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JFH Staff Blog | ...where the staff speak their minds

Thursday, February 22, 2018

'A Different Light,' by Mark Bishop

It must be amazing to win an Oscar or a Grammy. Imagine being an actor or actress or singer or musician, beloved by so many adoring fans already, and to be in a room with all of your peers who love the same craft that you do and to hear your name called out above all others as the best of the best. After all those years of hard work, at last, the spotlight is on you. The applause makes your heart swell with overwhelming joy. Life is good. You’ve been recognized. Your agent can ask for more money.
Imagine the adrenaline of finishing a NASCAR race in first place with thousands of fans cheering… roaring. The champagne cascades as you are hoisted up on the shoulders of your hardworking crew. Imagine cutting down the nets. Imagine winning the gold medal.
If you’re daydreaming, that can be a fun place to spend a few seconds, imagining that elation. They worked hard… they earned it… you’re happy for them and in their happiness, you see a place that you would like to be, if only for a while. It must be truly fantastic to see a distant light, to follow it and to finally arrive at some long-sought-after destination. It’s time to bask in that light, at long last, and to be fulfilled. 
That’s what happens, right? After traveling so far… after sacrificing so much… our search would be over. Why else would we invest our very souls into something so deeply if it wasn’t to achieve fulfillment? There’s the light. I went to it. Mission completed.
Well, the answer to that my friend depends upon the stars that you are following. Not all lights are created equal. There is a well-known metaphor that comes to mind about the moth being drawn to the flame. There is another about the light at the end of the tunnel being an oncoming train. The truth is, our ambitions, while laudable with the right perspective, can easily lead us to a place far from anything ultimately fulfilling. The gossip blogs and magazines are filled with famous people who had it all and their lives careened out of control after they achieved their successes. You would think that having it all would virtually guarantee inner peace. And yet, the very pinnacles of success as measured by today’s society and popular culture leave those who achieve it still empty and longing for something more. They followed their light and in the end, it only let them down. That’s why so many famous people become activists in areas other than their own profession. The prize they attained was hollow and didn’t fill the void like they thought it would so now they must begin the search anew. They begin to search for another light… a different light.
To paraphrase the 1980’s band The Human League…We are only human; born to make mistakes. When the light we follow lets us down, we choose another light to follow and usually, striving within our own whims, that choice is no better. So how do we know that there is a target worth striving for? Is there a light that we can follow that won’t leave us cold in the end? Well as a matter of fact, there is a book, said to be an ancient sacred text, that contains the account of a man who offered a different light that men and women everywhere, of every walk of life could follow to find fulfillment. His story predates even the actual printing of books as we know them and even though there have millions and millions of books printed throughout the history of books, this one seems to speak to our life circumstances, even in modern times, better than any collected text ever has. In it, a man named Jesus said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Wow… could it be that easy? Isn’t that exactly what we have been looking for? The light of life? Something truly fulfilling? Something that somehow fills the void we fill in our hearts and that doesn’t meet us at the finish line with cold neon or fluorescent fake-ness? Just think about some of the people who followed their light and attained it all only to find it was just click-bait in the end. Without naming names, we can all think of celebrities that reached the pinnacle and self-destructed. How empty it must be to hold something you once thought valuable and realize that it doesn’t live up to the hype.  At this point, you have to be asking yourself, is there anything that’s the real deal?
Jesus said in Ephesians 5:14 “Wake up sleeper! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you.”
There’s your good morning wake-up call.
We are a world of followers, even those who lead.  We are all adherents to something.  There is a light that we all look to. The path we are on leads somewhere. Everyone that you come into contact with is a believer, in something. Since most of those roads are all dead ends, why not show them something that works. Be a burning light in a sea of neon lights.
Be a different light.
-Mark Bishop
Mark Bishop is a Dove Award-winning Christian Music artist and writer with a brand new recording entitled “A Different Light”. Classified as mostly traditional in style, the lyrics and music speak to God’s bigness in everyday happenstance. You can find the new album across all platforms here.


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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Here by Michael Hughes Watson

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...



News Feed.


(text message)


Sports News.


(text message)

Calendar, Weather, Map location…

The morning spent, the moment lost. The coffee was now empty and of course, I needed to be somewhere. Oops!


(text message)


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...

Psalm 131


“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.

Further reading...

Currey, Mason. Daily rituals: how artist work. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

What Will You Spend Your Life On? by Remedy Drive

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 



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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

David Craft’s Top Ten Songs and Albums of 2017

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…

  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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.


  1. 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:

  1. Wavorly – Movement One
  2. Hands – New Heaven/New Earth
  3. The Gloomcatcher – Blade in the Belfry
  4. John Reuben - Reubonic
  5. Seth Davey – Till You’re All I See
  6. Blank Books – EP 1
  7. Manafest - Stones
  8. MC Jin – Nobody’s Listening
  9. Aaron Sprinkle – Real Life
  10. Nichole Nordeman – Every Mile Mattered


Top Ten Songs:

  1. New Earth – Hands
  2. I Can't Sing It Loud Enough – Seth Davey
  3. We Live Best – John Reuben
  4. Breathing Underwater – Blank Books
  5. Marina – The Gloomcatcher
  6. Let you Down – NF
  7. Coming Back – Manafest
  8. Gasoline – Falling Up
  9. God’s Not Done with You (Original Demo) – Tauren Wells
  10. Still Alive (Looking for a Reason) – Red



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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Scott Fryberger's Top Ten Albums of 2017

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.


