We've been picking our Year-End favorites in Christian music for 11 years now, but we've always kept the lists themselves pretty straightforward as titles and artists only. This year, we thought it'd be fun for any of the staff who were interested to present their lists (in addition to the official compilation of staff members) in blog format with our own commentary on why the albums were picked. Alex and Mark have already weighed in, and I thought I'd follow suit.
- Inland, Jars of Clay -- I realize this'll show my age some, but back in 1995, I first saw Jars of Clay open for PFR before their self-titled debut even released. My older brother actually ended up liking their live show more than I did, but it didn't stop me from grabbing his album preview cassette (remember those?) and listening to it over and over while waiting for the full CD to release. I ended up calling my local Christian bookstore every couple weeks to find out when the much-delayed album was going to be in stock (the date kept moving apparently...the internet would have been nice to have at this point in time). So, since 1995, when I was a freshman in high school, I've been listening to Jars of Clay pretty faithfully. There isn't a single other band I can think of that I can tell you that I've listened to from the age of 15 to today at 33 where not a single one of their members have left (or have been added) and they haven't broken up and reunited at some point. I've listened to Jars as a teen, when I started JFH (I even saw them in concert the same night I started JFH), during my dating years, while engaged, newly married, trying to figure out adulthood, entering into parenthood, and trying to adjust to change and getting older. You can realistically look at where Jars of Clay was when they started, musically and lyrically, and where they are today and see incredible growth and maturation. So, all of that is to say that Inland hits home now as an adult about as much as the debut did when I was in my mid-teens. I'm quite thankful these guys are still at it full-time.
- The Glorious Unfolding, Steven Curtis Chapman - In the same way that I started listening to Jars as a teen, I first started listening to Steven Curtis Chapman when I was around 14 years old, and a fairly new believer. His album Heaven In The Real World struck a major chord with me as someone looking for hope during those perplexing, trying teenage years. (Let's face it: high school is TOUGH!) His songs have always resonated with me, and The Glorious Unfolding has already been speaking volumes into my own life. I've already turned to songs like the title track and "Take Another Step" as a soundtrack for the current season of life.
- Need You Now, Plumb - You're going to see a pattern here... Plumb is another band I started listening to right out of the gate with their debut in 1996. The industrial rock sound that Plumb displayed (y'know, before Tiffany adopted "Plumb" as her name instead of as a band name) was cool and different for the Christian music industry, but it isn't the sound that she would become known for. Need You Now has not only been a longtime coming, but it's a record that, like The Glorious Unfolding and Inland, represent seasons in these veteran musicians' lives, and seasons I can relate to as a longtime fan and listener who's grown along with them.
- Reanimated, Family Force 5 - Hey, there's something to be said for guilty pleasures. Family Force 5 was a band I first experienced at GMA Week 2005 in Nashville, TN and was immediately captivated by their fun-loving live show. It's really not my typical kind of music, either, but there's just something about them that I've always loved. Reanimated captured some more of the fun that seemed to be in short supply on their album III, while offering a couple of their new live fan favorites (like "Chainsaw"). And with Solomon "Soul Glow Activatur" Olds' recent announcement that he has left the band, this collection serves as his swan song as vocalist and an end of an era.
