With the recent release of the JFH official staff picks for 2013 and more in-depth blogs about the individual picks of John, Alex and Mark, Michael Weaver joins in with a look into his top albums (and honorable mentions) of this year's album releases...
1. Fear Inside Our Bones, The Almost - Aaron Gillespie has been quite busy since deciding to leave Underoath. Between writing a solo worship album and touring for said album, as well as The Almost, he’s had a full schedule. While I was looking forward to Fear Inside Our Bones, I wasn’t looking for it to top my list; I wasn’t even looking for it to be an album that landed on my Top 10 list this year at all. Instead, what I was given was an album I listened to more than any other this year. Reviewing some albums can honestly be a chore. When you get ahold of a weaker album -- I will not mention any names -- it’s tough to keep listening in order to give it a fair shake. That was simply not the case with this record. I honestly enjoyed every song on this album and, while I did consider a couple of others for the top stop, there wasn’t really a competition for it. If you’ve never been a fan of The Almost in the past, it’s time you give them another shot. This alt-rock album with a slightly southern flare is sure to please most rock fans.
2. Saloon, The Ongoing Concept - I was completely unfamiliar with their music. Basically, I watched the lyric video for “Cover Girl” and thought, “This sounds decent enough.” That was the understatement of the year. This album brings a metalcore sound with a wild west feel that is ridiculous. Saloon is catchy and fun and reminiscent of early Showbread. Any metal fan should at least give this one a shot. Some people may not agree that metal music should have pianos and B3 organs mixed with heavy guitars, but these guys pull it off with a near flawless execution. The Ongoing Concept provided the surprise of the year for me and is easily my favorite new artist of 2013. Solid State Records still has a good eye for talent.
3. The Water & The Blood, Dustin Kensrue - Mars Hill Music has been doing an excellent job of acquiring worship leaders for their different campuses. Thrice front man Dustin Kensrue was the most interesting of the bunch for me. While Thrice has always been lumped in with Christian bands by many (even if the band wasn't keen on the idea), and Kensrue himself has never shied away from his spiritual beliefs, he’s simply not a guy I figured for a worship leader. Well, I was wrong. The Water & The Blood displays worship music with an indie rock sound similar to that of a Kings of Leon or NEEDTOBREATHE mixed with a bit of folk influence found in his previous solo works. The formula ultimately offers up honest and sound worship music. Even better are the lyrics: theologically deep and far from cliché. Anyone who knows me, or has read a couple of my reviews, probably knows that I have many issues with the course that modern worship music is on. Dustin Kensrue has delivered what’s probably, quite honestly, my favorite worship album ever.
4. Royal Flush, FLAME - FLAME is far from an unknown commodity, but I still hold to the fact that this guy is severely overlooked and underrated. This super-talented rapper has been nominated for a ton of awards and always loses out to someone else. He also seems to be rarely mentioned by fans of CHH when names like Lecrae take the spotlight. Awards and accolades mean nothing to FLAME, though. After interviewing him about a month ago, it’s obvious that he is only about spreading the love of Christ to others. Royal Flush definitely accomplishes that. For me, this was the hands-down top rap album of the year. FLAME is on top of his game and has released his best album to date. God has given you the Royal Flush; what do you plan to do with the winning hand?
5. Backdraft, Fallstar - Fallstar shifted from the indie label Come&Live! to Facedown Records -- a more established label (especially in the metal genres). Backdraft is a record that provided me with tons of listening fun. Straight up metal, metalcore and the interesting hip-hop within “Alexandria 363” is spread throughout. Fallstar have stepped into the spotlight and delivered. From the great music to the fun album cover, Backdraft is a must-have for metal fans.
6. Between Here & Lost, Love and Death - Brian “Head” Welch and company didn’t release the most original rock album of the year, but they released one of the most solid overall. With sounds that were similar to his solo album and that of his former (and now current band again) Korn, Head knows the formula for success. Between Here & Lost added melodic elements in with the heavy on the musical side of the spectrum, and thankfully featured Brian being much more comfortable with his role as lead singer. Musically and vocally better than Save Me From Myself, Between Here & Lost is a great album well worthy of its spot on my Top 10 list.
7. Unworthy/Humility, Creations - I fully expected Creations to provide me with just another generic metal album to pass the time. Upon first listen, I thought that is exactly what I got. With each subsequent listen, I discovered so much more. Buried deep within the heaviness of it all are small subtleties that really set it off. Every time I listened, I heard something new and interesting. I can see how this record could be quickly passed off after only one listen, but, if you were guilty of this, I urge you to listen again -- this time more intently. This impressive metal album unexpectedly snuck its way right onto my Top 10.
8. Inland, Jars of Clay - Jars of Clay once again sits atop of our JFH site average list. Many people think very highly of Jars and rightly so. I fell in love with Jars of Clay way back at youth camp when I first heard “Flood.” When I got home, I immediately bought the single (on cassette and CD) and forced my parents to listen to it repeatedly. (In the end, they were actually pretty thankful and are still fans today.) Once the debut finally released, I found myself even deeper in love. Jars of Clay were revealed to me at a time when I was REALLY starting to embrace music and were probably my first favorite band. All of these years later, Jars of Clay is still relevant and still making great music. They manage to recreate themselves with each album, but still stay true to who they are. While Inland wasn’t my personal favorite for 2013, it is more than worthy of claiming the site’s top spot. I already can’t wait for their next.
