So by now, we've done quite a few "10 Years Later" blogs and even a couple "20 Years Later" blogs as of this year, but here is a special one... "15 Years Later." Our friends in Third Day are celebrating 15 years of their 1999 album Time this month and we thought we'd join in in remembering this classic Third Day offering.
A little personal history first: I wasn't a fan until I saw Third Day perform live, but this was still in 1996, the year of their self-titled national debut. It was a festival in Hatfield, PA, which also saw the likes of All Star United and 7 Day Jesus performing before Third Day's headlining set. But after that show, I was officially warmed to Third Day's southern rock sound, and I made sure to get a copy of the aforementioned debut. The following year, Third Day released Conspiracy No. 5, a decidedly more edgy, raw, rock album that the band admits to being part of somewhat of an identity crisis they'd been experiencing at the time (remember Mac Powell's bleach blonde hair and thick-rimmed glasses?), but truth be told - it was an awesome album. It also introduced a more directly worshipful mood in a couple of the tracks. All in all, Conspiracy No. 5 was one of my absolute favorite albums for quite some time that year.
But in 1999, the band seemed to know who they were a bit clearer and threw a bit of a curve ball to those who thought they knew Third Day in the form of Time. In hindsight, Time is as much "Third Day" as their self-titled debut. But as they're not one to make the same album twice, Time was a vastly different album from Conspiracy but far more cleanly produced--and less dated--than their debut. It still holds up really well today, even though the major sound difference from today's music is that it would have far more strings, synths, autotune and less chord progression so it could be shoehorned onto today's AC radio waves (Well, that is, if Third Day would regularly fall prey to such practices, which they do not).
"I've Always Loved You" opens the album unexpectedly with an acoustic ballad, as opposed to the building anthem "Peace" (which had since become a doctor's office exam chair prayer/meditation/plea for this guy) from Conspiracy and "Nothing At All" from the debut. The song would go on to become part of many wedding ceremonies (And we put it on a wedding favor compilation CD for ours), but it was a strange way to open a Third Day album. Still, it set the tone for this being a more stripped back album. "Believe" was a rocking follow-up and then "Took My Place" was a sister or cousin to Conspiracy's "Have Mercy," as southern rock tracks that embrace a country twang (maybe a little too much for someone more likely to be found listening to the pop rock of Audio Adrenaline, DC Talk or Newsboys at the time). "Never Bow Down" was another excellent--and sorely underrated--rock track, which was followed up by the undeniably worshipful "Your Love Oh Lord," which was released on the cusp of the pending worship revolution. It's heartfelt worship for heartfelt worship's sake, before worship anthems equalled "surefire radio hit" and the ringing of "cha-ching" in many a label exec's ears. (Yes, I miss albums like this one.) "Don't Say Goodbye" is a real acoustic charmer with a classic feel that was just another underrated gem. "What Good" had that soulful Third Day sound and "Can't Take The Pain" stripped it back with a southern flavor in a similar feel to the way the album began. "Sky Falls Down" picked up where "What Good" left off and then "Give"... well, that is still one of my favorite Third Day songs. It was an epic way to close a relatively modest offering and it just oozed genuine worship.
Now, you can't talk about Time without mentioning the Southern Tracks EP. It was a collection of 4 b-sides that was packaged in with specially marked copies of Time. Surprisingly, all four songs were gems and could have/should have easily been included as part of Time. Time was only 10 tracks, so these four extras would have put it into NEEDTOBREATHE's common 14-track territory, but they're solid songs that play up the southern rock sound that deserved to be a part of the regular album. If you're lucky enough to have a copy or are able to track one down, you'll agree these songs stand out.
15 years later and Time is still a great effort. Third Day is still alive and kicking strongly, currently in the thick of making a brand new worship album for an early 2015 release. But Time's got its minimalistic moments and a strong southern musical presence, and is a key part of Third Day's catalog, and one that established some truly memorable fan favorites. Fans of NEEDTOBREATHE and current Third Day should give it a chance still today.
When it comes to Five Iron Frenzy, I was about as late-blooming of a fan as you can possibly get. My experience with them was as follows:
I started going to church in the year 2000, and along with my newfound interest in Jesus, I was given some Christian music to listen to (because secular music was a sin, right?). For Christmas that year, the family that was bringing me to church gave me this compilation called Simply Impossible, which featured bands like Skillet, John Reuben, Earthsuit, ill harmonics, PAX217, The Elms, Philmore, and an interesting choice of song by Five Iron Frenzy ("Solidarity"). The song caught my interest, mainly because I found it interesting that there was a Christian salsa band on this compilation. Well, I got a chance to listen to All The Hype That Money Can Buy, and realized that was the only song of that nature on the album. They were a ska band! And I hated the entire album. Yep. I hated it.
Time went by, and I heard a few other songs by Five Iron that weren't so bad. Then on a road trip with a couple friends, someone popped in that CD, and it was like it was something completely new. Every song was simply amazing. How could this be? I don't know, but something had changed, and I liked it. Then in early 2003 (or possibly late 2002, I forget), Five Iron Frenzy announced their impending break-up. But...but...I just started liking them! This sent me on a mission: I needed all their albums. So I set out to buy all their studio albums, and I bought tickets to go see their final show in Kansas City (where I bought the remaining albums I didn't have).
Now, this is a 10 Years Later blog, and Five Iron's then-last album, The End Is Near, officially released in 2003 at their live shows. But in 2004, it was released to the public in grand fashion as The End Is Here. They gave it everything they possibly could. First off, all of the thirteen original songs were just stellar. "Cannonball" started it off in a blaze; songs like "At Least I'm Not Like All Those Other Old Guys," "Wizard Needs Food, Badly," and "That's How The Story Ends" showcased their classic sense of humor (the last of the three summing up many of their older funny songs); and they showed their reverent side with "It Was Beautiful," "Something Like Laughter," and "On Distant Shores." It was truly one of their best pieces of work. And somehow, they managed to improve on it when they took The End Is Near and transformed it into The End Is Here. For starters, "The Cross of St. Andrew" was a short, albeit excellent bonus track. Then of course there was the second disc with the recording of their then-final show, jam-packed with fan favorites and hilarious hijinks. And there was so much in that recording, they even added a half hour's worth of bonus recorded material (just a lot of talking and a few versions of "Pootermobile" if I remember correctly) to the very end of disc one. Yes, Five Iron truly loved/loves their fans, and they wanted to give us their all for that dual album. It was a super classy way to go out, and I listened to that album like there was no tomorrow. I know they just put out a new album this past November, and Engine of a Million Plots is solid for sure, but if you ask me, it's gonna take a lot to top The End Is Here. Now that Five Iron's discography is on Spotify, you have little excuse to revisit this album if you haven't recently.
Today, I was reminded of the 2003 movie "Bruce Almighty;" I thought about one of the messages the film focuses on and how it related to all of our individual Christian walks.
We live in a time where it's easier now more than ever to plug into a cause that can change the world. I was listening to Remedy Drive's new album "Commodity" and thinking about how vocalist David Zach has expressed his hope to impact and make a change in the serious problem of human trafficking in our world. It's a very real and disturbing practice still going on today. The band's goal with the album is to raise awareness and help aid in the fight against it (Zach has even paired with a ministry called The Exodus Road that goes to the frontlines of this problem and tries to rescue women from slavery). It's a passion of Zach's and if you get the privilege of hearing him speak about it in person, it makes you want to rally in support and join him.
In this age, it's even easier to voice our opinions on what we think others should be doing. Whether it's social media or through a blog or magazine article, just about anyone can say anything that someone else will see or hear. I've heard ministries beg for just financial aid while other opinion-sharers have condemned people fir "just throwing money" at a problem and not doing anything else about it. These opinion-sharers don't always take into account that these people may not be called to do anything other than that; some have families and careers and may not be called by God to drop everything and go. The financial support may be all Jesus is moving them to do.
But that's where "Bruce Almighty" popped in my mind.
In the film, Bruce Nolan--played by Jim Carrey--is an aspiring news reporter who would love a news anchor position someday (think Ron Burgundy set in 2003 with much less pretention). His rival is Steve Carell's Evan Baxter who is a bit of a pompous jerk who seems to easily get the things Bruce only dreams of and fights so hard for. Bruce's girlfriend Grace (I don't think her name choice was a coincidence) encourages him to be thankful to God for what he has and, in one particular crucial scene, Bruce says, "God is a mean kid sitting on an ant hill with a magnifying glass and I'm the ant. He could fix my life in five minutes if He wanted to, but He'd rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm!" After some other blasphemous remarks, God meets with Bruce and gives him the job of "god" for a short time so he can see what it's like, and Bruce learns first-hand how selfish humans are, how frustrating free will is in His position, and how God's role is no picnic.
Near the end of the film, Bruce learns that we're here on this earth not for ourselves but for others. Our society is very me-centric and it's easy for any of us (myself included) to fall prey to that mindset. By the end of the movie, God physically leaves Bruce to clean up the messes he made and Bruce says, "But wait! What if I need you? What if I have questions?" to which God laughs and says, "That's your problem, Bruce. That's everybody's problem. You keep looking UP!" It was a controversial exchange because it kind of sounds like the film's saying we shouldn't seek God, but the director, a professing believer, later explained that the point of the story was that we're supposed to be God's hands and feet to each other. There's even a montage in the film where Bruce is seen doing nice things for people and helping others out--something he'd never done before.
It's no secret we live busy lives. If our families aren't demanding our time, it's our jobs, our teachers, our managers, our coaches, our record labels, our bandmates, our friends, etc. Sometimes it just feels like God's another person demanding our time. But we're called to help the widows and orphans, the needy, the forsaken. God wants us to seek HIM first and to put everything else second. BUT we're all called to different things. Not everyone is called to be a missionary to Haiti. Not everyone is called to stay home and watch sports all Sunday. Not everyone is called to be a pastor. Not everyone is called to be a deacon. Not everyone is called to lead a Sunday school class, and not everyone is called it sit in on a Sunday school class. It's our responsibility to seek God for direction in how we're best to use our time. If we're all part of the Body of Christ, we all have different roles to play. For some of us, it may be to send money to HELP that missionary in Haiti. For others, it may be to go and help out there with their bare hands.
But whatever that call is, we need to heed it. Just don't be discouraged if others are telling you what you need to do. They might not know what God has in store for you, but what THEY think YOU should do. And that doesn't matter. Only what God wants for you is what matters. But whatever it may be, it'll be an expression of His hands and His feet. And I pray He makes it clear to you (to us!). Just don't give up seeking Him.
