Monday, December 20, 2021

2021: 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 eighth annual end-of-year Christian music recap. Check out my other reviews on my Music Reviews page.

I have a detailed system for rating these albums that helps keep me as objective as possible. You can read all about that here.

I listened to more new releases in 2021 than in any previous year. It seems to me that there was a greater quantity of releases than ever before. I listened to about 500 albums and, for my own sake, I hope it slows down next year. Although I lack omniscience, I have little doubt that this is the most comprehensive end-of-year Christian music review in existence.




What you'll find below: First, I've incorporated some instrumental and live albums for your consideration. 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 you'll find a list of the top 25 Christian albums of 2021. The top five albums get special treatment.

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 some brand new Christmas albums at the end to wrap things up.

All in all, there are 37 albums featured on this list. Just for you.





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Instrumental Albums


Terem: Dream Character


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

Lo-Fi and chill.










Aaron Sprinkle: Feather Falling, Vol. 4


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

Thematic piano, guitar, and drums.










Jeff Johnson and Phil Keaggy: Ravenna



Listen:
 Spotify, Amazon

Creative, lengthy, mostly guitar-based mosaics.










Caleb Lockwood: Study Songs


Listen: SpotifyAmazon

Unique digital soundscapes.











Live Albums


Citizens: Live in Sydney


Listen:
 Spotify, Amazon

This one's definitely my favorite of all the live albums this year. It's all the classics from this great band in a fun live setting. Apparently this was recorded pre-pandemic.








Gettys: New Beginnings -- Hymns for a New Year


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

It's songs you likely know already in a live setting. Papa and Boswell are included.









NEEDTOBREATHE: Live from the Woods, Vol. 2



Listen: Spotify, Amazon

This band put out more albums/EPs/singles than anyone else this year (I think). This live collection is a treat, as it's very professionally mixed and the group can really put on a good show.








We the Kingdom: Live at Ocean Way Nashville



Listen: SpotifyAmazon

With more of a country flavor, We the Kingdom brings a full-room rustic sound that makes for a very enjoyable listen.














Listen to the Top 25 Playlist!










The Top 25 Christian Albums of 2021


25. Jervis Campbell: Onward and Upward (72.65)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: John Mark McMillan, Pat Barrett

Review: Making his second all-time appearance on my end-of-year lists is Jervis Campbell, based out of Nashville. He provides a very helpful unique sound to the group of releases featured here. Some of his songs sound like Folk music, while others have a Rock or even R&B vibe.

Most of his lyrics could be labeled "soft-impact," as they don't strike deeply theological chords. However, the overall consensus here must be that Onward and Upward is one of the best releases of 2021. If you're interested in playing some of his stuff, you can access lyrics and chords on his website.



24. Antwoine Hill: Jesus Peace (72.85)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Aha Gazelle, Swoope

Review: Mr. Hill is an artist with Kingdom Muzic Ministries, which has become my favorite source for Christian rap over the last two years. The only rap album to make the list in 2020 was from Bryann T, who is also with this label. 

It's so hard for rap to make my list -- it has to be very lyrically solid to be given a chance since the genre tends to be so polarizing. With this release, Antwoine Hill sets the bar high for what a CHH album should sound like. He's been a believer for 13 years and it sounds like the Lord has done an amazing work in his life. If you just want to get a taste of the record, check out "Big God." (I love the album artwork, too!)



23. Caroline Cobb: A King and His Kindness (74.1)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Sandra McCracken, Sara Groves

Review: This sweet album is filled with Christ-exalting songs in the form of gentle melodies with an acoustic presentation. A King and His Kindness is classic easy listening.

Cobb walks the listener through moments in the life of Christ, sometimes from the perspective of a Bible character and at other times as a contemporary Bible-reader. As the title implies, the whole album is focused on Jesus and our relationship to Him. "Over the past few years, I've been eager to zoom in, to get up-close to the person that the whole Story hinges on: Jesus," Cobb said. My favorite song from the album is "Jesus, Full of Compassion."



