Wednesday, December 19, 2018

2018: A Christian Music Review



Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.
Martin Luther


Introduction

This is my fifth annual end-of-year Christian music recap. Check out my other reviews: 201420152016, and 2017.

I have a detailed system for rating these albums. You can read all about that here.

The Christian music of 2018 was not as good as 2017 overall. However, I'm sure you'll be introduced to many good musicians for the first time. My prayer is that the list will serve you well and that you will, in turn, bless the thoughtful Christian artists by monetarily supporting their work.

What you'll find below: First, I've incorporated some instrumentals and live congregational albums for your consideration. Those subgenres deserve to be mentioned, but it's not fair to anyone for me to group them in with standard studio albums. So I've not rated or ranked them, but I've chosen some of what I considered to be the best so that you can be aware of them.

After that, there's a list of the top 26 Christian albums of 2018. There would have been a nice, round 25 albums, but I found one of them late in the game and didn't want to delete anyone else. I know there are other artists who fly under my radar each year. Let me know who I missed in the comments!

Then, as an added bonus, there are three fresh Christmas albums at the end to wrap things up. Consider them stocking stuffers.

INSTRUMENTALS


Future of Forestry: Union


Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Union is an album full of original instrumental music that is perfect for playing in the background and regulating a low heart rate while working on various tasks. There are plenty of traditional, classical music sounds incorporated into the album (many stringed instruments, etc.), for those who are into that sort of thing.

There is nothing distinctively Christian about the music. For example, there are no instrumental versions of hymns that the listener would easily recognize. The songs play like dramatic scores, something that the band is known for.

If you're looking for a peaceful and well-done original instrumental set -- this is for you!


Salt of the Sound: Beyond Here


Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Perhaps it's cheating a little bit to include this album under instrumentals. After all, the tracks aren't voiceless. However, the sound of Anita Tatlow, wife of bandmate Ben Tatlow, is not the focus of the music. The vocals seem to accompany the music as opposed to the other way around.

The couple says this about their music: "Our aim is to create music that encourages spiritual reflection, both in church environments, and in times of personal quiet." Mission accomplished.

If you're looking for a new sound that sets the stage for meditation on old truths -- this is for you!



LIVE CONGREGATIONAL


CityAlight: Yet Not I


Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: In a Christian world with far too many live congregational albums seeking to give people the best kind of experience/encounter with God, CityAlight once again breaks through with the deepest and most beautiful truths. Unfortunately, in the mainstream, they won't likely be trending; however, this is album is the cream of the crop among a myriad of catchy but shallow "worship" albums.

Although there are only six songs on the record, the listener has the opportunity to hear more fast-paced modern music as well as slower, more traditional-sounding original hymns. The track from which the album gets its title, "Yet Not I but through Christ in Me" is a wonderful song that churches would do well to consider adding to their song books.

Buy this album!


EQ Worship: Push Out the Dark


Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: This Calvary Chapel band from southeastern Washington state has put together a great seven-song album that features their version of three classic hymns. Considering how the live praise genre has evolved in recent years, EQ Worship's sound may well be classified as vintage. There's a steady stream of banjo, but the group avoids sounding like a bluegrass family band or a store-brand Avett Brothers. Their unique approach is good.

Though each of the songs on the record is described as being live, not all of them feature melodies that are easy to pick up. In fact, in their version of "Oh, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," it's so difficult to hear others' voices at times that you may forget it's a live album. Regardless, Push Out the Dark is a fun surprise.


Together for the Gospel IV



Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: The fourth release of live singing from the Together for the Gospel conference is more of the same great music that listeners have come to expect from this series. A mix of biblically-rich hymns, classic and modern, soaked in reverence, lead the listener into a worshipful time of listening and inevitable singing along.

Out of the three live albums listed here, this one certainly feels the most "live," as the congregation's voice is the most prominent. Since the songs are primarily hymns, the mixing seems very appropriate. You'll feel as though you're in a large church as you are undoubtedly blessed by listening to these great worship songs. Fifteen songs in total, you'll be coming back to this one again and again to enjoy this very well done album.



Note: There are many, many live congregational albums out there. However, I am unable, in good conscience, to add another to the list. Between the self-centeredness, emotionalistic revivalism, bad doctrine, and more-than-sketchy associations, I'm unable to recommend any other records. I look forward to one of you letting me know about other good live albums that I've missed this year -- I truly hope there are some!



THE LIST


26. Mosaic MSC: Heaven EP

70.75

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Mosaic Church continues to be the trendiest church in the Southern Baptist Convention -- why would they not have one of the trendiest album covers on this list? This is the second studio album from Mosaic MSC (music), the church's praise and worship ministry.

The band has a unique enough sound to appeal to the Los Angeles hipster crowd they minister to, but, unfortunately, their lyrics don't carry much depth. There's a bit of a 7-11 feel to the songs. Thus, their lyrics are their lowest score.

There's a music video for their song "15" and it is a fairly good snapshot of what this band is like. Interesting, talented, and ...unique?

Helmed by worship pastor Mariah McManus and the eclectic production of Chad Copelin (Kelly Clarkson, Sufjan Stevens), Mosaic MSC seeks to draw listeners into an exploration of the celestial—not only as a destination but as a place here and now—on their latest release, Heaven. Fueling those efforts are airy atmospheric jams like “Mercy” and the slowly building “Engraved” while synth-laden album closer “15” delivers radio ready vertical praise sure to delight fans. -CCM magazine


25. Christafari: Original Love

72.25

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Let me say from the outset that the primary reason why this album is here is because of the band's extremely unique contribution to Christian music. That is not to say that they are generally undeserving; it was just inevitable that this album be here.