**Note: the blog title "YOU Almighty -- Being His Hands and Feet" is in no way meant to be disrespectful. The idea is a play on the film's title, since it kind of sparked the topic, and is to imply that YOU / WE are to be HIS hands and feet... like Bruce was instructed in the film.**
To fully understand my choice in highlighting Tree63, I must delve a little bit into my background.
In my youth, my interest (and exposure) to music was rather limited. I had been weaned on Rich Mullins, dabbled in the sounds of Steven Curtis Chapman, and been bored during church worship; that was pretty much it. As my brother was flourishing in his musical tastes (he had already started his collection of Jars of Clay material, ironically much to my annoyance), I found the whole thing uninteresting. Then a DVD extra on Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie introduced me to the Newsboys sometime soon after my 12th birthday in September 2003 (I had received that movie as a gift on that occasion). This started a massive chain reaction that fully awakened my interest in music. By December 2004, I had compiled a long list of firsts, including my first album purchased with my own money (Newsboys' Thrive), my first dud purchased with my own money (Newsboys' Devotion), my first Christian Rock album (Kutless' Sea of Faces), my first worship album (Chris Tomlin's Arriving), my first real favorite song ("Jesus Freak"), my first time listening to a band that was popular outside of "Christian" circles (Switchfoot), and so on.
But there was one more notable first which was more subtle, but far more meaningful: the first time I began to truly enjoy worshipping God through music. I can't pinpoint it to a day (though I think it may have been at camp), but I can pinpoint it to a song: "Blessed Be Your Name."
The Answer To The Question, the third Inpop release of South Africa's Tree63, was actually a CD that belonged to my brother, but I also really enjoyed it. It was an energetic pop-rock album that I could unashamedly sing along to and delve into the meaning of the words (2004 was also the first time I started doing that, as I began growing acutely aware that some music was "Christian" and some was "not"). To this day, I get goosebumps (even if only from nostalgia) listening to album opener "King," a song which definitely holds up as strongly today as it did then. "You Only" and "So Glad" were also favorites of mine, as was (of course) the South African trio's cover of Matt Redman's "Blessed Be Your Name." I still remember to this day, for the first time ever, hearing the worship band play the opening chords of that song, and singing the opening verse, thinking that it sounded familiar (but couldn't figure out where), and then suddenly realizing, "Hey, I listen to this song at home!" As a 12-year old, this was a really big deal for me; for the first time, worship became more interesting, and I wanted to pour myself more into it.
In all reality, I can't really say that there is anything "special," per say, about The Answer To The Question. Obviously, their version of Redman's classic has basically become the industry standard to this day (though, frankly, it is actually one of the weaker songs on the record), but all The Answer... really is is a solid pop-rock/worship album from a now-defunct band (the band ended in 2009 after one more studio album). That said, it does wonderfully capture the best of this era of the evolution of CCM, bridging the genre from the days of PFR and Seven Day Jesus and the rise of Sonicflood to the popular "worship music" movement of today. But to me personally, it captures this era of my life and my growth personally and spiritually. I'll admit that I hadn't listened to The Answer... for a couple of years until I was preparing to write this blog, but when I did, everything rushed back to me as clearly now as it did then. I remember all the songs, and they arguably hold up better now than, say, this year's Passion release will hold up a year from now. Those that haven't listened to Tree63's finest album, I recommend you do so, and if you have, give it another listen.
From the album "Your Grace Finds Me" - Matt Redman
Over the years I've had the privilege of visiting some very impacting places around this globe. I've been to townships in South Africa, a leper colony in India and shown around NASA by an astronaut. I've been to Buckingham Palace, and toured the White House. I've had the joy of leading worship in grand old venues like the Royal Albert Hall in London or the Ryman in Nashville. But there's one space I've been to which far outshines all of these other places and has had agreater impact on me than any other location ever could. It is Calvary, the place of the cross.
"I will kneel in the dust at the foot of the cross
Where mercy paid for me."
I've lost count of how many songs I've written about the cross of Christ over the years - but the reason is simple. It is the difference between life and death, between inescapable chains and eternal freedom. It's where love and justice kiss, and holiness and mercy meet. It happened over two thousand years ago, yet the event of the cross is standing just as strong and tall over history as it ever was. And take a look into the throne room of heaven, as described in the book of Revelation, and we're reminded that we shall be singing about it for all eternity:
"Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In aloud voice they sang:
'Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!"
The cross, and to be specific, what our awesome Savior accomplished in that place, will forever lead us into wonder and mystery. How quickly we seem to lose the wonder of things in our lives. When man first set foot upon the moon it was athing of wonder. Everyone sat glued to their television screens, completely wowed by the marvel of what was occurring - for here was ahuman-being treading where we never dreamed could be possible. Now, several decades on, it's still an interesting and impactful historical moment - but you could argue that the sense of wonder has diminished a little with time. There may be several reasons for that - for one thing, we've got used to knowing about it. And perhaps another reason is that technology has advanced even further, so that humans are now living out there in the cosmos for extended periods of time, on the International Space Station.
When it comes to the cross of Jesus, it's an altogether different story. It's unlike any other moment in the unfolding of the years. Here is the very Son of God laying down His life in love, obedience and sacrifice. He who gave us first breath, breathing His last breath for our salvation. It's the most meaningful, costly and substantial act in all of history. The cross of Christ shall never lose its power, and never cease to be the most relevant and life-changing act mankind has ever seen. It can never be outdone, added to, or improved upon. Let us never cease to be awed by the sheer scale of grace and love that we discover in that place. As this song 'Mercy' prays:
"May I never lose the wonder, 0 the wonder of Your mercy. "
I was listening to a playlist of favorite songs on shuffle today when Dakoda Motor Co.'s "Truth" from their album Welcome Race Fans came on. Dakoda was another favorite of the early to mid-90s, and Welcome Race Fans marked the end of an era (despite a very brief one) for the band of surf rockers.
Dakoda Motor Co. debuted in 1991 with their album Into The Son, under the band name "Dakoda." They had to add "Motor Co." on the 1993 label release of the album for legal reasons. I remember seeing the video for "Grey Clouds" on then-popular Christian music video show Signal Exchange and really not liking the visuals for it (I totally love the song now though). However, their other video, "Sondancer," which was comprised of surf footage, coupled with hearing the music from friends who also liked them, helped turn me towards being an earnest Dakoda fan. It didn't hurt either that, in 1994, when I was really starting to get into Christian pop and rock music, that Welcome Race Fans struck a chord with me.
However, Welcome Race Fans was one of those albums that was hugely hit and miss for me. It's not often for me to find an album where I literally love half of it and don't care for most of the rest of it (or am on the fence about it). While I still enjoy Into the Son from front to back, Welcome Race Fans seemed to display the image of a band starting to stray pretty quickly from their roots. Their folksy, "Jesus Music" sound was mostly replaced by crunchy guitars, glistening production, and bizarre musical twists and turns. While this actually worked beautifully for album opener "Alive" and "Trip To Pain" (which saw a beautifully bizarre music video treatment from director/artist/producer Steve Taylor), songs like "Uglier," "Where Did It Go?" and "Rockin' In The Mall" just seemed far out of left field. To contrast, songs like "Love Runs Home," "Ooh, That Girl" and "Friend In My Eyes" seemed like the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the rockier tracks. They stripped it way back giving the album this uneven, schizophrenic vibe. It's as if you took a couple different projects and just shuffled songs from each one.
Around 1995, lead vocalist Davia Vallesillo left the band and was replaced by Melissa Brewer. (It was that version of DMC that I only saw live once. To this day, I never had the chance to see Davia perform with them.) Brewer would go on to record one album--and the band's final one--in 1996, titled Railroad, but Dakoda as fans knew and loved them would never be the same after Davia's departure. Around 2006, the band reunited with Davia and began playing shows again with the intentions of recording a new album (a brand new demo called "On My Way Home" could be heard on their Myspace page for a while), but they broke up in 2007 after realizing their schedules just weren't going to gel for the band to do music together again.
Welcome Race Fans still has some gems on it to this day, twenty years later. "Alive" is still one of my all-time favorites, with "Trip To Pain" being a close second to it. "Truth," "Free" and "Stand Up" are all also fun, upbeat tracks. If the album had been an EP of just these five songs, it'd have been one incredibly solid project. All of them are still in regular rotation for me.
Revisiting the rest of the album (which have spent years absent from my mp3 library): "Uglier" is a quirky, pop-punk number about Jesus bearing all of our faults and sin; "Love Runs Home" is a stripped-down acoustic pop love ballad that feels as though it snuck its way onto the wrong album; "Where Did It Go?" is a hyper pop punk track (where guitarist Peter King literally shouts gibberish repeatedly) that wears thin a little too quickly; "Ooh, That Girl" is a pop rock tune about admiring a girl whose faith radiates an attractive difference about her; "Friend In My Eyes" was an acoustic song (with horns?) that begged to become a wedding song; and "Rockin' In The Mall" is an under-2-minute finale that... was rockabilly. Some of these styles were prominent on their debut, but the rawness of that production (and Davia's layered vocals) worked in the favor of those songs. King also upped his vocal contributions on this album, stepping in to replace or sing with Davia more often.
While Welcome Race Fans doesn't exactly hold up as a whole 20 years later, it still has a few highlights that should not be overlooked. Dakoda Motor Co. was a talented bunch of Californians that went before their time. I would have loved to see Davia stick with the gang as they continued to make music. (And I would have LOVED to have heard a new album 7 years ago...)
-- John DiBiase
We recently took a look back at the release of Newsboys' Going Public album from twenty years ago, which has gotten me thinking more about other albums from 1994.
Let's flash back twenty years to a time when PFR was alive and kicking. This Minnesota pop rock trio was hailed as one of the best up-and-comings in CCM music. At this time in 1994, PFR had two solid albums under their belt -- the self-titled album Pray For Rain (side note: That was their band name when they debuted and they had to shorten it to "PFR" due to some other obscure band having the name and threatening to sue. Later copies of the self-titled had "PFR" stamped across the front) and its 1993 follow-up, Goldie's Last Day (which, incidentally was about a dog. I think it'd be almost impossible for a major label to release an album from a radio-ready band with a title like that. And yes, that thought just makes me sad).
