The following list is simply one long time Christian music fans eighteen wishes regarding Christian music. It’s a just-for-fun list of the things I’m hoping for, or that I’d like to see happen. I realize that outside of an actual time machine some are impossible, but hey, one can dream right?! Here we go...
1. I wish my favorite band Jars of Clay would release some new music. Even one original song would do! I miss them 😢.
2. I wish that people criticizing Christian musicians like Lauren Daigle/Lecrae for appearing on talk shows would chill, and be happy that their influence is expanding.
3. I wish Dctalk would figure this out and do a stadium tour already. Please!?! (A new album with Paul Meany or Rick Rubin producing would be welcome too.)
4. I wish that the music industry didn’t chew up and spit out so many of their artists contributing to many deconstructing and/or leaving their faith. (And that the church/Christians didn’t kick them while they’re down.)
5. I wish Caedmon’s Call was still making music.
6. I wish that Christian radio would get brave and include a better balance of artistry even if it cost them some money.
7. I wish that Relient K would do a follow up to their Air For Free album.
8. I wish every live music fan could see Twenty One Pilots in concert at least once.
9. I wish Mac Powell and David Nasser would make another Glory Revealed album.
10. I wish there was a radio station that played a mix of all fifty years of Christian music’s history.
11. I wish that Switchfoot’s Native Tongue album was already out. I am impatient to hear it!
12. I wish that Needtobreathe would get on a new full length album, and it would be full on rock & roll with guitars galore.
13. I wish I had been able to see Rich Mullins and Keith Green in concert.
14. I wish that we could reclassify “Christian Music” to church music (for corporate church use) and then everything else join the mainstream market. Sink or swim time!
15. I wish more people knew and appreciated bands/artists like Future of Forestry, Rivers & Robots, John Van Deusen, Chris Renzema, Jetty Rae, The Gray Havens, and Matthew Perryman Jones.
16. I wish I could travel back in time to attend the cornerstone music festival during the 90’s.
17. I wish that I had seen the following bands in concert in their prime at least once...Burlap to Cashmere, All Star United, Smalltown Poets, Big Tent Revival, The Waiting, Seven Day Jesus, and Sixpence None The Richer.
18. I wish that I could say that I don’t still own multiple Carman albums. Haha, just kidding, I can’t help myself. I still know all the words to “Soap Song” and “Step of Faith,” among others. “Who’s in the house” anyone?! I mean who?
Well, there you have it...my grown up Christmas...uhhh...Christian Music (wish) list. I’d love to hear yours. Leave them in the comments below!
With the recent announcement that the Switchfoot hiatus is over and album number eleven is either done or in process, I got to thinking how I would rank their ten albums. As a fan of the band from the beginning, this proved to be no easy task. With much deliberation and angst, this is what I came up with. Bear in mind that this is just one fan of the band’s opinion and not the opinion of the entire staff. Also, with that being said, I’m good with you disagreeing with me, just keep in mind that music is largely subjective, so be nice! Lastly, I’d love to see how you would rank them, so please leave your list in the comments below. Here goes…
1. The Beautiful Letdown (2003)
Probably surprising no one, this is my favorite overall Switchfoot album, and it’s not close. With “Adding to the Noise” the only track that I skip occasionally, this is a near perfect album in my opinion. “Dare You To Move” wins for favorite overall song with “24” and “Meant To Live” following close behind. “Gone” is pure fun, “Redemption” has some of my favorite lyrics, and “Ammunition” rocks. TBL is a true standout of the genre!
2. New Way To Be Human (1999)
New Way To Be Human has been in my car cd binder for many years, so I’ve probably heard this one the most. It’s definitely one of their more mellow albums, but the lyrics of “Let That Be Enough,” “Only Hope,” and “Under The Floor” are top notch. Combine that with the fun of “Company Car,” the driving “Sooner Or Later,” and the grungy “New Way To Be Human,” and you have a terrific album on your hands.
3. Hello Hurricane (2009)
Hello Hurricane was one of those albums that came along at just the right time when I needed it. The first four tracks rival the best opening quartet of the bands albums with the U2-esque of “Needle Haystack Life” and the guitar laden “Mess of Me,” offset by the beautiful ballad, “Your Love Is A Song.” Other highlights for me are the driving “Free,” the triumphant title track, and the soulful longing of “Red Eyes.”
4. Where The Light Shines Through (2016)
At first, I was disappointed with Where The Light Shines Through, but with time it really grew on me. The tracks I revisit most often are the buoyant “Float,” the frenetic “If The House Burns Down Tonight,” the fun “Bull In a China Shop,” and the earnest closer “Hope Is The Anthem.” If this had been their swan song, it would have been a fine close to the bands career…luckily, there’s more to come…
5. Oh! Gravity (2006)
Panned by critics, I feel like Oh! Gravity is a tremendously polarizing album. Those who like it really like it, and those who hate it, really hate it. I loved it for being different, though I do admit it and Fading West are the ugly ducklings of their catalogue. I love the indie feel to many of the tracks and still enjoy the title track, “Dirty Second Hands,” “Circles,” “Faust, Midas, and Myself,” and “Head Over Heels (In This Life).”
6. Vice Verses (2011)
For whatever reason, I don’t come back to Vice Verses much, which seems ridiculous considering the stellar songs in the tracklist. Barn burners like “Afterlife,” “The War Inside,” “Dark Horses,” and “Rise Above It” give this one some good pep. Paired with the experimental “Selling The News” and the trio of superb ballads, “Restless, “Vice Verses,” and “Where I Belong,” many of the songs from this album would make my top twenty for the band overall. It’s a mystery to me why it ended up 6th in my ranking, and yet here we are.
7. The Legend of Chin (1997)
High nostalgia factor with this one…I love the raw, somewhat sloppiness of this one, a true garage band album if there ever was one. I still remember hearing the first strains of “Chem 6A” on a sampler and being hooked. I raced to my local Christian Bookstore and listened to the rest cementing my “need” to own this one. Only problem was I only had money for one album that day, so I did what any great big brother would do and convinced his little brother that he liked it enough to buy it. Guess who ended up with it? Yeah, and I don’t even remember the album that I purchased that day. (Not sure if I should be proud or ashamed of this story, haha.)
8. Nothing is Sound (2005)
There’s a few good tunes on Nothing Is Sound, but overall it felt like a bit of a rush from the label to get more marketable songs out there quickly after the success of The Beautiful Letdown. “Lonely Nation,” “Stars,” “Daisy,” and “The Shadow Proves The Sunshine” are the ones I still listen to. I rarely set out to listen to the whole album in one sitting. That being said, it’s not a bad album, it just had the tough task of following up their best so it was bound to disappoint with my expectations so high.
9. Learning to Breathe (2000)
Learning to Breathe is a good album, definitely a more mature follow up to their debut. This is the album that we first hear a version of “Dare You To Move” that they would slightly retool and re-release on The Beautiful Letdown, which I’m’ glad they did as it was mystifyingly missed this go around. “Learning To Breathe” is my favorite song on the album and would likely make my top twenty songs list from the band. Others from the record I enjoy are “Innocence Again,” “Paparazzi,” “Love Is The Movement,” and “Living Is Simple.”
10. Fading West (2014)
Ranked last because something had to be, Fading West to my understanding was never intended to be a full album but simply a soundtrack to the bands surf/rock documentary of the same name. I’m glad they made it into an official album even if it is my least favorite because it brought us a more pop Switchfoot which was nice for a little change of pace from the band. Favorite songs are “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight,” and the trio of “Slipping Away,” “Ba55,” and “Let It Out.”
Well there you have it…Where did I get it right? Where did I miss it? How would you rank them? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments below!
It's funny -- usually when I think of the word "crossover" in Christian music, I picture Christian artists crossing over into the mainstream. I think of Amy Grant in the early 90's, or NF right now. I don't think of a mainstream pop artist as widely loved as Tori Kelly crossing over into the Christian genre.
Yet, that's exactly what the YouTube-prodigy-turned-superstar will be doing in a few weeks. In 2015, Kelly's debut album, Unbreakable, debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts, yielding three Hot 100 hits. Three years is a long wait for a follow-up, and many fans might be surprised by what they'll get when her new album Hiding Place drops on September 14: a straight-up gospel album.
A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend a preview event for this album, where Tori Kelly and her collaborator Kirk Franklin (maybe you've heard of him?) discussed Hiding Place and played six of the album's eight tracks for us.
The opener was "Masterpiece (ft. Lecrae)," which is fitting, since some Christian music fans might have first been introduced to Kelly by her feature on Lecrae's song, "I'll Find You." ("Masterpiece" even winks at Lecrae by quoting the same Scriptural phrase that he used to title his album: "all things work together.") But if that's all you know, then you might not be prepared for the powerhouse of a vocalist that she is, which every song in this set displays extremely well, from how tender she can be to how quickly she can run through notes to how high and loud she can belt it out. She's a bold singer, and "Masterpiece" is an equally bold way to start the album. Bursting through the gates with huge bass and heavy percussion, the song starts like you'd expect a Broadway song to end.
Next up was "Sunday," one of the four tracks that Tori Kelly and Kirk Franklin co-wrote together. One of the most shocking facts revealed at the preview event was, Franklin has never done a co-write before. Originally, he was only meant to serve as the producer for a song or two, but as he and Kelly began working together and finding their groove, a song turned into an EP, and an EP turned into an album. And if nothing else, "Sunday" represents how great of a team these two are together, with its big books and slimy bass lines, all focused around the lyric, "Don't let Sunday fool you."
Another feature came next, with singer Jonathan McReynolds appearing on "Just as Sure," a more acoustic, stripped-down track that conveys how authentic and impressive essentially everything about this project is. Unlike how many duets are recorded, McReynolds and Kelly actually recorded their vocal takes in the same room at the same time. Kelly said how she'd been wanting this collaboration to happen for years, and the final product couldn't have turned out much better; each voice and each instrument in this song exudes expertise in the craft. Speaking of how fantastic Tori Kelly is in the studio, Kirk Franklin chimed in at this point to call her a "mercenary -- this woman records a song in three takes."
After that came the album's lead single, "Never Alone," which is available now to download or stream. (There's also a music video that sneakily adds an extended, live outro to the song.) Describing both this track and the album overall, Kelly said the songs "came from the most human place possible. With this album, it was cool to reach into this place."
"Never Alone" was the first song Kelly and Franklin wrote together. Describing their process, they simply sat down with pen and paper and asked God to give them the lyrics. "I am blown away by her approach to music," Franklin said, "and blown away by her love for the Lord."
The final two songs we got to preview both display how Hiding Place is not trying to hide its Christ-centered, biblical foundation. First was "Psalm 42," which Kelly jokingly referred to as the one song on the record that she can actually play on guitar. But on a more serious note, it originated from her desire to have a song on the album that came straight from Scripture. Kelly wanted the album to be gospel not just in its sound or style but also in its message and integrity, such that she even turned down multiple artists who were interested in guest-appearing on the album because those artists (who remained unnamed) were not obviously witnessing to Christ.
"I've seen this girl live out her faith in the studio," Franklin said. "We talked as much about the kingdom as we did music."
The preview event concluded with the album closer and Tori Kelly's personal favorite track from the album, "Soul's Anthem (It is Well)." If the title doesn't give it away, this is an updated version of the classic hymn "It Is Well," and the whole song is simply Kelly singing over a choir -- a choir that included CCM names as big as Crystal Lewis, who was one of Kelly's favorite singers when she was growing up.
After two takes of Kelly recording her parts live in a vocal booth with the choir singing its parts in the room just beside her, Kirk Franklin took off the click track and asked the singer to close her eyes for the next take. The next take is what you'll hear on the record, as Kelly managed to get in the zone; and while singing, she felt like the whole album-making process finally hit her. "I'm a late processor," she admitted. The chill-inducing track includes a portion toward the end where Kelly stops and you only hear the choir, which is because she actually started crying during her performance, only barely managing to compose herself in order to sing the final line of the song, thus bringing the album-recording process to an end.
"I've never done a song like this before in my life," -- Franklin seemed equally proud of "Soul's Anthem" -- "and I couldn't have done it without Tori Kelly."
For Kelly, this album is a dream come true -- the culmination of all her childhood dreams of someday being a recording artist. While it's highly likely that her third album will see her returning to the pop music of Unbreakable, she had this final statement to make about Hiding Place: "I'd make songs like this if no one listened."
-- Chase Tremaine, JFH Podcast Host and Writer
While many staff members are breaking down their top year-end album picks, I was far more impressed with many of 2017’s individual songs as opposed to albums. (This is evidenced by the abnormally high amount of extended plays on my album list.) It is no secret that I was disappointed by the industry’s releases this past year, but there are always some exceptional gems to be found, and I want to break down some of the best offerings you just might have missed…
- New Earth: It’s always exciting to see an older act reunite under a new release, but this can easily be a letdown if not handled properly. Thankfully, 2017 saw the post-hardcore band Hands drop a two-track EP that went far above and beyond expectations. While both songs are fantastic, New Earth takes the cake for my favorite song released in the past several years. Its cold, dark, and somber lyrics perfectly mesh with a glimmer of hope, reflected by both the melody and instrumentation. Sometimes less is more, and Hands struck gold by implementing this understanding.
- I Can’t Sing it Loud Enough: “The thorns, the stripes, the cross, the spikes our hands prepared
/ so what is man that You would choose to stoop so low? / Exchange Your glory for our pitiful facade?” Lyrics as raw as this seldom make their way onto a record, but former Attalus frontman Seth Davey’s entire album is full of such beautiful and deep considerations. The imperfections in the actual recording (balancing, vocals, etc.) make this music “real” in a way NF could only dream of.
- We Live Best: It’s been a while since we’ve heard from rapper John Reuben, but boy is it good to have him back. Sure, the cynic may have won out over the boy, but Reuben’s musings are more potent than ever: “no satisfaction, suffocating joy / never made a idol that didn’t disappoint / we live best close to death.” It’s hard to decipher the overall message of “Reubonic;” not many answers are given. In this day and age, however, his questions need to be asked, and that is the first step in reconciling an increasing schism between faith and reality.
- Breathing Underwater: For brothers Aaron and Jesse Sprinkle, teaming up to form new indie rock band Blank Books was risky; not because there was a real chance it wouldn’t be exceptional, but because of the sheer amount of expectation bound to come along. Easily the strongest song on the EP, Breathing Underwater perfectly merges rock elements from the ‘90s and present, sports poignant lyrics, and brings along a killer melody to boot.
- Marina: Falling Up frontman Jessy Ribordy’s side project, The Gloomcatcher, has been around since 2010. The surprise EP release of “Blade in the Belfry” was a welcome addition to this project, and while all of the songs are beautiful, creative, and unique, Marina holds a special place. Written in relation to Ribordy’s family, it chronicles the struggles of relationships and brokenness, yet points to the importance of holding on throughout the turbulence of life.
- Let You Down: In my review of NF’s third LP, “Perception,” I noted that “Let You Down” is the only song on the album which didn’t actually let me down. It appears I’m not alone, as the song has continued to climb the charts at an unprecedented rate. It’s catchy melody, strong lyrics, and forceful rap bring back the cohesive elements of NF’s more quality releases.
- Coming Back: Honestly, I just really like this song. It feels like it belongs in the credits of a Fast & Furious It’s catchy, busy, and simply a good time. The lyrics are clearly representative of Manafest’s faith (“This is my pain, this is my cry, this is my hope when I need a sign / ‘cause I'm never too far, never too far to come back”), but are also easily accessible, with the melodies and background elements bringing it all together.
- Gasoline: I’m not usually a fan of cover songs, but Falling Up’s rendition of Brand New’s Gasoline is, simply put, astounding. It’s sparse and haunting; fitting for the band’s very final song release after a 15+ year run. I’m just a little bit disappointed that this will be the last year that Falling Up makes it onto my list.
- God’s Not Done with You (Original Demo): Be sure to listen to the “original demo” version of this song, rather than the one that the label/studio ruined. Tauren Wells had a strong debut LP this year, but it was unfortunately over encumbered with contemporary elements. When Wells sits behind a piano, incredible things happen. It’s a shame that producers often add so much bloat that it cheapens and diminishes what was once a thing of beauty. Such is the case for God’s Not Done with You, a track with a powerful message, soaring harmonies, and lovely piano elements. I’m just thankful that the stripped-down demo version was also placed on the record.
- Still Alive (Looking for a Reason): This track represents one of the times where Red went for something different, and actually achieved an amazing piece of art. The acoustic elements and vocal breakdown seal the deal, topping off this year’s last spot in the top ten.
David Craft’s top ten songs and albums of 2017
Top Ten Albums:
- Wavorly – Movement One
- Hands – New Heaven/New Earth
- The Gloomcatcher – Blade in the Belfry
- John Reuben - Reubonic
- Seth Davey – Till You’re All I See
- Blank Books – EP 1
- Manafest - Stones
- MC Jin – Nobody’s Listening
- Aaron Sprinkle – Real Life
- Nichole Nordeman – Every Mile Mattered
Top Ten Songs:
- New Earth – Hands
- I Can't Sing It Loud Enough – Seth Davey
- We Live Best – John Reuben
- Breathing Underwater – Blank Books
- Marina – The Gloomcatcher
- Let you Down – NF
- Coming Back – Manafest
- Gasoline – Falling Up
- God’s Not Done with You (Original Demo) – Tauren Wells
- Still Alive (Looking for a Reason) – Red
One of the best things about our top ten lists is that we never know what it's going to look like. While a lot of us on staff have favorites that we know we can count on to make the list, 2017 also dealt us quite a few wild cards, and I absolutely love it. Some of these wild cards were played differently than others (Young Fox, The Gloomcatcher, Penny & Sparrow, The Fast Feeling), but they were all chosen very carefully, and would all make excellent suggestions for someone wanting to find something new to listen to.
I deliberated over my list for quite some time, and even made a last-minute change the day the lists were due (sorry Mark!). Interestingly, I found myself being very certain of which albums to put in my top five, and having to choose between quite a few albums for spots 6-10. The ones that didn't make it still deserve some shine, so you'll see them in the "honorable mentions" after the list.
These are my top ten Christian albums of 2017. Odds are that you list looks different than mine, so I encourage you to share yours in the comments! I also encourage respect - and by "encourage," I mean I demand it!
1. Propaganda - Crooked
Relatively speaking, I'm a bit of a late comer to Christian hip hop. In my teenage years through early 20s, I was into artists like KJ-52, The Cross Movement, and T-Bone. As I grew and my music taste expanded, the underground hip hop started reaching out to me and bringing me in further and further. 2011 was my first experience with Propaganda, as he released Art Ambidextrous for free through the then-new Humble Beast. A few albums later, we have what I consider to be his strongest album to date, Crooked. Prop is immersed in both black and Hispanic culture and is vocal about current events and injustices that plague his communities, but he's also very vocal about his faith in Jesus. I've talked with people who couldn't get past their prejudices long enough to get to the meat of Crooked, but Prop's message here is undeniably drenched in the Gospel and the fact that only Jesus can fulfill us and that justice is in His hands. He's not shy about calling out the racism in our society and the Church (subtle or otherwise), but he's also open about his own imperfections and downfalls. Plus, the music is just so good. A wide range of influences come in to play, from traditional west coast hip hop to Beautiful Eulogy experimental beats. Crooked has it all. Don't miss this album.
2. Krum - Blue-Eyed Devil
Harry Krum flipped the switch on the name change in 2016 with Bare Knuckle Gospel. Then, back in February of 2017, he released one of the finest albums of his career. Additionally, Blue-Eyed Devil is also one of Krum's most personal, honest, and vulnerable albums. This album shined some light on the darkness in his life, from a broken marriage to flirting with sin, Krum opened up about the demons in his life more than we've ever heard before. A lot of the album's runtime is spent on his failures, but ultimately, it's time spent well, as he uses it to show how merciful God has been in his life. He even ends the album with a declaration that, through Christ, the Church is going to tear down the walls of the kingdom that Satan has built on the earth. I'm sure the name change probably left a lot of people in the dark; if you were a fan of Playdough and didn't know about all of this, go and listen to Blue-Eyed Devil and enjoy some of the best work from this veteran emcee.
3. Kings Kaleidoscope - The Beauty Between
This band, you guys. I genuinely believe that Kings Kaleidoscope is one of the tightest and most talented alternative bands in existence, not to mention being one of the absolute best worship bands I've ever listened to. The Beauty Between is a captivating listen. Kings K's hip hop influences have always stuck out to me, and it's wonderful to see them manifested a little more, as this album is half alternative, half hip hop, but still sounds more like Becoming Who We Are than their last album. Featuring the talents of Andy Mineo, Beleaf, Braille, Derek Minor, and Propaganda, this genre-blasting album is a real treat. And it's on cassette, too, to add to the whole "mixtape" vibe. You can't go wrong.
4. Rusty Shipp - Mortal Ghost
This album completely took me by surprise. A couple other staff members raved about it, and I knew I needed to give it a listen. First impressions didn't quite grip me like I was hoping, but something about it kept drawing me back. The more I listened, the more I was pulled in to this intense rock & roll sound that was unabashedly raw and honest. It's heavy, it's experimental, it's slightly funny (if even unintentionally so...I hope Russ doesn't really have caligynephobia), and it features a "Song of Storms" interlude, taken straight from my favorite video game of all time, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (I'm a sucker, what can I say?). I honestly believe this to be the best pure rock album of 2017, and I'll definitely keep coming back to it when I need a rock & roll fix.
5. John Mark McMillan - Mercury & Lightning
Like many of you, I'm sure, I was introduced to John Mark McMillan by way of a song called "How He Loves" (team "sloppy wet kiss"). I've always liked his work, but my appreciation wasn't absolute, as I always found myself acknowledging the quality of his music without actually spending a lot of time listening it. 2016, however, reintroduced me to Mr. McMillan with a live album that really hit me where it matters, and it became one of my favorite albums of the year. Needless to say, I was now hyped for Mercury & Lightning, and I was not disappointed. If you ask me, "Death In Reverse" might be the greatest song he's ever written, with other career highlights such as "Wilderlove," "Unhaunted," and "No Country." It's a spectacular album and I can't get enough of it.
6. Beautiful Eulogy - Worthy
This might have been the album on this list that I was the most excited for. Beautiful Eulogy's first two albums were absolutely stellar, and there was a four-year wait between Instruments of Mercy and Worthy, so the anticipation was great. Worthy featured the theologically-dense lyrics and otherworldly production we've come to expect from the trio, but was also a bit of a different animal, with guest spots from indie/rock singers and worship bands (and no rappers), as well as several instrumentals. It's not my favorite of their discography, but it's a highlight of the year.
7. Demon Hunter - Outlive
Fifteen years since their debut, Demon Hunter has released their most accessible album to date. The band's catalog spans the rock spectrum, from acoustic to rock ballads to hard rock to fast and furious metal.