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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Christian Life Lessons from 'Star Wars - The Last Jedi' (Spoiler Warning)

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


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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Nicole's Top Ten Albums of 2017

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



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Sunday, December 31, 2017

John Underdown's Top Ten Albums and Songs of 2017

John Underdown's Top Ten Albums and Songs of 2017

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

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

1.       Colony House- Only the Lonely

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


2.       John Mark McMillan- Mercury and Lightning

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


3.       Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors- Souvenir

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

4.       12 Stones- Picture Perfect

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


5.       Matt Redman- Glory Song

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


6.       Daniel Bashta- My Resurrection (Live)

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


7.       Loud Harp- Hope Where There was None

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


8.       The Little Roy and Lizzy Show- Going Home

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


9.       Army of Bones- Army of Bones

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


10.   Young Fox- Sky Beats Gold

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


Top 10 Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--John Underdown




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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christopher Smith's Top Ten Albums of 2017

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



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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Josh Balogh's Top Ten Albums And Songs of 2017

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

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

1. John Mark McMillan - Mercury & Lightning 

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

2. Propaganda - Crooked

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

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

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

4. Army of Bones - Self Titled

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

5. Colony House - Only the Lonely

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

6. Third Day
- Revival 

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

7. Beautiful Eulogy
- Worthy 

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

8. Nichole Nordeman - Every Mile Mattered

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

9. Iron Bell Music - God That Saves

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

10. MercyMe - Lifer

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


Top Ten Favorite Songs: 

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

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

-- Josh Balogh

Honorable Mentions:

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


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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Alex Caldwell's Top Ten Albums And Songs Of 2017

Crooked, Yet Still Fumbling Towards The Light 

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

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

“O Lord, what will I do…”

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



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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

12 Albums 20 Years Later - by Josh Balogh

12 Albums 20 Years Later
 - by Josh Balogh

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

12. MercyMe - Traces of Rain 


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

11. Delirious?King of Fools

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

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

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


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

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

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

5. SwitchfootThe Legend of Chin

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

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

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

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

1. Jars of ClayMuch Afraid

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

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



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Saturday, October 7, 2017

'Music as Privilege,' by Mark Nicks of Cool Hand Luke


For almost 20 years, I have been making music with a band called Cool Hand Luke. For about 9 of those years, CHL was a more or less full-time pursuit — it was my main priority and source of income. We toured as much as possible, and when we were off the road we tried to be writing or recording. But even when things were at their best, we all had a part time job of some sort to make ends meet when CHL wasn’t touring.

Over time, band members changed, the music industry dramatically changed, and I got married and had more financial responsibility. I’m not a professional musician anymore. The fact is, I don’t know how to make a living doing music, and I never honestly did. I was always the dreamer with artistic vision, but very little understanding of what needed to happen logistically to get people to actually hear our music. The biggest thing that changed from when it worked to when it didn’t is that CHL used to be a team: a band, a label, pr, management, etc. Now it’s just me.

When I think back to when it worked the best, it was in the early 2000’s—back before the digital revolution. People still went to stores to buy CD’s. For us, here is why we could make it work: 

1) We were equally invested. We all ate, slept, and breathed CHL. We practiced a ton, wrote together, and talked about our dreams and hopes for the band constantly.

2None of us needed to make a lot of money from the band. We all still lived with our parents, which made sense because we were gone so often. Because we were so invested in the band, the success of the band was more important to us than our individual incomes.

3We each had different gifts. Our guitar player, Jason, was very pragmatic and business-minded — he set up our LLC and had a lawyer negotiate our record deal. He was good at figuring things out, like when the van broke down in the middle of nowhere. Brandon, the bass player, is an amazing artist, so he handled all of our merch, branding, web stuff, and album covers. He also handled all of our mail orders back then. In addition, Brandon and Jason were very, very good at their instruments and we all contributed equally to songwriting. They are two of the best musicians I have ever played with. I was the visionary. I obsessed with music in general, as well as books, art, and film. I drove the artistic and idealistic vision of CHL as time went on. I wrote the lyrics, and I was also the singer, which ended up making me the communicator. I really got to hone that craft as I became the spokesman for the band both on and off stage.

4We had hope. We really believed that our band could be important. We believed that what we were doing mattered. We really believed that if we worked hard and had integrity, that it would pay off. We believed that we could make Cool Hand Luke into a sustainable career.

5We all saw the band as ministry. Before we first played a note together, we prayed. We prayed about almost every decision we made. We saw what we did as far more than entertainment. We wrote songs about our faith and our experience as humans relating to God. We believed that the gospel was better than what we had to offer, so we offered the gospel. Every single time we played, we talked about Jesus, whether we were in a bar or a youth room at a church. We believed that God was our provider and His glory was a greater goal than fame or fortune.

 Over time, those dynamics changed, band members came and went, our label went under, we parted ways with management, and after a while it was just me. I can look back and tell you hundreds of things that I should have done or could have done or should have remembered. But I just didn’t know how to do everything.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think that Cool Hand Luke’s music went downhill. I think I just had no idea how to get people to hear the music we were making. I couldn’t wear all the hats and spin all the plates necessary to fill the spaces of the old teammates. So, after a couple years of playing the victim and waiting for someone to rescue Cool Hand Luke, I gave up.