Many covers are found throughout this album as they take well-known Christian tunes and put a reggae spin on them. Some of you who are familiar with Rastafarianism may raise an eyebrow at the band's name -- but have no fear. Lead singer Mark Mohr is a former Rastafarian who desires to reach that community with the gospel.

There will be some things about this album that you'll appreciate. There will be things that you won't like so much. The music is obviously not for everyone. Overall, however, we need to be aware of this missionary effort and pray for this band as they seek to reach a unique group of people.

Chart-topping Gospel Reggae pioneers CHRISTAFARI return to the top spot this week on the Billboard Reggae Albums Chart with their latest studio album, "Original Love" (Lion of Zion Entertainment). Released on April 13th, "Original Love" is the group's seventh consecutive album to debut at #1. -Hallels (interview with Mark Mohr)


24. Harvest: Preachers

73.55

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Harvest Bashta has become a well-known name in indie Christian circles over the last few years. Between her solo work and her collaborations with bands like Young Oceans, she has gotten her powerful voice out to the public ear.

This particular album is truly one-of-a-kind. Accompanied by beautiful arrangements performed by The Brilliance, Harvest leads the listener into the book of Revelation. In fact, the title was given in reference to the two witnesses of Revelation 11.

Some of the lyrics are confusing, or, at least, loose with the text of Scripture. In "Pursuit," Harvest calls over and over again for God to give her some sort of experience as she pursues His "presence." These issues kept the rating lower. However, "Deep and Wide," which is her rendition of "There Is a Fountain," and "Costly" are very good songs.

Though Harvest is a careful and thoughtful writer, perhaps the only drawback for this record is its utility.  If Harvest has the church in mind, many of these songs may be too nebulous in its melodic structures for the average congregant to catch on.  And if you do not want to take the time to invest in listening, these songs may not be as accessible or as engaging. In short, this is a deep and meaningful record that requires time for the listener to ruminate and digest. -Hallels


23. Ellie Holcomb: Sing: Creation Songs

74.1

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Ellie Holcomb is back for the second straight year, this time with a track listing geared toward children. In some songs, like the title track, children join Holcomb to shout out certain lines throughout. Speaking of that song, "Sing" was inspired by a question she fielded from her young daughter.

Holcomb admits that the songs sound quite similar to her typical style -- but I see that as a plus. The songs aren't set to some condescending Sesame Street tune, which means parents can enjoy the songs alongside their children.

"Do Not Worry" is my favorite song on the album -- a top-ten song of 2018. The songs make truth accessible on the bottom shelf, as she is speaking to little ones in a sweet, motherly tone. It's interesting that many other artists in the Christian world do the same, though they are supposedly speaking to adults. Holcomb's children's album is refreshing and much appreciated.

Sing: Creation Songs is a Children's EP being released as a coinciding project with Ellie's Children's book, Who Sang The First Song, through B&H Publishing Group...Each song is tied to specific Scripture, but is also full of rich imagery from the world around us. She wanted kids to be able to sing these songs and see evidence of what they were singing all around them-New Release Today


22. Audrey Assad: Evergreen

74.25

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Perhaps my favorite female voice in Christian music released her fifth album this year, and her first since Inheritance, which took fourth place in the 2016 music review. Straight-to-the-point analysis: This album is a major step back from her last work, as evidenced by where she appears on the list this year. The vocals and music quality are both still excellent, but the content just doesn't match up.

Assad, a former Protestant who is now a member of the Church of Rome, dedicated a song to Mother Teresa on this album in a song obviously named "Teresa." She doesn't speak of the venerated one directly, but the song is about finding God in service to the needy among us. There is no doubt that Rome has influenced her thinking and approach to music; however, there is enough Protestant influence remaining to keep some good theology in the songs. Interesting note: She is joined by Propaganda on one of the tracks.

Coming out of what she calls an “irrational season of doubt” sparked by distress for suffering people around the world, and especially in her ancestral home of war-torn Syria, Assad sings with renewed conviction in the truths on which she bases her life. -Worship Musician


21. Phil Wickham: Living Hope

75.75

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Phil Wickham is one of those artists who is made for mainstream. His voice is easily recognized, and his style never seems to change much. Thankfully, he has managed to remain solid through his years of Christian fame. This album doesn't contain any sort of surprise that would make you sit up and take notice.

"Song In My Soul" states that God's love is like a flood. "Wild River" states that God's mercy is like a wild river. I don't know what's at the root of this contemporary Christian music tendency to keep relating God's attributes to things that are out of control, but I wish it would stop.

Overall, you'll likely enjoy this par-for-the-course praise record from Mr. Wickham. For a more pessimistic outlook, see the review excerpt below.

As someone who once heralded Phil Wickham as one of the best artists in the worship industry, a record such as this deeply saddens me. Wickham's gorgeous falsetto is rarely given a chance to shine, the music is a direct replica of his previous effort, and the lyrics utilize metaphors that have been used in worship music since its inception. Outside of congregational use, there is little to come back to, which caused me to ask who was it made for. Was it made for the people who sing it or was it made for the God who hears it? As a listener, I cannot help but feel as though Wickham, and modern worship music in general, has turned its focus inward and away from the One who truly matters. -Jesusfreakhideout (...ouch)


20. Rend Collective: Good News

75.85

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: As the album's name may suggest, the songs found here are mostly about the central aspects of the Christian gospel message. Regarding the sound, if you're familiar with Rend Collective, you know what these songs sound like. They have maintained a mainstream folksy tune in the same vein as bands like NEEDTOBREATHE.