8. The Fast Feeling - Pulses
In 2016, Five Iron Frenzy's Leanor Till announced a new side project she was working on with Scott and Andy (also of Five Iron), as well as Matt from Eleventyseven/The Jellyrox. That project was The Fast Feeling, and Pulses was the product of their writing and recording sessions. It's a solid pop rock album with a lot of electronic elements that ventures into heavy themes, like my personal favorite track, "Factions," but they also dabble in the light-hearted, like "Wasting Time." I was eager for this album, but I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Needless to say, this is a rather unexpected highlight for 2017, and I hope we get more from this group sooner rather than later.
9. Death Therapy - The Storm Before The Calm
And speaking of surprises, Death Therapy really came out of nowhere. I remember seeing this name on the list of upcoming Solid State Records releases and I wasn't sure what to expect, but The Storm Before The Calm was completely different. A mix of groove metal and nu metal with no guitars save for a bass guitar, combining the sounds of bands like Korn, East West, and Rob Zombie - it's a new sound for Solid State, and I approve.
10. The Ongoing Concept - Places
Heavy music is in a big of a stagnant state right now. There are some great bands putting out music, as the ones listed above and below can attest, but it's really hard to find hardcore and metal bands that keep my attention these days. I'm thankful for The Ongoing Concept, a band that's keeping things fresh. They like to keep it fresh so much that they even call themselves out when things might get too run-of-the-mill. Places is a frantic metal album with traces of southern metal, metalcore, and funk rock, of all things. I highly recommend this album to fans of metal, especially fans that, like me, are also struggling to find something interesting.
Honorable Mentions (chronological order):
-The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost: A worthy follow-up to the indie pop duo's debut, exploring themes of redemption and hope, with a little extra gospel and r&b flavors. -nobigdyl, Canopy: A rap album that's equal parts humorous, serious, and introspective. -Eisley, I'm Only Dreaming: Despite the slight stylistic change, the indie darlings have done it again with a more down-to-earth approach to songwriting. -Hearts Like Lions, If I Never Speak Again: This indie rock band's first full-length album says a lot about their future in the industry, and it's all good. -Flatfoot 56, Odd Boat: If this was a top 11 list, this would have made it. A strong Celtic punk album from a great talented bunch of rockers. -Aaron Sprinkle, Real Life: Any work by this legend in the industry is sure to be great, and this is no exception. -Earth Groans, Renovate EP: If this EP is any indication, Earth Groans has the potential to reinvent the hardcore game when their inevitable full-length comes out. -At the Wayside, The Breakdown and the Fall: One of Indie Vision Music's greatest new contributions to the independent punk rock scene. -'68, Two Parts Viper: Scogin and McClellan pair up to create some dynamite grunge, alternative, and screamy rock. No sophomore slump here. -The Sing Team, Sing On!: A reinterpretation of hymns in a variety of styles and sung by Brian Eichelberger and a host of other voices. -Deepspace 5, 5:55: The first release from this crew since 2010. It's short, and it's not the whole crew, but it's 100% quality. -Southlen, Places EP: This highly underrated pop rock group continues to impress with a much-too-short EP. -Swingin Hammers, Swingin Hammers: An independent artist with an arsenal of high-quality southern rock and Americana. -Blank Books, EP1: Aaron and Jesse Sprinkle teaming up for an alternative rock album is a dream come true. -Keyes., Animal. House.: Half of FREE DAPS with his second solo EP, featuring excellent production and a signature flow.
After seeing the latest Star Wars film, I had a lot of thoughts about how it relates to the Christian faith, but to discuss it, I have to reveal a ton of spoilers from the plot. So be warned, I discuss the movie and its plot here as if you've already seen it - so proceed with caution!
The events of the latest Star Wars film have sparked all kinds fan reactions, but the most common ones seem to be polar opposites: they either totally love the film... or totally hate it. The most negative feelings seem to be inspired most of all by how writer/director Rian Johnson treated the beloved hero Luke Skywalker. But I've found that it's this treatment of Luke that has spawned all kinds of parallels I've experienced with life as a Christian, and working for over two decades in the Christian music industry.
Last WARNING!! Major Star Wars: The Last Jedi SPOILERS ahead...
In the film, Luke has secluded himself on Ach-To island, ashamed of the unintentional role he played in his nephew, Ben Solo, turning to the Dark Side (and becoming Kylo Ren). He's even shut himself off entirely from "The Force" and believes the ancient Jedi religion should end. The once passionate and on-fire believer in The Force that we saw in the '77-'83 trilogy is now broken and discouraged and has given up on his faith.
Does this sound familiar at all to anyone?
Enter Rey. Rey has just had The Force "awakened" in her (hence the 7th Episode's film title), and now, only days after facing Kylo Ren head-on and discovering her strength in The Force, she's come face-to-face with the legend, Luke Skywalker. She's heard the stories that fans all know and love, and she's come to believe that Luke is the galaxy's last hope once again. However, she quickly discovers that Luke doesn't believe this in the least. Worse yet, he's given up all hope. As Rey holds out the very lightsaber Luke used to face his evil father -- the very lightsaber that was his father's--Anakin Skywalker--before he turned into Darth Vader -- Luke takes it into his hands (one of them being a now-metal hand in place of the one he lost when he lost this very lightsaber)... and merely tosses it aside. Despite Rey's plea for him to teach her again and again, Luke bitterly refuses and insists that it's the Jedi's very hubris that led to the rise of the Empire in the first place. He makes some valid points as to why the Jedi should end, but Rey sees the positives -- something Luke has completely forgotten.
When I started "The Jesus Freak Hideout" (JFH) in 1996, I was 16 years old. I had been raised to believe and follow God, but I never really accepted Christ into my life as my Lord and Savior until I was about 13 years old. It was around that time that I discovered Christian music. I soon found these musical pilgrims to be larger-than-life heroes to me. I loved their crusade for the faith, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to do whatever I could to help others find these artists and their music and feel what I felt when I listened to their songs. If I could spend hours of my life sitting in front of a computer screen, promoting this kind of music from the comfort of my dad's home office, then I'd be more than honored to do it. Obviously, over the years, JFH grew and so did its presence in the music industry. And with its growth, came more of my own involvement in the industry, mostly interacting with record labels, publicity groups, and even tour production companies and artist managements. I was suddenly meeting some of these heroes of mine -- whether in person or via email or phone. The curtain, so to speak, was being pulled back and I became privy to a world most don't get to see - and it was exciting!
But it didn't take long for reality to set in. Two years after the site began, I experienced the business side of the "Christian music industry" in a very negative way when a record label took advantage of my naivety, and their "help" turned into a fight for me to gain ownership of something that was always rightfully mine. I was starting to see that the passion and love and hope and positivity that was radiating from my teenage heart was not really shared by everyone who I had assumed would if they were involved in promoting this music that touched my heart so much.
I was Rey.
And now I was meeting my Luke Skywalker's. These artists and labels and champions of the faith that I was reading about monthly in CCM Magazine, seeing them grace the covers while talking about their music ministries and love for Jesus within those paper pages, were proving to be something I never considered: Human. Flawed. Just like you. Just like me!
Upon seeing The Last Jedi, and loving the film but being disappointed by seeing our hero, Luke Skywalker, as someone who had lost his faith along the way -- basically because of shame and discouragement -- I realized how sadly REAL that is. I've seen it time and time again. People of the faith we look up to - heroes - suddenly walking away from everything they preached or sang about. (I've seen it happen to friends close to me, even family, too.) I have recorded songs on CD and on my iPhone about personal beliefs and passionate faith that are sung and performed by artists who no longer believe these declarations. Now when I hear them, I hear the hearts of someone not declaring, but struggling to believe. And sadly, I know where that struggled eventually led them.
I debated on whether or not to write any of these thoughts down, but then I saw a social media post from one of the aforementioned heroes making a bitter reference to something in the Christian music industry -- and it wasn't their first post like it. A little bit later the same day, I was listening to John Williams' brilliant Last Jedi score and these thoughts came flooding back, and my heart broke all over again.
In the film, Rey's passion and fire help Luke to start to rethink his current position on his faith. He lets The Force back in, and we start to see just how powerful of a Jedi this man really is. (We see the potential he has for good that he has forgotten!) He's then visited by his old friend and teacher, Yoda, who helps remind him that he's lost focus... that he's always looking in the wrong place for answers. It's a callback to a younger Luke being trained by Master Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, but it's also such a real moment where a mentor in the faith helps get through to someone who's lost the plot and lost their way. It's a turning point for Luke. By the film's end, it seems he gives his life to save his friends one more time, and his faith in The Force is restored. It's a hopeful conclusion, and it gives me hope that some of those who've inspired us through the years who've fallen away and let discouragement and brokenness consume them can rediscover the fire that brought them to their faith in Jesus in the first place.
But another lesson can be gleaned from Luke's story: we all can fall. We all can let discouragement cloud our vision and make us lose sight of the cross. It's up to us how we respond to the disappointments and hardships in our lives. What I miss most about Christian music from the 90's and early 00's is how much of it was about living the Christian life. People would complain then that much of it was "preaching to the choir," but what many failed to realize is that believers NEED encouragement and fuel to fan the fire of faith inside us. And, ironically, it seems that so much of the music today is made almost exclusively for Sunday morning services (but that's an entirely different loaded topic for a different kind of blog), and it's drastically shrunken the diversity of what Christian music once was. I feel like the songs of yesteryear often talked about things to really chew on and make you think, while also encouraging you in your faith. Songs like "I Don't Understand" by PFR, "Rubber Meets the Road" by Steven Curtis Chapman, "See Through" by Audio Adrenaline, or "Lost the Plot" by Newsboys were songs that were honest, vulnerable, and helped believers navigate their doubts and fears in the faith (and musically, they were just really good and cool to listen to, too).
Love it or hate it, there's a lot to take away from the story of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And I feel like it really gives Christians a lot to talk about and discuss. Are you more or a Rey? Are you more of a Luke? And if any of us are feeling more like a Luke these days, what can we do to get that fire and passion back in our lives?
It's my prayer that our fallen heroes in the faith may find the fire and hope again. If you know someone like that in your life, the very least we can do is seek the Lord for them and pray for them. Their story isn't over yet. :)
-- John DiBiase
2017 was, in many ways, a year of lamenting, both within the music industry and about the music industry. Many of our staple “heavyweights” in Christian music released albums in 2016, which meant that 2017 was truly a year for indie artists to step up to the plate. Thankfully quite a few did, as evidenced by our staff’s overall and individual top ten lists. Here are my personal picks for the top ten albums of 2017, along with the reasons why I chose them:
1. Mortal Ghost, Rusty Shipp - I didn’t go on vacation to the Jersey Shore this past summer, and I missed the beach terribly. Thankfully it was around this time that Michael Weaver’s review for Rusty Shipp’s album Mortal Ghost was posted, and after reading his positive feedback as well as some comments from our readers, I decided to give the album a spin--and it was honestly one of the best decisions I made in 2017. From the Muse-esque intro “Sea Sentinals” to the epic closer “Davy Jones,” this album truly transported me to the nautical place I longed for, and the production values were top notch. This became my go-to album for this year, and my most-played. I went on to interview Russ T. Shipp for our site and asked him all my burning questions about this album. Lyrically and musically, it’s just satisfying all-around, and still maintains spiritual substance throughout.
2. Can't Curse The Free, Jetty Rae - My interest in this album piqued when Jetty Rae posted about the production process on Facebook, and how this album had a much different sound from her previous ones. I managed to get an advance copy for my review, and I was so impressed with how well-executed this new sound was. There’s an earthiness to it, yet it’s also ethereal. Like I said in my review, there’s just something very “American” about the sound, because it composites different musical styles that started and evolved in the US. The story behind the album is even more compelling--Rae wrote these songs while traveling around the US with her family in an RV, and during this time her father was sick with cancer. Seeing the rugged landscapes while weathering emotional turmoil stirred Rae’s songwriting in a new direction, and this is Rae at her most soulful and raw. Tracks like “Can’t Curse the Free” and “Still Gotta Fight It” were particularly encouraging to me this past year.
3. Crooked, Propaganda - After hearing several of my JFH colleagues rave about this album, I decided to give it a listen--and it was a tour-de-force. This was one of my favorite albums to listen to during my commutes on the subway, because I would people-watch as I listened. It’s a long album--I only reached the end once or twice--but it moves quickly. The mixing in this album is superb (kudos to Beautiful Eulogy who co-produced this album), and the first time I listened to “Gentrify” I looked around the subway car to see if there was a man yelling in Spanish. That’s how much detail went into the mixing process on this record. I’m not as familiar with Propaganda’s catalog as my staffmates, so I didn’t compare this album to any of his previous ones. Overall, I was impressed by the amount of pop cultural and historical references that were seamlessly incorporated into the lyrics, and how each song emotes differently from the others. Propaganda doesn’t waste time on bravado or critiquing the rap industry and its critics--he’s looking at the bigger picture, at our nation and at the world, and he raises thought-provoking questions about what he sees, instead of telling us the answers.
4. We Are Fearless, Fearless BND - It’s rare for an album to “grow” on me--I usually don’t listen again after a bad first impression. However, because I volunteered to review We Are Fearless, I had no choice but to listen to it multiple times to give it a fair review. Nobody was more surprised than I was but my turnaround in opinion--with each listen, I succumbed more and more to the earworms present here, and found myself tapping my toes to the beats and moving around to the synths. It’s a joyous and reverent affair, yet it still has the commercial production values to rival anything on current pop radio. Stylistically, it’s the antithesis to The Porter’s Gate’s Work Songs (which I’ll get to next). This album is all about pushing the boundaries of electronic worship, while still sounding cohesive and catchy. The only exception is the track “White Flag,” which still incorporates synths after the halfway mark. What I enjoyed most about this album was that it made me want to get up and dance, and this buoyancy helped brighten those difficult winter commutes back in January and February. Sidenote: it would be interesting to hear these songs reinterpreted in an acoustic setting (Fearless BND--if you’re reading this, that could be an EP idea for 2018).
5. Work Songs: The Porter's Gate Worship Project Vol. 1, The Porter's Gate - This was a late discovery for me, one of those albums I listened to while I was compiling my top ten list for the end of the year. I listened through it during a commute home on the express bus, so I got to watch some scenery while I listened. It felt cinematic--the opening track is mesmerizingly beautiful, with Madison Cunningham’s clear voice almost whispering over an acoustic guitar. The organic instrumentation and raw vocals on this album ushered me back to the church days of my childhood, when we’d sometimes have services where we sang “the choruses” acapella, yet it was still anointed. The fact that this album was recorded live raised the stakes for the performances, and the result is, like us, perfectly imperfect and beautifully flawed. The songs feel more genuine than they would have in a studio setting. There’s also a slightly retro gospel sound to these songs, and if you enjoy the music of The Followers, you’ll enjoy The Porter’s Gate’s Work Songs as well.
6. I Quit Church, Matt & Toby - When I first heard about this project, my initial thought was “Is this going to be ironic?” Matt & Toby’s reputation precedes them, and I was expecting this to be a scathing critique on the hypocrisy of church culture (which, in many ways, would be justifiably warranted). I know people who have “quit church,” saying they can’t stand the preaching, or the people sitting next to them, or the music being played during worship. Surprisingly, though, this album is much more reverent than I anticipated, and I was blindsided by how emotional I became while listening. The traditional hymns are given new shape and life in this album, and I liked Matt & Toby’s decidedly retro, laid back sonic interpretation of them. This is an ideal album for driving at night, but be warned, it hits you hard in the heart. The original songs on this album loosely shape its “narrative,” about someone leaving church, and later his pastor visiting his home to ask him to return. What happens from there is left up to the listener to imagine. The point of this album is not to tell us about all the things that are wrong with today’s churches--instead, I Quit Church redirects our attention to why we go to church in the first place--to seek God, to worship Him, to hear His Word, and to collectively encounter Him with other believers.
7. Lifer, MercyMe - The Reinvention Award of 2017 would have to go to MercyMe. Admittedly, I’m not well-versed in their back-catalog, save for one album and some radio singles. But I know for certain that I would never associate words like “funky” or “swagger” with their music. Lifer turns listeners’ expectations upside down--MercyMe has made an album we can dance to, and not just in the boot-stomping way we did with their previous efforts. The opening title track sounds like something Bruno Mars would release to top 40 radio, and I mean that in the best way possible. The brass, the synths, the guitars, the bass--everything here is working in tandem to create what is arguably the catchiest MercyMe song of all time. There are other standout tracks--the guest appearance of rapper John Reuben in the groovy “Grace Got You” is a pleasant surprise, “Even If” is one of the most honest Christian songs about keeping faith in God, and “We Win” makes me cry happy tears when I listen to it. Overall, this was a standout effort from MercyMe, and it’s put them in the musical forefront for me.
8. Projections, Landry Cantrell - One of my JFH colleagues pointed out to me that my 4.5 star review for Landry Cantrell’s album sounds more like a 4 star review when you read it. Nevermind what I wrote, this is a 4.5 star album. What I enjoyed most about Cantrell’s album is that is sounded fresh, yet relevant--it certainly ranks up there with what the secular market is putting out, from a production standpoint, but the lyrics and vocal delivery are heartfelt and genuine. There’s some nice, catchy, encouraging cuts on this record--the energetic and worshipful “Before You,” the finger-snappin’ “Fly,” and the Romans 8:38-inspired “Separate,” to name a few. “Indian Summer” is a beautiful love ballad, and the fact that it was a duet between Cantrell and his then fiance (now wife!) Kelsey Hicks makes it more special. I’m looking forward to seeing what Cantrell will release in the future, but for now, let’s continue to savor Projections.
9. Where His Light Was, Kristene DiMarco - When I saw that Kristene DiMarco was releasing a solo album, I was concerned that it was going to sound too similar to her peers’ solo efforts. Thankfully, it does not--DiMarco’s style strikes a balance between the organic and the electronic, and while there aren’t any fast songs on this album, the album moves quickly. This is straightforward worship, with some anthemic moments (“Your Love Stand Alone,” “I Am No Victim”) and some intimate ones as well (“Never Ever,” “I Just Want to Worship”). I felt encouraged in my faith when I listened to this album, and it helped to be reminded that God is with me, that He won’t fail me, and that my identity is found in Him.
10. Only the Lonely, Colony House - This was another last minute discovery for me, like The Porter’s Gate and Matt & Toby’s records. It’s unfortunate, considering that one of my JFH colleagues sent me a hard copy of this album earlier in the year, but I’m glad I finally got around to listening to it. This album brought me back to the indie rock I listened to when I was in college not too long ago, and also reminded me of the oldies I listened to in the car growing up, so the familiarity of the sound made me nostalgic. There’s some clever production choices on this album--the whistling leading into “1234,” the Black Keys-esque guitar and vocal effects in “Lonely,” the surf rock harmonies in “You Know It.” Pensive closer “This Beautiful Life” hits all the right musical and lyrical marks. I anticipate becoming better acquainted with Colony House going forward.
-- Nicole Marie Vacca
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.
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."
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
Looking For America - On A Spiritual Journey Through 2016 With The Best Albums Of The Year
A look back at the past year is what we journalist and writers do. Trying to “get a handle” on what just happened is an age-old task that is always just beyond the reach of even the most senior reporter or cultural critic.
And then there was this year, one that, in many ways defied the odds as being a “weird” year. The U.S. presidential election took new twists and turns almost every week, and the other stories of the year (the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued fragmenting of our once monolithic pop culture into little bits and pieces of entertainment, etc.) form a chaotic whole that defies any attempt to categorize them.
And then there is the personal level. Every year that passes brings personal triumphs and failures, new family members and lost ones too. Jobs are gained, degrees earned, while in other spheres marriages splinter or a child passes away suddenly. One bad car accident can define a year, or conversely, one serendipitous, chance meeting can lead to a new love and the course of a life altered.
And so, as a music journalist, it’s ever so much easier to define the year by the great music I heard and absorbed into my soul. 2016 might have been an up or down year for me (I’d characterize it as an “up” year for the Caldwell clan), but it was also the year I heard “Live It Well”, “Balconies Of Grace” and “Local Construction”, three fantastic songs that have already embedded themselves in my soul’s DNA and inspired me to “live a better story” for the Lord, because, truly, “life is short“, I’m constantly “under construction” and always, desperately in need of “grace.” Traveling back through the year in music is always a joy, because the music that you truly loved marks the days and months (as in, “I remember where I was when I first heard this song!”).
The following are my favorite albums and songs of the year. This is not a “best of” list, as much as it is a “favorite” one. I make no claims to the greatness of these albums and songs (though many of them are), but to how much they moved me and settled in a place in my heart.
1. Switchfoot - Where The Light Shines Through
Every four years the U.S. goes through a presidential election cycle, and it’s almost always greeted with the question of “what kind of country do we want to be? Likewise, turning 40 years old (something I experienced this year) elicits the same kind of questions; am I who I want to be? Do I need to make a change?
For nearly half my life, Switchfoot has provided me the music to go along with those questions and searches, the bigger questing for the divine in the real world:
“This is your life. Are you who you want to be?” - “This Is Your Life” from Beautiful Letdown
“I want more than my lonely nation” - “Lonely Nation” from Nothing Is Sound
“I’m living for more than just the afterlife” - “Afterlife” from Vice Verses
And now, I’ll add:
“Life is short, I want to live it well”
“America, who are you?”
“The wound is where the light shines through”
Jon Foreman and company speak to my soul like no other band, and when they ask hard questions about themselves and their country, it makes me want to do so as well. But in asking tough question and making tough observations, they never skimp on the creative rock and roll. The blistering and epic guitars of “Holy Water” (a clever way to weave a song about baptism in with surfing, but it’s so much more than that) bleed into the fantastic bouncy baseline of “Float”, and then into the sun drenched and poignant title track. This might be Switchfoot’s most California album ever, with Beach Boy harmonies set against an alt-rock backdrop. “Live It Well” may be the closest the band gets to U2, and it’s deservedly turning out to be their biggest hit in ten years, because it inspires without cloying, it uplifts without preaching. Not many artists can do this well.
And in the searching for hope amidst the tough questions (“Looking For America”), Foreman comes down on a God who wants to gather the “poor, tired and huddled masses” (a play on the Statue Of Liberty’s famous motto) into himself. A country, as great as it is, is no substitute for a relationship with the Creator of all things.
And so, the answer to all that searching, is hope in a loving God.
“Hope's a seed you have to sow
When you let it go it comes to life
So you stretch your arrows on the bow
And you pull them back and watch them fly”
Any institution, person or thing I put my hope in down here is ultimately going to fail me. I put my hope in the Lord, and do my best to love my neighbor as myself. I place my life in the hands of the “healer of souls”, and with his divine help, hope to take my life and “live it well”.
2. Paper Route - Real Emotion
If I had experienced any sort of breakup this year, Real Emotion would have been my favorite album of the year. A song cycle about a relationship that’s ended (this I’ve gathered from clues both in the bands comments and in the song lyrics and placements in the album), Real Emotion is a bird's eye view of the cycle of disappointment and renewal that comes when any relationship is fractured. It ends with my second favorite song of the year, “Balconies Of Grace”, where the narrator gives his struggles to the Lord in a terrific, anthemic melody, and prays for the person on the other side of the relationship split:
“Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace
Raise your arms and hold what you can't replace
It's the simple things that I can't get right
It's the hunting heart trying to survive
And for every wound there's a hill to climb
Can we reach that high, reach that high
Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace
Raise your arms and hold
There is loneliness in the things we need
But inside your eyes I am reflecting
There is grace to hold over you and me
There are balconies, balconies”
May we all celebrate the grace that “holds you and me”.
