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JFH Staff Blog | December 2017

Sunday, December 31, 2017

John Underdown's Top Ten Albums and Songs of 2017

John Underdown's Top Ten Albums and Songs of 2017

This was my first year writing for JFH, joining the staff in March. While I considered myself a fan of CCM, this year was a learning experience. I discovered some artists for the first time, rediscovered others I thought had faded out, and enjoyed releases by those whom I follow.

As I learned more about the music industry, I was also learning more about life. My wife and I had our first child midway through the year and that took most of my energy. But as I discovered new joys and pains through our son, the year’s music was there to help me along the journey. These 10 albums and songs were the ones that stuck with me the most and kept me coming back to them for various reasons.

1.       Colony House- Only the Lonely

I really enjoyed Colony House’s debut, When I Was Younger, and was stoked for this release. Turns out this album was what I needed for this year. Though it comes from the perspective of a traveling musician struggling to keep his family together, I could still draw parallels to my life. I often want to do things alone, my own way. But, as this album reminds me, I cannot handle life alone and need the help of my wife and others to make it through. While the music is loud and raucous, the lyrics are dripping with wisdom. From start to finish, this record drew me in and challenged/encouraged me with every tune.


2.       John Mark McMillan- Mercury and Lightning

Before this year, I only knew McMillan as the guy behind that “sloppy wet kiss” song. I remember watching the music video for “No Country” off this album and thinking, “This is kind of weird and yet profound.” With the release of each new video or single I became more intrigued and excited about this album and found that, in the end, it is kind of weird and yet profound. McMillan’s wrestling with his doubt and fears is done in a moving, tactful way that feels much like a Psalm in the Bible that begins with despair and ends in hope. I could relate deeply with some of McMillan’s fears and found comfort in many of the songs on this album.


3.       Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors- Souvenir

I enjoyed some of Holcomb’s songs in the past, but Souvenir is where I bit my teeth down on his work. This laid-back album about life, love, and everything in between is something special. Holcomb shows what the true value and power of folk music is: the ability to view the world through a simple yet provocative lens that lingers with the listener after the music fades.

4.       12 Stones- Picture Perfect

When this album came up for review, my initial reaction was, “These guys are still around??” I remember their self-titled debut coming out when I was in high school and hadn’t heard much from them since then. But I appreciated their music (especially their willingness to lay out a good guitar solo) and took a chance on this record. It did not disappoint! This was a fun, rollicking romp that kept me pumped in the sweltering weeks of summer leading up to my son’s birth.


5.       Matt Redman- Glory Song

Redman was always one of those artists I appreciated but never followed. Glory Song may change that for me. Most new praise music out there today makes me weary of this world, but something about Redman’s latest was refreshing and catchy. The longing to return to a deeper passion for God resonated with me and made this a fun album to review.


6.       Daniel Bashta- My Resurrection (Live)

Yet another worship-artist-known-for-a-big-song-covered-by-other-bands surprised me this year. Bashta, the man behind “Like a Lion”, released a truly worshipful album with My Resurrection. Appropriately, it came out around Easter and perhaps that helped ingrain it in my mind. Something about Bashta’s approach to worship feels genuine, dipping into depth and artistry. I would come back to this one at various points through the year and enjoyed it every time.


7.       Loud Harp- Hope Where There was None

I’ve been a fan of Loud Harp for a year or two now and highly anticipated this release. Somehow this band can craft an atmosphere with their music that makes up for weaknesses in the lyrics. This album about hope and God’s presence in time of crisis is comforting and mesmerizing.


8.       The Little Roy and Lizzy Show- Going Home

Bluegrass is one of those genres I enjoy occasionally. It’s not my favorite genre, it’s not my go-to choice when I want to listen to acoustic music, but I fancy it every now and then. That said I was surprised how much I enjoyed this little album. Maybe it was the down-home charm it possesses and the feelings of Kentucky it awoke in me, but I found myself revisiting this album at various points throughout the year.


9.       Army of Bones- Army of Bones

I became aware of this band (and their debut album) late in the year and I wish I had heard them sooner. The way they write and sing about relationships is relatable and the longing they express through lyrics and music reach across the divide to stir emotions in the listener. I will be playing this album well into the new year.


10.   Young Fox- Sky Beats Gold

Here is an album that cloaks itself in poetic mystery but invites the listener in with its haunting music. I went back and forth with this album for half the year, wanting to like it, not sure if I did, then deciding it is worth investing more time into. Another release I will be returning to frequently.


Top 10 Songs

“Where Your Father’s Been”-Colony House: Becoming a father this year made me think about my father, who died a few years ago. Thinking about my life from the perspective of retreading what my father did was encouraging.

“Enemy, Love”- John Mark McMillan: This song has so much raw emotion in it! McMillan struggles with losing control and letting down his family. I feel the same struggle and took solace in this song’s sentiment.

“Honestly”- The City Harmonic: Too easily I can get wrapped up in myself and feel prideful and selfish. This humbling prayer song reminds me to not lose focus on God and His greatness.

“Weeping Mary”- Loud Harp: The way they cover this song is beautiful. It offers simple Gospel examples to teach simple biblical truths.

“Thank You Jesus”- Daniel Bashta: Sometimes a simple, sincere “thank You” is all we can offer God for what He’s done for us through His Son. This song, with its easy-going pace, reinforces that and gives the listener a layout for that prayer.

