Being a music reviewer (or film or any other kind of art) can be a downer at times, because your intake of mediocre art can be too much. If you let it get to you, then you can wonder if there is anything good happening in your little corner of the music or art world, like somehow all the lights are slowly going out and you’re standing there trying to make sense of what is happening.
So it’s a needed joy to take into account all of the things you liked in the year that has past. It’s refreshing to unabashedly talk about what you thought was great art, and why it has lightened up your soul. Good music can be the best thing in the world. It can speak to your heart and brain like few other art forms, and when you bond with a particular piece of art, it comes to feel like an old friend. Many of the albums on my list already feel like that, like I’ve been listening to them for a long time, though they may be only a few months out of the proverbial womb.
And if your list, like mine, contains a lot of your long-time favorite artists, then it's critical to ask the question, “Do I love this album because I love the artist?” (in the same way I love one of my young daughter’s drawings because I love who it came from), or is this truly a stand-out piece of work that changes my life (not to put too dramatic a point on it).
It’s a salient question, and for me, the question of my musical year. With all these returning artists on my list, what is it about their latest offering that got me so jazzed up? It’s hard to separate the love of the artist and the love of the album, and knowing where one starts and the other stops is difficult. It’s a subject worth tackling.
By my mental arithmetic, eight of the listees (including honorable mentions) are "old friends" of mine (Andrew Peterson, Plumb, Jon Foreman, Matthew Perryman Jones, Mat Kearney, Josh Garrels, Burlap To Cashmere, Sara Groves), two are "acquaintances" that are rapidly becoming "good friends" (Rend Collective, Andy Mineo) and two feel like an artist I just met at a party and had a terrific conversation with (Lauren Daigle, The Gray Havens). So old friends and new, you all made my 2015 a year to remember by putting out the very best offerings these ears of mine heard. It’s a list of what I liked, not a defining “best of” anything (Adele, Darlingside, Mutemath and Coldplay put out a really great albums in the mainstream, too), but a list of spiritual pop that made my heart sing (and convicted it too) and my mind think deeper, rounder thoughts.
1. Lauren Daigle - How Can It Be
It’s pretty easy to write off a pop album. An “Album Of The Year” should be “dark” and “weighty” and have some kind of epic artwork that shows snowy mountains in the background, or so goes the conventional thinking. But I’ve been writing about music for almost twenty years now (thank you college newspaper!) and I can usually identify my “album of the year” upon first listen, and this year was no different. I liked Lauren Daigle’s song “How Can It Be” on the radio in the late winter, but it didn’t knock me out right away. The Adele comparisons were there, but when I queued up the album, that voice just filled up the room and the songs were a perfect fit. “First”, “Come Alive (Dry Bones)”, “O Lord” and “Salt And Light” are dynamo song sung to pieces by Daigle. Add to this the fact that she was the writer (or co-writer) of 90% of them, and you get a home run the first time at bat.
But the prospect of such and overt pop album being the best thing I heard this year troubled my egotistical writer’s nature, and I had to find something else. This couldn’t be it. What would the other critics say?
So I searched. And I searched some more.
I thought that Andrew Peterson’s “The Burning Edge Of Dawn” might be the challenger I longed for. And for a while there, it was touch and go. To break the stalemate I took both albums on a long drive with my lovely wife and listened to both back to back. Julie and I both agreed that Peterson’s album was great, but I didn’t hold together the way Daigles’ does, it doesn’t burst out of the speakers in quite the same way.
So I pulled into my driveway, switched off my minivan and accepted that the best thing I heard this year was a pop album that I never expected. Thank you Lauren. Your tunes were an encouragement to me and my family all year.
Before I bring my need / I will bring my heart / before I lift my cares
I will lift my arms / I wanna know You / I wanna find You / in every season
in every moment / before I bring my need / I will bring my heart / and seek You first
2.Andrew Peterson - The Burning Edge Of Dawn
I was eating in a restaurant with my family after a particularly tough basketball practice for my girls, when I saw that there had been another mass-shooting in California. I quickly asked the waiter if the TV could be switched off for a while so that my family could just eat in peace and enjoy each other’s company on a rainy Tuesday night in late November.
If only the evil in the world (or in my own heart) were that easy to turn off. But it will plague us till this world is made new again. But I’m tired to trying to explain evil acts, like a mass shooting, to my two daughters. I long for a day when there is only good news continually. Andrew Peterson has made this theme the strongest thread of his career. From his first album fifteen years ago to now, the longing for the world to be made new again is common thread through all his music (and books too) and is a message that will not, till that final day, be irrelevant.
I’ve been waiting for the sun / to come blazing up out of the night like a bullet from a gun
Till every shadow is scattered, every dragon's on the run / oh, I believe, I believe that the light is gonna come / and this is the dark, this is the dark before the dawn
3. Plumb - Exhale
Plumb is always a welcome voice in my house, and Exhale is an excellent worship album that comes from a hard-won bit of hope. Plumb has made no secrets about her difficult few last years (she’s written a book about it) and the lyrics to the title track, along with its fantastic melody and soaring, honest delivery, make it one of the best worship moments of the year. The rest of the album matches suit.
Just let go let His love wrap around you / and hold you close / get lost in the surrender
breathe it in until your heart breaks / then exhale / exhale
The world of Christian Music could use a lot more albums like Exhale; albums that portray an honest journey of faith and doubt, of hope and pain. In the near-future, when a veteran artist's sound, sensibilities and history collide like they do here, the result should be compared against this album as the metric of how to create a worshipful document of God's faithfulness through personal upheaval.
4. Jon Foreman - The Wonderland EPs
Though I always miss Switchfoot when he plays without them, Foreman is one my favorite lyricists and songwriters of all time, and I always welcome a visit from him. The Wonderland EPs are an epic idea for an album cycle that never quite matched its ambition to its songwriting. But it is still great in many places, and there are wonderful, folky songs all around, especially “Patron Saint Of Rock And Roll” (There’s a park downtown / where the homeless get ignored / where the church next door is a crowd
singing “Blessed are the poor” / where the Mercedes drive away / muttering, “druggies, drunks and whores” / where the bumper sticker displays / “My copilot is the Lord”)and “Your Love is Enough” (Who can find me in this darkness? / who will alone can help me stand? You could find a way to find me / even love me as I am / your love is enough
Your love is enough)
5. Mat Kearney - Just Kids
Kearney is five for five (or “four-and-a-half“) with quality albums, and he continues his run with the theme of taking a hard look at the past, then saying goodbye to it. With Just Kids, Kearney takes his most in-depth look at the subject yet. “Hearbreak Dreamers”, “Moving On” “Black Sheep” and the title track mine the fruitful subject of what it means to truly “grow up”. With shades of Paul Simon’s wondrous Graceland album, Just Kids is an opus to what it means for “life to be too short to stay where you are.”
And the best part of the whole package? Kearney’s hysterically terrible dancing in the Heartbeat video.
6. Josh Garrels - Home
How do you follow up one of the most ambitious albums of the last ten years, the one that put you on the map and won you legions of loyal fans? Well, if you're indie sensation Josh Garrels, you go slightly smaller. Home, the follow up to the massive (both in scope and theme) Love & War & the Sea In Between, is a decidedly scaled back effort, though not without its loud moments and big theme. But gone are the booming instrumental sections and dense word-play, and in their place are slightly mellower tunes reminiscent of Garrel's earlier releases, like Jacaranda and Over Oceans. But if album titles are any indication, Home was almost destined to be a more down-home work that the epically-titled Love & War.
7. Rend Collective - As Family We Go
These clever lads and lasses from Ireland have energy to burn, and they do it in service of some of the most upbeat and charged worship songs around. As Family We Go is pure nitro from the first song on. It would be nice if they moderated their tempos a bit, and I look forward to a slightly more nuanced batch of songs. (Actually, their Christmas album has a bit more depth of sound, which portends good things ahead.) But for pure uplift, Rend Collective is the place to go. The film companion for this album is one of the best intros to the band that you could get, and serves to fire me up if I’m finding myself dragging spiritually that day.
8. Sara Groves - Floodplain
Sara Groves is a quiet treasure of an artist, one who doesn’t overwhelm the senses at first, but grows on each listen. She’s like a gourmet meal, and Floodplain is a wonderful course in that meal. With a strong theme of battling anxiety and depression, Floodplain mines a fruitful geographic metaphor to talk about how some people’s lives are lived with a level of anxiety that most of us could never dream of.
Some hearts are built on a floodplain / keeping one eye on the sky for rain / you work for the ground that gets washed away / when you live closer
May we have compassion on those who’s emotional makeup is different than ours.
9. Andy Mineo - Uncomfortable
Live it up, live it up / nobody ever told us we could die like this
Live it up, live it up / corrupted by the comfort we (love, love)
Andy Mineo takes on false prosperity gospel straight on all throughout Uncomfortable, and it’s a welcome broadside against the subtly-evil teaching that God wants to bless you to the point of constant leisure. Now for sure, an over-correction can cause folks to be martyrs and reject all pleasures, Puritan style. But one of art’s best roles to play is to speak truth to power, and Mineo speaks (and raps, spits, sings and yells) loudly against an American Christianity all to often (and I’m including myself in this critique) more concerned with comfort and safety than in living the kind of life that Christ did. Being uncomfortable from time to time is a sign you’re heading in the right direction
10. Burlap To Cashmere - Freedom Souls
Veteran artists crowd-funding their new albums continues to be a great story in the world of music. Signed to Steve Taylor's influential indie label Squint (home of such great artists as Sixpence None The Richer and Chevelle) back in the late 90's, Burlap wowed audiences the world over with their breakneck acoustic mix of folk (particularly the Greek, World Music kind) and rock and roll, and sold over a half-million albums on their first trip up to bat. Lead singer and main songwriter Steven Delopoulos's meditations on the darker sides of spiritual life, combined with worshipful moments, made for a potent stew that continues with Freedom Souls, the band's latest release.
Freedom Souls is an excellent record, full of both bold, eclectic music (filling a particular need in a Christian Music scene filled with so many sound-alike artists) and a strong, story-like theme of wandering and redemption.
Music is one of God’s best gifts, and I’m glad to reflect on all the great albums and songs that have moved me (in many different ways) this year.
Have a great 2016, and may your ears keep finding good things to hear.
2015 may not have been the most exciting year for Christian music, but there are plenty of albums released that are worth celebrating! These 10 albums have impacted me in some way, whether they have challenged me to draw closer to Christ, made me think from a different perspective, encouraged me in my faith, or even just entertained me. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on these albums! Have any of them made your personal list? Are there any you haven’t had a chance to listen to yet? Let me know in the comments at the end of this post :)
1. Fire & Stone, The Gray Havens - The Gray Havens, a new indie band made up of husband and wife David and Licia Radford, have crafted a masterpiece with their debut LP Fire & Stone. Most bands need time to grow and mature before they put out something they are truly capable of--just look at the DC Talk, or even more recently Lecrae. The idea that Fire & Stone is the beginning of The Gray Haven's journey is extremely exciting to me. With lyrics that are thought-provoking, beautiful, moving, clever, and lighthearted, they present the Gospel in a poetic and artistic fashion. This is matched perfectly with their self-defined "narrative folk-pop" sound which contains so many musical intricacies that only dozens of listens could possibly uncover. This has been the go-to album for car rides with my wife, serving as pleasant background music or as a catalyst deep conversation. I've recommended it to just about every person who has asked me about new music this year--it is really an amazing piece of art. If you don't believe me go check out their Soundcloud or Bandcamp page where you can listen to the songs for yourself.
2. Mansion, NF - This young rap artist completely blew me away with his raw emotion and hard hitting beats. Mansion the only rap album to make my list this year (I haven't taken the chance to listen to Derek Minor's Empires all the way through and Andy Mineo made my honorable mentions), but man is it a good one. Of the 70+ reviews I've written so far for this site, this is the only one I've given a full five star rating. This album gets me excited every time I put it on, but it is also hard to put it on repeat because it so ridiculously weighty. The whole album is rock solid, but I especially love the songs "Paralyzed," "Face It," and "I'll Keep On." Side note: I found it quite funny how "I'll Keep On" was such a success on Christian radio. I was definitely happy to hear that people were hearing this amazing song, but it is by far the only "radio-friendly" song on the album. I can't imagine how many people bought the album for that song and startled themselves with the intense drop on "Intro."
3. Falling Up, Falling Up - It was hard enough to materialize words to describe this album the first time for a review, so I don't even want to try to do it again. Here is my 2 cents review: "On Falling Up's self-titled final album, lead singer Jessy Ribordy's delicate, emotional vocals are paired with stunningly beautiful and dynamic experimental rock landscapes to create an otherworldly musical experience. The meanings of these songs may be elusive to most, but these masters of the mysterious still manage to captivate with their extraordinarily intricate world of silver lawns and moon dogs. Falling Up's evolution over the past 11 years has been intriguing to witness, and it is only fitting that they close their journey with one of their most remarkable achievements to date." On a somewhat related note, their acoustic EP with five different versions of these songs and a B-Side called "The Harbor" make a nice accompaniment to this album.
4. Blurryface, Twenty One Pilots - This band is one of a kind. They aren't being marketed as a Christian band, but their lyrics are saturated with their faith. Tyler Joseph, who makes up half of Twenty One Pilots, is a fascinating front man who leaves a strong impression with his creative lyricism, energetic delivery, and heart-on-his-sleeves personality. The drum beats, courtesy of former live drummer of House of Heroes Josh Dun, are ridiculously fun and dynamic, and definitely part of the reason this music that makes it so addictive. They also do whatever they want. Ukulele? Sure! Time change? Done. There are no rules here. Blurryface was my first exposure to the phenomenon of Twenty One Pilots and while I've since checked out their label debut Vessels, there is something truly exceptional about this one.
5. You Were Never Alone, Emery - If you know anything about me, you know that I love rock music. It's easily my favorite genre. I recently named my Top 15 favorite artists of all time and the top 5 are all rock bands. The past few years have been somewhat disappointing for the genre, but as long as bands like House of Heroes and Emery exist I will be happy. There was no song of "Studying Politics" caliber on You Were Never Alone, but front to back this album is amazing. And even at that, "Pink Slip," "Rock, Pebble, Stone," and "Thrash" are really close. The album is catchy, thoughtful, and creative and Toby Morrell's voice is so impressive, and somehow even better when paired with Devin Shelton. Also, if you haven't taken the chance to check out the Break It Down podcast by Emery's own Matt Carter, it is really really interesting to learn how these songs came together. Each song is discussed for a substantial amount of time, but it is definitely worth listening!