There's not much especially remarkable on this record; however, "Nailed to the Cross" and "Hymn of the Ages" are great songs.

If you're a Christian who is also a fad hipster, you'll most certainly enjoy this temporarily popular praise style from Rend Collective.

These stringy and percussive tones are what we’ve come to expect from this band of Irishmen, as their beloved live performances and wooded outdoor recordings have won the hearts of Christian music fans and beyond. Good News is more than just a continuance of signature Rend sounds, however. With the project’s main theme of being free in Christ, along with its namesake and default title track “Rescuer (Good News),” the record’s contents are as much a breath of fresh air as finally getting a batch of new studio recordings from the band—everything about Good News seems extremely timely. -CCM Magazine


19. Kevin Schlereth: Catechism

76.8

Listen: Spotify // iTunes

Review: For those of you looking for something completely unexpected and lesser-known: look no further. Kevin Schlereth, along with his wife, Jay (vocals), are a relatively unknown duo who are doing their own thing in composing completely original music.

A couple of warnings: First, the title may imply that this is a robust theological record. It's not. The songs are good (some are great), but it is not in any way an actual reflection of true catechism. Second, this is real deal indie music. It's not for everyone. I very much enjoy it, but alas, I am just one weird man.

Some of the songs play like authentic prayer, such as "Tables" and "Trinity." "Tongues," however, is a song that admonishes and encourages the church in a helpful and needed way. Stretch yourself and give it a listen.

Ultimately, “Catechism” is a strong set of songs that, for the most part, could easily fit in a modern worship context. Schlereth’s offerings are refreshingly-humble; there are no wild pedal boards, MIDI lines, or fifteen-piece drums kits. With little more than vocals and acoustic guitar, Schlereth invites listeners into an intimate context of worship with thoughtfully, Scripture-based songs. And it’s particularly the simplicity of this organic approach that makes the delivery of these songs more impactful. -indievisionmusic


18. Pat Barrett: Pat Barrett

77.0

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: You may recognize Barrett's name and/or voice from his work with popular live worship band Housefires or from the credits of "Good, Good Father" (he wrote it). He brings a lot of that Housefires style into this solo album -- predictable progressions, long songs, repeat bridge, repeat bridge, repeat bridge, rep...oh, you get it.

His style is incredibly palatable, as most Christians today would recognize his sound as typical "praise and worship." But despite his lack of originality in style, the words of his songs are a break from what may be considered the norm. He doesn't sugarcoat the Christian life or pretend to be someone he's not. He sings honestly about living for God.

Side note: He has the coolest proof of his authorship of "Good, Good Father." It's a photo of him with Chris Tomlin, holding platinum certifications while wearing Bass Pro hats. Photoarticle.

This album is honest...Pat Barrett reveals his fears of growing old, living with fear, wanting to give up. He doesn’t just sing about highs and lows, he shares his very own dark nights of the soul and the light that got him through them. ‘Into Faith I Go’ doesn’t wallow in pain and fear. Rather, it shows exactly the journey well all face, the fears we all feel, and the hope that comes from letting them all go and following God into the ‘open journey’ of faith. -Eden


17. Austin Mark Adams: The Return

77.2

Listen: Spotify // iTunes

Review: Austin Mark Adams, or "AMA" as I have affectionately nicknamed him from the comfort of my own couch, is another seemingly relatively unknown musician. Living in Anchorage, AK, he is a part of a small record label based out of the same state. On their website, he's the only artist listed.

All of that said, it's hard to find much information about him. The album at hand, however, is a warm introduction to the kind of music he can produce. There are only five true songs on the record (the first track is a short instrumental); it would be nice to find out what a full album would sound like. His original songs are good for a first release (I'm unsure why it's called The Return) and his version of "Come Thou Fount" is great.

Driven by strings, this simple EP takes a standard approach to worship and gives it an ethereal twist. While the style and melodies evoke common trends in stripped down praise and worship, the EP is at it's [sic] strongest when it leans into the more ambient violin and fiddle-based sounds...For those looking for a worship experience to draw them into a peaceful and meditative adoration of the Savior, Austin Mark Adams may have just what you need with this EP. -New Release Today


16. Michael Farren: Fighting for Us

77.3

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Incrementally better than the last album, Michael Farren enters this list with his first full studio album. He's the former lead singer of Pocket Full of Rocks, and after sixteen years as their front man, he's doing solo work for the first time.

Farren definitely has a mainstream sound, and there are places where the lyrics are not as precise as they should be. For example, he says to God in "Goodness and Mercy": "You gave me back a heart I didn't know was stolen." There are a few theological issues with that statement, and it would be hard for me, as a congregant, to sing that.

The songs found here are not bad -- they could just use more Scripture. It's always a bit of a risk when you deviate from the actual words of the Bible. Our illustrations and paraphrases are not inerrant.

Perhaps better known as the author of great songs by beloved artists like Lauren Daigle, Michael W. Smith, and many more, Michael Farren steps out from the shadows here on Fighting For Us to showcase his lyrical musings on life and faith. As might be expected from one known more for his songwriting, the record feels a little less polished than many on the market, almost like a collection of B-sides. Yet these B-sides are more than able to carry the burden, possessed of Farren’s deft control of lyrical and spiritual honesty. -CCM Magazine


15. Crowder: I Know a Ghost

77.5

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Weird title, I know. But Crowder is a weird guy.