9. Engine of a Million Plots, Five Iron Frenzy - When Five Iron Frenzy called it quits, I was heartbroken. I still count myself thankful for being able to attend one of the dates on their farewell tour. When they announced their reunion, and the Kickstarter campaign to fund it was so ridiculously successful, I honestly got a bit worried. Expectations were probably higher for this album than any other Christian album... ever -- at least in recent history. When I got my hands on this to review it, a nervous anxiousness came over me as I hit play. Once the music came to a halt after “Blizzards & Bygones,” I sat back in disappointment. I didn’t think it was a bad record, but it wasn’t what the long time FIF in me wanted. I wanted ska. I wanted funny songs. I wanted an awe-inspiring worship number that puts all worship artists to shame. I basically got none of that. After a couple of days, I listened for the second time without any expectations and started to become pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t the album the fan in me wanted, but I think it was the right album for Five Iron at the time. It’s still lyrically deep, though maybe not their best, and musically as solid as ever. Engine of a Million Plots will not go down as my favorite Five Iron Frenzy record, but it was a great comeback and managed to find its way inside my top 10 albums of 2013.
10. Kings and Queens, Audio Adrenaline - I think most people would agree that Audio Adrenaline today is not really Audio Adrenaline. One founding member in a band, especially when it’s not the lead singer, does not make it the original band. At least the change in Newsboys has happened over time... Audio A went from non-existent to reformed, with basically all new people, overnight. Though it’s very strange that the powerhouses of the nineties have switched teams, Kevin Max (Smith)’s vocals are still just flat-out amazing. The guy has always been a little quirky, but, man, can he sing. While it’s so obvious that Kings and Queens is not an Audio Adrenaline album (even though their name appears on the cover), it's undeniably a great pop/rock record. It took a while to get this out of my CD player after purchasing it and I still like revisiting it now. This one was honestly close to being on the outside looking in at the top 10, but in the end, I just couldn’t leave it out. Maybe it was just nostalgia, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one anyway.
As with every year, it’s tough to narrow the list down to only 10. I was really happy with Christian music in 2013, heard a lot of great albums, and discovered some amazing new talent. The actual posting had no room for honorable mentions, but here I can let you know about them.
1. Line in the Sand, Close Your Eyes - It really hurts that this didn’t land on my Top 10; I’ve actually even stressed a little about it not being there. This record was off-the-charts good and that’s quite impressive after a couple of changes of lead singers between albums.
2. Extol, Extol - These death metal veterans returned with a vengeance. After such a long leave of absence, it was great to have these guys back. This was a great heavy album and proved that Extol haven’t lost a step or forgotten how to write brilliant material. Extol’s return became my favorite album by these legends of the industry.
3. On My Way to the Sun, John Elefante - I’ve been a John Elefante fan for a while. John graced us all with a great progressive rock album reminiscent of his 70’s and espcially 80’s years. The former Kansas front man released a superb album that garnered a lot of play time for me.
4. 8:18, The Devil Wears Prada - TDWP continue to grow and improve with time. I really don’t know what else can be said for this awesome album that revolves around Romans 8:18.
5. Minorville, Derek Minor - Derek Minor (formerly PRo) is back with some powerful messages. For me, this wasn’t Derek’s best, but it’s seriously hard hitting. The messages in songs like “Dear Mr. Christian” are a necessity for today’s generation. It’s a solid album that all hip-hop fans should spin at least once.
6. No More Hell to Pay, Stryper - Michael Sweet still has an amazing set of pipes. These kings of 80’s glam metal have returned with their best since the smash To Hell With the Devil. I finally listened to this one late in the year, but it was still in contention for a top spot. It’s a fun record with great music and a straightforward and Godly message. Stryper is back and bringing that familiar Stryper sound with an added modern twist.
We've been picking our Year-End favorites in Christian music for 11 years now, but we've always kept the lists themselves pretty straightforward as titles and artists only. This year, we thought it'd be fun for any of the staff who were interested to present their lists (in addition to the official compilation of staff members) in blog format with our own commentary on why the albums were picked. Alex and Mark have already weighed in, and I thought I'd follow suit.
- Inland, Jars of Clay -- I realize this'll show my age some, but back in 1995, I first saw Jars of Clay open for PFR before their self-titled debut even released. My older brother actually ended up liking their live show more than I did, but it didn't stop me from grabbing his album preview cassette (remember those?) and listening to it over and over while waiting for the full CD to release. I ended up calling my local Christian bookstore every couple weeks to find out when the much-delayed album was going to be in stock (the date kept moving apparently...the internet would have been nice to have at this point in time). So, since 1995, when I was a freshman in high school, I've been listening to Jars of Clay pretty faithfully. There isn't a single other band I can think of that I can tell you that I've listened to from the age of 15 to today at 33 where not a single one of their members have left (or have been added) and they haven't broken up and reunited at some point. I've listened to Jars as a teen, when I started JFH (I even saw them in concert the same night I started JFH), during my dating years, while engaged, newly married, trying to figure out adulthood, entering into parenthood, and trying to adjust to change and getting older. You can realistically look at where Jars of Clay was when they started, musically and lyrically, and where they are today and see incredible growth and maturation. So, all of that is to say that Inland hits home now as an adult about as much as the debut did when I was in my mid-teens. I'm quite thankful these guys are still at it full-time.