6. of Beauty and Rage, Red - It took a long time for me to appreciate End Of Silence, but eventually I came around. I thought Innocence & Instinct found Red at the top of their game, but I became less and less interested as Until We Have Faces and Release the Panic were released. I wasn't sure what to expect going into of Beauty and Rage, but I listened with an open mind. Few albums have impressed me as quickly as of Beauty and Rage did. Even Fire & Stone (my number one pick) took a lot of time to get acquainted with and to fully appreciate its significance. But this album shot past all that because it encompasses everything I love about Red--hard hitting rock, emotionally charged vocals, and beautiful strings. "Darkest Part" is one of my favorite songs to come out this year, and there are plenty of other highlights like the spine-tingling ballad "Of These Chains" and the heavy-hitting "Falling Sky." It was also absolutely epic to listen to "Ascent" while driving through the Jotunheimen Mountains in Norway with my wife.
7. Breathe Again, Spoken - I've liked Spoken since A Moment of Imperfect Clarity first came out (it's still my personal favorite record from the band). Though Illusion contains a couple of my favorite Spoken songs ("Through It All" and "Shadow Over Me") for the most part it didn't grab my attention the way Echoes of the Spirit Dwell, A Moment of Imperfect Clarity, or Last Chance To Breathe did. With that in mind Breathe Again was a pleasant late year surprise. I've played it every chance I've had since I first received my Kickstarter download--it energizes me while I'm out running, serves as a great sing-along soundtrack riding in the car, and gives me a chance to do think and pray while walking to work. There are so many ways to enjoy this album. This was definitely a late addition to my list, so it's position here at #7 is not nearly as certain as the rest, but I'm confident it is somewhere between #7 and #10.
8. Into The Sea, Attalus - Into The Sea is Attalus' first release on a national label (Facedown) and they've already started on a such a strong foundation. This album will convict you of the sin in your life and challenge you to bring it to Jesus in surrender. Just reflect on these lyrics from "Desolate Aisle," "Are we so righteous we can make all the wrongs right? / Are we so enlightened we can turn darkness to light? / We're just the cynics proclaiming the flaws / We aim our polemic at political laws / We're fighting the symptoms because we can't see our greed is the cause." Not only does Attalus have a striking perspective of the human condition, but they know how to creatively communicate it. One song that positively and tangibly shook my faith was "Breath Before The Plunge" which tells the tale of a Christian martyr dying for his faith—and although it's fictional it provides a real sense of the unshakable faith of those who are at risk of being violently persecuted. I literally have cried while listening to this song, longing to have that kind of faith. But lyrics aren't all that is exciting about this band--Attalus' music uses typical alternative rock instruments to powerfully create reflective and chaotic soundscapes. This concept album is extremely lengthy, but it's a rewarding listen every time.
9. This Is Not A Test, TobyMac - Phew! After such a weighty album it's kind of funny that the "feel good" album of the year is next on the list. You just gotta love Toby's catchy beats, infectiously cheerful songwriting, and diverse pop landscapes. Some tracks ("Til The Day I Die," "Move") are stronger than others ("Undeniable") but overall this is a great album that proves Toby still has A LOT of passion and creative juices left in him. One cool thing about reviewing this album was receiving an exclusive B-side called "Love Of My Life" which is a fun dance-pop love song that I'm surprised didn't at least make it onto the deluxe edition!
10. Science Fiction, Jonathan Thulin - Prior to listening to Science Fiction I had only heard a few songs from The White Room. I only sat down to listen to it fully for the first time in preparation for my review. These two albums are vastly different. Instead of pursuing the "theater pop" style of The White Room, Thulin decided to take a more radio-friendly pop approach. On paper, it sounds like a creative step down, but I really think Thulin does an excellent job walking the line between accessibility and artistry. Catchiness and creativity often seem like two different goals, but on Science Fiction they work together to deliver memorable tunes that will have you singing along in no time. While the most fun tracks are found on the first half of the album, my favorites are found in the second half with "6 Feet Under," "Mockingbird (feat. Kevin Max & Shine Bright Baby)," and "The Ruins (feat. Moriah Peters)." This record slipped by under the radar this year, but it's only a matter of time before Thulin starts to become more noticed.
Where to begin with an album that means so many things to me (and so many others)? An album that is tied to so many great memories?
I would submit to you that this album is the perfect soundtrack for any activity, for any mood. Whether you're chilling, cleaning, studying, driving with the windows down, or worshipping. Now 20 years later, I still revisit this album multiple times a month and it's taken a large role in shaping who I am as a person and my musical tastes.
Jars of Clay met and formed at Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois in the early 1990's. Band members Charlie Lowell (keys) and Dan Haseltine (vocals) struck up a friendship over a shared love of the band Toad the Wet Sprocket. Although pursuing a career in music was never the goal, they quickly gained a following from music that they wrote together for a school class project. in 1994, they released a limited pressing of a demo titled "Frail" and decided to leave school to pursue a career in music.
Wikipedia has this to say about the album (and I concur):
"The album has been highly acclaimed, being one of few Christian albums of the mid-nineties to achieve platinum status. As the group's debut album, Jars of Clay introduced many internationally to the group and established the group due to their distinctive style."
This album also had the distinction of being one of very few to have great crossover impact on MTV and mainstream radio.
Personally, I first learned of Jars of Clay as my interest in Christian music began to bloom. I had just graduated middle school and was taking the coolest of all classes at youth group camp in the summer of 1995: watching and discussing christian music videos.
When I first saw and heard the strains of "Flood," I was hooked. I'd never heard anything like the pounding acoustic guitars that were as relentless as the rain they were singing about. The violin breakdown in the bridge? As far as my young ears were concerned, it was perfection in a pop song. I had to find out more about these guys, and soon after camp (not soon enough!), on that fateful day of October 25th, I purchased their cassette tape and proceeded to wear it out.
The best part, as my best friend and I were to discover, is that "Flood"--although a terrific song and most people's introduction to the band--wasn't even the best the album had to offer. In my opinion, that easily goes to "Worlds Apart," but I digress.
As I greedily dug deeper into the track listing (I still remember the smell of the liner notes), I quickly became a fan of the opening song "Liquid." With its beginning combination of harmonious "yeah's" and chanting monks (if you've never heard it, it sounds weird but it works), along with the tight strums of the acoustic guitars and strong drum beat, I'd found my go-to song. It was the following year at another youth camp upon hearing it on a souped-up sound system that it further nailed this down as "my" song.
My next memory of this album is singing along with my best friend in high school as he strummed the familiar notes of "Love Song for a Savior" and "Worlds Apart" as we hung out on weekends. A few years later in college, another friend and roommate frequently played "Worlds Apart," further cementing it as an all-time favorite song. There are many great lyrics, but the following have been the most meaningful to me personally:
"It takes all I am to believe
In the mercy that covers me
Did you really have to die for me?
All I am for all you are
Because what I need and what I want are worlds apart"
I don't know about you, but that cuts to my heart every time!
"Love Song for a Savior," although simple lyrically, may just be better than a majority of today's modern worship songs because of its innocence and purity of delivery.
"It seems too easy to call you 'Savior'
not close enough to call you 'God'
So as I sit and think of words I can mention
To show my devotion.
...I want to fall in love with you"
I typically find the simplest of expressions when straight from the heart to be the ones that draw my hearts affections to my Savior. This one just does that for me.
Two other musical standout tracks and personal favorite musically are the harmonies of "Like a Child" and the swirling strings on "Boy on a String."
Closing track "Blind" seems to be both directed at Pilate and at us.
Pilate, who wanted to rely on logic, had finally washed his hands of responsibility for Christ's blood...
"Crucify, and deny,
pass the blame and burn the mission
Till dust remains
and wash your hands"
You can't find
Any reason to believe in love
You are blind"
And us the often wayward believer...
"So you fight
And talk yourself out of believing
Any peace that you can't see"
"Blind" was a great way to end the album which brings me to my one (albeit small) quibble with the album, and that is the long run time of barely audible band practice and chatter between the end of "Blind" and a hidden gem of a song, "Four Seven." This song is basically a thesis statement for the band's name (which is taken from 2 Corinthians 4:7 and its mission as a band).
Aside from the annoyance of having to fast forward to get to the song, I felt like the song should have been given the full treatment, and placed earlier in the track listing. (A good fit could have been right after "Flood" and before "Worlds Apart.") But as I said, small quibbles. I think they remedied that small annoyance with the platinum re-issue of this album including "four seven" as an eleventh song.
Lastly, this album is one of very few from the 1990's that I believe still holds up lyrically as well as musically to this day. Others might say that the drum loops and acoustic guitar on this album haven't aged well, but I would politely and emphatically disagree. If you missed this one, or weren't yet born, you should definitely give it a spin!
What is Jars of Clay up to now:
Still making music and touring (albeit at a much smaller and more infrequent pace) with their most recent full length original album Inland released in 2013. They continue to pursue a pairing of their deep and poetic lyrics with any and all styles and genres of music, as they've explored americana, bluegrass, 80's, prog rock, acoustic, worship, and indie styled music since their debut. Jars of Clay is also one of the rare bands from the era who now 20 years later has kept the same lineup which I applaud. One hopes that there are many more years of their brand of insightful, smart pop which I believe is under appreciated but sorely needed.
Seth Bolt and I have similar souls - we love the woods and realize that too much work will damage you. We live an hour apart on sizeable tracts of land in the South Carolina forests.
But Seth has created something that woodsmen and citygoers alike will marvel at. A two-story treehouse with beautiful glass windows nestled a few short miles from Clemson's Death Valley sits on the 40 acre farm of the Bolt family. He and his father built it themselves, and Seth built it with the intentionality that he would live there. His soul became alive whenever he was back on his parent's farm, so he decided to share it with others.
Since Seth is a bassist for the popular band Needtobreathe, the tree house is available for rental when Seth is out on tour. It is a popular getaway for couples, friends, and fans traveling to Clemson. (Link to book the house here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/8319626?s=8). Construction was finished in September and Bolt is surprised at how fast it has filled up, "We have most of 2015 booked and we even have weekends in 2016 booked. I am surprised at how fast this is growing."
Bolt went to Africa last year and people asked him about America. "I was honest with them. America has big houses and nice things but people here are happier. You spend more time with the ones you care about and you dont work as hard."
This philosophy also extends to Needtobreathe. When making Rivers in the Wasteland, they worked so hard and unfruitfully that they almost split up and it created a three-year gap between the release of The Reckoning and Rivers in the Wasteland. This time, the band has been much more careful with their time as they currently work on their sixth studio album. "We are working hard but we are taking lots of time to rest. For instance, we just worked four full days this week and took three days off. That will help this be our best record yet and as a byproduct of the rest time, the songs are not as dark. I have made music a long time but it was not always joyful."
Seth has also done what millions of Americans long to do, unplug for an entire day. "Just this past week, I took an entire day off and went into the woods. I even cut my cell phone off. I was afraid I was going to miss something at first, but once you are out there, it doesn't matter anymore. Your soul fills up and your cup is overflowing."
If God rested and if God commands us to rest, then why can't we rest?
The term “Jesus Freak” was coined around the late sixties and has been used as a derogatory term for Christians ever since.Like the term “Christian” itself, believers began to latch onto it like a badge of honor and proudly proclaim themselves as Jesus Freaks.Perhaps, though, none have ever proclaimed it as loudly as "two honks and a negro" did twenty years ago…
dcTalk had fairly humble beginnings in the late eighties.The name originated as a nickname for group leader Toby McKeehan, but later was identified as “decent Christian” talk.Due to some success from their demo tape, the group got a deal with the CCM giants Forefront Records (which was started by Eddie DeGarmo of DeGarmo & Key).Their self-titled debut is pretty cheesy looking back, but songs like “Heavenbound” still hold a special place in the hearts of most fans.While most of the debut was a rap/rock mix, the group’s second release, Nu Thang focused much more heavily on the hip/hop and rap elements.The trio’s popularity continued to rise with the release of the now classic Free At Last.Their third album continued from where Nu Thang left off, but featured more pop elements and brought back a few more of the rock components as well -- such as displayed in “Luv is a Verb.”The album garnered much success as it went platinum, boasted of several killer singles, landed the boys on Jay Leno's show, and even spawned a movie (that didn't make it to theaters but was released on DVD for the 10-year anniversary of the album). Many thought Free at Last would be their most groundbreaking (in the CCM industry) album ever, but I don’t think anyone had a clue what was coming only three years later.dcTalk decided to reinvent their sound some for their fourth record, and the rest is history.
The lead single, and title track, released on August 1, 1995 and jaws dropped.It was grungy.It was hard rock.Toby’s raps were at their best and the hook would be stuck in your head for days.Where did this song come from?Fan were surprised, but it only built the hype for the rest of the album.Nearly four long months later, on November 21st, 1995, Jesus Freak hit shelves full force and debuted at number 16 on Billboard’s Top 200 -- completely unprecedented for its time.Even more impressive may have been the fact that the album was certified Gold within a month.dcTalk were breaking down barriers between the secular and Christian industries that had only been dreamt of before.“Just Between You and Me” lead the way for the crossover and did extremely well on several Billboard charts.Six of the singles released became number one hits throughout the Christian charts.Jesus Freak (the album) won a Grammy and “Jesus Freak” (the song) was the first non-AC (adult contemporary) song to win the Dove Award for song of the year.This is the point in history, and this is the album, that began opening people’s eyes to the Christian music scene. (Even Virgin Records, who would go on to distribute the album to the mainstream turned to look at the Newsboys next.)Barriers began to be removed and people slowly began seeing Christian music as something artistically relevant, and not just a cheesy knockoff.
