Thursday, December 17, 2015

2015: A Christian Music Review

About the judge

This is my second year of doing an end-of-year Christian music recap. You can see my 2014 review here.

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.

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

About the judging

I wanted to make this year's judging a little more objective/scientific. Thus, I created an algorithm that incorporates five factors for each album. Here are the factors, weighted from heaviest to lightest respectively: 
  • Lyrics. How biblical are the songs? Are they theologically sound? Are they creative, poetic, uniquely interesting?
  • Music Quality. How creative is the music? Was it produced well?
  • Breadth of Appeal. Is the music really niche or is it palatable? Could older people enjoy it as much as young people?
  • Quantity of Songs. Five-song EP or 18-track monster?
  • Congregational Possibilities. Is it possible to sing this with your brothers and sisters on Sunday morning or is it strictly cruising/sleeping/working music?  
The max score is 100. 35 weighted points maximum for lyrics, 25 max for quality, 20 max for stylistic appeal, 12 max for quantity, and 8 max for congregational. You'll find that everyone on the list ends up somewhere between the low 60s and high 80s. 



Bethel Music: Without Words: Synesthesia

July 31

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: It's hard to review an instrumental album, even if it's in brief. Perhaps if my ears were professionally trained I would be able to give an officially helpful review.

Bethel Music came out with two albums this year: a live album (not reviewed in the live albums section) and this instrumental album. The instrumental tracks are pretty slow and synthetic.

Bethel covered some other artists' songs on the record, like Phil Wickham's "This Is Amazing Grace" and Hillsong's "Oceans." They, of course, put their own spin on the tracks, so it would be a bit difficult to pick up on it if the titles were changed. 

Overall, this is great background music for a church to use at events or between services on a Sunday morning. It has 19 tracks, so you're sure to find something you like.

Young Oceans: Steady the Stars 

January 13

ListenRdio, iTunes

Review: Young Oceans is a pretty interesting band. I first heard them when I listened to Fountain Radio in Kansas City. I wrote that station and told them I appreciated them as an alternative Christian music outlet. They sent me a gratitude package, which included a Young Oceans album.

So that's how I got to know them. They're an indie band with a unique, quiet, slow sound. It'a always relaxing with Young Oceans.

Unlike the Bethel instrumental, more traditional instruments are heard on this record. You can hear the slide of the guitar and cymbals from the drum set. All of the songs on the album are originals.

This is very easy listening. It's great to have playing in the background in nearly any setting, though I find it helpful when working or lounging at home on a Sunday afternoon.


Live Worship Albums 

Matt Papa: Live at the Lincoln Theater

January 15

ListenRdio, iTunes

Review: Matt Papa seems like an intriguing fellow. He's been around for a few years now and, as of late, he's changed what he does as a gifted worship leader. Not only does he make music and serve in a church, but he also speaks across the country and he just wrote a book

If you haven't listened to him since, say, 2010, you might be surprised at how his sound has matured. His lyrics have always been quite good -- definitely a few notches above the average contemporary Christian band. His song "You Are Good" from 2011 is a good example of his songwriting ability coupled with a less refined sound.

It is a joy to report now, though, that Papa has stepped up his game and gotten much more creative on the music side of song composition. His lyrics have only gotten more solid and his musical ability is really starting to shine. 

Live at the Lincoln is a pretty traditional live album -- it's fun and showy. He rouses the crowd when he raps a verse in "The Lord is a Warrior." Another song -- the best one on the album -- "Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery" was featured by The Gospel Coalition as a stand-out modern hymn. Way to go, Mr. Papa.

Vertical Church: Church Songs

January 20

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: This is the third full album from the band that has come out of Liberty University. They are a part of James MacDonald's network of Harvest Churches in Chicago. 

I hadn't listened to much of Vertical Church in the past and, overall, I'm not upset about it. The record is fairly unimaginative and relatively shallow. It's obvious that groups like Hillsong and Jesus Culture have had major influence over this group.