3. Crowder - American Prodigal
I guess I’ll make it official: I like the band “Crowder” more than I did the “David Crowder Band”. That might be blasphemy to many longtime fans, but David Crowder is a much more focused songwriter on his new band’s first two outings than he was over the course of his other band’s seven albums.
American Prodigal is a case in point. It has a strong theme, both musically (southern swamp-rock and bluegrass-like folk music) and lyrically (the redemption of a wanderer).
David Crowder mines Southern folklore and gothic themes for traces of God, and uses the musical form in his songs of praise. “Shouting Grounds” (a reference that Southerners of charismatic background will get) takes an old religious tradition and imbues it with new life. The fact that I had to look up what the shouting grounds were is a testament to an interesting album. “Run Devil Run”, with its acoustic blues guitars (and fine music video) is a hoot of a song, and “Praise The Lord” redeems its lackluster title with terrific lyrics about a spiritual awakening, realizing that the Lord is so much more than the box our minds put Him in. These are among my favorite lyrics of the year:
“And I don’t buy that any more.
You’re not who I thought you were.
Praise the Lord…”
4. Needtobreathe - Hard Love
Many see Hard Love as a letdown after four great albums of gritty and heartfelt Southern rock, but the album, with its 80’s era synthesizers and left-field songwriting (just check out the auto-tuned opening vignette “Mountain”) was a needed change of direction for the band. The great title track addresses what is needed to make a relationship (be it a marriage, family or band one) work, and that’s “hard love”. The divisive history of this band over the past few years (something that they are more than candid about) makes this statement of purpose one of the most interesting songs of the year. It’s become a theme song of sorts in my house (I have two tween daughters in the midst of growing into young women, who require a “hard love”, not to mention their frequently grumpy dad) and I hum it often in the midst of any family drama. “Testify” is a wonderful worship song that uses a hammer dulcimer to great effect (something the Rich Mullins fan in me appreciates), and “Great Night” is the best dance song of the year (and made for a great concert opener on their latest tour).
Not everything on Hard Love holds together (the ending song “Clear” is nice, but strangely meanders on and on for almost seven minutes of nothing, and is a vague “is-he-talking-about-the-Lord-or-his-wife” tune), but the highs and good moments are right there with the best of what these fellows from South Carolina have done.
5. Relient K - Air For Free
I ranked these Ohio boys behind Needtobreathe, but if I had it to do all over again, I would switch their places. Are For Free is a great, cohesive comeback for these beloved, former pop-punkers. But while they were away they added a few new tricks, and the album is full of off-kilter songs that retain the puckish (a Shakespeare reference, and where the word “punk” comes from) spirit of the band. “Local Construction” is a bouncy tune that Wes Anderson would be proud to have in one of his movies. It also contains some of the finest lyrics Matt Theisen has put to paper:
“Days rolling by like local construction
I'm watching the tenements increase by increments
Work on it, work at it, work, but it's never done, no no
Fix the car, fix the house
Fix the flaws in myself
It's never done, no no
It's never done, no no
Like local construction
It's never done”
Wherever you may call home, there is undoubtedly a construction project around your town that is never quite done. So too are our lives. Praise God he’s still working away on us, though the days may seem long at times.
6. John Tibbs - Dead Man Walking
There isn’t nearly enough “heartland” rock and roll in Christian music. The honest, blue collar kind of music that refuses to gloss over the tough reality of life, the kind that speaks to you in its authenticity and honesty.
Indiana’s John Tibbs made that kind of album this year. A little Bruce Springsteen, a little John Mellencamp, a pinch of Creedence Clearwater Revival and a whole lot of heart, Dead Man Walking burns with energy and integrity, and never glosses over anything with fancy production or vague lyrics about “struggles”. Instead “Silver and Stone” bursts out of the gate with grit and verve, celebrating the God who makes beauty out of our messes. In “Abraham” Tibbs has one of my favorite lyrics of the year, sung with vocal cord-shredding intensity:
“It's not where you've been
It's not what your eyes have seen
It's not who you are
It's not what you're becoming
It's not what you say
It's not what your hands have held
It's the grace of God who makes this fallen place whole.”
7. Unspoken - Follow Through
Unspoken played perhaps the best one hour festival set I’ve ever seen this past summer. Maybe it was because they were playing a rare hometown gig (on a Mountain in Maine), or maybe they were just excited to be playing through their new album. But whatever the cause, they rocked and rolled through most of their new album with a humble swagger (I know that’s a contradiction in terms) I’ve not seen in a long time. This lead me to listen to their new album Follow Through with more curiosity that I normally would give something this “pop”.
But darned if they didn’t hand in the sharpest pop album of the year; a jubilant mixture of uplift and grit, of heartache and praise. With great melodies and the fantastic vocals of Chad Matteson (who channels Maroon 5’s Adam Lavine), Follow Through jumps out of the speakers. The extended version (which really should be the only one) has “Roots”, a great Paul Simon-like number that uses an African choir and a great agricultural metaphor that, if their record company had the temerity to do so, would be the best thing Air1 or K-Love played put on their play lists this year.
8. Tyson Motsenbocker - Letters To Lost Loves
A folkie based in the Northwest and debuting on Tooth And Nail Records, Motsenbocker had the best opening song of an album I heard this year. In the gut-wrenching “In Your Name” (a song inspired by the news of his saintly mother’s cancer diagnosis) he sings about praying for healing:
“Well maybe he is occupied with other people's wars
Or he's organized militia to fight the war on Christmas
or maybe he's protecting our children from the gays
Who have promised to destroy this utopia we've made
In His name
In His name
In His name
Well I hear that you've been speaking through the man on the TV
And you've helped the Dallas Mavericks with their field goal percentage
So when my mother's doctor calls again with more bad news
It's an honest heart's reaction - who, my God, have you been listening to?
In His name…”
Letters To Lost Loves is a travel log of faith, and takes you through the dark times (and the light) of trying to hold onto your faith. Christian music needs many more Motsenbockers to speak to the full spectrum of what it means to believe. Even the album cover, with a picture of his parents embracing, is devastating.
9. Sho Baraka - The Narrative
Humble Beast Records continues to put out some of the best and most challenging music from people of faith. Baraka’s The Narrative is a great title, and the album makes a great use of a historical motif, with songs that correspond to historically relevant events (like “Maybe Both, 1865” which is about the Emancipation Proclamation and the modern day Black Lives Movement), and with songs that demand repeated listens to get the depth and rapid fire maturity of the lyrics. The Narrative shines with fantastic, live instrumentation and an intensity of purpose that stuns.
In the afore mentioned “Maybe Both, 1865” Baraka spits out a rapid fire assessment of the troubles of the narrative of American history:
“Why stop now?
I haven't caught the holy ghost yet
Sing a little louder, we can drown out the protests
We build an antebellum, they too busy to listen
I hear disturbing things come from so-called "Christians"
Quick to justify your man's death
Because of a criminal record or how a man dressed
Thugs I guess, only perfect people get grace
If that was the Lord's way, there'll be no one in the faith
True flaw, America kills and hides behind the law
They purchase this land with violence, but never count the cost
Put a dollar to your ear, you can hear the moaning of a slave
America the great was built off the labor that they gave
Jefferson and Washington were great peace pursuers
But, John Brown was a terrorist and an evil doer
Oh yes, God bless the American Revolution
But, God ain't for all the riots and the looting?”
There are surely angles to debate here, but white Evangelicals would do well to consider Baraka’s words, and try, just for a moment, to see things from a different perspective and listen for another “narrative” that is out there.
10. Judah & The Lion - Folk Hop ‘N Roll
Folk Hop ‘N Roll is just about as experimental as a bluegrass album can get. With dance rhythms and zany turns of instrumentation (mostly done on acoustic instruments like mandolins and banjos), Folk Hop ‘N Roll is a down-home party record that grew on me as the year rolled along. There’s no better album I heard this year to dance on the front porch of your cabin along with. I’m happy these guys are getting such good exposure this year (they are opening for 21 Pilots on a world tour this coming spring).
Music is soul food, and one of the Lord’s neatest inventions. May you hear many good songs this year, that make you want to “live life well”, celebrate God’s “balconies of grace”, endure the endless “local construction” of you life (it’s never done), and be a blessing to the world “in His name”.
Peace to you, and a very happy 2017.
May we live it well.
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell
No Cheap Inspiration Here
A Look At The Lyrics Of Jon Foreman, Part 2
In September, I released Part 1 of a look at the lyrics of Jon Foreman and Switchfoot. With Switchfoot just about to release their 10th album, Where The Light Shines Through, and Foreman having released a steady stream of great EP’s over the last few years--and to honor such a prolific and heartfelt songwriter--I’d like to examine the Jon Foreman songs and lyrics that mean the most to me. This is part two of a multi-essay (okay “blog”) effort to wrestle with the life of the mind, with what happens when other’s art and your own heart collide. You can read part one of this series here.
This Is Your Life (From The Beautiful Letdown)
“This is your life / Are you who you want to be?”
Socrates is reputed to have said "the unexamined life is not worth living." Yet so much of the time I'm not really giving much thought to why I do what I do. It's all too easy to fall into familiar patterns or let my desires control what I do. Some call it "the chasing of the belly and the bowl." And all that unexamined life can lead you to being the shell of a person, broken and wondering how you got here, shipwrecked. "Where did it all go wrong?" you think.
That may be overly dramatic, but so is breaking down on the roadside after you've been ignoring the "check engine" light for a month. You knew there was trouble, all the signs were there, but there were just other things to do. (And sometime, in my younger years, I would just turn up the music if my car was making a funny sound.)
But asking yourself hard questions is important. There are only so many days in your life left, and if I want to “live them well.” I have to ask the questions and pray the hard prayers. “Lord, search me, is there more you have for me?”
I’m about to hit the big “four-oh”, and asking myself this question everyday is critical.
“Live It Well” (From Where The Light Shines Through)
“Life is short / I want to live it well”
“Teach us to number our days” the Psalmist says. The clock is ticking down, and all those years you thought you had are drifting away, minute by minute. My life is short (especially measured against that rock my daughter found on our hike the other day, or that massive oak tree we passed).
Foreman hits this theme time and time again over the course of his band’s albums, but he never ceases to find new ways to say it. If you combine that important sentiment against the swelling, U2-like structure of the song, and you get an anthem that not only uplifts, but challenges. Theme songs don’t come much better than this. It’s the soundtrack to my days this summer; getting in shape, loving my family well, working hard at the gifts God has blessed me with.
May we all “live it well”.
“Company Car” (From New Way To Be Human)
“I've got the company car / I'm the one swinging at two below par
Yeah, I've become one with the ones / that I've never believed in
But I've got the company car”
In college, I had the nicest car I will probably ever own. It was a sporty black Saab that was completely ridiculous and bought with trust fund money that should have been spent on something more practical, and modest, to drive. I stood out like a sore thumb at my Bible college, where most ministry majors were driving beat up cars and focusing on more important issues.
But I thought I needed to have it. In my insecurity about who I was, a flashy car seemed like some kind of answer, and since I could buy it outright, why not?
What you drive is a measure of success here in the U.S., and Foreman’s lyrics about a person who thinks they’ve made it because they are driving the company car (most likely a car that is nicer than one they could afford) speaks to the vanity and confusion of our times. A nice car is nothing to live for. It rusts eventually. The motor goes south and all you have left is the payments.
Foreman has long made status symbols a theme of his writing, with terms like “Lexus cages” sprinkled throughout. On each album, you can count on at least a song or two where Foreman is urging his audience to live for more, and it’s a theme that cannot be overstated. Life is about so much more…
“Adding To The Noise” (From The Beautiful Letdown)
“If we're adding to the noise / turn off this song
If we're adding to the noise / turn off your stereo, radio, video…”
The 21st century is sure noisy. And it’s become even more so in the 12-plus years since this song came out in 2003. There was no social media then (not in the way there is today) and there was still music on MTV. But Foreman got this right. If the stuff we consume just adds to the chaos of our lives, it’s time to turn it off.
Silence is going to be the great currency in the future, the thing that people crave and will seek out. And the reality is that the Lord’s still small voice comes through best in silence. Elijah in the cave sat through a tornado, an earthquake and a forest fire, but the Lord was not in those things. I listen to music a great deal, and much of it is music that relates to my faith directly. But turning it off to listen is imperative now and again.
Learning To Breathe (from Learning To Breathe)
"Hello, good morning, how you do? / What makes your rising sun so new?
I could use a fresh beginning too / All of my regrets are nothing new
So this is the way that I say I need You / This is the way that I'm learning to breathe"
A fresh beginning is another constant theme with Foreman. “Dare You To Move” (“I dare you to move like today never happened“) and “Always” (“every breath is a second chance”) hint at this theme too, and show Foreman to be a man who is in touch with his sinful nature.
And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t need a new beginning too. Grace says that there is always a fresh start, always a cleared path ahead of you if you will only ask for it. Sometimes it's easy to get in a funk when personal failure and you are intimate friends. But as the book of Proverbs says “a righteous man gets up seven times”. It’s about the getting up and not the falling down. Because falling down is pretty much guaranteed. It’s those who finish the course that change things.
Grace says “get up”, I’ve got this, you just keep going.” And as I grow as a believer, I realized that grace is the constant wind in my sail that I forget is even there. Growth is realizing how free I am because of Christ‘s death on the cross, free to fail, free to get back up again. It’s not up to me, so why pretend that it is.
It’s like breathing, sometimes you have to remember to do it. Learning to live in grace is learning to breathe, learning to do something naturally. If I lived in grace, and showed it in everything I do, if I reflected the grace I’ve been shown, how would that change things, my relationships, my work?
It would change everything…
Thank you, Jon Foreman for constantly making me think, reflect and sing along at the same time. I’m looking forward to seeing you in concert this summer.
-- Alex Caldwell, Jesusfreakhideout.com staff writer
Music And Basketball:
Switchfoot And Needtobreathe - The Warriors and Spurs of Christian Music
There are a few distinct things I’ve been a fan of since childhood (good books, good movies, good Chinese food etc.), and chief among them are basketball and music.
There were no real outdoor courts in my small Maine town growing up, so my crafty father built me the most beautiful and rugged outdoor court you have ever seen. I spent hours a day firing away at that hoop, imagining hitting buzzer beaters and playing one-on-one against whoever was around that day. To this day, a hoop in the driveway is a mandatory item for me, and my daughters and I spend a lot of time out there when the weather is cooperative.
Likewise, music was a huge part of my childhood. My parents owned a Christian bookstore during a pivotal period of my life, and brought home new music pre-releases almost weekly (early Michael W. Smith, Petra, Whiteheart etc.). I’d put my huge boom box (remember those?) out by the hoop, and that made for a killer afternoon in my world.
To this day, music and basketball make up a huge percentage of whatever “free time” I have, and I try to work them into the daily lives of my family, to try to pass on the love. (No pressure here girls.) I coach my girl’s basketball team in the winter months, and one of my favorite things to do is making practice play lists to blast during warm ups and drills. It makes the cold gym that much warmer, and that much more positive a place. This year Blanca, Britt Nicole, Tobymac, Owl City and Capital Kings made up a good chunk of the tunes cranked out, and it was also a neat, non-threatening way for my family to spread the gospel and to talk about our faith.
I also love to watch basketball, and this year in the NBA, there were two teams that were heading towards breaking the all-time wins record for a season, held by the Michael Jordan-led 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls, who went an amazing 72-10.
Both the current champions, The Golden State Warriors, and former champs before that, the San Antonio Spurs, had a chance to beat that record, (the Spurs are now out of the running, but the Warriors still have a chance to do it), and watching two teams play the game to perfection, with all the right kinds of passing, defense and selflessness on display, is a fan’s dream come true. Two teams doing it is a one-in-a-hundred years kind of thing, like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig going after the home runs record in baseball while being one the same team nearly 80 years ago.
Which brings us to the music.
Though it’s not a “competition” in terms of the art, Christian Music (loosely defined as music that is created by Christians and gets play in that genre’s outposts, though both bands mentioned here exist in a few different genres) has a version of these two teams; artists who seem to be at the peak of their game, releasing a string of great albums and songs that show spiritual rock and roll at its best and most uplifting.
Since both bands have topped JFH’s “Best Of” album list in the past few years, and both are releasing new albums this July (also, they just toured together at length), the two bands seem inexorably linked, and discussing them together just makes sense.
For Needtobreathe, I think their current hit streak goes from their third album (The Outsiders) to their last one (Rivers In The Wasteland) and quite possibly their upcoming one as well (July’s Hard Love). Switchfoot has been in full stride since Hello Hurricane.
The depth and creativity of the songs these two groups have released in their “prime” stand alongside the best in any period of Christian music. Switchfoot’s “Your Love Is A Song”, “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight”. “Vice Verses” and “When We Come Alive” are just four examples of the kinds of theologically rich, soul-searching songs that represent true artistic and spiritual depth. (Likewise with Needtobreathe’s “Something Beautiful”, “Lay ‘Em Down”, “Keep Your Eyes Open”, “Difference Maker” and “Brother”.)
Add to this some great cultural commentary (one of rock and roll’s great tasks) in Needtobreathe’s “White Fences”, “Where The Money Is” and “Money And Fame” and Switchfoot’s great take on the fear mongering of the modern news cycle (“Selling The News”) and the Church’s bad habit of emphasizing Heaven to the detriment of spiritual engagement down here (“Afterlife”), and you get two fully-formed artists plumbing some great depths of the human condition.
And what I think is the greatest achievement of both these bands, is that they have managed to exist simultaneously in the secular marketplace (I hear both on the overhead speakers at my local grocery store) and Christian music marketplace alike. A song like Needtobreathe‘s “Brother” hits on a universal truth that we all need each other, (like the theologian R.C. Sproul said, “all truth is God’s truth”) and is the kind of unique song that crosses over barriers. (Likewise with Switchfoot’s anthemic “Love Alone Is Worth The Fight.”) I wish more “Christian” bands could write these kinds of universal songs that show the depth of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. (Like Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman said to The Rolling Stone, “We’re Christians by faith, not by genre.”)
But it is also refreshing to turn on Air 1 radio and hear Needtobreathe and Switchfoot, (and to see them at my local Christian music fest.) They represent some of the best music on that station, and they are comfortable in that world too, doing interviews and “behind the music” background spots. I’m glad they make an effort to be in this neck of the radio dial too.
Both bands represent the best of what good art in the hands of a believer can do, and that they are both firing on all cylinders at the same time is a unique moment to be savored.
This July can’t come fast enough...
- Alex Caldwell
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
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.
One Love Revolution, Pillar - Strong comeback from a Christian rock staple
Dawn EP / Shadows EP, Jon 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
Seth Bolt and I have similar souls - we love the woods and realize that too much work will damage you. We live an hour apart on sizeable tracts of land in the South Carolina forests.
But Seth has created something that woodsmen and citygoers alike will marvel at. A two-story treehouse with beautiful glass windows nestled a few short miles from Clemson's Death Valley sits on the 40 acre farm of the Bolt family. He and his father built it themselves, and Seth built it with the intentionality that he would live there. His soul became alive whenever he was back on his parent's farm, so he decided to share it with others.
Since Seth is a bassist for the popular band Needtobreathe, the tree house is available for rental when Seth is out on tour. It is a popular getaway for couples, friends, and fans traveling to Clemson. (Link to book the house here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/8319626?s=8). Construction was finished in September and Bolt is surprised at how fast it has filled up, "We have most of 2015 booked and we even have weekends in 2016 booked. I am surprised at how fast this is growing."
Bolt went to Africa last year and people asked him about America. "I was honest with them. America has big houses and nice things but people here are happier. You spend more time with the ones you care about and you dont work as hard."
This philosophy also extends to Needtobreathe. When making Rivers in the Wasteland, they worked so hard and unfruitfully that they almost split up and it created a three-year gap between the release of The Reckoning and Rivers in the Wasteland. This time, the band has been much more careful with their time as they currently work on their sixth studio album. "We are working hard but we are taking lots of time to rest. For instance, we just worked four full days this week and took three days off. That will help this be our best record yet and as a byproduct of the rest time, the songs are not as dark. I have made music a long time but it was not always joyful."
Seth has also done what millions of Americans long to do, unplug for an entire day. "Just this past week, I took an entire day off and went into the woods. I even cut my cell phone off. I was afraid I was going to miss something at first, but once you are out there, it doesn't matter anymore. Your soul fills up and your cup is overflowing."
If God rested and if God commands us to rest, then why can't we rest?
-- William Corbin
With the staff's recent picks of their Top 15 favorite albums of all time, I decided to pitch in... but only came up with 5. See, I am only 18 and I have only followed music avidly for a couple of years. That is why there is a lack of 1990s bands and why there are only five bands on the list.
I hail from the same South Carolina woods as Needtobreathe and I have aged along with them. With a killer live show featuring varied versions of Needtobreathe classics, it is hard to not be a fan of Needtobreathe. They are catchy and real to who they are. They are the oddball on this list because they do not have a heavy side, but they appeal to my deep southern streak.
Albums: The Reckoning, Rivers in the Wasteland, The Heat
Songs: We Could Run Away, State I'm In, Keep Your Eyes Open, Cops, Angel at my Door
2. Underoath (2004-present)
Spencer Chamberlain and company are incredible songwriters and talented musicians. Chamberlain and Gillespie create a vocal combination unlike any other band. All of their albums have distinct qualities that make them refreshing, yet they all have the signature sound of Underoath greatness. The talent is evident in the music and the songs fit in arenas and will blow out your speakers. "Epic" is a overused cliche but it is the only word to describe this larger than life style of music. I will see them live on the Rebirth Tour for the first time so get your tickets because they are almost all gone.
Albums: Define the Great Line, Lost in the Sound of Separation Disambiguation
Songs: Writing on the Walls, Catch Myself Catching Myself, Desperate Times Desperate Measures, In Regards to Myself, Young and Aspiring
Stephen Christian's vocals were so pure and talented but the rest of the band had talent also. Drumming prodigy Nathan Young was instrumental in memorable Anberlin moments such as the intro to Self Starter. They had a varied discography and a storied career but luckily for our hearts, they are always there for us on replay.
Albums: Cities, Vital, Lowborn
Songs: Fin, Self Starter, Dismantle Repair, ISJW, Losing it All, Stranger Ways
Emery poses many Questions and breaks down many Walls through their music. While I dont agree with *everything* the Bad Christian movement is about, I feel that it poses important questions and is authentic. Owning their own record label means that they can do unique things and change the way music works. Emery is not as heavy as Underoath, but they are more diverse and fit a similar niche.
Albums: You Were Never Alone, The Question
Songs: Thrash, Walls, In a Win Win Situation, Cutthroat Collapse, Rock Pebble Stone, So Cold I Could See My Breath
5. Wolves At The Gate
It takes a phenomenal two albums in order to make a list with the artists above, but Wolves has talent and heart. They are theologically sound, Christ centered (for real), and great musicians. They implement spoken word, screaming, and singing into their thundering drums and guitar riffs to create excellent songs. The sky is the limit for their talent, but what stands out is their heart. When I was honored to talk with Stephen Cobucci, I realized that he is 'on fire' for God and that he uses this music to preach the gospel.