“Devil Jonah”- Rusty Shipp: I don’t know why, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, but the night after my son was born the chorus of this song kept playing through my head. Maybe because it’s catchy, maybe because of sleep deprivation. Not sure.

“One Day (When We All Get to Heaven)”- Matt Redman: The way Redman reworks the refrain from an old hymn into a modern praise song is subtle and effecting. You feel the longing and can get lost in the moment. Redman’s prayer extension at the end ruins the moment some, but still a good song overall.

“Voodoo Doll”- 12 Stones: Plain and simple, this is a fun rock song. The jaunty rhythm mixed with the dark metaphors creates an enjoyable romp through your ears.

“Sometimes the Monsters Win”- Young Fox: This is the mesmerizing opening track to Sky Beats Gold. The sentiment behind the lyrics also helped me cope with much of the horrible things that happened in the news this year.

“Fight for Love”- Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors: I was reminded this year that to have a good marriage you have to fight for it. This was an appropriate anthem and reminder.

--John Underdown




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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christopher Smith's Top Ten Albums of 2017

1) Aaron Sprinkle - Real Life
My first impression of Real Life was that it was an inferior pop album to Sprinkle's previously released Water & Guns, but multiple listens changed that viewpoint quite significantly. Throughout this past year I've found myself continually drawn to this album. It's a catchy album with well placed guest features and great lyrics that are worth digging into.
2) Gloomcatcher - Blade in the Belfry EP
I'm pretty sure Jesse Rhibordy is a genius. His musical journey through Falling Up is such an interesting case study on how an artist develops over time. In my opinion, Jesse has been putting out music that is ahead of our time in the past several years, and Blade in the Belfry only continues to solidify that opinion. This is such a beautiful EP, especially the gorgeous string sections throughout. Only Jesse Rhibordy can get away with ridiculous lyrics like "down the street there's a witch on the trampoline" or write lines like "maybe I'm on the earth / but the earth isn't on the dirt" and it not sound like purple poetry.
3) Rusty Shipp - Mortal Ghost
This gem of a "nautical rock n roll" album caught my attention when JFH staff writer Michael Weaver gave a glowing review earlier in the year. It took one or two listens to see past the slightly lower production quality, but man once you get beyond that there is so much good rock music here. Check out "Hotel Bible," "Tip of My Tongue," and "Davy Jones" (or the whole album) if you are looking for a new favorite rock band.
4) Blank Books - EP1
Brothers Aaron and Jesse Sprinkle have teamed up for the first time since Poor Old Lu for an alternative rock album that is both fresh and nostalgic. The first four tracks are all alternative rock gold but "Hungry Ghost" is my personal favorite. I was seriously considering EP1 for my number two spot but felt a little odd putting Aaron Sprinkle at one and two.
5) Kings Kaleidescope - The Beauty Between
I liked Becoming Who You Are when it first came out, but I never fell in love with it in the same way that so many others had. I never got into Beyond Control, but The Beauty Between really caught my attention. Everyone I tell this to assumes it's because of the different sound (which is rooted in hip-hop beats) but it's actually because I think this is more thought-provoking lyrically, more cohesive sonically, better produced, and contains stronger melodies.
6) Death Therapy - The Calm Before the Storm
There have been a lot of albums this year that I've really enjoyed that are outside of my favorite genres of rock and pop. The debut album from Death Therapy exemplifies this perfectly with its industrial groove metal. This album is surprisingly gospel-centered with relatively simplistic lyrics delivered with a refreshingly honest approach.
7) nobigdyl - Canopy
Canopy is hands down my favorite rap album of 2017. nobigdyl was formerly a manager for Derek Minor, but was "fired" after Minor heard his music so he could pursue a career as an artist. This underrated rapper has great flow and his lyrics are super relatable with puns flying in every direction. This short but sweet ten track album definitely grabs your attention from the start and makes you really listen to the lyrics. The more organic beats are also a nice change from the majority of modern rap music. Though he's independent now, I wouldn't be surprised to see him on Humble Beast soon enough--dyl kind of fits in with the music they've been putting out lately. Check out "Suicide Nets" or "Purple Dinosaur" if you haven't listened to Canopy yet.
8) Landry Cantrell - Projections
Projections was a pleasant surprise coming out of Dream Label Group. All you really need to know about this is that it's a catchy and thoughtful pop album. Perhaps Landry Cantrell can fill the void that Jonathan Thulin left.
9) Demon Hunter - Outlive
Though I listen to metal on occasion, it's not my preferred genre. Outlive has a strong hard rock vibe, so it is the first Demon Hunter album I could fully get behind (though objectively I would argue that it's not their best--hence my 3.5 star rating). The opening combo of "Trying Times,"  "Jesus Wept," and "Cold Winter Sun" followed by a slew of other solid hard rock/metal tunes makes this a favorite album of 2017 for me.
10) Phinehas - Dark Flag
A friend recommended checking out Phinehas shortly before their latest album came out, and I was definitely impressed with their straightforward approach to hardcore music. The one liners and a healthy dose of excellent clean vocals are what drew me in, and that's definitely displayed here on Dark Flag. This concept album about North Korea is a great listen from start to finish. Favorite tracks include the title track, "A War That Never Ends," and "Communion for Ravens."



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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Josh Balogh's Top Ten Albums And Songs of 2017

So 2017 is just about over, another year gone in an absolute flash. It was an interesting year in music for me as many of my longtime favorite bands either didn't release new music, or still remain dormant. (Switchfoot, Relient K, Jars of Clay, 21 Pilots, Dctalk). As such, I didn't have high expectations for the year, but ended up being pleasantly surprised as I look back and survey the large amount of music I’ve heard this year. When it all shook out, I made quite a few new bands/artist discoveries and I'm pleased with what I was able to hear. 