The song "Do What You Want To" partially expresses the common extreme Arminian theological point of view found in many American churches today. The implications of the title lyric, people telling God He's allowed to "do what He wants to do," make me a tad uncomfortable. Additionally, the all-too-common lightweight Christian music words and phrases ("You're welcome here," "You move us to tears," "Come and speak to us," etc.) are found throughout.

On the other hand, the songs "Lamb of God," "Psalm 96," and "None Like You" are all quite good. There's a lot of touchy feely stuff on this album, so proceed with caution.

Northwest Collective: Rejoice: Live From Seattle

May 12

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: This record has all my favorites in one place. BEC Recordings, the label that picked up many of the former Mars Hill Seattle bands, put this compilation together.

The songs are sometimes performed by the bands that wrote them and sometimes performed by other Mars Hill bands. For instance, Joe Day's song, "Christ is Risen," is performed by Ghost Ship at the end of the album. 

It's great fun to hear these songs live, as it really reveals the worship-leading spirit behind the songwriting. For praise music leaders in churches, this record may prove to be instructive as to how to adapt the songs to a corporate setting.

It doesn't appear as though Northwest Collective is a band compilation title with which BEC will continue. These same bands just started a new project called Gospel Song Union, produced under BEC, which is discussed later in this post.

Austin Stone Worship: This Glorious Grace

October 16

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: Austin Stone Worship is a collection of the worship leaders and praise team members from Austin Stone Church's many campuses. This megachurch in Austin, Texas has enough people and resources to start its own country. And if the church embraces the spirit of its home state, it just might

The album is very well produced and the musicians are clearly very talented. Since they're in the live music capital of the world, it's appropriate that they do music right.

This group is Hillsong-esque with beefier lyrics. There are no real red flags on the album, but there's also nothing that really makes them stand out. The band itself is very diverse, though. Check out Jimmie Ingram!

If they would put more emphasis on Bible reiteration and theological explanation, they would be a better band overall.


Honorable Mentions & Disappointments 

Wolves at the Gate: Reprise

May 12

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: This is a band I typically would have nothing to do with. Their style is very heavy rock -- the kind of stuff that the untrained ear can't even translate. However, they decided to put out an acoustic album this year, highlighting six of their songs from former albums.

Five of the songs feature someone from another band, including a song in which they teamed up with Zach Bolen from Citizens & Saints, one of my favorite groups. 

The first song on the album, "Dead Man" is so opposite their typical scream-o style, that the guitar and chorus nearly sound like the Jars of Clay song by the same title. Overall, this album was a delightful surprise. There are congregational possibilities with these arrangements and each of the songs is edifying.

Lyric excerpt: "Oh people hear my cries / With all our lust and all our lies / When the truth's come face to face / Did we earn such love and grace? / Oh we couldn't earn a thing / And there's nothing we can bring / So receive this love and grace / Believe His love and grace!" (from The Father's Bargain)

Jeremy Camp: I Will Follow

February 3

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: What can you say about Jeremy Camp? I guess you can say, "You know what you'll get." Even the cover of his newest album says that. The look on his face basically says, "Yep, just another Jeremy Camp album." 

As usual, his stuff is pretty good -- but it always seems to stop there. 

His sound is fine; it's just so overdone at this point. The title track, "I Will Follow," even has that 1990s synthetic voice-changer thing during the bridge. It's a sign of his age.

You won't find anything heretical here, but you won't be blown away either. He hit his peak with songs like "This Man" and "Take You Back," which both came out on his Restored album in 2004. 

He seems like a great guy and he's got a powerful and unique testimony. He's just always going to be a top-tier K-Love guy for me.