22. Mark Barlow: Hymns & Soul (74.35)


Listen: SpotifyAmazon

For Fans Of: Moflo Music, IMRSQD

Review: It all gets groovier with Mark Barlow. The first song on this album, "Precious," sets the tone for the whole album -- it's a blend of old school R&B and modern funk. Not all of the songs found here are worshipful, as some of them are original love songs. (Christians need good clean love songs, don't we?)

I will say about this album that when a song is "off" it's really off, but when it's "on" it's really on. To hear what Barlow can do, check out "Face to Face."



21. Josh Garrels: Early Work, Vol. 2 (74.4)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Josh White, Kings Kaleidoscope

Review: Here's a man who needs no introduction.

The album says "2020 Versions" but it was released in 2021. Garrels continues to dig up songs from the past and re-present them to his audience. This endeavor is a great idea and we're all blessed by the amazing lyricism that began at a young age for this creative artist. One of the songs on this album is one of my favorites from years gone by titled, "Freedom." Check out this video of him performing the song from about fifteen years ago. He was just a pup.



20. Mission House: My Eyes Are Open (75.5)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Housefires, Stefany Gretzinger

Review: Ever heard of Taylor Leonhardt? She's everywhere! I don't think anyone was featured on other people's albums more than her this year. She and Jess Ray are the duo known as Mission House and this is their third release under this moniker. If you're interested in listening to some of their personal work, Leonhardt's album from this year is "Hold Still" and Ray's is "Baby Take My Hand."

This album sounds a lot like much of the simple, hip "worship" music that has caught on in recent years with good, repetitive lyrics clearly designed to get stuck in our heads for singing along after just a casual first listen. Some of the friends they brought in to help with the project include Nashville Life Music, Leslie Jordan, and Andrew Peterson.



19. Joyful Noise: Come People of God (76.15)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Matt Papa, City Alight

Review: If you like British accents and congregational worship music, then do I have the album for you! Joyful Noise is a UK-based group that remarkably recorded this album remotely during the widespread lockdown in that part of the world. Their goal is to offer music for the church, so there is free sheet music available for download on their website.

You've probably heard me say that the "Praise and Worship" genre of Christian music is often ironically lamentable for all of the man-centered lyrics often found in those songs. Groups like the Gettys, Sovereign Grace, and City Alight have risen up to offer a biblical alternative, though, and I've added Joyful Noise to my own personal list as another trustworthy source of good congregational songs.



18. Brogan Gaskill: Prelude (77.1)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Jon Guerra, Wilder Adkins, Jason Upton

Review: I found my favorite new artist of the year. I'm very impressed by this young man who leads music in his South Carolina church. He is awarded Song of the Year for the opening track on the album, "Elijah," which I've listened to six or seven times today and haven't grown tired of. It's like when I discovered Danny's Song.

At times, Gaskill sounds like Chris Stapleton and at other times he shows flashes of Bob Dylan. Overall, this record is very well-done, and done on a budget, too, I'm sure. This is one of those cases that if I was ranking the albums without my rubric for objectivity, the album would be found much higher up the list.



17. Steph Macleod: O Perfect Father (77.45)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Greg LaFollette, Sara Groves

Review: This Scottish artist put together four original songs and a cover for a solid folksy, coffeehouse-style worship album. The cover is "Christ Our Hope in Life and Death," which he does very well with the help of Sandra McCracken.

The four originals found on this record are written as modern hymns and will be edifying for both personal listening and corporate worship settings. If you've not heard the three studio albums MacLeod has released before this EP, be sure to visit his Spotify/Amazon page and hear what he has to offer.



16. Thief to King: Oh Great High Priest (77.85)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Citizens, The Gray Havens

Review: Jake Bond, Worship Director at Capital Community Church, sings to God, his King, from the position of an unworthy thief, hence the name of his moniker. He has an alternative rock sound that is similar to where Citizens was ten years ago.

The lyrics on this album are great and I'm confident that you'll find Sunday morning application if that's something you're looking for. Though just an "EP," this is Bond's first album release and it's a very good start. I look forward to hearing more from him in the years to come!



15. Psallos: Philippians (78.05)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: The Sing Team, Norton Hall Band, Liturgical Folk

Review: After several years of hearing "Where's Psallos?" in the comments on these reviews, they have finally arrived. This album is a wild ride.