Jesus Freak was the first ever CD I bought.Sure, I had cassette tapes of other artists across other genres (I LOVED Ray Stevens), but this was my very first CD.I still own it along with the single and the Ten Year Anniversary Edition -- I’m most looking forward to the 20th Anniversary Vinyl though!1995 was a big year for music, especially rock music, all across the board.For a twelve year old kid just coming into youth group, this was amazing.I was sponging up everything I could.Many of the albums I discovered in those days have stuck with me, but nothing quite like Jesus Freak did.I don’t think I would call it my favorite album of all time, but it’s certainly high on the list.It’s such a special album for me in a way that’s honestly just difficult to explain.Let’s just say that there is a special place in my heart where this album resides.It’s a truly legit 5-star album -- and not just because our very own website was inspired by its release; it’s amazingly written.Every single song, track after track, is on point.The writing, the music, the message…Sheer brilliance!Even the interludes like “Mrs. Morgan” and “Jesus Freak (Reprise)” are fantastic.
The album is undoubtedly God inspired and tackles all sorts of issues.Each song still contains relevant messages today -- 20 years later!Jesus Freak changed the way I saw music; it changed what I thought music could be.I still listen to it today and it hasn’t worn thin or played out.It’s a classic.I could honestly wax poetic and sing the praises of Toby, Mike, and Kevin all day long, but I think you get the point.Christian music would simply not be where it is today, and accepted the way it is today, without the release of Jesus Freak.The entire landscape of things changed on November 21st, 1995.It’s a once in a lifetime album that had a once in a lifetime effect.I can’t imagine that anyone in their right mind thought that the guys who did Nu Thang and Free at Last would release possibly the most game changing album in this generation.Those seem like big words, but I honestly believe this album is fitting of such accolades.
dcTalk released one more studio album after Jesus Freak.Supernatural was another rock experiment and leaned a little more on the alternative side overall.We all know about the hiatus that occurred afterwards, and the false promise of a dcTalk reunion that was said to occur after each member released their second solo albums (this happened in 2005).People have always dreamed of a reunion, but it’s doubtful that day will ever come.Perhaps 20 years of looking back will inspire the guys to reunite though. (I suppose the recent guest spot on TobyMac's latest album, This Is Not A Test, will have to hold us over for now.)Only the future will tell if and when that happens.Until that day I’ll just keep singing, “What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus Freak?What will people do when they find out it’s true?I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus Freak.There ain’t no disguising the truth…”
Top 5 favorite tracks: “What If I Stumble,” “Jesus Freak,” Day By Day,” “In the Light,” “So Help Me God”
-- Michael Weaver
Remembering "Jesus Freak"...
I've had a similar experience to Michael here. I remember getting the cassette tape for "Jesus Freak" on August 1st -- AND the CD release at some point -- and just being floored by it. That summer I went to a friend's birthday party at a park that had its own DJ. I brought the tape with me and asked the DJ to play it... but he wouldn't. I kept asking and got nothing. Finally, near the end of the party with only a core group of friends remaining there, he finally obliged. As the guitars kicked in and the song blasted through the speakers, I heard the DJ exclaim with shock and awe on his face, "This ain't church music!!" And that about sums up the impression this song and album seemed to give at the time.
I also remember going to a very small Christian bookstore near my house and buying the full album CD for the first time (and, small bit of trivia -- CD prices were on the rise at the time because of their popularity. I'm pretty sure I paid over $18 for the CD! Who knew they would start going down once Napster came into the picture. One has to wonder if the rise in music prices helped cause the rise in piracy... and thus the decline of the industry as a whole ;) ). But this CD changed things for me, too. I'm an introvert (duh, right? What extroverted 16 year old starts a data-intensive website??), so although I was excited about Jesus, it was hard to put myself in a position to be ridiculed or shunned. But here you had a band who sounded awesome and were proclaiming their faith boldly!
After the album's release, I would use the nickname/handle "Jesus Freak" in online chat rooms and later created a private chat room on NetCentral called "The Jesus FREAK Hideout." I never used it, but on August 13, 1996, after I read a short tutorial on very basic HTML, I started "The Jesus FREAK Hideout" on a free Angelfire.com webpage (It was 1996's equivalent of WordPress, kids). The rest -- all the mishaps and struggles, triumphs and failures -- is history.
I honestly can't believe it's been two decades since this landmark release. Toby "TobyMac" McKeehan is still going strong solo, Michael Tait took over as lead vocalist for the Newsboys (who could have predicted that??) and after a brief stint as the replacement singer for Audio Adrenaline, Kevin "Max" Smith is still going strong with his own solo career. They may not be together anymore, but each one is still making their mark in music. And the legacy of "Jesus Freak" lives on!
-- John DiBiase (founder of JesusFreakHideout.com)
With the staff's recent picks of their Top 15 favorite albums of all time, I decided to pitch in... but only came up with 5. See, I am only 18 and I have only followed music avidly for a couple of years. That is why there is a lack of 1990s bands and why there are only five bands on the list.
I hail from the same South Carolina woods as Needtobreathe and I have aged along with them. With a killer live show featuring varied versions of Needtobreathe classics, it is hard to not be a fan of Needtobreathe. They are catchy and real to who they are. They are the oddball on this list because they do not have a heavy side, but they appeal to my deep southern streak.
Albums: The Reckoning, Rivers in the Wasteland, The Heat
Songs: We Could Run Away, State I'm In, Keep Your Eyes Open, Cops, Angel at my Door
2. Underoath (2004-present)
Spencer Chamberlain and company are incredible songwriters and talented musicians. Chamberlain and Gillespie create a vocal combination unlike any other band. All of their albums have distinct qualities that make them refreshing, yet they all have the signature sound of Underoath greatness. The talent is evident in the music and the songs fit in arenas and will blow out your speakers. "Epic" is a overused cliche but it is the only word to describe this larger than life style of music.I will see them live on the Rebirth Tour for the first time so get your tickets because they are almost all gone.
Albums: Define the Great Line, Lost in the Sound of Separation Disambiguation
Songs: Writing on the Walls, Catch Myself Catching Myself,Desperate Times Desperate Measures, In Regards to Myself, Young and Aspiring
Stephen Christian's vocals were so pure and talented but the rest of the band had talent also. Drumming prodigy Nathan Young was instrumental in memorable Anberlin moments such as the intro to Self Starter. They had a varied discography and a storied career but luckily for our hearts, they are always there for us on replay.
Albums: Cities, Vital, Lowborn
Songs: Fin, Self Starter, Dismantle Repair, ISJW, Losing it All, Stranger Ways
Emery poses many Questions and breaks down many Walls through their music. While I dont agree with *everything* the Bad Christian movement is about, I feel that it poses important questions and is authentic. Owning their own record label means that they can do unique things and change the way music works. Emery is not as heavy as Underoath, but they are more diverse and fit a similar niche.
Albums: You Were Never Alone, The Question
Songs: Thrash, Walls, In a Win Win Situation, Cutthroat Collapse, Rock Pebble Stone, So Cold I Could See My Breath
5. Wolves At The Gate
It takes a phenomenal two albums in order to make a list with the artists above, but Wolves has talent and heart. They are theologically sound, Christ centered (for real), and great musicians. They implement spoken word, screaming, and singing into their thundering drums and guitar riffs to create excellent songs. The sky is the limit for their talent, but what stands out is their heart. When I was honored to talk with Stephen Cobucci, I realized that he is 'on fire' for God and that he uses this music to preach the gospel.
Albums: VxV, Captors, Reprise EP, Heralds EP
Songs: Relief, Dead Man, Man of Sorrows, Majesty In Misery, Safeguards
Honorable Mention: Sent by Ravens was a personal favorite of mine. They didn't create their own genre or sell out arenas, but they created enjoyable hard rock that is missed in the scene today.
Back in my freshman year of college, I came across a “new artist sampler” CD in some magazine or another, and a few tracks in, these lyrics jumped out of the speakers of my college dorm room stereo and into my imagination:
“Nothing but a chemical in my head / It's nothing but laziness / Cause I don't wanna read the book / I'll watch the movie” (From “Chem 6A” on TheLegend Of Chin)
The song, a take on youth slacker-culture, was the first I’d heard on the subject, (well, first good one) from a songwriter of faith, and I was immediately taken with the way primary Switchfoot songwriter Jon Foreman put together heartfelt, inspirational and clever words.
I’ve been a Foreman fan since that day, and a few years ago, when I decided to take the plunge and try to become a full-time writer, one of Foreman’s lyrics inspired my first novel. In fact, his lyrics (from the song below) are the last sentence of the book, and I started with that scene, that image the lyrics conjured in my brain, and wrote the book “backwards” from that spot. His lyrics are intertwined in the sequel as well, and it’s safe to say I have a lot for which to thank Jon Foreman.
Switchfoot is currently busy recording their 10th album, and Foreman has been releasing a steady stream of great solo EP’s over the last few months, and to honor such a prolific and heartfelt songwriter, I’d like to examine the Jon Foreman songs and lyrics that mean the most to me. This is part one of a multi-essay (okay, “blog”) effort to wrestle with the life of the mind, with what happens when others' art and your own heart collide.
“Needle and Haystack Life” (From Hello Hurricane)
"You are once in a lifetime alive / you are once in a lifetime"
This is the big one, the one that inspired the book. When my two daughters were very young, I was a stay-at-home Dad who was questioning his place in the order of things. My days were full of diapers and baby food, naps and temper-tantrums. But they were also filled with wonder, the privilege of being the first to see them walk and talk and sing. It was a wild ride that I found myself on. The day Hello Hurricane came out, I snuck out to the store for just five minutes when my wife got home from work, and I gave myself the treat of sitting in my mini-van in the parking lot and listening to the first few songs before getting back on the wild ride of parenting.
As Foreman sings about each person being “once in a lifetime,” it dawned on me that there would never be anyone like my two girls in this world again. They are unique in the history of our world; they have never been here before.
And neither have you or I. You are a mix of everything you’ve been through, every moment (good and bad), every meatball you’ve eaten and every movie you‘ve watched. There is no one like you. You are once in a lifetime. There’s a light in your eyes that is unique. You are irreplaceable.
Once this truth stuck in my heart, I came to see the girls I was tasked with caring for as a unique and wonderful opportunity. There would never be anyone like this again! I had a front row seat to the lives of India and Ireland Caldwell, and that’s a privilege that I almost wished away.
The book I wrote, India and the Eternals, is currently making its way around the desks of literary agents far and wide, and someday I have the hope and dream that, should there ever be a movie (this is a far out dream, I know) that Jon Foreman will write a song for the closing credits.
“Needle and Haystack Life” shows Foreman doing what he does best, wrapping inspirational ideas in uplifting melodies. When you think of inspirational messages, greeting cards and internet “inspirational” photos usually come to mind. But what Foreman does is something more. It’s beyond the cloying nature of most songs that seek to uplift. In other hands, the idea that each person is “once in lifetime” might make for an unbearably sappy song. But Foreman comes by the idea honestly, and “Needle and Haystack Life” transcends the cliché to something truly hopeful and inspiring.
“Dare You To Move” (From Beautiful Letdown)
"I dare you to move / like today never happened before"
Have you ever had one of those days that you wish had never happened? I have. I have regrets, things I wish I never did, words I wished I never said. We all have those dark closets we never want to be opened up. And those cumulative secrets weigh us down. Sometimes, they sink the ship.
But grace says "you are more than your darkest days, you are more than your lowest moment." Grace says "I dare you to believe that you are forgiven. I dare you to 'get up off the floor, like today never happened before.'" Because in God's economy, the cross has made it "like today never happened before."
And like most good art, the lyric “I dare you to move like today never happened before” can also be taken another way, as a challenge to “seize the moment”, to “number our days” as the Psalmist says; to not let a single second go by without living to our fullest. It’s all too easy to let the time slip away. Foreman dares us to move like this day is new, like it’s an adventure; like it’s “never happened before.”
The Shadow Proves The Sunshine (From Nothing Is Sound)
C.S. Lewis eloquently wrote a simple defense of the Christian world view in Mere Christianity, (a mandatory read for all believers, if such a requirement were possible) and one of his proofs cited of the existence of a designing higher power was the inherent knowledge in the human heart of right and wrong. Cultures may be widely different, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who felt good about betraying someone who loved them deeply.
"The Shadow Proves The Sunshine" is a melancholy song sung in a supremely bummed out manner, and finds Foreman examining the news and feeling the weight of the fall, the weight of every war and famine and act of cruelty he views on the screen or newspaper in front of him.
But what if the very fact that he's bothered at all by the "shadows" of this present age is proof they there is a loving God who is above all things? What if the shadow we feel on the darkest days down here is evidence that there is a light? There would be no shadow without the light. And as Gandalf says in The Fellowship of the Ring, "that is an encouraging thought."
God Badge (From Fiction Family’s Fiction Family Reunion)
"Put Your God badge down and go love someone."
As I write this, the culture wars and political silly season are in full swing. On the side where there are a lot of folks who call themselves the same name as me, people are lining up at a court house in Kentucky and wearing t-shirts that say "Homo Sex Will Send You To Hell" and "No Homos In Heaven". There might be equally inflammatory picket signs on the other side too, but who are the people that are claiming to follow the prince of peace? This behavior is about as far from Jesus' mode of operation as the North Pole is from the south. In fact, those signs remind me of a certain religious sect that framed Jesus and put him to death.
Our "God Badge" is that piece of identification that gives us comfort, like a membership card that tells us "I belong to something." But you can hold onto it too tightly and forget your mission. Jesus said that to love God and love your neighbor as yourself are the building blocks of every other bit of righteousness out there. It's time to let people discover our faith by how we do the TWO THINGS Jesus asked us to do, and not by the shiny fish on our car or the sad, God-forsaken statement on our t-shirts.
Love Alone Is Worth The Fight (From Fading West)
“I'm trying to find where my place is / I'm looking for my own oasis / So close I can taste this / The fear that love alone erases”
This one takes the opposite tack from “God Badge”, instead of protesting and calling out bad religion, Foreman offers his vision of what the modus operandi should be for believers. I John 4:18 says that “perfect love (aka God’s love) drives out fear.” And really, isn’t that what drives bad religion? Fear? Fear causes people to say and do things that they might not have otherwise imagined they might do. Isn’t a large part of current day advertising (be it political or product driven) based on fear? The fear of the wrong kind of people taking over, the fear of missing out on the good life, the fear that somehow, someway you are being wronged and you might not even know it. Fear is common, fear is easy.