The combination of my favorite bands being largely silent, and joining the review staff at Jesus freak Hideout, stretched me beyond my typical tastes this year. It caused me to listen to both the greatest amount of music, and the greatest variety of music that I ever have in a calendar year. The following ten albums (plus five honorable mentions) are the ones I found myself going back to most often, and I highly recommend each one. 

1. John Mark McMillan - Mercury & Lightning 

I could go on and on about the layers of depth on John Mark McMillan’s latest, Mercury & Lightning, but suffice it to say, it’s stellar. This is master-craft songwriting that only gets better with repeat listens. I found the metaphor he uses of Greek mythology to be a deep well of truth with multi-layered meaning. My favorite track is the closer, “Nothing Stands Between Us,” which wraps up an album that wrestles with questions of faith, doubt, and the unsatisfying pursuit of the idols of money and fame. Other songs that stand out are “Death In Reverse,” “Enemy, Love.” “Persephone,” and “Mercury & Lightning.” I cannot recommend this album enough. Give it a few spins and let the depth of layers unravel. It will be well worth it. For my full review of this amazing album click here:

2. Propaganda - Crooked

Never have I listened to an album like this that was equal parts heartbroken lament, historically informative, and spiritually challenging in the area of racism. Propaganda goes big, and although he’s calling out the church, he never does it in an accusatory or condemning way. In fact, he does a great job pointing the finger at himself first, and helps listeners understand his thesis that we are all “crooked.” Can’t-miss tracks are “Crooked Ways,” “It’s Complicated,” “Bear With Me,” and “I Hate Cats.” The beats are sparse but catchy and allow the lyrics to shine. Not an easy listen, Crooked is a necessary listen, as we all continue to root out the sin in our hearts. We can love each other better, but we first have to be honest about where we are, and relentless in our pursuit of God's heart for all people. 

3. Young Oceans - SUDDENLY (or the nuclear sunburst of the truth revealed)

Simply put, this is a beautiful sounding record. Laid back in its approach, subdued but not boring, SUDDENLY praises the Lord with chilling reverence. Highlights for me are “This Wild Earth,” “Heaven Has Come,” “SUDDENLY,” and gentle yet powerful closing track “Humility of God.” This independent band with ambient electronic sounds is excellent in their song crafting and would be a shame to ignore. 

4. Army of Bones - Self Titled

At this point, I don’t even remember how I heard about these guys but boy am I glad I did! Another 2017 musical discovery, Army of Bones is fronted by former lead singer of now defunct band Delirious? Martin Smith, and their song “Dead in the Water” was the first to catch my attention. On many songs, Army of Bones' self-titled album rocks in a way I wish U2 would. The only vestiges of Delrious? is Martin’s voice, but musically, they borrow sparingly from musical acts like U2, Radiohead, and The Killers. Other terrific songs are “Break Away,” “End of Time,” “Love Song For A City,” and “Batteries.” This one is a can’t-miss, and I hope they receive more attention in 2018. 

5. Colony House - Only the Lonely

My year end report from Spotify will rightfully tell you that Colony House’s Song “You & I” was one of my top played songs of the year, and for good reason. What a catchy tune! On this their second release, Colony House offers more of the indie rock/alternative vibe of their debut, and for the most part, it works. Other songs that struck me were “Cannot Do This Alone,” “1234,” and album closer “This Beautiful Life.” Although not as consistently stellar as the debut When I Was Younger, sophomore release Only The Lonely swings big, and for the most part connects. Definitely a highlight album deserving repeat listens. 

6. Third Day
- Revival 

Upon hearing the possible musical direction of Revival, I had high hopes that it would trend back toward my favorite era of their sound. For the most part, it hit all the right buttons for me, and I really enjoyed the gospel/rock sounds of songs “Gonna Be There With Me,” “Revival,” “Leave This World Behind,” and “Devotion,” among others. If you like their albums Time and Offerings, then this one may be one for you to give a few spins as well. 

7. Beautiful Eulogy
- Worthy 

Beautiful Eulogy is a rap act I had always heard great things about but for whatever reason I’d never fully checked out. Boy, was I missing out! They have been another pleasant surprise music discovery for me in 2017. It’s intelligent hip-hop with thinking man’s lyrics and creative beats. I really enjoyed songs “If,” “Sovereign,” “Doxology,” (which was my overall favorite track) “Messiah,” and “Immanuel.” No pun intended this album Worthy is definitely “worthy” of your attention.

8. Nichole Nordeman - Every Mile Mattered

A fantastic return after a 12-year absence between album releases, Nordeman comes back with plenty to say on Every Mile Mattered. The highlights are the opening trio of “Every Mile Mattered,” “You’re Here,” and “Dear Me,” as she treats listeners to her trademark piano pop and pensive lyrics. Best overall song of the track list goes to her letter to her younger self, “Dear Me,” but others of note are the song “Lean” and her gentle cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I for one am very glad to have her back in the CCM scene and hope that there is still more to come. 

