Saturday, December 17, 2016

2016: A Christian Music Review


This is my third year of compiling an end-of-year Christian music recap. Check out my 2014 review and 2015 review.

I enjoy biblical music. There's a scale I made that shows the difference between music that's entertaining and music that's edifying. You can see that here.

My favorite style of music is indie/alternative. So there's my bias.

Unfortunately, this list could never be comprehensive. I try my best to feature a smattering of serious Christian songwriters, ranging from popular to lesser-known.



About the Judging

I have done what I can to make my judgments the most objective while maintaining a very high standard for what makes a Christian album a great album. I have created an algorithm featuring five weighted factors that determine an album's rank. They're listed below, along with terms that define what I'm looking for. Each category is given a number on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest.
  1. Lyrics. Biblical. Theologically sound. Thoughtful. Unique. God is big; man is small. (x 3.5)
  2. Music. Higher-quality. Creative. Professional production. (x 2.5)
  3. Appeal. Palatable. Diverse. Transcendent. (x 2)
  4. Quantity. Number of tracks. Length of songs. (x 1.2)
  5. Congregational Possibility. Reproducible by amateurs. Easy to sing along. (x 0.8) 
The max score for an album is 100. 35 for lyrics, 25 for quality, 20 for appeal, 12 for quantity, and 8 for congregational possibility. The totals for each section are added together for a composite score.

I believe in a true 1-10 scale. Often, we treat 1-10 scales like 7-10 scales. That's just wrong.



How Albums Made (and Didn't Make) It Here

In producing this list, I listened to well over 100 Christian artists who released music in 2016. To start, I listened to the album's title track and/or a song that the band created a special video for (via YouTube). If it was clear that the song(s) was/were not good according to my rating system, I dismissed the album. If the song(s) pleased the ear, the artist made it to a "listen more" list.

I took about 50 albums from the listen more list and narrowed it down for this post as I explored the albums more. Those were then examined in detail in order to generate a fair rating for what will now be known as "the list."

Four ways (in order) an album made it onto the list:
  1. Exceptional lyrics + exceptional music.
  2. Exceptional lyrics + music that could be better.
  3. Exceptional music + good lyrics.
  4. The artist is very notable. 
Three ways (no particular order) an album kept itself off the list:
  1. Poor lyrics.
  2. Poor music.
  3. Lyrics and music that sound like "Christian music." Christian radio is so monotonous. If you aren't sure you agree, click here.
I hope you enjoy the list. Please share if you find it helpful. Let me know who I missed in the comments below! 
Why isn't Hillsong on the list? click here
Why isn't Kings Kaleidoscope on the list? click here
Why isn't Trip Lee or other Reach Records artists on the list? They're just not very good anymore. Click here for a little more insight.

__________


INSTRUMENTALS
[NO RATINGS FOR THESE]


Adam Young: Scores (multiple albums)


Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: I'm pleased to start off this long list of albums with something as incredible as Adam Young's Scores. I'm not saying "incredible" in the sense that the scores themselves are incredible, though many of them are very good. What he did in 2016 was so amazing that it deserves its own paragraph.

Adam Young released a new 25-30 minute score the first of every month in 2016.

Thinking about the time that had to be spent to create such a collection is nearly beyond comprehension. Surely much hard work was put into this set of albums. Young, who is widely known as Owl City, started this adventure to show that his musical talents extend beyond the pop genre.

In an interview with Billboard, Young said, "Part of the reason for this endeavor is to give me a little bit of space and distance from the pop music space...I can switch gears and test my muscles in the instrumental world and I hope when I come back to pop music have all these new ideas."

The albums range in topic from the moon landing to the Titanic to Omaha Beach and to Mount Rushmore. Click the Website link above for the quickest access to these tunes.


Salt of the Sound: Meditations, Volume 2


Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: We take our first trip across the Atlantic for this one (more trips to come). To give you a brief introduction to Salt of the Sound, a direct quote from the first paragraph of Wikipedia's entry should do: "Salt of the Sound is a Christian music band composed of husband-and-wife Anita & Ben Tatlow, currently based in Stockholm, Sweden."

The most appropriate (and most frequently used) word to describe their music is "ambient." Their sound is very serene and enjoyable. They're not completely instrumental, as they do have some songs with singing -- including some originals that are featured on a Christmas album that they put out this year.

In an interview with NewReleaseToday, Anita stated how they aim for depth in their music. What a noble goal. They are hitting the mark.


Andy Hunter: Presence


Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: We're staying on the other side of the Atlantic as we dive into the next review.

Presence is more than just an album; it's a project. The Presence Project created by Andy Hunter (British) includes an app that is aimed at inspiring "reflection and prayer." Hunter, who is known as a notable Christian DJ that has produced Bible-themed electronic dance music, said in the interview linked above that the app "seems very accessible for anybody who loves to take time out reflecting and meditating." He continued, "It's great to know that every element of art within the project has been birthed out of the Scriptures."

In a different interview, Hunter said, "The Presence app is a collection of chapters with the purpose of creating space in our lives." What a paradox. Here's an innovator who is using a distraction to bring back focus. I wish the app didn't use The Message; nevertheless, may God bless that work!

Note: If you're going to download the app, be aware that it is a massive download.

__________


LIVE ALBUMS
[NOT A PART OF THE LIST]


Mosaic MSC: Glory and Wonder

73.2

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Mosaic MSC is the music ministry of Mosaic Church in Hollywood, CA, where Erwin McManus is pastor. They're hipster. And believe it or not, they're Southern Baptists.

