Listen to the new album from Elias Dummer!
Listen to the new album from Elias Dummer!

JFH Staff Blog | December 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christopher Smith Examines His Top Ten Christian Albums of 2014 and Shares Thoughts on Christian Music

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..., and more 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 album was 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 WastelandNeedtobreathe - 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 EPHouse 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. AttackDisciple - 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. AnomalyLecrae - 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 BreathNew 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. AftermathFever 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 SteepleCrowder - 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.

 


Honorable mentions

Unto UsAaron 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 RevisitedThe 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.

 

GoliathSteve Taylor & The Perfect Foil - Goliath is filled with witty 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.

 

And because I can…

Other honorable mentions (in order):

 

Love Is A Legend EP Copperlily 

How Can It Be - EPLauren Daigle

Hark! The House of Heroes Sing EP House of Heroes 

Becoming Who We Are Kings Kaleidoscope

From Water to War Nine Lashes

Time Stands Still Family Force 5 

Man On A Wire Nathan Tasker 

Shadow Weaver The Choir 

All Sons & Daughters All Sons & Daughters

Time In Place Artifex Pereo

 

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Alex's Top Ten Albums and (A Few) Songs From 2014

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.

 

 

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