9. Iron Bell Music - God That Saves

One of my great surprise discoveries this year, Iron Bell Music, has released a terrific worship driven debut. A worship collective of sorts with several different people sharing lead vocals, these songs have been honed in community and delivers the goods with stripped back acoustic praise. Song “Sons and Daughters” is my overall favorite on the album, but others that stand out are title track “God that Saves” and “Belong to You.” In a crowded worship scene with well known acts like Hillsong, Hillsong United, Bethel, and Elevation Church churning out yearly offerings, this simple approach of spirit soaked songs stuck out to me above the crowd. 

10. MercyMe - Lifer

A solid pop album, Lifer is full of catchy tunes. From the fun title track “Lifer,” to the radio hit “Even If,” to the infectiously danceable “Happy Dance,” it’s the rare pop album deserving high praise. This one was a Balogh Family car ride favorite. Ultimately, I think Lifer is MercyMe’s best overall albums in years.


Top Ten Favorite Songs: 

  1. "Nothing Stands Between Us," John Mark McMillan
  2. "You & I," Colony House
  3. "I’ll Find You (ft. Tori Kelly)," Lecrae
  4. "Dead in the Water," Army of Bones
  5. "Indian Summer," Landry Cantrell
  6. "Take Me To The Mountain," Jetty Rae
  7. "Crooked Ways," Propaganda
  8. "Sons & Daughters," Iron Bell Music
  9. "This Wild Earth," Young Oceans
  10. "Doxology,Beautiful Eulogy

Lastly, each list always has a few artists that almost made the cut. The following five albums below are ones that I also enjoyed but fell just short of the top ten. All in all, it ended up being a great year for music despite my doubts, and I eagerly await what 2018 may hold in the music world. Happy listening!

-- Josh Balogh

Honorable Mentions:

Sara Groves - Abide with Me
Sandra McCracken - Steadfast
Ellie Holcomb - Red Sea Road
Lecrae - All Things Work Together
Rusty Shipp -
Mortal Ghost


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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Alex Caldwell's Top Ten Albums And Songs Of 2017

Crooked, Yet Still Fumbling Towards The Light 

On A Spiritual Journey Through 2017 With The Best Albums Of The Year

The old Baptist hymn says “This world is not my home / I’m just a’ passing through / If Heaven’s not my home / O Lord what will I do?”

“O Lord, what will I do…”