Lyric excerpt: "I can't survive on bread alone / I hunger and I thirst for Your words that give me hope / I stand on the truth / In the living word of God / 'Cause every time it moves my soul and shapes my every thought / It's alive in me, the very breath I breathe / I'm holding on with all I've got / To the living word, the living word of God" (from Living Word of God)

Lovelite: Hopeful Strangers

October 30

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: Lovelite is an interesting band. The band is led by husband and wife duo (see cover), Andrew and Jen Polfer. If you've never heard them before, you'll probably be taken aback by their sound. It's half 1980s pop, half 1990s techno. They didn't always sound like that, though, as their 2008 and 2010 albums were much more traditional, featuring gentle acoustics.

I first heard them in 2012 with the release of their In Three Persons album, which was quite good. Unfortunately, they took a step or two back with Hopeful Strangers. 

As fun and unique of a band Lovelite is, their style can't make up for the shallowness of this album. There are not many words to each song and the lyrics that are there mostly have little substance. Much of the record is feelings-based nonsenseOverall, this work is a disappointment. I will continue to look to them, though, for unique Christian music that will hopefully be more solid in the future.

Lyric excerpt: "We live here as hopeful strangers / We outlast the dangers because heaven is home / You came down and lived as a man / Died like a lamb but awoke like a lion" (from Hopeful Strangers -- the best song on the album)

Grinstead: Hymns

June 9

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: This short record is a collection of classic hymns. Grinstead does a good job putting a contemporary spin on each one -- so much so that it's possible for traditionalists to embrace their style. (Maybe not the KJV-only traditionalists, though!)

I heard of this album through Tim Challies, and I'm glad I did. The only thing that holds Hymns back is the short stack of tracks. There are only five songs in sum, which is too bad. We would all do well to keep track of them going forward, though, as they're likely to produce full length records in the near future. 

Grinstead has a coffee house style that is especially seen in "All Creatures of Our God and King." This is a style I thoroughly enjoy.

Lyric excerpt: "Let all things their Creator bless / And worship Him in humbleness / Oh praise Him / Alleluia (not a real word) / Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son / And praise the Spirit Three in One" (from All Creatures of Our God and King)

Third Day: Lead Us Back (Deluxe Edition)

February 27

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: Yes, they made another album. This is the 20-something record for Third Day and they have shown no signs of slowing down. They get great exposure via K-Love and they have built a faithful following over the last couple of decades.

There are no surprises here. Third Day does what Third Day does. To mix it up, Michael W. Smith and Natalie Grant join them on a couple of tracks. Additionally, the deluxe edition of Lead Us Back features eight live songs.

"Soul on Fire," the most popular song on the album, featuring the oh-so-hipster Sons & Daughters.

Third Day's lyrics will always be relatively solid, and their sound, though predictable, is always going to be professionally composed. Unless they go off the deep end doctrinally, it's hard to imagine one of their albums being terrible. And, at the same time, it's hard to imagine one of their albums being mind-blowing.

Lyric excerpt: "Your words give us life that's everlasting / Your words bring us love that never fails / Everything else will fade away / But what will remain are Your words" (from Your Words)

Rend Collective: As Family We Go

August 21

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: Mainstream Christian radio's favorite young-and-edgy band has now released three albums in their short existence. They started out in 2010 with their record Organic Family Hymnal.

I first saw them with Melissa at a Chris Tomlin concert in '11. They played a few songs, banging on trash cans and doing other neat stuff that piqued our interest. They seemed to be very creative and had a unique sound that nearly everybody around us enjoyed. 

However, over time, their sound has started to wear on me. I tend to agree with my wife that this record in particular is "too peppy."

There is not much substance in the lyrics and they've become very bland as a musical group. It seems like there is more entertainment than edification in their songs. I've given this album the worst rating of all the ones featured here. It brings me no pleasure, but it had to be done.

As Family We Go in one word: meh.