You're no stranger to David Crowder. He's been around for a long time, and he's mostly known for his ability to be relatively unpredictable. This album is no deviation from that pattern. No stranger to risk, Crowder comes across as a rocker at some points, a country gospel singer at others, and even a hip-hop novice at times.

The record's title is in reference to the Holy Spirit, whom Crowder calls God's Ghost in one of the tracks (I really wish he hadn't). Based on that theme, the tracks lead the listener through some of the spiritual realities of the Christian life, having the Holy Spirit to empower us. At times you'll be taken aback, and at others you'll be moved to praise. "Happy Day" is a good, fun song. "La Luz" makes me ask several questions. Seems like this Michael Weaver agrees with me:

Crowder has never really played by all of the rules, but has always been accepted and cherished regardless. His creativity is off the charts, but I Know a Ghost is a mixed bag of solid swings and some clear misses. The hip-hop beats begin to become a little too much by the end, and "La Luz" is likely my least favorite David Crowder song ever. However, "Wildfire" is a fantastic swampy jam, "Happy Day" is an absolute blast to hear, and "Hundred Miles" is a great worship song. I personally think this record falls short of American Prodigal, but I do get more enjoyment here than with Neon Steeple. -Jesusfreakhideout


14. [TIE]

Alisa Turner: Miracle or Not

77.75

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Last year, Turner's self-titled six-track EP was 24th on the list. This year, her first full album (that features five of those same six tracks) comes in with a rating 7.5 points higher.

The reason for the increase is twofold: the tracks are more polished this time around and the added songs and themes are good. In her song "Miracles," she sings of faith in God to do things miraculous, but as the title and title track state, her faith remains whether there's a miracle or not.

Alisa Turner has a unique voice that can affect the way you perceive the album, based on how pleasant you deem it to be. Overall, this seemed to be a pretty safe album from an artist who has a lot of potential. I hope to see her take more risks in the contemporary Christian music world in the years to come.

Side note: "As It Is in Heaven," a song that first appeared on that EP last year, seems to be quite popular with other artists, as I've seen it covered by multiple people.

The powerful title track challenges that idea that many of us get into our heads to bargain with God to perform something miraculous in our lives. It carries a complete honesty, but ultimately says that we love God for all our days, because He is worthy of it, whether or not He does what we so desperately want. -One Man in the Middle


The Silver Pages: Part III, Part IV

77.75

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Well guys, sorry I missed Part 2 in 2015. And your full-length album last year. Part 1 came out in 2012 before I started this music review adventure, so I suppose I can be off the hook for that one. Better late than never?

Featuring collaborations with artists like Young Oceans and Latifah Alattas, as well as some instrumentals, The Silver Pages brings a unique sound and style to the Christian music world.

Brothers Philip and Paul Zach (see Paul again later on the list) set out to "breathe new life into hymns," and "new life" is right. The music they make together takes the listener on an adventure. Because of the uniqueness of their sound, some listeners may not particularly enjoy this style; however, all of us can surely appreciate their skill and boldness to make music this distinctive. Check out "Higher/Wiser" as an introduction to this band.

The electronic palette here usually works - synths and keys abound and fit together quite well - but sections, such as the opening of "Higher/Wiser," can be a bit grating just due to sheer bombast. Part III is an exciting, thoughtful electronic liturgy of rescue with a few musical surprises that I won't spoil. On top of that, the Zach brothers are able to maintain their sense of taste and craft, and in so doing, create one of the more diverse releases of the year. -Jesusfreakhideout


12. Rivers & Robots: Discovery

78.2

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: A personal favorite of mine, Rivers & Robots, appears early on the list (sadly). They took a step back in the lyrics department but their music has remained as delightful as ever. I must be careful with my bias ("Call Your Name" is some fantastic jangle pop), but regardless of my personal taste, it is undoubtedly true that their style is refreshing in a far too monolithic genre.

As it pertains to my list, one of the supreme indicators of an album's success (or lack thereof) is the amount of personal pronouns found in the words. Unfortunately, R&R incorporated a lot of I/me/my in this album. They've also included more repetition, as well as common weird sayings from contemporary Christian music. For instance, the line from "Discovery," "When You speak I feel my heart burn within," is questionable from a biblical worldview. Additionally, the echo effect on the vocals has really run its course, and I hope that tapers off in the future.

On the positive side, "Forevermore" is a great song and their lyric video for "Provider" shows the international following they've achieved. Overall, however, it seems as though they may have spent more time generating the amazing music as opposed to crafting genuinely scripturally-rich lyrics.

Rivers and Robots remind us that drowning our ears with heavy rock guitars and anthem-like choruses are not the only ways to worship.  If you want worship music that is refreshing and color outside the lines, give this album a listen. -Hallels


11. Jackie Hill-Perry: Crescendo

79.0

10/10 QUALITY

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Welcome to the hip-hop album of the year. Jackie Hill-Perry knows her craft and she does it well.

Perry takes the listener on a ride, covering a wide variety of themes. From an honest look at depravity, to a mournful description of injustices in the culture, to a plea for a prodigal, to modernized versions of classic hymns, you'll get a little bit of everything here.

The interludes are performed by Jordan Welch, who has a beautiful voice. Perry's collaboration with Shai Linne, Da T.R.U.T.H., Ambassador, and Braille is rich. There's much to offer the Christian here from a woman who certainly has a unique perspective.