Albums: VxV, Captors, Reprise EP, Heralds EP
Songs: Relief, Dead Man, Man of Sorrows, Majesty In Misery, Safeguards
Honorable Mention: Sent by Ravens was a personal favorite of mine. They didn't create their own genre or sell out arenas, but they created enjoyable hard rock that is missed in the scene today.
-- William Corbin
No Cheap Inspiration Here
A Look At The Lyrics Of Jon Foreman, Part 1
Back in my freshman year of college, I came across a “new artist sampler” CD in some magazine or another, and a few tracks in, these lyrics jumped out of the speakers of my college dorm room stereo and into my imagination:
“Nothing but a chemical in my head / It's nothing but laziness / Cause I don't wanna read the book / I'll watch the movie” (From “Chem 6A” on The Legend Of Chin)
The song, a take on youth slacker-culture, was the first I’d heard on the subject, (well, first good one) from a songwriter of faith, and I was immediately taken with the way primary Switchfoot songwriter Jon Foreman put together heartfelt, inspirational and clever words.
I’ve been a Foreman fan since that day, and a few years ago, when I decided to take the plunge and try to become a full-time writer, one of Foreman’s lyrics inspired my first novel. In fact, his lyrics (from the song below) are the last sentence of the book, and I started with that scene, that image the lyrics conjured in my brain, and wrote the book “backwards” from that spot. His lyrics are intertwined in the sequel as well, and it’s safe to say I have a lot for which to thank Jon Foreman.
Switchfoot is currently busy recording their 10th album, and Foreman has been releasing a steady stream of great solo EP’s over the last few months, and to honor such a prolific and heartfelt songwriter, I’d like to examine the Jon Foreman songs and lyrics that mean the most to me. This is part one of a multi-essay (okay, “blog”) effort to wrestle with the life of the mind, with what happens when others' art and your own heart collide.
“Needle and Haystack Life” (From Hello Hurricane)
"You are once in a lifetime alive / you are once in a lifetime"
This is the big one, the one that inspired the book. When my two daughters were very young, I was a stay-at-home Dad who was questioning his place in the order of things. My days were full of diapers and baby food, naps and temper-tantrums. But they were also filled with wonder, the privilege of being the first to see them walk and talk and sing. It was a wild ride that I found myself on. The day Hello Hurricane came out, I snuck out to the store for just five minutes when my wife got home from work, and I gave myself the treat of sitting in my mini-van in the parking lot and listening to the first few songs before getting back on the wild ride of parenting.
As Foreman sings about each person being “once in a lifetime,” it dawned on me that there would never be anyone like my two girls in this world again. They are unique in the history of our world; they have never been here before.
And neither have you or I. You are a mix of everything you’ve been through, every moment (good and bad), every meatball you’ve eaten and every movie you‘ve watched. There is no one like you. You are once in a lifetime. There’s a light in your eyes that is unique. You are irreplaceable.
Once this truth stuck in my heart, I came to see the girls I was tasked with caring for as a unique and wonderful opportunity. There would never be anyone like this again! I had a front row seat to the lives of India and Ireland Caldwell, and that’s a privilege that I almost wished away.
The book I wrote, India and the Eternals, is currently making its way around the desks of literary agents far and wide, and someday I have the hope and dream that, should there ever be a movie (this is a far out dream, I know) that Jon Foreman will write a song for the closing credits.
“Needle and Haystack Life” shows Foreman doing what he does best, wrapping inspirational ideas in uplifting melodies. When you think of inspirational messages, greeting cards and internet “inspirational” photos usually come to mind. But what Foreman does is something more. It’s beyond the cloying nature of most songs that seek to uplift. In other hands, the idea that each person is “once in lifetime” might make for an unbearably sappy song. But Foreman comes by the idea honestly, and “Needle and Haystack Life” transcends the cliché to something truly hopeful and inspiring.
“Dare You To Move” (From Beautiful Letdown)
"I dare you to move / like today never happened before"
Have you ever had one of those days that you wish had never happened? I have. I have regrets, things I wish I never did, words I wished I never said. We all have those dark closets we never want to be opened up. And those cumulative secrets weigh us down. Sometimes, they sink the ship.
But grace says "you are more than your darkest days, you are more than your lowest moment." Grace says "I dare you to believe that you are forgiven. I dare you to 'get up off the floor, like today never happened before.'" Because in God's economy, the cross has made it "like today never happened before."
And like most good art, the lyric “I dare you to move like today never happened before” can also be taken another way, as a challenge to “seize the moment”, to “number our days” as the Psalmist says; to not let a single second go by without living to our fullest. It’s all too easy to let the time slip away. Foreman dares us to move like this day is new, like it’s an adventure; like it’s “never happened before.”
The Shadow Proves The Sunshine (From Nothing Is Sound)
C.S. Lewis eloquently wrote a simple defense of the Christian world view in Mere Christianity, (a mandatory read for all believers, if such a requirement were possible) and one of his proofs cited of the existence of a designing higher power was the inherent knowledge in the human heart of right and wrong. Cultures may be widely different, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who felt good about betraying someone who loved them deeply.
"The Shadow Proves The Sunshine" is a melancholy song sung in a supremely bummed out manner, and finds Foreman examining the news and feeling the weight of the fall, the weight of every war and famine and act of cruelty he views on the screen or newspaper in front of him.
But what if the very fact that he's bothered at all by the "shadows" of this present age is proof they there is a loving God who is above all things? What if the shadow we feel on the darkest days down here is evidence that there is a light? There would be no shadow without the light. And as Gandalf says in The Fellowship of the Ring, "that is an encouraging thought."
God Badge (From Fiction Family’s Fiction Family Reunion)
"Put Your God badge down and go love someone."
As I write this, the culture wars and political silly season are in full swing. On the side where there are a lot of folks who call themselves the same name as me, people are lining up at a court house in Kentucky and wearing t-shirts that say "Homo Sex Will Send You To Hell" and "No Homos In Heaven". There might be equally inflammatory picket signs on the other side too, but who are the people that are claiming to follow the prince of peace? This behavior is about as far from Jesus' mode of operation as the North Pole is from the south. In fact, those signs remind me of a certain religious sect that framed Jesus and put him to death.
Our "God Badge" is that piece of identification that gives us comfort, like a membership card that tells us "I belong to something." But you can hold onto it too tightly and forget your mission. Jesus said that to love God and love your neighbor as yourself are the building blocks of every other bit of righteousness out there. It's time to let people discover our faith by how we do the TWO THINGS Jesus asked us to do, and not by the shiny fish on our car or the sad, God-forsaken statement on our t-shirts.
Love Alone Is Worth The Fight (From Fading West)
“I'm trying to find where my place is / I'm looking for my own oasis / So close I can taste this / The fear that love alone erases”
This one takes the opposite tack from “God Badge”, instead of protesting and calling out bad religion, Foreman offers his vision of what the modus operandi should be for believers. I John 4:18 says that “perfect love (aka God’s love) drives out fear.” And really, isn’t that what drives bad religion? Fear? Fear causes people to say and do things that they might not have otherwise imagined they might do. Isn’t a large part of current day advertising (be it political or product driven) based on fear? The fear of the wrong kind of people taking over, the fear of missing out on the good life, the fear that somehow, someway you are being wronged and you might not even know it. Fear is common, fear is easy.
St. Paul writes in 2 Timothy that “the Lord has not given us the spirit of fear, but one of self control, love and a sound mind.” That’s worth fighting for. I’m so prone to fighting the wrong battles, to using my energy is so many daft ways, but Foreman reminds me that the battle to love well, to see the good in people, to love and forgive myself because I’m loved and forgiven by the Lord first and foremost. Love is the only thing that is worth my energy pursuing. Love is what changes hearts and minds. God is love and to receive that love well is the true battle.
Love alone is worth the fight.
Thanks for reading. Look for parts two and three in the next two weeks. Next up: Jon Foreman as a motivational speaker or “this is your life / are you who you want to be?”
Remember, love alone is worth the fight.
-- Alex Caldwell, Jesusfreakhideout.com staff writer
What’s It Like To Start A Music Festival?
An Interview With River Rock Festival’s Founder Jeff Wall
There are few summertime activities more sublime than the outdoor concert; sitting on a blanket on the grass or dancing (or moshing) away in front of the stage, and enjoying the sky, sun (or moon) above you. For those of us who live in the cold weather parts of this country, those precious few months where it’s sane to be outside for long stretches of time and the chance to hear some of your favorite music all in one place is a dream come true.
The River Rock Festival in northern Maine (just over two hours from my home in New Hampshire) is in its first year, and I wanted to take the opportunity to ask festival founder (and the head honcho of The Lighthouse Christian Events), Jeff Wall, about what goes into starting an undertaking of this sort. He generously put aside the last-minute minutia of planning and spoke to me for a few minutes on the phone.
(Jesusfreakhideout’s Alex Caldwell): With just over a week and a half to go till the crowds arrive for River Rock, how’s it going?
Jeff Wall: (Laughing) I’m doing alright. Thanks for asking. Most of the details and major components of the festival are in motion, so it’s a bit out of my hands at this point. I’m coordinating volunteers for the festival right now, that’s my focus.
AC: Volunteers…that’s an important component to these sorts of undertakings, isn’t it?
Jeff: Oh, yeah. It’s critical. Right now we have enough to staff the festival, but I’m not sure how much sleep everyone would get. Festivals and concerts need volunteers. It helps everything run smooth.
AC: You run the Lighthouse Christian Events, how is this different than that, and how long have you been in this line of work?
Jeff: We started in 2008 with a concert by Laura Story, and we’ve been going strong since then. Really, putting on a festival is something we’ve always wanted to do, and it’s a natural extension of what we’ve been doing. But it is a lot more of everything.
AC: How much more? How are you sleeping lately?
Jeff: (Laughing) I haven’t really slept in seven years. I’m always waking up thinking about things. But I love it.
AC: So, here’s a bit more of a challenging question. What will distinguish River Rock from the myriad of other festivals out there? What would be the reason to choose this one over the other ones around?
Jeff: That’s the question, isn’t it? I think the great distinction would be quality--getting the most bang for your buck. It’s very common, in all corners of the concert industry, to charge for everything: parking, surcharges for ticket, special “autograph” fees etc. You can go in thinking that you’re going to be spending “X” amount and realize, after the fest or event is over that, really, you’ve spent almost double what you had wanted to. We’ve always charged one flat fee for our concerts, everything included, if it’s within our power to do so.
AC: “I have a story about that. A few years ago my family was at a fest, and my daughter and I stood in line to meet an artist she loved. I was a little out of it due to sun and loud music, so I didn’t read the fine print of all the signs around the signing tent. When we got to the front of the line we discovered that there was a $30 signing fee that we had to pay. My daughter was upset, and I was frustrated. $30 for what most of the other artists were doing for free. It was too much and seemed greedy.
Jeff: I hear that kind of story all the time. There are countless little ways to make money on an event, but honestly, when I get to heaven I don’t want to say “Lord, I sold 10,000 travel mugs with your name on it and I made a few extra bucks off parking.”
AC: That’s a great line. “Lord, there are 5,000 key chains out there with 'River Rock Festival' on them!”
Jeff: That’s right. We don’t take any percentage of artist merchandise sales either. That’s a pretty common one.
AC: Yeah, what if you are a smaller artist and just starting out? Those t-shirt sales become pretty important for getting back home in the van.
Jeff: That’s exactly right. We made a commitment not to do these sorts of things when we started out, and so far, the Lord has honored that decision.
AC: Are you and your family taking a big vacation after this event?
Jeff: It’s interesting that you say that. We all enjoy this so much that we don’t really need the standard vacation thing. Right now we’re on the road, coming back from a Kari Jobe concert we put on, and we’re heading to the Norman Rockwell museum along the way. This job is crazy on one level; the details, the schedules etc. But my family gets to see so many places; we like to treat those times as a vacation.
AC: Well, God bless you guys as you head into the last few days before the festival.
Jeff: Thanks so much. We’ll be seeing you soon.
For more info on River Rock Festival -- which is being held July 3rd and 4th -- visit http://riverrockfestival.com/
Aaron Watkins grew up despising what he ended up loving - music. Wyoming born and Colorado raised, Aaron has seen and survived a lot of things. His father was an alcoholic who played in some fairly well known bands, and he did not want that lifestyle for himself. He toured with some bands right out of high school and escaped the music scene in his mid-twenties when he finished up his bachelor's degree. He then said, "God, I'll do whatever you want me to do." God wanted Aaron to do what he hated in his childhood - perform music. Random Hero was formed by guitarist Joshua Bertrand the year prior. Aaron's manager told Aaron about the audition they were holding for a singer. Aaron auditioned and was awarded the slot, forming the nucleus of Random Hero. God changed his heart and gave Aaron the desire to be in music and the desire to tour.
God also gave Random Hero the revolving door of drummers. Aaron quipped that "We fight to do this because this is what God's called us to be. The timeline has been crazy, so you know when God is leading someone in or out. He takes people in and out until we have the right mix." Four drummers in eight years is definitely an uphill battle. For a while, the services of Air Force serviceman Josh Tarrant were utilized. It got to a point where it was impossible to balance the two and he left. Then the band found Patrick Madsen in 2014, and Aaron raved about him. "He has the greatest heart and is a phenomenal drummer. I always wanted to be a drummer so it is so much fun to watch him play." Ironically, drums are the one instrument Aaron can't play. His toddler son (Huxley) can play the drums, which you can watch on his Instagram @aaronthewatkins.
I also asked Aaron what goes into the recording process, what is 'mastering' and 'mixing'. His combined thoughts: "You are always constantly writing, and it may or may not see the light of day. We have written hundreds of songs. You set a date to record and twelve to fifteen songs make the chopping block. The songs need to be the best representation of who you are, and they need to be the best songs. The producer will likely make you rewrite half of the songs, which is painstaking and time consuming. Everything from vocals to guitars to drums to the special instrument is recorded separately so each thing can be edited. If one part needs to be reworked, the whole band doesn't have to play the part fifty times. Mixing is what your songs sound like and are built." How loud are the vocals compared to the guitar, bass, drums, and so on? "Mastering is when you take the volume up several notches so it sounds 'beastlier'. The worst part of making a record is waiting for it to be finished. You are always learning and evolving like we did from Carry Me, Bury Me to Oceans of Change and we will in the future."
Making an album is not an easy endeavor, and being in a band involves great dedication. When a band 'trains' a new musician, it isn't just "teach them the hits and go on the road." The prospect has to have the drive and the will necessary to be in the band and to learn the songs. They have to be willing to come to practice and to receive constructive criticism. They have to learn every song in the repertoire to be ready at any point. It isn't a mechanical 'this is the exact way you play it' with no deviations, but there are the main parts to every song you have to have down. There is room for improvisation and personalization occasionally. We started practicing two times a week, and to be a new band you have to practice a ton to be your best. Now we practice two times before leaving on tour because it is all muscle memory at this point. Speaking of touring, Random Hero is touring with good friends Spoken this June.
Random Hero was (and is) under the tutelage of former longtime Skillet guitarist Ben Kasica. Ben taught the band how to be marketable, and to blend Aaron's pop influences with Josh's progressive metal influences. Random Hero strives to be themselves while maintaining the marketability, and they don't want to restrict themselves to the metal market. Everybody in the band needs to like the songs and to have input in the process, but you won't find Random Hero writing a six minute song. Aaron finds that after three minutes people zone out and are ready to go to the next idea, so they strive to create an album with twelve radio hits.
Keeping this in mind, Random Hero changes the set list nightly. The radio songs are always on the list, and fan favorites are usually on the list. The set list is dynamic, yet some songs may be played rarely or occasionally. A typical show lasts thirty to forty five minutes; with material from the Breakdown EP, Carry Me Bury Me, and Oceans of Change. Random Hero doesn't hang out away from fans in a mysterious green room after their set. They often stay until the doors close while taking pictures, signing autographs, and hanging out. The band used to wear makeup and face paint on stage, but as they have matured they saw it as more of a nuisance and slowly stopped to have a more mature look.
Some bands rarely produce EP's, but Random Hero embraces the EP. "An EP is an exciting taste of what is to come. For us, Breakdown set the tone for how we write as a cohesive unit. An EP is a good feeler to determine if the fans like a new evolution or not, and what to change for an LP." Random Hero left Red Cord Records and signed with Pando Records/Warner/ADA. The band will be back in the studio soon and will come out with a new EP later this year. Aaron Watkins also will be releasing a solo album on August 11th.
Despite the business aspect of music and the unusual lifestyle, Random Hero's mission is to glorify God. These "musicianaries" strive to please God in every area (not just certain areas). God is the boss and Random Hero aims to be willing servants.
-- William Corbin
Jeremy Bates was so desperate to get back into music that he registered twelve band name ideas before he even had a band. Embers in Ashes signified his desire to continue music as his childhood dreams were mostly dead, but the embers of his desire kept burning. When he was in early elementary school, he learned to play the piano. When he was eleven, he fixed up a broken down electric guitar his cousin gave him with the help of his father, who was an engineer. At fourteen, he started a band that played Bleach covers. The band grew and soon they were travelling locally and playing their own original songs. But they went their separate ways after they graduated high school and his music dreams faded... or so he thought.
A decade or so later, Jeremy was a pharmaceutical sales representative. He was married to his a girl he had known since the day she was born. Her father was the best man in his father's wedding, but love did not come at first sight for Jeremy. At one time, he had found her so annoying that he avoided spending time with her family until she was sixteen and he realized she had grown up. She had a thing for him, but he was hesitant because they were family friends. I asked Jeremy what would have happened if they had broken up. His reply, "We didn't." His wife noticed his desire to be in music again and told him that she would become a pharmacist so he could focus on music. He then started planning and assembling the band.
Embers in Ashes began in 2010, but they only played one small gig at a church. The lineup changed significantly as the guys had to figure out if they were out or all in. Their first EP, "Sorrow Scars," was produced in 2011 by the members themselves, only numbering three at the time. A friend recorded the drums, and each band member contributed to the bass tracks. From that point on, the group was on the road consistently and was signed to Red Cord Records. The band learned the pros and the cons of the industry, but they decided to go independent with their second album. That meant spending more time in the studio, more time writing, and more time praying.
Like everything Embers in Ashes does, "Killers and Thieves" involved a lot of prayer, passion, and hard work. Jeremy recalled, "The title track wasn't even supposed to be on the record. We really felt that God wanted it on the record though. It was completed on the last day of recording; the process was so quick. It was inspired by God." "Killers and Thieves" is stamped with Embers in Ashes' signature sound: bold guitars, Jeremy's intense vocals, and solid drumming.
The story of how Andrew became the band's drummer is an interesting one. He was a fill-in for rhythm guitar and they thought he was good. At one show, they'd needed a drummer. Andrew played, and the band was impressed. Jeremy described him as "on another level."
Embers in Ashes would consider themselves a Christian band, but they have a missionary mindset. Jeremy was in youth ministry for a while, and that influences his approach and his music. "I don't want to sound harsh, but I don't really want to just go in church circles and only have church kids buy our stuff. I want everybody to buy it and enjoy it. I want it to plant a seed that God waters and eventually they come to Christ." I told him how I have friends that aren't Christians and won't buy any music labeled Christian (regardless to if it is or not) and my frustration with it. He said that Embers in Ashes tries to break that mold: "We have a message in our music and we aren't ashamed of our faith but it isn't preachy. We play with a lot of secular acts in mainstream places. We pray on stage before every show. I've had guys come up and say 'Hey man, I'm not a Christian but I think it's cool you pray on stage'." 'Musicianaries' is how Bates described what the band is, playing music and reaching people for Christ through it.
2015 has intentionally been slow for Embers in Ashes. They're working on their next album and spending much needed time with their families. "This is the first time I've been home in March in five years. We usually tour a lot for the first half of the year and we intentionally decided to slow it down" he said.
A new album is in the works described in the veins of "old Anberlin." For more on Embers In Ashes, check them out on
-- William Corbin
The wholesale lineup changes that Audio Adrenaline has foisted on their fan base in the last few years are frustrating and contribute to the cynicism that many feel towards the music industry (Christian and secular branches alike). It’s been done too many times and a line has to be drawn here.
Now, the common critique of letters like this is that there are so many other things in our world that are much more worthy of our outrage, our time and our efforts. I agree. That’s why I’m also going to spend the exact amount of time I’ve spent crafting this letter into writing one to my state’s governor about the lack of options for the homeless here in New Hampshire, and then another extra hour or two working with the outreach team from my church. (Something I already do.) But cynicism is a problem. I feel it encroaching on my life day by day. And it’s a battle to keep it at bay, to let the Lord soften my heart and open my eyes to all that He wants to do through me in this world.
I was once a wide-eyed, hopeful kid, and your music was very much the soundtrack to those times. During my Junior year of high school I spent the wee hours of a youth group lock-in discussing “Scum Sweetheart” with a friend, and being honest about how tough the pull of the world was feeling to us. This conversation convinced both of us commit to helping each other navigate the tricky teen waters of hormones and identities. A guy at summer camp taught me the chords to “Rest Easy” and I sang that song at the top of my lungs around a campfire with little campers singing along. The summer I graduated, I went on a road trip on a brilliant month in July and took Bloom along with me. “See Through” and “Man Of God” sparked amazing conversations with my fellow travelers, and I still quote “See Through” to my daughters, urging them to look at Jesus as the perfect one, and dad as the one who, on his best days, points to the Savior. (“Don’t you know that God loves you, don’t you know that I try to? I’ve been known to miss my cue, but don’t look at me, I’m see through.”) “Bag Lady” helped to convince me to break out of my comfort zone and strike up a relationship with the homeless lady who camped out near my college in Philly. Later, as a youth pastor, I sat around a campfire at a music fest with a retired pastor friend who was battling cancer and the feeling of uselessness to God. Though he was decidedly out of your demographic, he had been moved to tears by “Hands And Feet”, and your challenge from the stage that there was no one out there who God couldn’t use. Another kid in my youth group (the pastor’s son) loved “Chevette” because, to him, it was the story of his dad and his family.
These stories matter to me, and many other fans out there, and the cynicism builds in our hearts when we are presented with a new product that has the old name on it. It makes us suspicious that there is an ulterior motive at work, and that we are seen as mere lemmings, mindless consumers who will greet this new version of something we once loved with a Pavlovian response to simply accept this new change with open arms; like there is no history, no collection of stories built up in our hearts. When I hear new music from an artist I once loved, it’s like being visited by an old friend.
And, you already did this once before!
I even enjoyed the last incarnation of the band. I enjoyed seeing Will bouncing around up on stage. I enjoyed hearing your voice on “King Of The Comebacks.” I enjoyed the album, and the attention it was bringing to the Hands And Feet Project. I cried a bit when I saw the “Kings And Queens” video, and I enjoyed introducing my daughters to the music and bringing them to your shows. They love “Big House” and “Ocean Floor” and I was happy to share a memory with them.
