Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017: A Christian Music Review

About the Judge

This is my fourth annual end-of-year Christian music recap. Check out my 2014 review2015 review, and 2016 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.

I will say from the outset that this has been the best year of Christian music since I started doing reviews -- hands down. The top ten albums are all wonderful and I can't wait for you to explore them. We live in a day and age when nearly anybody can write books and songs -- more people are producing content than ever before. In 2017, we reaped the rewards of this in the realm of music.

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 2017. To start, I listened to the album's title track and/or a song for which the band created a special video (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 further. Those were then examined in detail in order to generate a fair rating for what will henceforth be known as "The List."

Three ways (in order) an album made it onto The List:
  1. Exceptional lyrics + exceptional music.
  2. Exceptional lyrics + passable music.
  3. Exceptional music + good lyrics. 
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. References to fire were nearly an automatic disqualifier.
I hope you enjoy The List. Please share if you find it helpful. Let me know who I missed in the comments below! 
    If you're wondering why some of the big names of Christian music aren't on the list, there's a reason for it. Bring it up in the comments if you'd like, and I'll let you know why they weren't included.

    NOTE: I did not include any live albums or instrumentals this year.

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    25. Bethany Barnard: A Better Word


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Bethany Barnard (formerly Dillon) has released her first album with her new last name after creating several albums in the past. Her presentation of these songs is delicate and well-done. There's plenty of emotion in each track and they will stir the souls of many who listen.

    I couldn't get very excited about this album; however, it's saying something that she produced one of the twenty-five best Christian albums of the year. It's a good record. It's just not my favorite. If you're wondering what to expect -- to me she sounds a lot like Sheryl Crow.

    Kudos to her for continuing to pursue music while being a busy wife and mom!

    No artists or professionals want to lose their name recognition...and especially not their Google-ability! Yet, risking these losses is exactly what Bethany Barnard, formerly Dillon, has boldly chosen to do with A Better Word, her first album since 2009, as well as her first album since becoming a mother of three. The covenants throughout Scripture are the theme that ties this record together, along with how God's covenant with man through Christ is portrayed in the marriage between man and woman. This, then, makes Barnard's official name change especially fitting for her long-awaited return to music. -Jesusfreakhideout

    24. Alisa Turner: Alisa Turner


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Alisa Turner crowdfunded this debut six-track EP, the first musical work she has released in seven years. If you've not listened to her before, you'll be impressed with her vocal talent. She has a great range and the ability to get your attention.

    It's too bad that her voice is set to what sounds like it might be karaoke music. It really does counter the effectiveness of her voice. And because of that, it's hard to nail down the appropriate genre. The music says "pop" but her voice is much more dynamic than that.

    None of the lyrics really stood out to me, but she stays quite biblical and inspirational.

    For Turner, who has battled the debilitating effects of Lyme Disease since childhood, music has always been her connection point with God. This includes painful seasons after the unexpected death of her worship pastor dad, hospitalizations brought on by the ravages of her disease and losing her infant son only minutes after he was born. Through it all, Turner returned time and again to the piano, to music. "I think the Lord created me this way, drawn in by the emotion that comes with music," says Turner. "When I sit down at the piano, He always uses it to draw me back, to awaken the dreamer, and I always leave different than when I came. I leave different knowing He sees me, He is with me. He is my hope." -New Release Today

    23. Chris Sayburn: Saved by Grace


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Chris Sayburn is a guy who has a good voice and sings good songs. He's just trying too hard to be on the radio. (He may have succeeded in that effort. I don't listen to radio.)

    Saved by Grace is a fun album that is very upbeat. It won't strike you as very profound, though. You likely won't need more than one listen. Here's an excerpt:

    "Great is the Father / Great is the Son / Great is the Spirit / Great is the Three in One / Singing great is the Lord / Great in His mercy / Great in His love / Great in His power / Great in His fullness above / Singing great is the Lord," (from "Great Is the Lord"). At least he's trinitarian.

    These are nice songs that speak theological truth and were written by the local church for the local church. There were no real “wow” moments for me with this album either lyrically or instrumentally, and a few song arrangements were a bit dry, but still there are some great songs here for your congregation. -Worship Musician

    22. Southville: Freedom's Tree


    Listen: Facebook // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: This was my first time listening to Southville and I found plenty to like about them. They are unique enough to make it on my list because of their original lyrics and high-quality sound.

    Unfortunately, I also found plenty to dislike about them. Their arrangements and approach to the songs sound like they are trying to imitate Hillsong. And no one should try to imitate Hillsong.

    I'd love to see Southville go deeper with their lyrics and find their own approach to music as they produce more music in the future. I disagree with the review below but I found it amusing.