As you'd imagine, the tracks are based on Paul's letter to the Philippians and instead of a word-for-word presentation, the themes are presented in an extremely creative way. To get a feel for their "style" (I use quotes because they don't just have one style), listen to the opening song, "The River." I also recommend the song "I Am Better Than You" where they were joined by Shai Linne. This is good stuff! For more information on this lengthy work, check out this article form TGC.



14. Chris Renzema: Let the Ground Rest B-Sides (78.55)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Jason Upton, Elias Dummer

Review: Mr. Renzema released a full-length album in addition to this EP in 2021, but it just wasn't as good as this solid five-track set that features three live performances. There's rich theology and God-exalting language throughout these songs that will surely stir your soul. Renzema's storytelling approach to his music is reminiscent of Jason Upton and he does it very well. 

I'm pretty out-of-the-loop when it comes to radio-brand contemporary Christian music, so I'm unsure if Renzema is well-known that way. His Spotify plays are well into the millions, so I'm sure many of you have heard of him. Perhaps you've not heard the side of his style that's featured on this album, though, and for that reason alone, you should give it a listen. If you've never heard of Renzema, you should listen to his most famous song, "Springtime."



13. The Corner Room: Psalm Songs, Vol. 3 (78.6)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: The Verses Project, Cardiphonia Music

Review: As you may have guessed from the title, this is the third release from The Corner Room where they've set the Psalms to original music. The ESV is presented verbatim, which, at times, gives the songs a clunky sound. Nevertheless, front man Adam Wright has done a great job getting the word of God out in a creative presentation -- and for good reason: he's been doing this since 2013.

Interestingly, there are many groups out there seeking to do with the Psalms what The Corner Room has done with them. Psalms albums may one day be as popular as hymns albums! So, as with the many hymns albums, I seek to reserve only the best Psalms albums for my list. The Corner Room makes the cut because of the excellent instrumentation. Much more can be discovered about this group on their website.


 
12. Brian SauvéBright, the Rider (79.1)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Brother Down, Jeremy Riddle

Review: Speaking of Psalm albums...

I'm pleased to share this EP from a fellow Utah pastor. As with the Renzema album above, this is a case where an artist released a full-length album in addition to a smaller collection, but the shorter album was better. In Sauvé's case, Bright, the Rider is a better listener experience than Sing Psalms, Let Joy Resound, which is still very good.

With a sincere and contemplative acoustic approach, Sauvé has made the Psalms featured on this album more easily remembered for listeners. The first track, "Joyful Noise," based on Psalm 100, is the perfect example of that.



11. LOVKN: Hymns I (79.4)


Listen:
 Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Josh Garrels, Jonathan Ogden

Review: As previously noted, hymns albums run aplenty and for one of them to make it to this list, it has to be absolutely exceptional. Arizona-based LOVKN has risen to the challenge!

Now at this point I must issue a warning: If you are philosophically opposed to new artistic expressions of old hymns, you will not like this album. Just move along...nothing to see here.

For the rest of you, what you'll find on Hymns I is a very innovative and experimental accompaniment to classic hymns. I particularly like what he did with "The Solid Rock" and "I Have Decided." His very interesting take on "I Surrender All" isn't my favorite, though.



10. Rich and Lydia Dicas: Find Rest (79.55)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: All Sons & Daughters, Ben Potter

Review: This UK-based couple wrote Find Rest to specifically help those struggling in 2020 and beyond. There's even a song on the album titled "For the Jobless," which reminds the listener of God's sovereign and gracious care in our lives. "God Is Our Provider" is another song that speaks directly to the anxieties we are prone to feel in such an unstable society.

The Dicases create a pretty harmony together, which is found throughout the album. These tracks may sound a bit like "downers" because they're addressing emotions like fear, worry, and anger; but the message is one of biblical encouragement.



9. Antoine Bradford: Light Will Find You (80.1)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Liz Vice, Montell Fish

Review: Blasting onto the scene a few years ago, Antoine Bradford has made a name for himself with a very impressive (and smooth) vocal range. Though he has released a few EPs in the past, Light Will Find You is his first full-length studio album. 