But a third time? A third time in just over two years?
That frustrates me, and appeals to the cynic in me that says that it’s all about the money; all about capitalizing on a “brand” instead of an actual band full of people with chemistry (the kind it takes time to develop) and a shared history. We live in such a manufactured world. But art can’t be assembled like an automobile. It’s an intangible thing that doesn’t have interchangeable parts the way my computer does. It’s organic and can’t be assembled in a studio.
I fully recognize that there is much more behind the scenes than I could ever realize, and that there are many considerations, not to mention the projects and ministries that benefit from what you are trying to do. It’s just that we haven’t heard any explanations, just a “here’s your new version of the band!” It’s hard not to be dubious.
So please, call off this continuation of Audio Adrenaline and start something new. Start something for the kid out there to fall in love with, to take on a road trip, to listen to late at night and consider a new truth. Do something original, something new for that kid and the wide-eyed, arms-wide-open kid that I once was. Art matters, authenticity matters. Thanks for the great memories, and may all of our lives have an impact on those around us for the sake of the Kingdom.
Tilton, New Hampshire
I've always been known as somewhat of a picky music listener. I've always considered myself to have very refined taste (it's probably more of the former than the latter). Considering how many albums I had on my list of "potential top ten albums," I may be getting pickier as time goes on. Regardless of how I may or may not be described in the way of what I listen to, it is true that I had a bunch of albums that I was considering for this list. It seems to always be this way, too. I polled the other JFH staff, and it looks as if I'm one of few that seem to have this problem: how do I narrow this list down?!
To some it may seem easy, but it's not. Now, my number one and number two were easy, I'll give you that. I rated two album with a 5-star rating this year, and that's only because I couldn't give Kings Kaleidoscope anything higher. Anyway, putting Kings K and Playdough and Sean P in the top two spots was a piece of cake. A la mode, for that matter. Then I looked through my list and saw that, outside of those two, I listened to NEEDTOBREATHE and Sleeping Giant a LOT. So that filled my third and fourth spots. The rest was the most difficult. Thus, I needed to write this blog, to explain my thoughts, but mostly to get to the honorable mentions!
I'm sure everyone who reads this will have listened to at least part of one of these albums. If there's anything on this list you've missed, you have your assignment (assuming, of course, you like the genres represented). I'm looking forward to a good year in music in 2015! God bless!
1. Becoming Who We Are, Kings Kaleidoscope
I remember fellow writer Ryan Barbee writing a review of Kings K's Christmas EP a few years back, and I thought, "Hmm, I'll have to check this out." I never did. BUT, when Mars Hill teamed up with BEC and released the Mars Hill Worship Sampler in 2013, and I heard a couple of songs by Kings K, I thought "Yes...THIS is the band I'm looking forward to most from this merger." Of course, I don't need to go into what transpired, but in the end, the band still released an album that only met my expectations, but set them on fire and doused the fire with some Surge they bought from Amazon. Songs like "Defender," "Light After Darkness," "Grace Alone," and the Psalm-inspired "139" are all perfect examples of the wonder and awe that encompasses this album. In my opinion, the best worship album I've ever had the joy of listening to, and a phenomenal album in and of itself. Good thing digital copies can't be worn out.
2. Gold Tips, Playdough & DJ Sean P
My ears happened upon Playdough on a random sampler I got that was my introduction to Christian music. It was an ill harmonics track called "Will I?" It seemed a little different to me than what the mainstream hip hop world was offering (considering that my pre-Christian music choices consisted of the likes of Eminem), but it was pretty good. As Playdough started his solo career, I didn't follow along too closely, until a (now) good friend of mine showed up in my life and brought along Don't Drink The Water. I was hooked. Eight years later, and Playdough (alongside long-time DJ and friend Sean Patrick) has released one of the best albums of his career. Great for parties and clubs, it's also just a fun album to jam out to in your car or, if you wish, the privacy of your own bedroom. Check out "Act Like You Know," "Burn Rubber," or "Real Like It" and get the party started.
3. Rivers in the Wasteland, NEEDTOBREATHE
Taking it to back in the day again, the first time I heard NEEDTOBREATHE was when I was working at a local Christian radio station. I noticed the new singles that had been downloaded into the system, and saw the debut single from NTB called "Shine On." I liked it, but I more or less dismissed it as just another Christian band who would maybe have a couple of hit singles and then fade out into limbo. I was wrong. I was way wrong. Rivers in the Wasteland further cements the greatness that has come from this group of southern rockers. Every song is stellar, from the humble-yet-victorious "Wasteland" to the 80s-ish "Where The Money Is" to the moody "More Heart, Less Attack." There's a reason this is the number one album when it comes to the staff's average. Look it up if you haven't already checked it out.
4. Finished People, Sleeping Giant
This album took me by surprise a little. I've always kind of enjoyed what Sleeping Giant has put out, but I was never really a hardcore fan. I actually didn't really even particularly enjoy the first lyric video I saw from Finished People for the song "Overthrow." But I took a gamble on it, thinking it would at least be something spiritual that would also get me pumped up, and I ended up listening to it on a daily basis. There's an overarching theme of victory in Jesus, and the band's unabashed honesty and in-your-face attitude about the gospel is inspiring. In my view, it's the best hardcore album of 2015, and there were some good ones for sure.
5. Aftermath, Fever Fever
I didn't know a lot about Fever Fever before they got signed to Slospeak, but I had heard a few songs and thought they had a lot of potential, as good as they already were. Aftermath really impressed me. I know it's weird to have a 4-star rated album at this point in the list when everything else after it is 4.5, but I honestly listened to this one a lot more. In addition, I feel like the first half or so of the album is incredibly strong, and if the strength hadn't slightly dropped off after "Hope Is A Child's Toy," the album would've been rated a lot higher. Regardless, Fever Fever is a great band with a refreshing atmospheric indie pop sound that rivals the top artists in the genre.
6. The Art of Joy, Jackie Hill Perry
Jackie Hill Perry started off as a spoken word artist, who had shared the stage with artists like Propaganda, and since then, her relationship with Humble Beast began to grow. I wasn't sure what to expect, as I was partially expecting an album with as much as or more spoken word than Prop. And honestly, I wasn't excited about that. But I saw the video for "The Problem," and it blew me away. As it turns out, Perry is blessed on the mic. "Educated Fool," "The Problem" (which is a hidden track after "The Solution" on the album), and "Ode To Lauryn" showcase her wonderful rap skills. This album is FREE?! (Also, her testimony is amazing, and is a real testament to the power of God, and the truth of His Word, which is being fought against on a daily basis when it comes to the subject of her testimony - even amongst the Christian culture. Look it up and be blessed).
Download free here!
7. Slave To Nothing, Fit For A King
I'm not a big Fit For A King fan. Creation|Destruction was decent, but didn't stand out to me, and even the touched up, re-released Descendants didn't do a lot for me. The guys really gave it their all, though, for Slave To Nothing. It's intense, it's passionate, it's honest, and it's leagues above their Solid State debut. I've heard good news about their live performance, and after their impressive display in 2014, I have to say I'm eager to see them live.
8. Knives to the Future, Project 86
Oh, Project 86, how I adore thee. The band has gone through a lot of changes: style, attitude, lyrical themes, personnel, hairstyles (remember Schwab's afro?). But they hardly ever fail to bring their A-game. Knives to the Future, with the sheer glory of its album art, brings to the table an array of sounds, much of which sounds a little "throwback"-ish, and a great deal of the technical intensity and lyrical genius associated with a Project album. If you haven't listened yet, check out "Captive Bolt Pistol" and let it rock your world.
9. In Our Winters, Preson Phillips
I discovered Preson Phillips in 2009 from this website called The Free Christian Music Blog, which highlighted all of the free, legal Christian music downloads the admins could find. Phillips' first album, The Observant & the Anawim, was an interesting album, and one that I didn't end up returning to for a while. But when I did, I suddenly realized I enjoyed it, and I followed his releases up until now.
10. Correspondence (a fiction), Levi the Poet
Here's another origin story: A few years ago, I went to this Come&Live! show with Showbread, The Ember Days, White Collar Sideshow, and Ben Crist from The Glorious Unseen. White Collar Sideshow had this young kid touring with them named Levi Macallister, who actually opened up the band's set for them. He unleashed the fury that was "Kaleidoscope," and suddenly, I was a Levi the Poet fan. After each loud, angst-ridden, tumultuous spoken word album, I wanted more. And this year, Levi delivered an album unlike his previous ones. Correspondence (a fiction) is, as the title suggests, a fictional tale of two young lovers, and it's accompanied by wonderful music from Glowhouse. His tamest release yet, it's also his most alluring and captivating. If Levi's style was too rough-around-the-edges for you before, you may want to try getting into his material again with Correspondence as the catalyst.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order...aw heck, alphabetical order by artist name, because it's just easier for me that way): Singular Vision, Alert312 (Free download!)
Neon Steeple, Crowder
The Ember Days Live, The Ember Days
Ornithology, Foreknown (Free download!)
The Cabin, Golden Youth
Fort Wayne, Heath McNease
Smoke, House of Heroes
Live In Color, Kings Kaleidoscope
Calm Down, Everything Is Fine, Mike Mains and the Branches
Invitation Only, Scribbling Idiots
The Night God Slept, Silent Planet
Young Hearts, Southlen
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I listen to Christian music lately. Putting together this list of my top ten Christian albums of 2014 and writing some of my thoughts down has reminded me of the collective reasons that I listen to Christian music. It was an important reflection for me, so I want to take a moment to share some of my thoughts as an encouragement and challenge to all of you.
Over the years, there have been dozens of albums that have deepened my relationship with Jesus and affected how I live my life as a Christian, such as DC Talk’s Jesus Freak, Relient K’s Anatomy..., and more recently My Epic’s Broken Voice. Even just listening to Christian music on a regular basis, whether it is worship or not, keeps my mind focused on God or at least what is pure and honoring to Him (~Philippians 4:8). I like when music challenges my faith. I don't want to just listen to fluffy Christian messages almost as much as I don’t want to listen to a song about doing drugs or getting drunk. If it’s covering serious topics, I want to wrestle with it, let it convict me, and grow from it. That's why I love bands like Disciple and Lecrae. They bring the truth and they want people to be uncomfortable with it.
But I don’t want that all the time. Sometimes I just want some clean entertaining music and, many times, Christian artists can offer that. All of the albums on this list have songs that can put a smile on my face, make me bob my head, or even dance. These artists know how to make a catchy tune and for rest of us who wouldn't be able to pick out a capo from a c-clamp, we can just soak it in and enjoy it.
Alex “Tin Can” Caldwell mentioned something in his recent blog post about how we can develop "relationships" with an artist (not in a romantic way :) ). Through music, an artist is sharing his or her perspective on life. They are putting their thoughts, desires, and longings into words and singing them for us to think about. What the artist shares both in music and lyric you may come to treasure and trust the way you would the work of a loved one or the words of a friend. As a Christian, I find it easier to connect with Christian artists because they share a similar worldview as me.
One of the obvious reasons I listen to Christian music is because I am writing reviews for it! It kinda goes with the job description.
There are also a couple reasons I listen to Christian music that are not so good. I have a lot of pride about my music taste and knowledge. While that's not inherently a bad thing, sometimes it gets to my head and I can come to view others as having lesser tastes, and that is just sinful. It can also be an idol. Ironic, right? I could pour my heart out about this one but I don't know 99% of you and I'm about as introverted as they come, so I will just say that this is something I have to continually bring to God.
All of the albums on this list have engaged me with some combination of these reasons. There are also other reasons that I like these albums that have nothing to do with how "Christian" the music is, like their artistic merit (which is a whole different conversation!).
Feel free to comment at the bottom with some of the reasons that you listen to Christian music or even share your favorite Christian albums of 2014. I'd love to hear what you think!
1. Fading West, Switchfoot - With each release after The Beautiful Letdown, I was ultimately left wondering if that album was a one-time thing (not the actual sound, just the overall quality of it). I enjoyed Nothing Is Sound and Hello Hurricane, but there was just something truly remarkable about their breakthrough album. My love for Switchfoot was rekindled with Vice Verses in 2011 and Fading West this past January. The album is musically full of strong melodies and memorable hooks, and lyrically filled with philosophical thoughts and questions of hope, love, and faith. My favorite song off the album is the sole ballad, "The World You Want," which is completely drenched with emotion, capturing despair and hope within the context of our responsibility to the world. This was definitely my soundtrack for the year.
2. Rivers In The Wasteland, Needtobreathe - Few bands grab my attention from album to album the way that Needtobreathe does. They reinvent themselves with each release and continue to produce quality music. Rivers feels like a journey of emotions, from the chilling and vulnerable opener, “Wasteland,” to the convicting closer, “More Heart, Less Attack.” The half-title track can send chills up and down my spine and it's one of the most vulnerable worship songs I've heard in quite a while. “Rise Again” is one of the more beautiful songs that the band has crafted alongside “Something Beautiful” and “Garden.” As a side note, Needtobreathe is one of the few Christian bands that I like that that will come out to Boston (the only others being Switchfoot and FIF). They always put on a great show.
3. Smoke EP, House of Heroes - While nothing quite tops The End Is Not The End, everything House of Heroes has put out since then is high caliber rock music. The Smoke EP is no exception. From the rock and roll opener, "Bottle Rocket," to the anthemic closer, "Infinite," the band keeps you engaged and craving more. This EP is filled with layers of harmonized vocals, sweet guitar riffs, pounding drums and thought provoking lyrics. Behind it all is the talented front-man Tim Skipper who stretches his voice as he sings about loss, faith, and relationships. This six song EP had the most candidates when I was trying to decide my top ten songs of the year.
4. Attack, Disciple - When I first heard this album, I immediately knew this was one of my favorites for the year. Packed with aggressive yet melodic hooks and bold lyrics, it quickly became one of my favorite Disciple albums alongside Scars Remain and By God. I really love the fusion of the old (Back Again) and new (O God Save Us All). "The Name" is possibly my favorite song in the 150+ song Disciple catalog. The only thing holding this album back are the three predictable softer tracks (which are still better than most of their recent softer tracks). On a more personal note, this album has really challenged me in my faith and I love that.
5. Anomaly, Lecrae - Over the past several years, Lecrae has certainly lived up to his self-proclaimed title of "Anomaly," by simultaneously engaging the common Christian household and mainstream hip-hop community. On Anomaly, memorable beats are accompanied by fluid rapping over a variety of sounds and instruments. Lecrae tackles the too-often taboo topics in Christian music, such as the effects of sin and social and political issues. Though Rehab still remains my favorite Lecrae album, Anomaly has taken the number two spot right above Rebel.
6. In A Breath, New Empire - New Empire has been making waves in Australia for several years. Those waves finally made it all the way over here to the states as this year marked their first US release. Taking cues from bands like Copeland, Deas Veil, and Snow Patrol, New Empire boasts a catchy, relaxing, and creative sound with many layers of complexity. Jeremy Fowler, the lead singer, has a beautiful and dynamic voice and the lyrics carry a deep message of hope--delivered in an artistic and even poetic fashion. This new T&N artist is definitely one to keep an eye on.
7. Lowborn, Anberlin - The final chapter of Anberlin is the most somber and experimental album we have heard from the beloved alternative rock band. Though they will be missed, I am glad that they decided to put together one more album as a swan song of sorts. Cities remains my favorite Anberlin album, but Lowborn definitely has a high place among a strong discography.
8. Blindfold, Canopy Climbers - There are many talented electronic-based indie artists out there, but Canopy Climbers are in a league of their own. They have this amazing ability to pull you into their music with Cory Nelson's soothing voice (which reminds me of Phil Wickham), intriguing and sometimes convicting lyrics, and musical soundscapes that are a seemingly impossible combination of catchiness and calmness. Each of the four tracks are a gem but my favorite is the title track.
9. Aftermath, Fever Fever - This is one of those few new bands that completely shock you with a fresh musical style. Lush ambient instrumentation, a unique and strong vocalist, and excellent musicianship (with some instruments I don't even recognize) make this a must-have album and a promising start for the band.
10. Neon Steeple, Crowder - The mad scientist/worship leader didn't take much of a break after the end of the DC*B, and that only means good things for worship music. With so many cookie cutter worship bands nowadays, it’s hard to find good artistic worship music and David Crowder is an artist that always delivers. Songs like "Here's My Heart" really draw me to worship Jesus. Crowder calls his new music "folktronica" but there is a lot more "folk" than there is "tronica." Either way, this is a phenomenal album that is comparable to the quality of DC*B albums.
Unto Us, Aaron Shust - The best Christmas album in Christian music since Phil Wickham's Songs For Christmas and also Shust's best album. Check out my thoughts in my review (it was the second one I did for JFH!)
What Was Done, Vol. 1: A Decade Revisited, The Classic Crime - If the new recording "Selfish" and the overly melancholy "The Fight” were not included, this would have been a much stronger release. But man, some of these renditions are killer. "We All Look Elsewehere," "The Coldest Heart," "Who Needs Air," "You and Me Both" and "Where Did You Go?" are all 5-star material that I'll be coming back to for years to come.
Goliath, Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil - Goliath is filled with witty lyrics and solid musicianship. There are two reasons this is not in my top ten: first; I only just started listening to it, and second; I am not a big fan of Taylor's singing voice.
Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong. for King & Country - This stellar sophomore release serves as a big encouragement to live life fully, press on in difficult times, and to have faith in God over an engaging musical soundscape.
And because I can…
Other honorable mentions (in order):
Love Is A Legend EP Copperlily
How Can It Be - EP, Lauren Daigle
Hark! The House of Heroes Sing EP House of Heroes
Becoming Who We Are Kings Kaleidoscope
From Water to War Nine Lashes
Time Stands Still Family Force 5
Man On A Wire Nathan Tasker
Shadow Weaver The Choir
All Sons & Daughters All Sons & Daughters
Time In Place Artifex Pereo
Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell’s Top Ten Albums and (A Few) Songs From 2014
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, seven of the listees are "old friends" of mine (Steve Taylor, Needtobreathe, Switchfoot, The Choir, Anberlin, Peter Furler and David Crowder), two are "acquaintances" that are rapidly becoming "good friends" (for King & Country and Jason Gray) and one feels like a band I just met at a party and had a terrific conversation with (Judah & The Lion). So old friends and new, you all made my 2014 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 (U2 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. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil / Goliath
The word “satire” doesn’t enter the Christian music vocabulary too often these days. With Christian radio play lists filled with earnest (and sometimes over-earnest) artists writing straight-forward songs that are easy to process, there is little room or time on the drive home from work to parse a song’s lyrics out if they prove to be more complex, or in Steve Taylor’s world, lyrically dense and chock-full of protein. It’s the difference between one of those candy-like granola bars that are more like a candy bar, and a health food store hiking bar that are tough to chew, but ultimately will give you a bigger boost.
Thankfully, Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil’s debut album (and that’s an ironic statement I know, as all four members of the group have almost 50 albums out between them) coat their satirical, yet reverent musings with some of the best, most melodic garage rock you will hear anywhere. Catchy tunes are the name of the game, and hard looks at both American and church culture are found throughout Goliath’s 11 lean tracks.
Steve Taylor has always been a keen observer of culture (for example, his great take on Church racism and cultish tendencies in 1980’s gems like “Color Code” and “I Want To Be A Clone”) and it’s been 20 years since we’ve been graced with such observations out of his own mouth. But he hasn’t stopped making them; he just wrote good, scathing lyrics that he gave away, like the Newsboys songs “John Woo” (a take on mindless blockbuster movies and lives of luxury), “Fad Of The Land” and “Lost The Plot”.
So it's wonderful to hear him take on the subjects of blurred reality in the computer age (“Only A Ride," "Rubbernecker”), Celebrity and political culture (“The Sympathy Vote,” “Goliath”), lazy, passive media consumers (“Happy Go Lazy”), and his own frustration on being misunderstood by so many “gate keepers” in Christian music throughout the years (“The Comedian”). But Taylor does so much more than fire bullets at others. “Standing In Line” is a hard look at the ebbs and flows of married life, and “A Life Preserved” is a wonderful testimony about how God is faithful even though we drift away countless times.
All together, Goliath hits on so many levels that it will take me another year to sort out the lyrics (seriously, try counting all the puns in “Comedian“), but thankfully, I will be humming these songs to myself all that time. Goliath was worth the wait. Let’s hear some more Steve (and Jimmy and Peter and John Mark).
2. Needtobreathe / Rivers In The Wasteland
In any other year, Needtobreath’s fantastic Rivers In The Wasteland would have hit the number one spot for me. With its terrific mix of countrified rockers (“The Heart, “State I’m In”, “Oh Carolina”) and thought provoking, epic tunes (“Difference Maker”, which might be the most misunderstood lyric of the year; give it a second listen and think satire), Rivers In The Wasteland is a high water mark (no pun intended) for the boys from South Carolina. Add to the track list a unique and refreshing worship song (“Multiplied”) and the great gospel choir in “Brother” and you have the best set of songs you are likely to hear on Christian radio, but ones that also fit nicely on that play list that your supermarket is playing right now. That’s a true, artistic feat.
3. for KING & COUNTRY / Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.
There was no sophomore slump for these Aussies (even if they are 0 for 2 on album cover artwork). The long-titled ‘Live Free’ doubled down on the drums and epic songwriting that the Smallbone brothers have made their trademark. I read one reviewer who compared the songs on Live Free with songs from Disney’s The Lion King, and I couldn’t help but agree with that strange comparison. Live Free has the sort of rousing, Broadway like songs that could be licensed for countless sports montages and holiday commercials and episodes of The 100. “Fix My Eyes” and “To The Dreamers” sound like crosses between Graceland era Paul Simon and Coldplay, with massive drumming and tribal grooves to go along with the fantastic harmonies of brothers Joel and Luke. I’m seeing these guys live next summer, and I plan to be in the font of the stage to soak up the energy.
4. Switchfoot / Fading West
Fading West would have been higher on this list if it had been released all at once as the massive double album it deserves to be. Instead, it was released in three parts alongside the surfing film, and lost its impact on me a bit in the process. There is enough good material between the ep, the main release and the b-sides album to fill a whole concert set list. Highlights include my favorite song of 2013 (“Love Alone Is Worth The Fight”), recent radio hit “When We Come Alive” and the swirly, droney title track. I’m particularly fond of the haunting “Edge Of The Earth” from the later release of material. That song sounds like the soundtrack to walking on Jupiter. Jon Foreman, who is releasing a series of ep’s this year, is a restless, creative force and I have been blessed to hear his output for almost 20 years now. Switchfoot is going strong and showing how to mature gracefully into their second decade together.
5. The Choir / Shadow Weaver
And speaking of decades together, here is The Choir, launching into their third one as a band of brothers with very little turnover. Instead, it’s the long term friendship of Derri, Steve, Tim, Dan and Mark that has continued to drive the great, late-period of output from this band. 2005’s O How The Mighty Have Fallen, 2010’s Burning Like The Midnight Sun, 2012’s The Loudest Sound Ever Heard and this years Shadow Weaver are a four album hot-streak that most artists would drool over. Add to that a great live album this year and you could say that the Choir has never been better. Shadow Weaver continues Steve Hindalong’s exploration of how our weakness collides with God’s grace, and how our times of weakness (see the sobering take on staying sober, “White Knuckles”) can allow the light of the Holy Spirit (the best kind of ‘spirits‘) to shine.
