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.
Fun to read your thinking behind including each of these albums. Was that a potshot at Skillet in the intro? I wish you'd talked more about Jars' album instead of your love for them from the early days. How is including AA in the top 10 "nostalgic" if they aren't even AA anymore? And yes, Stryper amazingly put out their best album ever - I for one think it exceeds THWTD because it's quite a bit more mature -- could have done without Sticks & Stones and maybe even Water Into Wine, though.
Again, thanks for the analysis!
Michael -- I meant that you said "Reviewing some albums can honestly be a chore. When you get ahold of a weaker album -- I will not mention any names -- itís tough to keep listening in order to give it a fair shake" in your analysis of The Almost's offering.
"After the Fight" took awhile to grow on me... love it now, though. My top is probably "Reckless Forgiver" though.
Thanks for the reply, cheers! Have a great New Year's celebration!
For the record, I am not anti-Skillet, nor am I pro-Skillet. Much like jfh, I have found their last two albums to be disappointing. Like, the reviews on Awake and Rise have been my thoughts exactly! That's why I thought maybe you were talking about them.
Actually I won't even check to see what album you were talking about... but I can understand what you mean. Some albums seem to have been made with little to no thought behind them. (And I'm not talking about Skillet, either -- I genuinely believe they tried, but they fell quite short is all.)
Alive as a follow-up to Comatose, to me, is akin to In God We Trust as a follow-up to To Hell With the Devil. If it were not a follow-up album, if it stood on its own, it would be a decent album. But it just sounds too much like its predecessor to excite true fans of the band and of music.