St. Paul writes in 2 Timothy that “the Lord has not given us the spirit of fear, but one of self control, love and a sound mind.” That’s worth fighting for. I’m so prone to fighting the wrong battles, to using my energy is so many daft ways, but Foreman reminds me that the battle to love well, to see the good in people, to love and forgive myself because I’m loved and forgiven by the Lord first and foremost. Love is the only thing that is worth my energy pursuing. Love is what changes hearts and minds. God is love and to receive that love well is the true battle.
Love alone is worth the fight.
Thanks for reading. Look for parts two and three in the next two weeks. Next up: Jon Foreman as a motivational speaker or “this is your life / are you who you want to be?”
Remember, love alone is worth the fight.
-- Alex Caldwell, Jesusfreakhideout.com staff writer
An Interview With River Rock Festival’s Founder Jeff Wall
There are few summertime activities more sublime than the outdoor concert; sitting on a blanket on the grass or dancing (or moshing) away in front of the stage, and enjoying the sky, sun (or moon) above you. For those of us who live in the cold weather parts of this country, those precious few months where it’s sane to be outside for long stretches of time and the chance to hear some of your favorite music all in one place is a dream come true.
The River Rock Festival in northern Maine (just over two hours from my home in New Hampshire) is in its first year, and I wanted to take the opportunity to ask festival founder (and the head honcho of The Lighthouse Christian Events), Jeff Wall, about what goes into starting an undertaking of this sort. He generously put aside the last-minute minutia of planning and spoke to me for a few minutes on the phone.
(Jesusfreakhideout’s Alex Caldwell): With just over a week and a half to go till the crowds arrive for River Rock, how’s it going?
Jeff Wall: (Laughing) I’m doing alright. Thanks for asking. Most of the details and major components of the festival are in motion, so it’s a bit out of my hands at this point. I’m coordinating volunteers for the festival right now, that’s my focus.
AC: Volunteers…that’s an important component to these sorts of undertakings, isn’t it?
Jeff: Oh, yeah. It’s critical. Right now we have enough to staff the festival, but I’m not sure how much sleep everyone would get. Festivals and concerts need volunteers. It helps everything run smooth.
AC: You run the Lighthouse Christian Events, how is this different than that, and how long have you been in this line of work?
Jeff: We started in 2008 with a concert by Laura Story, and we’ve been going strong since then. Really, putting on a festival is something we’ve always wanted to do, and it’s a natural extension of what we’ve been doing. But it is a lot more of everything.
AC: How much more? How are you sleeping lately?
Jeff: (Laughing) I haven’t really slept in seven years. I’m always waking up thinking about things. But I love it.
AC: So, here’s a bit more of a challenging question. What will distinguish River Rock from the myriad of other festivals out there? What would be the reason to choose this one over the other ones around?
Jeff: That’s the question, isn’t it? I think the great distinction would be quality--getting the most bang for your buck. It’s very common, in all corners of the concert industry, to charge for everything: parking, surcharges for ticket, special “autograph” fees etc. You can go in thinking that you’re going to be spending “X” amount and realize, after the fest or event is over that, really, you’ve spent almost double what you had wanted to. We’ve always charged one flat fee for our concerts, everything included, if it’s within our power to do so.
AC: “I have a story about that. A few years ago my family was at a fest, and my daughter and I stood in line to meet an artist she loved. I was a little out of it due to sun and loud music, so I didn’t read the fine print of all the signs around the signing tent. When we got to the front of the line we discovered that there was a $30 signing fee that we had to pay. My daughter was upset, and I was frustrated. $30 for what most of the other artists were doing for free. It was too much and seemed greedy.
Jeff: I hear that kind of story all the time. There are countless little ways to make money on an event, but honestly, when I get to heaven I don’t want to say “Lord, I sold 10,000 travel mugs with your name on it and I made a few extra bucks off parking.”
AC: That’s a great line. “Lord, there are 5,000 key chains out there with 'River Rock Festival' on them!”
Jeff: That’s right. We don’t take any percentage of artist merchandise sales either. That’s a pretty common one.
AC: Yeah, what if you are a smaller artist and just starting out? Those t-shirt sales become pretty important for getting back home in the van.
Jeff: That’s exactly right. We made a commitment not to do these sorts of things when we started out, and so far, the Lord has honored that decision.
AC: Are you and your family taking a big vacation after this event?
Jeff: It’s interesting that you say that. We all enjoy this so much that we don’t really need the standard vacation thing. Right now we’re on the road, coming back from a Kari Jobe concert we put on, and we’re heading to the Norman Rockwell museum along the way. This job is crazy on one level; the details, the schedules etc. But my family gets to see so many places; we like to treat those times as a vacation.
AC: Well, God bless you guys as you head into the last few days before the festival.
Aaron Watkins grew up despising what he ended up loving - music. Wyoming born and Colorado raised, Aaron has seen and survived a lot of things. His father was an alcoholic who played in some fairly well known bands, and he did not want that lifestyle for himself. He toured with some bands right out of high school and escaped the music scene in his mid-twenties when he finished up his bachelor's degree. He then said, "God, I'll do whatever you want me to do." God wanted Aaron to do what he hated in his childhood - perform music. Random Hero was formed by guitarist Joshua Bertrand the year prior. Aaron's manager told Aaron about the audition they were holding for a singer. Aaron auditioned and was awarded the slot, forming the nucleus of Random Hero. God changed his heart and gave Aaron the desire to be in music and the desire to tour.
God also gave Random Hero the revolving door of drummers. Aaron quipped that "We fight to do this because this is what God's called us to be. The timeline has been crazy, so you know when God is leading someone in or out. He takes people in and out until we have the right mix." Four drummers in eight years is definitely an uphill battle. For a while, the services of Air Force serviceman Josh Tarrant were utilized. It got to a point where it was impossible to balance the two and he left. Then the band found Patrick Madsen in 2014, and Aaron raved about him. "He has the greatest heart and is a phenomenal drummer. I always wanted to be a drummer so it is so much fun to watch him play." Ironically, drums are the one instrument Aaron can't play. His toddler son (Huxley) can play the drums, which you can watch on his Instagram @aaronthewatkins.
I also asked Aaron what goes into the recording process, what is 'mastering' and 'mixing'. His combined thoughts: "You are always constantly writing, and it may or may not see the light of day. We have written hundreds of songs. You set a date to record and twelve to fifteen songs make the chopping block. The songs need to be the best representation of who you are, and they need to be the best songs. The producer will likely make you rewrite half of the songs, which is painstaking and time consuming. Everything from vocals to guitars to drums to the special instrument is recorded separately so each thing can be edited. If one part needs to be reworked, the whole band doesn't have to play the part fifty times. Mixing is what your songs sound like and are built." How loud are the vocals compared to the guitar, bass, drums, and so on? "Mastering is when you take the volume up several notches so it sounds 'beastlier'. The worst part of making a record is waiting for it to be finished. You are always learning and evolving like we did from Carry Me, Bury Me to Oceans of Change and we will in the future."
Making an album is not an easy endeavor, and being in a band involves great dedication. When a band 'trains' a new musician, it isn't just "teach them the hits and go on the road." The prospect has to have the drive and the will necessary to be in the band and to learn the songs. They have to be willing to come to practice and to receive constructive criticism. They have to learn every song in the repertoire to be ready at any point. It isn't a mechanical 'this is the exact way you play it' with no deviations, but there are the main parts to every song you have to have down. There is room for improvisation and personalization occasionally. We started practicing two times a week, and to be a new band you have to practice a ton to be your best. Now we practice two times before leaving on tour because it is all muscle memory at this point. Speaking of touring, Random Hero is touring with good friends Spoken this June.
Random Hero was (and is) under the tutelage of former longtime Skillet guitarist Ben Kasica. Ben taught the band how to be marketable, and to blend Aaron's pop influences with Josh's progressive metal influences. Random Hero strives to be themselves while maintaining the marketability, and they don't want to restrict themselves to the metal market. Everybody in the band needs to like the songs and to have input in the process, but you won't find Random Hero writing a six minute song. Aaron finds that after three minutes people zone out and are ready to go to the next idea, so they strive to create an album with twelve radio hits.
Keeping this in mind, Random Hero changes the set list nightly. The radio songs are always on the list, and fan favorites are usually on the list. The set list is dynamic, yet some songs may be played rarely or occasionally. A typical show lasts thirty to forty five minutes; with material from the Breakdown EP, Carry Me Bury Me, and Oceans of Change. Random Hero doesn't hang out away from fans in a mysterious green room after their set. They often stay until the doors close while taking pictures, signing autographs, and hanging out. The band used to wear makeup and face paint on stage, but as they have matured they saw it as more of a nuisance and slowly stopped to have a more mature look.
Some bands rarely produce EP's, but Random Hero embraces the EP. "An EP is an exciting taste of what is to come. For us, Breakdown set the tone for how we write as a cohesive unit. An EP is a good feeler to determine if the fans like a new evolution or not, and what to change for an LP." Random Hero left Red Cord Records and signed with Pando Records/Warner/ADA. The band will be back in the studio soon and will come out with a new EP later this year. Aaron Watkins also will be releasing a solo album on August 11th.
Despite the business aspect of music and the unusual lifestyle, Random Hero's mission is to glorify God. These "musicianaries" strive to please God in every area (not just certain areas). God is the boss and Random Hero aims to be willing servants.
Jeremy Bates was so desperate to get back into music that he registered twelve band name ideas before he even had a band. Embers in Ashes signified his desire to continue music as his childhood dreams were mostly dead, but the embers of his desire kept burning. When he was in early elementary school, he learned to play the piano. When he was eleven, he fixed up a broken down electric guitar his cousin gave him with the help of his father, who was an engineer. At fourteen, he started a band that played Bleach covers. The band grew and soon they were travelling locally and playing their own original songs. But they went their separate ways after they graduated high school and his music dreams faded... or so he thought.
A decade or so later, Jeremy was a pharmaceutical sales representative. He was married to his a girl he had known since the day she was born. Her father was the best man in his father's wedding, but love did not come at first sight for Jeremy. At one time, he had found her so annoying that he avoided spending time with her family until she was sixteen and he realized she had grown up. She had a thing for him, but he was hesitant because they were family friends. I asked Jeremy what would have happened if they had broken up. His reply, "We didn't." His wife noticed his desire to be in music again and told him that she would become a pharmacist so he could focus on music. He then started planning and assembling the band.
Embers in Ashes began in 2010, but they only played one small gig at a church. The lineup changed significantly as the guys had to figure out if they were out or all in. Their first EP, "Sorrow Scars," was produced in 2011 by the members themselves, only numbering three at the time. A friend recorded the drums, and each band member contributed to the bass tracks. From that point on, the group was on the road consistently and was signed to Red Cord Records. The band learned the pros and the cons of the industry, but they decided to go independent with their second album. That meant spending more time in the studio, more time writing, and more time praying.
Like everything Embers in Ashes does, "Killers and Thieves" involved a lot of prayer, passion, and hard work. Jeremy recalled, "The title track wasn't even supposed to be on the record. We really felt that God wanted it on the record though. It was completed on the last day of recording; the process was so quick. It was inspired by God." "Killers and Thieves" is stamped with Embers in Ashes' signature sound: bold guitars, Jeremy's intense vocals, and solid drumming.
The story of how Andrew became the band's drummer is an interesting one. He was a fill-in for rhythm guitar and they thought he was good. At one show, they'd needed a drummer. Andrew played, and the band was impressed. Jeremy described him as "on another level."
Embers in Ashes would consider themselves a Christian band, but they have a missionary mindset. Jeremy was in youth ministry for a while, and that influences his approach and his music. "I don't want to sound harsh, but I don't really want to just go in church circles and only have church kids buy our stuff. I want everybody to buy it and enjoy it. I want it to plant a seed that God waters and eventually they come to Christ." I told him how I have friends that aren't Christians and won't buy any music labeled Christian (regardless to if it is or not) and my frustration with it. He said that Embers in Ashes tries to break that mold: "We have a message in our music and we aren't ashamed of our faith but it isn't preachy. We play with a lot of secular acts in mainstream places. We pray on stage before every show. I've had guys come up and say 'Hey man, I'm not a Christian but I think it's cool you pray on stage'." 'Musicianaries' is how Bates described what the band is, playing music and reaching people for Christ through it.
2015 has intentionally been slow for Embers in Ashes. They're working on their next album and spending much needed time with their families. "This is the first time I've been home in March in five years. We usually tour a lot for the first half of the year and we intentionally decided to slow it down" he said.
A new album is in the works described in the veins of "old Anberlin." For more on Embers In Ashes, check them out on
We love House of Heroes here at JFH. Their albums always chart on our Staff Picks and Highlighting Artists, and at one point or another, they have even nabbed the number one spot for both features. They have the first album to receive two five star reviews in JFH history. Additionally, when you click on an ex-reviewer’s name, reason #7 of possible explanations this person is no longer on staff reads, “Didn't like House of Heroes' The End Is Not The End album.” (Even if that was listed in jest.) And hey, they seem to like us too, they even performed a special acoustic concert back in 2010 in honor of JFH’s 14th anniversary!
One of the things I respect most about the band is their commitment to their craft. They don't write records to create radio singles (save “Constant”). Nor do they put out the same album twice. They push themselves, experiment with their sound, and never settle for mediocrity.
While this self-titled album was the first national release from the band, this was not their first exposure to the music scene. In fact, this debut was a long time coming. Journey back to spring of 1996. Young high schoolers Tim Skipper, AJ Babcock, and Nate Rothacker formed a band called Plan B. Two years later, Colin Rigsby--Tim and AJ’s friend from youthgroup--replaced Nate Rothacker as the drummer, and the band became No Tagbacks. The boys released their first and only album under that name in 2001--an under-produced pop/punk record entitled Ten Months. Soon after Tim, AJ, and Colin (all accounted for today) decided to change their name to House of Heroes and shift to a pop/rock sound. The band released their first House of Heroes album What You Want Is Now in 2003 through the independent label Vanishing Point Records. In 2004, the band caught the attention of Gotee Records. After several months of issues with Vanishing Point the band finally signed with Gotee and released this self-titled national debut in April 2005.
I first learned about House Heroes right here as a reader on JFH, from a review by former JFH writer (and now YouTube sensation--thanks to Blimey Cow) Josh Taylor. While first listening to the album, I was impressed with their fresh rock sound, the impressive voice of Tim Skipper—who I have come to regard as one of the best voices in the industry—and unparalleled backing vocals of AJ and Colin.