In 2011, Cool Hand Luke released what I had planned on being our final album, and my wife and I left Nashville to move to Orlando for seminary. I was in seminary for four years, and I received a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Counseling. People ask me what the best thing I learned in seminary was. I guess they’re expecting me to talk about Hebrew or systematic theology. But the greatest thing I learned was to like myself.

It took a long time to get there. As I put music aside and became a student, God started revealing my heart to me. What I saw was that I was eaten up with envy for other people who had “made it” in music. Peers, friends, bands we used to tour with, etc. It killed me to see them doing the things I had always dreamed of doing. I didn’t want to be memorizing Greek — I wanted to be doing that. I think I felt that God owed me one for all of my years of hard work and devotion.

What this all stirred up in me was shame. Not like the voice of the Holy Spirit calling me away from envy. No, it was a different voice. The voice of shame was telling me I was a failure, that I was a fake, that nothing I had done with CHL really mattered, that I wasn’t a real musician, and pretty soon everyone would figure out I didn’t belong in seminary either.

Those were all lies, of course, because the voice of shame—the voice of the enemy—always lies. I didn’t start to realize what was happening until I started the counseling program and someone asked me a simple, profound question. “Do you like yourself?” I didn’t have an answer. Actually, I did have an answer, but I didn’t want to tell the director of the counseling clinic that I didn’t like myself. The thought had never occurred to me.

After all those nights of talking about the gospel of grace on stage, in a host family’s kitchen, in interviews, in papers, in sermons, I was facing the fact that I didn’t know how to receive grace myself. When I started seminary, I thought that humility was saying that I suck at everything, deflecting comments, and talking about how broken I am.

What I began to learn is that God created all of us with purpose, passion, and gifts. And, yes, absolutely I am broken. But that is not who I will be when Jesus returns and makes all things new. The things that God knit in me from before the foundations of the earth will remain true. So, I don’t have to say that I suck at something that God knit in me. I began to focus on God’s image in me more than I focused my own sin.

I do not mean in anyway to minimize sin. Our sin is such an immense problem that our Savior died to free us from it. I still do battle with my sin and the lies of the old man daily. The thing is, sin will not always be there, but God’s design will be. I am no longer a slave to sin, so I don’t have to focus on that old master anymore. Little by little, as I learned more about myself and learned more about God, I began to like who I am. It’s still a work in progress, and I imagine it always will be until the Day of the Lord.

I am still well aware of what I am not and the gifts that God did not give me. I’m not good at business, marketing, math, and taxes. But you know what I’m good at? Relationships. I love people. I love hearing their stories. I love learning about them. I love teaching them, preaching to them, and shining the light of the gospel into their lives. That is a gift and desire God knit in me.

So, now I am a full time mental health counselor, and I also do some producing at a studio here in Orlando called Parafonic Recording Studio. (That’s where I recorded the new Cool Hand Luke album, Cora.) If I get to play music at all anymore, it is a privilege. I wish it could be something that I pour more of my time into, but I’m thankful for what I get to do. I hope to keep creating CHL music in one way or another, and I hope to do it more frequently.

I am incredibly grateful that God has still given me the opportunity to create and that I still have people who care. That's all I've ever really wanted. I have realized that not everyone gets to do what they love for a living, and that's okay. You just still have to do the things that give you life, even if it's in small increments. Writing and recording has been very fun and life-giving for me, and I'm excited to share it with the world.  

Even though creating this new record has been fun, it has felt like a risk from start to finish. Will anyone still care? Will the music I write be relevant anymore? Will this seem like the sad attempt of a has-been? See, that’s the voice of shame rising up again. The difference is that now, I’m learning to risk. Back when I was young and single, when the music industry started to change, I wanted to keep my head down and keep doing what I had always done. That required no risk at all, and it yielded frustration rather than fruit. Risk always requires doing something different, and there is never a guarantee that it will succeed. But I am convinced that when we look over our lives, we won’t regret things that we failed at. We will regret the things that we were too afraid to try.

-by Mark Nicks of Cool Hand Luke


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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Up From The Ashes - A JFH Exclusive Devotional Written by Urban Rescue

The heart is sacred. It’s the centerpiece of who we are as human beings and core of everything we do. Scripture tells us that out of the “overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Jesus reminds us that it’s not what goes into a person that makes her unclean, but rather what comes out. In other words, the heart is less like a river, and more like a cistern, a deep fountain from which the inner self expresses our true nature outwardly.

It’s easy to disguise our hearts by focusing on our exterior lives. We’ve become professionals in decorating our outward self and presenting it squeaky clean not only to God, but to everyone around us. We mask our secret thoughts, hidden motives, and personal disappointments - even to ourselves. “The heart is deceitful above all things, who can know it?”

God doesn’t focus on the exterior life. He studies the heart. Above all things God is in constant pursuit of the human heart because He knows the greatest secret of all: The moment He has your heart, He has you.

A friend recently went through a year of chemotherapy and the subsequent recovery only to find out months later that the cancer had returned more aggressively. He described the news like crossing the finish line of a marathon, only to discover the finish line had been pushed back more miles.

That kind of news can not only hurt, but cripple the heart. It’s in those moments of devastation when we discover the type stuff our hearts are truly made of; who we really are.

I'll never claim to fully understand how God works in the world. I’ll never claim to know His thoughts, for His ways are higher than my ways. But I do know God will do anything to capture and re-capture your heart. I sometimes wonder in those moments of devastation, when we’ve finally crossed the finish line, if God allows the threshold to be pushed back, just to re-capture our hearts - just to make us little bit more like Jesus. It’s the in ashes that God is able to transform, heal, and create something even more beautiful than before.