- The Glorious Unfolding, Steven Curtis Chapman - In the same way that I started listening to Jars as a teen, I first started listening to Steven Curtis Chapman when I was around 14 years old, and a fairly new believer. His album Heaven In The Real World struck a major chord with me as someone looking for hope during those perplexing, trying teenage years. (Let's face it: high school is TOUGH!) His songs have always resonated with me, and The Glorious Unfolding has already been speaking volumes into my own life. I've already turned to songs like the title track and "Take Another Step" as a soundtrack for the current season of life.
- Need You Now, Plumb - You're going to see a pattern here... Plumb is another band I started listening to right out of the gate with their debut in 1996. The industrial rock sound that Plumb displayed (y'know, before Tiffany adopted "Plumb" as her name instead of as a band name) was cool and different for the Christian music industry, but it isn't the sound that she would become known for. Need You Now has not only been a longtime coming, but it's a record that, like The Glorious Unfolding and Inland, represent seasons in these veteran musicians' lives, and seasons I can relate to as a longtime fan and listener who's grown along with them.
- Reanimated, Family Force 5 - Hey, there's something to be said for guilty pleasures. Family Force 5 was a band I first experienced at GMA Week 2005 in Nashville, TN and was immediately captivated by their fun-loving live show. It's really not my typical kind of music, either, but there's just something about them that I've always loved. Reanimated captured some more of the fun that seemed to be in short supply on their album III, while offering a couple of their new live fan favorites (like "Chainsaw"). And with Solomon "Soul Glow Activatur" Olds' recent announcement that he has left the band, this collection serves as his swan song as vocalist and an end of an era.
- Fading West EP, Switchfoot - Some will find my inclusion of a 3-song sampler EP on a year-end list as a cop-out (especially since I can tell you pretty confidently already that Fading West will be somewhere on my 2014 year-end list), but I feel like I have good reason... Aside from the fact that Switchfoot is another band I've listened to since their 1997 debut, The Legend of Chin, when I was a senior in high school, Switchfoot has been another band to write songs that have spoken to me throughout many of the chapters of my life. I downloaded this EP from iTunes while sitting in a hotel lobby in Switchfoot's hometown of San Diego, CA. I'd never been to California before, but my older brother moved there almost 9 years ago and we'd made our first visit to the left coast to visit them this year when his first child was born (she's the most adorable little niece I could ask for! but I digress...). I was taken back by the immensely poppy sound of the new Switchfoot songs, but with more listens, I began to see something different in them (plus, hey, it was just really cool listening to their music IN San Diego for the first time since I first heard them 16 years ago!). [Side note: I'm still not a fan of their Oh! Gravity. album, aside from a couple songs--like "Awakening", so I'm not just one of those fans that is quick to love everything a band does.] Since first listening to this EP, I've seen the Fading West film and gotten the chance to hear where these songs fit into the movie as part of its soundtrack. I've also heard all three songs live, and I've been listening to the full-length album that releases in a few weeks. I can honestly say I love this EP and it represents a memorable chapter of my year this year. (And, quite frankly, I loved this 3-song EP more than most of the year's full-length albums...even if I'm still partial to Switchfoot's Vice Verses kind of sound)
- Troubled Days, Seabird - Seabird is a great example of a band I didn't fully "get" until I saw them perform live in concert at a festival while they were touring their debut album. Now, they're fully indie and have self-produced their latest record, Troubled Days. It didn't disappoint and was surprisingly a melancholy commentary on love, lost love, and perseverance in love. It's something most anyone who's been in a relationship can really relate to... just keep some tissues on hand.
- Live, All Sons & Daughters - If you've been reading JFH for any amount of time, not only will you notice that we collectively, as writers, look for art in music to be married with worshipful lyrics, but I myself am very, very (very, very) picky when it comes to worship music. Trust me, it's nothing I'm proud of. If anything, I'd love to be able to pop on any given worship album and blissfully connect with our Savior through the music. However, it's not the case for me at all. Worship music that stands apart from the norm, doesn't subscribe to overly simplistic instrumentation, structure, overused phrases, over-sung choruses, or subpar vocals, seems to be near impossible to find. But with All Sons & Daughters, we have a pairing of artists who not only can sing, but really know how to write a great song that can be used in corporate worship or in a more intimate setting. Personally, I feel like a lot of LIVE worship albums have a "you just had to be there" feeling, while some can really pull you into the experience. (I'm more partial to intimate worship considering how some big, loud, boisterous live worship albums can seem too showy) All Sons & Daughters' LIVE album is a near perfect presentation because it's got the energy of a live album but the sound of a more intimate experience. It's easily my favorite worship album of 2013. Nothing else comes close.
- Freaks, The Hawk In Paris - Speaking of guilty pleasures, if you haven't heard of The Hawk In Paris, you may be surprised to know that it's Jars of Clay vocalist Dan Haseltine's side project. It's not really a CCM market release (although he did give us permission to cover it with that understanding), but it's a batch of synth-pop anthems for the soldiers on the battlefield of love. It's very different from Jars but fans of Dan's day job will probably find a lot to like about this one. (I mean, c'mon... he's got a song with the chorus "Our love is science fiction"!)
- Currents, Eisley - Eisley's The Valley was a very different record for them, but it spoke to the different experiences of my own romantic ups and downs throughout my own life. Currents was more of a return to form for the band (I also loved Combinations and this more closely follows that album in feel), and is definitely an album I haven't overplayed, so it's still a treat to revisit each time. (And be sure to grab the live acoustic versions they released exclusively through iTunes!)