His record label, Humble Beast (Beautiful Eulogy, Jackie Hill Perry), classifies his style as "Alternative Soul." You can think of it as jazzed-up gospel music, brought into the 21st century, fortified with solid lyrics. You'll most certainly find yourself nodding your head and tapping your feet as you listen to this one.

Some of the songs are honest personal struggles, while others are focused on the joy and grace found in the Christian life. To get a taste, check out "Trust In You."



8. Josh White: Holy Haunt (82.2)


Listen:
 Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Holly Ann, NEEDTOBREATHE

Review: Last year's top artist is back on the list with a shorter album and a different approach than in 2020. Although musically White remains hard to beat, the lyrics on Holy Haunt are a bit scattered and more difficult to follow than on What's Done Is Done. Whereas last year's album had more of a theological focus, this record offers a devotional feel.

The album opens up with the title track, which is a jangle pop musical beat (one of my favorites), overlayed with White's Neil Diamond-sounding voice. Other songs on the album sound like the alternative rock we've come to expect from him and, as presumed, the music really jams.



7. Shane and Shane: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, Vol. 1 (82.9)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: Big Daddy Weave, Phil Wickham

Review: You've heard Psalms albums from Shane and Shane. You've heard hymns albums from Shane and Shane. You've heard original "spiritual songs" from them, too. Now, imagine that all three categories of songs were mixed together in one album and, at times, even mixed together in the same song. That's what this longtime duo produced with this new venture (notice "Vol. 1" included in the title; there's apparently more to come).

The typical Shane and Shane sound is certainly found here, which may or may not entice you to listen to the album. It does seem to me as though their sound features a fair amount of vocal redundancy. However, the original mixing and some whole original songs here are worth your time. To get started, check out "Greatest Love I've Ever Known" or "Psalm 8 (How Majestic Is Your Name)."



6. Paul Zach: Hymns (83.55)


Listen: Spotify, Amazon

For Fans Of: The Sing Team, Antoine Bradford

Review: Just missing out on the top five is one of the most creative artists in recent years, Paul Zach. Although he appears sixth on this list, it's not his final appearance on this list.

In Hymns, Zach puts enough of his own talented spin on some classic hymns like "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and "Take My Life and Let It Be" that the listener experience is quite a bit different than what you might expect. The record could technically be attributed to "Paul Zach and Friends," as all ten tracks feature another artist in addition to Zach. I particularly like his duet with Liz Vice on "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me."

Although the hymns are arranged more traditionally than LOVKN above, there is certainly still an element of uniqueness that all listeners can enjoy.











THE TOP FIVE

5. Darby Hughes: No Savior Like Mine (83.8)




For Fans Of: Indelible Grace, Andrew Peterson

Review: I missed Darby Hughes's last two albums. Sorry about that. Nevertheless, I'm grateful that I connected with No Savior Like Mine so it could be featured on this year's list.

Hughes is a graduate of The Master's University and leads music at his church. He writes his songs for local church corporate worship and that definitely comes through on this album. Some of the songs are meant for enjoyable personal listening, though, such as "City of the King," a favorite of mine that reminds me of Andrew Peterson's style.

You won't have a particularly musically-moving experience listening to this album; however, you'll be enriched by biblical, God-honoring words that keep your eyes focused on Jesus.



TRACK FEATURE








4. Bethany Barnard: All My Questions (84.2)




    For Fans Of: JJ Heller, Caroline Cobb, Jon Guerra

    Review: Written amid deep struggle with personal anxiety, Bethany Barnard has blessed us with an honest and encouraging album for every hurting soul. She's spoken openly about the role that grief played in the formation of the tracks found here and the background story is helpful to have in mind when listening. If you did not know, Bethany Barnard used to be Bethany Dillon; her name changed when she married the Barnard-half of Shane and Shane.

    "Depression" and "dysfunction" are mentioned explicitly throughout the record, as you can hear in "You Know" (below). This is a great personal worship album with loads of encouragement for the hurting. The song "Comfort" is a favorite of mine from this set and it was a candidate for Song of the Year. "Feast of Your Faithfulness" is also a uniquely good song.

    I'll make one little doctrinal note. The song "Who Else" is about being angry with God and Barnard doesn't state that this is, in fact, a sinful posture for humans to have. I wouldn't feel right moving on without making that point of clarification. Don't be angry with God.