This album covers a broad range of themes. “Pulling Back the Skin” and “Suicide Baby” talk about broken romantic relationships. “Buckets for Bullet Wounds” provides a voice for social injustice. “Make a Face Like You Mean It (Vampires)” calls out record labels for manipulating artists.“Fast Enough” puts you in the shoes of a woman looking for purpose: “All the lights are on, it comforts no one but your silhouette.” Whatever the message, they pack a lot of emotion into the song, all the while blending creative songwriting with pretty melodies.
HoH finds a unique balance between technical proficiency and casual jamming. They deliver crunchy guitars, gritty baselines, and rhythmic drums with occasional dramatic bursts of energy and emotion. Coupled with the album’s weighty lyrics, the music can pack a pretty significant punch. Despite this, it is a relatively optimistic record as a whole. This is accomplished with minor details like handclaps on "Buckets For Bullet Wounds" and the circus-styled guitar in the bridge of "Friday Night," as well as bigger picture characteristics like the catchiness of the album and the playful nature of how the drums, guitars, and bass work off each other.
One of the album highlights, “Friday Night,” starts off slow, but it isn’t long before it shifts to an upbeat rock number. In the second verse, Tim passes the vocal reins to AJ Babcock while he sings “the record keeps on spinning” and plenty of “oh’s” in the background. Hearing AJ so prominently here--and on other parts of the record--is a real treat, especially because of its rarity on following records. The most powerful song on the album is the lead single, "Serial Sleepers.” This song and its accompanying music video serve as a wakeup call to those have become apathetic in their faith. It's one of the few spiritual moments on the album: "rise up, O Sons of God, and sing the song that hides behind your teeth."
While the majority of this album was new material, "Mercedes Baby" and "Kamikaze Baby" (renamed "Suicide Baby") were both re-recorded from What We Want Is Now: "Mercedes Baby" is a fun upbeat rock number with a thick baseline and a catchy chorus. I’ve heard many fans say they prefer the raw emotion of the original, but personally, I find this version tighter and more suited for the encouraging message. But man, that is one killer breakdown in the original. "Suicide Baby" is a significant improvement from the original, especially in the vocal department. This song also has a memorable chorus but is a more laid back in the verses.
Closing out the album, "Angels In Tophats" is an emotional song about a boy and a girl who got into a car wreck. The girl is in the hospital while the boy is pleading and praying for the girl to wake from her coma. This nine-minute roller coaster ride requires complete focus to fully appreciate, but those with the attention span to sit through it will vouch for their ability to capture a story with songwriting and music--something they mastered in The End Is Not The End.
Overall, this is a solid rock album. Many recent fans discovering this gem for the first time may find it different from their more polished successors, but multiple listens would reveal that this is the same clever and talented band. It's not necessarily a masterpiece like the band’s magnum opus The End Is Not The End, but it holds up well to Suburba and Cold Hard Want. One important note is that Mono Vs. Stereo (Gotee’s sister label) re-released this album as Say No More in 2006, introducingtwo new songs into the mix: “You Are The Judas of the Cheerleading Squad” and “Invisible Hook.” They are both fantastic songs and though they don’t quite fit with the original tracklist, it works well enough to make the purchase a little more valuable.
Today, the band is independent and working on their first "true" concept album. The record is being funded by a $50,000+ IndieGoGo Campaign (which was 160% of their $35,000 goal). During the campaign, the band released the stellar six songSmoke EP. Since then, we have been treated to theHark! The House of Heroes SingChristmas EP and have also been promised an acoustic EP this spring. As a "Member of the House," I've had the pleasure of seeing the early development of this concept album and judging from the jam sessions and story ideas we have heard so far, it will be well worth the wait. I'd love to tell all you wonderful JFH readers more details about the record, but I think we have to keep things confidential. But I think I'd be okay to share a still shot from one of their jam sessions in AJ's mom's basement. Here’s to another 10 years for the beloved rock band, House of Heroes.
Check out this JFH exclusive behind-the-song look at Kevin Max's new album, Broken Temples, written by Kevin himself!
1.Good Kings Highway (Kevin Max, Josh Silverberg, Kipp Williams) I started writing this song during the 2nd year on the road with Audio Adrenaline. This song came about one morning at Capitol records in Nashville, writing with my good friend Josh Silverberg.Josh, Kipp Williams and I began to put together a track based on a melody that I had running around in my head.We wanted to make the intro to the song a bit more epic than usual, so the original demo was much longer in scope. As the melody came into focus I started formulating lyrics on the spot, in the studio...I basically wrote out the finished lyrics within an hour or so.The meaning behind GKH was taken from my visits to Haiti and seeing the lifestyle of the people, in conjunction with Hands and Feet orphanage.I noticed so many men and women that had been displaced, and seemingly surviving on their own without any help.There were many children growing up without a home or shelter, in the toxic conditions of a country on the edge of sanity.I pictured a child in Haiti growing up trying to make his or her destiny happen without a parent or a society that could intervene. God's grace comes into play, and His natural way of helping us without us even knowing. The image of the open road or highway is a parallel to life… we walk down this road not knowing what will become of us, but trusting that somehow we will survive. The vibe of the song was obviously taken from the U2/Bruce Springsteen playbook…
2. You Light Me Up (Kevin Max, Jon Steingard) This song was a grand experiment into writing a radio single. I have never really felt like I had the tools as a solo artist to accomplish this. Even on my first album, Stereotype Be, and its lone radio single 'Existence,’ I felt bewildered by the task. Radio has changed so drastically from the days of my early songwriting in the 80's and 90's.I turned to a friend that had success within the marketplace and on radio, Jon Steingard of Hawk Nelson. We got together at his home and literally wrote 'Light Me Up' from scratch within a couple of hours.The song came into being with me singing a falsetto line through a distorted guitar pedal. The opening vocal melody gave way to the overall track direction.The lyrics of the song are obvious… well, at least to me they are… it’s a song about redemption, basically my story.
3. Just As I Am (Kevin Max, Josh Silverberg) I have always been a fan of 80's music.My first concert was Howard Jones in Grand Rapids Michigan, my hometown, followed by Adam Ant & U2. I wasn't like the other kids in my private Christian school who listened to soft rock or hair metal. I was fully committed to the New Wave. Those influences play directly into some of the songs on this album, and probably even the most obviously on 'Just As I Am.' Again this song came out of a publishers’ writing session with Josh and Kipp. I wanted to write a song about the prodigal son aspect of my life and that is the direction of the story. I would say that it is one of the more personal songs on the album, even though it feels like a dance track.I have always loved the contrast between moody, heavy lyric content with joyful chord structure. *(See Morrissey or The Smiths for examples.)
4. Clear (Kevin Max, Jeff Pardo) Another experiment that I am trying to perfect in my writing process is the aspect of space within a track. The more you add to a song musically and instrumentally, the less space and or groove a song will have. By doing away with things that do not matter, you get to the heart of the vibe and the feel of the melody. When writing ‘Clear’ with Jeff Pardo in East Nashville, I brought him a recording of me singing the melody, and also a bass line that I had sung into my iTalk recorder. It might sound strange to start writing a song based off of a bass guitar line, but in this case it proved correct. This again shows the influences of my 80's New Wave self. In the vein of Duran Duran or Roxy Music, ‘Clear’ is definitely one of my favorite songs on the album.It’s also very much my blueprint within music - mixing those 80's sensibilities with honest lyrics.
5. When We Were Young (Kevin Max, Sam Timminez, Josh Bronleewe) The subject matter of this song was far more important than the melody or track, in my opinion.I wanted to write about the fact that in this day and age, we are losing our innocence across the globe. I remember growing up and never worrying about terrorism or witnessing the grotesque nature of ISIS. As I was born in 1967, it wasn't until I studied history that I realized how much atrocity lived in the world. Slavery, war, bigotry, greed, malice… we as a human race have proved how evil we can become. It is through the grace of God that we can overcome this, and the song 'When We Were Young' proves that children are our better selves.Going back to the start and realizing that we were once pure of heart was a concept that I wanted to convey.It’s a bit like an early John Lennon song about hands across the world, but it’s also a spiritual application and extremely relevant. It also subconsciously deals with the fact that we have become desensitized through modernization. The Internet and television have dropped the veil from guarded innocence, and now we broadcast our hatred and judgment across the computer screen to the world. We may think we have learned from our past from our issues with segregation and judgment, but it is apparent we haven't done much about it.The style of the song came from the capable hands of Josh Bronleewe, a great programmer and musician.I wanted this song to again have a dance quality to contrast against the heavy lyric.Its sister song on the album 'Lay Down Your Weapons My Friend,' was its predecessor.
6. That Was Then & This Is Now (Kevin Max, Cory Basil, Stu Garrard) Before I agreed to become the new lead singer of Audio Adrenaline I had recorded a few songs to be a musical companion to my novel Fiefdom of Angels.One of these songs didn't fit that structure and I kept it hidden on my computer for quite some time. In the early stages of joining Audio Adrenaline, I stayed at Michael Tait's house in Brentwood, as I had sold my home in Nashville and had bought a new home in Grand Rapids, Michigan.Moving back to Nashville was an easy enough process for me as I had lived there for over 2 decades prior. Before finding a home in Franklin for my growing family, I stayed with Michael. He was on the road all of the time with Newsboys, so his house on the hill in Brentwood was constantly empty. During those first few weeks of house hunting, dieting and exercising, I wrote songs in the basement of his home.Armed only with my trusty synth I began to flesh out the song "That was Then'… from the earlier demo. I invited my good friend and artist buddy Cory Basil to come by one afternoon to listen to the song.He added some ideas and with that I took the finished product to Stu G (formerly of Delirious) to finish the track.Stu brought his British sensibilities to my obviously dated-80's-cinematic-guilty-pleasure song. When Josh Silverberg and I began to perfect it again, as an 11th hour addition to this album, I envisioned the tune being something on a soundtrack like the film Drive.
7. White Horse (Kevin Max, Brent Kutzle) In the mid 2000's I lived in Los Angeles, California and performed constantly on the Sunset Strip. At the legendary 'Viper Room' I had residencies back to back. During those years I performed with several bands that were up and coming as well as big names that had already become successful. Katy Perry, then Katy Hudson, shared the stage with me as well as a band called The One Republic.
I began a friendship with Ryan Teter and we wrote a couple of songs together before their hit single 'Apologize' blew them into the universal orbit.I met Brent Kutzle during those years and called on him to help me with a track on this album.‘White Horse’ is a song that Brent had written and I only helped him flesh it out to a finished track.Josh Silverberg co-produced long distance with Brent and we saw it come into shape over a few weeks of back and forth.It’s obviously an apocalyptic subject, but I also feel an undertone of modern worship in the music. White Horse was something, much like "Kings and Queens' from the Audio A 2.0 album, that I could have never written by myself.
8. Another Big Mistake (Derek Webb Remix)I am not a fan of re-mixes, let me state that first and foremost.Whenever I see artists putting out a whole album of re-mixes, I cringe. I think it’s a lazy way of putting out product without having to create something through hard work. So… the reason I put a couple of re-mixes on this album are this. 1. I didn't want this to be an EP, and at the time we didn't have financial means or schedule to produce more songs. 2. My great friend Derek Webb, with whom I have the utmost respect for as a musician, agreed to performing his 'deconstruction' of my songs. Like a musical Picasso, I wanted Derek to take my two favorite tracks on the album and turn them upsidewaysdown.
9. Going Clear (Derek Webb Remix) Same rules apply...
10. Infinite (Kevin Max, Kyle Lee) ‘Infinite’ was the second song written for Broken Temples.The first was a song that never saw the light of day called 'Outside The Door.' It was a song I pitched to the early songwriting process of the 'Kings and Queens' album. It was deemed too 'Beatlesque' so I tampered it and wrote a song called 'Infinite.'I recorded this demo on my trusty iPhone, iTalk app and brought it to a writing session with a gentleman named Kyle Lee. Kyle was set up in Toby Mac's studio in Franklin, TN, just down the road from my house.Within a few minutes, we had the beginnings of the song already recorded. I'd like to say it was the quickest and most simple song I have written in quite some time. A friend of mine likened it to a nursery rhyme or Sunday school song… I take that as a compliment. The subject material of the lyrics is obvious.Taken from the playbook of C.S. Lewis and William Blake, God is bigger in depth and scope than we can imagine.
11. Freak Flag (Kevin Max, Jason Walker) During the 'Kings & Queens' process I wanted to write several old school Audio Adrenaline rockers. I was a big fan of their early career, as they were our compadres on Forefront. (dctalk discovered the band at Kentucky Christian College and brought their demo to the label ). I loved songs like 'Mighty Good Leader, Chevette & Scum Sweetheart'….but the 90's had come and gone in Christian Music, and sadly even when we played these old hits live, the crowds didn't seem to get them. That opportunity to write these type of songs never came, as management and label wanted a more mature AA. Mark Stuart and I actually did write a couple of songs that bordered on the old style, but the songs eventually saw their demise. ‘Freak Flag’ was written for the Audio A 2.0, album 2, which never came into being. Jason Walker, my friend and fellow band member and I sat down at his home studio and laughed our way through the first demo stages of the tune.It was shelved for quite some time as I went through the gauntlet of the changes that would see me becoming a solo artist again and not moving forward with yet another incarnation of the Audio A brand. I took the song in its unfinished form and Rob Hawkins, the producer of the 1st side of the album, worked it up into what you hear now. It’s an anthem, its tongue in cheek, it has time traveled back from the 1990's, just for you.
12.Lay Down Your Weapons My Friend(Kevin Max, Paul Moak) Paul Moak… what an artist… what a guitar player… what a producer.Paul auditioned as a very young lad with a very large pedal board for the dctalk solo tour.He became my guitar player for my segment of the show.He would open each performance playing a real Sitar. Many moons have passed and now Paul is one of the premiere producers in Nashville.Situated in the most fantastical studios in Berry Hill, he creates the anthems for hipsters and serious musicians daily. I asked him to write a song for me in the early stages of writing for 'Kings & Queens.' We wrote this song in a day and recorded it.Later, Paul put his finishing touches on it without even letting me know.He sent it through the Internet completed and feeling like a track that John Lennon would have been proud of. Stylistically it also hearkens to the 1950's, with Stephanie Smith singing great background vocal embellishments. The lyrics are heavy and represent one of the biggest issues we are dealing with today: Forgiveness.