Maybe you’re in the fire right now. Maybe you just got out of the fire but you’re praying, longing, and waiting in the ashes. It’s up from the ashes that God is doing his most beautiful work. It’s in these times that God wants your heart. His desire is to spring up like a deep well from within you, starting from the inside. Once He has your heart, He has it all.

 -Jordan Frye, Urban Rescue




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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Music at the Drop of A Needle - A Love Letter to Vinyl

We live in a world today where music is all around us and almost any possible song, album or tune is available at the drop of a hat. This is wonderfully convenient and we are lucky to have all of this digital technology around us, but isn't there something inherently organic about listening to tracks on vinyl? There is this warm energy and sense of rawness that vinyl records produce that is almost indescribable that digital ones just don't have.

I love seeing live music and going to shows. Whether it be a major star at an amphitheater, someone playing at a bar or smaller venue, or even local artists playing downtown on the sidewalks. I love seeing an artist portray his or her craft to the audience. There is a certain kind of closeness you feel when you see a musician perform live and in person. When I can't make it to shows or concerts, there is only one other place to feel this closeness, and that is on a vinyl record. I listen to vinyl records almost every day; it is my preferred method of listening to music.

Of course I still purchase CDs and do use iTunes for digital purchases--it is almost impossible not to. Digital music is a powerhouse in the industry today. Almost anyone with a computer can create music if they wanted to and I think this is fantastic. Music is the best way for an artist to express to listeners what they are going through. Their pain, bitterness, happiness, etc.; it is a perfect outlet and can be very therapeutic. However, digital recordings just seem to take away from the authenticity of these sentiments. If an artist is hurt, you can feel that hurt on vinyl. If an artist is smiling, you can feel that smile on vinyl. The feelings are just more genuine. Now I know not every single artist out there has the ability to produce vinyl records and that is okay, we are still listening! Keep doing what you are doing.

But I think part of it is that there is just a simplicity to analog recording that makes it so beautiful. When an artist or band records an album meant for vinyl--generally this happens in a recording studio--the sound produced in the studio is transferred to a tape called the master recording. It is then ready to be transferred to a lacquer. A lacquer is placed on a special machine designed to take electric signals from the master recording and engrave a channel or groove into the lacquer as it rotates on the special record cutting machine -- hence the spiral-looking design on a vinyl LP. This lacquer is then sent to the production company for mass pressings of the vinyl record. A metal stamp is made from the lacquer by taking a mold from the grooves on the lacquer and then used in a hydraulic press to create the finished product. Now you can stick the finished record on a record player, drop the needle and enjoy!

Digital recording is a bit different. In digital recording, you are basically converting a sound wave into numbers to create a replica of the played sound. The sound waves travel through an analog to digital converter to convert the soundwaves into a number sequence and is then sent through a digital-to-analog converter to change the number sequence back into a soundwave for listening purposes. Seems tricky right? It is. Though digital recording makes it easier for any musician with a laptop and recording software to make music, it is easy to lose the music's sincerity with all of the conversions. Digital music is great because it makes it easier to store, transfer and listen to music, it is however a tad inorganic.

If you have not listened to a song or artist you enjoy on vinyl before reading this, I urge you to do so. Find a cheap record player or ask around if you do not have one and drop that needle. Whether you are a huge music guru or not, it will transcend you. It will be like listening to your favorite song for the first time but better. You will hear the songs in a way that will make you think differently and it may inspire you make your own art. No mater how you look at it, digital music and technology will continue to advance and that is a good thing. However, vinyl is still being produced for a reason and I strongly encourage you to do your ears a favor and listen to a vinyl record.

- Jessica Kane is a writer for SoundStage Direct, the number online source for the best vinyl records and turntables.


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Friday, April 14, 2017

Alex's Top 20 Albums Over 20 Years Old - Jars Of Clay's Self Titled First Album

Image result for jars of clay album art

Jars Of Clay And The Art Of The Resurrection

“Arms nailed down 
Are you telling me something? 
Eyes turned out 
Are you looking for someone?”
                                           - “Liquid” by Jars Of Clay