- Black and White, Tal & Acacia - Tal & Acacia's label debut Wake Me surprised me. Equally surprising was Provident Label Group's blatant dropping of the ball in promoting that fine record. (Really. Just because it didn't fit AC Christian radio didn't mean it didn't have some serious gems on it!) It had a mix of fun and serious with some truly impressive vocals from these sisters at its forefront. Their follow-up, Black & White, was entirely fan-funded via Kickstarter and self-produced by the girls. It's a much more laid back and raw (production-wise) album compared to Wake Me, but there's something so infectiously charming about these two that it makes it quite difficult to ignore. I really hope it won't be too long before we hear new music again from these gals again.
And that's it. I did have a few other albums warring for my top 10. For kicks, here they are: Five Iron Frenzy, Engine of a Million Plots .... Justin McRoberts, K .... Arrows & Sound, Arrows & Sound .... Newsboys, Restart (It's still not "Newsboys" without Furler to me, but it's a catchy record nonetheless), and Audio Adrenaline, Kings & Queens (likewise, it's not really AudioA as I know them without Mark, but Kevin Max's incredible vocals make this a top pop rock album)
-- John DiBiase
And yet another year in music is drawing to an end. Like any year, there were plenty of great albums released, as well as plenty of doozies and plenty of albums in between. I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone that I didn’t listen to all of them. BUT, I listened to a lot of them. In fact, at this exact moment in time, I calculate that I have listened to 87 albums (covered by this site) released in the calendar year of 2013, covering a wide variety of genres. And I honestly really liked a lot of them. To be honest, I had a genuinely difficult time narrowing it down to just ten, both in spite of and thanks to the fact that other than my album of the year (and possible #2 too), there were no albums that I fell head-over-heels in love with. But narrow it down I had to, so I did. As such these are my personal top ten albums of the year…
1. Beautiful Eulogy Instruments of Mercy
I direct you to my review. Nothing more need be said.
2. Plumb Need You Now
Prior to Need You Now, Plumb had made five high-quality records, with Chaotic Resolve being the best of the bunch. But this record easily bests all five in my book. A superb balance of accessibility and artistry that pulls my emotional strings in all the right places, Plumb’s album is pop/rock gold.
3. Derek Webb I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry, & I Love You
Another artist with a proven track-record of quality, Webb has no fear of being provocative. But on I Was Wrong…, he turns his sharp tongue on himself and he delivers his most introspective effort ever, as well as his most organic and inviting album in years.
4. Steven Curtis Chapman The Glorious Unfolding
Allow me to indulge myself by mentioning this quality record from my personal favorite artist. The Glorious Unfolding is unequivocal proof that Chapman can reach across generation lines as well no as he could twenty years ago, making high-quality contemporary pop/rock that is still as relevant now as it ever was.
5. Audrey Assad Fortunate Fall
Last year’s offering from Assad was my introduction to her captivating piano pop, but while Heart was without doubt a quality record and I certainly enjoyed it, I personally found it less than enthralling. Fortunate Fall, however, enthralls me. Stripping all away but Assad’s voice and a piano (with sparse instrumentation), this soothing, liturgical worship record was nothing less than phenomenal.
6. Daniel Amos Dig Here Said The Angel
Seventeen years before I was born, Daniel Amos was formed while Christian Rock was still a child. In 2013, I heard my introduction to Daniel Amos through the band’s 14th studio album (and first in 12 years), Dig Here Said The Angel. Their alt rock sound is so timeless that they could sound at home in any one of the last five decades.
7. Jars of Clay Inland
When a band reaches the heights and prestige that Jars of Clay has, expectations become almost impossible, so the foursome has wisely decided to ignore them and simply make high quality music. Inland is a more melancholy album than I personally would have preferred (hence, why it’s “only” number seven), but the quality, originality, and all-around effort is undeniable and incredible.
8. John Elefante On My Way To The Sun
Having never before heard of John Elefante, I chose to review On My Way To The Sun almost by random impulse. In hindsight, I am very tempted to attribute that impulse to nothing less than divine influence. Drawing inspiration from classic and progressive rock and 90’s contemporary (among others), the former Kansas lead singer and prolific Christian Rock producer delivered my personal surprise album of the year.
9. Stryper No More Hell To Pay
I’ll be honest; I like Stryper, and appreciate their immense impact on Christian music, but I’ve never been too impressed with their music. Not until No More Hell To Pay. By far the group’s most mature and complete work, No More Hell To Pay delivers an album that is both quintessential classic Stryper metal and a refreshing update to their sound (rather than one-or-the-other like their other 21st century albums).
10. Falling Up Midnight on Earthship/Falling Up Hours
These two albums together (along with a book) form the Machine De Ella Project, released track-by-track over a period of over four months. Though not technically related (and admittedly written for different fanbases), these albums complement each other wonderfully between the drawn-out experimental effort Hours and the more mellow, ethereal Midnight on Earthship.
Thankfully, my list of honorable mentions need not be confined to ten, and if the readers might indulge me for my overwhelming gushing, I will take great liberties with that freedom. These albums may not have cracked my top ten, but I’d be no less satisfied with it if they would have…
All Sons & Daughters Live: probably the best pure worship album of the year.
The Almost Fear Inside Our Bones: The first half of this album was album-of-the-year material.
Andy Mineo Heroes For Sale: Excellent and diverse hip-hop from Reach Record’s newest star.
