I wrote the song Here because of my cell phone.
Strange, I know. Here’s how it happened:
I have a pretty casual morning routine. Making coffee, tidying up. These are rituals which prepare me to think, read scripture, pray and write.
I sit down in my beloved chair, Bible and coffee within reach, the morning light beginning to stream through the windows, creation awakening, my mind a blank slate for the Spirit to direct, so I can open up...
Calendar, Weather, Map location…
The morning spent, the moment lost. The coffee was now empty and of course, I needed to be somewhere. Oops!
I rush to get ready and speed out the door to wherever. You can almost imagine God sitting in the room like, “I thought we were going to spend time together?” much to His disappointment.
It wasn’t always like this. At some point, I had justified this sort of behavior - using my phone as a first step in the morning to wake up, instead of immediately going to God in prayer or scripture - whatever prompted that change is history now.
I'm always searching for distraction
By desire I'm consumed
I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this struggle- how to best use technology. The majority of us probably think we're the ones consuming - using these apps to make our lives better and more efficient. Instead, it works the other way around. Our desires are used against us. We're the ones being consumed.
These desires are sometimes difficult to channel. Too often, we let them define us. Eventually, we become what we desire.
You’re always fighting for my attention
To show me life I cannot lose
There’s a book that was recently published called You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. The title alone is thought provoking enough. It’s true. Our lives tend to resemble the things we love. And it affects our worship. Listen to how Smith defines in more detail- the battle for our attention, our loves and longings:
Christian worship, we should recognize, is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life.
My “rival liturgy” – smart phone - had certainly confused the good life God intended for me- the invitation to spend time with Him daily. Allowing my desires to be shaped by the Spirit. That’s the worship I deeply desired.
Instead my warped routine lasted for I don't know how long. Maybe it was weeks. Maybe it was months.
Finally, one morning, I got sick of it. I opened the scriptures again, as I had always done for years, beginning with the next Psalm that my Bible bookmarked for me...
“My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”
The Spirit had all my attention at this point. I sat quietly, as a child being held in the arms of God. No prayer, just silence, calm, and contentment.
Hold me here like a child in Your arms
Calm my mind
Keep still my rushing heart
I rarely allow myself to be in this sort of place. This was a less-frequented room in God's palace of wonder - taking me deeper into the life that is truly life. This is the space where, like a child or a loved one, you just enjoy the presence of each other. No words needed to be exchanged. A sort of unspoken adoration and belonging.
In his book Hearing God, Dallas Willard describes this type of occurrence, “Even at the merely human level, one of the highest forms of communication is that kind of communion in which no overt word is needed or wanted”, and it’s in this silent union we find “a life constantly before him in this world and the next.” We’re invited into a holy eternal presence of the Father.
All my fears come fleeing out
As all my walls come crashing down
My heart now beating at the rhythm it was intended to. Eventually, there was some dialogue. I was vulnerable at this point, so it was easier to pray deeply.
The cares of this world were secondary and easier to distinguish their meaning. My prayers were led by the Spirit, which helped me focus and intercede on what mattered most. Heaven, the space where God dwells, was invading my life, I had entered His holy place, surrounded by the faint and beautiful song.
I hear the music of my home
No better word for it.
That’s when I heard it: The melody, the song, the rhythm and instrumentation.
I quickly grabbed my phone.
That same phone that provided so many distractions before. This time, I used it to write down what had happened. A guided meditation, I suppose. The words flowed quickly.
The song that brought us “Here.”
Smith, James K. A. You are what you love: the spiritual power of habit. Grand Rapids, MI, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016.
Willard, Dallas. Hearing God. Downers Grove, IL., InterVasity Press, 1991.
Currey, Mason. Daily rituals: how artist work. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
I’ve been writing songs for 20 years now. I’ve spent most of my life putting one note in front of another note - trying to console an age old ache that echoes in the deepest chambers of my heart. These songs, at least at this point in my life, have become the most valuable thing I own. How am I going to invest the currency of my music? What will I spend it on? A more important question - how will I invest the currency of my life? What will I spend it on?
An ancient prophet named Isaiah said “if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
What will we spend ourselves on? The currency of our time, our art, our moral capital - what will we spend it on? Our youth, our privilege, our platform, our creativity, our moral capital, our political capital - what will we spend it on? What if we spend ourselves on the needs of the oppressed and on behalf of the marginalized? What if we used our voice to amplify the voices of those whose voices have been drowned out? To speak truth in the halls of power where the lives of the most vulnerable among us are trampled underfoot by the special interests of powerful corporations?
You might be thinking “but I’m only one voice”. So am I. One voice in the wilderness. One voice crying out at 110dB. We have to be humble enough to believe our own unique voice matters in the mosaic of the kingdom. It seems naive. It seems so childish. But maybe it’s childlike. Maybe it’s like a kid with a few fish and five loaves of bread in the face of probable ridicule. I’ll stand on the edge of the abyss and celebrate the small corner that I’m able to tear off the darkness. Even when it feels foolish to maintain hope - we will push back on the shadow in the twilight.
You might be thinking “how can we really make a difference? - we’re up against such corruption”. I see it. I look into the iron teeth of corruption on a regular basis. Our work with The Exodus Road exposing sex trafficking puts me in close contact with mafias and gangs in cahoots with corrupt government officials and law enforcement. It makes you want to give up at times. But here’s the thing about corruption - even iron rusts and turns to power eventually - in fact, by it’s very nature it will pass away. That’s what corruption is. Something that won’t last.
Your selfless actions, on the other hand, will last forever. There is an enduring quality to something that is done on behalf of someone else. Laying down my rights and my time for the interests of the most marginalized and vulnerable in our society is the whole point of the good news (at least the way Jesus from Nazareth talked about it). “I’ve been anointed to proclaim good news for poor people”, he said. “To proclaim freedom to the captives, liberty to the prisoners and a restoration of dignity to the oppressed, the crushed and the downtrodden”. There is not a love that exceeds a life that is laid down. The only way to find this life, the only way to tap into it is to lose your life.
The design is not flawed. We’ve just fallen so far short of the glorious purpose for which we were intended. The goodness - the bravery - the courage - the selflessness - it already exists inside of you. It’s there - but for most of us it’s just buried under an avalanche of fear, the cares of world, and the idolatry of safety and comfort.
The fear is real. I recognize that. But courage is moving forward in the face of fear. Your courageous actions will be contagious. People will look at your selflessness and get creative - they will ask themselves “how can I do something similar to what she is doing?” Ripples turn to tidal waves. As we join the rising tide of ordinary people who are not willing to look the other way when we have come in contact with such emergencies in the arenas of mercy, justice, freedom and compassion.
I’m using my rock band to shine a light on slavery and injustice. I’m using my time and my resources to volunteer as an undercover operative with a counter trafficking organization called The Exodus Road. Your contribution will be different than mine as your voice is different. But you have a unique contribution to make. It might become your life’s work. It might cost you your life. But you only have one life to live. What will you spend it on?
"What will we spend it on
And when we’re gone
In ages to come
The sages will write
“So raged the bearers of the light
So waged the few with all their might
Against the terrors of the night
With no sight in view
From the depths to the heights”
-David Zach, Remedy Drive
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