The wholesale lineup changes that Audio Adrenaline has foisted on their fan base in the last few years are frustrating and contribute to the cynicism that many feel towards the music industry (Christian and secular branches alike). It’s been done too many times and a line has to be drawn here.
Now, the common critique of letters like this is that there are so many other things in our world that are much more worthy of our outrage, our time and our efforts. I agree. That’s why I’m also going to spend the exact amount of time I’ve spent crafting this letter into writing one to my state’s governor about the lack of options for the homeless here in New Hampshire, and then another extra hour or two working with the outreach team from my church. (Something I already do.) But cynicism is a problem. I feel it encroaching on my life day by day. And it’s a battle to keep it at bay, to let the Lord soften my heart and open my eyes to all that He wants to do through me in this world.
I was once a wide-eyed, hopeful kid, and your music was very much the soundtrack to those times. During my Junior year of high school I spent the wee hours of a youth group lock-in discussing “Scum Sweetheart” with a friend, and being honest about how tough the pull of the world was feeling to us. This conversation convinced both of us commit to helping each other navigate the tricky teen waters of hormones and identities. A guy at summer camp taught me the chords to “Rest Easy” and I sang that song at the top of my lungs around a campfire with little campers singing along. The summer I graduated, I went on a road trip on a brilliant month in July and took Bloom along with me. “See Through” and “Man Of God” sparked amazing conversations with my fellow travelers, and I still quote “See Through” to my daughters, urging them to look at Jesus as the perfect one, and dad as the one who, on his best days, points to the Savior. (“Don’t you know that God loves you, don’t you know that I try to? I’ve been known to miss my cue, but don’t look at me, I’m see through.”) “Bag Lady” helped to convince me to break out of my comfort zone and strike up a relationship with the homeless lady who camped out near my college in Philly. Later, as a youth pastor, I sat around a campfire at a music fest with a retired pastor friend who was battling cancer and the feeling of uselessness to God. Though he was decidedly out of your demographic, he had been moved to tears by “Hands And Feet”, and your challenge from the stage that there was no one out there who God couldn’t use. Another kid in my youth group (the pastor’s son) loved “Chevette” because, to him, it was the story of his dad and his family.
These stories matter to me, and many other fans out there, and the cynicism builds in our hearts when we are presented with a new product that has the old name on it. It makes us suspicious that there is an ulterior motive at work, and that we are seen as mere lemmings, mindless consumers who will greet this new version of something we once loved with a Pavlovian response to simply accept this new change with open arms; like there is no history, no collection of stories built up in our hearts. When I hear new music from an artist I once loved, it’s like being visited by an old friend.
And, you already did this once before!
I even enjoyed the last incarnation of the band. I enjoyed seeing Will bouncing around up on stage. I enjoyed hearing your voice on “King Of The Comebacks.” I enjoyed the album, and the attention it was bringing to the Hands And Feet Project. I cried a bit when I saw the “Kings And Queens” video, and I enjoyed introducing my daughters to the music and bringing them to your shows. They love “Big House” and “Ocean Floor” and I was happy to share a memory with them.
But a third time? A third time in just over two years?
That frustrates me, and appeals to the cynic in me that says that it’s all about the money; all about capitalizing on a “brand” instead of an actual band full of people with chemistry (the kind it takes time to develop) and a shared history. We live in such a manufactured world. But art can’t be assembled like an automobile. It’s an intangible thing that doesn’t have interchangeable parts the way my computer does. It’s organic and can’t be assembled in a studio.
I fully recognize that there is much more behind the scenes than I could ever realize, and that there are many considerations, not to mention the projects and ministries that benefit from what you are trying to do. It’s just that we haven’t heard any explanations, just a “here’s your new version of the band!” It’s hard not to be dubious.
So please, call off this continuation of Audio Adrenaline and start something new. Start something for the kid out there to fall in love with, to take on a road trip, to listen to late at night and consider a new truth. Do something original, something new for that kid and the wide-eyed, arms-wide-open kid that I once was. Art matters, authenticity matters. Thanks for the great memories, and may all of our lives have an impact on those around us for the sake of the Kingdom.
It's certainly hard to believe that a decade has passed since Audio Adrenaline released what would end up being their final studio album. Until My Heart Caves In was a bittersweet record, as it showcased even less of lead singer Mark Stuart's vocals than the previous album had (Worldwide), with guitarist Tyler Burkum filling in more and more. To diehard fans of the original identity of the band, it came as a pretty hard pill to swallow. (Honestly, I didn't care for the record at all at first, and was immensely disappointed after my first listen.)
Still, Until My Heart Caves In is an appropriate final bow, of sorts. The opener, "Clap Your Hands," was a fantastic show starter and it represented the kind of fun rock anthems the band had always offered. "King" was a great original worship song that captured the spirit of their album LIFT and also offered enough of that radio sensibility to keep casual listeners happy. Other highlights like "Undefeated" and their cover of "Your Love Is Lifting Me Higher" helped give some extra punch to a more raw rock effort than Worldwide. But the heartbreaking closer, "Losing Control," is even more bittersweet given that it wrapped up the band's final studio album with original members Mark Stuart and Will McGinniss, and longtime members Tyler Burkum and Ben Cissell. The additional tracks on their official farewell hits collection, Adios, were nice encores, but to this day, Until My Heart Caves In marked the end of an era.
Today, in 2015, 8 years after Audio Adrenaline played their final show as a band in Hawaii, the name "Audio Adrenaline" lives on with all new members, carrying the banner to support the orphanage the band started in Haiti, The Hands & Feet Project. While it will never quite be the same, the heart of the band continues. With a new studio album with the new four members releasing May 5th, and a new single, "Love Was Stronger"--a cover of artist Josiah James' song--available on iTunes and at radio while they tour with Newsboys, it's a completely different time and season for Audio Adrenaline. The sound of the new single is unlike anything on Until My Heart Caves In, fitting in more so with the current trends of CCM radio, but it remains to be seen (and heard) where the brand's next album, Sound of the Saints, fits in their discography.
Until My Heart Caves In will always hold a special place in this reviewer's heart as being the closing statement of the original embodiment of Audio Adrenaline -- and it still sounds good, even 10 Years Later.
I've always been known as somewhat of a picky music listener. I've always considered myself to have very refined taste (it's probably more of the former than the latter). Considering how many albums I had on my list of "potential top ten albums," I may be getting pickier as time goes on. Regardless of how I may or may not be described in the way of what I listen to, it is true that I had a bunch of albums that I was considering for this list. It seems to always be this way, too. I polled the other JFH staff, and it looks as if I'm one of few that seem to have this problem: how do I narrow this list down?!
To some it may seem easy, but it's not. Now, my number one and number two were easy, I'll give you that. I rated two album with a 5-star rating this year, and that's only because I couldn't give Kings Kaleidoscope anything higher. Anyway, putting Kings K and Playdough and Sean P in the top two spots was a piece of cake. A la mode, for that matter. Then I looked through my list and saw that, outside of those two, I listened to NEEDTOBREATHE and Sleeping Giant a LOT. So that filled my third and fourth spots. The rest was the most difficult. Thus, I needed to write this blog, to explain my thoughts, but mostly to get to the honorable mentions!
I'm sure everyone who reads this will have listened to at least part of one of these albums. If there's anything on this list you've missed, you have your assignment (assuming, of course, you like the genres represented). I'm looking forward to a good year in music in 2015! God bless!
1. Becoming Who We Are, Kings Kaleidoscope
I remember fellow writer Ryan Barbee writing a review of Kings K's Christmas EP a few years back, and I thought, "Hmm, I'll have to check this out." I never did. BUT, when Mars Hill teamed up with BEC and released the Mars Hill Worship Sampler in 2013, and I heard a couple of songs by Kings K, I thought "Yes...THIS is the band I'm looking forward to most from this merger." Of course, I don't need to go into what transpired, but in the end, the band still released an album that only met my expectations, but set them on fire and doused the fire with some Surge they bought from Amazon. Songs like "Defender," "Light After Darkness," "Grace Alone," and the Psalm-inspired "139" are all perfect examples of the wonder and awe that encompasses this album. In my opinion, the best worship album I've ever had the joy of listening to, and a phenomenal album in and of itself. Good thing digital copies can't be worn out.
2. Gold Tips, Playdough & DJ Sean P
My ears happened upon Playdough on a random sampler I got that was my introduction to Christian music. It was an ill harmonics track called "Will I?" It seemed a little different to me than what the mainstream hip hop world was offering (considering that my pre-Christian music choices consisted of the likes of Eminem), but it was pretty good. As Playdough started his solo career, I didn't follow along too closely, until a (now) good friend of mine showed up in my life and brought along Don't Drink The Water. I was hooked. Eight years later, and Playdough (alongside long-time DJ and friend Sean Patrick) has released one of the best albums of his career. Great for parties and clubs, it's also just a fun album to jam out to in your car or, if you wish, the privacy of your own bedroom. Check out "Act Like You Know," "Burn Rubber," or "Real Like It" and get the party started.
3. Rivers in the Wasteland, NEEDTOBREATHE
Taking it to back in the day again, the first time I heard NEEDTOBREATHE was when I was working at a local Christian radio station. I noticed the new singles that had been downloaded into the system, and saw the debut single from NTB called "Shine On." I liked it, but I more or less dismissed it as just another Christian band who would maybe have a couple of hit singles and then fade out into limbo. I was wrong. I was way wrong. Rivers in the Wasteland further cements the greatness that has come from this group of southern rockers. Every song is stellar, from the humble-yet-victorious "Wasteland" to the 80s-ish "Where The Money Is" to the moody "More Heart, Less Attack." There's a reason this is the number one album when it comes to the staff's average. Look it up if you haven't already checked it out.
4. Finished People, Sleeping Giant
This album took me by surprise a little. I've always kind of enjoyed what Sleeping Giant has put out, but I was never really a hardcore fan. I actually didn't really even particularly enjoy the first lyric video I saw from Finished People for the song "Overthrow." But I took a gamble on it, thinking it would at least be something spiritual that would also get me pumped up, and I ended up listening to it on a daily basis. There's an overarching theme of victory in Jesus, and the band's unabashed honesty and in-your-face attitude about the gospel is inspiring. In my view, it's the best hardcore album of 2015, and there were some good ones for sure.
5. Aftermath, Fever Fever
I didn't know a lot about Fever Fever before they got signed to Slospeak, but I had heard a few songs and thought they had a lot of potential, as good as they already were. Aftermath really impressed me. I know it's weird to have a 4-star rated album at this point in the list when everything else after it is 4.5, but I honestly listened to this one a lot more. In addition, I feel like the first half or so of the album is incredibly strong, and if the strength hadn't slightly dropped off after "Hope Is A Child's Toy," the album would've been rated a lot higher. Regardless, Fever Fever is a great band with a refreshing atmospheric indie pop sound that rivals the top artists in the genre.
6. The Art of Joy, Jackie Hill Perry
Jackie Hill Perry started off as a spoken word artist, who had shared the stage with artists like Propaganda, and since then, her relationship with Humble Beast began to grow. I wasn't sure what to expect, as I was partially expecting an album with as much as or more spoken word than Prop. And honestly, I wasn't excited about that. But I saw the video for "The Problem," and it blew me away. As it turns out, Perry is blessed on the mic. "Educated Fool," "The Problem" (which is a hidden track after "The Solution" on the album), and "Ode To Lauryn" showcase her wonderful rap skills. This album is FREE?! (Also, her testimony is amazing, and is a real testament to the power of God, and the truth of His Word, which is being fought against on a daily basis when it comes to the subject of her testimony - even amongst the Christian culture. Look it up and be blessed).
Download free here!
7. Slave To Nothing, Fit For A King
I'm not a big Fit For A King fan. Creation|Destruction was decent, but didn't stand out to me, and even the touched up, re-released Descendants didn't do a lot for me. The guys really gave it their all, though, for Slave To Nothing. It's intense, it's passionate, it's honest, and it's leagues above their Solid State debut. I've heard good news about their live performance, and after their impressive display in 2014, I have to say I'm eager to see them live.
8. Knives to the Future, Project 86
Oh, Project 86, how I adore thee. The band has gone through a lot of changes: style, attitude, lyrical themes, personnel, hairstyles (remember Schwab's afro?). But they hardly ever fail to bring their A-game. Knives to the Future, with the sheer glory of its album art, brings to the table an array of sounds, much of which sounds a little "throwback"-ish, and a great deal of the technical intensity and lyrical genius associated with a Project album. If you haven't listened yet, check out "Captive Bolt Pistol" and let it rock your world.
9. In Our Winters, Preson Phillips
I discovered Preson Phillips in 2009 from this website called The Free Christian Music Blog, which highlighted all of the free, legal Christian music downloads the admins could find. Phillips' first album, The Observant & the Anawim, was an interesting album, and one that I didn't end up returning to for a while. But when I did, I suddenly realized I enjoyed it, and I followed his releases up until now.
10. Correspondence (a fiction), Levi the Poet
Here's another origin story: A few years ago, I went to this Come&Live! show with Showbread, The Ember Days, White Collar Sideshow, and Ben Crist from The Glorious Unseen. White Collar Sideshow had this young kid touring with them named Levi Macallister, who actually opened up the band's set for them. He unleashed the fury that was "Kaleidoscope," and suddenly, I was a Levi the Poet fan. After each loud, angst-ridden, tumultuous spoken word album, I wanted more. And this year, Levi delivered an album unlike his previous ones. Correspondence (a fiction) is, as the title suggests, a fictional tale of two young lovers, and it's accompanied by wonderful music from Glowhouse. His tamest release yet, it's also his most alluring and captivating. If Levi's style was too rough-around-the-edges for you before, you may want to try getting into his material again with Correspondence as the catalyst.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order...aw heck, alphabetical order by artist name, because it's just easier for me that way): Singular Vision, Alert312 (Free download!)
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I listen to Christian music lately. Putting together this list of my top ten Christian albums of 2014 and writing some of my thoughts down has reminded me of the collective reasons that I listen to Christian music. It was an important reflection for me, so I want to take a moment to share some of my thoughts as an encouragement and challenge to all of you.