    For me there is an overall soulful and 'cool' feel to this album, I can't really put my finger on it. So grab yourself an independent coffee and vegan cupcake and put this album on (the vinyl version of course). Send a tweet with the hashtag #FreedomTree and tell your friends this is the greatest album ever. -Louder Than The Music

    21. Jeremy Camp: The Answer


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: I like to think that if my last name were Camp, I would have retired from Contemporary Christian Music by now. Not that my music would be bad or anything, but it would probably just be so monotonous and uninspired at this point that no one would even really be excited that I was still making albums. Heck, they probably wouldn't even be aware of my new releases.

    This hypothetical situation has "nothing" to do with the actual Jeremy Camp, of course.

    Except it does. Bless his heart.

    Despite the drawback of predictable musical structures and commonplace lyrics, The Answer is a welcomed addition to the Camp discography. This is especially true in 2017 since solid pop albums in CCM have been scarce (MercyMe and Landry Cantrell are exceptional ones that come to mind). In all likelihood, The Answer won't woo back fans who fell in love with his early rock sound, but as a pop album, it has a lot of good qualities. If you are fan of Jeremy Camp, you will want to pick this one up. -Jesusfreakhideout

    20. Carrollton: Everything or Nothing


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Carrollton sounds a lot like what you've already heard. I realize that there are more encouraging ways to express that sentiment, but that's the cutting-to-the-chase truth.

    I haven't listened to much of what this band has produced in the past. Their lyrics seem to be decent (7.5 out of 10), but they are, along with the music, very similar to what's already on the radio.

    The mainstream rock band certainly has talent. I hope they use it to be more creative in their future endeavors.

    There’s every reason to believe that Carrollton will break through in a big way with their latest release, Everything Or Nothing (buy). Even Bart Millard himself might be jealous of the infectious hooks from beginning to end, but it’s the powerful messages conveyed within the tight harmonies that keep your attention after grabbing it with these propulsive tracks. “Shelter” is the obvious single for good reason, but don’t miss heartfelt tracks like “Leaning In,” as well. -CCM Magazine

    19. The Welcome Wagon: Light up the Stairs


    Listen: Facebook // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Seattle-based indie rock band, The Welcome Wagon, rolls onto the list with their first album in partnership with Gospel Song Records. The music is definitely fun, but the lyrics are lacking.

    Their opening track is all you could hope for -- Galatians 2:20 set to music. But as the album goes on, they stray here and there, sometimes being very scriptural, and at other times wandering around in left field.

    If you enjoy one-of-a-kind sounding music (with horns), this record is for you (and for me).

    Ultimately, Light Up the Stairs is a strong album that blends a mix of genres, instrumental arrangements, tempos, and vocal styles. It’s certainly not an album for everyone – the rock-based songs do have a more classic rock feeling to them, many of the songs are slower, and there’s the noticeable Sufjan Stevens comparisons. However, for those who enjoy these aspects, or who would be willing to overlook one or two of them, Light Up the Stairs is truly an ambitious album that defies the expectations of singer-songwriter, folk, and husband-wife duo releases. Some songs feel criminally short due to their dynamics, but this certainly isn’t an album that was written in pursuit of mass appeal. It is genuine, worshipful, and artistic. It is an endeavor in creativity and love. -indievisionmusic

    18. Iron Bell Music: God That Saves


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: This group is much like Housefires and the other bands that have emerged with “worship night” albums. They get together for an evening of praise music and record it for a multi-track record.

    Now that I’ve mentioned Housefires I should also note that they released an album this year, and because I’m not including live albums, I didn’t include them on this list. Iron Bell Music is adapting some of their music for radio so I included them. The songs obviously translate to congregational settings easily, as that was their original intent. The lyrics are slightly above average and the music is basically what you’ll hear in every American megachurch.

    There’s a story behind the music that you can check out here.

    Iron Bell Music is the fruition of worship nights held year-round for the community of Louisville at an area barn. Performing well-known worship songs along with their own originals throughout each evening gathering, the worship nights exist so that people can come as they are and encounter the presence of God. God That Saves was recorded live at the barn during one of those nights of worship. -New Release Today

    17. Out of the Dust: Out of the Dust


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: I'm excited to (probably) introduce you to Out of the Dust. There's excitement not just for their music -- but for the story behind the music.

    This husband and wife duo were married in college, but when Chris's secret life of sin exposed itself, their marriage fell apart. The young adults divorced and Chris walked away from God. However, "in just over a year, God mended their hearts, restored their marriage, and still continues to breathe new life into their story today." Read more here.