Arrows & Sound Arrows & Sound: Indie experimental at its best from the former Remedy Drive member.
The Digital Age Evening:Morning: The former DC*B members deliver an excellent debut album with room to improve.
Dustin Kensrue The Water And The Blood: Creative, theologically dense worship music from the former Thrice frontman.
The Ember Days More Than You Think: Gorgeous indie worship and the last album to be cut from my top-10.
Extol Extol: I may not be the biggest metal fan, but this was too good to ignore.
Golden Youth Quiet Frame; Wild Light: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t discover this one until my list had been made.
Hillsong UNITED Zion: A phenomenal musical and lyrical upgrade to Hillsong’s usual fare
Least Of These Change Will Come: Aggressive indie rock with a offered as a free gift.
Norma Jean Wrongdoers: By far my personal favorite Norma Jean album
The Ongoing Concept Saloon: Wild, chaotic, awesome, unpredictable western influenced metalcore
Phil Wickham The Ascension: Solid modern worship even by Wickham’s high standards.
Steven Curtis Chapman Deep Roots: Organic bluegrass renditions of hymns and past hits from my favorite artist.
Tal & Acacia Black & White: Delicious bluesy pop from two sisters with phenomenal vocal chemistry
The Walking Tree We Are Instruments: More aggressive indie rock offered as a free gift.
Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell's Staff Picks 2013 Thoughts
1. Jars Of Clay - Inland
People listen to music for wildly different reasons. Some folks need something to be on in the background during a shift at work, something to occupy their mind or fill up the lonely space around them. Some folks just need to party, and music serves as a catalyst for the good times. Some just like a catchy tune to sing along to.
I’m fine with all this, but I’m always on the lookout for something that moves me, engages all the senses. Melody is necessary, but thoughtfulness and purpose are important too. Music that sticks with me beyond the first listening is what I’m looking for. One Direction might have a catchy song (I saw them on Saturday Night Live a week ago), but that song didn’t really say anything. It was like a piece of candy; yummy but ultimately empty and vacuous.
And no other album hit all those requirements this year like Jars Of Clay’s Inland. It has a strong sense of purpose and theme (not just getting older, but maturing) married to memorable and tuneful songs.
It all started for me with the title. I read a post when the band announced the album’s name, and I was immediately struck with the possibilities of that one word - “inland.”
You see, I’m from the coast of Maine, and I know what it means to go inland. It’s a trip, a hike, a journey. You are leaving what is familiar and traversing into the unknown. The true pioneers of our country went inland; the timid folks remained near the coast and settled.
And Jars Of Clay did exactly what I hoped they would with the title; they used it as a great metaphor for growing up, maturing, and making better decisions. It’s a hike to get away from the coast, from what is usual and familiar, but it’s a trip worth taking. There are mountains to cross, but what you get on the other side is worth the hard work, and is so much better that moldering on the coast. It’s worth it to push inland.
The song titles alone are worth the price of admission. “Reckless Forgiver” (I sure need one everyday), “Love In The Age Of Immature Mistakes” (experienced it, made some big ones), “Love In Hard Times” (had some to get me through), “Loneliness And Alcohol” (we’ve all experienced loneliness, thankfully I knew from a very early age that substances are never a good solution to turn to, thanks mom and dad.)
Production wise, the album is full of sharp songwriting and great performances and great instrumental choices. And Dan Haseltine’s witty, insightful lyrics bring everything home. It’s the total package, and a blueprint for how to mature as a band.
May we all continue to march “inland”.
2. Aaron Sprinkle - Water & Guns
It’s great when a veteran makes a great, unexpected return. Aaron Sprinkle was the main songwriter in beloved 90’s alternative band Poor Old Lu, and he last put out a solo album in 2004, the fantastic compilation that was ironically titled Lackluster. Since then he has been the in-house producer for the Tooth & Nail/ BEC collective. The label kindly let him release this sugarcoated convection of an album this year. Sounding like Sprinkles’ current band Fair mixed with Postal Service type soundscapes, Water & Guns is a bottom to top great album of tuneful songs that prove that what makes you dance and smile can also make you think, feel and ponder.
It’s a wondrous thing when technology is incorporated into music, and somehow makes the music seem more human and emotional in the process. Aaron Sprinkle, who I fist heard back in the early 90’s, shows he knows how to write a hook-filled album that also speaks of deeper truths and rugged faith.
3. Over The Rhine - Meet Me at the Edge of the World
I first saw Over The Rhine live at a small church in Philadelphia in the fall of 1996. I still have not recovered from that concert. They were touring with the Vigilantes Of Love, and that show maintains its number one status as the best show I have ever seen.
And Over The Rhine has never put out a bad album either. Meet Me at the Edge of the World is a wondrous double album that finds main songwriter Linford Detweiler singing alongside his wife more and more, and the harmonies this couple weaves in and out are worthy of Simon and Garfunkle. The album swings from folk-rock to blues to rock and roll and back again. At almost two hours of music, Over The Rhine continues to turn out rich and meaningful music well into their twentieth year.
This band is a well-kept secret that is told more and more every year.