Those words ring heavy with me this year, for I’m convinced more and more that there is no earthly solution to what ails me, and what ails our world. No psychological explanation can truly answer why mass shootings happen. No election can turn the tide of moral decay, no government body truly answer the problem of hate. There is no financial solution or tax cut that can heal the woundedness of my heart, or answer for why I am constantly tempted to sabotage my own good situation with selfish choices. This year our land (myself included) faced our collective selves in the mirror, and the reflection was tough to bear. The continued sexual abuse and misogyny story of the last few months continues on, and a collective reckoning of past sins (it’s not a new story my friends, it’s as old as the book of Genesis) is unfolding before us. The answers (such as they are) are spiritual, and not of anything down here. (Rich Mullins would call it “the stuff of earth”)
And as I listen back to the records and songs I loved this year, I see a clear theme of our collective brokenness (Propaganda would say “we crooked”) and the shining light of the grace of God, which is the only source of hope for our world, and for me personally. John Mark McMillan, Propaganda, Audrey Assad and Josh Garrels, John Tibbs, Drew Holcomb and others testified to that oldest of truths; that God’s love and His intervention into history at Christmastime, is the only hope we have. Any other answer that we come up with only leads to more collective heartache.  
And 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 “tough”, one full of upheaval in our land, and a mighty reckoning for a sin that has gone on too long. 2017 had its ups (unemployment continues to fall and the stock market rose) and its downs (the seemingly-unending sexual harassment news that is toppling public figures left and right, the threat of nuclear war).  
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. 2017 might have been an up or down year for me (I’d characterize it as an “up” year for the Caldwell clan, but a tough one for me personally), but it was also the year I heard the epic and folksy “Rescuer”, the magnificent and worshipful “Wood & Nails” and the massively hopeful “Won‘t Let Me Go”, three fantastic songs that have already embedded themselves in my soul’s DNA and inspired me to celebrate my “rescuer” and recognize what He did with those “wood and nails”. Traveling back through the year in music is always a bittersweet thing, because the music that you truly loved marks the days and months (as in, “I remember where I was and what was happening 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. May the best kind of art lead us back to what is true, and in its light may we see both that we are crooked and that He is sovereign and worthy of our whole lives. 
(In the interest of time, I’ve posted both the lyrics that stopped me in my tracks, and a salient part of a review that I wrote for each album.)
1. Propaganda - Crooked
But ain't we all a little bit a monster? We crooked! / Man, your heroes are worthless / And man can sure try, but only God gives purpose / You crooked! / Be humble or be quiet
Your kingdom can catch flames as effortless as riots / Entire empire's a card castle, chill
And the strength of your whole team is crumbled with one meme / It's crooked! / Your whole works is twisted - “Crooked Ways” 
Crooked is Propaganda’s most complete work, both sonically (those organic beats are thundering) and lyrically. The album is so dense, and so full of references (political, historical, cultural, etc.) that a whole semester class could be designed to pull apart each reference. And this backdrop of the failings of man is only a journey to set up the need for one who makes “our crooked ways straight”.  
Here is what I wrote in my review: 
“In the perilous present day, where believers are inundated with false ideologies and confusing and confounding political and social times, Crooked is a handbook for how to ask the hard questions of faith in humility. There is a lot to unpack on the album, and listeners should be prepared to google all the historical references that Propaganda throws down at a dizzying pace. But those who dig in will find their perspectives challenged and minds sharpened. Crooked is an album of such lyrical and thematic quality that it transcends both its genre of Hip Hop and music in general with its cerebral take on what being a "thinking" follower of Christ looks like in a 21st Century context. Propaganda is steadily showing himself to be a modern C.S. Lewis in his ability to take huge theological and cultural ideas and boil them down to a "plainspoken" level (in the way Lewis did in Mere Christianity).”
May we all see the truth of where we are, and who can lead us back.
May I stand in the belly of what Babylon is biting / In the vein of the best metaphor of what love exists for / May my legacy be permanently associated with those hated
An exodus from Exodus with zero concern for what Pharaoh thinks / May we be crooked champions / And we are not those without hope or hoping in hope alone / Resurrection shows that this land is not our home / We are sojourners living out what a past action bought us / With the knowledge that we have yet to see the fullness of what it got us - “Made Straight”
2. John Mark McMillan - Mercury & Lightning
I've been chasing God / I've been chasing mercury and lightning / And I've been pressing hard / I've been coming up short / Lately, I've been thinking about / What's gonna happen with you and I / I need a new religion / Or I need a new lie - “Mercury & Lightning”  
McMillan’s take down of the values of Western Culture (Mercury = the Greek God of financial gain; Lightening = The quick and sudden burst of fame and attention; i.e. internet or reality television fame) is a fine bookend to Propaganda’s album. The writer of beloved worship staple “How He Loves” shows a breathtaking scope of craft here, and Mercury & Lightning serves a rock and roll version of “Crooked”. May we chase only that which truly satisfies.
3. The Porter’s Gate - Work Songs - The Porter's Gate Worship Project Vol. 1
The work was done with nothing but / Wood and nails in Your scar-borne hands
O show me how to work and praise / Trusting that I am Your instrument 
The is the best collaborative album of the year, and the best Folk/Gospel/R&B worship album you‘ll hear. Josh Garrels and Audrey Assad continue to make the case that the best music does not need a record label, or a label of any kind. It only needs be honest and well-done. Great ‘work’ indeed!
4. John Tibbs - Heartland
Knocking down the fear of failing / Kicking in the doors that lock me out
Say goodbye to ghosts that haunt me, go on / I don't need you now
I don't need you now / Hope's been blowing on this flame
Since I found out...
You won't let me go
Heartland is a masterful effort from Tibbs, and serves as a textbook example of how to write a rock and roll song with an authentic spiritual, emotional and honest core. With much of Christian music suffering from an excess of glossy and varnished songwriting and production, Tibbs' Heartland ep (and his previous full-length effort Dead Man Walking) is a blueprint that songwriters of faith should give serious consideration to. The world doesn't need anymore clichéd songwriting; it needs honesty and true passion, which Tibbs has in abundance. Turn it up and go for a drive, particularly someplace with fields and a horizon to look at, and then consider the geography and terrain of your own heart.”
5. Army Of Bones - S/T
Time, is not on my side / I can't make it better, with the wounds that I hide
But I know there'll be an end / And the end will see the stars begin to fall
Love will still be here to save us all / I'm still waiting for you, waiting for you
I'm still waiting for you, waiting for you don't be long / Don't be long
Don't be long - “Don’t Be Long”