    The album is quite good -- featuring very original tracks. The couple harmonizes well and this work certainly deserves to be called one of the best Christian albums of 2017.

    Themes of wandering and questioning are balanced with tones of reconciliation across folksy-indie pop instrumentation, tight-knit harmonies and rousing choruses. Throughout all eleven tracks, the couple’s creative and personal chemistry is consistently apparent, while listeners of any relationship status can likely connect with their honesty and emotional delivery. -CCM Magazine

    16. Matt Redman: Glory Song


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: One of the biggest names in CCM, Matt Redman has released what appears to be his first non-live, non-holiday album since 2010. I might be wrong about that, but that's what my research is telling me.

    This album doesn't particularly excite me because it's very much K-Love, unadventurous, what-everyone-else-is-already-doing style. But I suppose that's what we should expect from Matt Redman. All that said, the lyrics of this album are good and it is, of course, very well produced.

    Perhaps in time I will acquire the same feeling as the reviewer below.

    After my first listen of this album, I dismissed it as an average praise collection. But with subsequent listens, I began to appreciate some of Matt Redman's depth and often felt like listening again immediately after the last note faded out. Glory Song doesn't break new ground or contain the next great praise classic, like "The Heart of Worship," but it is a refreshing album. If you feel burnt out with the plethora of praise bands and songs pumped out monthly, sit down with Matt Redman for a couple spins and let him take you on a genuine journey of faith that will renew your "glory song" to God. -Jesusfreakhideout

    15. The Brilliance: All Is Not Lost


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Releasing their first album in three years, The Brilliance comes back with a set of tracks that attempts to help the listener get a bigger view of the world around him.

    The band is made up of David Gungor (brother of the more famous Gungor) and John Arndt, who make really good music together. It's a higher-quality mainstream vibe that reminds me of some of the music The City Harmonic would put out.

    "We're looking forward to sharing these new songs because we are in a season when, no matter what our political opinions or cultural biases, we all need to be reminded that 'All Is Not Lost,'" Gungor said.

    Though not perfect, All is Not Lost is more nuanced for a larger audience. Worship leaders who want to expand their repertoire may even find a few offerings here ("Gravity of Love" and "Holy Holy") suitable for congregational worship. And for those who are tired of the same-old worship clicks, they will treasure the Brilliance for their creativity, their ingenuity, and their Biblically informed words. -Hallels

    14. Stu Garrard: Beatitudes


    10/10 QUANTITY

    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Beatitudes by UK native Stu Garrard is a display of massive collaboration with the biggest names in Contemporary Christian Music. From Michael W. Smith to Propaganda, from Amy Grant to Audrey Assad, from John Mark McMillan to All Sons & Daughters, Garrard put another artist on display in every song of the twenty-track album. 

    This work isn’t just musical, either; there’s a book and documentary film to go along with it. View the trailer here

    All in all, this ecumenical record is good, as it presents several great songs around a central theme. However, the effort falls short by not extracting more from the biblical record itself in its presentation of the beatitudes. 

    Fun facts: Garrard regularly plays alongside Michael W. Smith and is a member of the band One Sonic Society. He was also a member of the band Delirious? in the 90s – the band that wrote the song, “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever."

    Garrard and all who joined him on the Beatitudes Project accomplished what they set out to do, call us to rethink how we interact with the world around us. This is a solid album of incredible talent, and it does not disappoint. It’s a slow build at first, but it is well worth staying with it and finishing. Some songs are forgettable, others are soul shaking. I think it will be different for every listener which ones fall into either category. But one cannot listen to this album and not ask themselves, am I listening, really listening? -Faith Filled Family

    13. Ellie Holcomb: Red Sea Road


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Ellie Holcomb has released her third full length album with Red Sea Road, her first since 2014. In the past couple of years she has popped up left-and-right as an artist who is featured on other albums -- a sign of true popularity in the Christian alternative world.

    This record comes across much more pop-sounding than I thought it would, based on the circles I've observed that Holcomb runs in. Red Sea has decent lyrics (7.5 out of 10) and nicely produced music. But it's not an album that will change your life.

    This is a Spirit-filled and emotional listening experience filled with profound lyrical truth. All thirteen songs are catchy, worshipful and biblically inspired. Ellie expresses her prayers to God, allowing listeners to eavesdrop on her vertical offerings and captivating ballads, one of Ellie's strengths. Ellie is an anointed songwriter, and she has a profound way of bringing me closer to God with her poignant words, tender singing and inspirational truths. I get welled up singing along with several of the emotion-laden songs… -New Release Today

    12. Page CXVI: Hymns Re-Hymns Reimagined


    10/10 LYRICS

    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Page CXVI went too long without producing new content. Unfortunately, Re-Hymns isn't a full-on return. However, the album does provide fans with a taste of what CXVI is capable of, as it puts their own special twist on several widely-known hymns.

