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JFH Staff Blog | December 2015

Friday, December 25, 2015

Alex Caldwell's 2015 Staff Picks

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.

--Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell

 

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Christopher Smith's 2015 Staff Picks

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.

 

Honorable mentions

 

 

  • One Love Revolution, Pillar - Strong comeback from a Christian rock staple
     
  • Dawn EP / Shadows EPJon Foreman - The Wonderlands was a nice experience this year. These two stood out to me
     
  • Come In, Children 18:3 - Swan song? Or not? Either way, it's definitely their most accessible album
     
  • Vultures EP, Disciple - How were these B-sides?
     
  • Live From The Woods, Needtobreathe - Great live rock album
     
  • The Dream Alive EP, Vocal Few - Thoughtful singer/songwriter type music
     
  • Broken Temples, Kevin Max - Only thing holding this creative CCM project back is that there are only 8 real songs
     
  • Shells EP, Wilkes - Late year surprise. Earnest CCM.
     
  • How Can It Be, Lauren Daigle - Beautiful voice. Had a very pleasant interview with Lauren
     
  • Uncomfortable, Andy Mineo - I'm sure no one agrees, but I thought this was a step up from Heroes for Sale
     
  • Reprise EP, Wolves At The Gate - I'm a sucker for more stripped down material from heavier bands
     
  • Home, Josh Garrels - Not typically my style but his voice and lyrics are so intriguing
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