- Fading West EP, Switchfoot - Some will find my inclusion of a 3-song sampler EP on a year-end list as a cop-out (especially since I can tell you pretty confidently already that Fading West will be somewhere on my 2014 year-end list), but I feel like I have good reason... Aside from the fact that Switchfoot is another band I've listened to since their 1997 debut, The Legend of Chin, when I was a senior in high school, Switchfoot has been another band to write songs that have spoken to me throughout many of the chapters of my life. I downloaded this EP from iTunes while sitting in a hotel lobby in Switchfoot's hometown of San Diego, CA. I'd never been to California before, but my older brother moved there almost 9 years ago and we'd made our first visit to the left coast to visit them this year when his first child was born (she's the most adorable little niece I could ask for! but I digress...). I was taken back by the immensely poppy sound of the new Switchfoot songs, but with more listens, I began to see something different in them (plus, hey, it was just really cool listening to their music IN San Diego for the first time since I first heard them 16 years ago!). [Side note: I'm still not a fan of their Oh! Gravity. album, aside from a couple songs--like "Awakening", so I'm not just one of those fans that is quick to love everything a band does.] Since first listening to this EP, I've seen the Fading West film and gotten the chance to hear where these songs fit into the movie as part of its soundtrack. I've also heard all three songs live, and I've been listening to the full-length album that releases in a few weeks. I can honestly say I love this EP and it represents a memorable chapter of my year this year. (And, quite frankly, I loved this 3-song EP more than most of the year's full-length albums...even if I'm still partial to Switchfoot's Vice Verses kind of sound)
- Troubled Days, Seabird - Seabird is a great example of a band I didn't fully "get" until I saw them perform live in concert at a festival while they were touring their debut album. Now, they're fully indie and have self-produced their latest record, Troubled Days. It didn't disappoint and was surprisingly a melancholy commentary on love, lost love, and perseverance in love. It's something most anyone who's been in a relationship can really relate to... just keep some tissues on hand.
- Live, All Sons & Daughters - If you've been reading JFH for any amount of time, not only will you notice that we collectively, as writers, look for art in music to be married with worshipful lyrics, but I myself am very, very (very, very) picky when it comes to worship music. Trust me, it's nothing I'm proud of. If anything, I'd love to be able to pop on any given worship album and blissfully connect with our Savior through the music. However, it's not the case for me at all. Worship music that stands apart from the norm, doesn't subscribe to overly simplistic instrumentation, structure, overused phrases, over-sung choruses, or subpar vocals, seems to be near impossible to find. But with All Sons & Daughters, we have a pairing of artists who not only can sing, but really know how to write a great song that can be used in corporate worship or in a more intimate setting. Personally, I feel like a lot of LIVE worship albums have a "you just had to be there" feeling, while some can really pull you into the experience. (I'm more partial to intimate worship considering how some big, loud, boisterous live worship albums can seem too showy) All Sons & Daughters' LIVE album is a near perfect presentation because it's got the energy of a live album but the sound of a more intimate experience. It's easily my favorite worship album of 2013. Nothing else comes close.
- Freaks, The Hawk In Paris - Speaking of guilty pleasures, if you haven't heard of The Hawk In Paris, you may be surprised to know that it's Jars of Clay vocalist Dan Haseltine's side project. It's not really a CCM market release (although he did give us permission to cover it with that understanding), but it's a batch of synth-pop anthems for the soldiers on the battlefield of love. It's very different from Jars but fans of Dan's day job will probably find a lot to like about this one. (I mean, c'mon... he's got a song with the chorus "Our love is science fiction"!)
- Currents, Eisley - Eisley's The Valley was a very different record for them, but it spoke to the different experiences of my own romantic ups and downs throughout my own life. Currents was more of a return to form for the band (I also loved Combinations and this more closely follows that album in feel), and is definitely an album I haven't overplayed, so it's still a treat to revisit each time. (And be sure to grab the live acoustic versions they released exclusively through iTunes!)
- Black and White, Tal & Acacia - Tal & Acacia's label debut Wake Me surprised me. Equally surprising was Provident Label Group's blatant dropping of the ball in promoting that fine record. (Really. Just because it didn't fit AC Christian radio didn't mean it didn't have some serious gems on it!) It had a mix of fun and serious with some truly impressive vocals from these sisters at its forefront. Their follow-up, Black & White, was entirely fan-funded via Kickstarter and self-produced by the girls. It's a much more laid back and raw (production-wise) album compared to Wake Me, but there's something so infectiously charming about these two that it makes it quite difficult to ignore. I really hope it won't be too long before we hear new music again from these gals again.
And that's it. I did have a few other albums warring for my top 10. For kicks, here they are: Five Iron Frenzy, Engine of a Million Plots .... Justin McRoberts, K .... Arrows & Sound, Arrows & Sound .... Newsboys, Restart (It's still not "Newsboys" without Furler to me, but it's a catchy record nonetheless), and Audio Adrenaline, Kings & Queens (likewise, it's not really AudioA as I know them without Mark, but Kevin Max's incredible vocals make this a top pop rock album)
-- John DiBiase