Having grown up in the Church, I’ve seen both the best of what a life of faith can bring (love and forgiveness, hope and healing, purpose) and the worst of what Bad Religion can produce (guilt, suspicion, pride, paranoia, divisiveness, hate).
It’s taken me a lifetime to sort out what is true faith in Christ, and what is the nonsense and man-made garbage that get’s added to the mix. Sorting through the two, with the help of scripture and the Holy Spirit, is sort of like picking the lint out of the dryer vent. The nonsense clogs the witness of God’s people, and thankfully the Lord and His plan is bigger than all the sand we humans can throw into the engine. Even at our brightest, we are a dim bulb in shining the light of God’s grace to a hurting world. And yet, mysteriously, He keeps on using us to further the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Jesus chose twelve disciples who were tremendously flawed individuals. Peter was impulsive and impetuous, quick to speak and act without thinking (“I’ll never betray you Lord!”). Thomas was prone to doubt, even if the evidence was right in front of him. James and John argued and fought for position in the ranks of Jesus’ followers (he called them the “sons of thunder” for all their brotherly arguing). And Judas? His financial swindling and conniving went farther than he ever thought it would (a good thing to remember when you are tempted to think of any sins as “little”), and he ended up selling out the Son of God for thirty pieces of silver (which many scholars attribute to about $4,000 dollars in today’s economy). 
How is it that these disciples (minus Judas, who’s guilt led him to take his own life) and other followers of that day spread the gospel in such a way that the powerful Roman empire and the very world of that day was turned upside down in just a few hundred years (with echoes reaching our shores today, nearly 2,000 years after that event)?
Well, the answer lies in the Apostle Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 4:7, where the great writer of the early church says “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  
A jar of clay (or “earthen vessel” in the good King James) was a disposable thing in the ancient world, the equivalent of a plastic water bottle or a Styrofoam take-out box from the burger joint down the street. It was something to use a few times, and when it broke, you just fashioned another one. It was a weak, toss-off kind of thing, and Paul’s using of it as a metaphor would have hit home in the ancient world. You don’t put a treasure in a Dixie Cup, you put it in a locked safe or vault. Yet the Lord, mysteriously, chooses to use fallible people (like your’s  truly) to show the world the Kingdom of God; what a life lived in communion with the living creator can look like. 
But the great “why” applies here. What is God thinking? Why choose to use frail, fragile things to house his Holy Spirit? What net benefit does this bring? What sort of master plan is this? 
Paul gives us the answer when he says “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Because we can so easily make this about us. “Look at all that I’ve done!”, “Look at what great and noble things that I’ve done in the name of the Lord!”
And really, that’s the core of Bad Religion. When our frail selves try and trumpet how good and righteous we are, the cracks start to show, and the harder we attempt to cover them up. This goes south real fast, and metastasizes into something vile and rotten. Ever wonder how so-called Christians went from being burned at the stake in the days of the early church to burning so-called heathens at the stake themselves hundreds of years later? Well, here’s your formula. Take a little self-righteousness (“I really know what’s best”, ‘I‘m better than that guy“) and let it ferment for a bit, and over time, you get a recipe for a dangerous, grotesque shadow of faith that does a lot of damage in the name of the Lord. 
But if we rightly see ourselves as He does, as frail forms that He chooses to use, fragile things full of cracks, but filled with His power, then the real work of love can begin. Any good thing that we do gets rightly attributed to the power of God working inside us. The light shows brightly through the cracks. You can easily crush a Styrofoam cup full of water, but you cannot crush one with a frozen block of water inside. It’s not the cup that has become suddenly powerful, but what is inside it that gives it its newfound durability. 
The band Jars Of Clay helped bring this critical, spiritual metaphor to light for me. And at a time I was battling and questioning the forms of Bad Religion all around me, they helped me see the forest for the trees.  
I was in the right place at the right time to hear their debut album (a good couple of months before the rest of the world) when I happened upon the guys at a music festival in my youth group days. They were not playing the fest, but they were there as fans of other bands. I’m not sure if they were supposed to be doing this, but they handed out their album freely, and, truth be told, I almost didn’t take it, because it seemed like they were just another small-time artist trying to get their name out. (Another youth group member proclaimed the guys “lame” for trying to promote themselves this way.) But I was never one to turn down anything free, and the album cover looked cool, so I grabbed one.  
I played it on my pickup truck’s stereo on the way back to the campground where we were staying, and the first track (“Liquid”, with it’s Gregorian chanting sample and piercing lyrics) floored me. I made the rest of the youth group kids listen to it, and they all went back to the fest the next day and snapped up every available album that they could. And that debut album was all that anyone talked about for months afterwards. (It would be released in October of that year, four months after we first heard it, and catch on mightily with the world-at-large the next spring.) 
Combining an earthy tone of acoustic instruments, deep and introspective lyrics and a whole lot of great melodies and cross-over appeal, Jars Of Clay’s self-titled first album is one of the best albums in the history of Christian rock and roll (or “CCM” or whatever you want to call it). It hits on every cylinder, and has a dark, introspective mood (the heavy, propulsive MTV hit “Flood”, the child abuse centered “He”) balanced with joyous songs of praise (“Love Song For A Savior”, “Like A Child”), yet never loses the core message that God, in his grace shown by sending his son to die for us, dwells inside us, and chooses to keep using us for His mission in the world. In our fragile state, the Lord sees something we don’t. He sees a bigger picture of how He has originally made up to be. As the song “Art In Me” says:
And in your picture book 
I'm trying hard to see 
Turning endless pages 
Of this tragedy 
Sculpting every move 
You compose a symphony 
And you plead to everyone 
See the art in me 
See the art in me 
See the art in me
This was a message the seventeen-year-old me needed to hear. I was surrounded with all sorts of Bad Religion (mixed with true portraits of faith as well, though those were hard to see at the time) and in need of someone articulating what true faith in Christ was all about. I the lyrics to that first, haunting track “Liquid”, I heard both the same confusion about faith that I had, and an honest articulation of what it all comes down to:
Arms nailed down 
Are you telling me something? 
Eyes turned out 
Are you looking for someone? 
This is the one thing 
The one thing 
The one thing that I know 
Blood stained brow 
Are you dying for nothing? 
Flesh and blood 
Is it so elemental? 
This is the one thing 
The one thing 
The one thing that I know 
Blood stained brow 
He wasn't broken for nothing. 
Arm nailed down 
He didn't die for nothing 
He didn't die for nothing 
This is the one thing 
The one thing 
The one thing that I know 
I still struggle with Bad Religion (election years tend to bring out the worst qualities here), and the damage it has done to many in this world (including members of my own family that want nothing to do with the faith), but it comforts me to know that Jesus struggled with Bad Religion too (it was self-righteous religious leaders who killed him in the “name of God“), but he still showed how God loves the world and wants to bring every one who would come, back into fellowship with Him. Jesus pushed through all of this to show love in the most vivid way he could, by giving his life up for mine (and yours). 
This is “the one thing that I know”. And it keeps me going.
This Sunday is Easter, and my church will be full to the rafters with both regular attendees and all of the other folks who wander in once or twice a year. I’m playing in the band this week (that’s me jumping around with the bass guitar), and from my perch on stage, just left of the drum kit, I’ll get to see folks who’ve battled Bad Religion, who’ve been scarred by it, and by life in general. And together with my fellow worship team members and pastoral staff, get a chance to articulate what it is truly all about. Christ’s resurrection, that same power that rose him from the grave, lives in me (another wise, Holy-spirit inspired nugget from St. Paul), and gives me hope. This power to love, to speak boldly, to hope, is housed in this fragile body, this “jar of clay”, giving me purpose and energy for tomorrow. 
This is “the one thing that I know”.
Happy Easter to you, and may we all shine His light through the cracks in our earthen vessels.
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell
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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Alex's Top 20 Albums Over 20 Years Old - The Lost Dogs, 'Scenic Routes'