4. Five Iron Frenzy - Engine Of A Million Plots
I had forgotten how much Reese Roper and company made me think as I was skanking away in the mosh pits of my college years. Some of the boldest lyrics in the Christian music marketplace made Five Iron Frenzy a treasure. The band has questioned the American church’s love affair with the right wing of this country, and the glossing over of history when it comes to marginalized people. Taking on gun-culture (“lock and load, just like Jesus did!”) and the soft racism that parades itself as much of “immigration reform” (be scared of brown people, even if they are providing the services that allow you to eat that cheap cheeseburger!) Back in the day, few youth group leaders realized that their kids were listening to critiques of the military-industrial complex or America’s treatment of its Native American population. It’s possible that Five Iron Frenzy was the most subversive thing on the Christian Bookstore’s shelves.
Five Iron has a sneaky way of making you think while you shake about. Their sound here is matured, but familiar. This is a blueprint for how to make a return, rock the body, illuminate the mind.
5. Beautiful Eulogy - Instruments Of Mercy
I am way out of my depths discussing hip-hop. I have very little experience with the genre and I’m constantly afraid of making blundering, mildly-racist observations when the topic comes up. Being from rural Maine does not lead to much perspective here, but Instruments Of Mercy seems like so much more than just beats and rhymes. Genuine instrumentation is the order of the day, and a deep artistry of matching music to themes bursts out of the speakers. “Cello From Portland” opens up the album well (despite its painful pun) and “Vital Lens” and the title track mesh acoustic guitars and pianos to fierce and thoughtfully spit out lyrics. The ending of “Instruments Of Mercy” with its sung ending coda shifts from a hip hop number to a folky, campfire sing along with ease. The takedown of the miserable prosperity gospel that pervades television and bookshelves on “Symbols and Signs” sounds like an updated version of a Old Testament prophet standing on a hill outside Jerusalem and taking down a corrupt kind who would use Jehovah for personal gain. More power to you Beautiful Eulogy.
6. Gungor - I Am Mountain
I think I’ve hit on a theme here, because I Am Mountain might be the most subversive and thought provoking thing currently sitting on your local Christian bookstore’s music shelf.
Coming from a band who made their mark in worship music and touring with the likes of David Crowder Band, Gungor’s new album contains songs that sound like the list of following influences: Sufjan Stevens, 80’s soft rock band Toto, the auto-tuned tendencies of the last few years, the dance music of Daft Punk and the film scores of Ennio Morricone (The Good The Bad And The ugly).
But beyond the wild mix of influences, the questions asked by I Am Mountain make me glad that they took a risk and followed their consciences in making something that was not “safe” but was “true” to the Christian tradition of questioning the status quo. “God An Country”, a song that traces the history of the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels and the wars that dependence has sparked, is probably not played on the loudspeakers very often at your local Family Christian Bookstore, though maybe it should be. This album is the spiciest tamale’ currently in circulation.
7. Citizens - Citizens
By now, most folks know what “worship music” is supposed to sound like (mid-period U2 and Coldplay, with a touch of Pink Floyd for the daring), but Citizens have come charging out of Portland, Oregon (a great city for subversive art and culture, see the show “Portlandia” for further research) with a poppy, punk-rock take on worship. The same vertical lyrics are present, but they are delivered on a bed of spiky guitars and vocals that are anthemic, inspiring and refreshing.
8. Audio Adrenaline - Kings and Queens
I wish these guys would have just gone ahead and named their band something else, because one founding member does not a band resurrection make, especially if that band’s lead singer is well known from his time in another beloved band. It’s like Sting fronting Pearl Jam and still calling the band Pearl Jam. It’s just a silly marketing tactic based on name recognition.
Having said that, the album Kings And Queens is a really tuneful slice of pop-rock that sounds great on the highway and has ten songs that sound like summer and surfing. “Believer” and “Kings And Queens” soar in that way that my ears love, and the video for the title track is heart felt and inspiring in all the right ways.
These guys got back together to raise awareness for the band’s longtime commitment to the orphans of Haiti, and that makes this a comeback that I can get behind and trumps my (mostly surface-level) objections. “Boys will be kings, girls will be queens when we love the least of these.”
9. Plumb - Need You Now
This is another welcome comeback in a year full of them. Tiffany Arbuckle Lee has always had a knack for the dramatic, and it serves her well here on tunes like “Drifting” and the pleading and worshipful title track. The mix of industrial crunch and alternative rock set against Plumb’s wailing voice and great songwriting make Need You Now a comeback worth waiting for. Arbuckle Lee reportedly had a few tough years leading up to the release of this album, and that makes the title all that more important and resonant.
10. Fiction Family - Fiction Family Reunion
When does Jon Foreman sleep? Does he write a song every night before he goes to bed? Does he own stock in Red Bull? Is he currently sitting on twenty albums worth of material?
I hope so. His songs with Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins are folkier versions of Switchfoot songs, but retain the great lyrics (“God Badge being another Old Testament style takedown of shallow religion) and fantastic melodies fans have come to love.
Top 10 Songs of 2013:
1. Switchfoot - “Love Alone is Worth the Fight”
This song does what I hope every new song I hear will do; inspire me to get up, get out of my comfort zone and go live this life God gave me to the fullest. There are few things worth fighting for, most of our struggles down here are for silly things; things that are passing and are honestly a waste of precious personal energy and resources. Love alone is worth the fight. If you mix soaring music with a worthy message then you have me every time. Currently, Jon Foreman and Switchfoot do this for me more than anyone else out there right now. This is a lyric I have written down, put in my pocket and hope to live out every day. Loving my neighbor as myself is a good way to “put my God badge down.” Thank you Switchfoot.