In December, 1994, PFR released their third studio album, Great Lengths. Their harmonies often brought about comparisons with The Beatles and with the title track from this album, that only increased. One thing I loved so much about the music in the mid to late 90s was that Christian music was about the Christian life; it wasn't just manufactured to be performed by youth bands and worship leaders in church worship services. It was about the Christian lifestyle. It inspired how we lived, not just how we worshipped. It helped inspire us to live a life of worship. Thematically, each track of the album fit this: "Great Lengths" questioned our own tendencies to please ourselves instead of God; "Wonder Why" was about those who try to live their life feeling empty without trying Jesus as the answer; "Merry Go Round" was about forsaking rebellious living; "The Love I Know" was a reflection on disappointing human love versus the fulfilling love of Jesus; "It's You Jesus" was a quasi-worship song acknowledging His goodness; "Trials Turned To Gold" reflected on our transformation through Him; "Blind Man, Deaf Boy" also talked about living outside of His will; "See The Sun Again" addressed doubt and tough times in our walk; "The Grace of God" was about being rebuilt by His grace; "Last Breath" was a rocker about encouraging an unbeliever to consider where they'll go after death; and "Life Goes On," the closing ballad, wrapped things up with a worshipful way of acknowledging life's meaninglessness without Christ's love.
All of it is written in a relatable and down-to-earth way that most worship and radio pop seems to be missing these days. [But, obviously, I am probably in the minority in thinking that.] 20 years later, the lyrics to these songs endure far better than the music itself. The production is clean and crisp, and you'll hear incredible harmonies and melodies without an ounce of autotune or ProTools tinkering, but you'll also hear a sound more akin to 1994 than 2014. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Great Lengths was pop rock for fans of both the pop rock genre and somewhere in between contemporary and rock itself. If you like a little on both ends of the spectrum, you were likely to like PFR. I'd say fans of Audio Adrenaline, MercyMe... -- really any of today's pop rock or light rock artists. But lyrically, they're probably a little closer to a Foreman or a Thiessen than any of the given worship artists.
So where is PFR today? They reunited in 2012 for a run of shows and then were days away from launching a Kickstarter campaign last year for a new album before deciding they were forcing things and it wasn't meant to be. In that decision, they announced they were retiring the band permanently, much to the fans' intense disappointment. Frontman Joel Hanson continues to perform solo material, while I can't really say I know what Patrick Andrew and Mark Nash are doing these days (Although I think Mark remains involved in the studio and management side of things).
Great Lengths is still a gem worth digging into and unpacking lyrically 20 years later. It definitely aged stylistically, but for this 90s music listener, it's still a treasured listen. If you're more open minded about the sound of your brand of pop rock, do check this album out! (And the autographed album cover poster is proudly displayed in the JFH office!)
-- John DiBiase
Favorite Band/Artist: Building 429 Featured Fan: Erica Lysne Location: Luverne, MN When/Where Was The Above Photo Taken: We Won't be Shaken Tour: Sioux Falls, SD What About This Artist's Music Speaks To You: I just love their music. It helps me get closer to God. Favorite Album by This Artist: We Won't Be Shaken
Favorite Song by This Artist: "Bonfire" and "We Won't Be Shaken"
Favorite Live Show Experience: We Won't be Shaken Tour: Sioux Falls, SD4/5/14
Number of Times Seen This Artist Live: 3
Favorite Piece Of Merch/Item You Own From This Artist: my street team shirt
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When I had the idea for the "10 Years Later..." blog series, I figured it was a neat way to either reevaluate albums we've reviewed or just to see how an album has held up in the span of a decade. The other idea that I thought would be neat would be to compare the album the artist released 10 years ago with their latest, 10 years later. Sadly, I soon realized how rare it is for an artist to not only still be around after 10 years (usually bands break up in that case), but to put out an album exactly 10 years later. So, clearly, adjusting the scope of the project had to happen.
But, recently, I've realized how relevant something truly extraordinary actually is... "20 Years Later!"
With the recent release of Peter Furler Band's Sun and Shield album, it had many of us remembering Furler's former band, Newsboys, and their 1994 album Going Public. And that's when it hit me -- that was TWENTY years ago!
So for our first ever "20 Years Later..." blog, I'd love to bring up Newsboys' Going Public and Peter Furler Band's Sun and Shield, while also touching on where "Newsboys" are at twenty years from that album release.
Going Public followed the success of Newsboys' breakout album, Not Ashamed, which saw the band first teaming up with singer/songwriter/director and producer Steve Taylor who helped co-write and produce that album. It's a partnership that continued on with Going Public and a few Newsboys albums following it. While not every current Newsboys fan will know which album Going Public was just by hearing its title, they'll certainly know the hit song from that album... "Shine." Yup, that quirky song made its debut on this album and it's still sometimes sung live by Furler or his former band.
Going Public certainly feels dated in 2014, but it's a worthwhile and beautiful album to listen to still. I remember picking it up and listening to it as my first Newsboys album shortly after it came out, but I also remember being a bit disappointed by how it felt slower than expected. (In retrospect, it really doesn't seem that slow.) The production is modest and almost mutes the energy at times--something that was perfectly remedied on the raw rock sound of 1996's Take Me To Your Leader. But Going Public still has many highlights. From the worshipful "Let It Rain," inspired by the apostle Peter, to the sarcastic and edgy "Truth and Consequences" that pokes fun at believers who are ultimately wolves in sheep's clothing in the dating world and even to the thought-provoking "When You Called My Name." The end times rocker "Lights Out" is another gem, and the closer, "Elle G" is a haunting song about someone who committed suicide. The album bears a strong early 90s sound, but it also represents a time when Christian music spoke into the Christian lifestyle more than just focusing on worship choruses.
Twenty years later and Peter Furler has since departed from Newsboys. His new album Sun and Shield with his newly formed "Peter Furler Band" feels more like a Newsboys album than Newsboys' 2013 recording Restartdoes, and even his new songs like "Yeshua" and "It's Alright" have a bit of that "Let It Rain" and "Be Still" sound from Going Public. However, the current band called "Newsboys" may still contain members Jody Davis, Duncan Phillips and Jeff Frankenstein -- all of which were part of the band during the Going Public era twenty years ago -- but it feels like it's plucked from an alternate reality where DC Talk member Michael Tait serves as frontman for the formerly Aussie band. Their latest album, Restart, is an electronic dance pop record that is delectable from a pop music standpoint, but feels lightyears removed from what we once knew to be "Newsboys." There is some fast, electronic flavored music on Going Public, but Furler and Taylor's fingerprints are sorely missed in the current "Newsboys."
If you're not opposed to the 90s alt pop rock sound, Newsboys' Going Public is still a great album and one well worth checking out. In a time where everyone's looking for the next new thing, it doesn't hurt to look back and experience--or re-experience--some of the musical highlights from a couple decades ago. And if you've been missing that classic Newsboys sound and long for something new, look no further than Peter Furler Band's Sun and Shield.
-- John DiBiase
Ten years ago, when on an ice cream run with friends, my ears were opened to a new world. At our age, good music was a staple for every car ride, no matter the distance. With the now near-extinct compact disc being our preferred mode of listening, one of the guys inserted an album with "Crashings" and "Falling Up" scribbled on it. I was assured that it was "Christian." This was my first exposure to real Christian rock.
I enjoyed the music so much that my friend gave me the album as an early birthday present. Looking forward to today, in an era when Christian music is frequently criticized as formulaic and stagnant, Falling Up has consistently offered one surprise after another, creating a handful of the unique sounds we have come to know and love. It is an uncommon occurrence for a fresh-out-of-high-school band to survive beyond their first album, and even less probable for that career to span more than a decade. Falling Up, together since 2001, stormed the charts with their debut release of Crashings in February 2004. With producer Aaron Sprinkle at the helm, the then six-member outfit toured relentlessly the following year, garnering a solid fan base from the get-go. The current form of contemporary Christian rock was still being defined at this time, and the band was frequently compared to secular groups such as Linkin Park. With three charting singles ("Broken Heart," "Bittersweet," "Escalates") the album quickly became a fan-favorite, and arguably played a role in shifting the overall style and boundaries found within Christian rock. Falling Up's initial style was an odd blend of rock, rap, nu-metal, and post-grunge, with Crashings incorporating guest artists such as Paul Wright, Ryan Clark, Benjiman, and Jon Micah Sumrall.
The band's sophomore release, Dawn Escapes, maintained a similar sound, but dropped the "rap" element for a more grounded melodic hard rock sound. Their third album, Captiva, slightly slowed the pace, shifting to a piano rock genre, incorporating more electronic components. Fangs!, the band's final album with BEC Recordings, saw the band take off in a very different direction, bringing a raw rock sound mixed with a rather ethereal series of ballads. The concept album told a rather ambiguous sci-fi tale, with the lyrics being notably removed from explicitly Christian concepts. This led to a drop in the band's original fan base. After disagreements as to the direction of their music, Falling Up parted ways with their label, subsequently going on hiatus.
Falling Up returned in 2011 with a fan-funded album, Your Sparkling Death Cometh. The album was a critical success, appealing to fans both new and old. By this point, Falling Up had essentially shrugged off all genres, finding themselves under the all-encompassing label of "experimental rock." Mnemos, an instrumental remix EP, surfaced the next year, followed by the Machine De Ella project, which saw their sixth and seventh studio albums simultaneously released in 2013. One project (Hours) featured their signature rock sound, relaying the fictional tale of a novel created by the band. The other (Midnight on Earthship) was a slow and melodic album, with the band returning to its lyrical roots. Most recently, Falling Up put together a Christmas album (Silver City), once again pushing the boundaries of what has become normative for artists.
None of its projects have been without fans, and none have been without critics. One thing that always has been consistent, however, is that Falling Up will do what they want. They have been called copycats and pioneers, sometimes even in regard to a single project. Three of the founding members, frontman Jessy Ribordy, drummer Josh Shroy, and bassist Jeremy Miller are still part of the band today, and even after going independent, Falling Up has not only been able to survive, but thrive. This speaks to the versatility of their music, and is indicative of the legacy it will leave. And even if there is no place in the remainder of this decade for "science fiction Christian indie art rock," Jessy and the boys will find their voices in the industry.