Lyric excerpt: "You will never run away / You're forever mine / You will never run away / You're by my side / You will never run away / You forever shine / You will never run away / You're by my side" (seriously...from You Will Never Run)

John Waller: Crazy Faith

August 21

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: You might know Waller's name from his connections with the Christian-movie-making Kendrick brothers. He's done work for Fireproof and War Room

He started out as the front man for the band According to John but now he releases solo albums every other year or so. His style is quite likable and his songwriting as a whole is quite good. Crazy Faith features three live songs from his time on tour.

Waller is obviously a talented vocal artist as many of the tracks on this record reveal. He goes back and forth between deep, scriptural lyrics and somewhat watery, kinda vague mainstream-esque lyrics. The album is mostly solid, though, and I was delightfully surprised by what I found here. His sound is not something I could listen to on a regular basis, but for the moment, I'm enjoying Crazy Faith.

The song "Orphan" has seemed to get some attention in particular, as Mac Powell from Third Day endorsed the message of the song and praised its uniqueness. Doctrinally speaking, he gets a little goofy in "Our God Reigns Here" (one of the live tracks at the end) when he starts casting out evil spirits from the room/his body. 

Lyric excerpt: "Jesus, You're the Word / And the Word is living / Jesus, You're the Word / And the Word is life / Where else would I go if You, and You alone / Hold the words to life? / Where else would I run? / I'm alive because, Jesus Christ, Your word is my life" (from Your Word, My Life)

Andrew Peterson: The Burning Edge of Dawn

October 9

ListenSpotfiy, iTunes 

Review: Fifteen and a half years after his debut album, Andrew Peterson brings fatherly spiritual wisdom to us in the form of The Burning Edge of Dawn. He's always had a gentle touch to his music (as evidenced by this gem), but now the sound is sharper and more polished, while the lyrics to his songs come from a slightly different perspective than they did in 2000.

A great example of that perspective shift is seen in the video he made for "Be Kind to Yourself," where he's seen affirming his daughter who sits at his side (I get teary every time). 

Peterson has always had a storytelling style. From the start, his songs have been more like narratives than proclamations. This is a key part his proverbial nature, which is a lot like a softer version Mitch McVicker. Both guys are not-as-well-known guitarists who have been around for awhile and still hang onto that 1990s sound. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

There's nothing on this record that will surprise those who have been following Peterson throughout his career. Everything is solid; it's just not as saturated in the words of Scripture as I'd prefer. And although his storytelling style is a key uniqueness quality, it hinders his ability to connect on a variety of levels from track-to-track.

Overall, the album is great. It lands just outside of the top five. As a consolation prize, he gets the invisible trophy for Best Album Cover of 2015. Classy!

Lyric excerpt: "As the rain and the snow fall / Down from the sky / And they don't return / But they water the earth and bring forth life / Giving seed to the sower / And bread for the hunger / So shall the sound of the word of the Lord be / With a sound like thunder / And it will not return void" (from The Sower's Song)


The Top Five 

5. The City Harmonic: We Are

September 4
1. We Are One (3:37)
2. Maranatha (4:26)
3. Into Your Arms (3:57)
4. Solid Rock (2:55)
5. Shout! (4:01)
6. Let There Be Light (3:40)
7. All of This and More (4:07)
8. Oh What Love (4:58)
9. Confession (Agnus Dei) (4:26)
10. Still and Small (3:20)
11. One (4:26)

ListenSpotify, iTunes

My favorite: "Oh What Love" (YouTube)

Review: It was time for another full album from my favorite Canadian band. We Are features solid theology throughout and their musical talent, as always, shines brightly.

Some of the songs are a bit emotional in nature, but it's nothing to get worried about. Mostly, it's a style preference issue for me because it's certainly not this bad...sorry Jesus Culture fans

Lead singer Elias Dummer has such a powerful voice that goes so well with their style. It seems as though they, as a group, have discovered how to channel his strong vocals in a way that doesn't overpower the rest of the band on this album. Dummer's style is perfect for hammering home the truths found on We Are

My personal favorite on the album, "Oh What Love," explores deep theology. Just look at these lyrics: "Fully man and fully God / A great High Priest upon a throne of grace / And in this priesthood I am one / By grace restored to bow before You now." There's so much that could be dwelt upon in those lyrics.