2. Jars Of Clay - “Reckless Forgiver”
Why does God forgive? Why does he show grace? It seems pretty reckless to me, like I’m only going to break his heart again. For that matter, why does my wife extend me grace, why do my daughters? It’s hard to understand, but no less real.
I need a reckless forgiver. I’m so often a mess. It really is amazing grace.
3. Jason Gray - “With Every Act Of Love”
“God put a million doors in this world for his love to walk through. One of those doors is you.” Amen. Jason Gray’s music is consistently the best that you will hear on Christian radio.
4. Aaron Sprinkle - “Giving Up The Gun”
…a great song of hitting bottom, surrendering and seeing that the rescue you need is closer than you realized.
5. Fiction Family - “God Badge”
“Put your God badge down and go love someone.” Maybe I should take that fish off my car and go help someone in need.
6. Plumb - “One Drop”
The best use of a ukulele this year. The video inspired my daughters to buy gifts for believers in third world countries this Christmas.
7. Five Iron Frenzy - “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”
Here is an exercise for you: Go look up these lyrics on the internet, print them out and stare at them for a few minutes. Then consider your position on current hot topic political issues.
8. Audio Adrenaline - “Believer”
Kevin Max sounds fantastic here, and this tune swirls and soars and makes me want to punch the air Rocky Balboa style.
9. Over The Rhine - “Meet Me at the Edge of the World”
This is a song where the world-weariness seeps into every note. Life is hard, but it’s worth living well. Sometimes it helps to think of what is ahead, and the world being re-made.
10. Beautiful Eulogy - “You Can Save Me”
A sermon set to a great set of beats. This is where the mix of faith and hip hop shines the brightest in my opinion.
And that is all. It’s great to think back on all the great music that I listened to this year. Sometimes a reviewer’s work is tough, because there is much that you have to call what it is; lazy songwriting, uninspiring melodies etc. It’s refreshing to talk about the good stuff all in one spot.
Have a great 2014, and remember, love alone is worth the fight.
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell
Hey guys! Each year, the JFH staff like to choose their favorite albums of the year and post them for all to read, and we know everyone's thoughts and opinions differ, so we - once again - want to give you, the reader, the opportunity to share YOUR top 10 albums in the Christian market of 2013!
So, please feel free to post a top 10 album list of 2013 in a format similar to below. I'll post my 2013 album picks as an example...
- Inland, Jars of Clay
- The Glorious Unfolding, Steven Curtis Chapman
- Need You Now, Plumb
- Reanimated, Family Force 5
- Fading West EP, Switchfoot
- Troubled Days, Seabird
- Live, All Sons & Daughters
- Freaks, The Hawk In Paris
- Currents, Eisley
- Black and White, Tal & Acacia
Thanks for sharing! We look forward to reading your picks of 2013 -- and Merry Christmas!
~ John DiBiase
We are more than 50 years into this rock and roll experiment of ours. 1963 gave America its first exposure to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and before that, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly had provided a musical soundtrack to the lives of countless folks. Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" helped many get through their first heartbreak and the Fab Four's "Hold My Hand" captured that feeling of young love in three minutes of sheer youthful energy and enthusiasm.
But pop music can be a fickle friend. That same artist who spoke to you so clearly in high school or college might not have aged all that well. That band that soundtracked your last summer of freedom before the realities and responsibilities of life caught up with you might now be embarrassing to watch or listen to. I have seen a few heroes of my youth in concert recently and wondered "What are they thinking? Have they run out of ideas and energy completely?" There is nothing quite like seeing a hero in their twilight.
But some beloved artists of my youth are as good as I remember, it's just that economics and trends are not always on their side. They might have been the go-to artist for that lonely night in the dorm room in February of your freshman year of college, but it didn't quite work for them, financially speaking, to keep going, year after year.
But the economics of the music industry have almost always been tough to traverse. The normal cycle of putting out albums, touring and repeating, can be withering to family life and good habits, and many artists put in a few years before entropy catches up with them and hard choices need to be made. Ghoti Hook, a classic Tooth and Nail punk band, named their last studio album Two Years To Never to illustrate how much longer they could sustain the grind of trying to make a living while driving around the county in a van going into their 30's.
But often, no matter how successful an album or tour might be, there is always musical mortality right around the corner. The winds of taste and preference change rapidly, and that rap-metal sound you dig today might be noise tomorrow to many. (I missed the rap-rock thing almost entirely, though my little brother loved Pillar and P.O.D., so it was always sort of around me).
As a result, artists hang it up and go find gainful employment elsewhere. Many in the CCM arena go work for churches and ministries where they can be close to home. Some try their hand at other art forms like film and novel writing. Some become policemen.
But the thing is, their music is always sort of around. Their CD (or tape or vinyl album, etc) is still in circulation in some form--be it in a bargain bin, a Good Will store or your uncle's bookshelves. So, though an artists' popularity might be at a low ebb, their music is still being discovered, even if it's at a yard sale.
And so, that once popular artist, who once topped retail lists and sold concert tickets and t-shirts, find themselves at a tough crossroads. The people who once bought a concert ticket, album and t-shirt still love the artist, but the economics of the music industry (which is rapidly changing year to year) go with the younger, cheaper-to-sign artists rather than taking a chance on a veteran artist's next album.
That's why I'm thankful for Kickstarter. This fundraiser site allows veteran artists to appeal to their fan base and raise money for projects like tours, new albums and so on.