Favorite Band/Artist: Bellarive Featured Fan: Jacob Betts Location: Houghton Lake, Michigan When/Where Was The Above Photo Taken: Camp Electric 2013 Nashville What About This Artist's Music Speaks To You: Bellarive's music to me is like taking a breath of fresh air. Today's modern worship scene is sometimes lacking in deep and meaningful lyrics. The beauty of these songs, both lyrical and musical, is truly an act of worship. Whether it's hearing the message of hope for eternity (Taste of Eternity) or striving to draw closer to God (Heartbeat & Tendons), Bellarive challenges you to step outside of your comfort zone and push yourself to become closer and closer to the Lord. I first saw them a week after my father died. The song "Taste Of Eternity" had more meaning than ever, reassuring me that our meeting again in paradise will be an everlasting reunion. Favorite Album by This Artist: The Heartbeat
Favorite Song by This Artist: "Stories"
Favorite Live Show Experience: Camp Electric 2013
Number of Times Seen This Artist Live: 9
Favorite Piece Of Merch/Item You Own From This Artist: I have a signed copy of "The Heartbeat" and my guitar case is signed by the band
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It's no secret that we at JFH advocate for excellence in Christian art. Anything that Christians put their hands to deserves to be done well, giving the glory to God in the process. But I have recently been contemplating the concept of what "Christian art" is supposed to look like in the real world, particularly when it comes to how listeners are supposed to interact with the music they listen to.
To sum up my feelings on the matter, I think Christians are supposed to enjoy music.
At first, this sounds like a "duh" statement, but I think the word "enjoyable" is more comprehensive than it sounds. There's two main definitions for the word "enjoy." The first is straightforward, "to take pleasure in," which is simple enough. But the second makes the word a little more complex: "to have or experience." Experiencing music seems a lot different than just listening to it, doesn't it?
When the term "enjoyable" is applied to music, it can often bring to mind recyclable pop music that doesn't take too many chances. The song begins, the catchy beat takes hold, the simple lyrics are easy to memorize, and the listener can hang their hat on the song's whole. It's a quick escapist detour that lasts for a whole three and half minutes, though it's over as soon as it begins. If that's all that "enjoyable" music is supposed to be, Christians are selling themselves severely short. Great music grows on the listener with time, unfolding layer after layer with successive listens.
Please don't misunderstand me by inferring that I think pop music as a whole is bad. To call out one whole genre as a lower form of art than another would be to discredit the artists who use pop music to its fullest artistic potential. But if you turn on any Top 40 pop radio station, you can immediately hear the kind of material I'm talking about: unsophisticated and hopelessly aimless pop ditties. And all too often, CCM stations echo this same method with their setlists comprised of mindless earworms that don't improve the quality of life of the listener beyond a few minutes.
Art is not a utilitarian concept, of course, but truly enjoyable art requires a significant investment of time and emotion. It means listening many times, though not necessarily in a row. It means personally applying it, empathizing with the spirit of the song's message. It means comparing the song to others like it, identifying what makes it unique and beyond the norm. It means letting the music affect you in the long run rather than compartmentalizing the listening experience to the length of the song.
This concept of enjoying music affects how I approach every album I hear, especially when reviewing something for JFH. I can't tell you how many times I have listened to an album for the first time, disliked it, but learned to love it after more listens. Given that I have to write a polished critique of the album in the near future, I have to listen to an album more than once. If I wrote my album reviews after only one self-contained listen, I wouldn't be handing out too many positive reviews, and even the positive reviews wouldn't be credible or properly representative of the music. But that's why I hesitate to give a decisive opinion so early on in the listening process. Sure, there are albums that I've enjoyed on the first listen with my attitude towards it not changing much, but they're rare. Great art grows on you.
Is this taking music too seriously? Taking this concept a step further, what happens if we approach people this way? There's the adage that first impressions are deceiving, and it's just as true for music as it is with people. Are first impressions important? Absolutely! We always want to present ourselves well when we meet people for the first time. But if we judged others on just those first impressions, we'd have some lopsided relationships to wrestle with. My deepest friendships are with those who I've gotten to know over time, over many occasions and seasons, not on one-time, one-way transactions. When we truly experience people, we see their many facets, and we love them for who they truly are. I'd contend that if we are interacting with music in a similar fashion, we gain a better idea of our both ourselves and the music we're listening to, giving everyone their due credit. Experiencing music isn't as complicated as experiencing people, by the way.
With all of this in mind, there are some inherent dangers attached if we change our music listening habits to this method. For some, this could be a huge lifestyle change. This refreshed concept of art as an enjoyable entity creates quite a few problems for a culture that thrives on speed and instant gratification. We want to enjoy things now! But when Christians can slow down, find beauty in the details over a span of time, and learn to love the individual parts that make up the whole, our perspective on enjoyment will change for the better. The Christian's status as an image-bearer makes this level of enjoyment possible, and if we apply this reasoning to our habits as music consumers, we can become music "enjoyers" instead.
Favorite Band/Artist: Skillet Featured Fan:Egypt Ali Location: Euclid, Ohio When/Where Was The Above Photo Taken: ALIVE Festival 2013 What About This Artist's Music Speaks To You: Skillet was my first band, ever. I was 12 and wanted so badly to find music that I liked and that my mother approved of. I was very lonely and started to Google "Christian Rock bands" thinking that there couldn't be anything bad in a Christian Rock song. Skillet was the first result. I listened to "Whispers in the Dark" for the first time at about 1 in the morning after a really bad day. I can honestly say that in that moment that song seemed to be meant for me. I love how every single one of their songs has a mission and a statement to make. A lot of bands can get out there and make noise but it takes true anointment to make a sound. They do it every time. Skillet always teaches you something every time you hear them. They make you think and they make you act. I heard one song and after that have been a solid Panhead ever since. Although, I did have fun explaining to my mother that my favorite band was named after a frying pan. :) Favorite Album by This Artist: Collide
Favorite Song by This Artist: "Alien Youth"
Favorite Live Show Experience: ALIVE Festival 2013
Number of Times Seen This Artist Live: 12 times live. 3 times online.
Favorite Piece Of Merch/Item You Own From This Artist: I have a signed drum stick from Jen Ledger that I caught at my first concert, but I'd have to say that my favorite item is the Rise CD. At Alive they were having a pre-sale and because I was the first to buy it, I was the owner of the first ever Rise CD in existence, which is how I got to meet them.
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So, by now, many of you are probably thinking something. That thought may or may not be related to JFH. If it is not related to JFH, I won’t even venture trying to guess what that thought is. However, if it is related to JFH, I have a very strong hunch I know what you are thinking. I’ll bet is falls something along these lines
“WOW! Switchfoot has FIVE positive reviews!”
“I didn’t think Fading West was that great."
“Of course JFH would post five great reviews of Switchfoot, they’re all biased fanboys."
“What is a 2-cents review?”
“Why does Switchfoot, or any album for that matter, have five reviews in the first place?”, or possibly
“I can’t believe JFH gave Nine Lashes a positive review! They usually hate modern rock!”
If your thought was more along the lines that last bullet point, that is a topic for a different post (and probably a different person). However, if it was along the lines of the first five bullets, then this post is for you.
Longtime readers may recognize “2-Cents Reviews” as an appendage onto a reader review, like on this review of the Newsboy’s Take Me To Your Leader, or this review of Demon Hunter’s self-titled debut, or even this review of DC Talk’s 1989 debut. Their original purpose was to give an official rating to albums that otherwise would have none (either due to the fact that they came out a while ago, or no one on staff ever got around to writing a full review). But a reader had to write a review of the album first in order to get a 2-Cents Review.
Recently, the staff was having a discussion, and after going through a variety of different topics, somehow it came around to our current review format. That is, that albums, if they are reviewed, have a main opinion and a second opinion, and if not reviewed, a reader (ie, you guys) can send in their own review that might get posted if it is fair enough (and written well enough), and might get a 2-Cents Review as well. In any event, someone on staff (actually me, but I digress) suddenly came to realization that, well, why not have more than two staff reviews? We’re not bound by any strict “Music Website Code,” that firmly states, “Thou shalt not review an album more than twice!” Plus, with more reviews comes either more diversity or a stronger consensus, so the readers can get a clearer idea of what the staff as a whole thinks, not just one or two people on staff.
But then, as soon as I thought that, I also realized, “…but then someone would have to actually write those reviews.” And I can tell you, writing reviews can be a very tedious chore. Not to mention that it is a chore for a reader to read them all. But then I thought about those 2-Cent reviews: Those are easy enough to write. They are about a paragraph long. Easy to write, and easy to read. Diversity of opinion is offered, readers are more interested, it makes our site even more unique, and since 2-Cent Reviews were already offered in some capacity, it would not be hard to implement. Everyone wins!
As such, Fading West is the first album to receive this treatment. Not because we are biased fanboys of Switchfoot and just want to keep gushing out praise for them, but because, well, they were the first truly “big” album of the year that many staff members have heard and wanted to offer their thoughts on, and hopefully the first of many. Simple as that.
Hope you guys like the idea. Let us know what you think!
Prisoner to the Chains of Time - The Music of Common Children
I write full time; all kinds of things, books, articles for magazines, humorous columns etc. When I write, I usually select something out of my record collection to put on, and sometimes I go with a theme, or "band of the week." A few weeks ago, Common Children, an important band to me during a critical time in my life, was the choice, and hearing such poignant music made me think some big thoughts as I wrote about silly things, like the groundhog who is now living under my porch, and whether or not to contact my daughter's teacher to ask if the spelling words she is sending home are far too advanced and difficult for my 2nd grader. ("Opinionated" is a great word, but tough on the psyche of a seven-year-old at test time.)
I first ran across the music of Common Children as a senior in High School. I picked up their first album Skywirein the spring of that year and in those days of confusion and anxiety about my future and who I was in Christ. Hearing a band address the “deeper issues of life” from a perspective of faith meant the world to me. Later in college, after my first (and thankfully last) broken heart, the music of their second album Delicate Fadereminded me that all of life is under God’s control, and that He is always with us. Their third and last album, The Inbetween Time, helped me to see that there are two sides to every story and that life is wonderfully complex. The lead singer and primary lyricist, Marc Byrd, remains a busy man. In the last decade, he has co-written the popular worship song “God of Wonders,” released a worship album with his wife under the name “Glassbyrd,” and recorded a few fantastic instrumental albums under the band name “Hammock.” All three Common Children albums can be found in various places online, and should be required listening for every young person of faith.
The following thoughts are related to my favorite song on each of Common Children’s fantastic three albums, Skywire, Delicate Fade and The Inbetween Time.
"Absence of Light" - The Inbetween Time (2001) This week my pastor said that “church needs to be a living shelter for lost and hurting people.” To emphasize this point, he read the story of the prodigal son and stated this one line over and over again “love, not logic”. The point that I easily miss in this story is that the prodigal son brought his misery on himself. His selfishness and impulsiveness led to his wretched state, not any other factor that can be seen in the story. It would have been logical for the father to run the prodigal son off his property, or to take the son up on his offer to be a slave in his father’s household. But it is the illogical choice that is made. The father celebrates the return of the son and restores him to his former position. The first song on The Inbetween Time, which addresses this issue so well, opens with haunting Pink Floyd-like atmospherics that bring to mind the coldness of space, then drenched in reverb, a ghostly voice rings out seemingly from above the music...