Over the years, there have been dozens of albums that have deepened my relationship with Jesus and affected how I live my life as a Christian, such as DC Talk’s Jesus Freak, Relient K’s Anatomy..., andmore recently My Epic’s Broken Voice. Even just listening to Christian music on a regular basis, whether it is worship or not, keeps my mind focused on God or at least what is pure and honoring to Him (~Philippians 4:8). I like when music challenges my faith. I don't want to just listen to fluffy Christian messages almost as much as I don’t want to listen to a song about doing drugs or getting drunk. If it’s covering serious topics, I want to wrestle with it, let it convict me, and grow from it. That's why I love bands like Disciple and Lecrae. They bring the truth and they want people to be uncomfortable with it.
But I don’t want that all the time. Sometimes I just want some clean entertaining music and, many times, Christian artists can offer that. All of the albums on this list have songs that can put a smile on my face, make me bob my head, or even dance. These artists know how to make a catchy tune and for rest of us who wouldn't be able to pick out a capo from a c-clamp, we can just soak it in and enjoy it.
Alex “Tin Can” Caldwell mentioned something in his recent blog post about how we can develop "relationships" with an artist (not in a romantic way :) ). Through music, an artist is sharing his or her perspective on life. They are putting their thoughts, desires, and longings into words and singing them for us to think about. What the artist shares both in music and lyric you may come to treasure and trust the way you would the work of a loved one or the words of a friend. As a Christian, I find it easier to connect with Christian artists because they share a similar worldview as me.
One of the obvious reasons I listen to Christian music is because I am writing reviews for it! It kinda goes with the job description.
There are also a couple reasons I listen to Christian music that are not so good. I have a lot of pride about my music taste and knowledge. While that's not inherently a bad thing, sometimes it gets to my head and I can come to view others as having lesser tastes, and that is just sinful. It can also be an idol. Ironic, right? I could pour my heart out about this one but I don't know 99% of you and I'm about as introverted as they come, so I will just say that this is something I have to continually bring to God.
All of the albums on this list have engaged me with some combination of these reasons. There are also other reasons that I like these albums that have nothing to do with how "Christian" the music is, like their artistic merit (which is a whole different conversation!).
Feel free to comment at the bottom with some of the reasons that you listen to Christian music or even share your favorite Christian albums of 2014. I'd love to hear what you think!
1. Fading West, Switchfoot - With each release after The Beautiful Letdown, I was ultimately left wondering if that albumwas a one-time thing (not the actual sound, just the overall quality of it). I enjoyed Nothing Is Sound and Hello Hurricane, but there was just something truly remarkable about their breakthrough album. My love for Switchfoot was rekindled with Vice Verses in 2011 and Fading West this past January. The album is musically full of strong melodies and memorable hooks, and lyrically filled with philosophical thoughts and questions of hope, love, and faith. My favorite song off the album is the sole ballad, "The World You Want," which is completely drenched with emotion, capturing despair and hope within the context of our responsibility to the world. This was definitely my soundtrack for the year.
2. Rivers In The Wasteland, Needtobreathe - Few bands grab my attention from album to album the way that Needtobreathe does. They reinvent themselves with each release and continue to produce quality music. Rivers feels like a journey of emotions, from the chilling and vulnerable opener, “Wasteland,” to the convicting closer, “More Heart, Less Attack.” The half-title track can send chills up and down my spine and it's one of the most vulnerable worship songs I've heard in quite a while. “Rise Again” is one of the more beautiful songs that the band has crafted alongside “Something Beautiful” and “Garden.” As a side note, Needtobreathe is one of the few Christian bands that I like that that will come out to Boston (the only others being Switchfoot and FIF). They always put on a great show.
3. Smoke EP, House of Heroes - While nothing quite tops The End Is Not The End, everything House of Heroes has put out since then is high caliber rock music. The Smoke EP is no exception. From the rock and roll opener, "Bottle Rocket," to the anthemic closer, "Infinite," the band keeps you engaged and craving more. This EP is filled with layers of harmonized vocals, sweet guitar riffs, pounding drums and thought provoking lyrics. Behind it all is the talented front-man Tim Skipper who stretches his voice as he sings about loss, faith, and relationships. This six song EP had the most candidates when I was trying to decide my top ten songs of the year.
4. Attack, Disciple - When I first heard this album, I immediately knew this was one of my favorites for the year. Packed with aggressive yet melodic hooks and bold lyrics, it quickly became one of my favorite Disciple albums alongside Scars Remain and By God. I really love the fusion of the old (Back Again) and new (O God Save Us All). "The Name" is possibly my favorite song in the 150+ song Disciple catalog. The only thing holding this album back are the three predictable softer tracks (which are still better than most of their recent softer tracks). On a more personal note, this album has really challenged me in my faith and I love that.
5. Anomaly, Lecrae - Over the past several years, Lecrae has certainly lived up to his self-proclaimed title of "Anomaly," by simultaneously engaging the common Christian household and mainstream hip-hop community. On Anomaly, memorable beats are accompanied by fluid rapping over a variety of sounds and instruments. Lecrae tackles the too-often taboo topics in Christian music, such as the effects of sin and social and political issues. Though Rehab still remains my favorite Lecrae album, Anomaly has taken the number two spot right above Rebel.
6. In A Breath, New Empire - New Empire has been making waves in Australia for several years. Those waves finally made it all the way over here to the states as this year marked their first US release. Taking cues from bands like Copeland, Deas Veil, and Snow Patrol, New Empire boasts a catchy, relaxing, and creative sound with many layers of complexity. Jeremy Fowler, the lead singer, has a beautiful and dynamic voice and the lyrics carry a deep message of hope--delivered in an artistic and even poetic fashion. This new T&N artist is definitely one to keep an eye on.
7. Lowborn,Anberlin - The final chapter of Anberlin is the most somber and experimental album we have heard from the beloved alternative rock band. Though they will be missed, I am glad that they decided to put together one more album as a swan song of sorts. Cities remains my favorite Anberlin album, but Lowborn definitely has a high place among a strong discography.
8. Blindfold, Canopy Climbers - There are many talented electronic-based indie artists out there, but Canopy Climbers are in a league of their own. They have this amazing ability to pull you into their music with Cory Nelson's soothing voice (which reminds me of Phil Wickham), intriguing and sometimes convicting lyrics, and musical soundscapes that are a seemingly impossible combination of catchiness and calmness. Each of the four tracks are a gem but my favorite is the title track.
9. Aftermath, Fever Fever - This is one of those few new bands that completely shock you with a fresh musical style. Lush ambient instrumentation, a unique and strong vocalist, and excellent musicianship (with some instruments I don't even recognize) make this a must-have album and a promising start for the band.
10. Neon Steeple, Crowder - The mad scientist/worship leader didn't take much of a break after the end of the DC*B, and that only means good things for worship music. With so many cookie cutter worship bands nowadays, it’s hard to find good artistic worship music and David Crowder is an artist that always delivers. Songs like "Here's My Heart" really draw me to worship Jesus. Crowder calls his new music "folktronica" but there is a lot more "folk" than there is "tronica." Either way, this is a phenomenal album that is comparable to the quality of DC*B albums.
Unto Us, Aaron Shust - The best Christmas album in Christian music since Phil Wickham's Songs For Christmas and also Shust's best album. Check out my thoughts in my review (it was the second one I did for JFH!)
What Was Done, Vol. 1: A Decade Revisited, The Classic Crime -If the new recording "Selfish" and the overly melancholy "The Fight” were not included, this would have been a much stronger release. But man, some of these renditions are killer. "We All Look Elsewehere," "The Coldest Heart," "Who Needs Air," "You and Me Both" and "Where Did You Go?" are all 5-star material that I'll be coming back to for years to come.
Goliath, Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil -Goliath is filled withwitty lyrics and solid musicianship. There are two reasons this is not in my top ten: first; I only just started listening to it, and second; I am not a big fan of Taylor's singing voice.
Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.for King & Country - This stellar sophomore release serves as a big encouragement to live life fully, press on in difficult times, and to have faith in God over an engaging musical soundscape.
Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell’s Top Ten Albums and (A Few) Songs From 2014
Being a music reviewer (or film or any other kind of art) can be a downer at times, because your intake of mediocre art can be too much. If you let it get to you, then you can wonder if there is anything good happening in your little corner of the music or art world, like somehow all the lights are slowly going out and you’re standing there trying to make sense of what is happening.
So it’s a needed joy to take into account all of the things you liked in the year that has past. It’s refreshing to unabashedly talk about what you thought was great art, and why it has lightened up your soul. Good music can be the best thing in the world. It can speak to your heart and brain like few other art forms, and when you bond with a particular piece of art, it comes to feel like an old friend. Many of the albums on my list already feel like that, like I’ve been listening to them for a long time, though they may be only a few months out of the proverbial womb.
And if your list, like mine, contains a lot of your long-time favorite artists, then it's critical to ask the question “Do I love this album because I love the artist?” (in the same way I love one of my young daughter’s drawings because I love who it came from), or is this truly a stand-out piece of work that changes my life (not to put too dramatic a point on it).
It’s a salient question, and for me, the question of my musical year. With all these returning artists on my list, what is it about their latest offering that got me so jazzed up? It’s hard to separate the love of the artist and the love of the album, and knowing where one starts and the other stops is difficult. It’s a subject worth tackling.
By my mental arithmetic, seven of the listees are "old friends" of mine (Steve Taylor, Needtobreathe, Switchfoot, The Choir, Anberlin, Peter Furler and David Crowder), two are "acquaintances" that are rapidly becoming "good friends" (for King & Country and Jason Gray) and one feels like a band I just met at a party and had a terrific conversation with (Judah & The Lion).So old friends and new, you all made my 2014 a year to remember by putting out the very best offerings these ears of mine heard. It’s a list of what I liked, not a defining “best of” anything (U2 and Coldplay put out a really great albums in the mainstream, too), but a list of spiritual pop that made my heart sing (and convicted it too) and my mind think deeper, rounder thoughts.
1. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil / Goliath
The word “satire” doesn’t enter the Christian music vocabulary too often these days. With Christian radio play lists filled with earnest (and sometimes over-earnest) artists writing straight-forward songs that are easy to process, there is little room or time on the drive home from work to parse a song’s lyrics out if they prove to be more complex, or in Steve Taylor’s world, lyrically dense and chock-full of protein. It’s the difference between one of those candy-like granola bars that are more like a candy bar, and a health food store hiking bar that are tough to chew, but ultimately will give you a bigger boost.
Thankfully, Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil’s debut album (and that’s an ironic statement I know, as all four members of the group have almost 50 albums out between them) coat their satirical, yet reverent musings with some of the best, most melodic garage rock you will hear anywhere. Catchy tunes are the name of the game, and hard looks at both American and church culture are found throughout Goliath’s 11 lean tracks.
Steve Taylor has always been a keen observer of culture (for example, his great take on Church racism and cultish tendencies in 1980’s gems like “Color Code” and “I Want To Be A Clone”) and it’s been 20 years since we’ve been graced with such observations out of his own mouth. But he hasn’t stopped making them; he just wrote good, scathing lyrics that he gave away, like the Newsboys songs “John Woo” (a take on mindless blockbuster movies and lives of luxury), “Fad Of The Land” and “Lost The Plot”.
So it's wonderful to hear him take on the subjects of blurred reality in the computer age (“Only A Ride," "Rubbernecker”), Celebrity and political culture (“The Sympathy Vote,” “Goliath”), lazy, passive media consumers (“Happy Go Lazy”), and his own frustration on being misunderstood by so many “gate keepers” in Christian music throughout the years (“The Comedian”). But Taylor does so much more than fire bullets at others. “Standing In Line” is a hard look at the ebbs and flows of married life, and “A Life Preserved” is a wonderful testimony about how God is faithful even though we drift away countless times.
All together, Goliath hits on so many levels that it will take me another year to sort out the lyrics (seriously, try counting all the puns in “Comedian“), but thankfully, I will be humming these songs to myself all that time. Goliath was worth the wait. Let’s hear some more Steve (and Jimmy and Peter and John Mark).
2. Needtobreathe / Rivers In The Wasteland In any other year, Needtobreath’s fantastic Rivers In The Wasteland would have hit the number one spot for me. With its terrific mix of countrified rockers (“The Heart, “State I’m In”, “Oh Carolina”) and thought provoking, epic tunes (“Difference Maker”, which might be the most misunderstood lyric of the year; give it a second listen and think satire), Rivers In The Wasteland is a high water mark (no pun intended) for the boys from South Carolina. Add to the track list a unique and refreshing worship song (“Multiplied”) and the great gospel choir in “Brother” and you have the best set of songs you are likely to hear on Christian radio, but ones that also fit nicely on that play list that your supermarket is playing right now. That’s a true, artistic feat.
3. for KING & COUNTRY / Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong. There was no sophomore slump for these Aussies (even if they are 0 for 2 on album cover artwork). The long-titled ‘Live Free’ doubled down on the drums and epic songwriting that the Smallbone brothers have made their trademark. I read one reviewer who compared the songs on Live Free with songs from Disney’s The Lion King, and I couldn’t help but agree with that strange comparison. Live Free has the sort of rousing, Broadway like songs that could be licensed for countless sports montages and holiday commercials and episodes of The 100. “Fix My Eyes” and “To The Dreamers” sound like crosses between Graceland era Paul Simon and Coldplay, with massive drumming and tribal grooves to go along with the fantastic harmonies of brothers Joel and Luke. I’m seeing these guys live next summer, and I plan to be in the font of the stage to soak up the energy.
4. Switchfoot / Fading West Fading West would have been higher on this list if it had been released all at once as the massive double album it deserves to be. Instead, it was released in three parts alongside the surfing film, and lost its impact on me a bit in the process. There is enough good material between the ep, the main release and the b-sides album to fill a whole concert set list. Highlights include my favorite song of 2013 (“Love Alone Is Worth The Fight”), recent radio hit “When We Come Alive” and the swirly, droney title track. I’m particularly fond of the haunting “Edge Of The Earth” from the later release of material. That song sounds like the soundtrack to walking on Jupiter. Jon Foreman, who is releasing a series of ep’s this year, is a restless, creative force and I have been blessed to hear his output for almost 20 years now. Switchfoot is going strong and showing how to mature gracefully into their second decade together.