Christian hip-hop reached its zenith in recent years, but don’t tell that to Jackie Hill Perry, who is intent on elevating expectations to another level entirely with her stunning sophomore album, Crescendo. With lyrics both confessional and confrontational, Perry’s commitment to share the truth is unflinching and her flawless delivery rises to match the occasion. -CCM Magazine


10. I Am They: Trial & Triumph

79.35

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Trial & Triumph is the second release from modern country group I Am They. In stark style contrast to the previous album on the list, the southern-sounding Nevada-based group does their genre well, offering the listener a very professional sound.

I'll readily admit that this style isn't exactly appealing to me. However, based on the as-objective-as-possible algorithm, this album deserves to be here.

"Crown Him" is my favorite song on the record, as it does a great job of highlighting the faithfulness and goodness of God over our own. If you're a fan of contemporary country, you'll likely enjoy this album.


There is no sophomore slump here for I Am They. This is a really great album full of spiritually mature songs of heartfelt worship. These songs are well written models of how God allows the hard things in life, and how we find our salvation and hope at the cross. Some tracks may fall into the “performance” category, but most can be done in a congregational worship setting. Pick this one up. -Worship Musician


9. Jason Upton: A Table Full of Strangers, Vol. 2

79.9

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: Regrettably, I missed Volume 1 of this set in 2015; however, it's certainly not too late to recognize Jason Upton for the great music he has produced for the Lord with the beautiful voice he's been given. A major strength of this album is how he's able to address some familiar themes without leading the listener to focus on the self. He keeps the focus on God throughout.

There is a bit of a spontaneous, drawn-out worship song vibe to this album that seems unnecessary. But I trust that Upton is being faithful to the style of music he's been called to produce. The quality is high and the words are impactful.

Upton's website mentions an ill-defined ministry of his called Key of David Ministries -- not to be confused with Gerald Flurry's Key of David Ministry (which seems a little on the crazy side). It appears as though Upton has a heart for the church and a heart for ministering to God's people. The lyrics of this album reflect that.

Jason Upton has quietly flown under the CCM radar for almost twenty years now, but in that time has carved out a significant career in worship music circles, and has ministered to millions with his trademark, soulful brand of vertical music...A Table Full Of Strangers Vol. 2 (and its preceding installment) are fantastic, pastoral albums that shine a new kind of light on what might be considered worship music. -Jesusfreakhideout


8. Ben and Noelle Kilgore: A Resting Place

81.65

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: This husband and wife duo leads the music ministry at Cornerstone, a Methodist Church in Tulsa, OK. This is their first full, non-Christmas album since 2011, but Ben has done some solo work in that interim.

The songs on this album come across almost like modern psalms, though there isn't a wealth of unique words as a whole. Many of the songs seem to repeat the same good lines multiple times. This, of course, isn't always bad; however, too much of it can work against the actual depth of the words.

Coming into this album after struggling with infertility, the couple offers some honest and authentic laments that will surely connect with many listeners. They are faithful to turn us to Christ as they express these sentiments. The Kilgores give us some great originality along with true conviction in their lyrics. You'll be blessed by it.

This album is not for the hurried and the impatient.  Rather, for those who want to quietly sit at the feet of Jesus and soak in His goodness, this EP excels with flying colors. -Hallels


7. Chris Sligh: A Modern Liturgy

83.15

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: From the start I would like to note that although this album was a great idea, the execution fell short overall. This record could have easily been in the top five; however, strange decisions with the music kept it back. Furthermore, for an album titled Liturgy, it is reasonably expected that there would be more detailed lyrics than what is actually presented. Additionally, it's hard to imagine phrases such as "Call me crazy," "Our God reaches beyond our wildest dreams," and "Reach for the stars" as being liturgical.

That said, the former American Idol star is appearing at #7, which means he's done something right. This totally unique album contains many good lyrics that give the listener a different (and better) experience than what may have been heard on past Chris Sligh albums. Some of the tracks quote Scripture directly, but, regardless, the themes stay biblical throughout.

Although the "Modern" music choices often end up coming across as more of an eclectic clash as opposed to a smooth blend, this record is still worth a listen. See if it's for you!

Chris Sligh has never stayed in the same place artistically for too long, but rather, continuously pushes his creativity. In fact, this two-part project that was several years in the making is characterized by a mini Requiem Mass, followed by a more pop-minded back half based around liturgically-inspired thoughts. To those who’ve been close followers of his explorations, A Modern Liturgy could be taken exactly as its title illustrates, yet even those who mainly remember him from that smash show are also in for some spine-chilling inspiration thanks to this gorgeously crafted blend of tried and true praises with his own prayers. -CCM Magazine


6. Andrew Peterson: The Prologue EP, Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1

83.7

Song of the Year

Listen: Website // Spotify // iTunes

Review: For the second time since I began doing music reviews, Andrew Peterson falls just short of the top five. Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1 actually follows Volume 2 released in 2011 and a Prologue from earlier this year. Peterson's website says that this album "could be the most important and personally meaningful of his career." I don't disagree.

The Prologue EP focuses on the cross and is meant to be a meditation in preparation for Easter Sunday. Resurrection Letters, of course, focuses on the resurrection and is a wonderful album. It remains in step with what we've come to expect from Peterson. He continues to have a storytelling approach to his music, which is higher-risk, higher-reward.

"All Things Together" is a musical rendition of Colossians 1, which I very much enjoyed. "Remember Me" reminded me of another song, and its beats seemed a little too familiar to "Beyond the Blue" from Josh Garrels's 2011 album by the same name. It's not similar enough for me to call foul, though. "Maybe Next Year" is the most unique song you'll hear about Christ's second coming all year.