“Army Of Bone's debut album is a master's class in taking influences and tweaking them just so to create something that is both unique and familiar at the same time. The melodic, chilly and epic Britpop template is the perfect bed for a prophetic and pleading album. Army Of Bones is a fantastic return for Smith, and one of the very best albums of the year.”
Martin Smith of beloved worship pioneers Delirious? returns with a new band, and proves that he hasn’t lost a beat…
6. Beautiful Eulogy - Worthy
From the skies to the seas and everything that lies in between
Everything that exists in the universe is dispersed by His decree
He's infinitely supreme and orchestrates all things
The One who sits in the Heavens and laughs and does whatever He pleases
Who governs the governments, and establishes kings
The Prince of Peace who proceeds over prophets, presidents, and priests
Who guides the plans of man, but lets that man choose freely
While simultaneously exercising divine sovereignty - “Sovereign”
Worthy was a ground-breaking hip hop worship album with a liturgical and historically theological bent. Beautiful Eulogy is unlike any other hip hop group out there, and by filling in this missing piece in the worship field, they are to be commended.
7. Ellie Holcomb - Red Sea Road
Fear is like a broken record, same old songs of accusation play
Like, "who are you to speak the truth, just look at all your failures and mistakes"
And "If they really knew you, there's no way they could love you anyway"
Oh-oh-ohh, but I will...
Fight the lies with the truth, oh-ohh
Keep my eyes fixed on You
I will sing the truth into the dark
I will use my fighting words
Oh-oh-ohh, fighting words
Oh-oh-ohh    - “Fighting Words”
Holcomb is a mighty fine songwriter, and both she and her husband Drew are proving a fantastic model for doing it yourself in this changing musical landscape. 
“If there is the kind of song that Holcomb should write more of, it's "Fighting Words," a feisty, down-home, barn-burning Americana track about self-doubt and guilt. Taking the classic southern expression and repurposing it as a song about fighting the lies of the devil (about self-worth and shame) with the truth of God's word, "Fighting Words" is a textbook example of how to take a familiar idea and phrase and tweak it for a surprising take on the truth of grace in the believer's life: "I will fight the lies with the truth / keep my eyes fixed on you / I will sing the truth into the dark / I will use my fighting words." The closing, rousing "Living Water" and the hushed "Man Of Sorrows" end the album well, with a personal call for revival, and a reverent, hushed take on the life of Jesus. 
Red Sea Road is a terrific album that has a strong, passionate Americana feel, and just enough great songs to carry the less interesting ones along with them. Holcomb is proving to be a treasure of an artist; one who is fiery and unpretentious, catchy without being cloying, and above all, sincere in her writing and seeking.”
8. Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors - Souvenir
I don't know about you / But I like to tell the truth
But the truth seems to change every Tuesday / When I watch the news
Man it just gives me the blues / No one listens, just on a mission to hear their own voice
It's a wild world / We're all trying to find our place in it
It's a wild world / And no one seems to understand it
It's a wild world / But there ain't no way I'm gonna quit it
“By forging their own path (Holcomb and his band distribute all of their music on their own record company, Magnolia Music) and writing piercingly honest music, Drew Holcomb And The Neighbors have grown both their artistry and fan base in equal measure. Souvenir could have used a few more up-tempo numbers (they are trending more mellow on their last few releases), but as an honest, humble and tuneful look at life, the album gathers its "souvenirs" of songs well. The dusty tunes of Souvenir are a welcome addition to the American songwriting tradition, and a fine new chapter for Holcomb and company.
9. Third Day - Revival 
Anybody here looking for revival
In our own hearts and across the land
Anybody looking for a revival
Lift up your voice and say Amen
Lift up your voice and say Amen
Ain't gonna find it in a politician
Not from the government or any law
Can't get it going by your own religion
Only by the Spirit and the Word of God
Only by the Spirit and the Word of God
“The band maintains the pace and quality of the Soul Music vibe all the way through Revival, and it's obvious that the band's love and respect for this type of influential American music has been there all along. The band has been playing with Gospel music choirs since their beginning (see "Worship Song" on their debut album, "Have Mercy" from their second album or "King Of Glory" from their fine worship album, Offerings), but they have not gone "whole hog" until now. Revival is exactly the kind of labor of love project that a veteran band should make. It's true to its roots, lovingly crafted and capably executed. Like a Rolling Stones Blues cover album, a Sting medieval music side trip or a Bruce Springsteen folk music jaunt, Revival finds Third Day playing with a format that they clearly have "in their marrow," and in doing so, have put out one of the best albums of their career. It's also one of the best things you'll hear this summer, and will sound great live when the band takes it on tour. Turn it up loud (if you have it on vinyl, all the better) and get down with the old-school vibe.
10. Rusty Shipp - Mortal Ghost
I’m alone in this world, drifting like a lost ship at sea. The more I live the less I feel at home. Treading water just to keep from drowning. All creation ‘round me groans till the sea and all that’s in it is undone. Something’s nipping at my toes. Treading water till the angels come. Give me that ancient feeling, the kind of love that David felt, shining through the jaws of holy war. I want to go behind the curtain, to where the golden cherubs dwell, find something worth us fighting for… - “Treading Water”
Rusty Shipp’s Mortal Ghost is an old school, 90’s grunge record and a prog-rock concept album at the same time. Consider it a surprise delight and this year’s best debut. Turn it up when the house is empty and pour over the lyrics at the same time. Then stand up and air-guitar the rest of the day away.
Top 10 Songs: 
"Won’t Let Me Go" - John Tibbs: I had a hard year, and this song was on constant repeat on my daily jog/walk/crawl as I made my way through the woods and rejoiced in a God who is steady and ever-present. 
"Wood & Nails" - The Porter’s Gate: A haunting worship song that deserves wider exposure and a listen in a quiet place.
"Crooked Ways" - Propaganda: The most epic nine minute opening track you’ll hear this year.
"Rescuer" - Rend Collective: The kind of “shout along” chorus that needs to be sung from a rooftop in your town. The Gospel is good news indeed!
"Even If" - Mercyme: The most honest song you’ll hear on Air1 this year. More songs like this please!
"Wonder" - Hillsong United:  My father had a massive heart attack this spring, and this song was in high rotation as I sat by his bedside. May we have the Spirit’s help to see this world as the Father does. May our sense of wonder drown out the hate and paranoia of our times.
"Old Church Choir" - Zach Williams: This is my youngest daughter’s favorite song this year. May the Holy Spirit light your fire inside, and may there be a choir deep in your soul, constantly singing.
"Love Song For A City" - Army Of Bones: A great prayer for a hometown…
"Fighting Words" - Ellie Holcomb: The way that Holcomb turns a phrase is fantastic. Scripture was given to us to “fight back” against evil.
"Cannot Do This Alone" - Colony House: A Thunderous, epic reminder that we are meant to live in fellowship with the divine and with each other. 
May your new year be merry, and may we hear the song the Lord is singing to us every moment…
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell
December 20th, 2017