    The main reason why this album was held back (besides the number of tracks) is that people interpret hymn arrangements differently. It's a popular thing these days to twist old hymns around to make them your own. But not everybody likes that. They took some risks with their approach and every listener will hear it differently.

    In general, the best comparison I could make is that Re-Hymns sounds like what you would get from a Derek Webb album: electronic-tinged indie music with clean, yet still slightly raw production. It's certainly a highlight among worship albums so far this year, and will likely be one of the best by year's end. Highlights include the upbeat "In the Sweet By and By," "Holy Holy Holy," and the melodic "Rock of Ages." My only complaint is that the vocals have a few dry spots, most noticeably in "Joy," but it's a minor complaint, as it's not common. Re-Hymns is a half-hour's worth of music that you should listen to. -Jesusfreakhideout

    11. Matt and Toby: I Quit Church


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Well this is an interesting album title, isn't it?

    They get the title from their first track with the same name. It's an interesting song. View the lyrics here. I'm a little unsure what to make of it. The rest of the album, though, is quite good.

    Formerly members of the band Emery, Matt and Toby bring great lyrics to the listener and a unique sound that makes the experience fun. There are songs you'll recognize like "All Creatures of Our God and King" (in an arrangement you've certainly never heard before) as well as "Christ Is Risen," a song written by Joe Day and performed by all the old Mars Hill guys (Ghost Ship, Kensrue, etc.).

    One original that will stop you in your tracks, though, is "Pastor Stopped By." I'm not sure what I think about that one, either.

    It's a genuinely unique and good album.

    For a couple of seasoned veterans in the Christian music scene, Matt & Toby end up accomplishing a lot with I Quit Church. They make the verse-chorus-verse-chorus nature of hymns feel unique each time by adding an unexpected element to every song. Simultaneously, they capture the melancholic weight that these historic words deserve with synonymous instrumentation. Maybe most importantly, they have created a work of art for those that have become frustrated with the Church to deeply connect with. By airing out deserved lamentation and mixing it with lyrics of tradition, they've given musical hope to those of us who can admit that "this world is much harder than we thought." -Jesusfreakhideout

    10. Shai Linne: Still Jesus

    10/10 LYRICS

    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: It's been a few years since we've seen a new release from Shai Linne, and like others on the list on whom we've been waiting, he proved it was worth the wait. He even referenced the wait in the song "Turn It Off": "I know it's been awhile since I've been makin' songs / Some people even say, 'Shai, yo, why you take so long?' / Sorry if you felt abandoned or hurt / But music took a back seat because we planted a church."

    There is a clear main idea of the record: to Shai Linne, Christian Hip-Hop (CHH) isn't what it used to be. It's no longer gospel-saturated.

    All in all, it’s everything you want from Christian rap. When you compare the lyrics of this album with the latest from Propaganda and Lecrae, it’s easy to see what Linne is talking about when he critiques CHH (see "Ichabod"). He does take a shot at President Trump (I don’t remember CHH artists speaking against President Obama), but the lyrics are very theologically-centered. Paul Washer is featured a couple of times, including a five-minute sermon excerpt on the last track. 

    In his first album in three years, Shai Linne brings a great CHH album to the Christian community. Rap isn’t the most palatable style of music and there’s little to no congregational possibility – these factors held down the overall score.

    Still Jesus is a good record. Your personal preference on style of music will determine how much you like this record, and how much playback value it has. Songs like “Random Thoughts 3” and “Startling Mystery” have tons of playback value, but the rest of the record is really up to personal preference. If you are a long time fan of Shai Linne, then this record is a return to some of the things you loved most about his music, and in turn, you’ll love this record. If you are new to his music, it may not be a record that you return to over and over again. -Wade-O Radio

    9. Sara Groves: Abide with Me


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: With her thirteenth studio album, Sara Groves delivers a great collection of "lost" hymns. Abide with Me features little-known songs such as "O My Redeemer, What a Friend Thou Art to Me" by Fanny Crosby and "There Is a Light upon the Mountains" by Henry Burton.

    There's a bit of a country music vibe to her style, but you'll likely hear it as a coffeehouse-style, soft rendition of Christian doctrine. I didn't grow up with Sara Groves's music like many Christians did, so I can't compare it with any memories I have. But this I know: What I hear now, I like!