For maybe just a second, the sun was in your eyes
It flickers like a spark from the fire that burns inside.
You were broken by the darkness by the silence of the night,
Searching for a shelter from the cold absence of light
This song stopped me cold when I first heard it. The atmospherics bring to mind a very cold day and the lyrics suggest to me that whoever the narrator is talking about brought on his own suffering. The lines “For maybe just a second, the sun was in your eyes” suggest a momentary lapse of judgment. But the narrator does not pass judgment on the main character. Instead, he points out that he was “broken by the darkness, by the silence of the night”. To me this was a refreshing perspective. Suffering in any form must be met with true Christ-like compassion. Christ had a true love for those whose poor decisions had produced suffering in their own lives. It has been said time and again, but it is worth repeating. Christ hung out with some pretty unsavory people; tax collectors, prostitutes and various other “fallen people.” He did not shun these people, but rather showed “illogical love” in a real way. These people had been “broken by the darkness” and were responding to the light that Christ offered. This song helped to change my perspective on those who have had a “moral failure.” Who among us has not ever had a lapse of judgment; let him cast the first stone. Thanks be to Jesus for loving us illogically.
"Broken Smile" - Skywire (1996) A prevailing stereotype of Christians is that they are all happy go lucky, out of touch with reality, “Ned Flanders”-like people. Somewhere in his past, Ned was told to “count it all joy” when misfortune finds him. (James 1:2, a powerful scripture, but woefully out of context here) He says “well, praise the Lord” when his house is demolished by a tornado or “she’s in a much better place now” when his wife passes away suddenly. Fair or not, this stereotype exists and it is vital to try to figure out where it comes from. I would like to suggest that it comes, in part, from the art that we produce. From cliché ridden “positive” music that anyone can find on their car radio, to schmaltzy visual art, so much of what we produce suggests that that everything in the Christian life is hunky dory. I like to call it the “I once was lost, but now I’m found” phenomenon. This phrase from "Amazing Grace," (possibly the most profound song ever written) when taken out of context from the rest of the hymn, leads to some mistaken notions. Notions that say “Now that I have been born again, all of a sudden my problems are over and the rest of life will be a cakewalk.” But as we all know, this in no way matches the reality of daily life. Those who are “found” still suffer gut wrenching tragedy, crippling depression and doubt. (See Job, King David. The Apostle Paul)
Why does the music we create not adequately reflect the experiences we all go through? Music has been called “the healing art form” and brings comfort to so many in times of trial. After September 11th, radio stations played selected songs with “healing aspects” to them nonstop and Rolling Stone even published a list of top songs people named that helped them through those tragic events. Why do Christians, who have the ultimate hope to offer, someone to walk beside us through this dark world, and hope of a better world to come, write such pithy music to express this wonderful truth?
When I fist heard "Broken Smile" from Common Children’s Skywire I was stopped in my tracks because I had never heard such a profound song about loss and alienation come from out of the CCM world. Here was a song that in both its lyric and music captured the emotion of sadness and loss. Songs like this were being written by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but I had never heard one from a “Christian” artist. The simple nature of the track, with its barebones acoustic guitar playing dark minor chords and assorted minimalist instrumentation of violins and cellos, is reminiscent of the unplugged era of MTV. The harmony vocal provided by Christina Glass (later to be Marc Byrd’s wife) adds the final haunting touch.
What makes this song unique in Christian music is that the writer did not feel the need to wrap up the song with a “Jesus is the answer” final verse. The song is simply a meditation on sadness, how it can stay with you for a long time, how it can creep into every aspect of your life, how it seems never ending.
Can the truth refine and free the soul?
When the hurt you have is all you know?
Through endless searching and nights of wondering
Someone said, “Just let it go”.
We all know that we all have felt the pain
For a little while.
With lines such as “can the truth refine and free the soul when the hurt you have is all you know?” the writer dares to question God. He says "I believe that you are true, but what does that mean to me during this time? Can your truth lead me to freedom from this sadness, this darkness in my soul”? This kind of hard questioning is rare in Christian music, but it is, ironically, common in scripture. David asked “How long will you hide your face from me O Lord.” (Psalm 88:14) This might seem blasphemous to many, but to David “a man after God’s own heart” it was a very natural comment. In an article in Seven Ball magazine, I read how a couple had written to Marc Byrd and told him that the song had helped them get through the loss of a child to miscarriage. This floored me. A couple found, in Christian music, a song that spoke to them during a time of profound loss. Such an accomplishment should be celebrated and not easily beforgotten.
The Eyes of God - Delicate Fade (1997) Perhaps responding to criticism that their music was too dark, Common Children released “Eyes of God” as the first single off their second album Delicate Fade. The song did pretty well on Christian radio, no doubt due to its more positive outlook. The track kicks off with a chiming guitar that is decidedly more radio friendly than the harder edge of the previous album, and when the chorus kicks in, it finds Marc Byrd singing…
All the while the Eyes of God shine on us
The Broken smile and the eyes
God shine on us
Feel the pain
You need to show
Take the time
Now let it go
Embrace this day of healing
What I find so interesting, is that this song makes a reference both lyrically and thematically back to the aforementioned song "Broken Smile"on Common Children’s previous album, Skywire. It’s as if Marc Bryd didn’t want to leave the listener where he left them after hearing that song. “There’s more to life than this” he says, “you can be free”. “Eyes of God” serves as a sort of alternative music instruction manual for how to deal with the tragedy that “Broken Smile” described so well. Marc Byrd first instructs the listener to “feel the pain/you need to show”. Honesty is crucial when dealing with suffering of any kind. Being like Ned Flanders and saying “everything is fine” is to be dishonest with yourself. Everything is not all right. It’s ok to say that, to assess your situation honestly. This type of honesty is very difficult for many believers who think that somehow they have done something to bring on this tragedy on themselves. Many Christians think “This is not the abundant life I have heard so much about, I needto keep this problem undercover until I can figure out where it all went wrong.” Fundamental honesty is the critical starting point for weathering any crisis. Christ never promised an easy life, but he did promise that he would be with us through the tough times. This is a critical distinction.
Next, we are told to “take the time”. The healing of a physical injury cannot be rushed. If you sprain your ankle, there is an approximate amount of time that it takes to heal. You can help the injury to heal quicker with treatment and medications, but there is no such thing as an “instant fix” to a physical injury. Why should injured souls heal any differently? It takes time. This is a tough sell to "instant gratification America." Fast food, fast internet connections, eight minute dating, same day service, we speed all of life up. People who suffer tragedy are often told by well meaning people to “get over it,” “keep a stiff upper lip,” “pull yourself together,” etc. This is terrible advice. Grief needs time to work itself out. This brings us to the last instruction “now let it go/embrace this day of healing”. In the movie Chocolat, an old man is interested in a woman in his 1960’s era French village known as the “Widow Odell”. When asked why he does not pursue her, he responds “the Widow Odell is mourning her late husband who died in the war.” Another character says “well, the war was 15 years ago”. “Oh, no,” the man says, “Her husband died in the First World War. It was quite a shock to the Widow Odell.” There comes a time to let go of your grief, to move on. Holding on to something too long comes with its own price tag. Like the Widow Odell, opportunities may be missed, life may go by unlived. To quote Ecclesiastes, “there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under Heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) Sometimes, it has to be a conscious action to “embrace this day of healing”.
Marc Byrd, like me, probably does not have a degree in counseling, but he writes with his heart and eyes wide open to the world around him. He seems to know loss and heartache very well, and I’m thankful to God that I happened upon the music of Common Children during a formative period of my life. It has helped to shape my thinking in regards to the nature and shape of suffering, and has helped me to be more sensitive to those who Jesus called “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). I thank God that He gave me the ears to hear His truth in the songs of Common Children.
With the recent release of the JFH official staff picks for 2013 and more in-depth blogs about the individual picks of John, Alex and Mark, Michael Weaver joins in with a look into his top albums (and honorable mentions) of this year's album releases...
1. Fear Inside Our Bones, The Almost - Aaron Gillespie has been quite busy since deciding to leave Underoath.Between writing a solo worship album and touring for said album, as well as The Almost, he’s had a full schedule.While I was looking forward to Fear Inside Our Bones, I wasn’t looking for it to top my list; I wasn’t even looking for it to be an album that landed on my Top 10 list this year at all.Instead, what I was given was an album I listened to more than any other this year.Reviewing some albums can honestly be a chore.When you get ahold of a weaker album -- I will not mention any names -- it’s tough to keep listening in order to give it a fair shake.That was simply not the case with this record.I honestly enjoyed every song on this album and, while I did consider a couple of others for the top stop, there wasn’t really a competition for it.If you’ve never been a fan of The Almost in the past, it’s time you give them another shot.This alt-rock album with a slightly southern flare is sure to please most rock fans.
2. Saloon, The Ongoing Concept - I was completely unfamiliar with their music.Basically, I watched the lyric video for “Cover Girl” and thought, “This sounds decent enough.”That was the understatement of the year.This album brings a metalcore sound with a wild west feel that is ridiculous.Saloon is catchy and fun and reminiscent of early Showbread.Any metal fan should at least give this one a shot.Some people may not agree that metal music should have pianos and B3 organs mixed with heavy guitars, but these guys pull it off with a near flawless execution.The Ongoing Concept provided the surprise of the year for me and is easily my favorite new artist of 2013.Solid State Records still has a good eye for talent.
3. The Water & The Blood, Dustin Kensrue - Mars Hill Music has been doing an excellent job of acquiring worship leaders for their different campuses.Thrice front man Dustin Kensrue was the most interesting of the bunch for me.While Thrice has always been lumped in with Christian bands by many (even if the band wasn't keen on the idea), and Kensrue himself has never shied away from his spiritual beliefs, he’s simply not a guy I figured for a worship leader.Well, I was wrong.The Water & The Blood displays worship music with an indie rock sound similar to that of a Kings of Leon or NEEDTOBREATHE mixed with a bit of folk influence found in his previous solo works.The formula ultimately offers up honest and sound worship music.Even better are the lyrics: theologically deep and far from cliché.Anyone who knows me, or has read a couple of my reviews, probably knows that I have many issues with the course that modern worship music is on.Dustin Kensrue has delivered what’s probably, quite honestly, my favorite worship album ever.
