science Fiction I had only heard a few songs from The White Room. I only sat down to listen to it fully for the first time in preparation for my review. These two albums are vastly different. Instead of pursuing the "theater pop" style of The White Room, Thulin decided to take a more radio-friendly pop approach. On paper, it sounds like a creative step down, but I really think Thulin does an excellent job walking the line between accessibility and artistry. Catchiness and creativity often seem like two different goals, but on Science Fiction they work together to deliver memorable tunes that will have you singing along in no time. While the most fun tracks are found on the first half of the album, my favorites are found in the second half with "6 Feet Under," "Mockingbird (feat. Kevin Max & Shine Bright Baby)," and "The Ruins (feat. Moriah Peters)." This record slipped by under the radar this year, but it's only a matter of time before Thulin starts to become more noticed.
Where to begin with an album that means so many things to me (and so many others)? An album that is tied to so many great memories?
I would submit to you that this album is the perfect soundtrack for any activity, for any mood. Whether you're chilling, cleaning, studying, driving with the windows down, or worshipping. Now 20 years later, I still revisit this album multiple times a month and it's taken a large role in shaping who I am as a person and my musical tastes.
Jars of Clay met and formed at Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois in the early 1990's. Band members Charlie Lowell (keys) and Dan Haseltine (vocals) struck up a friendship over a shared love of the band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Although pursuing a career in music was never the goal, they quickly gained a following from music that they wrote together for a school class project. in 1994, they released a limited pressing of a demo titled "Frail" and decided to leave school to pursue a career in music.
Wikipedia has this to say about the album (and I concur):
"The album has been highly acclaimed, being one of few Christian albums of the mid-nineties to achieve platinum status. As the group's debut album, Jars of Clay introduced many internationally to the group and established the group due to their distinctive style."
This album also had the distinction of being one of very few to have great crossover impact on MTV and mainstream radio.
Personally, I first learned of Jars of Clay as my interest in Christian music began to bloom. I had just graduated middle school and was taking the coolest of all classes at youth group camp in the summer of 1995: watching and discussing christian music videos.
When I first saw and heard the strains of "Flood," I was hooked. I'd never heard anything like the pounding acoustic guitars that were as relentless as the rain they were singing about. The violin breakdown in the bridge? As far as my young ears were concerned, it was perfection in a pop song. I had to find out more about these guys, and soon after camp (not soon enough!), on that fateful day of October 25th, I purchased their cassette tape and proceeded to wear it out.
The best part, as my best friend and I were to discover, is that "Flood"--although a terrific song and most people's introduction to the band--wasn't even the best the album had to offer. In my opinion, that easily goes to "Worlds Apart," but I digress.
As I greedily dug deeper into the track listing (I still remember the smell of the liner notes), I quickly became a fan of the opening song "Liquid." With its beginning combination of harmonious "yeah's" and chanting monks (if you've never heard it, it sounds weird but it works), along with the tight strums of the acoustic guitars and strong drum beat, I'd found my go-to song. It was the following year at another youth camp upon hearing it on a souped-up sound system that it further nailed this down as "my" song.
My next memory of this album is singing along with my best friend in high school as he strummed the familiar notes of "Love Song for a Savior" and "Worlds Apart" as we hung out on weekends. A few years later in college, another friend and roommate frequently played "Worlds Apart," further cementing it as an all-time favorite song. There are many great lyrics, but the following have been the most meaningful to me personally:
"It takes all I am to believe
In the mercy that covers me
Did you really have to die for me?
All I am for all you are
Because what I need and what I want are worlds apart"
I don't know about you, but that cuts to my heart every time!
"Love Song for a Savior," although simple lyrically, may just be better than a majority of today's modern worship songs because of its innocence and purity of delivery.
"It seems too easy to call you 'Savior'
not close enough to call you 'God'
So as I sit and think of words I can mention
To show my devotion.
...I want to fall in love with you"
I typically find the simplest of expressions when straight from the heart to be the ones that draw my hearts affections to my Savior. This one just does that for me.
Two other musical standout tracks and personal favorite musically are the harmonies of "Like a Child" and the swirling strings on "Boy on a String."
Closing track "Blind" seems to be both directed at Pilate and at us.
Pilate, who wanted to rely on logic, had finally washed his hands of responsibility for Christ's blood...
"Crucify, and deny,
pass the blame and burn the mission
Till dust remains
and wash your hands"
You can't find
Any reason to believe in love
You are blind"
And us the often wayward believer...
"So you fight
And talk yourself out of believing
Any peace that you can't see"
"Blind" was a great way to end the album which brings me to my one (albeit small) quibble with the album, and that is the long run time of barely audible band practice and chatter between the end of "Blind" and a hidden gem of a song, "Four Seven." This song is basically a thesis statement for the band's name (which is taken from 2 Corinthians 4:7 and its mission as a band).
Aside from the annoyance of having to fast forward to get to the song, I felt like the song should have been given the full treatment, and placed earlier in the track listing. (A good fit could have been right after "Flood" and before "Worlds Apart.") But as I said, small quibbles. I think they remedied that small annoyance with the platinum re-issue of this album including "four seven" as an eleventh song.
Lastly, this album is one of very few from the 1990's that I believe still holds up lyrically as well as musically to this day. Others might say that the drum loops and acoustic guitar on this album haven't aged well, but I would politely and emphatically disagree. If you missed this one, or weren't yet born, you should definitely give it a spin!
What is Jars of Clay up to now:
Still making music and touring (albeit at a much smaller and more infrequent pace) with their most recent full length original album Inland released in 2013. They continue to pursue a pairing of their deep and poetic lyrics with any and all styles and genres of music, as they've explored americana, bluegrass, 80's, prog rock, acoustic, worship, and indie styled music since their debut. Jars of Clay is also one of the rare bands from the era who now 20 years later has kept the same lineup which I applaud. One hopes that there are many more years of their brand of insightful, smart pop which I believe is under appreciated but sorely needed.