The major standout on this album is a song you may be familiar with already titled, "Is He Worthy?" Chris Tomlin has picked it up and made it much more popular than it would have been on its own. The song gets a perfect score for lyrics, music, style, and congregational possibility (Peterson's version is much better than Tomlin's). Because of that, the song gets the coveted green laurel for Song of the Year (see album picture above; also, I'm sure it's not coveted). You must listen!

With each song being so well-written and well-crafted (which is par for the course for Peterson), it feels neither brief nor lacking. I think the album could have been improved a bit if Peterson had stretched a few more songs into new musical territory since most of the middle portion of the album seemed to stick with a bright folk-pop sound that could make its home on any number of Peterson's other works, thus making this particular one feel less special. But at the same time, I can understand that choice since it makes the album sonically tie in much more to Volume II...This album needs to be bought, heard, and adored by anyone with ears to hear. -Jesusfreakhideout



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THE TOP FIVE


5. Josh White & Josh Garrels: Resurrect Our Love EP

84.7


10/10 QUALITY

Track Listing:
  1. Forgiven (4:34)
  2. Don't Wait for Me (3:56)
  3. Enclosed by You (4:56)
  4. The Children's Song (5:25)
  5. Spirit Resurrect (5:17)

Review: The Joshes are both established alternative genre Christian musicians with strong ties to Portland, but they hadn't released a collaboration until now. Garrels has done his own thing for a number of years, making himself a major name in the alternative world over the last decade. Josh White is a pastor and the lead vocalist for the band Telecast under BEC Recordings. I'd link to BEC's website, but for the past week or so it has not been functional. 

On the album, Garrels covers two of White's lesser-known songs and White returns the favor. To check out the differences, compare and contrast the originals of "Enclosed by You" and "The Children's Song" with what you hear on the album. "Spirit Resurrect" is the lone truly new work found on the record.

Interestingly, the two men only sing together on one track -- something that is generally unexpected going into a first listen. However, you can tell that these are genuine upper-tier musicians who deeply care about the quality of the music as much as they care about the message they proclaim. The dearth of tracks is the major factor keeping this album from ascending higher on the list; but you'll greatly enjoy what you hear. 


Indie. Christian. Acoustic guitars. Piano. Drums. Their relaxing, soul-soothing music is enjoyable by anyone and contains a presentation of the Savior they both believe in. -The Collegian 

PERSONAL FAVORITE






4. Paul Zach: God Is the Friend of Silence EP

85.2


Track Listing:
  1. God Is the Friend of Silence (ft. Liz Vice) (3:00)
  2. Restore Us Again (ft. Liz Vice) (3:28)
  3. I Will Never Leave You Alone (ft. Liz Vice) (3:23)
  4. For God Alone (Psalm 62) (3:52)
  5. East/West (Psalm 103) (3:13)

Review: Paul Zach has been featured on my music reviews before, though not directly. He was a part of The Porter's Gate project that came in second place last year and he is a member of The Silver Pages (see #14 above). He also leads music at Portico Church in Charlottesville, VA. Undoubtedly, "I Will Never Leave You Alone" exists because of his experiences in Charlottesville. He talked more about that particular song's origin in his interview with The Good Christian Music Blog.

This short album is full of beautiful-sounding folksy coffee house worship music that is sure to put you at ease as you listen to the God-exalting words. Liz Vice (also featured on The Porter's Gate) is a perfect pairing for his voice. She navigates the first three songs with Zach, driving home the theme of the album, that God calls us to be quiet in light of who He is. The record's title comes from a quote by Mother Teresa, who has now been mentioned in this article in relation to two different albums, over twenty years after her death.

Zach's renditions of the two psalms featured on this album are very good. There's a simplicity to his music that is done very well, delighting the ears. Give it a listen and enjoy the peaceful melodies.


In a world of over-produced music it's great to hear two voices just simply blending with one another, accompanied by some delicate instrumentation. This is delicate music that carries the heart-burden of connecting with God in a simple, gentle and meditative spirit, to quietly worship God as we seek after his heart. -One Man in the Middle

PERSONAL FAVORITE






3. Shane & Shane: Hymns, Vol. 1

86.35

Website // Spotify // iTunes

Track Listing:
  1. Tis So Sweet (6:55)
  2. How Great Thou Art (4:54)
  3. Give Me Jesus (4:42)
  4. Come Thou Fount (Above All Else) (5:51)
  5. The Lord Is My Salvation (6:11)
  6. Holy, Holy, Holy (We Bow Before Thee) (7:24)
  7. He Will Hold Me Fast (4:42)
  8. My Worth Is Not In What I Own (4:44)
  9. In Christ Alone (4:36)
  10. There Is a Fountain (Full of Love) (7:29)

Review: Taking a break from their Worship Initiative albums (there are now sixteen volumes), Shane & Shane have released their first full length album of hymns -- a fact that surprised me when I first learned of it.

The Shanes have been around for a long time now, so you likely know their sound. Looking over the track listing above, you likely know these songs. So you're essentially able to figure out what this sounds like, right? Yes. And no.

Shane & Shane has a very distinctive vocal sound that has remained the same throughout their years of music ministry. However, over time, they have gotten more experimental with the way they arrange their music. You'll notice above that some of the songs are quite long and this is due to extended periods of instrumental outros that slowly bring the songs to a close. You'll also notice additional titles in parentheses; they have added some original words to the classic hymns.

I was glad to see some of the great contemporary hymns on this album as well (tracks 5 and 7-9). These songs will be sung over and over for years to come, and they deserve to be put alongside some of the greats from the hymn book.