Image result for lost dogs scenic routes  

Breathing Deep The Breath Of God With The Lost Dogs

When I was an adolescent, I was taught that God loved me, and loved the whole world equally with the love of a perfect father. But when I was a teenager (who was attending a new church and school), I was taught that God despised anyone outside the narrow denominational box that was part of my teenage years. God approved of you only if you worked hard on your own righteousness, and took careful steps to seal yourself off from the influence (and company) of “the world” outside the walls of our church. People to be wary of included (in no particular order) gays, democrats, loose women, profane men, those who drank alcohol in any quantity, those who smoked, secularists, people of color (any other color really), long-haired men, short-haired women, those with tattoos, those who played any instrument that was associated with rock and roll, those who read any other version than the 1611 King James Version, and any other division that could be imagined.
I never whole-heartedly bought into any of this rhetoric, and thankfully this denominations emphasis on reading the Bible every day caused me to see that the life of Jesus was diametrically opposed to this “separation” logic. Jesus constantly got flack from the religious leaders of his day for hanging out with the wrong types of people (labeled in the good King James as “prostitutes and sinners”) and surrounding himself with disciples who didn’t fit the mold of someone the Lord would use to minister. (Most of the disciples were from the wrong side of the tracks.) This disconnect between what the Bible (which I was taught, and still believe, is the infallible word of God) presented as the blueprint for how to minister and interact with the world, and how my well-meaning teachers and elders instructed me to conduct myself, troubled me greatly. My mind and heart (influenced by the Holy Spirit) spoke loudly to me on one shoulder, while the people I loved and looked up to, and who I thought spoke for God, sat on that other shoulder. And my young faith sat in between.
During this time, I was dabbling in denominationally unapproved Christian music, smuggled into my life from a summer camp I was blessed to work at during these years. Every Friday night of the summer, the camp ran a “coffee house” concert series where campers and counselors could play music or act out a skit (you remember youth group skits don’t you?), and one night, an older college student counselor came on stage with a mandolin and sang these lyrics (presented here in their entirety): 
Politicians, morticians, philistines, homophobes,

Skinheads, deadheads, tax evaders, street kids,

Alcoholics, workaholics, wise guys, dim-wits

Blue-collars, white-collars, war-mongers, peace-nicks.


Breathe deep, 

Breathe deep the breath of God,

Breathe deep,

Breathe deep the breath of God.


Suicidals, rock idols, shut-ins, drop-outs,

Friendless, homeless, penniless and depressed,

Presidents, residents, foreigners and aliens,

Dissidents, feminists, xenophobes and chauvinists.

Breathe deep,

Breathe deep the breath of God,

Breathe deep,

Breathe deep the breath of God.

Evolutionists, creationists, perverts, slum lords,

Dead-beats, athletes, Protestants and Catholics,

Housewives, neophytes, pro-choice, pro-life,

Misogynists, monogamists, philanthropists, blacks and whites. 

Police, obese, lawyers, and government,

Sex offenders, tax collectors, war vets, rejects,  

Atheists, scientists, racists, sadists,

Biographers, photographers, artists, pornographers. 

Gays and lesbians, demagogues and thespians,

The disabled, preachers, doctors and teachers,

Meat eaters, wife beaters, judges and juries,

Long-hairs, no-hairs, everybody everywhere


Breathe deep,

Breathe deep the breath of God,

Breathe deep,

Breathe deep the breath of God.