The album is less "live sounding" and more of a conventional record. According to NRT, they recorded it "in front of a live, sold-out audience at their church home in the heart of Hollywood."

Unfortunately, this record sounds like a thousand other records that have been heard before. There's a real lack of depth both in lyric and tune. Jesusfreakhideout.com summarizes the issue well, and I will end my review with their commentary. "To summarize it bluntly, Glory and Wonder is an exercise in repetitive refrains, dull melodies, and surface level lyrics. Despite its flawless polish and execution, the majority of songs lack anything that tempts more than a single listen."


Travis Ryan: Until My Voice Is Gone

79.5

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Travis Ryan is a former music leader at Saddleback Church (Rick Warren's church) and has written two of the Newsboys' big hits in recent years: "We Believe" and "You Hold It All."

This live album was recorded at his current church, LifePoint, in Smyrna, Tennessee. There are videos of the recordings on YouTube; here's a link to the title track.

Throughout the record, Ryan proclaims great truths, though he stops short of really breaking away from the stereotypical Christianese phrases. There's a lot of, "I will" do this or that and, "Holy Spirit come" type-of-lines throughout the album. That said, the sound of this live album might be the best blend of singer and crowd levels out of all of the ones listed here. And the videos are fun.

It's worth listening to, though you may just need to hear it one time through.


Housefires: Housefires III

85.9

Listen: Website // YouTube // iTunes

Review: This album demonstrates why I enjoy live albums. It's unpolished, raw worship that's sung from the heart. The people respond in genuine praise and it's all captured so that the listening audience may be encouraged. How awesome.

Housefires is the music ministry of Grace Midtown, a church comprised of some fifty house churches. This article from Relevant does a good job summing up the scene. It also mentions how this band originated the song, "Good, Good Father" and "Yes and Amen," which are both songs performed by Chris Tomlin and featured on his album on the list below.

The band is full, featuring musicians and singers all over the place. The YouTube link shows that, and it shows the setting for the recording -- a stage surrounded by God worshipers.

The lyrics are good, though there are definitely moments when the band reiterates (and reiterates) stereotypical contemporary Christian music lingo instead of richer, biblical themes. The songs will move you. Give it a listen.


Shane & Shane: Psalms Live

86.4

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Shane & Shane aren't new to renditions of the Psalms. They've been doing them since 2002 when they released their first album titled...you guessed it: Psalms.

That said, one thing you could say about this album is that you know what you're getting. Take the studio versions of their previous songs and mix them with an audience and you get Psalms Live. This is not to say that the album isn't exciting; the pair makes excellent music.

My favorite Psalm that they've done is Psalm 145. Here's a video of them performing it back in the day. There's not much to discuss about this album other than it's very good, because Shane & Shane is very good. Add it to the queue!


Keith and Kristyn Getty: Facing a Task Unfinished (Deluxe Edition)

87.7

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

10/10 LYRICS
10/10 QUANTITY

Review: It's likely that you know the Gettys. They've written some of the best contemporary hymns ("In Christ Alone") and have one of the fiercest dedications to producing lyrically deep Christian songs.

In some ways this album really sounds like the Gettys; in other ways it doesn't. For instance, the song "O Children Come" features Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African male choral group. To sum up this album's sound in the Gettys' words: "The studio album features the Getty's (sic) band, live congregational singing, and fresh global sounds."

"My Worth is Not in What I Own" is a song that we're already singing at my church (the album version features Fernando Ortega) and there are plenty of more options for congregations on this album. They also re-introduced a lesser-known hymn that became the title track. You can read more about why they chose that hymn and what they did with it here.


City Alight: Only a Holy God

87.9

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: We're taking a trip across the Pacific for the best live album of the year. City Alight is the praise band for St. Paul's Castle Hill, an Anglican fellowship in Sydney, Australia. Rich Thompson and Jonny Robinson are both on staff at the church and are credited with much of the album. The pair has previously been featured by Tim Challies for some superb songwriting.

As you can see by the laurel on the album to the left, this album features what I am dubbing "Song of the Year." The third track on the record, "Christ is Mine Forevermore" receives the award and it is an absolutely incredible modern hymn. You can watch the neat video for it here.

Only a Holy God is certainly the best live album of the year due to its focus on God's majestic goodness through the lens of Scripture, coupled with wonderful contemporary music.

This album is soothing to the soul.




Subscribe now and get every new article 
delivered to your inbox.
You'll get a free e-book, too.

Enter your e-mail address here:





__________


THE LIST


20. Jonathan and Melissa Helser: Beautiful Surrender

71.2

Listen: Website // YouTube // iTunes

Review: I had been looking forward to new work from Jonathan and Melissa Helser ever since I first heard "Mount Zion" a couple of years ago. The folk singing couple -- much like other acoustic/rustic sounding Christian groups out there today -- sing about big themes regarding the nature of God and future things. Though not completely original in that way of thinking, their talents still leave a discerning listener with much to look forward to.

Unfortunately, this album falls flat. To keep the review simple, I will cut to the chase and say that it's the romanticizing of the God-human relationship that tarnishes an otherwise well-performed set. Songs like "You Came (Lazarus)" and "So Much Grace" are good -- and there are many rich lines of theology scattered throughout. However, phrases like, "Hey Jesus, won't You come and dress me in Your thoughts" are, in a word, strange. And those lyrics are found about as frequently as the rich ones.