It's hard to rate an album of covers since the artist was not the primary contributor to the songs. With that said, Hymns Vol. 1 deserves to be in the top five and I very much look forward to future volumes!

Hymns Vol. 1 is a new album featuring new arrangements of ten modern and traditional hymns, totaling in excess of 57 minutes of music.  This is an album that I thoroughly enjoyed. At first listen, it can appear like a simple and basic covering of these wonderful hymns. However, each repeated listening brings out something new about these extended arrangements, which are connected, with no breaks between the songs. The lead and harmony vocals are excellent throughout, as is the musical accompaniment, which never gets in the way of the words of these wonderful hymns. I can’t wait for Vol. 2-New Release Today

PERSONAL FAVORITE






2. Aaron Strumpel: Mighty Refuge

87.7

Website // Spotify // iTunes

Track Listing:
  1. Just As I Am (You Can Have All of Me) (6:04)
  2. Beautiful Savior (Three in One) (6:22)
  3. Be Thou My Vision (3:25)
  4. Spark My Heart (5:23)
  5. Joy Interlude (1:51)
  6. My Hope Is Built (In You Alone) (ft. Page CXVI) (5:49)
  7. How Great Thou Art (Fresh Cut Flowers) (8:29)
  8. Peace Interlude (3:03)
  9. A Mighty Refuge (Guard My Heart) (10:39) 

Review: The runner-up this year is Verses Project mega-contributor, Aaron Strumpel. This album is not unlike the one that precedes it on the list -- though it does feature one original tune. However, Strumpel is much more distinguished in his music, truly setting him apart from any other artist on this list.

You may notice as you look over the track listing that his approach is similar to Shane & Shane: take classic hymns, add musical and lyrical twists, and do it well. The title track is a version of "A Mighty Fortress" -- Luther's famous hymn with some added original lyrics. It's not often you hear a cover of that song and he deserved a half point bonus for that fact alone.

I personally enjoyed listening through this record more than any of the other covers on the list. Ironically, my personal favorite listen is the only original track on the record. From the tranquil acoustic versions of old hymns to the instrumental interludes, I'm sure you'll find great joy in this album as you sing along to songs you know well.

Incredibly, I was unable to find another online review of this album. He deserves much more attention!

PERSONAL FAVORITE






1. Greg LaFollette: Songs of Common Prayer

91.05

Website // Spotify // iTunes

10/10 LYRICS

Track Listing:
  1. World Without End (2:38)
  2. Most Merciful God (2:50)
  3. Hosanna in the Highest (3:11)
  4. Mystery of Faith (2:56)
  5. The Lord's Prayer (2:21)
  6. We Cry Mercy (ft. Sara Groves) (3:03)
  7. Prayer after Communion (3:20)
  8. Blessed Be God (3:27)
  9. Lighten Our Darkness (4:14)
  10. Benediction (4:08)
Review: Greg LaFollette, the music leader for Grace Story Church in Nashville, TN (a Southern Baptist church; not Anglican as you may think in light of the title) tops the list this year with his inspiring, fresh album, Songs of Common Prayer, earning the golden laurel. Unfortunately, I completely missed last year's release, Do Not Destroy, and for that I apologize.

From the get-go, you can tell that this album was created with the local church in mind. "Most Merciful God" is a prayer spoken in the first person plural, and I truly appreciate that. LaFollette spoke about this aspect of the album in a Rabbit Room article:
The first single from the record is called “Mystery of Faith.” I knew when I wrote it that I wanted Sarah Masen to sing it with me. Her presence is palpable, offering healing like a mother’s cool hand on a feverish head. The song emphasizes the liturgical words, “We have died together. We will rise together. We will live together.” It declares that life is severely painful and that there is reason to hope...The song goes on. “We are brothers and sisters through our Savior’s blood.” When we sing this song at church, I see real people singing with me—seven-year-old Samuel and retired Ron, Nyk cradling Cosette facedown like a football, Caroline quietly serving in the back, Morgan, Emily, Andrew, Tommy. I’m reminded that it is not only Christ who who has been crucified, resurrected, and who joins me, but a roomful of friends, a city of believers, and a cloud of witnesses from across the ages.
Justin Taylor interviewed LaFollette for The Gospel Coalition and in it, he was able to express his desire for the record:

I pray these songs will be a reminder that what unites us is greater than what divides us; that every denominational difference is not an insurmountable division. I hope that, even as we hold steadfastly to right doctrine, perfect love would drive out fear, and we would enjoy greater unity in the church. 
I pray that Songs of Common Prayer would cause us to slow down and open our hands to receive and accept reality; open our hearts to trust and worship God; and open our eyes to our brothers and sisters beside, behind, and before us. 
Last, I want to inspire the Church toward rich, intimate relationship with God.
Amen! The chord charts for his songs can be found on his website and he has kept the music simple enough to actually be reproduced by amateurs. There is much to like on this record. Listen for yourself and praise God for the best album of 2018.

This is modern worship with an ancient rooting: the first Book of Common Prayer was written in 1549. Congregants already familiar with those prayers will immediately identify with the songs and find them useful for both personal meditation and corporate worship. Guest vocals from Sara Groves, Sarah Masen, and Taylor Leonhardt add depth, and many of the songs maintain a sort of rhythmic breathing not unlike the comforting pulse of a responsive reading. -CCM Magazine


PERSONAL FAVORITE






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CHRISTMAS MUSIC


Praytell: It's Almost Christmas, Vol. 2


Listen: Spotify

Review: I'd never heard of this married duo before, but they sound lovely together. I'm unsure why it's called volume two -- I couldn't find a volume one. *shrug emoji*

Hip. Generic Christmas songs. Smooth sound. For fans of Jason Mraz and Colbie Calliat.