I’ve always been a lover of words, and how they can be stacked up next to each other to form grandiose buildings of poems, books and songs. And these particular words, in the context of my Christian camp life, and young faith in general, floored me. Upon request, that counselor typed up the lyrics to the song (this was pre-internet), and distributed them to a few of us who asked about them. I took that paper and studied every syllable. (I believe I still have that paper in an old Bible of mine.) I had to look up a few of them ( xenophobes, chauvinists, misogynists, monogamists, neophytes, peace-nicks, sadists, etc.), and when I saw the breadth of the kind of people mentioned in this song (there’s lots of "good" folks here too), I saw the whole scope of humanity. But why did the songwriters (a band called The Lost Dogs I was told) end with the refrain “breathe deep the breath of God”? What connection did the two ideas have.
And as I gave it consideration, and asked around, an older counselor kindly sat down with me and explained that the Lord breathed into Adam his living breath, and all of us are still in need of it every day. I may think I’m righteous because of everything I’m avoiding, but It’s really God’s righteousness through Christ that gives me a right standing with the Divine, and I’m closer to all of those people on the list than I care to admit. In the light of grace, all of humanity is in this mess together. We may create artificial categories to make ourselves feel righteous, but there is no degree of separation between me and a pornographer absent the gift of God’s grace on the cross. We all need to breathe deep the breath of God, because we are all equally in need of grace. All men are closer to each other than an infinitely holy God. 
It was the beginning of my understanding of God’s grace, and my flawed humanity, and it’s an understanding that has, by his grace, seen me through a lot of bad religion. Many of those fellow teenagers in my denominational circles have left the faith, thinking that the rigidity they experienced was what God is like. Many have come back, but all of us have scars. 
The Lost Dogs album that song (“Breathe Deep”) is on is titled Scenic Routes, and it’s one of the seminal albums in Christian music history, and is influential far beyond its sales figures and popularity. 
Once upon a time, there was a thriving alternative Christian music scene on the West Coast, one that grew out of the Jesus Freak California music scene of the late 60’s. The music was adventurous and dangerous, and trafficked in taboo subjects and contra-points of views to the prevailing religious thoughts of the time. Bands such as The Choir, Daniel Amos, The 77’s and Adam Again made dark and textured music that was both ahead of its time (bands such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam and The Counting Crows would take the West Coast alternative music sound to the masses in the early 90’s) and contemporary (as in “fits in with what is going on right now"). There was no subject or musical style that was out of bounds in a world where everything is under the eye of God, and it was an exciting time to be listening to music and absorbing the possibilities of what constituted “Christian” thought. 
Those four bands (The Choir, Daniel Amos, The 77’s and Adam Again) were asked to collaborate on a one-off album by influential record label Brainstorm Records, and the Lost Dogs were born. With songwriting contributions from each of the band’s songwriters, that first album, Scenic Routes, became a milestone album, and the first of a project that is on-going today. 
With a “cowboy rock and roll” template, Scenic Routes sounds nothing like any of the participating band’s music (be it the U2 qualities of The Choir, The R.E.M. jangle and darkness of Adam Again, The quirky, Talking Heads and B52’s vibe of Daniel Amos, or the Led Zepplin, Rolling Stones crunch of the 77’s), and was a refreshing sound in the Grunge music era it was released in. 
Kicking off with the thesis statement title track (where the band swears to take the road less expected of them), the album is a tour de force of creativity and spiritual insight. With taboo subjects galore (“Bullet Train” talks candidly about gun violence, and advocates for gun control, a very dangerous idea to present in a conservative CCM market, while “The Fortunate Sons” talks candidly about the cost of war on those who fought it), Scenic Routes broke down many walls in my mind, and even if I disagreed with some of the sentiments expressed, I admired the candid and witty ways they were presented.
But it’s not all heaviness of subject here. “Why Is The Devil Red” is a bluegrass song to be reckoned with: 
Why is the devil red?
Why ain't the devil blue?
Why is the devil red?
Why is the devil hue? 

Well, you give the devil sulphur,
You give the devil horns,
You give the devil a pitchfork and you give the devil corns,
Does he look like Robert DiNiro with them big, long fingernails?
Does he make you dance like Charo or sing like Jerry Vale?

Well, who's that looking like an angel of light?
Who's that dressed in a gown of white?
Who's that saying, "Everything's alright"?
Who's that grinning in the dead of night? 

Why is the devil red?
Why ain't the devil blue?
Why is the devil red?
Why ain't the devil hue?

Well, you give the devil hot breath,
You put him on a tower,
You give the devil about fifteen toes,
You give him his devil power.

Well, who's that looking like an angel of light?
Who's that dressed in a gown of white?
Who's that saying, "Everything's alright"?
Who's that grinning in the dead of night?
With comical (yet still incisive) lyrics like this one, the Lost Dogs won me over with thier insight and wit, and showed me a view of my faith that I had never seen before. Their dusty cowboy songs might have been an act of sorts (one that has grown into a full time gig, like a good TV character that has a life in a show far beyond what was intended), but the Lost Dogs were anything but fake. Scenic Routes would be the first of many great albums by this "super group" (at least in their own circles), and they are still going strong today. The album is a generous 18 songs long, and there is nary a dud amongst them.  
To catch some of the wittiest, most inventive and piercing songs of faith you'll hear, head over to Spotify and hear everything this band has put their name to. But make sure to start at the beginning, and take the scenic route with the Lost Dogs. Their hasn't been a group of alternative music cowboys like this in some time. 
May your fire burn brightly, and may we all breathe deep the breath of God.
 -- Alex Caldwell


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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Gawvi - 'We Belong' Track by Track



We Belong Track by Track


1. Rock N Roll feat. Elhae

This song is about my experience with the music industry and realizing we are all human at the end of the day. Sometimes all of the glamorous stuff can make people blind to what reality is.


2. God Speed feat. Andy Mineo & KB

This is a fun song that gives a new meaning to the word God Speed, meaning to ‘level up’  and ‘God be with you.’  I had my label mates KB and Andy Mineo kill it with the feature to level up the song some more!


3. Like We Belong

I have a huge passion for always wanting to make people feel welcomed. Everyone has a unique story and different background, and I strongly believe we all fit into God’s big picture. We all belong.