In full disclosure, I'm disappointed in this record. I wanted them to do well; however, this is the reason for the algorithm. An album must have solid lyrics.


19. Andrew Marcus: Constant

73.1

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: A newcomer to BEC Records, Andrew Marcus is somebody you've likely not heard of yet. He's Canadian and he's played alongside the likes of MercyMe, Leeland (featured on this album), and Phil Wickham.

Constant was obviously written with congregations in mind, though smaller churches may find some challenges replicating parts of the album. The content is good, but it lacks uniqueness.

Vague struggles, geographical illustrations, and generic promises are riddled throughout. At first blush, the album seems no different than the typical Christian radio fare, and that's basically true. There's nothing heretical here, but there's also not a lot to get excited about.


18. Eshon Burgundy: The Passover

74.95

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Now here's a unique album. I had not listened to Eshon Burgundy before (unfortunately I missed his 2015 Humble Beast release) and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found here.

Blending spoken word, R&B, and hip-hop, Burgundy has generated a smooth-sounding, contextualized, God-honoring theology. He takes the listener to his neighborhood and explains truth from the perspective of an American living in what could be described as "hood culture."

Due to stylistic appeal being a significant factor in these rankings, CHH albums tend to be at a disadvantage since many Christians don't care for what is typically generalized as "rap." That factor is the main reason why this album did not do better on this list. His lyrics and beat are both very good. Please give The Passover a chance and be edified by it. This album is a personal favorite of mine and ranks higher to me than what is shown on the list. But I submit to my own algorithm. The song "Dead Letters" is a good place to start.

Please note: He has contextualized the gospel. If you're an older woman who has lived in the woods in the Appalachian Mountains her whole life, you might not be able to directly relate and you may even be shocked by the lyrics. Again, I encourage you to give it a chance.


17. Danny O'Callaghan: Son of My Father

75.2

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: We now take our second trip across the Atlantic. Danny O'Callaghan is a music leader at Kings Cross Church in London and this is his first album.

Son of My Father is just five songs, which hurts its rating a bit. "Burn," the album's first song, is quite good. Its style -- particularly in the bridge -- reminds me of a slower version of an old Bloc Party song (another London-based band) that I listened to BC. I really enjoy the style and the lyrics are pretty good as well.

I would have appreciated a stronger biblical influence on the words found on this record, but it's difficult to judge fairly with only five songs released. I will definitely keep track of Danny in the coming years and I hope he puts out some seriously great worship music.


16. Enter the Worship Circle: Down Here and Up Above

76.95

Listen: Website // YouTube // iTunes

Review: I've been following EWC for a couple of years, though they have existed as a band in some form or fashion since 1998. They have a storied history, and you can check out some of their historical work here. You can learn more about their history by browsing some of the videos here.

Down Here and Up Above is just six songs, but they are rich in creativity. The song "Heavenly Things" hurt the lyrics rating here for the phrase sung to God, "You're head over heels in love with me." I do not like the phrase "in love" referring to the God-human relationship for reasons I explain here. There is also a song called, "Standing on the Sun," stating that God is standing on our solar system's star. It's strange.

For all of its quirks, there are some things to love here (that essentially sums up my relationship with EWC). The title track and "Tear the Veil" are both great, fun songs.


15. John Ball: By Declaration and the Death

77.45

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: John Ball is so poetic and thoughtful in his songwriting, and we all get to benefit from his unique style. If you've never listened to any of his music before, I suggest you start here and click on some of the older videos.

As a demonstration of his creativity, the song "Charcoal" from this album takes the listener to the fire by which Peter sat as he locked eyes with Jesus after denying Him. It takes great skill to paint such a picture and to make a biblical scene come alive in that way.

Ball is a Birmingham native and has a master's degree in theology from Liberty University. His commitment to orthodoxy while maintaining his own edge is encouraging, and the songs found on this album will surely encourage you.


14. Phil Wickham: Children of God

77.9

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: It's hard to know what to say about this album. Children of God doesn't exactly stray from the standard set by Phil Wickham in some of his other works; however, it certainly doesn't stand out as much as 2013's The Ascension.

This album is held back mostly by its repetition of vague praises. For instance, in the song "Better Than Life," it is said, "You're so much more than I could ever hope for / You're so much more than I could ever hope for / You're so much more than I could ever hope for / You're so much more than I could ever hope for / Yeah / Yeah / Yeah / Yeah," as well as, "Your love is better than life / Better than life / Better than life / Your love is better than life / Better than life / Better than life / So I give it all / Give it all / Give it all / Give it all to You / Oh, so I give it all / Give it all / Give it all / Give it all to You / To You / To You / I give it all to You."

There's only so much space in a song and great songs make the most of that space by explaining deep, biblical truths in as much detail as possible. Great Christian songs will quote Scripture and answer the questions we ask about Scripture, like, "What does that mean?" and "How does this play out in real life?" In other words, great songs teach. Lyrics like the ones quoted above don't do that.

I hope that illustrates the frustration I have with vague repetition. Wickham is clearly talented and has great stuff out there (including songs on this album; see "As It Is in Heaven"). Overall, this just isn't his best work.


13. Da T.R.U.T.H.: It's Complicated

78.1

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

10/10 QUANTITY

Review: This album stands out from the rest on the list because it is purely apologetic in its approach. The hip-hop genre provides so much more song space for the thorough explanations needed in apologetics and T.R.U.T.H. (Emanuel Lambert) stewards his time well.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of It's Complicated is the number of cameos made by Dr. Ravi Zacharias. Lambert starts the record off in the first track, "Meeting of the Minds," by interviewing Dr. Zacharias and he expresses that it's a "surreal moment" for him. I wonder if Dr. Zacharias ever thought he would be on an American Christian hip-hop album as he grew up an atheist in India. God does cool things.