4. Royal Flush, FLAME - FLAME is far from an unknown commodity, but I still hold to the fact that this guy is severely overlooked and underrated.This super-talented rapper has been nominated for a ton of awards and always loses out to someone else.He also seems to be rarely mentioned by fans of CHH when names like Lecrae take the spotlight.Awards and accolades mean nothing to FLAME, though.After interviewing him about a month ago, it’s obvious that he is only about spreading the love of Christ to others.Royal Flush definitely accomplishes that.For me, this was the hands-down top rap album of the year.FLAME is on top of his game and has released his best album to date.God has given you the Royal Flush; what do you plan to do with the winning hand?
5. Backdraft, Fallstar - Fallstar shifted from the indie label Come&Live! to Facedown Records -- a more established label (especially in the metal genres).Backdraft is a record that provided me with tons of listening fun.Straight up metal, metalcore and the interesting hip-hop within “Alexandria 363” is spread throughout.Fallstar have stepped into the spotlight and delivered.From the great music to the fun album cover, Backdraft is a must-have for metal fans.
6. Between Here & Lost, Love and Death - Brian “Head” Welch and company didn’t release the most original rock album of the year, but they released one of the most solid overall.With sounds that were similar to his solo album and that of his former (and now current band again) Korn, Head knows the formula for success.Between Here & Lost added melodic elements in with the heavy on the musical side of the spectrum, and thankfully featured Brian being much more comfortable with his role as lead singer.Musically and vocally better than Save Me From Myself, Between Here & Lost is a great album well worthy of its spot on my Top 10 list.
7. Unworthy/Humility, Creations - I fully expected Creations to provide me with just another generic metal album to pass the time.Upon first listen, I thought that is exactly what I got.With each subsequent listen, I discovered so much more.Buried deep within the heaviness of it all are small subtleties that really set it off.Every time I listened, I heard something new and interesting.I can see how this record could be quickly passed off after only one listen, but, if you were guilty of this, I urge you to listen again -- this time more intently.This impressive metal album unexpectedly snuck its way right onto my Top 10.
8. Inland, Jars of Clay - Jars of Clay once again sits atop of our JFH site average list.Many people think very highly of Jars and rightly so.I fell in love with Jars of Clay way back at youth camp when I first heard “Flood.”When I got home, I immediately bought the single (on cassette and CD) and forced my parents to listen to it repeatedly.(In the end, they were actually pretty thankful and are still fans today.)Once the debut finally released, I found myself even deeper in love.Jars of Clay were revealed to me at a time when I was REALLY starting to embrace music and were probably my first favorite band.All of these years later, Jars of Clay is still relevant and still making great music.They manage to recreate themselves with each album, but still stay true to who they are.While Inland wasn’t my personal favorite for 2013, it is more than worthy of claiming the site’s top spot.I already can’t wait for their next.
9. Engine of a Million Plots, Five Iron Frenzy - When Five Iron Frenzy called it quits, I was heartbroken.I still count myself thankful for being able to attend one of the dates on their farewell tour.When they announced their reunion, and the Kickstarter campaign to fund it was so ridiculously successful, I honestly got a bit worried.Expectations were probably higher for this album than any other Christian album... ever -- at least in recent history.When I got my hands on this to review it, a nervous anxiousness came over me as I hit play.Once the music came to a halt after “Blizzards & Bygones,” I sat back in disappointment.I didn’t think it was a bad record, but it wasn’t what the long time FIF in me wanted.I wanted ska.I wanted funny songs.I wanted an awe-inspiring worship number that puts all worship artists to shame.I basically got none of that.After a couple of days, I listened for the second time without any expectations and started to become pleasantly surprised.It wasn’t the album the fan in me wanted, but I think it was the right album for Five Iron at the time.It’s still lyrically deep, though maybe not their best, and musically as solid as ever.Engine of a Million Plots will not go down as my favorite Five Iron Frenzy record, but it was a great comeback and managed to find its way inside my top 10 albums of 2013.
10. Kings and Queens, Audio Adrenaline - I think most people would agree that Audio Adrenaline today is not really Audio Adrenaline.One founding member in a band, especially when it’s not the lead singer, does not make it the original band.At least the change in Newsboys has happened over time...Audio A went from non-existent to reformed, with basically all new people, overnight.Though it’s very strange that the powerhouses of the nineties have switched teams, Kevin Max (Smith)’s vocals are still just flat-out amazing.The guy has always been a little quirky, but, man, can he sing.While it’s so obvious that Kings and Queens is not an Audio Adrenaline album (even though their name appears on the cover), it's undeniably a great pop/rock record.It took a while to get this out of my CD player after purchasing it and I still like revisiting it now.This one was honestly close to being on the outside looking in at the top 10, but in the end, I just couldn’t leave it out.Maybe it was just nostalgia, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one anyway.
As with every year, it’s tough to narrow the list down to only 10.I was really happy with Christian music in 2013, heard a lot of great albums, and discovered some amazing new talent.The actual posting had no room for honorable mentions, but here I can let you know about them.
1. Line in the Sand, Close Your Eyes - It really hurts that this didn’t land on my Top 10; I’ve actually even stressed a little about it not being there.This record was off-the-charts good and that’s quite impressive after a couple of changes of lead singers between albums.
2. Extol, Extol - These death metal veterans returned with a vengeance.After such a long leave of absence, it was great to have these guys back.This was a great heavy album and proved that Extol haven’t lost a step or forgotten how to write brilliant material.Extol’s return became my favorite album by these legends of the industry.
3. On My Way to the Sun, John Elefante - I’ve been a John Elefante fan for a while.John graced us all with a great progressive rock album reminiscent of his 70’s and espcially 80’s years.The former Kansas front man released a superb album that garnered a lot of play time for me.
4. 8:18, The Devil Wears Prada - TDWP continue to grow and improve with time.I really don’t know what else can be said for this awesome album that revolves around Romans 8:18.
5. Minorville, Derek Minor - Derek Minor (formerly PRo) is back with some powerful messages.For me, this wasn’t Derek’s best, but it’s seriously hard hitting.The messages in songs like “Dear Mr. Christian” are a necessity for today’s generation.It’s a solid album that all hip-hop fans should spin at least once.
6. No More Hell to Pay, Stryper - Michael Sweet still has an amazing set of pipes.These kings of 80’s glam metal have returned with their best since the smash To Hell With the Devil.I finally listened to this one late in the year, but it was still in contention for a top spot.It’s a fun record with great music and a straightforward and Godly message.Stryper is back and bringing that familiar Stryper sound with an added modern twist.
We've been picking our Year-End favorites in Christian music for 11 years now, but we've always kept the lists themselves pretty straightforward as titles and artists only. This year, we thought it'd be fun for any of the staff who were interested to present their lists (in addition to the official compilation of staff members) in blog format with our own commentary on why the albums were picked. Alex and Mark have already weighed in, and I thought I'd follow suit.
Inland, Jars of Clay -- I realize this'll show my age some, but back in 1995, I first saw Jars of Clay open for PFR before their self-titled debut even released. My older brother actually ended up liking their live show more than I did, but it didn't stop me from grabbing his album preview cassette (remember those?) and listening to it over and over while waiting for the full CD to release. I ended up calling my local Christian bookstore every couple weeks to find out when the much-delayed album was going to be in stock (the date kept moving apparently...the internet would have been nice to have at this point in time). So, since 1995, when I was a freshman in high school, I've been listening to Jars of Clay pretty faithfully. There isn't a single other band I can think of that I can tell you that I've listened to from the age of 15 to today at 33 where not a single one of their members have left (or have been added) and they haven't broken up and reunited at some point. I've listened to Jars as a teen, when I started JFH (I even saw them in concert the same night I started JFH), during my dating years, while engaged, newly married, trying to figure out adulthood, entering into parenthood, and trying to adjust to change and getting older. You can realistically look at where Jars of Clay was when they started, musically and lyrically, and where they are today and see incredible growth and maturation. So, all of that is to say that Inland hits home now as an adult about as much as the debut did when I was in my mid-teens. I'm quite thankful these guys are still at it full-time.
The Glorious Unfolding, Steven Curtis Chapman - In the same way that I started listening to Jars as a teen, I first started listening to Steven Curtis Chapman when I was around 14 years old, and a fairly new believer. His album Heaven In The Real World struck a major chord with me as someone looking for hope during those perplexing, trying teenage years. (Let's face it: high school is TOUGH!) His songs have always resonated with me, and The Glorious Unfolding has already been speaking volumes into my own life. I've already turned to songs like the title track and "Take Another Step" as a soundtrack for the current season of life.
Need You Now, Plumb - You're going to see a pattern here... Plumb is another band I started listening to right out of the gate with their debut in 1996. The industrial rock sound that Plumb displayed (y'know, before Tiffany adopted "Plumb" as her name instead of as a band name) was cool and different for the Christian music industry, but it isn't the sound that she would become known for. Need You Now has not only been a longtime coming, but it's a record that, like The Glorious Unfolding and Inland, represent seasons in these veteran musicians' lives, and seasons I can relate to as a longtime fan and listener who's grown along with them.
Reanimated, Family Force 5 - Hey, there's something to be said for guilty pleasures. Family Force 5 was a band I first experienced at GMA Week 2005 in Nashville, TN and was immediately captivated by their fun-loving live show. It's really not my typical kind of music, either, but there's just something about them that I've always loved. Reanimated captured some more of the fun that seemed to be in short supply on their album III, while offering a couple of their new live fan favorites (like "Chainsaw"). And with Solomon "Soul Glow Activatur" Olds' recent announcement that he has left the band, this collection serves as his swan song as vocalist and an end of an era.
Fading West EP, Switchfoot - Some will find my inclusion of a 3-song sampler EP on a year-end list as a cop-out (especially since I can tell you pretty confidently already that Fading West will be somewhere on my 2014 year-end list), but I feel like I have good reason... Aside from the fact that Switchfoot is another band I've listened to since their 1997 debut, The Legend of Chin, when I was a senior in high school, Switchfoot has been another band to write songs that have spoken to me throughout many of the chapters of my life. I downloaded this EP from iTunes while sitting in a hotel lobby in Switchfoot's hometown of San Diego, CA. I'd never been to California before, but my older brother moved there almost 9 years ago and we'd made our first visit to the left coast to visit them this year when his first child was born (she's the most adorable little niece I could ask for! but I digress...). I was taken back by the immensely poppy sound of the new Switchfoot songs, but with more listens, I began to see something different in them (plus, hey, it was just really cool listening to their music IN San Diego for the first time since I first heard them 16 years ago!). [Side note: I'm still not a fan of their Oh! Gravity. album, aside from a couple songs--like "Awakening", so I'm not just one of those fans that is quick to love everything a band does.] Since first listening to this EP, I've seen the Fading West film and gotten the chance to hear where these songs fit into the movie as part of its soundtrack. I've also heard all three songs live, and I've been listening to the full-length album that releases in a few weeks. I can honestly say I love this EP and it represents a memorable chapter of my year this year. (And, quite frankly, I loved this 3-song EP more than most of the year's full-length albums...even if I'm still partial to Switchfoot's Vice Verses kind of sound)
Troubled Days, Seabird - Seabird is a great example of a band I didn't fully "get" until I saw them perform live in concert at a festival while they were touring their debut album. Now, they're fully indie and have self-produced their latest record, Troubled Days. It didn't disappoint and was surprisingly a melancholy commentary on love, lost love, and perseverance in love. It's something most anyone who's been in a relationship can really relate to... just keep some tissues on hand.