"Confession (Agnus Dei)" is a uniquely powerful song that uses the Good Samaritan parable as a reflection of the pride in each of our hearts. The song calls the believer to look to Christ for mercy continually as we remain humble before Him. In "One," more great theology is explained shortly and sweetly -- it's a very good modern hymn.

The City Harmonic has provided resources for praise team leaders for free, which is a very kind gesture.

Although I would not say this album is as good as I Have a Dream, the record is still very, very good and The City Harmonic has maintained all of the qualities that have made them an award-winning band.   

4. Ghost Ship: Costly 

September 25
1. Invitation (3:53)
2. Adoption (4:21)
3. Scarlet (3:58)
4. Look What God Has Done (4:30)
5. Heavy As the Sea (4:17)
6. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (Jesus Saves) (4:31)
7. Peace (5:15)
8. Provide (4:20)
9. The Way (3:38)
10. Fear and Love (3:50)
11. You Loved Us First 4:05
12. The Revelation of Jesus Christ 3:48
13. Hesed 6:11

ListenSpotify, iTunes

My favorite: "Look What God Has Done" (YouTube)

Review: My excitement level for Costly was quite high. Ghost Ship is yet another former Mars Hill Church band that just does great things with words and instruments. This album is no exception.

Costly is the most theologically rich record found on this list. The theme, as implied by the album title, is centered around what God has done in order to redeem mankind. God's love, through His mercy and sovereignty, is clearly understood as each track is listened to. 

Cam Huxford, the lead singer, has one of those voices you recognize as soon as the first note comes out of his mouth. His vocal style plays well with the rustic-style rock accompanying the lyrics. Recently, Huxford has taken part in The Verses Project, which is a great thing. 

What I value most about Ghost Ship is their commitment to biblical music. In "You Loved Us First," 1 John is basically truncated to one track. It says, "Because You loved us first / Now we can love each other / We know what love is worth / Because You loved us first."

In "Hesed," the First Testament word for God's covenantal lovingkindness is explored, channeling prophets like Moses and Jeremiah. "You will be our God / And we will be Your people / You have made this covenant with us / There's nowhere we could run / That we could escape You / We cannot break Your love." Great stuff. 

Many of their songs are congregational, which is obviously a bonus. We've started singing "Look What God Has Done" at our church and we couldn't be happier about how it fits. I truly treasure theologically-rich songs that are easily shared with the family of God. 

This is a fun album and it gives hope to the future of Ghost Ship. I'm sure many of us were concerned as to how the Mars Hill bands would continue on after the church fell apart, but if Costly is any indication, Ghost Ship will be just fine.

3. Robbie Seay Band: Psalms LP

January 13
1. Psalm 134 (Bless the Lord) (3:39)
2. Psalm 18 (I Love You O Lord) (3:28)
3. Psalm 66 (You Are Great) (4:54) 
4. Psalm 116 (You Turned My Soul to Rest) (3:54)
5. Psalm 118 (Your Steadfast Love) (5:28)
6. Psalm 140 (Cry for Mercy) (4:27)
7. Psalm 3 (A Shield About Me) (7:07)
8. Psalm 63 (Better Than Life) (5:45)
9. Psalm 139 (You Have Searched and Know Me) (4:08)
10. Psalm 96 (Let the Earth Rejoice) (6:02)
11. Psalm 62 (God Is a Refuge) (6:41)
12. Psalm 91 (He Knows My Name) (5:41)
13. Psalm 42 (Hope in God) (3:39)
14. Psalm 130 (I Wait) (5:32)

ListenSpotify, iTunes

My favorite: "Psalm 116 (You Turned My Soul to Rest)" (YouTube), "Psalm 42 (Hope in God)" (YouTube)

Review: Robbie Seay has been putting together great Christian music for over a decade and he is at the high point of his career thus far. Starting in the fall of 2013, he released three Psalms EPs that have now been combined into one full LP -- and it is wonderful. 