It's Complicated features both Reformed and Classical apologetic approaches -- and I appreciate that. In order to reach his intended audience, Lambert contextualizes much of what he communicates and that's fun to hear.

You'll be both spiritually and intellectually edified by this one.


12. Casting Crowns: The Very Next Thing

79.1

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Casting Crowns' music was the first Christian music I bought after becoming a Christian in 2006. Their second album, Lifesong, had just come out featuring "Praise You in This Storm," a song that meant so much to me at the time. That record, in conjunction with their self-titled first album, made Casting Crowns a trusted name in Christian music.

Ever since their third album, Altar and the Door, their music has a "same ol', same ol'" feel to it. It's unfair to expect a group to change their sound with every album -- and it's certainly unfair and irresponsible to expect a Christian band to change their message -- but each album tends to be a bit underwhelming.

I will say, though, that listening to Mark Hall's recent interview with Thom Rainer was helpful. Listening to it gives more insight into the heart behind the music and the band's vision/purpose shines as a noble cause. If you like Casting Crowns, you'll like The Very Next Thing.


11. All Sons & Daughters: Poets & Saints

79.7

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: This album is a tale of two halves. There are ten songs on the record and the first five are much better than the second five.

The duo of Leslie Jordan and David Leonard (who aren't married, but go to and serve in the same church) are clearly talented. Because of their abilities, this album stops short of being "great," which I consider to be a missed opportunity. If the entire record would have been like the first five songs in its lyrical depth and Scripture references, it would be a better project overall. That is not to say that this is a bad album -- because it's not -- it's just a slight miss.

In an interview, Jordan explains the inspiration for the album and their intent behind the songs. She, along with Leonard, went to Europe and studied a "human characteristic" of seven different poets and saints. Out of it, they took stories and infused them into the music with biblical themes. They also developed videos and study material from their research. You can read more about it here.

The concept is unique and creative, but it stops short of being a top-10 album.


10. Paul Wilbur: Forever Good

80.25

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: One of my favorite things about about doing the year-end music review is the discovery of new artists. I had never heard of Paul Wilbur before, but I quickly became acquainted with his work and ministry.

Wilbur has been producing albums since 1979 and has been with Integrity Music for the last twenty years. His ministry is very internationally-focused, as his records are distributed in various languages. He's also very Israel-focused, taking Romans 1:17 ("to the Jew first") very seriously. You can read more about him here.

This album is surprisingly good for someone who has no familiarity with his work. He has unique sound (he wanted to do opera before his conversion) that serves as a refreshing break from many modern 3- or 4-chord, repetitious songs. The lyrics are filled with Scripture, sometimes just quoting word-for-word.

In the same way that CHH can stretch a person to listen to styles that may be unfamiliar, Forever Good does the same thing. If you're used to the Christian radio sound of today, this album will take you back to Christian radio of twenty years ago. And it this case, it's a good thing!

This short video is helpful to begin learning about the man and his ministry.


9. Michael W. Smith: Hymns II: Shine on Us

80.7

Listen: Website // YouTube // iTunes

10/10 QUANTITY

Review: Here's an interesting one. Everyone knows the name Michael W. Smith, as he's released 20+ albums over the course of his career. He tends to be viewed as a pillar in the contemporary Christian music movement. What's interesting about this album, though, is that it's the second installment of hymns he's put out through the Cracker Barrel label. Yes, that Cracker Barrel.

According to a press release, "Smith's partnership with Cracker Barrel began with the exclusive release of...'Michael W. Smith - Hymns' album in 2014. The success of that project led to a second record, 'Michael W. Smith Hymns II - Shine On Us,' available exclusively at Cracker Barrel..." Casting Crowns has also released a hymns album on the Cracker Barrel label.

The album sounds like classic Michael W. Smith, so there's no variation in his sound or approach to the songs. There are some real old-time American hymns like "Down to the River to Pray" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." He partners with Audrey Assad, who put out a hymns album of her own this year (see below), to perform "Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus," which is one of my personal favorites. Classics like "I'll Fly Away," "I'd Rather Have Jesus," and "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" are also on the record.

My only critique is that Smith played it pretty safe on this one as far as the arrangements are concerned. Other artists (again, see Assad below) have been much bolder in their renditions of hymns. And the full songs aren't available without purchase (see YouTube link above).


8. Crowder: American Prodigal

82.4

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

10/10 QUANTITY

Review: The rating American Prodigal received (along with the ratings for the next two artists) is a personal proof that my algorithm does its job in keeping me at least partially objective. I'm mostly pessimistic when it comes to the relatively small list of names that have headlined Christian radio for the last 5-10 years. I'm pessimistic not because of a track record of bad music, but because I figure that the same people will say the same things without any creativity. Admittedly, that's a bad assumption.

American Prodigal was a real surprise to me. It's really good. And I like it quite well.

This album showcases Crowder's stylistic flexibility, as songs like "Promised Land" (featuring Tedashii) and "All My Hope" (which appear back to back on the record) are so different from one another. At times he sounds like a man leading hymns in a traditional church and at other times he sounds like he's leading a rave concert in the Bronx. In the Midwest they say, "If you don't like the weather, just wait." The same rule applies to this song set: If you don't like the way one song sounds, just wait.