    Again, it's hard to compare Abide With Me to the rest of Groves' discography because we'd be comparing an album where she wrote close to none of the lyrics to the work of one of Christian music's finest lyricists. Thankfully, this album is also a completely different project than anything she's done before, a worshipful and encouraging accomplishment that all of her fans will want to pick up while we await a proper follow-up to Floodplain (which, for the record, has become one of my favorite albums of all time). Here's to another twenty years! -Jesusfreakhideout

    8. Young Oceans: Suddenly


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: Making their way onto The List for the second straight year, Young Oceans is back with a full album of new tracks. This is one of those albums that if it was completely up to me and my gut instinct, I would expedite them to the top five. But alas, this is not how it works.

    To give you a description you may or may not get, Young Oceans' sound is kind of like Coldplay meets Savage Garden. Maybe that wasn't a helpful (or accurate) parallel. See, that's what happens when I follow my gut instinct.

    The album itself is actually quite somber when you listen to the words of each track. Therein lies a problem, though, as it can be difficult at times to actually hear what they are saying. I had to look up the lyrics (which are all very good) on multiple occasions. Overall, I highly recommend.

    While each album they've released has contained the same meditative feel and sound, it's impressive the way Young Oceans has continued to mature even in their music. The sincerity in the vocal talents of the lead singer is deeply felt with each lyric sung. The penning of the writer, Eric Marshall, is thoughtful and contemplative towards the inner workings of one's own life, our surroundings, and the character of God. Though simple at times, it is with those thoughts in mind that set apart Young Oceans from the mediocre mainstream. -CM Addict

    7. Beautiful Eulogy: Worthy


    10/10 QUALITY

    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: You may be a little upset to see this album already. Hey, I'm a little upset myself. But we're both at the mercy of the rating system. It's not inspired, but it's authoritative.

    Beautiful Eulogy does great work and Worthy is their greatest work to-date. Here's why it's in seventh place: Not everyone enjoys this genre of music and it's difficult to join in with them throughout the album. The way they present their music is expert-level difficult. It's wonderful to receive. It's impossible to replicate. In the Christian world, that causes it to drop a few spots.

    All of that said, please note that if you're into spoken word/hip-hop, this is the best album of the year for you. If you're able to listen through multiple times to take in the full impact of what they're teaching, you'll be uber edified.

    Beautiful Eulogy has never shied away from an overtly Christian message. Each of their records all have this in common. On Worthy they were up to keep it fresh and find new ways to touch listeners with the same message. I personally was convicted and inspired with this record. It changed me and continues to do so every time I revisit it. There was never a time with this record that I didn’t feel like God was being praised. The message to this record is just as beautiful as the music. -Wade-O Radio

    6. Loud Harp: Hope Where There Was None


    Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

    Review: I anticipated this release as much as any other on this list. Loud Harp is one of my favorite bands, and the music on this album may be my favorite of all on the list.

    Loud Harp's style is pretty abstract and philosophical. They take their songs slow and infuse drama into each track. Not everyone will enjoy them as much as I do. 

    These tracks would actually translate to congregational settings better than some of their older works (a surprise) and that helps their overall score. At the end of the day, though, the record falls short of what could be called objectively extraordinary, but this album is most definitely worth a purchase. You’re supporting a good and godly effort.

    Hope Where There Was None is a much needed antidote to our culture’s prevailing advice to turn inward and trust in yourself during times of trouble. The message of Loud Harp’s new album rejects this notion, turning instead to God, His Word, and His faithful presence for sustenance during the trials of life. I would say that this album is especially needed for those in hurt. -Eternity Bible College Student Blog

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    5. David Baloche: Labyrinth


    10/10 LYRICS

    Track Listing:
    1. He Hears My Voice (4:33)
    2. Nothing Can Separate (3:17)
    3. Come to Me (3:03)
    4. Green Pastures (4:36)
    5. Those Who Hope (3:39)
    6. Lead Me to the Rock (2:47)
    7. Groanings Too Deep for Words (3:32)
    8. As a Father Carries His Son (4:17)
    9. The Peace of God (3:09)
    10. My Help Comes from the Lord (4:22)

    Review: The young man who would probably like to be known as David Baloche rather than “Paul Baloche’s son” has released his first full-length album, which is apparently the first volume in a series

    David is a high school teacher, lives in New York City, and describes himself as a “21st century psalmist.” His style of music is certainly more contemplative and designed to inspire meditation. The lyrics of the songs are very biblical, often being drawn directly from the pages of Scripture. Romans 8, Matthew 11, Psalms 23 and 61, and others are all highlighted. 

    Even though I didn't really have any idea what I should expect, I was delightfully surprised. The genre of music is definitely my style, but I think it's the more agreeable version of indie. There's no way you will dislike it.