Live, All Sons & Daughters - If you've been reading JFH for any amount of time, not only will you notice that we collectively, as writers, look for art in music to be married with worshipful lyrics, but I myself am very, very (very, very) picky when it comes to worship music. Trust me, it's nothing I'm proud of. If anything, I'd love to be able to pop on any given worship album and blissfully connect with our Savior through the music. However, it's not the case for me at all. Worship music that stands apart from the norm, doesn't subscribe to overly simplistic instrumentation, structure, overused phrases, over-sung choruses, or subpar vocals, seems to be near impossible to find. But with All Sons & Daughters, we have a pairing of artists who not only can sing, but really know how to write a great song that can be used in corporate worship or in a more intimate setting.Personally, I feel like a lot of LIVE worship albums have a "you just had to be there" feeling, while some can really pull you into the experience. (I'm more partial to intimate worship considering how some big, loud, boisterous live worship albums can seem too showy) All Sons & Daughters' LIVE album is a near perfect presentation because it's got the energy of a live album but the sound of a more intimate experience. It's easily my favorite worship album of 2013. Nothing else comes close.
Freaks, The Hawk In Paris - Speaking of guilty pleasures, if you haven't heard of The Hawk In Paris, you may be surprised to know that it's Jars of Clay vocalist Dan Haseltine's side project. It's not really a CCM market release (although he did give us permission to cover it with that understanding), but it's a batch of synth-popanthems for the soldiers on the battlefield of love. It's very different from Jars but fans of Dan's day job will probably find a lot to like about this one. (I mean, c'mon... he's got a song with the chorus "Our love is science fiction"!)
Currents, Eisley - Eisley's The Valley was a very different record for them, but it spoke to the different experiences of my own romantic ups and downs throughout my own life. Currents was more of a return to form for the band (I also loved Combinations and this more closely follows that album in feel), and is definitely an album I haven't overplayed, so it's still a treat to revisit each time.(And be sure to grab the live acoustic versions they released exclusively through iTunes!)
Black and White, Tal & Acacia - Tal & Acacia's label debut Wake Me surprised me. Equally surprising was Provident Label Group's blatant dropping of the ball in promoting that fine record. (Really. Just because it didn't fit AC Christian radio didn't mean it didn't have some serious gems on it!) It had a mix of fun and serious with some truly impressive vocals from these sisters at its forefront. Their follow-up, Black & White, was entirely fan-funded via Kickstarter and self-produced by the girls. It's a much more laid back and raw (production-wise) album compared to Wake Me, but there's something so infectiously charming about these two that it makes it quite difficult to ignore. I really hope it won't be too long before we hear new music again from these gals again.
And that's it. I did have a few other albums warring for my top 10. For kicks, here they are: Five Iron Frenzy, Engine of a Million Plots .... Justin McRoberts, K .... Arrows & Sound,Arrows & Sound .... Newsboys, Restart (It's still not "Newsboys" without Furler to me, but it's a catchy record nonetheless), and Audio Adrenaline,Kings & Queens (likewise, it's not really AudioA as I know them without Mark, but Kevin Max's incredible vocals make this a top pop rock album)
And yet another year in music is drawing to an end. Like any year, there were plenty of great albums released, as well as plenty of doozies and plenty of albums in between. I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone that I didn’t listen to all of them. BUT, I listened to a lot of them. In fact, at this exact moment in time, I calculate that I have listened to 87 albums (covered by this site) released in the calendar year of 2013, covering a wide variety of genres. And I honestly really liked a lot of them. To be honest, I had a genuinely difficult time narrowing it down to just ten, both in spite of and thanks to the fact that other than my album of the year (and possible #2 too), there were no albums that I fell head-over-heels in love with. But narrow it down I had to, so I did. As such these are my personal top ten albums of the year…
1. Beautiful Eulogy Instruments of Mercy
I direct you to my review. Nothing more need be said.
2. Plumb Need You Now
Prior to Need You Now, Plumb had made five high-quality records, with Chaotic Resolve being the best of the bunch. But this record easily bests all five in my book. A superb balance of accessibility and artistry that pulls my emotional strings in all the right places, Plumb’s album is pop/rock gold.
3. Derek Webb I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry, & I Love You
Another artist with a proven track-record of quality, Webb has no fear of being provocative. But on I Was Wrong…, he turns his sharp tongue on himself and he delivers his most introspective effort ever, as well as his most organic and inviting album in years.
4. Steven Curtis Chapman The Glorious Unfolding
Allow me to indulge myself by mentioning this quality record from my personal favorite artist. The Glorious Unfolding is unequivocal proof that Chapman can reach across generation lines as well no as he could twenty years ago, making high-quality contemporary pop/rock that is still as relevant now as it ever was.
5. Audrey Assad Fortunate Fall
Last year’s offering from Assad was my introduction to her captivating piano pop, but while Heart was without doubt a quality record and I certainly enjoyed it, I personally found it less than enthralling. Fortunate Fall, however, enthralls me. Stripping all away but Assad’s voice and a piano (with sparse instrumentation), this soothing, liturgical worship record was nothing less than phenomenal.
6. Daniel Amos Dig Here Said The Angel
Seventeen years before I was born, Daniel Amos was formed while Christian Rock was still a child. In 2013, I heard my introduction to Daniel Amos through the band’s 14th studio album (and first in 12 years), Dig Here Said The Angel. Their alt rock sound is so timeless that they could sound at home in any one of the last five decades.
7. Jars of Clay Inland
When a band reaches the heights and prestige that Jars of Clay has, expectations become almost impossible, so the foursome has wisely decided to ignore them and simply make high quality music. Inland is a more melancholy album than I personally would have preferred (hence, why it’s “only” number seven), but the quality, originality, and all-around effort is undeniable and incredible.
8. John Elefante On My Way To The Sun
Having never before heard of John Elefante, I chose to review On My Way To The Sun almost by random impulse. In hindsight, I am very tempted to attribute that impulse to nothing less than divine influence. Drawing inspiration from classic and progressive rock and 90’s contemporary (among others), the former Kansas lead singer and prolific Christian Rock producer delivered my personal surprise album of the year.
9. Stryper No More Hell To Pay
I’ll be honest; I like Stryper, and appreciate their immense impact on Christian music, but I’ve never been too impressed with their music. Not until No More Hell To Pay. By far the group’s most mature and complete work, No More Hell To Pay delivers an album that is both quintessential classic Stryper metal and a refreshing update to their sound (rather than one-or-the-other like their other 21st century albums).
10. Falling Up Midnight on Earthship/Falling Up Hours
These two albums together (along with a book) form the Machine De Ella Project, released track-by-track over a period of over four months. Though not technically related (and admittedly written for different fanbases), these albums complement each other wonderfully between the drawn-out experimental effort Hours and the more mellow, ethereal Midnight on Earthship.
Thankfully, my list of honorable mentions need not be confined to ten, and if the readers might indulge me for my overwhelming gushing, I will take great liberties with that freedom. These albums may not have cracked my top ten, but I’d be no less satisfied with it if they would have…
All Sons & Daughters Live: probably the best pure worship album of the year.
The Almost Fear Inside Our Bones: The first half of this album was album-of-the-year material.
Andy Mineo Heroes For Sale: Excellent and diverse hip-hop from Reach Record’s newest star.
Arrows & Sound Arrows & Sound:Indie experimental at its best from the former Remedy Drive member.
The Digital Age Evening:Morning: The former DC*B members deliver an excellent debut album with room to improve.
Dustin Kensrue The Water And The Blood: Creative, theologically dense worship music from the former Thrice frontman.
The Ember Days More Than You Think: Gorgeous indie worship and the last album to be cut from my top-10.
Extol Extol: I may not be the biggest metal fan, but this was too good to ignore.
Golden Youth Quiet Frame; Wild Light: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t discover this one until my list had been made.
Hillsong UNITED Zion: A phenomenal musical and lyrical upgrade to Hillsong’s usual fare
Least Of These Change Will Come: Aggressive indie rock with a offered as a free gift.
Norma Jean Wrongdoers: By far my personal favorite Norma Jean album
The Ongoing Concept Saloon: Wild, chaotic, awesome, unpredictable western influenced metalcore
Phil Wickham The Ascension: Solid modern worship even by Wickham’s high standards.
Steven Curtis Chapman Deep Roots: Organic bluegrass renditions of hymns and past hits from my favorite artist.
Tal & Acacia Black & White: Delicious bluesy pop from two sisters with phenomenal vocal chemistry
The Walking Tree We Are Instruments: More aggressive indie rock offered as a free gift.
Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell's Staff Picks 2013 Thoughts
1. Jars Of Clay - Inland
People listen to music for wildly different reasons. Some folks need something to be on in the background during a shift at work, something to occupy their mind or fill up the lonely space around them. Some folks just need to party, and music serves as a catalyst for the good times. Some just like a catchy tune to sing along to.
I’m fine with all this, but I’m always on the lookout for something that moves me, engages all the senses. Melody is necessary, but thoughtfulness and purpose are important too. Music that sticks with me beyond the first listening is what I’m looking for. One Direction might have a catchy song (I saw them on Saturday Night Live a week ago), but that song didn’t really say anything. It was like a piece of candy; yummy but ultimately empty and vacuous.
And no other album hit all those requirements this year like Jars Of Clay’s Inland. It has a strong sense of purpose and theme (not just getting older, but maturing) married to memorable and tuneful songs.
It all started for me with the title. I read a post when the band announced the album’s name, and I was immediately struck with the possibilities of that one word - “inland.”