"Shepherd," adapted from Psalm 23, is one of my favorites on the album, along with "Forgiven."

All in all, American Prodgial does a great job pointing listeners in an American context to the Savior. It's a full album full of great words. Give it a listen.


7. Paul Baloche: Your Mercy

83.0

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: This cross-centered, hymn-infused song set from Baloche is meant for the Church. The album bounces around as it describes God's mercy, verbalizes a trust in it, and, at different times, pleads for it.

At certain points, Your Mercy sounds like so many other generic praise albums; at other times, it displays brilliance in its ability to communicate the most important truths in a succinct, poetic way. My two favorites, "Once For All" and "God Evermore," are very rich and sum up big biblical themes.

Paul Baloche has become one of the biggest names in Christian music and his consistency shows why. For the most part, you know what you're getting -- and for the most part it's great.


6. Chris Tomlin: Never Lose Sight (Deluxe Edition)

85.5

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

10/10 QUANTITY
10/10 CONGREGATIONAL

Review: Chris Tomlin is a machine. It's hard to imagine how it's even possible that he can produce so many songs as frequently as he does. The church has benefited greatly from his ministry and it's because of his commitment to scripturally-sound music that he is held in high esteem by Christians across the globe.

Tomlin takes no risks on this album either musically or lyrically; he doesn't go too far in any direction, but it could be argued that he didn't go far enough, either. Topics could have been explained in greater detail and given more theological significance ("God of Calvary" is a good example of that). However, that shouldn't stop the Christian from enjoying what he has provided on this album.

Never Lose Sight features a good set of songs. I suggest checking out "Home" and "Come Thou Fount (I Will Sing)."

Oh, yeah. "Good Good Father" is on this album, too. Everyone seems to love that song and it was named 2016 Song of the Year at the Dove Awards. But read this for some balance.

__________


THE TOP FIVE


5. Citizens & Saints: A Mirror Dimly

87.8



Track Listing:
  1. Crown Him (4:02)
  2. Madness (4:33)
  3. Faith (3:54)
  4. Relent (5:33)
  5. Day by Day (5:38)
  6. Kids (3:30)
  7. How Majestic (6:12)
  8. My Joy is Complete (4:41)
  9. Doubting Doubts (4:30)

Review: Ah, the unique and refreshing sound of Citizens & Saints. They have been one of my favorite bands for a few years now and though this album doesn't disappoint, the group still has yet to match the greatness of their self-titled debut album (when they were just Citizens). That said, A Mirror Dimly is certainly an improvement over their last album, Join the Triumph, which was featured in my 2014 review.

As Reel Gospel pointed out in their interview with the band, this album is much more personal than the ones that preceded it. Through the record, they're wrestling with the 2014 collapse of Mars Hill Church in Seattle (where the band originated; see my article about Mark Driscoll here) and much of what they sing is filled with raw emotion. In that interview, Zach Bolen, the band's lead singer, said this:
We decided that we should write about all these things we're experiencing now, post all the fallout from the church. We also felt that there was a piece of honesty that was missing before, just because we were trying to write for a broader audience; a corporate setting. We made this record more personal.

Bolen, who released a solo project this year, expresses a deep struggle with doubt and worldly temptation in "Relent." The song is open and honest, and it reflects the heart of the album. Each song, by the way, has a lyric video and they're all of the same style (smoke in the background, Courier New-type font, etc.).

There's a clear jump in the ratings from #6 to #5 and there's a simple reason for it. A Mirror Dimly received 9.5/10 for both lyrics and music quality. Stylistic appeal and congregational possibilities both held the record back for a higher overall score. However, songs like "Day by Day" and "Madness" (based on Isaiah 55) prove that Citizens & Saints deserves a spot in the top five.


MY FAVORITE




4. Audrey Assad: Inheritance

88.4

Track Listing:
  1. Ubi Caritas (2:56)
  2. Holy, Holy, Holy (3:09)
  3. Be Thou My Vision (3:34)
  4. I Wonder as I Wander (3:47)
  5. How Can I Keep from Singing (4:22)
  6. Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus (ft. Fernando Ortega) (2:37)
  7. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (2:14)
  8. New Every Morning (5:22)
  9. It Is Well with My Soul (4:11)
  10. Even unto Death (4:39)
  11. Abide with Me (4:40)

Review: Audrey Assad is a name that has been gaining more and more recognition in recent years. She released her first album, Firefly (a five song EP), in 2008 when she was 25. Two years later, she released The House You're Building, which is still her most popular album on iTunes. She, along with fellow CCM artist Matt Maher, is Catholic. There's a lot that could be said about that, but this isn't the time or the place.

Inheritance is an awesome album. This record received 9/10 for both lyrics and music quality. As you look through the track listing above you'll see hymns that you recognize and some that you don't. "New Every Morning" (see video below) is one of the original tracks and it was one of the runners-up for Song of the Year. "Even Unto Death" is another original song that Assad wrote in response to Egyptian Christians losing their lives at the hands of ISIS.

Two of my top-5 favorite hymns are on this album: "Be Thou My Vision" and "Holy, Holy, Holy." Oddly (and unfortunately), Assad leaves out the second verse of "Holy, Holy, Holy"; it's the one that mentions casting our crowns and cherubim/seraphim.