    Labyrinth is a soundscape for use during times of personal and corporate prayer and meditation with Scripture sung by David Baloche, who also plays piano, acoustic guitar, clarinet, trumpet and virtually all of the instrumentation on the album. -New Release Today (link features what several "big name" artists said about the album)


    4. The Sing Team: Sing On!


    10/10 QUALITY

    Track Listing:
    1. To God All Praise and Glory (4:27)
    2. Just As I Am (4:20)
    3. Love Lifted Me (3:47)
    4. Be Still My Soul (Instrumental) (1:07)
    5. What Wondrous Love Is This? (3:17)
    6. Amazing Grace (I've Got a Reason to Sing) (4:24)
    7. All Creatures of Our God and King (5:07)
    8. What a Friend We Have in Jesus (4:18)
    9. In Tenderness (5:09)

    Review: The Sing Team is the only band on this list that classifies as "groovy." The group finally came back with their unmistakable sound, after years of silence. When they announced that they were releasing a new album this year, I instantly tagged my wife on the Facebook post on their page. 

    It turns out that it was worth the hype. 

    Taking the listener through a series of covers, you’ll hear some songs here that you won’t hear on any other albums. The band covers Steve Green’s “To God All Praise and Glory” and old hymns such as “Love Lifted Me” and “What Wondrous Love Is This?” They even throw in an instrumental of “Be Still My Soul.” Not all of the arrangements are new, however, as they re-recorded a couple of songs from previous albums. All in all, it’s a fantastic set of tracks that you’ll listen to over and over again.

    It's a hard album to beat, even with only nine tracks.

    The Sing Team were once labeled as a worship band that had "influences from Motown to The Muppets." While that may have deterred some listeners from giving this group a solid listen, for this reviewer, it only created absolute intrigue. Their relative quirkiness and sincere sense of community translates beautifully into music - capturing both playful joy and deep conviction. If you're looking for a soundtrack for Fall or better yet, a reminder of the gospel set to music, look no further. I look forward to continuing to sing on with such a wonderful band of friends. Well done, Team. -Jesusfreakhideout


    3. Fernando Ortega: The Crucifixion of Jesus


    Track Listing:
    1. Blessed Be Our God (3:41)
    2. Reading: Say to the Daughter of Zion (0:13)
    3. Prepare the Way, O Zion (4:37)
    4. Reading: Money Changers (0:35)
    5. House of Prayer (1:46)
    6. Reading: Last Supper (1:33)
    7. In My Father's Kingdom (4:19)
    8. Reading: Peter's Denial (1:04)
    9. Stay with Me Here (4:21)
    10. Your Will Be Done (1:36)
    11. O Great Love, O Love Beyond All Measure (2:11)
    12. Reading: Excerpt from Holy Living (3:20)
    13. Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended? (4:55)
    14. My Song Is Love Unknown (5:37)
    15. Reading: Crucifixion (1:44)
    16. Psalm 22 (1:15)
    17. Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted (5:35)

    Review: An album that starts out very grave and ominous, Crucifixion is a somber meditation concerning Jesus' death. It plays as a Good Friday service at a church, as there are several readings throughout. This works well, though, as it seems very fitting for the readings to be there. This is a great record for the purpose of personal worship -- the best one on the list.

    A number of years ago, Fernando Ortega converted to Anglicanism from mainline Evangelicalism. Music was certainly part of the driving force behind that decision (see the entry, "Come Down, O Love Divine" here). That conversion reveals itself in the album, as it has a high church vibe. There is also a reading from Holy Living, a book by 17th century Anglican Jeremy Taylor. No matter your feelings toward the Church of England, you'll find much joy in these tracks.

    Much of what is heard comes from Scripture, which obviously makes the listen very edifying. Additionally, you'll hear various orchestra instruments in and out as you make your way through the songs. Give it a thorough listen and consider employing it as a resource come Holy Week.

    Side note: I wish he would have chosen a different album cover. He was crucified, but He is risen!

    Ortega offers narratives drawn from Scripture and liturgy. The readings, selected and edited by his pastor, Gary Villa, carry the listener from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha. "Every aspect of our lives should be measured out by the narrative of Christ's life," Ortega adds. "Year after year, through the journey of this Holy season, Christ's ministry starts again and again." -New Release Today 

    Most Christian radio won’t give airplay to artists like Fernando Ortega, Andrew Peterson, or Keith and Kristyn Getty. Quiet songs that demand attention and encourage reflection don’t fit the Top 40 Radio format. Fortunately for us, some of the best artistic work among Christians today is on the contemplative side of the Christian life. The Crucifixion of Jesus shows Fernando Ortega continuing to deliver truth unvarnished, with simple and stunning beauty. -The Gospel Coalition