You see, I’m from the coast of Maine, and I know what it means to go inland. It’s a trip, a hike, a journey. You are leaving what is familiar and traversing into the unknown. The true pioneers of our country went inland; the timid folks remained near the coast and settled.
And Jars Of Clay did exactly what I hoped they would with the title; they used it as a great metaphor for growing up, maturing, and making better decisions. It’s a hike to get away from the coast, from what is usual and familiar, but it’s a trip worth taking. There are mountains to cross, but what you get on the other side is worth the hard work, and is so much better that moldering on the coast. It’s worth it to push inland.
The song titles alone are worth the price of admission. “Reckless Forgiver” (I sure need one everyday), “Love In The Age Of Immature Mistakes” (experienced it, made some big ones), “Love In Hard Times” (had some to get me through), “Loneliness And Alcohol” (we’ve all experienced loneliness, thankfully I knew from a very early age that substances are never a good solution to turn to, thanks mom and dad.)
Production wise, the album is full of sharp songwriting and great performances and great instrumental choices. And Dan Haseltine’s witty, insightful lyrics bring everything home. It’s the total package, and a blueprint for how to mature as a band.
May we all continue to march “inland”.
2. Aaron Sprinkle - Water & Guns
It’s great when a veteran makes a great, unexpected return. Aaron Sprinkle was the main songwriter in beloved 90’s alternative band Poor Old Lu, and he last put out a solo album in 2004, the fantastic compilation that was ironically titled Lackluster. Since then he has been the in-house producer for the Tooth & Nail/ BEC collective. The label kindly let him release this sugarcoated convection of an album this year. Sounding like Sprinkles’ current band Fair mixed with Postal Service type soundscapes, Water & Guns is a bottom to top great album of tuneful songs that prove that what makes you dance and smile can also make you think, feel and ponder.
It’s a wondrous thing when technology is incorporated into music, and somehow makes the music seem more human and emotional in the process. Aaron Sprinkle, who I fist heard back in the early 90’s, shows he knows how to write a hook-filled album that also speaks of deeper truths and rugged faith.
3. Over The Rhine - Meet Me at the Edge of the World
I first saw Over The Rhine live at a small church in Philadelphia in the fall of 1996. I still have not recovered from that concert. They were touring with the Vigilantes Of Love, and that show maintains its number one status as the best show I have ever seen.
And Over The Rhine has never put out a bad album either. Meet Me at the Edge of the World is a wondrous double album that finds main songwriter Linford Detweiler singing alongside his wife more and more, and the harmonies this couple weaves in and out are worthy of Simon and Garfunkle. The album swings from folk-rock to blues to rock and roll and back again. At almost two hours of music, Over The Rhine continues to turn out rich and meaningful music well into their twentieth year.
This band is a well-kept secret that is told more and more every year.
4. Five Iron Frenzy - Engine Of A Million Plots
I had forgotten how much Reese Roper and company made me think as I was skanking away in the mosh pits of my college years. Some of the boldest lyrics in the Christian music marketplace made Five Iron Frenzy a treasure. The band has questioned the American church’s love affair with the right wing of this country, and the glossing over of history when it comes to marginalized people. Taking on gun-culture (“lock and load, just like Jesus did!”) and the soft racism that parades itself as much of “immigration reform” (be scared of brown people, even if they are providing the services that allow you to eat that cheap cheeseburger!) Back in the day, few youth group leaders realized that their kids were listening to critiques of the military-industrial complex or America’s treatment of its Native American population. It’s possible that Five Iron Frenzy was the most subversive thing on the Christian Bookstore’s shelves.
Five Iron has a sneaky way of making you think while you shake about. Their sound here is matured, but familiar. This is a blueprint for how to make a return, rock the body, illuminate the mind.
5. Beautiful Eulogy - Instruments Of Mercy
I am way out of my depths discussing hip-hop. I have very little experience with the genre and I’m constantly afraid of making blundering, mildly-racist observations when the topic comes up. Being from rural Maine does not lead to much perspective here, but Instruments Of Mercy seems like so much more than just beats and rhymes. Genuine instrumentation is the order of the day, and a deep artistry of matching music to themes bursts out of the speakers. “Cello From Portland” opens up the album well (despite its painful pun) and “Vital Lens” and the title track mesh acoustic guitars and pianos to fierce and thoughtfully spit out lyrics. The ending of “Instruments Of Mercy” with its sung ending coda shifts from a hip hop number to a folky, campfire sing along with ease. The takedown of the miserable prosperity gospel that pervades television and bookshelves on “Symbols and Signs” sounds like an updated version of a Old Testament prophet standing on a hill outside Jerusalem and taking down a corrupt kind who would use Jehovah for personal gain. More power to you Beautiful Eulogy.
6. Gungor - I Am Mountain
I think I’ve hit on a theme here, because I Am Mountain might be the most subversive and thought provoking thing currently sitting on your local Christian bookstore’s music shelf.
Coming from a band who made their mark in worship music and touring with the likes of David Crowder Band, Gungor’s new album contains songs that sound like the list of following influences: Sufjan Stevens, 80’s soft rock band Toto, the auto-tuned tendencies of the last few years, the dance music of Daft Punk and the film scores of Ennio Morricone (The Good The Bad And The ugly).
But beyond the wild mix of influences, the questions asked by I Am Mountain make me glad that they took a risk and followed their consciences in making something that was not “safe” but was “true” to the Christian tradition of questioning the status quo. “God An Country”, a song that traces the history of the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels and the wars that dependence has sparked, is probably not played on the loudspeakers very often at your local Family Christian Bookstore, though maybe it should be. This album is the spiciest tamale’ currently in circulation.
7. Citizens - Citizens
By now, most folks know what “worship music” is supposed to sound like (mid-period U2 and Coldplay, with a touch of Pink Floyd for the daring), but Citizens have come charging out of Portland, Oregon (a great city for subversive art and culture, see the show “Portlandia” for further research) with a poppy, punk-rock take on worship. The same vertical lyrics are present, but they are delivered on a bed of spiky guitars and vocals that are anthemic, inspiring and refreshing.
8. Audio Adrenaline - Kings and Queens
I wish these guys would have just gone ahead and named their band something else, because one founding member does not a band resurrection make, especially if that band’s lead singer is well known from his time in another beloved band. It’s like Sting fronting Pearl Jam and still calling the band Pearl Jam. It’s just a silly marketing tactic based on name recognition.
Having said that, the album Kings And Queens is a really tuneful slice of pop-rock that sounds great on the highway and has ten songs that sound like summer and surfing. “Believer” and “Kings And Queens” soar in that way that my ears love, and the video for the title track is heart felt and inspiring in all the right ways.
These guys got back together to raise awareness for the band’s longtime commitment to the orphans of Haiti, and that makes this a comeback that I can get behind and trumps my (mostly surface-level) objections. “Boys will be kings, girls will be queens when we love the least of these.”
9. Plumb - Need You Now
This is another welcome comeback in a year full of them. Tiffany Arbuckle Lee has always had a knack for the dramatic, and it serves her well here on tunes like “Drifting” and the pleading and worshipful title track. The mix of industrial crunch and alternative rock set against Plumb’s wailing voice and great songwriting make Need You Now a comeback worth waiting for. Arbuckle Lee reportedly had a few tough years leading up to the release of this album, and that makes the title all that more important and resonant.
10. Fiction Family - Fiction Family Reunion
When does Jon Foreman sleep? Does he write a song every night before he goes to bed? Does he own stock in Red Bull? Is he currently sitting on twenty albums worth of material?
I hope so. His songs with Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins are folkier versions of Switchfoot songs, but retain the great lyrics (“God Badge being another Old Testament style takedown of shallow religion) and fantastic melodies fans have come to love.
Top 10 Songs of 2013:
1. Switchfoot - “Love Alone is Worth the Fight”
This song does what I hope every new song I hear will do; inspire me to get up, get out of my comfort zone and go live this life God gave me to the fullest. There are few things worth fighting for, most of our struggles down here are for silly things; things that are passing and are honestly a waste of precious personal energy and resources. Love alone is worth the fight. If you mix soaring music with a worthy message then you have me every time. Currently, Jon Foreman and Switchfoot do this for me more than anyone else out there right now. This is a lyric I have written down, put in my pocket and hope to live out every day. Loving my neighbor as myself is a good way to “put my God badge down.” Thank you Switchfoot.
2. Jars Of Clay - “Reckless Forgiver”
Why does God forgive? Why does he show grace? It seems pretty reckless to me, like I’m only going to break his heart again. For that matter, why does my wife extend me grace, why do my daughters? It’s hard to understand, but no less real.
I need a reckless forgiver. I’m so often a mess. It really is amazing grace.
3. Jason Gray - “With Every Act Of Love”
“God put a million doors in this world for his love to walk through. One of those doors is you.” Amen. Jason Gray’s music is consistently the best that you will hear on Christian radio.
4. Aaron Sprinkle - “Giving Up The Gun”
…a great song of hitting bottom, surrendering and seeing that the rescue you need is closer than you realized.
5. Fiction Family - “God Badge”
“Put your God badge down and go love someone.” Maybe I should take that fish off my car and go help someone in need.
6. Plumb - “One Drop”
The best use of a ukulele this year. The video inspired my daughters to buy gifts for believers in third world countries this Christmas.
7. Five Iron Frenzy - “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”
Here is an exercise for you: Go look up these lyrics on the internet, print them out and stare at them for a few minutes. Then consider your position on current hot topic political issues.
8. Audio Adrenaline - “Believer”
Kevin Max sounds fantastic here, and this tune swirls and soars and makes me want to punch the air Rocky Balboa style.
9. Over The Rhine - “Meet Me at the Edge of the World”
This is a song where the world-weariness seeps into every note. Life is hard, but it’s worth living well. Sometimes it helps to think of what is ahead, and the world being re-made.
10. Beautiful Eulogy - “You Can Save Me”
A sermon set to a great set of beats. This is where the mix of faith and hip hop shines the brightest in my opinion.
And that is all. It’s great to think back on all the great music that I listened to this year. Sometimes a reviewer’s work is tough, because there is much that you have to call what it is; lazy songwriting, uninspiring melodies etc. It’s refreshing to talk about the good stuff all in one spot.
Have a great 2014, and remember, love alone is worth the fight.
Hey guys! Each year, the JFH staff like to choose their favorite albums of the year and post them for all to read, and we know everyone's thoughts and opinions differ, so we - once again - want to give you, the reader, the opportunity to share YOUR top 10 albums in the Christian market of 2013!
So, please feel free to post a top 10 album list of 2013 in a format similar to below. I'll post my 2013 album picks as an example...