Seay stays quite loyal to the original psalms, using word-for-word excerpts stylized with contemporary music. In some of the songs, he seems to use the NIV, while, in others, perhaps because of his partnership with The Verses Project (one of my favorite resources), he uses the ESV. 

The only knock I have with any of the lyrics is his apparent over-emphasis concerning lifting hands in the first track. I understand that the original psalm states that and Seay is a praise leader, but the amount of repetition lands of the side of overkill. Call me old and fundamental, I suppose. 

Overall, this album is very, very good. Seay is creative and brings new thought and perspective to each of the psalms. For instance, in Scripture, Psalm 42 says at the start, "To the Choirmaster." Seay takes this literally and provides an instrumental for the song that features a choir of instruments -- including a cello!

A believer could listen to so much worse than this record that breathes new life into many of the psalms that we read over and over again. It's great for reminding believers of the passages themselves, as well as the implications of doctrine and comfort that come along with the words.

2. Kip Fox: Unheard, Vols. 1-4

Various release dates in 2015
1. You Set a Table (3:08)
2. God of the Living (4:03)
3. Open Wide (3:39)
4. The Sound of Grace (4:43)
5. The Bride (4:43)
6. Depth of the Riches (4:27)
7. Dwell (5:58)
8. Wide (3:54)
9. We Delight in You (3:53)
10. To Love (3:36)
11. Extra Mile (3:10)
12. Room in Your Heart (3:10)

Listen: Spotify: Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3

My favorite: "The Bride" (YouTube)

Review: I fully believe that Kip Fox is the best kept secret in Christian music. He's a Lutheran worship leader in Arizona and he writes amazing works of art. In fact, he is the best songwriter on this list.

Though these songs weren't released as a traditional album, they are still very much worth recognizing in a year-end review.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about Fox is his ability to communicate truths in a very straight-forward fashion while maintaining a unique creativity in his writing style. A great example of this is his song, "The Bride." Starting in the Garden of Eden, Fox uncovers God's grand design around the theme of brides and grooms. He, of course, connects this theme with Christ and the Church and does so with amazing symmetry in the differing choruses. This song is one of the most well-written pieces of Christian literature I've read in some time.

Songs like "Extra Mile" and "Room in Your Heart" are refreshingly honest, perhaps even reminiscent of Keith Green and his ability to strike at the heart of the Christian. The songs are convicting and applicable -- two very much needed traits in contemporary Christian music.   

Really the only thing that brought his score down was the lack of variation in the music. He's obviously primarily gifted with the guitar and that's what he plays in the vast majority of the songs. For "Dwell," Fox plays piano and in "Extra Mile" he's joined by bass guitarist, a drummer, and a female vocalist. But that's about all the diversity found in the mix of the songs.

Nearly all of Fox's songs are congregational. We sing multiple songs of his at Payson Bible Church and they are some of our congregation's favorites. The songs can always be counted on to be full of truth and poetic in nature. These four volumes are absolutely fantastic.   

1. Josh Garrels: Home

April 7
1. Born Again (4:31)
2. Colors (4:45)
3. A Long Way (4:55)
4. Leviathan (2:30)
5. The Arrow (5:11)
6. Heaven's Knife (3:22)
7. Morning Light (4:32)
8. Always Be (3:26)
9. Home At Last (2:51)
10. At the Table (4:49)
11. Benediction (4:09)

ListenSpotify, iTunes

My favorite: "At the Table" (YouTube)

Review: Josh Garrels is perhaps the most biblically creative Christian musician out there. His lyrics are so deep and can be mulled over for long periods of time. He's a true songwriter and is far too unrecognized in the Christian community.