    2. The Porter's Gate: Work Songs


    Track Listing:
    1. Little Things with Great Love (feat. Madison Cunningham) (5:07)
    2. Have Mercy on Me (feat. David Gungor) (5:05)
    3. Wood and Nails (feat. Audrey Assad and Josh Garrels) (5:17)
    4. Establish the Work of Our Hands (feat. Aaron Keys and Urban Doxology) (4:22)
    5. Christ Has No Body Now But Yours (feat. Josh Garrels) (4:08)
    6. Day by Day (feat. Joy Ike) (3:13)
    7. God the Maker (feat. Latifah Alattas and Liz Vice) (3:59)
    8. In the Fields of the Lord (feat. Audrey Assad and Paul Zach) (3:18)
    9. Every Mother Every Father (feat. Audrey Assad) (2:22)
    10. We Abide in You (feat. Paul Zach) (3:35)
    11. Father Let Your Kingdom Come (feat. Urban Doxology and Friends) (4:40)
    12. We Labor Unto Glory (feat. Liz Vice) (3:21)
    13. Your Labor Is Not in Vain (feat. Paul Zach) (4:04)

    Review: I had no idea that this album was coming, and yet here it is at #2. This seems to be how these things work.

    On the one hand, The Porter's Gate offers listeners fantastically unique and high-quality Christian music that penetrates deep truths. A full record about how our work and the gospel tie together? They did that!

    On the other hand, this album presents some ecumenical difficulties. The collaboration here is one of Evangelicals and Catholics. And that's not good. The song "Christ Has No Body Now But Yours" reflects part of this challenge, as the song is attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila in the history books. The title is a poor choice of words, as one can imagine that a Catholic mystic of antiquity might argue for a spiritual (as opposed to physical) resurrection. Understanding that the intent behind this recording of the song was not for heresy, though, helps to digest the less-than-great wording.

    Audrey Assad, one of the Catholics in on the project, was in my top five last year -- and for good reason. Her voice is lovely and her songs are very enjoyable. Her religious affiliation doesn't keep me from doing my best to judge her praise songs objectively. And that was my goal with this record.

    Work Songs is a collection of fantastic praises to the ultimate Worker, the One who made workers in His image to bring glory back to Himself. "Wood and Nails" (see below) earns Song of the Year because it's absolutely beautiful in more ways than one. Enjoy!

    I could easily point to the subtle nuances that make this album exceptional: the swelling utilization of strings, the elegant duets, the tasteful chromaticism within many of the chord progressions. But what makes Work Songs truly great is not necessarily in the details, but in the grand movement that it seems bent on inspiring. Its ecumenical nature fosters Christian unity and avoids theological disagreeance. It is empowering and transformative. Most of all, The Porter's Gate have accomplished what most worship albums have failed to do, for Work Songs is a project that moves us to go and do. If we are called to judge a tree by its fruit, then I have a feeling that the labor put into this one will bear something truly sweet in due time. -Jesusfreakhideout


    1. Emerald Hymns: Songs, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

    Website // Spotify // iTunes

    10/10 LYRICS

    Track Listing:
    1. Come Messiah, Come (4:38)
    2. Be My Treasure (3:57)
    3. Have Mercy (2:13)
    4. Cleanse Us Lord (1:40)
    5. Gloria! (2:47)
    6. Be Exalted (2:23)
    7. O Lord, You Are My Light (1:40)
    8. On Jordan's Bank (3:00)
    9. Comfort, Comfort (4:11)
    10. Lamb of God (4:12)
    11. Let Your Kingdom Come (4:53)
    12. Teach Me, O Lord (3:05)

    Review: Seattle-based Emerald Hymns is the best band you've never heard of. Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs is the first full-length album by the group, and it may very well go down as their magnum opus. I don't want to overstate it, but it is truly that good.

    Each one of the tracks on this record is a work of art, and all of them are original to boot. Rightly so, Emerald Hymns has achieved the best score of the year. There are two reviews out on this album and both of them disagree with my rating. That's okay. They can be wrong.

    At times, they sound like a rock band, and at other times they have a slow, even drab vibe. These dynamics help the album, as I'm sure they didn't have access to as many resources as the bigger name bands and labels out there. They showed what their raw talent can do on this record.

    This album was crowdfunded and recorded on a shoestring budget, which is a truly remarkable achievement! But unfortunately, the production is its weakest point. It's not necessarily bad production, but it does lack punch and presence, and leaves the album feeling a little weak and lacking energy. The lyrics are not always poetically beautiful, and in places they're quite clunky and a little hard to sing. But they are the (appropriated) words of Scripture. In that respect, they point us to the beauty of God's mercy, and that's a wonderful and valuable thing for songs we sing in church together. The prayers of the Bible are put to song, and John the Baptist features heavily, encouraging us to look to Christ. These are edifying lyrics. -reel-gospel


    That's a wrap for 2017. See you next year!