Perhaps the most interesting track on the album is the first: "Ubi Caritas." This is a Latin title meaning, "Where Love" (think charity for "caritas"). Assad sings the entire song in Latin, which is quite impressive. Perhaps the last several years in the Catholic Church have sharpened those skills. The video linked at the start of this paragraph features a line-by-line English translation as the song goes along.

All in all, this is a splendid listen. Assad inserts her own musical flavor into these classic hymns and the songs are so easy to enjoy. This will be an album that I'll reference for years to come. It is one of the best hymns albums I have ever heard.


MY FAVORITE




3. Young Oceans: Voices, Volume 1

89.35

10/10 QUALITY

Track Listing:
  1. Until These Tears are Gone - Harvest (3:39)
  2. Come Holy One - Leeland (4:26)
  3. Only You - Evan Wickham (4:03)
  4. My All in Thee - Ellie Holcomb (4:32)
  5. Praise the Lord Ye Heavens - Harvest (4:32)
  6. Great is Our God - All Sons & Daughters (4:20)
  7. Come to Us O Lord - Sarah Macintosh (4:00)
  8. None But Thee - Leeland (4:34)
  9. To Hear Your Voice - Sarah Macintosh (4:27)
  10. We Sing as One - Mike Donehey (4:37)
  11. Let This Heart Not Wander - Harvest (3:05)

Review: I went back-and-forth as to whether it was fair that this album was considered for this list. After all, there are no new songs here and every song actually showcases another musician/band. I finally decided to include it, though, based on the fact that this list is about albums, not artists. This is an album, it's a Christian album, and it's a new Christian album. It deserves recognition.

Because it's incredible.

Young Oceans has been on my radar since 2012 when Fountain Radio in Kansas City sent me a package in response to a letter I sent them. The package included Young Oceans' self-titled debut album. Since then, they've released a few other records, including instrumentals. They're based out of Brooklyn and are affiliated with Trinity Grace Church.

Perhaps what makes Voices, Volume 1 so good is that their great songwriting is so much more understandable in these renditions. As bands like Leeland and All Sons & Daughters put their own twist on the tracks, the lyrics come through much clearer, which, in turn, makes the listening experience more enjoyable. Paired with that is the quality of the music, which was earned a perfect 10/10 score -- the only record to do that this year.

Harvest Parker, aka Harvest, is featured in three of the songs, including "Until These Tears are Gone," which is a masterful piece of music. She has toured with Third Day in recent history and puts out her music in conjunction with Go Motion Worldwide. Ellie Holcomb, who has a few records of her own, does a great job singing "My All in Thee."

Voices received an 8.5/10 rating for its congregational possibilities. That is an unprecedented score for a band that has never produced an album comparable in that respect. In an interview with Hallels, Young Oceans talks about that very thing:
Over the last couple years we've had many people tell us they love the music but wish they could do these songs in their church and community settings...So with Voices, we've tried to create simple orchestrations with a focus on the vocal parts.

They (presumably, songwriter Eric Marshall is speaking) continued:
I see a lot of church music these days striving for an arena sound. We don't do that. Most Christian congregations are on the small side and they've been the heartbeat of the Church for centuries. We humbly hope to resource all sizes and shapes of communities.

Biblical, high-quality music designed for the local church? A musician's motivation can't be any better than that. To emphasize this "resourcing" of the local church, Oceans has also provided chord charts for all the songs on the record.

MY FAVORITE




2. Steven Curtis Chapman: Worship and Believe (Deluxe Edition)

89.4

Track Listing:
  1. We Believe (5:05)
  2. One True God (ft. Chris Tomlin) (4:25)
  3. Amen (4:06)
  4. Hallelujah, You are Good (ft. Matt Maher) (3:31)
  5. More Than Conquerors (5:20)
  6. Sing for You (5:08)
  7. Who You Say We Are (5:32)
  8. The Body (4:22)
  9. King of Love (5:28)
  10. We are Listening (4:47)
  11. God of Forever (4:25)
  12. We Believe (Live) (5:29)
  13. Sing for You (Live) (5:07)
  14. One True God (Live) (4:50)
  15. More Than Conquerors (Live) (5:26)
  16. Who You Say We Are (Live) (5:34)
  17. Amen (Live) (4:31)

Review: In a complete surprise, Steven Curtis Chapman, owner of 87 albums on iTunes, the man who released a Greatest Hits album 19...yes, nineteen...years ago, finds himself at #2 on the list.

Why is it a surprise? It's a surprise because it's the first album he has released in three years. It's a surprise because the lyrics on this album are perhaps more consistently rich than any other album he's produced. It's a surprise because the man is 54 years old and sings with incredible energy.

On his website, it's explained that this is Chapman's first real worship album: "Worship and Believe marks the first worship album by the 58-time Dove Award-winning artist, who has sold nearly eleven million albums in his three decade-long career of creating music."

What is meant by "worship album" here, of course, is a record filled with tracks that are made for congregations as they sing together in corporate worship. The term "worship" often tends to be a misnomer in American Christianity, as everything that the Christian does is worship. But that's neither here nor there. The website explains further:
The 11 studio tracks, and six live tracks recorded at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, form a theologlically thoughtful collection designed for vertically-focused praise and worship. Lyrically, Worship and Believe presents ten core truths from Scripture as "proclamations of Truth that we can declare together," Chapman says.

Incorporating songs like "One True God" (ft. Chris Tomlin; see below), which declares the deity of Christ and "Amen," which defines imputation and proclaims the validity of Scripture, SCC delivers an incredible corporate praise set.