6. Judah & The Lion / Kids These Days
The first debut album on this list is a great slice of Appalachian melodies and instrumentation with insightful lyrics on the subject of growing up. “Sing Me Your Song” and “Love In Me” are honest, down home, yet epic (neat trick) worship songs that bring to mind a more subdued (and humble) Mumford & Sons. “Somewhere In Between” is a great look at the place most believers find themselves in, set against a mellow country groove of banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Judah & The Lion have operated clear of the music industry thus far, and have proven that it is possible to get going on a career on your own in this new-fangled musical economy we find ourselves in.
7. Anberlin / Lowborn
Saying goodbye is hard, but Anberlin did it in the best way possible. They announced the end, recorded one last terrific album, toured one last time and said “thank you, goodnight.” It’s the rare band that can say farewell in a dignified manner. Lowborn is a great final document for a beloved band.
8. Jason Gray / Love Will Have The Final Word
Jason Gray has written perhaps my favorite song of the last decade with “Remind Me Who I Am”, and “With Every Act Of Love” mines the same vein of songwriting for Gray. Love Will Have The Final Word is the best kind of intersection of preaching and pop craftsmanship. Not every believer who writes songs needs to be overt. As the wise Mark Stuart of Audio Adrenaline said, “there’s room for all of it.” I’m glad that Jason Gray writes catchy and overtly spiritual songs, because he adds a layer of introspection that is lacking in Christian pop music over all.
9. Peter Furler Band / Sun and Shield
And speaking of old friends, Sun and Shield sounds like a lost Newsboys album, somewhere between Going Public and Take Me To Your Leader. I’ve always maintained that if the Newsboys had come up with a better band name in the early days, they would have been taken more seriously as artists, because Furler has always been a terrific, crafty songwriter. Sun and Shield continues Furler’s winning streak, and made me return to a time in my mind when life was simpler, my faith newer and the music on my radio was a vital component to daily life.
10. Crowder / Neon Steeple
Like Peter Furler, David Crowder struck out on his own this year, and the swampy, yet disco tinged Neon Steeple showed that Crowder can synthesize genres like nobody’s business. Banjos (the de rigueur instrument of the last few years) and mandolins crash against synth squalls and techno back beats, but all in the service of great songs. Many tracks could (in a simpler form) find themselves on the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Crowder has a strong musical vision, and it comes out full force on the southern-rock-by-way-of-the-night-club-and-Sunday-morning Neon Steeple.
And Some Thoughts On A Few Songs
“Comedian” - Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil
Just try to count all the puns in “Comedian”; you’ll have a good time. This track finds Taylor venting a lifetime's worth of angst over being constantly misunderstood by the Church. Yet he never gets mean or vindictive, even when he questions the almighty in a “David-in-the-Psalms” kind of way. We need more songs like this in Christian music; daring to (appropriately) question the Lord and His ways. The Lord is big enough to handle any question we can throw at Him.
“No Man Is An Island” - Tenth Ave. North
Hipsters may dismiss Tenth Ave. North as a sound-alike Christian radio band, but they continually write deeper and sharper songs than they get credit for. “No Man Is An Island” burst out of my speakers this summer on a road trip, and I found myself marveling at the alignment of melody, message and songwriting drifting into my ears. The blueprint here is Actung Baby era U2, with processed guitars and Bono-like, wailing vocals, but Tenth Ave. North is growing in their songwriting, and as Picasso said, good artists steal while mediocre ones copy. “No Man Is An Island” is a timely statement about the isolation tendencies of 21st century people, and Christians in particular.
“Sing Me Your Song” - Judah & The Lion
This honest worship song (or, if you will, reverse-worship song) contains one of my favorite lyrics of the year, with the Lord singing a song to a follower: “I want to feel your heart beating / like a melody with a heavy drum / and I, I want to know all the things you hid inside / sing me your song”
“Ain’t No Grave” - Crowder
This is a foot-stomper of the highest order, made to be sung in a back holler Church or on the riverside at a baptism. It’s the best kind of old-timey song you will hear this year.
“Lord I’m Ready Now” - Plumb
Plumb’s Faster Than A Bullet was re-released with this fantastic prayer for deliverance added at the end. Plumb’s new album can’t come fast enough for these eager ears.
Conan O’Brien’s late show recently produced a clever spoof ad from Apple in response to their recent polarizing U2 album release. In the clip, an Apple exec describes the company’s new machine that not only erases Songs of Innocence from the user’s iTunes library, but also erases any knowledge or memory of the band from the user’s brain. One complaining hipster, groggy from the machine’s effects, is then introduced to the “latest album from Irish rock legends U2.” His reaction? “These guys are really good!”
Modern culture, bereft with snarky fake news and vitriolic comment threads following real news, has sadly gotten really good at thumbing its nose at products or people it deems unworthy, passé, or irrelevant. The vocal minority’s piling on against U2’s latest is a good example. Once targeted by a segment of the population, the album was never given a chance.
The “thumbing the nose” epidemic is no less active (it might even be more active) in Christian culture. Popular pastors and musicians are often targets, and while criticism is often justified, there are certainly times when that criticism is based only on a cultural tide or popular opinion. The actual target is never given a chance.
Is it too much to say that Chris Tomlin is the U2 of CCM Praise and Worship music, at least in the context defined here? Maybe not. Tomlin’s music remains vital and wildly popular, even as some critics brand it as formulaic, boring, or derivative. Here’s an important point to remember, though: if Tomlin’s music is formulaic, and it often is, it’s based on the formula he wrote.
In a recent interview, Tomlin said, “My focus has been writing to give the church a song to sing. This record is no different.” And he’s exactly right. One can look elsewhere for metaphor and surprising innovation, even in the Sixsteps family (read: Crowder). Tomlin writes songs that praise bands can play and that churches can sing (sometimes, admittedly, in a slightly lower key). That doesn’t, however, mean the songs are necessarily of low quality.
Here’s a good example. Tomlin’s new album, Love Ran Red, is pretty standard Chris Tomlin fare, with no unexpected departures from the norm, either lyrically or sonically. It’s praise and worship music in a world where praise and worship music is both pervasive and often pedestrian. However, this is good praise and worship music. The (parenthetical) title track features the line “At the cross, at the cross, I surrender my life, I’m in awe of You, I’m in awe of You.” By itself, that’s a good lyric, but worshipers have heard that concept a thousand times before. The line that follows elevates the song. “Where Your love ran red, and my sin washed white, I owe all to You, I owe all to You.” Imagining the song in a congregational setting, that last phrase is key. It moves the worshiper from a sentiment that’s more of a platitude these days (I’m in awe of You) to a response that is personal (I owe all to You), and does so effectively, with an internal rhyme that makes the pairing memorable.
I’d be first in line to hear Chris Tomlin break the mold in some way, and I’m not suggesting that Love Ran Red is without flaws. But it’s his own mold he’s choosing to fill, and he’s working to fill it as well as he can. Listen to the album; Tomlin’s not just mailing it in.
If a free album from the world’s foremost rock band can be met with “This is so below me”-flavored snark, then it’s no surprise that every new Chris Tomlin release might face the same a priori criticism. It’s one thing to deride a genre for not living up to its potential, or an industry for forcing artists into a flavor-of-the-day (or, in the case of Christian music, flavor-of-the-decade) sound. It’s another to dismiss the whole thing because you think it’s unworthy of your lofty tastes. Wouldn’t it be better to notice quality, even in a saturated genre, applaud it, and constructively point out how it might be improved?
-- Mark D. Geil
With the ever-evolving music industry, it's grown more difficult for many bands and performers to be able to continue to afford to make music.
I've heard about more than a couple instances where a band or artist has had to discontinue touring because ticket sales and/or album sales are lower than ever. In many cases, I realize it could be the shifting trends or our own personal economic statuses making it difficult to afford to buy tickets, but it could also just be the aging fanbase has lost interest in music altogether and does not continue to support these artists' endeavors.
I've gone to some shows in recent months where, upon posting a photo from the show online on some form of social media, I've received comments like "Oh, I didn't know they were still around!" or "Where do you get your concert information from?"
In this day in age, if you're a music enthusiast, there's no excuse to not keep tabs on your favorite artists. Between artist email lists (You should sign up for your favorite artist's email list if they have one!), phone apps and services like Bands In Town, and Facebook, there's just no reason not to know about shows coming to your neck of the woods. iTickets.com even sends out alerts if you sign up for them.
But there's another concern. I posed a question - just to start a discussion - on the JFH Facebook to see what others thought about the hypothetical idea of: "If you knew that buying your favorite artist's music would help them keep touring, or NOT buying it would mean they'd stop touring, would you buy it then?" The truth is, most artists' careers (not ALL, but MOST) involve or are centered around touring and performing live. The real money in sustaining a musician's career, is in touring and drawing crowds. The expenses for that are super high, but with the right venues, crowds and ticket/merch sales, it should help keep an artist's career alive. (Some still go out on tours and barely break even, sadly).
The truth is: album sales don't generate much income for artists. Over the years, most artists GO INTO DEBT with a record label to fund the recording of an album. And when an album sells, unless the artist funded it completely themselves, they see very little of the profits of the album sale. This isn't to discourage you from buying music -- by all means, it's super important to do that -- but you can't assume that just buying one $10 or $15 album from someone is going to keep them going for a long time.
If we, the fans don't support the artist financially, they can't afford to continue to exist. Period.
Some comments on the Facebook post were actually completely against seeing live shows, while others didn't care if buying an album ensured the band could keep touring or not.
The fact of the matter is, in many cases, the two go hand in hand. If a band can't continue to tour, they probably won't bother sticking together to make music together. There's no reason to. They'll need to get "real jobs" and that will take up most of their music-making time. Plus, most labels only want to sign artists who can tour. Touring keeps the artist in the spotlight, at the forefront of people's minds. It enables fans to get involved instead of just listening to their single on the radio (and not buying their album, especially). After all, some people are more likely to shell out $16 bucks for a 3D movie in the theaters than to go see a band they like perform in person. And, if you're a sincere music fan who thrives on the ministry and what great music can do for the soul, there's something backwards about that.
In any case, we'd love for you to join the discussion! It's just a friendly discussion, so join in!
Visit the Facebook post here: https://www.facebook.com/jesusfreakhideout/posts/10152812838274603
Each week, one thing you're bound to see online or even heard spoken by friends when a new album or movie comes out is something like:
"The new album by ____ is their best yet!"
"_________ is awesome! It's my favorite movie!"
But the truth is... can we really call a brand new album we've only heard a handful of times over the course of a couple hours or a couple days -- or a movie we've only seen once -- our "Favorite" or "the best?"
Let's look at it this way... If you were to only be able allowed to watch one movie for the rest of your life, would it be that one? If you were only able to listen to one album, would that be it?
When I was a teenager, I remember seeing a movie in the theater and enjoying it enough to call it my favorite film. Upon multiple viewings, and as I got older, I realized I enjoyed the movie still, but it was in no way my favorite movie. At around the same time in my life, I found my "favorite band" changing a bit too much as well. I'd hear one band, see them live, and love 'em to death. Then a few months or a year or two later, they'd have a new album, but a different band would put out a BETTER album. Well then, THAT album was my favorite, and so was that band. Then it happened again. Then, as I got a little older, a previously favorite band put out an album that really hit home. They were my favorite once again, and pretty much lasted that way past their retirement.
Why does this matter? It's tough for true music fans to discuss music openly when things like "Album of the Year," "Best album by far!", etc, are statements used far too often time and time again by the same people. (Don't get me started about it being overused in music reviews!) Are these listeners just really easy to please? Or are these albums REALLY each the best... at the time they hear them? So what's the criteria for "best"? Sure, it's exciting to have new music. But sometimes when we get music weeks or even months in advance, it's still difficult to boldly proclaim "This is their best album yet!" or "Album of the Year" (especially, with the latter, when there's plenty of music yet to come out that year). It just seems like a pretty big statement to make.
As I've gotten older, I've found it important not to jump to conclusions. Did I love that one new movie? Actually, yeah, but will it endure to be a favorite of mine 5, 10, 15 years from now? I've found that the movies that are my absolute favorites are ones I've seen many times over the course of several years and still really like them. I can honestly tell you that my absolute favorite, hands-down go-to movie is Ghostbusters because I first saw it as a kid and still can watch it at almost any time. It's held up pretty well, despite being dated (but what isn't, right?) and it's also nostalgic for me. And it still brings a smile to my face. For music, I've also found bands like PFR, their songs just feel like a warm blanket, a dip in a hot tub, or reclining after a day of being on your feet without a second's rest. I think that warrants calling their music a favorite. It feeds my soul too. Is that one new album by _____ awesome? Yeah! I like it! But let me get back to you on if it's their best or if it's one of my favorites. I've had albums that I'd never dreamed would be a favorite still sound like gold to my ears many years later. I love that. But I've also had albums I was quick to call amazing or the best not hold up very long at all.
Maybe none of this really matters, I do realize that, but every street week when glowing comments for new albums (or negative ones, actually) flood the internet on THE DAY an album comes out, praising (or condemning) an album after what could be no more than just a handful of listens, you have to wonder how much time was devoted to really digging into the music and letting it just soak in. For real music fans, that's important. I know it's new and exciting and you were waiting a couple years for it since the last street day, but give it time. Sure, we sometimes read reviews to see if something is better than what came before it, but it can be much too hasty to just jump at calling something the best prematurely. There's nothing wrong with letting it simmer and sit with you a bit. You'll be surprised, in the end, just what IS the best or your favorite to you down the line. Happy listening!
Today, I was reminded of the 2003 movie "Bruce Almighty;" I thought about one of the messages the film focuses on and how it related to all of our individual Christian walks.
We live in a time where it's easier now more than ever to plug into a cause that can change the world. I was listening to Remedy Drive's new album "Commodity" and thinking about how vocalist David Zach has expressed his hope to impact and make a change in the serious problem of human trafficking in our world. It's a very real and disturbing practice still going on today. The band's goal with the album is to raise awareness and help aid in the fight against it (Zach has even paired with a ministry called The Exodus Road that goes to the frontlines of this problem and tries to rescue women from slavery). It's a passion of Zach's and if you get the privilege of hearing him speak about it in person, it makes you want to rally in support and join him.
In this age, it's even easier to voice our opinions on what we think others should be doing. Whether it's social media or through a blog or magazine article, just about anyone can say anything that someone else will see or hear. I've heard ministries beg for just financial aid while other opinion-sharers have condemned people fir "just throwing money" at a problem and not doing anything else about it. These opinion-sharers don't always take into account that these people may not be called to do anything other than that; some have families and careers and may not be called by God to drop everything and go. The financial support may be all Jesus is moving them to do.
But that's where "Bruce Almighty" popped in my mind.
In the film, Bruce Nolan--played by Jim Carrey--is an aspiring news reporter who would love a news anchor position someday (think Ron Burgundy set in 2003 with much less pretention). His rival is Steve Carell's Evan Baxter who is a bit of a pompous jerk who seems to easily get the things Bruce only dreams of and fights so hard for. Bruce's girlfriend Grace (I don't think her name choice was a coincidence) encourages him to be thankful to God for what he has and, in one particular crucial scene, Bruce says, "God is a mean kid sitting on an ant hill with a magnifying glass and I'm the ant. He could fix my life in five minutes if He wanted to, but He'd rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm!" After some other blasphemous remarks, God meets with Bruce and gives him the job of "god" for a short time so he can see what it's like, and Bruce learns first-hand how selfish humans are, how frustrating free will is in His position, and how God's role is no picnic.
Near the end of the film, Bruce learns that we're here on this earth not for ourselves but for others. Our society is very me-centric and it's easy for any of us (myself included) to fall prey to that mindset. By the end of the movie, God physically leaves Bruce to clean up the messes he made and Bruce says, "But wait! What if I need you? What if I have questions?" to which God laughs and says, "That's your problem, Bruce. That's everybody's problem. You keep looking UP!" It was a controversial exchange because it kind of sounds like the film's saying we shouldn't seek God, but the director, a professing believer, later explained that the point of the story was that we're supposed to be God's hands and feet to each other. There's even a montage in the film where Bruce is seen doing nice things for people and helping others out--something he'd never done before.
It's no secret we live busy lives. If our families aren't demanding our time, it's our jobs, our teachers, our managers, our coaches, our record labels, our bandmates, our friends, etc. Sometimes it just feels like God's another person demanding our time. But we're called to help the widows and orphans, the needy, the forsaken. God wants us to seek HIM first and to put everything else second. BUT we're all called to different things. Not everyone is called to be a missionary to Haiti. Not everyone is called to stay home and watch sports all Sunday. Not everyone is called to be a pastor. Not everyone is called to be a deacon. Not everyone is called to lead a Sunday school class, and not everyone is called it sit in on a Sunday school class. It's our responsibility to seek God for direction in how we're best to use our time. If we're all part of the Body of Christ, we all have different roles to play. For some of us, it may be to send money to HELP that missionary in Haiti. For others, it may be to go and help out there with their bare hands.
But whatever that call is, we need to heed it. Just don't be discouraged if others are telling you what you need to do. They might not know what God has in store for you, but what THEY think YOU should do. And that doesn't matter. Only what God wants for you is what matters. But whatever it may be, it'll be an expression of His hands and His feet. And I pray He makes it clear to you (to us!). Just don't give up seeking Him.
- John DiBiase
**Note: the blog title "YOU Almighty -- Being His Hands and Feet" is in no way meant to be disrespectful. The idea is a play on the film's title, since it kind of sparked the topic, and is to imply that YOU / WE are to be HIS hands and feet... like Bruce was instructed in the film.**
It's no secret that we at JFH advocate for excellence in Christian art. Anything that Christians put their hands to deserves to be done well, giving the glory to God in the process. But I have recently been contemplating the concept of what "Christian art" is supposed to look like in the real world, particularly when it comes to how listeners are supposed to interact with the music they listen to.
To sum up my feelings on the matter, I think Christians are supposed to enjoy music.
At first, this sounds like a "duh" statement, but I think the word "enjoyable" is more comprehensive than it sounds. There's two main definitions for the word "enjoy." The first is straightforward, "to take pleasure in," which is simple enough. But the second makes the word a little more complex: "to have or experience." Experiencing music seems a lot different than just listening to it, doesn't it?
When the term "enjoyable" is applied to music, it can often bring to mind recyclable pop music that doesn't take too many chances. The song begins, the catchy beat takes hold, the simple lyrics are easy to memorize, and the listener can hang their hat on the song's whole. It's a quick escapist detour that lasts for a whole three and half minutes, though it's over as soon as it begins. If that's all that "enjoyable" music is supposed to be, Christians are selling themselves severely short. Great music grows on the listener with time, unfolding layer after layer with successive listens.
Please don't misunderstand me by inferring that I think pop music as a whole is bad. To call out one whole genre as a lower form of art than another would be to discredit the artists who use pop music to its fullest artistic potential. But if you turn on any Top 40 pop radio station, you can immediately hear the kind of material I'm talking about: unsophisticated and hopelessly aimless pop ditties. And all too often, CCM stations echo this same method with their setlists comprised of mindless earworms that don't improve the quality of life of the listener beyond a few minutes.
Art is not a utilitarian concept, of course, but truly enjoyable art requires a significant investment of time and emotion. It means listening many times, though not necessarily in a row. It means personally applying it, empathizing with the spirit of the song's message. It means comparing the song to others like it, identifying what makes it unique and beyond the norm. It means letting the music affect you in the long run rather than compartmentalizing the listening experience to the length of the song.
This concept of enjoying music affects how I approach every album I hear, especially when reviewing something for JFH. I can't tell you how many times I have listened to an album for the first time, disliked it, but learned to love it after more listens. Given that I have to write a polished critique of the album in the near future, I have to listen to an album more than once. If I wrote my album reviews after only one self-contained listen, I wouldn't be handing out too many positive reviews, and even the positive reviews wouldn't be credible or properly representative of the music. But that's why I hesitate to give a decisive opinion so early on in the listening process. Sure, there are albums that I've enjoyed on the first listen with my attitude towards it not changing much, but they're rare. Great art grows on you.
Is this taking music too seriously? Taking this concept a step further, what happens if we approach people this way? There's the adage that first impressions are deceiving, and it's just as true for music as it is with people. Are first impressions important? Absolutely! We always want to present ourselves well when we meet people for the first time. But if we judged others on just those first impressions, we'd have some lopsided relationships to wrestle with. My deepest friendships are with those who I've gotten to know over time, over many occasions and seasons, not on one-time, one-way transactions. When we truly experience people, we see their many facets, and we love them for who they truly are. I'd contend that if we are interacting with music in a similar fashion, we gain a better idea of our both ourselves and the music we're listening to, giving everyone their due credit. Experiencing music isn't as complicated as experiencing people, by the way.
With all of this in mind, there are some inherent dangers attached if we change our music listening habits to this method. For some, this could be a huge lifestyle change. This refreshed concept of art as an enjoyable entity creates quite a few problems for a culture that thrives on speed and instant gratification. We want to enjoy things now! But when Christians can slow down, find beauty in the details over a span of time, and learn to love the individual parts that make up the whole, our perspective on enjoyment will change for the better. The Christian's status as an image-bearer makes this level of enjoyment possible, and if we apply this reasoning to our habits as music consumers, we can become music "enjoyers" instead.
-- Roger Gelwick, JFH staff writer
So, by now, many of you are probably thinking something. That thought may or may not be related to JFH. If it is not related to JFH, I won’t even venture trying to guess what that thought is. However, if it is related to JFH, I have a very strong hunch I know what you are thinking. I’ll bet is falls something along these lines
- “WOW! Switchfoot has FIVE positive reviews!”
- “I didn’t think Fading West was that great."
- “Of course JFH would post five great reviews of Switchfoot, they’re all biased fanboys."
- “What is a 2-cents review?”
- “Why does Switchfoot, or any album for that matter, have five reviews in the first place?”, or possibly
- “I can’t believe JFH gave Nine Lashes a positive review! They usually hate modern rock!”
If your thought was more along the lines that last bullet point, that is a topic for a different post (and probably a different person). However, if it was along the lines of the first five bullets, then this post is for you.
Longtime readers may recognize “2-Cents Reviews” as an appendage onto a reader review, like on this review of the Newsboy’s Take Me To Your Leader, or this review of Demon Hunter’s self-titled debut, or even this review of DC Talk’s 1989 debut. Their original purpose was to give an official rating to albums that otherwise would have none (either due to the fact that they came out a while ago, or no one on staff ever got around to writing a full review). But a reader had to write a review of the album first in order to get a 2-Cents Review.
Recently, the staff was having a discussion, and after going through a variety of different topics, somehow it came around to our current review format. That is, that albums, if they are reviewed, have a main opinion and a second opinion, and if not reviewed, a reader (ie, you guys) can send in their own review that might get posted if it is fair enough (and written well enough), and might get a 2-Cents Review as well. In any event, someone on staff (actually me, but I digress) suddenly came to realization that, well, why not have more than two staff reviews? We’re not bound by any strict “Music Website Code,” that firmly states, “Thou shalt not review an album more than twice!” Plus, with more reviews comes either more diversity or a stronger consensus, so the readers can get a clearer idea of what the staff as a whole thinks, not just one or two people on staff.