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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

12 Albums 20 Years Later - by Josh Balogh

12 Albums 20 Years Later
 - by Josh Balogh

Each of the following twelve albums turning twenty years old in 2017 have shaped me in some way or another. These were all ones that I discovered on my own, outside of my parents taste or Youth Pastor’s influence. I remember listening to many of them through headphones in the local Christian bookstore, either attracted by the album art, or a recommendation from CCM magazine. I debated, and went back and forth about ranking them and decided on the order below after much self-inflicted angst. My hope in writing this blog is that you too once enjoyed these and would dust them off and give them another listen in honor of their twenty-year-old birthday. Or maybe you were too young to encounter these, or missed them the first time around and this could be a grand introduction to what I believe is really great music from the era. Either way, if you are inclined, join me in wishing these albums a happy birthday! Here’s hoping you enjoy, and maybe they’ll come to mean as much to you as they do to me.

12. MercyMe - Traces of Rain 


I first heard MercyMe at a youth camp in the late 90’s, and then again as the band for a tent revival that my youth group attended at another local church. This is an album predominately of worship cover songs (with 3-4 originals mixed in), but it had heavy spins for me back in the day, burning these songs into my brain. They'd go on to much bigger things in the coming years, but I enjoyed songs "Ain't No Rock," "Mercy is Falling," "Stirring," and "If I Could Just Sit With You Awhile." This is probably the hardest of the albums on this list to come by as it was a self-released, indie album. 

11. Delirious?King of Fools

My introduction to Delirious? was the song “Deeper” from one of those samplers that was $1.99 or was free with a purchase of one of the featured artists. It’s still a great song all these years later, and it remains a favorite from the decade. The King of Fools album is strong overall and the U2 influences abound. Opener “Sanctify” is a great tune, and sets the tone well for the arena sized worship songs that will follow. Other highlights are the tender “All the Way,” flat out rocker “Promise,” long time classic “History Maker,” and the slow burner, but epic, “King or Cripple.” A huge hit in England (their homeland), this is the one that really put Delirious? on the map, and made the rest of the world take notice.
10. Sixpence None the Richer – Self-Titled

Sadly, the true genius of this melancholy, yet amazing album is overshadowed by mega smash hit “Kiss Me.” That is a shame because, although “Kiss Me” is a fantastic and whimsical pop ode to love, it is far from the best track. I’m not sure I could pick a true favorite, but each song creates a feeling of waiting, frustration, and loss. “We have Forgotten, “Anything,” and “Waiting Room” set the mood of those themes extremely well. You can hear a palpable yearning in lead singer Leigh Nash’s voice throughout. “I Can’t Catch You” is an upbeat ditty that stands out upon repeat listens, and “Lines of my Earth” is another personal favorite. Also worth noting is the amazing cover art by D.L. Taylor. Best listened to in its entirety, you cannot go wrong with any song here, and I believe this remains arguably their best overall work to date.
9. Third DayConspiracy #5

I had forgotten just how good Conspiracy #5 truly was until listening again in preparation to write this blog. There are some great songs here! Some would balk at the ranking of it so low on this list, but although it is a fantastic album, I still prefer their self-titled album and Time more. My favorite from this list of songs is “This Song Was Meant for You,” and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Probably the most straight ahead rock album that Third Day ever did, Conspiracy #5 holds up well to the longevity test; much better than Mac Powell’s bleached blonde hair anyway! There really are no filler songs among the bunch but my standouts are “You Make Me Mad,” Hootie and the Blowfish sound alike “How’s Your Head,” driving rocker “Alien” and the worshipful concert staple “My Hope is in You”. They have yet to return to this musical sound, but many maintain this is their favorite work of their long and storied hit-making career.
8. Reality CheckSelf Titled


The band Reality Check delivered a ferocious self-titled debut that sadly was the only thing they ever released. Whether it was just a band headed separate ways, musical direction, or the burden of the“next Dctalk label,” they joined the list of many one-hit-wonders of the 90’s. Known for their energetic live show that once broke a stage, they featured tight harmonies, loud rock guitars, and rap all mixed into one. I first heard their work from another of the $1.99 sampler albums with the songs “Masquerade” and “Know You Better.” One listen to “Masquerade” had me hooked and I quickly went out to pick up the entire album. The songs “Plastic and “Losing Myself” are two other major favorites from the album. It is too bad they did not do more together as I was eagerly looking forward to more from them.
7. The O.C. SupertonesSupertones Strike Back

One could argue that the O.C. Supertones' release Supertones Strike Back is THE quintessential CCM ska release. Personally, I think that it is, though The Dingees and Five Iron Frenzy could hold their own in the argument well enough. Ska is certainly an acquired taste, but in 1997, I was all in. I saw them in concert at Atlanta Fest with their orange jumpsuits on and it was an amazing show. I owned their orange "Little Man" t-shirt and I quickly wore out both the album and the shirt. Even to this day, I’ll have a hankering for some ska and slip this album into the family van’s six-disc changer for long road trips. Some of my favorite tracks are "Supertones Strike Back," "Louder than the Mob," "Unite,” "Tonight," and "Little Man." Great for road trips, cleaning house, or lounging by the pool!
6. Seven Day Jesus - Self Titled

Man, so many great hooky guitar pop/rock songs here! This was my first exposure to the band, and though I'd go back later and hear their excellent record The Hunger, this one is still my favorite of theirs. Sadly, they didn't last as a band beyond this album, but what a great way to go out. Great songs abound, like opener "Down With The Ship," "Always Comes Round," "Everybody Needs Love," and my overall favorite, the ear-worm, "Butterfly." Definitely a must-hear album for fans of solid pop/rock! 