On the website page linked above, it is explained how the loss of his youngest daughter in 2008 still affects him and influenced this album:
It's from that place of suffering and surrender Chapman began to write songs to illuminate promises of God and declare truths from Scripture. From the anthemic "We Believe" [a really good one] to the tender "Hallelujah, You are Good" to the triumphant "King of Love" and hopeful "God of Forever," these songs mark a new season for Chapman - creating more vertically focused worship songs spurred on by a soul awakening to worship music he experienced as he held fast to songs of the church through a season of loss.

I hope he keeps it up and continues going strong. This is an extraordinary turn for the better by a stalwart in the CCM community.

MY FAVORITE




1. Rivers & Robots: The Eternal Son

92.55

10/10 LYRICS

Track Listing:
  1. Wait for You (3:59)
  2. Fullness of God (3:49)
  3. One Day with You (3:41)
  4. To the Highest Place (4:01)
  5. Who Is Like Our God (4:59)
  6. A Love That Carries Me (5:06)
  7. High Priest (5:29)
  8. Home (4:25)
  9. Lift up My Eyes (4:54)
  10. The Eternal Son (5:55)
  11. You Know My Name (4:29)
  12. Jesus, Your Blood (7:40)

Review: We end up on the east side of the Atlantic once more for the top album of 2016. Honestly, it's hard for me to imagine a Christian record that could take the place of The Eternal Son as my personal favorite. If I were to rank this album off the cuff and from the heart, I would give it a perfect score; but, alas, there are no perfect albums out there.

This is the first release by Manchester-based Rivers & Robots since their best of 2014 album All Things New. If there's one thing that distinguishes The Eternal Son from the rest, it's the mature sound that has been achieved through some genius arrangements and high-quality instrumentals. Lead singer Jonathan Ogden discussed that very thing in an excellent interview with Spirit You All:
We really wanted to step up the production side of the album, but still do it ourselves. I started River & Robots when I was already interested in producing music, so it was already something I was doing. The first two albums I just did on my laptop at home. It was really, like, a little bedroom recording project.

In order to push themselves even more on the production side of things, Ogden is leading a creative project called Set Sail, which features a series of vlogs discussing a wide range of topics. It is through that YouTube channel that Ogden announced that they will be releasing an instrumental album in January.

The Eternal Son states its theme in its title, which is a grand statement in and of itself. In an interview with Reel Gospel, Ogden said this about it: "Generally the title is the last thing we come up with; I look through the lyrics and pick something out. But for this one we did a Kickstarter campaign so I had to pick a title early."

The band took that theme and did a fantastic job. In the Spirit You All interview, Ogden describes how the songs took shape:
A lot of the time it starts with reading a [Bible] passage that inspires me, and I take that and I find other verses that can tie in with it and build a theme around it, and that becomes a song...I always try to pull out something about Jesus from the Bible. Especially themes about Him that we might not sing about as often - because it's easy to just go to the standards, to use  the phrases we use in worship songs. But I'm always trying to find the things that there aren't many songs about, or that people aren't singing.

In the same way their lyrics are unique, the band has put together a unique sound. The bridges don't follow the typical arrangement, like in "High Priest" (see video below). They employ a saxophone on the title track. "Jesus, Your Blood" ends with a four-minute long reference to Psalm 24 that is related to, yet sounds distinctly different from the rest of the song.

The album's main weakness was admitted to by Ogden himself. "I knew from the outset that it probably was going to be less congregational," he said. And he shouldn't be apologetic about that. Some of the songs definitely have congregational possibility with a little work, but the record is meant to be enjoyed while listening to their great composition.

There's much more to say about this amazing set of songs; however, you should start by watching the video for "Lift Up My Eyes" that they put together by means of their global fan base.

Then, since you probably didn't buy the album the day it came out like I did, you should look it up and support this band that does God-honoring things in an excellent way.

MY FAVORITE




DO YOU APPRECIATE THIS WORK?
WANT TO SUPPORT ME?

PRE-ORDER MY NEW BOOK:


Click here to learn more


__________


CHRISTMAS MUSIC
[BY MELISSA HOWARD]


Josh Garrels: The Light Came Down


Listen: Spotify // iTunes

Review: This album stands on its own amidst the typical holly-jolly tunes of Christmastime.

Garrels brings to the table songs that are deep and unique, in a style that sounds a tad melancholy yet brims with hope. Classics (like "O Come O Come Emmanuel"), deep cuts ("The Virgin Mary Had One Son"), and originals ("Shepherd's Song") meld together in a blend that is uniquely Garrels. If you're going to buy any new Christmas album this year, make it this one.


Selah: Rose of Bethlehem


Listen: Spotify // iTunes

Review: Selah was first founded 17 years ago, and the trio's style hearkens back to that era of Christian music. While that might be a negative for some listeners, the fact remains that the vocals are incredible, the instrumentals are timelessly rich, and the lyrics are meaningful. A noteworthy element: the album incorporates the Kituba language into the lyrics of some classic Christmas songs. (Selah's founder, Todd Smith, grew up in Africa as the son of missionaries.) If you enjoy an older contemporary sound and classic hymns done well, this album is for you.


Lauren Daigle: Behold: A Christmas Collection


Listen: Spotify // iTunes

Review: Lauren Daigle surrounds her one original song ("Light of the World") with Christmas classics, a smattering of hymns and lighter tunes. The album as a whole has a simple, coffeehouse style, highlighting her unique and appealing vocal talent. "Light of the World" is a beautiful song proclaiming hope to a hurting world in the coming of Jesus, the Light of the World.