But then, as soon as I thought that, I also realized, “…but then someone would have to actually write those reviews.” And I can tell you, writing reviews can be a very tedious chore. Not to mention that it is a chore for a reader to read them all. But then I thought about those 2-Cent reviews: Those are easy enough to write. They are about a paragraph long. Easy to write, and easy to read. Diversity of opinion is offered, readers are more interested, it makes our site even more unique, and since 2-Cent Reviews were already offered in some capacity, it would not be hard to implement. Everyone wins!
As such, Fading West is the first album to receive this treatment. Not because we are biased fanboys of Switchfoot and just want to keep gushing out praise for them, but because, well, they were the first truly “big” album of the year that many staff members have heard and wanted to offer their thoughts on, and hopefully the first of many. Simple as that.
Hope you guys like the idea. Let us know what you think!
- Mark Rice
Prisoner to the Chains of Time - The Music of Common Children
I write full time; all kinds of things, books, articles for magazines, humorous columns etc. When I write, I usually select something out of my record collection to put on, and sometimes I go with a theme, or "band of the week." A few weeks ago, Common Children, an important band to me during a critical time in my life, was the choice, and hearing such poignant music made me think some big thoughts as I wrote about silly things, like the groundhog who is now living under my porch, and whether or not to contact my daughter's teacher to ask if the spelling words she is sending home are far too advanced and difficult for my 2nd grader. ("Opinionated" is a great word, but tough on the psyche of a seven-year-old at test time.)
I first ran across the music of Common Children as a senior in High School. I picked up their first album Skywire in the spring of that year and in those days of confusion and anxiety about my future and who I was in Christ. Hearing a band address the “deeper issues of life” from a perspective of faith meant the world to me. Later in college, after my first (and thankfully last) broken heart, the music of their second album Delicate Fade reminded me that all of life is under God’s control, and that He is always with us. Their third and last album, The Inbetween Time, helped me to see that there are two sides to every story and that life is wonderfully complex. The lead singer and primary lyricist, Marc Byrd, remains a busy man. In the last decade, he has co-written the popular worship song “God of Wonders,” released a worship album with his wife under the name “Glassbyrd,” and recorded a few fantastic instrumental albums under the band name “Hammock.” All three Common Children albums can be found in various places online, and should be required listening for every young person of faith.
The following thoughts are related to my favorite song on each of Common Children’s fantastic three albums, Skywire, Delicate Fade and The Inbetween Time.
"Absence of Light" - The Inbetween Time (2001)
This week my pastor said that “church needs to be a living shelter for lost and hurting people.” To emphasize this point, he read the story of the prodigal son and stated this one line over and over again “love, not logic”. The point that I easily miss in this story is that the prodigal son brought his misery on himself. His selfishness and impulsiveness led to his wretched state, not any other factor that can be seen in the story. It would have been logical for the father to run the prodigal son off his property, or to take the son up on his offer to be a slave in his father’s household. But it is the illogical choice that is made. The father celebrates the return of the son and restores him to his former position. The first song on The Inbetween Time, which addresses this issue so well, opens with haunting Pink Floyd-like atmospherics that bring to mind the coldness of space, then drenched in reverb, a ghostly voice rings out seemingly from above the music...
For maybe just a second, the sun was in your eyes
It flickers like a spark from the fire that burns inside.
You were broken by the darkness by the silence of the night,
Searching for a shelter from the cold absence of light
This song stopped me cold when I first heard it. The atmospherics bring to mind a very cold day and the lyrics suggest to me that whoever the narrator is talking about brought on his own suffering. The lines “For maybe just a second, the sun was in your eyes” suggest a momentary lapse of judgment. But the narrator does not pass judgment on the main character. Instead, he points out that he was “broken by the darkness, by the silence of the night”. To me this was a refreshing perspective. Suffering in any form must be met with true Christ-like compassion. Christ had a true love for those whose poor decisions had produced suffering in their own lives. It has been said time and again, but it is worth repeating. Christ hung out with some pretty unsavory people; tax collectors, prostitutes and various other “fallen people.” He did not shun these people, but rather showed “illogical love” in a real way. These people had been “broken by the darkness” and were responding to the light that Christ offered. This song helped to change my perspective on those who have had a “moral failure.” Who among us has not ever had a lapse of judgment; let him cast the first stone. Thanks be to Jesus for loving us illogically.
"Broken Smile" - Skywire (1996)
A prevailing stereotype of Christians is that they are all happy go lucky, out of touch with reality, “Ned Flanders”-like people. Somewhere in his past, Ned was told to “count it all joy” when misfortune finds him. (James 1:2, a powerful scripture, but woefully out of context here) He says “well, praise the Lord” when his house is demolished by a tornado or “she’s in a much better place now” when his wife passes away suddenly. Fair or not, this stereotype exists and it is vital to try to figure out where it comes from. I would like to suggest that it comes, in part, from the art that we produce. From cliché ridden “positive” music that anyone can find on their car radio, to schmaltzy visual art, so much of what we produce suggests that that everything in the Christian life is hunky dory. I like to call it the “I once was lost, but now I’m found” phenomenon. This phrase from "Amazing Grace," (possibly the most profound song ever written) when taken out of context from the rest of the hymn, leads to some mistaken notions. Notions that say “Now that I have been born again, all of a sudden my problems are over and the rest of life will be a cakewalk.” But as we all know, this in no way matches the reality of daily life. Those who are “found” still suffer gut wrenching tragedy, crippling depression and doubt. (See Job, King David. The Apostle Paul)
Why does the music we create not adequately reflect the experiences we all go through? Music has been called “the healing art form” and brings comfort to so many in times of trial. After September 11th, radio stations played selected songs with “healing aspects” to them nonstop and Rolling Stone even published a list of top songs people named that helped them through those tragic events. Why do Christians, who have the ultimate hope to offer, someone to walk beside us through this dark world, and hope of a better world to come, write such pithy music to express this wonderful truth?
When I fist heard "Broken Smile" from Common Children’s Skywire I was stopped in my tracks because I had never heard such a profound song about loss and alienation come from out of the CCM world. Here was a song that in both its lyric and music captured the emotion of sadness and loss. Songs like this were being written by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I had never heard one from a “Christian” artist. The simple nature of the track, with its barebones acoustic guitar playing dark minor chords and assorted minimalist instrumentation of violins and cellos, is reminiscent of the unplugged era of MTV. The harmony vocal provided by Christina Glass (later to be Marc Byrd’s wife) adds the final haunting touch.
What makes this song unique in Christian music is that the writer did not feel the need to wrap up the song with a “Jesus is the answer” final verse. The song is simply a meditation on sadness, how it can stay with you for a long time, how it can creep into every aspect of your life, how it seems never ending.
Can the truth refine and free the soul?
When the hurt you have is all you know?
Through endless searching and nights of wondering
Someone said, “Just let it go”.
We all know that we all have felt the pain
For a little while.
With lines such as “can the truth refine and free the soul when the hurt you have is all you know?” the writer dares to question God. He says "I believe that you are true, but what does that mean to me during this time? Can your truth lead me to freedom from this sadness, this darkness in my soul”? This kind of hard questioning is rare in Christian music, but it is, ironically, common in scripture. David asked “How long will you hide your face from me O Lord.” (Psalm 88:14) This might seem blasphemous to many, but to David “a man after God’s own heart” it was a very natural comment. In an article in Seven Ball magazine, I read how a couple had written to Marc Byrd and told him that the song had helped them get through the loss of a child to miscarriage. This floored me. A couple found, in Christian music, a song that spoke to them during a time of profound loss. Such an accomplishment should be celebrated and not easily be forgotten.
The Eyes of God - Delicate Fade (1997)
Perhaps responding to criticism that their music was too dark, Common Children released “Eyes of God” as the first single off their second album Delicate Fade. The song did pretty well on Christian radio, no doubt due to its more positive outlook. The track kicks off with a chiming guitar that is decidedly more radio friendly than the harder edge of the previous album, and when the chorus kicks in, it finds Marc Byrd singing…
All the while the Eyes of God shine on us
The Broken smile and the eyes
God shine on us
Feel the pain
You need to show
Take the time
Now let it go
Embrace this day of healing
What I find so interesting, is that this song makes a reference both lyrically and thematically back to the aforementioned song "Broken Smile" on Common Children’s previous album, Skywire. It’s as if Marc Bryd didn’t want to leave the listener where he left them after hearing that song. “There’s more to life than this” he says, “you can be free”. “Eyes of God” serves as a sort of alternative music instruction manual for how to deal with the tragedy that “Broken Smile” described so well. Marc Byrd first instructs the listener to “feel the pain/you need to show”. Honesty is crucial when dealing with suffering of any kind. Being like Ned Flanders and saying “everything is fine” is to be dishonest with yourself. Everything is not all right. It’s ok to say that, to assess your situation honestly. This type of honesty is very difficult for many believers who think that somehow they have done something to bring on this tragedy on themselves. Many Christians think “This is not the abundant life I have heard so much about, I need to keep this problem undercover until I can figure out where it all went wrong.” Fundamental honesty is the critical starting point for weathering any crisis. Christ never promised an easy life, but he did promise that he would be with us through the tough times. This is a critical distinction.
Next, we are told to “take the time”. The healing of a physical injury cannot be rushed. If you sprain your ankle, there is an approximate amount of time that it takes to heal. You can help the injury to heal quicker with treatment and medications, but there is no such thing as an “instant fix” to a physical injury. Why should injured souls heal any differently? It takes time. This is a tough sell to "instant gratification America." Fast food, fast internet connections, eight minute dating, same day service, we speed all of life up. People who suffer tragedy are often told by well meaning people to “get over it,” “keep a stiff upper lip,” “pull yourself together,” etc. This is terrible advice. Grief needs time to work itself out. This brings us to the last instruction “now let it go/embrace this day of healing”. In the movie Chocolat, an old man is interested in a woman in his 1960’s era French village known as the “Widow Odell”. When asked why he does not pursue her, he responds “the Widow Odell is mourning her late husband who died in the war.” Another character says “well, the war was 15 years ago”. “Oh, no,” the man says, “Her husband died in the First World War. It was quite a shock to the Widow Odell.” There comes a time to let go of your grief, to move on. Holding on to something too long comes with its own price tag. Like the Widow Odell, opportunities may be missed, life may go by unlived. To quote Ecclesiastes, “there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under Heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Sometimes, it has to be a conscious action to “embrace this day of healing”.
Marc Byrd, like me, probably does not have a degree in counseling, but he writes with his heart and eyes wide open to the world around him. He seems to know loss and heartache very well, and I’m thankful to God that I happened upon the music of Common Children during a formative period of my life. It has helped to shape my thinking in regards to the nature and shape of suffering, and has helped me to be more sensitive to those who Jesus called “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). I thank God that He gave me the ears to hear His truth in the songs of Common Children.
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell
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
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?
Let's face it; music just isn't the same as it was 20, 30, even just 10 years ago. Thanks to the digital age (err... mp3s and such, not the band), not only can we carry our music collection around in our pockets (which previously would have not only looked ridiculous -- be it CDs, vinyl, tapes, 8-tracks, etc -- but it's actually physically impossible), but we can easily go to any digital retailer (like iTunes or AmazonMP3) and literally shop for songs like you would hunt-and-peck for eats at a buffet.
"I'll take a song or two from Skillet, maybe a single from RED, how about most of the songs off this Lecrae record, and this new Switchfoot single."
To do that before, you... would have had to buy each album entirely.
I remember buying a CD--which shall remain anonymous--years ago because of a music video I saw for a song off that album. It was a weird video but the song was quite catchy. The rest of the album though? Nothing like that single! The rest of the album was quite bizarre and eccentric (kind of like the music video itself was, but not the song in the video). In today's music world, I could have just purchased that song alone and thus saved myself money to buy other songs or a full album from another artist.
But let me ask you this -- How many times have you purchased a full album -- be it a CD, vinyl or mp3s -- because of one song and you discover "Oh my goodness! I love the whole album!!" IMAGINE if you had only bought that one song by itself and never heard those other songs?
So with people buying songs a la carte a lot these days, the music industry has had to rethink the album model. Labels want artists who can fill an album full of singles. This alone raises another question though - how many times have one of your favorite songs been one of those kinds of songs that would NEVER be played on radio as a single? Kind of scary, huh? That'd be like Jars of Clay's self-titled debut album not having a song like "Worlds Apart" on it. You can assume that pretty much your favorite ballad (or really hard song...or lyrically deep song) on any given album from a band who otherwise gets airplay would not exist.
And so, many bands and labels are looking at releasing more singles and EPs. EPs are those little 4-song (or sometimes a few songs more) samplers that, at one time, would usually accompany a full-length album. However, they've kind of just become appetizers and cheap ways to release less music it seems. [Some argue that it's less music but released more often, but it seems most artists don't adhere to that idea. I once heard, many years ago now, a record company employee say that EPs were the future; that labels would release an EP from an artist and then fans would get EPs every 6 months from that artist... Thankfully, that hasn't exactly become the norm.]
Gone seem to be the days when a band crafts an honest-to-goodness ALBUM. An album where every song works together in a seemingly common goal or theme. Instead, we have more EPs that just feel like short little bursts of new goodness that kind of tease you and leave you hanging and seldom feel complete.
So what are YOUR thoughts? Are you an "album" buyer? Do you like and prefer EP's? Or do you like your songs more a la carte? (i.e. You just pick and choose your favorite songs from album to album) Me? I do prefer a good, solid album... But what about you?
-- John DiBiase
Earlier today, a famed band by the name of PFR (JFH artist page) closed the door on its much anticipated Kickstarter launch and on its triumphant return to the music industry. And the saddest thing is you have probably never heard of them. And, if they were current, you probably wouldn't listen to them. Music has changed so much over the last two decades and it's hardly debatable if it's for the worse.
So let me explain the last twenty years to you from the perspective of a huge PFR fan and what they have meant to me. In the early 90's, when I was first being introduced to "Christian music," there were several groups I was exposed to: Petra (much to my parents chagrin) and Carman. At this point in life, I was just about to embark on my high school journey. I came across PFR thanks to Cory Edwards. His show Signal Exchange introduced me to awesome bands like Audio Adrenaline, dc talk, Big Tent Revival, Hokus Pick Maneuver, Iona and Whiteheart. But out of all of them, PFR has been the one band over the last twenty years that has remained timeless.
So, from 1992-1994, this band released three studio records: their self titled debut, Goldie's Last Day and Great Lengths. Goldie's Last Day (the song and the record) had and still has some of the finest musicianship and some of the most incredible harmonies I've ever heard. I wore that album out so much over the years. Let me quick explain something about reviewing music to everyone; it gets old quick, especially if you don't enjoy what you're listening to. But to do a proper criticism, you have to immerse yourself in the music. I did that for twenty years with this album and it has never gotten old.
So skip ahead to a year later, and they released Great Lengths just after Christmas in 1994. I remember buying that at a home school convention booth in Hershey, PA after my parents decided to start home schooling my siblings. I must have walked past that booth 100 times wishing I had the money to buy it. "Wonder Why" is still one of the best songs to sing at the top of your lungs. Their next record, Them, released in 1996, was harder, darker and sadder than anything else they'd done prior. Perhaps it's from the years of perspective looking back on what was to be their final project in 1996 that makes it feel gloomy. The next year they released three new tracks on The Late Great PFR that almost make me weep when I hear them to this day.
Skip ahead four years and think of Christian music during that time. Bands are breaking up left and right. These are bands that had large influences in my life and bands that showed so much promise: Church of Rhythm, Seven Day Jesus, Reality Check, johnny Q. public all came and went. Then the compilation Roaring Lambs is announced. And what appears on the track list but a brand new song by PFR (and Steve Taylor!) and I'm so excited. "Maybe the fact they're coming out with this song, 'Kingdom Come,' means they'll make more music??" And lo and behold, the following year they returned with Disappear (on Steve Taylor's own label, Squint), and that's what they did (vanish, that is) for another three years until they released The Bookhouse Recordings. And you know what, I don't care that it was commissioned by Family Christian Stores and recorded in a couple days' time; it was great. "In the Middle" is a great song.
Skip ahead 7 years (ask Crowder if that was a coincidence) and they announce a tour to coincide with their 20-year anniversary and a StageIt.com performance. I dragged my wife to John's house to see that. After they announced their Kickstarter project this month, I was counting my money and getting ready to blow my budget. And then the band announces today on their Facebook page that they are officially over and done.
PFR totally encapsulates the notion of less is more. Joel Hanson and Patrick Andrew's vocals complement each other so well, so much so that it may compete with Michael and Kevin from dc Talk. Three guys who once said that they never took a break from each other, just music, are taking a permanent break. (And they are one of the only bands John DiBiase will sing out loud too in the car. After every show we go to together, we inevitably end up talking about PFR at some point). They are the only "spiritual" or "Christian" link that my blood brother, who claims to be an atheist, share anymore. They are the light to which all other trios are held to and they were such a blessing to me over the last two decades.
You're probably asking yourself, "why all the fanboy loving on this band?" Or you maybe you don't really care. Jordan Taylor said in one of Blimey Cow's "Messy Monday" videos that the older music is always better than the newer music, and he's so right. Music that I grew up on will always be better than the new music. Whether that is perspective speaking or is actually true is for you to decide. In 20 years, will what you listen to currently be better than what will be brand new then? I hope not. Will you still have such an appreciation for the bands that you berate and harass people over after they've come and gone (and come and go) again? Or will you forget their last record when the new one hits street? Are the bands you've grown up on making you appreciate music more? -- Whether it was or is Relient K, or a new combo of a powerhouse corporate megaband, or the small local artist who works his tail off because he loves what he does?
I don't know why PFR called it quits. I have my theories, sure, but they're just for me and close friends to ponder. All I can say is "Thank you" to Joel, Patrick and Mark for the best Merry Go Round ever.
-- Kevin Chamberlin
1998 was probably my first real experience with witnessing the shuffling around of lead singers in a favorite band of mine. It was the time when, mysteriously, Newsboys front man John James had quietly stepped down as the lead vocalist for the Newsboys and drummer/vocalist/co-founder Peter Furler literally stepped up to the microphone. It was something that the band decided to highlight as well, even naming their first all-Peter-fronted album Step Up To The Microphone. It was a good album, too, but it was only a so-so successor to the far superior 1996 album Take Me To Your Leader.
While it was a major disappointment to be losing the eccentric presence of John James from the band's live shows, Furler was already a founding member and a frequent lead singer (You can see him singing "I Cannot Get You Out of My System" on their video from their 1992 album Not Ashamed). It wasn't as much of a shock to the proverbial system, as, say, replacing the road-weary Furler with DC Talk's Michael Tait in 2009, but fans still had to get used to percussionist Duncan Phillips moving over to drums and the absence of James' unmistakable stage presence.
While I can think of several vocalist changes in recent years, from Audio Adrenaline to Flyleaf, Further Seems Forever to Underoath, and beyond, the most recent vocalist retirement brings to mind the exact same situation that Newsboys fans faced in 1998:
Family Force 5.
On Monday of this week, the band made the shocking announcement that original vocalist, Solomon "Soul Glow Activatur" Olds, was not only stepping down, but he had already played what was his final show as lead vocalist just two days prior without a single formal announcement. During that show, the band primed their new vocalist and drummer, much to the surprise of fans who, like me, just thought it was something special for their live show (until they told us after the show that night).
Photo of Jacob "Crouton" Olds taking over the mic from Solomon's final live performance on Saturday at Uprise Fest. Jacob sang a new song called "Dance Like Nobody's Watching"
Photos by Jesusfreakhideout.com's John DiBiase
So, as with Newsboys, original drummer, co-founder, and occasional lead singer Jacob "Crouton" Olds has been announced as the band's new lead vocalist. Jacob has a much more unassuming presence than the wild persona of "Soul Glow Activatur," but from his performance of a brand new song on Saturday, there was evidence that it would be completely different, but nothing short of still being very much "Family Force 5."
Still, the whole change is a shock to fans. And I, admittedly, have been a fan of Family Force 5 since seeing them perform at GMA Week in Nashville in 2005 before their debut Business Up Front, Party In The Back would release almost a full year later. They have one of the most energetic and fun live shows around, but one can easily argue that with success, many changes have happened in their music and live shows that haven't always sat well with fans.
So where do they go from here?
A clean slate is obviously on the table, but it's also clear that the band doesn't want to alienate their fans. Just from the snippet of new song "Glow In The Dark" that can be heard on Solomon's exit video, or the catchy and very danceable "Dance Like Nobody's Watching" that fans will be able to hear live from now on, Family Force 5 is retaining the spirit of what it is about them that won over fans eight to nine years ago.
Fan response has already been mixed, but I don't think it'd be fair to count the guys out just yet. While I will miss Solomon's infectious and outrageous stage presence, I'm still looking forward to supporting these guys and seeing them live again very soon.
-- John DiBiase
Photo from Solomon's final live performance on Saturday at Uprise Fest.
Photo by Jesusfreakhideout.com's John DiBiase
Soon after I had turned six, a tragedy occurred that I could not comprehend until I became older. It was a tragedy that robbed the world of one of the most incredible musicians that ever lived. On September 19th, 1997, a rolling Jeep ended the life of Rich Mullins. As an artist, he was incredible. As a human being, he was remarkable. As a man of faith, he was unshakable.
His was the first music I ever remember hearing, and thanks to my efforts to emulate my brother, he became my first favorite musician. His death passed my notice once it happened, but I remember being disheartened upon hearing the news (but not nearly as much as seeing Mufasa's death the first time; ah, the values of the post-toddler). Since then, Mullins and his music has been an integral part of my life, from his genre-bending "Awesome God" (the first worship song I ever learned) to his timeless words of "Sometimes By Step," from the delectably catchy "Screen Door" to the brazen beauty of "The Color Green." His is a brand of music that never gets dated, and never grows old. He's one of the best instrumentalists and songwriters of his time, and there is no doubt he would have stood even taller in our time. He made the hammered dulcimer and Irish tin whistle stand front stage in front of music fans who had their ears trained on synthesizers. He ingrained the words of the Nicene Creed in the minds of even the most historically ignorant. And, indeed, perhaps more than any artist since Larry Norman, he changed the landscape of Christian Music as we know it (maybe barring Amy Grant, whose performance of the Mullins-penned "Sing Your Praise To The Lord" gave him his big break, AND improved Grant's popularity).
But as a man, you could hardly imagine someone more fascinating. His humility was unbounded, to the point that he decided to finish his college education at the peak of his career, attending Friends University on a trombone scholarship. His charity was immense, to the point that he lived on $24,000 a year by the time of his death, giving everything else away. He lived the larger part of his last several years on an Indian Reservation in his effort to share God's love. He was a vagabond who ruffled the feathers of the Evangelical culture whenever he spoke, not caring what others thought about himself as long as he was serving God with everything he had. He was a scholar whose depth of biblical knowledge was profound, and a teacher who could mesmerize child and adult alike. And he was a wanderer who needed no more than a trailer home in New Mexico as a "permanent" residence.