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    1. Thanks for putting this together! I know it's a monumental achievement to compile and sift through all of this music. I really appreciate your thoughtful and methodical approach to reviewing these albums. I've discovered a number of bands through your reviews that I truly love and have been blessed by. Thanks again!

      1. Great to hear, Kurt. It's my pleasure! Thank you for the encouragement.

    2. Thank you for a comprehensive, analytical review. You’ve broadened my musical horizons. Much appreciated!

    3. Glad that Young Oceans caught your ear, I’ve enjoyed nearly everything they’ve released. John Mark McMillan’s Mercury & Lightning was my top album of the year and Army if Bones was another...curious to your thoughts on those. Great list, thanks for doing it!

      1. Hi Josh - JMM is obviously very talented, but because of the standard I've set for lyrics (and how much they're weighted), he didn't quite make the cut this year. I enjoy his music a lot, though.

        I hadn't heard of Army of Bones before. Just listened to their latest release. Thanks for letting me know about them!

    4. I know it was a live CD, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on the Sovereign Grace album "Prayers of the Saints".

      1. Everything Sovereign Grace does is great! That one is no exception.

    5. Found this list thanks to Mr. Challies! So many artists I have never heard of and I am SO excited to dig in.
      One of my favorite albums of the year (& probably now an all-time fave) is Cece Winans' Let Them Fall in Love. Never listened to any of her albums in entirety until then.

      God bless you and Happy New Year!

      1. Thanks for letting me know about CeCe! I look forward to getting to know her work more. Glad I could help you, too!

    6. Hey man, a lot to like here and I appreciate you compiling this. One thought, and please know I mean this to be helpful and not nit-picking:

      "Rap isn’t the most palatable style of music and there’s little to no congregational possibility"

      This feels pretty ethnocentric to me. I'm not sure what your intent with the word "palatable' is, but to be honest it reads as a very white POV. And the congregational possibilities probably vary for similar reasons.

      1. Hi Joshua -- I like rap/hip-hop. My wife doesn't. Whether someone likes that genre doesn't have anything to do with skin pigment, though culture can certainly play into it.

        My personal observation is that style of music is popular with Millennials and younger, but not with Gen X and older. It's a preference and rap/hip-hop tends to be polarizing. Perhaps some people dislike it for sinful reasons, but the love-it-or-hate-it observation still applies.

        Reminder about what I mean by congregational: "Reproducible by amateurs. Easy to sing along." No church is going to to have the congregation sing any of those Shai Linne tracks all together. :)

      2. I suppose I'm saying most of what you said only applies within a certain demographic. Or to put it another way, you're probably not going to hear a lot of Hillsong United at a black gospel church.

        I'm certainly not criticizing your intent, just more saying that your description read as applying fundamentally to white evangelical Christians.

        Take this for whatever it's worth. And thanks for the article. Appreciate the time you put into it.

    7. Jeremy,

      I haven't had a chance to listen to the list yet, but I'm curious about your answer to the question you brought up, see below:

      "If you're wondering why some of the big names of Christian music aren't on the list, there's a reason for it. Bring it up in the comments if you'd like, and I'll let you know why they weren't included."

      Fairly certain I know, and whole-heartedly agree. But would love to know your answer!


      1. Rob - It really just depends on who the artist is. For example, many K-Love artists are just too watered down to come close to making the list. See this as a reference: ...It's just so awful to me that I can't imagine anyone being sanctified through it.

        CHH has become so focused on social "justice" that they've lost a ton of credibility. (see Shai Linne above)

        Big bands that focus on writing "praise and worship" songs that can be replicated in churches around the globe (Hillsong, Jesus Culture, Bethel etc.) are so tainted by bad theology. The words are as shallow as typical K-Love songs, but the music is often better.

        If you're thinking of specific artists, it might be more helpful for you to mention them so I'm not painting in broad strokes.

    8. Also, I compiled all of the albums included into a Spotify playlist if anyone is interested:

    9. Brother, I thank you for putting this list together! I'm always on the hunt for good, valuable, theologically rich, Christ-centered and Christ-driven music, that is musically diverse and exhibits creative musicianship beyond the radio "hits." So thank you and keep up the good work! Great stuff.

      1. You're welcome, Nate. Thank you for the kind words!

    10. It is amazingly decent to see the best subtle elements introduced in a simple and understanding way. Thanks a lot for such a informative post.