Curl up with some cocoa while the snow falls and enjoy this charming take on songs you know and love.


Gospel Song Union: Over the Hills and Everywhere


Listen: Spotify

Review: This eight-track album is a collaboration of eight different artists/groups. Some of the songs ("Come and Stand Amazed" by The Modern Post, for example) aren't new to us, having been released in previous years by their respective groups. However, those songs certainly aren't old news, and the addition of new releases like "Go Tell It on the Mountain" by the Sing Team make for a well-rounded album.

While most of the songs have similarities in style, "Silent Night" is unique in its approach with female vocals that sound a bit distant and (dare I say) a tad unpleasant. Overall, it's a refreshing, God-glorifying smattering of Christmas tunes.


Matthew West: Unto Us: A Christmas Collection


Listen: Spotify // iTunes

Review: Easy listening. That's Matthew West. He offers smooth vocals and feel-good songs. It's a pleasant album with catchy tunes like "Join the Angels" and "Come On, Christmas," while classics like "O Holy Night" exemplify his vocal skills.

This Christmas album isn't earth-shattering in style or content. In fact, some listeners might find a song or two a bit cheesy. However, it is -- have I already said it? -- simply pleasant to listen to.



For King & Country: Into the Silent Night


Listen: Spotify // iTunes

Review: The "extended" version of Into the Silent Night still only offers six songs, so you can finish the album in under 30 minutes. The original version of this EP (in 2013) had 5 songs. The addition this time around is the song "Glorious," a fun, upbeat tune that proves to be a good bonus. "Baby Boy" is popular -- you've probably heard it before -- and rightfully so. The vocals are impressive, the melody is catchy and powerful, and the lyrics proclaim that "endless hope, relentless joy, started with a baby Boy." Believe it or not, they even fit a sweet love song into this small mix ("Into the Silent Night").

Also, note that "Little Drummer Boy" is an incredible performance, and even more so in person -- trust me on this! This album might lack the theological depth of others, but that's likely (hopefully!) just because it is a brief listen.


JJ Heller: Unto Us


Listen: Spotify // iTunes

Review: JJ Heller's Christmas album is, in a word, lovely. Believe it or not, this album was a Kickstarter project that Heller began in July and ended up raising over $80,000 to pull it off. (She also donated a copy of her album of lullabies to a hospital for every $15 raised.) In explaining her heart for the project, Heller fondly remembers the timeless magic evoked by classic Christmas music and expresses her hope of capturing that magic.

Heller certainly does an excellent job of creating a charming, cozy Christmas album that still remains characteristically her. Every song is smooth and sweet, just like that cup of cocoa in your hand.


__________


WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN 2017


NOT The City Harmonic: It brings me no joy to relay the message that The City Harmonic is no more. They have been my favorite Canadian band for at least five years. You can read about their dissolution here.

Josh Garrels: During an interview with Converge Magazine, Garrels shared that he plans to release a new album in spring 2017 (start at the 29:30 mark). That's exciting. He's also going on tour with John Mark McMillan. That should keep the Portland native busy.

Ghost Ship: Last year they released Costly, which was, by all standards, a great Christian album. It's time for another one, though they haven't said anything about a release date.

John Mark McMillan: He's set to release Mercury & Lightning in March. I hope he has a renewed emphasis on biblical lyrics. He is very talented and the next album should be something to look forward to.

Page CXVI: It has been a really long time since they've produced a record. Two and a half years long. They just finished an advent concert tour that featured ten stops; hopefully that sign of life means that a new album is in the works.

The Modern Post: We're so overdue for some praise songs from Dustin Kensrue. Personally, I've been disappointed in his solo work that has been less-than-edifying. If he puts out another record with Thrice before The Modern Post, I won't be a happy camper.

Beautiful Eulogy: The spoken word group who puts out albums under Humble Beast Records (Odd Thomas of the group is the owner/proprietor) has announced that their next album, Worthy, will be released on March 10.

Kip Fox: He's planning to release a full length album in the fall. I'm very much looking forward to it.

14 comments:

  1. Did you listen to Sandra McCracken at all? She's one of my favorites, and I'm curious why she gets no mention.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Andrea. Sandra McCracken wasn't on my radar this year. Thank you for bringing her to my attention!

      Delete
  2. King's Kaleidoscope, Beyond Control??

    ReplyDelete
  3. Never mind that KK comment, I just saw your explanation. Understood. Thanks for the list!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you found the link. You're welcome!

      Delete
  4. Great list! Thanks for doing the homework for me :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you so much for making this excellent review! I enjoyed it last year too. (Found you through Challies.) This definitely helps me find new music. I appreciate that you mentioned CCM artists as well; I get way too prideful, stuffy, anti-radio...I definitely tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to anything that is found on the radio.
    Keep it up! I enjoyed reading your other articles as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Hope! We certainly share the same tendencies.

      Delete
  6. How come Shai Linne didn't make any list or mention in this article? Have you written any articles on him?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi CJ - Thanks for the comment. As I said at the start, there's just no way to have this list be comprehensive. Shai Linne hasn't been on my radar so thank you for bringing him to my attention!

      Delete
    2. You're welcome! Glad I could get him on your radar! I think he's great and would love to hear your thoughts on him.

      Delete
    3. Looks like Shai Linne hasn't put out a new album since 2014. I'll keep him on my list!

      Delete
  7. Be charming and grin a considerable measure. Try not to speak down about anything. music production company london

    ReplyDelete