There is an existing fan base out there to be cultivated; it's just the folks in that fan base started paying attention to new music less as their thoughts turned to having children, buying houses, dealing with grumpy bosses and other signs of growing up in these times of ours.
Take for instance this week's artist of the week, The Choir. They've made great albums since the early 80's, toured their brains out for fifteen-plus years and are still the best of friends. But the tide is against them in a traditional music market, and especially for being signed to and promoted by a label. The numbers just aren't there. But they have maintained a passionate following over the years by making fans and friends one by one and releasing good-to-fantastic (and mostly self-funded) albums every few years.
And now, they've run a super-successful Kickstarter campaign to fund a new album (one they can craft with time that a budget can afford) and a career spanning live album. They raised so much money that they can now buy new equipment for the road and tour a bit more than they have in recent years. It's a win-win situation all around. They brought in twice what they asked for, and got a huge dose of encouragement in the process. Those fans were still there, and happy to help out.
This model has worked out for other veteran artists, too. Five Iron Frenzy, Daniel Amos, Steve Taylor (of "I Want To Be A Clone" fame), Guardian and Andrew Peterson (he raised almost five times the funds he asked for to publish his latest book), have all run successful campaigns. There will no doubt be a slew of artists trying this model on for size in the next few months. I suspect the Lost Dogs, the 77's, Vigilantes Of Love and more will try and stir up their fan bases. The money raised has not been proven to be able to kick start a career back to its glory days yet, but it's a great way to keep making music and to hear one of your favorite artists grow alongside you. They still have songs to write and miles to go before they sleep.
So here's to the internet, and the boundless opportunities out there for veteran artists of every kind. You are not forgotten. Your CD is still on my shelf, and that t-shirt is still in my drawer.
And those lyrics? They are still written all over every notebook I own.
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell
Dan and his wife with Audio Adrenaline
Favorite Band/Artist: Audio Adrenaline
Featured Fan: Dan Castagna
Location: South Jersey
When/Where Was The Above Photo Taken: Cherryville, PA Kings and Queens Fall Tour
What About This Artist's Music Speaks To You: Kevin is such an awesome singer, his voice is like no other. He is extremely creative in his song writing. His songs challenge everyone to think, be themselves and live a life worth of the call. The rest of the band is incredibly humble. They are so ready and willing to serve others.
Favorite Album by This Artist: Kings and Queens
Favorite Song by This Artist: "Seeker"
Favorite Live Show Experience: Cherryville PA
Number of Times Seen This Artist Live: 3
Favorite Piece Of Merch/Item You Own From This Artist: Signed set list
Submit your photo and reasons why YOU'RE a fan for a chance to be featured here!
It's Christmastime again! Yes, Thanksgiving is over, so for those of you who wait until the turkey is fully digested to even think about jingling bells, the time is here.
If you're like us--and especially, me--you've already dusted off some Christmas records or plopped a batch of Christmas favorites onto your mp3 device to start getting into the holiday season again. And each year, there's new Christmas music that tosses their proverbial hats into the ring in hopes to join your annual rotation of holiday favorites.
But what albums do you return to each year?
SOME STAFF FAVORITES
A couple of the JFH staff rounded up a list together of standout albums that we turn to each Christmas season from artists in the Christian music realm. Here are just a few of them:
August Burns Red - Sleddin' Hill: A Holiday Album (2012)
Jars Of Clay - Christmas Songs (2007) (and the follow-up 2011 indie EP, More Christmas Songs)
Family Force 5 - The Family Force 5 Christmas Pageant (2009)
Relient K - Let It Snow Baby, Let It Reindeer (2007/2008)
Future of Forestry - Advent Christmas EPs (2008, 2010, 2013)
Rebecca St. James - Christmas (1997)
David Ian - Vintage Christmas (2011), Vintage Christmas Wonderland (2013)
Kevin Max - Holy Night (2005)
Project 86 - This Time of Year (2008), The Midnight Clear Single (2012)
Of course, many artists just do a song or two, and for me, ones that come to mind are Switchfoot's "Evergreen" and "Old Borego," Audio Adrenaline's "Little Drummer Boy," Supertones' "Joy To The World," Five Iron Frenzy's "You Gotta Get Up," NEEDTOBREATHE's "Go Tell It On The Mountain," PFR's "Wonderful Christmastime," Charmaine's "Angels We Have Heard On High," Seven Day Jesus' "O Holy Night, Joy Williams' (before The Civil Wars) "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Plumb's "It's Christmastime," and TobyMac's "Christmas This Year (feat. Leigh Nash)," among others.
NEW IN 2013
If you're looking for NEW music that's released this year in 2013, several projects have been released including (but not limited to):
Singles: Group 1 Crew ("Holly Jolly Christmas") [iTunes], Britt Nicole ("O Come All Ye Faithful") [iTunes], and Love & The Outcome ("Emmanuel") [iTunes].
Full-length Albums: Brandon Heath (Christmas Is Here), Falling Up (Silver City), Dave Barnes (A December To Remember), Sidewalk Prophets (Merry Christmas To You), and Paul Baloche (Christmas Worship), John Schlitt (The Christmas Project), among others.
EPs: Citizens, (Repeat The Sounding Joy), Meredith Andrews (Behold The Savior), for King and Country (Into The Silent Night), Future of Forestry (Advent Christmas, Vol. 3), and The Rocket Summer (Christmas Madness).
So there's really quite a bit to choose from -- what are YOU spinning this holiday season?