5. The Choir / Shadow Weaver And speaking of decades together, here is The Choir, launching into their third one as a band of brothers with very little turnover. Instead, it’s the long term friendship of Derri, Steve, Tim, Dan and Mark that has continued to drive the great, late-period of output from this band. 2005’s O How The Mighty Have Fallen, 2010’s Burning Like The Midnight Sun, 2012’s The Loudest Sound Ever Heard and this years Shadow Weaver are a four album hot-streak that most artists would drool over. Add to that a great live album this year and you could say that the Choir has never been better. Shadow Weaver continues Steve Hindalong’s exploration of how our weakness collides with God’s grace, and how our times of weakness (see the sobering take on staying sober, “White Knuckles”) can allow the light of the Holy Spirit (the best kind of ‘spirits‘) to shine.
6. Judah & The Lion / Kids These Days The first debut album on this list is a great slice of Appalachian melodies and instrumentation with insightful lyrics on the subject of growing up. “Sing Me Your Song” and “Love In Me” are honest, down home, yet epic (neat trick) worship songs that bring to mind a more subdued (and humble) Mumford & Sons. “Somewhere In Between” is a great look at the place most believers find themselves in, set against a mellow country groove of banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Judah & The Lion have operated clear of the music industry thus far, and have proven that it is possible to get going on a career on your own in this new-fangled musical economy we find ourselves in.
7. Anberlin / Lowborn Saying goodbye is hard, but Anberlin did it in the best way possible. They announced the end, recorded one last terrific album, toured one last time and said “thank you, goodnight.” It’s the rare band that can say farewell in a dignified manner. Lowborn is a great final document for a beloved band.
8. Jason Gray / Love Will Have The Final Word Jason Gray has written perhaps my favorite song of the last decade with “Remind Me Who I Am”, and “With Every Act Of Love” mines the same vein of songwriting for Gray. Love Will Have The Final Word is the best kind of intersection of preaching and pop craftsmanship. Not every believer who writes songs needs to be overt. As the wise Mark Stuart of Audio Adrenaline said, “there’s room for all of it.” I’m glad that Jason Gray writes catchy and overtly spiritual songs, because he adds a layer of introspection that is lacking in Christian pop music over all.
9. Peter Furler Band / Sun and Shield And speaking of old friends, Sun and Shield sounds like a lost Newsboys album, somewhere between Going Public and Take Me To Your Leader. I’ve always maintained that if the Newsboys had come up with a better band name in the early days, they would have been taken more seriously as artists, because Furler has always been a terrific, crafty songwriter. Sun and Shield continues Furler’s winning streak, and made me return to a time in my mind when life was simpler, my faith newer and the music on my radio was a vital component to daily life.
10. Crowder / Neon Steeple Like Peter Furler, David Crowder struck out on his own this year, and the swampy, yet disco tinged Neon Steeple showed that Crowder can synthesize genres like nobody’s business. Banjos (the de rigueur instrument of the last few years) and mandolins crash against synth squalls and techno back beats, but all in the service of great songs. Many tracks could (in a simpler form) find themselves on the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Crowder has a strong musical vision, and it comes out full force on the southern-rock-by-way-of-the-night-club-and-Sunday-morning Neon Steeple.
And Some Thoughts On A Few Songs
“Comedian” - Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil
Just try to count all the puns in “Comedian”; you’ll have a good time. This track finds Taylor venting a lifetime's worth of angst over being constantly misunderstood by the Church. Yet he never gets mean or vindictive, even when he questions the almighty in a “David-in-the-Psalms” kind of way. We need more songs like this in Christian music; daring to (appropriately) question the Lord and His ways. The Lord is big enough to handle any question we can throw at Him.
“No Man Is An Island” - Tenth Ave. North
Hipsters may dismiss Tenth Ave. North as a sound-alike Christian radio band, but they continually write deeper and sharper songs than they get credit for. “No Man Is An Island” burst out of my speakers this summer on a road trip, and I found myself marveling at the alignment of melody, message and songwriting drifting into my ears. The blueprint here is Actung Baby era U2, with processed guitars and Bono-like, wailing vocals, but Tenth Ave. North is growing in their songwriting, and as Picasso said, good artists steal while mediocre ones copy. “No Man Is An Island” is a timely statement about the isolation tendencies of 21st century people, and Christians in particular.
“Sing Me Your Song” - Judah & The Lion
This honest worship song (or, if you will, reverse-worship song) contains one of my favorite lyrics of the year, with the Lord singing a song to a follower: “I want to feel your heart beating / like a melody with a heavy drum / and I, I want to know all the things you hid inside / sing me your song”
“Ain’t No Grave” - Crowder
This is a foot-stomper of the highest order, made to be sung in a back holler Church or on the riverside at a baptism. It’s the best kind of old-timey song you will hear this year.
“Lord I’m Ready Now” - Plumb
Plumb’s Faster Than A Bullet was re-released with this fantastic prayer for deliverance added at the end. Plumb’s new album can’t come fast enough for these eager ears.
Conan O’Brien’s late show recently produced a clever spoof ad from Apple in response to their recent polarizing U2 album release. In the clip, an Apple exec describes the company’s new machine that not only erases Songs of Innocence from the user’s iTunes library, but also erases any knowledge or memory of the band from the user’s brain. One complaining hipster, groggy from the machine’s effects, is then introduced to the “latest album from Irish rock legends U2.” His reaction? “These guys are really good!”
Modern culture, bereft with snarky fake news and vitriolic comment threads following real news, has sadly gotten really good at thumbing its nose at products or people it deems unworthy, passé, or irrelevant. The vocal minority’s piling on against U2’s latest is a good example. Once targeted by a segment of the population, the album was never given a chance.
The “thumbing the nose” epidemic is no less active (it might even be more active) in Christian culture. Popular pastors and musicians are often targets, and while criticism is often justified, there are certainly times when that criticism is based only on a cultural tide or popular opinion. The actual target is never given a chance.
Is it too much to say that Chris Tomlin is the U2 of CCM Praise and Worship music, at least in the context defined here? Maybe not. Tomlin’s music remains vital and wildly popular, even as some critics brand it as formulaic, boring, or derivative. Here’s an important point to remember, though: if Tomlin’s music is formulaic, and it often is, it’s based on the formula he wrote.
In a recent interview, Tomlin said, “My focus has been writing to give the church a song to sing. This record is no different.” And he’s exactly right. One can look elsewhere for metaphor and surprising innovation, even in the Sixsteps family (read: Crowder). Tomlin writes songs that praise bands can play and that churches can sing (sometimes, admittedly, in a slightly lower key). That doesn’t, however, mean the songs are necessarily of low quality.
Here’s a good example. Tomlin’s new album, Love Ran Red, is pretty standard Chris Tomlin fare, with no unexpected departures from the norm, either lyrically or sonically. It’s praise and worship music in a world where praise and worship music is both pervasive and often pedestrian. However, this is good praise and worship music. The (parenthetical) title track features the line “At the cross, at the cross, I surrender my life, I’m in awe of You, I’m in awe of You.” By itself, that’s a good lyric, but worshipers have heard that concept a thousand times before. The line that follows elevates the song. “Where Your love ran red, and my sin washed white, I owe all to You, I owe all to You.” Imagining the song in a congregational setting, that last phrase is key. It moves the worshiper from a sentiment that’s more of a platitude these days (I’m in awe of You) to a response that is personal (I owe all to You), and does so effectively, with an internal rhyme that makes the pairing memorable.
I’d be first in line to hear Chris Tomlin break the mold in some way, and I’m not suggesting that Love Ran Red is without flaws. But it’s his own mold he’s choosing to fill, and he’s working to fill it as well as he can. Listen to the album; Tomlin’s not just mailing it in.
If a free album from the world’s foremost rock band can be met with “This is so below me”-flavored snark, then it’s no surprise that every new Chris Tomlin release might face the same a priori criticism. It’s one thing to deride a genre for not living up to its potential, or an industry for forcing artists into a flavor-of-the-day (or, in the case of Christian music, flavor-of-the-decade) sound. It’s another to dismiss the whole thing because you think it’s unworthy of your lofty tastes. Wouldn’t it be better to notice quality, even in a saturated genre, applaud it, and constructively point out how it might be improved?
With the ever-evolving music industry, it's grown more difficult for many bands and performers to be able to continue to afford to make music.
I've heard about more than a couple instances where a band or artist has had to discontinue touring because ticket sales and/or album sales are lower than ever. In many cases, I realize it could be the shifting trends or our own personal economic statuses making it difficult to afford to buy tickets, but it could also just be the aging fanbase has lost interest in music altogether and does not continue to support these artists' endeavors.
I've gone to some shows in recent months where, upon posting a photo from the show online on some form of social media, I've received comments like "Oh, I didn't know they were still around!" or "Where do you get your concert information from?"
In this day in age, if you're a music enthusiast, there's no excuse to not keep tabs on your favorite artists. Between artist email lists (You should sign up for your favorite artist's email list if they have one!), phone apps and services like Bands In Town, and Facebook, there's just no reason not to know about shows coming to your neck of the woods. iTickets.com even sends out alerts if you sign up for them.
But there's another concern. I posed a question - just to start a discussion - on the JFH Facebook to see what others thought about the hypothetical idea of: "If you knew that buying your favorite artist's music would help them keep touring, or NOT buying it would mean they'd stop touring, would you buy it then?" The truth is, most artists' careers (not ALL, but MOST) involve or are centered around touring and performing live. The real money in sustaining a musician's career, is in touring and drawing crowds. The expenses for that are super high, but with the right venues, crowds and ticket/merch sales, it should help keep an artist's career alive. (Some still go out on tours and barely break even, sadly).
The truth is: album sales don't generate much income for artists. Over the years, most artists GO INTO DEBT with a record label to fund the recording of an album. And when an album sells, unless the artist funded it completely themselves, they see very little of the profits of the album sale. This isn't to discourage you from buying music -- by all means, it's super important to do that -- but you can't assume that just buying one $10 or $15 album from someone is going to keep them going for a long time.
If we, the fans don't support the artist financially, they can't afford to continue to exist. Period.
Some comments on the Facebook post were actually completely against seeing live shows, while others didn't care if buying an album ensured the band could keep touring or not.
The fact of the matter is, in many cases, the two go hand in hand. If a band can't continue to tour, they probably won't bother sticking together to make music together. There's no reason to. They'll need to get "real jobs" and that will take up most of their music-making time. Plus, most labels only want to sign artists who can tour. Touring keeps the artist in the spotlight, at the forefront of people's minds. It enables fans to get involved instead of just listening to their single on the radio (and not buying their album, especially). After all, some people are more likely to shell out $16 bucks for a 3D movie in the theaters than to go see a band they like perform in person. And, if you're a sincere music fan who thrives on the ministry and what great music can do for the soul, there's something backwards about that.
In any case, we'd love for you to join the discussion! It's just a friendly discussion, so join in!
Each week, one thing you're bound to see online or even heard spoken by friends when a new album or movie comes out is something like:
"The new album by ____ is their best yet!"
"_________ is awesome! It's my favorite movie!"
But the truth is... can we really call a brand new album we've only heard a handful of times over the course of a couple hours or a couple days -- or a movie we've only seen once -- our "Favorite" or "the best?"
Let's look at it this way... If you were to only be able allowed to watch one movie for the rest of your life, would it be that one? If you were only able to listen to one album, would that be it?
When I was a teenager, I remember seeing a movie in the theater and enjoying it enough to call it my favorite film. Upon multiple viewings, and as I got older, I realized I enjoyed the movie still, but it was in no way my favorite movie. At around the same time in my life, I found my "favorite band" changing a bit too much as well. I'd hear one band, see them live, and love 'em to death. Then a few months or a year or two later, they'd have a new album, but a different band would put out a BETTER album. Well then, THAT album was my favorite, and so was that band. Then it happened again. Then, as I got a little older, a previously favorite band put out an album that really hit home. They were my favorite once again, and pretty much lasted that way past their retirement.
Why does this matter? It's tough for true music fans to discuss music openly when things like "Album of the Year," "Best album by far!", etc, are statements used far too often time and time again by the same people. (Don't get me started about it being overused in music reviews!) Are these listeners just really easy to please? Or are these albums REALLY each the best... at the time they hear them? So what's the criteria for "best"? Sure, it's exciting to have new music. But sometimes when we get music weeks or even months in advance, it's still difficult to boldly proclaim "This is their best album yet!" or "Album of the Year" (especially, with the latter, when there's plenty of music yet to come out that year). It just seems like a pretty big statement to make.
As I've gotten older, I've found it important not to jump to conclusions. Did I love that one new movie? Actually, yeah, but will it endure to be a favorite of mine 5, 10, 15 years from now? I've found that the movies that are my absolute favorites are ones I've seen many times over the course of several years and still really like them. I can honestly tell you that my absolute favorite, hands-down go-to movie is Ghostbusters because I first saw it as a kid and still can watch it at almost any time. It's held up pretty well, despite being dated (but what isn't, right?) and it's also nostalgic for me. And it still brings a smile to my face. For music, I've also found bands like PFR, their songs just feel like a warm blanket, a dip in a hot tub, or reclining after a day of being on your feet without a second's rest. I think that warrants calling their music a favorite. It feeds my soul too. Is that one new album by _____ awesome? Yeah! I like it! But let me get back to you on if it's their best or if it's one of my favorites. I've had albums that I'd never dreamed would be a favorite still sound like gold to my ears many years later. I love that. But I've also had albums I was quick to call amazing or the best not hold up very long at all.
Maybe none of this really matters, I do realize that, but every street week when glowing comments for new albums (or negative ones, actually) flood the internet on THE DAY an album comes out, praising (or condemning) an album after what could be no more than just a handful of listens, you have to wonder how much time was devoted to really digging into the music and letting it just soak in. For real music fans, that's important. I know it's new and exciting and you were waiting a couple years for it since the last street day, but give it time. Sure, we sometimes read reviews to see if something is better than what came before it, but it can be much too hasty to just jump at calling something the best prematurely. There's nothing wrong with letting it simmer and sit with you a bit. You'll be surprised, in the end, just what IS the best or your favorite to you down the line. Happy listening!