5. SwitchfootThe Legend of Chin

My introduction to Switchfoot came at the now out of business Family Christian Bookstore. After encountering lead track “Chem 6a” on a sampler, I had to check out this raw surfer rock/alternative band. The droning sounds of “Bomb” and bouancy of “Underwater” had my full attention and I don’t think I even needed to listen to the rest of it.  I was motivated to buy The Legend of Chin enough to manipulate my younger brother (who cared very little for music) into buying it because I only had enough money for another album clutched in my teenage hands. I can’t for the life of me remember the other album but I’m certain it hasn’t stood the test of time as this debut release has.  I still appreciate the production at the veteran hand of Charlie Peacock these twenty years later. It allowed for a truly raw and somewhat endearingly sloppy sound that has stood the test of time well. Other great tracks are the cleverly titled “Might have Ben-Hur,” the slow burning “Concrete Girl,” and string-soaked “You.” A fantastic start for a band that only got better with each release, Jon Foreman and company are still going strong and have rarely “letdown” fans with any of their subsequent releases.
4. Caedmon’s CallSelf Titled

The acoustic folk sounds of Caedmon’s Call were largely new to my young music listening career, and aside from Jars of Clay’s Self-Titled debut I couldn’t tell you what else in that musical vein I had heard. I was enamored with this CD for a long time. This album served as a major catalyst to cement what has become my preferred musical taste with the softer side of pop/rock that features thinking man’s lyrics. Opening track “Lead of Love” starts things of well with a tasty organ line (and anyone who knows my music taste knows I’m a sucker for B3 organ!) and the intricate three-part harmonies of Cliff Young, Derek Webb, and Danielle Young. Certainly, another highlight of the album and their entire discography is the song “This World” and its realization that, “This world has nothing for me/And this world has everything/All that I could want/And nothing that I need.” Probably their most well-known song is a cover of the late Rich Mullins song called “Hope to Carry On.” In concert, it was often paired with another Mullins song “I will Sing,” which you can find on their Greatest Hits release “Chronicles.” For some reason, this one isn’t on Spotify yet though the rest of the catalogue is, but it’s a worthy addition to anyone’s music collection, and worth the extra effort to track down.
3. Smalltown PoetsSelf-Titled

My introduction to Smalltown Poets and their self-titled debut was at another youth camp in the summer of 1997. All the college kids that were staffing the camp had their hands on classic Poet’s tracks “Prophet, Priest, and King,” “Everything I Hate,” and “If You’ll Let Me Love You” and they were featured as part of the week’s soundtrack. I loved the roots rock sound and was taken by the honest and earthy lyrics. Another favorite song is the earnestly soaring “I’ll Give.” In fact, I would put the first five tracks of this album up against almost any other 90’s CCM release and I believe it they would hold their own in that discussion. “Monkey’s Paw” is the hardest rocking of this set of songs and features a nice guitar solo at the 1:30 mark. Also worth noting is the song “Trust” which features the beautiful chorus, “Take this bread/drink this cup/Know this price has pardoned you/From all that's hardened you/But it's going to take some trust.” This album would make any top 25 album of the 90’s CCM era in my personal rankings.
2. All Star UnitedSelf Titled

With the right amount of snark and rock/alternative sounds All Star United exploded into my ear canals as a baby faced sixteen year old. I was a homeschooler raised right, with sarcasm being one of my better and favorite subjects and this album practically drips with it. Lead singer Ian Eskelin had a knack for using said sarcasm to make a much needed point. I immediately took to songs like the exuberantly piano driven “La La Land,” guitar heavy “Bright Red Carpet,” and  the mock “la la la’s” of song “Smash Hit.” Jesus just needed better PR right?! Two other must-hear tracks are the organ flourishes and “woohoo’s” of “Beautiful Thing,” and the bouncy “Tenderness.” Really you can’t go wrong with any track on the entire CD as it’s another album that’s high on the 90’s list of all-time greats. For fans of great pop/rock/alternative with lyrics that will make you examine yourself, and laugh at some of the dumb things we as Christians say and do.

1. Jars of ClayMuch Afraid

My relationship with Jars of Clay’s follow up to their Self-Titled masterpiece is a complicated one. Originally I was disappointed, as there weren’t many similarities save “Fade to Grey” and “Frail” (which I was to discover were actually written in the same time period as the Self-Titled). But over time, I began to appreciate the evolution of sound. Much Afraid felt more polished, less organic which isn’t bad, just different. There were still the strings that I loved, but it was more of a rock record than it’s predessesor. This is still a highlight of their long and storied career. Other than the previously mentioned songs, other favorites for me were/are “Overjoyed,” with it’s almost whispered beginning and then build to guitars with tight harmonies, “Crazy Times” with it’s searing guitar solo from Stephen Mason, and the tender closing song “Hymn” with it’s hymn-like structure and poetry. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, though some claim this as their best overall,  I personally would rank it at two or three among an astoundingly solid discography. This one is a must own for all fans of music!
Well, I hope you enjoyed the journey of this countdown of what I belive was an amazing year for CCM. If you grew up with these I’d love to hear the stories and memories that you have attached to certain albums or songs. If you’ve never heard many of them, as a self-proclaimed CCM music historian I beg you to at least give them a listen. If you are a music streamer most can be found on Spotify or previewed on Itunes, or purchased on the cheap from Amazon. Happy listening!
Lastly, because every list has to have a cut off there were a few honorable mentions that didn’t quite make it for me. Not that they were lesser, they just weren’t ones I personally connected with or I didn’t include because they were a greatest hits album (which I feel like is cheating, though I almost caved for PFR). I listed a few other 1997 albums deserving mention below. So did I miss anything? Agree with the ranking? Disagree? Love to hear from you!
Honorable Mentions: 

Audio AdrenalineSome Kind of Zombie, Chris RiceDeep enough to Dream, PFR – The Late Great PFR, Considering Lily - Self Titled, and The Waiting - Self Titled



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