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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