So what's great about Home? gives their two cents here. Here's mine.

For starters, he made it available to download for free upon its release. It seems as though most of the best Christian musicians are doing that now and it's truly a confirmation of their motivations. Garrels makes his music not for profit, but for the good of others. For a project that takes that much work, it's an awesome act of grace.

Garrels' last album, Love & War and the Sea In Between, was Christianity Today's 2011 Album of the Year. Imaginably, this put tremendous pressure on him to follow up with something special. Home provided what was expected and more.

Although there's no rap or spoken word-style verses found on the album, Garrels showcases his vocal talent by hitting notes that most women can't touch and smoothly breathing out complex lyrics as though he were casually chatting with a friend. He makes it look so easy. According to the man himself, "I wanted this album to be less beat-influenced. If anything, soul music took the place of what traditionally has been a heavier hip-hop beat sound to my music."

The theme of Home is evident from the record's title: it's all about familial relationships, both earthly and heavenly -- and the connection between the two. Altogether, the songs come out as a story about God as the sovereign, holy Father who shows great mercy toward His children. 

Starting with the first track, "Born Again," Garrels explains the Christian's journey from sinner to saint and the struggle of the Christian life. "The Arrow" (linked above) is all about a man coming to the end of himself and seeing his need for a Savior. "Heaven's Knife" is a beautiful song that explains the man-woman relationship from a Genesis 2 perspective. "At the Table" (linked above), my favorite song on the record, outlines the nature of prodigal children in light God's perspective and will for man.

The brief explanations really don't do his creativity justice. This album is a must-listen for those interested in Christian music. Garrels can be a little abstract at times, but his biblically-rooted themes and words move the listener nearer to the truth. Home sets the bar very high.


Christmas Jams

Gospel Song Union: A Christmas Sing-A-Long

Listen: Noisetrade

Review: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. It's free to download. Before you read any more, download it! It's worth it! 

As mentioned above, this collection features all my favorite bands. They're the former Mars Hill Church bands. I'm glad to see that they're getting together and teaming up like this. They are truly talented artists and this Christmas album reflects that.

If you're familiar with these artists' individual Christmas records, you won't be surprised by much here. It's stuff they've released before, just re-released in one place.

Did I mention that it's free? Totally worth the download.

Grinstead: Grinstead for Christmas


Review: This album is a couple of years old, but it's good to draw attention to it.

This band is found earlier in the list and, as I said there, I found this group through Challies. They have a soothing sound and bring an interesting twist to each of the Christmas songs they perform on this record.

There are only three songs, which is a drawback, but these are songs you'll know about that your friends won't know about. Give them a listen and share them with others!

Jon and Valerie Guerra: It's Almost Christmas

ListenSpotifyYouTube, iTunes

Review: This husband-wife duo puts together a good harmony. The songs aren't the ones from the hymnal, but they're not evil. "Winter Wonderland," for instance, is a necessary Christmastime song.

There are eleven fun tracks on this album, and you can purchase and download via iTunes. Get the YouTube playlist going and let it play in the background as you relax Christmas Eve.

Paul Baloche: Christmas Worship, Vol. 2

ListenSpotify, iTunes

Review: It's Paul Baloche and Christmas, so you know it will be good.

This doesn't disappoint. It's fairly traditional, with an emphasis on collective praise. He takes our well-known Christian hymns and combines them with contemporary praise lyrics. If you're familiar with Christmas Worship, Vol. 1, you can imagine that this album is similar. 

Of all the Christmas albums I've shared here, this will be the most widely-appreciated and liked set of songs. Download it!


What to look for in 2016

First let me say that each of the artists I put in this section last year released new music. Perhaps it was dumb luck, but I was pleased to see it happen. Now I'm certainly no music insider, but I have a few things I'm looking forward to in 2016. Here they are.