Now more than ever, a man like Rich Mullins is sorely missed on the CCM scene. While the spirit of his music is captured by artists like Andrew Peterson, his creative expression and aura of magnificence that his music evoked, as well as his faultless expression of God's beauty, is significantly lacking. Even if he were still around, I don't know if he could deal with the way the music scene has changed (and mind you, not for the better). Ask yourself, what in the world would today's music industry do with a man who gave away almost everything and moved onto an Indian reservation? But I digress.
So those of you who don't know this man, take a moment. And those who do, recall his ingenuity... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rhGOosxTLrY
- Mark Rice
We’ve all been there…
You turn on the radio one too many times. You hear one-too-many generic worship albums. One-too-many of your favorite artists degenerates into just another pop act. You heard one-too-many new artists that sound like Nickelback. Who knows what might set you off, but the time comes when you are just fed up. You cannot stand the direction that music is going and you decide that you need to remember what “real” music is.
So you turn off everything. You get your MP3 player or your stereo or your computer or your record player (etc.), and you put on some artist that never fails. And instantly, you forget all your frustrations with music. You remember how beautiful it can sound. You forget all that generic, sound-alike, unoriginal music that has been crammed into your ears, and are completely taken up with ethereal, emotional, pristine perfection which now graces them. Maybe they are simply your favorite artists. Maybe you have a more emotional or nostalgic connection to them. Maybe you like it for its lyrical substance, or it unfailingly points you toward Our Creator of All Things. Or maybe some artist really does create the most beautiful music you have ever heard. But whatever the case, you simply are indebted to those artists for making such incredible music.
Here are six artists (in no particular order) that I often turn to in those situations (although this list of by no means exhaustive)…
· -Steven Curtis Chapman: I fell in love with SCC’s music at the age of nine when I discovered that he mentioned my (at the time) favorite TV show in the first verse of his song “Live Out Loud” (don’t chuckle, I’m sure your first impression of artists were just as shallow when you were nine). Eventually, I developed a more solid foundation for my fandom, which has only solidified more as years went on. Honest, heartfelt, often emotional, well-written lyrics paired with music that is both irresistibly accessible and of a sound artistic integrity. And the nostalgic value of his music puts it over the top.
· -John Reuben: I was late to the John Reuben bandwagon, but I quickly made up for lost time when, after reading the JFH reviews on all six of his albums, I made an impulse order on Amazon of four of them despite the fact that I had never heard any song of his. At first, I didn’t know quite what to make of him with his stereotypical “white-man raps” and blend of the silly and serious, and I wondered if I had been too hasty in my purchase. But after latching onto a few of his more lyrically biting songs and slowly coming to the realization of how unique his craft was, my respect and admiration for him grew immensely. Thought-provoking, honest, innovative, and just plain fun, this is definitely one impulse purchase I don’t regret.
· -Propaganda: Before I listened to Propaganda’s album Excellent, I was not a hip hop fan. After I listened to the album, I was. Need I say more?
· -Adam Young: Before The Midsummer Station, there was a shy, wide-eyed, Minnesotan insomniac who played around on his computer and who, in comparision to most sugar-infested pop music out there, served up a veritable gourmet meal of delicious treats that it was hard to believe was actually healthy. Indeed, no matter which musical project Adam Young tacked (most notably his indietronica project Owl City, but also his more acoustically-based project Sky Sailing, and others), you could expect a creative explosion of dreamy charm and wit that would drive away frustrations like the plague. I just pray that Adam Young can steal his music back from being just another pop act in an ocean of pop acts.
· -Charmaine: Who makes the best pop music in the CCM industry? I believe that if her 2010 album Love Reality is any indication, it is, without a doubt, Charmaine. Aside from having one of the most captivating voices I’ve ever heard, her brand of orchestral symphonic pop is the most excellently executed and unhinderingly appealing sounds I have ever head. In a span of 10 songs and 40 minutes, I doubt you’ll find any more perfect pop music for the music lover.
· -Iona: For this one, I need to give a shout-out to my fellow staff reviewer “Tincan” Caldwell. Sometime last year, I was sifting through the reviews index looking for some promising music I can check out, and I saw a Mr. Caldwell’s review for Iona’s album Another Realm (rated 4.5 stars), whose genre was listed as “Irish Folk Rock.” I was intrigued and read the review to discover that it was a 95-minute double concept album, and that Iona had been making music for over twenty years. I was more intrigued. After finding a couple of their songs on Youtube, I was no longer intrigued; I was dumbfounded. Breathtaking vocals, mind-numbing guitars, wicked saxophones, ethereal flutes, swirling bagpipes, explosive drums, countless other impeccably played instruments, and beauty all around. I thought then, and still think to this day, that Iona makes the best music I have ever heard.
So who do you guys turn to when you are facing musical depression?
I’m not a musician. I played bassoon in high school band and took four years of piano lessons, but that is the absolute extent of my musical career. Well, I guess I did technically write a song in 6th grade (as a school assignment). I called it “Mark’s First Symphony,” and it was a 45-second long ditty on the piano (that I was unable to play).
But that doesn’t stop me from making mental masterpieces. Every once in a while, I feel a particular moment of inspiration, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to make an album like (insert whatever my inspiration was)?” Sometimes I even wish I could climb up on top of a mountain and scream out whatever my idea was in the hopes that some talented musician with a like mind could see the genius to the idea and carry it out. But I digress…
My most recent masterpiece was inspired by CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, which I read earlier this month. Amazingly, I had managed to survive for these twenty-something years of my life without having ever read it before, but even that made me appreciate the book more. As I was reading it, the thought crossed my mind, “You know, as much as I love Heath McNease’s gorgeous CS Lewis-inspired The Weight of Glory album, he really needed MUCH more than one song dedicated to Screwtape.” Indeed, even one CD would not be enough. No, it would need to be a double-album, with one song dedicated to each of Screwtape’s 31 letters. What type of music? Well, I can’t really say. It would really depend on the tone of the specific letter. Hard rock seems the most appropriate seeing as we’re dealing with dark and serious subject matter. I’m sure metal could sneak in there somewhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the letters would demand a heavily electronic, hip hop/rap, or even light acoustic treatment. In any event, the music would have to be progressive. In keeping with the spirit of the book, the song titles would simply be the same as the chapter titles in the book, and possibly a short subtitle to hint at the general theme of the letter (“Letter 1: Art of Distraction,” “Letter 2: Using Christianity,” etc…). Much of the lyrics would probably be direct quotes, and such quotes would probably be presented in a spoken-word style similar to meWithoutYou, but it would also have to have sung verses too (most songs would probably be absent a chorus). There would need to be no fewer than three vocalists, I think; one male, one female, and one rough vocalist. And if Wormwood were to ever speak/sing, he would need to be a child.
This is just one of the ideas I’ve had, and not even one of the more ambitious ones. Once, I conceived of making a band with some Greek name that I can’t remember (something to the effect of “Theology,” only in Greek), which would make a trio of album trilogies, one trilogy theme around the events of the bible, one themed around the history of Christianity, and one around famous theologians (and heretics). But all that aside, I know I can’t be the only one who has ever mentally conceived an ambitious musical masterpiece with no means of making it a reality.
So let’s hear it! If you could make any musical project, what would you make?
-- Mark Rice
The other day, I was doing some reflecting. Specifically, I was reflecting about the album which our very own Roger Gelwicks declared was "set to frustrate, enthrall, and polarize in 2013." Even more specifically, I was reflecting on the highly combative response to this website's published thoughts on said record.
Yes, I was reflecting on Skillet's Rise.
In particular, there was one commenter that stood out among the dozens of people that voiced their... thoughts... on the record and on the two reviews. I perused all of the comments and saw that this person had asked the same question no fewer than five times in his various posts and comments, in defense of the criticisms against an album that he obviously held in a much higher esteem than the reviews did.
"What were people supposed to expect?"
That got me thinking; how much do our expectations shape what our thoughts of an album are? I could expand the question to encompass even more of the philosophical landscape of life beyond music, but for sake of simplicity and length, I'll leave it at that. Take Skillet as the prime example: to most fans, Rise was either the third or fourth (or, if they were really late to the bandwagon, only the second) Skillet album that they had heard. They knew Skillet as a modern symphonic rock band geared mostly towards difficult problems and life situations of youths and comforting them with nostalgia and encouragement, sometimes even directing their worries and fears towards God. So, of course, they would expect Rise to sound like that! And since they became fans during that era of Skillet's life, they were obviously fans of that "sound" for one reason or another, and so their excitement was directed towards a Skillet album that had generally similar themes (which Rise did). So the final result is an album that, with a little variance here and there and without doing anything too unexpected, satiated the appetites of their biggest fan base (much to the chagrin of the "original panheads" that grumbled about Skillet retreading old ground from Collide and Comatose in Awake and Rise).
But what if Skillet would have made some drastic changes? What if they felt that they wanted to stretch themselves musically and personally? What if they went against all expectations to make the piece of art that they truly felt led to make? What if they would have made a Project 86-like hard rock album instead? Or, what if they made an Anberlin-like alt-rock album? Or they went the Relient K route and made a random pop album? Or a rap album? Or metal? Or folk? That would have surely put a damper in the expectations of those fans, wouldn't it? Especially if their voyage into new territory resulted in floundering. Would any fans buy that album? Would they even still be a fan? Well, many might, but I think most would feel like they had been "betrayed" and leave the bandwagon.
But here is the kicker: what if Skillet had made drastic changes and the resulting album was simply phenomenal? Profound lyrics (if there were any at all). Completely original. Impeccable musicianship. A complete masterpiece in every respect, and far superior to anything they had ever done before. But would the fan reaction be any different?
Of course not.
Maybe some critics would recognize that album for what it is, but the critics have their expectations too. They can feel betrayed too. Same with record labels and others in the music business. The fans and critics and businessmen that recognize the brilliance of the album will stay. The rest will probably move on to things that are more... profitable... in some way, shape, or form. It doesn't matter in the end what the final product is if expectations are not met. In the music business, it is dangerous not to meet them, and can even mean financial suicide. It is the reason why people like Adam Young can take his dazzling project Owl City and turn it into just another pop act. Or why artists like Sanctus Real and Hawk Nelson are now inevitably pigeonholed into one melting pot of contemporary sound. Or even, conversely, why so many more artists nowadays are leaving record labels and record deals and going independent.
So what do we expect bands like Skillet to do?
Make an album that the fans are satisfied with. That is the bottom line. In many cases, particularly with a band as popular as Skillet, it is even the only line. The fact is that so much of music criticism nowadays is simply judging how well a band or album or song met, exceeded, or failed to live up to expectations. I'm guilty of it, and I doubt there is even one person on the JFH staff that also isn't at one time or another.
But it ought not to be this way. The fans don't own the music. Record labels don't make the music. The artists are fully accountable for what they make. There is a reason musicians are called "artists" in the first place; they make art. Art does not include expectations. Expectations are what originally caused Stryper to lose popularity and break up. Art does not include money. Rich Mullins' worldly possessions after he died fit into 80 cubic feet. Good art has a value far beyond money or expectations. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime. Mozart died penniless and was buried in an unmarked mass grave. Larry Norman didn't even have an audience for his music!
At JFH, we try to make it our sole expectation of the artists we review to make great art with creative integrity. We therefore judge and critique music in that light. We believe that by making great art for God, the artists are giving greater glory to God than by simply making something that is merely marketed to glorify God. Yes, these artists are making their living through music. Yes, the songs can potentially be ministry tools, or help someone personally get closer to God. We don't judge that. We can't judge that. If we expect anything else from the artists we review, we will not be fair to the artistic integrity of either that particular artist or other artists.
So what do we expect Skillet to do? Or Relient K? Or Casting Crowns? Or Chris Tomlin? Or For Today? Or (insert your favorite artist name here)? We expect them to make great art with creative integrity, whatever that may look like for that particular artist. And if we don't think they did, it will be adequately reflected as such.
-- Mark Rice, Jesusfreakhideout.com Writer
We recently released the staff's 15 most anticipated music releases from July till the end of the year, and it got me thinking about my own anticipated list for the entirety of 2013 and YOURS as well.
Because it's tough to predict what will come out later in the year, last year we split the "Highlighting" yearly feature into 2 parts -- the first half of the year and the second half. But it's still tough to tell what will come out in which month because releases are always shifting, being delayed, etc.
I decided to personally compile a list of 15 of this year's releases in order from most anticipated (No. 1) on down to the least--but still anticipated, mind you (No. 15). I know many of these are out already, so I went back to the lists I compiled earlier this year when we were voting for the feature -- and before hearing most of them -- and did a quick adjusting of my level of anticipation (meaning: I had two separate lists, so I combined them).
This list does NOT reflect what I thought of how the end product turned out, but it ultimately reflects how much I was/am still looking forward to each release this year.
Please feel free to join in and post YOUR 15 in order in the comments below! :)
#01 = most anticipated
01. Jars of Clay - Inland
02. Switchfoot - Fading West
03. Needtobreathe - untitled
04. Steven Curtis Chapman - The Glorious Unfolding
05. Seabird - Troubled Days
06. Five Iron Frenzy - untitled
07. Guardian - Almost Home
08. Plumb - Need You Now
09. Tal & Acacia - Black & White
10. Eisley - Currents
11. The Fold - Moving Past
12. Audio Adrenaline - Kings and Queens
13. Skillet - Rise
14. Relient K - Collapsible Lung
15. Fiction Family - Family Reunion
Every true music fan can probably relate to the feeling of anticipation when there's new music from your favorite band on the horizon. There was once a time when we absolutely had to wait until a specific date for the new music to hit stores in the form of a tape or CD (and for others, vinyl, 8 track, etc). Some of us even had to hunt down a copy – travel from store to store to track down that exciting new album. Then we either listened to it for the first time on the drive home, or had to wait till we were back at home or at a friend’s house to free the album from its shrink-wrapped bonds and finally get to enjoy the sweet (and sometimes not-so-sweet) new sounds. Today, we can wait till midnight and download the album’s music at our computers or onto our phones and portable listening devices, or – for the less honest of you – download it illegally from some unauthorized, unapproved source who has leaked it, and get to listen to it even sooner (But that’s not what this blog is about).
What do we do once we’ve spun the album several times and listen to it for a few days (or weeks or months)? We wonder what’s next. When will the new album be out? How about an EP? A live album? A remix album? A Christmas album? An acoustic album? A covers album? A worship album? A worship covers album? A live worship album? A b-sides album? Cool. What next? A follow-up to that last album that was awesome/OK/had a couple good songs/disappointing/too short/too long/impossible to find/a really expensive drink coaster?
I can imagine that the question about a new album for an artist is much like that those that a young couple might get after they get together. Soon, a person sporting a goofy grin inquires, “Soooo… when you two crazy kids getting’ married?” And then, on their wedding day they ask, “Soooo… when can we expect a little one running around?” And not a few seconds after said little one pops out and takes its first breath, the same creepy person Tweets you, “Soooo… when can we expect number two??”
I think it all boils down to— music fans are never satisfied. Till the day the artist is planted six feet under, there will be at least one person on God’s green earth expecting new music from that artist. As an aging music fan myself, I often will revisit some of my favorite Christian music releases in the 90s with very fond memories and listen to them because, well, I love them. And to me, they sound good. I could care less if there’s some kind of ‘cool’ factor I’m desecrating by indulging in what, to me, are some of the most enjoyable things my ears have heard. Who cares what other people think you should listen to. Listen to what you like. The end. But, alas, I digress…
Back to the topic: So, my thoughts often drift to… “I wonder what ____ is up to these days?” “Wouldn’t it be great if _____ [got back together and] put out a new album?” And the funniest thing is, if and when said artist does put out new music, we fans are excited and just have to wonder (and often wonder aloud) “So what’s next?” That has to be frustrating for the artist. I mean, this isn’t limited to just music either. Yesterday, Iron Man 3 hit theaters and everyone’s asking about Iron Man 4 or Avengers 2. And as a movie fan as well, I have to admit I’ve had the same thoughts. But I actually can relate, on some level, to the artist and what they must feel when fans are just plain insatiable. JFH has put out 2 free compilations now and it hasn’t been long after each before people ask about the next volume. And, as a site, we’re frequently asked about what’s new that we’re doing. What’s next? And, beyond JFH and music, I could work on a new drawing of something and show it to people and a lot of people have their ideas of what I should do next (sometimes a list! Ha).
So what point am I trying to make? I guess this is just something I’ve been thinking about recently after listening to some of my favorite music and wondering when we might have new material from them soon (or if ever). I suppose I just want us, collectively as music fans and listeners to be mindful of this demanding nature and to perhaps even count what we DO have as blessings and truly enjoy it, because, at the end of the day, we might be all too focused on what’s next; how about we be grateful for what we’ve been given before and presently! I know it’s something I can work better on myself.
In completely coincidental fashion, I just blogged recently about my struggles with being a "music collector" and one problem I've had in recent years--with everything moving the way of the exclusively digital--is that I often miss having the CD and artwork when I buy an album on iTunes or some similar digital music outlet. In fact, I often will want to buy a CD but wish I could have the music immediately like you can with a purchase via iTunes or AmazonMP3. Thanks to digital retailers, we don't have to wait in line at a music store or try to hunt down a CD the day it comes out. Now we can just purchase and download it at midnight on release day! All is right with the world.
I love how some indie artists will allow you to order a CD or vinyl album from their website and then email you the album digitally right away too. That, my friends, is the way to do it. Heck -- I've seen some artists send full digital albums weeks in advance if you just simply preorder it (This method threatens albums to be "leaked" by insensitive and irresponsible music listeners--ruining it for the artist and the fans alike--but I digress...)
Just today I was perusing Amazon.com, like I tend to daily--I'm kind of addicted to their store, sales, and selections (I admit it. haha)--but, in all honesty, I was grabbing a link for our reader review page of Sanctus Real's Pieces Of Our Past: The Sanctus Real Anthology when I saw this interesting little graphic:
Uhhh... AutoRip? Could that be what I think it is? Sure enough -- and I swear I'm writing this as nothing more than an elated fan and don't mean to sound like a commercial -- AutoRip is just what it sounds like. If you buy select CD's (like, actual physical compact discs) that display that "AutoRip" logo on the page, they'll give you the mp3 download IMMEDIATELY... for FREE! According to the instructional video on their website, if you've bought any music on Amazon since 1998 that is eligible for this program, they're including it in your Amazon Cloud player too.
Again, I can't help but geek out about this. I've always wished you could just instantly get a digital copy of your music when you order the physical disc online and I'm stoked to see a big online retailer like Amazon.com has debuted this option.
Now... if we could only just get free Kindle books with a paperback purchase (...hey! how about applying that "any purchase since 1998" gig to books too!) and maybe even digital movies (OK, I'm getting greedy here)... ;)
Does this AutoRip feature excite anyone else?
I was organizing some CD's on my shelf this afternoon, making room for new stuff, and a thought came to mind... It's awfully hard to NOT be a music collector sometimes. It's no secret that we get sent a lot of our music for review purposes, and these days it's almost always a stream or mp3s and not physical CD's, but I come from a generation where we bought our music in a physical form of some kind -- we got artwork on a disc and cover artwork, lyrics to pour over, etc. So even now, even if I have the music already in digital form, I often like to still collect the CD's and even vinyls from my favorite artists. This requires the "music collector" to buy music once, twice, sometimes more to "collect" everything available. (Like those artists with special editions exclusive to different retailers? That's just MEAN to the collector!)
I'll find myself at the merch table of a favorite artist or on their website, staring at that "limited edition EP" or "limited edition vinyl" release that contains music I already own and something nags inside:
"You gotta get this. You gotta get it now or never."
The rational mind shoots back, "But I have this already. Is there a better way to spend this $10.00?"
You find yourself looking up at the t-shirts at the merch table -- there's something you don't already have. But your music collector instinct pushes your gaze downward towards that special EP that's not available anywhere but at this artist's live show.
"I don't even really like that song," you tell yourself.
"But it's a collector's item! If you don't get it now, it'll be $75.00 on eBay in a couple months."
"...or 75 cents."
I realize this is an exaggerated (even silly) example, but I know there are others like me out there -- others who don't need that dang physical EP CD or limited edition vinyl but for some reason have GOT to have it.
Let me hear you, music collectors! Any other fans out there who can relate?
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 2012!
So, please feel free to post a top 10 album list of 2012 in a format similar to below. I'll post my 2012 album picks as an example...
- Wait for the Siren, Project 86
- The Peace of Wild Things, Paper Route
- Vital, Anberlin
- Cold Hard Want, House of Heroes
- O God Save Us All, Disciple
- New Horizons, Flyleaf
- Lost in Transition, Sixpence None the Richer
- The Quiet Life, Anchor & Braille
- Resuscitate, Remedy Drive
- The End Is Where We Begin, Thousand Foot Krutch
Thanks for sharing! We look forward to reading your picks of 2012 -- and happy new year!
~ John DiBiase
I'm going to go out on a limb here with a blog post that's a little random and probably out of left field.
I love Christmas -- there's the timely, relevant part. My mind is wired to start feeling like a kid again around the holidays. Christmas music triggers all kinds of memories -- a single song segment can transport me to a young age when G.I. Joe figures were the treasures masked by festive paper that just needed to be shredded by anxious fingers. And just as memory-jogging are distinct smells -- like that of pine or cookies baking in the oven and the cold December night air. I love it all. Call me Mr. Sentimental and it wouldn't be far from the truth.
Believe it or not, with JFH approaching its 17th year in existence in 2013, there was a time -- wait for it -- when I wasn't running JFH. There was actually a time when I was just your average kid who loved Christian music and would get Christian music CD's for Christmas and birthday gifts. This was an age before the dawn of JFH and before we started receiving free review copies of most of the major releases (and then some). There's something special about buying your own music or being gifted a most anticipated album for Christmas.
And that is where this blog is coming from.
I have a couple of fun Christmas memories involving "CCM" (Contemporary Christian Music, as it were) gifts, and my absolute favorite memory was in 1994. I knew very well that the "newest" CD from a pop rock band called PFR was about to release, but it wasn't hitting stores until December 27 -- otherwise known as two days AFTER Christmas. So, you can imagine my--and my older brother's--surprise when we unwrapped a copy of PFR's Great Lengths ON Christmas morning! This was a time when I was young and naive enough not to know that music was even remotely obtainable outside of the exact "release date." That, and I never knew -- until a few years later -- that there were even things such as "pre-releases" (go figure!). But with elated faces frozen in amazement, we asked our parents how they could have worked this kind of magic to get an album several days early. It turned out that our local Christian bookstore had put out a couple copies of PFR's Great Lengths on their shelves early -- and my parents just happened to be there when they had a couple copies out. It was a Christmas miracle in our eyes.
So, with that little trip down memory lane, I want to know -- Do you have a favorite Christian music-related Christmas memory? Did you get anything special from someone that involved a favorite artist or album? I'd love to hear it!
...and Merry Christmas! :)
~ John DiBiase