Young Oceans: Songs of Christmas


Listen: Spotify

Review: In lieu of a regular studio album, Young Oceans released this holiday gem this year. They definitely maintained their usual sound as they performed these classic Christmas favorites. You may find that you don't like their style applied to the songs you know so well.

Alternative. Christian hymns. Slow progressions. For fans of Coldplay (pre-2008) and John Mark McMillan.




Shane & Shane: A Worship Initiative Christmas, Vol. 2


Listen: Spotify

Review: Here they are again. It's the second time they've extended their Worship Initiative project into the Yuletide. Phil Wickham shows up a couple of times on the album, along with Bethany Barnard. 

It's Shane & Shane singing Christmas songs. For fans of Shane & Shane.





One last thing...

Looking for a fresh and free way to listen to and memorize Scripture? Try Streetlights. If you're able, donate to their ministry!



That's all for this year!
See you in 2019.

23 comments:

  1. Here is a Spotify Playlist containing all the albums on the list. I included the instrumentals and live worship albums, and then all the ranked albums from 26th to 1st. I didn't include the Christmas albums though. It seemed like they should have their own playlist :-P

    https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7LGIMUPoTJRYAhh1fiYiQj

    Thanks for the great work and always exposing me to more great music.

    ReplyDelete
  2. One of my favorite days of the year!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful collection with us. I have a particular love for the Ellie Holcomb's children album this year.

    And thanks to whoever made the Spotify playlist!

    ReplyDelete
  3. You should check out a band called Sisterbrother. Lyrics aren't the best, but their music and sound is phenomenal. They remind me of Phoenix.

    ReplyDelete
  4. For anyone that uses Google Music, here's a link to a playlist there: https://play.google.com/music/playlist/AMaBXymulYF_d9v10OyqXsGjW4U58C5gsJ5dN6REkPtacCheOZUj4C0pKZ-H7orD2LHKTBwFdDGkR2kmOjsOEazUGjcLmXblVg%3D%3D

    ReplyDelete
  5. You should check out the new album She Waits by the Gray Havens. It is full of amazing songs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Danny. I did listen through that album (multiple times, actually) -- and it just didn't make the cut this year. Perhaps that will be the most notable and controversial omission from the list!

      Delete
  6. I'm sorry but the new I Am They album is a massive letdown compared to their first! They sound completely different. SMH. And no TobyMac here?!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi bobw. Tobymac's album didn't measure up this year based on the standards I apply to each of the albums. Maybe next time!

      Delete
  7. "'When You speak I feel my heart burn within,' is questionable from a biblical worldview." I haven't listened to the album...but is it? (Luke 24:32)

    Seriously, thank you for all the quality work you've put in, and for pointing readers to great music.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Mike! You're welcome.

      A note on that: The events described in the Bible are not always normative (building an ark, feigning madness, going to Nineveh, powerful handkerchiefs, etc.). We would do well to steer away from applying the narrative of others to ourselves.

      Delete
  8. Praytell released their first Christmas album under Jon and Valerie Guerra. When you have a minute watch this one from that album:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VRjS4oRnM8

    Thanks for this annual list. It introduced me to a couple artists I love and never would've heard otherwise.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Porter's Gate Worship Project was my favorite this year (from your 2017 list!), along with Andrew Peterson. Looking forward to listening through this list in 2019! Thx J-Howzy!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thank you so much for taking the time and making the huge effort to bless us with this list and reviews. I look forward to it every year.

    My faves from this year include two Christian hip-hop artists that both released unique, exceptional, and thoroughly Biblical albums and books: Timothy Brindle “The Unfolding” and Shai Linne “Jesus Kids”.

    Brindle’s offering is a double-album walking through God’s unfolding revelation of His salvation in Jesus Christ. This double-album is complemented by a 450+ page book that dives even deeper into each of the songs and studies the themes explored there. Brindle recently graduated from Westminster Theological seminary in Philadelphia and it’s my understanding that this book was his senior thesis.

    Linne’s album is aimed at kids and works very much like a musical catechism. My family of five have a great time listening to this one and the kids (ages 4-11) have learned the catechism answers pretty quickly and walk around humming/rapping the songs frequently. Linne has done a great job stepping into the hearts of my family to teach them essential truths of the Christian faith in a way that is both fresh, sincere, and interesting. His book is called “God Made Me and You” and also is aimed at kids. It borrows heavily from one of the songs on his “Jesus Kids” album and concludes with helpful questions for parents to discuss with their kids.

    Both Timothy Brindle and Shai Linne have given the Church a tremendous gift in these projects of theirs this past year. I know my family and I have been very blessed by them.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hey Jeremy here's one to review for 2019
    It will be among the best you hear this year

    https://youtu.be/pcNP89h2Gjc

    ReplyDelete
  12. This isn't really timely, as they didn't release any music in 2018, but have you ever listened to Psallos? I would think they could score highly based on your rating system, but they don't release very traditional style albums. Most of their albums are based on a book of the bible.

    Their last two albums were Hebrews in 2017 and Romans in 2015; they're releasing Jude in 2019.

    Some of the tracks are a little too artistic flavored for my tastes - they envision Hebrews as a two act play, and some of the elements aren't exactly musical - but if you listen to the whole thing, it's overall excellent and can add to your understanding and appreciation of the book they're singing through.

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  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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