Gospel Song Union: This is going to be good. As I mentioned above, BEC Recordings, who picked up many of the former Mars Hill Church bands, has put this compilation group together. The Gospel Song Union features Ghost Ship, Dustin Kensrue, Kings Kaleidoscope, The Sing Team (Where have they been?!), and others as contributors. I don't know what they have planned beyond the Christmas record they just released, but I will be sure to check up on them frequently via social media to discover what they have planned. 

Rivers & Robots: The artists who produced the best album of 2014 have raised money through KickStarter for another album, which they will (presumably) also release for free. This band from the UK is so talented and fun to listen to. I can't wait to hear what 2016 has in store.

Dustin Kensrue: Unfortunately, Kensrue's main focus next year will be on Thrice. Some people like their sound, but I'm not a fan. I'm looking for another Modern Post album or perhaps another solo record. (Keeping track of his bands is hard work.) The solo album he released this year was so not-what-I-look-for-in-music, though I did enjoy the songs he wrote about his wife. We'll see how Thrice's style has changed since their last album (released October 2012) and hope for the best.

Loud Harp: Loud Harp is my 2014 second-place finisher for album of the year and they are due for some new tunes. I'm hoping they follow up Asaph with an album that's just as powerful and peaceful in 2016.  

Page CXVI: This group hasn't released a record since April 2014. They have become quite popular for their unique take on album themes. After releasing a string of hymn covers on EPs, they then created seasonal advent records that emphasize the work of Christ. Unfortunately, they don't have any release dates scheduled for 2016, but I'd say it's time for them to come out with something fresh. You can find out more about them and their albums on their website.

Citizens & Saints: Last year, with the release of Join the Triumph, they proved that they can make great music without being a part of the Mars Hill network. It will be time for some new stuff in 2016, including some solo work from front man Zach Bolen.


One more thing... 
The Bible Project

I came across this recently and my mind was blown:

These are high-quality videos dedicated to teaching people the stories within the grand story of Scripture. Each video is very well done and it's hard to imagine how so much information can be put into short videos like this. Just like The Verses Project, which I spotlighted last year, The Bible Project takes donations and gives all of its media way for free. What a ministry and a blessing!

You have to the videos to really appreciate them.

Watch, download, and donate. It's a great cause. 


  1. Thank you for sharing your album reviews! Listening to Josh Garrels now and WOW!

    1. I'm glad I could connect you with him! There is rarely a Christian album of higher quality than either of his last two.

  2. Thank you for being willing to provide a helpful guide for us. I am always searching for music with rich content and beautiful style. Speaking of which, are you not a "The Gray Havens" fan? I have really appreciated their artistic style and sweet redemptive themes.

    1. You're welcome, Kyle -- it's my pleasure. The Gray Havens are good at what they do, but I tend to put them in a John Foreman-type category. That is, they are talented Christians who create nice songs, but the themes aren't as explicitly biblical as I would like.

      In short, to me they're Christians making creative music, not Christians focused on Scripture-saturated lyrics, and that puts them in a lower tier in my mind. When it comes to music, it's all subjective!

  3. Thank you for this awesome review of music! I found your blog through Tim Challies. I had never heard of Grinstead or Kip Fox and I really like their stuff - just bought their music! Thanks for taking the time to share your critique! Happy new year :)

    1. I'm glad I could help! Kip Fox is definitely worth supporting -- enjoy!

  4. Thank you for this compilation! Blessings for 2016!

  5. Thanks for the great reviews, I love all the ex MH stuff too. I'm based in Australia so I have some possibly suggestions that you may not have heard of. Unfortunately they recently stopped but check out the Garage Hymnal back catalogue. Also it might not be your thing as it has a bit of a Hillsong sound (the church these guys are from is literally 10 min from Hillsong) but check out City Alight, Jerusalem is a great song.

  6. Your blog has been my go-to place for discovering new music for a couple of years now. I'm going in reverse chronological order. Your posts are much appreciated! Many thanks!