4. Show Me

I'm so desperate for God, I just want to know him more. This is a song about wanting God to show me what breaks his heart so that I can understand him more.


5. Never Fails

As I'm getting older I realize my actions will never gain God’s love because he already does love me. Being a father now, I understand that unconditional love and know that His love never fails.


6. Giana

I wrote this song thinking about my daughter and wanting her to know how much she means to me. It's always hard leaving her for shows. I want her to know that I always think about her.


7. The Sickness feat. Jordan Powers

I feel we can get lost in social media sometimes and start to think our value or self-worth is found in that. I wanted to make a song that brings that emotion to life and helps you question it a little.


8. Closer feat. Robbie Lee & Julissa Leilani

I wrote this song thinking about how a shadow is always by your side even when you don't notice it. I wanted to make an anthem that people can sing about their desire to be closer to God the way He desires to be closer with us.


9. Steady feat. Zach Norman

Steady is a song about God's great love for us and how consistent it is.


10. En La Calle

This is a latin party record showing how we are unashamed of the Gospel. It is based on the 116 movement and singing Romans 1:16 proudly.


11. Feel It feat. Jocelyn Bowman

This is a fun song about how great life can feel with God's love in our life. I wanted to draw people into that joyful experience.


12. Cumbia feat. Wordsplayed

I grew up listening to Selena’s albums with my family. I wanted to make something special with Cumbia since that is her style of music, and especially since my wife is also Mexican. In the song I shout out areas that my wife grew up. This is Cumbia with a twist of Hip Hop, I think Selena would've loved this!


13. Something Bout U feat. Jawan

This song is for my wife. I wanted to make a fun song for her that shows how much she brightens up my days and how she has changed my life forever.


14. Hold On feat. Sydney Wilson

Hold On is my worship moment and the closure of this album. I want people to Hold On to God's great love, even when this album is done. 




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Sunday, March 26, 2017

David Baloche Navigates 'The Labrinyth'



I teach rhetoric to high school students. Whenever there’s confusion about evidence or arguments (and there’s a lot these days), I always take it back to the text. Analyzing, paraphrasing, and interpreting are all great skills, but nothing cuts through the mire quite like quoting verbatim from the source. I think the same can be said of the Bible. There are nearly infinite interpretations and analyses that have accumulated over centuries, but it all comes back to the source.

Labyrinth takes it back to the text, utilizing verbatim scripture to craft musical meditations that cut through the mire. Labyrinth is not an interpretation; it’s a conversation.

It’s a conversation between the past and the present, the ancient and the modern.

It’s a trans-generational conversation between father and son, a new musical translation of scripture.

It’s an inter-personal conversation between who I was and who I am, when I was stuck in the depths of the labyrinth and when I found the Ariadnean thread that led me to the light.

It’s a multi-lingual musical conversation. Many of the songs are inspired by classical composers like Satie, Ravel, and Debussy, but incorporate modern orchestration –– kind of like if Beethoven and Lauren Daigle had twins and gave them synthesizers and miscellaneous brass instruments as play toys.

It’s an inter-scriptural conversation between translations written across millennia. For example, in “Come To Me,” Proverbs 3:24 dialogues with Matthew 11:28 in over six different translations. In “My Help Comes From The Lord,” Isaiah 41:10 communes with Psalm 121:1-2. In “The Peace of God,” Philippians 4:7 converses with Proverbs 3:6.

It’s a dialogue about rituals and symbols, exhuming ancient practices and reexamining their relevance and power. Labyrinths were placed outside medieval cathedrals to provide passage from the outer world to the inner sanctum, from the profane to the sacred. They were also placed on the flyleaves of ancient manuscripts to symbolize entry into scripture, to be the gateway into the biblical text. Historically, the Labyrinth was intended as a reminder, the symbolic manifestation of God’s command to Moses, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

This project seeks to do the same, to remind listeners of the terrifying and fascinating power of God, to journey through a sonic labyrinth to the depths of one’s soul, to bring comfort during times of chaos, to prepare our hearts and minds, as if to say, “pay attention – we’re headed for a deeper dimension.”


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Thursday, March 16, 2017

There Is A Cloud Devotional by Elevation Worship

"And now, God, do it again— bring rains to our drought-stricken lives so those who planted their crops in despair will shout hurrahs at the harvest, so those who went off with heavy hearts will come home laughing, with armloads of ble ssing.” (Psalm 127:4-6 MSG)

One of the most difficult places to live is between what God has done in the past and what you’re hoping God will do in the future. It’s the place that’s often referred to as the desert — the place of the dry spell and the drought. Maybe you’re there now.

When we find our self in this place, our eyes instinctively go to what we don’t have and what seems to be missing. Our focus goes to our frustration, instead of His faithfulness.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. You have a choice in every season, even seasons of drought. You get to choose your perspective.

You get to decide if you will complain about what’s missing or thank God for what’s available.

You can decide to turn the dry ground into a training ground – a place you can learn to rely on God more than ever before.

You get to decide if you will stare at the parched, dry ground or fix your eyes towards the skies heavy with blessing. There’s always supply in sight, if we train our spirits to recognize it.

A season of drought can actually drive you to greater devotion. It can bring you to a place of as king God to “ do it again.” To plead with God to come through in the ways that only he can. But, it doesn’t happen naturally. It’s a choice — and the choice is yours.


You can download the title-track from Elevation Worship's There Is A Cloud on our Free Music Page!



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