    TRACK FEATURE








    3. Matt Papa and Matt Boswell: Hymns, Vol. 2 (87.6)





    For Fans Of: Sovereign Grace Music, Keith and Kristyn Getty

    Review: If you don't know them by now, where have you been?!

    I'm so grateful for the work of these two Matts as they continue to produce some of the richest songs for the church. As you would expect, the lyrics on this album are 10/10, being both theologically deep and poetic. "Almost Home" (below) is the major highlight of the record and it reflects their lyrical prowess. 

    "The Everlasting Love of God" is a sweet, heartfelt worship song that would be a great Sunday morning addition for your church. "O Give Thanks" (lyric video) and "O Worship the Risen Christ" (music video) fit that use as well. (Do you like songs that start with O?) I do need to make a little note: "Christ the True and Better" states that Isaac was a type of Christ, and this isn't the case. It's minor, but it's worth pointing out.

    Absorb the 13 unique tracks found here and be encouraged in the Lord!



    TRACK HIGHLIGHT








    2. Paul Zach: Eternal Light (87.85)





    For Fans Of: The Sing Team, Antoine Bradford

    Review: Here's a little five-track set that packs a punch. Landing two spots in the top six, it should be clear that Paul Zach is the real deal. He makes really, really good Christian music.

    These original songs from Paul Zach are performed with help from Liz Vice (again!), Jessica Fox, and Charles Jones. There's a classic R&B sound to the whole album and the title track is a great sample if you just want a taste. You'll hear violins, horns, and amazing vocals. As they say where I'm from: "If that don't light yer fire, yer wood's wet." The song "Joy Will Come" is also delightful.

    Paul Zach is a Virginia-based artist who works with a variety of Christian artists. You can find him on The Porter's Gate collaborations, as well as some Caroline Cobb and Cardiphonia albums.



    TRACK FEATURE








    1. Yellowhammer Hymns: Safe from Harm (88.15)





      For Fans Of: The Porter's Gate, Brogan Gaskill

      Review: A newcomer to my radar has ascended to the top! I missed Yellowhammer's first album last year. My apologies. I hope this makes up for it.

      As you can hear from the opening track (click it, it was a Song of the Year contender), this group is really doing something right. Some of the songs sound a bit like the Allman Brothers, others like Neil Young, and still others finding their unique niche. Folksy harmonies, fun noisemakers, and harmonica are found throughout, and it's all done really well -- never hokey or stiff.

      The pastor and the director of music from Christ Church Presbyterian (PCA) in Jacksonville are the originators of this music and there's no doubt that they place a premium on biblical accuracy. Their care for the words match their care for the sound and that's a powerful combination!



      TRACK FEATURE








      Listen to the Top 25 Playlist!









      Christmas Music


      Highlands Worship: Comfort and Joy



      Listen: Spotify, Amazon

      Theatrical performances of Christmas favorites with Scripture readings included.










      The Sing Team: The Last Christmas on Earth...Again!



      Listen: Spotify, Amazon

      It's the same album as last year, with six new additions.










      Middle River Hymnal: As Men of Old Have Sung


      Listen: Spotify, Amazon

      Some songs you'll know and some you won't. There's a banjo.











      Sarah Reeves: More the Merrier


      Listen: Spotify, Amazon

      Presented in Michael-Bublé fashion. Probably my favorite Christmas album this year.











      Please consider supporting good Christian music!
      (That means spending money to purchase some of the albums above.)

      :)




      That's all for this year!
      See you in 2022.

      6 comments:

      1. Every year I find new names and new music that blows me away. Thanks for your hard work.

        ReplyDelete
      2. Love your list every year. Leaving off Skin and Wind by Charlie Peacock is a miss IMHO. Listened to that album more than any other this year. Look forward to diving into this years list.

        ReplyDelete
      3. Thank you so much for putting this together each year! Nice to have some options to check out besides Hillsong and bethel.

        Another Christmas album from this year that I've enjoyed is Graham Jones, album "Good news, Great joy."

        God bless you, Jeremy!

        ReplyDelete
      4. Man, do I feel out of the loop. I mainly listen to my playlist on Spotify so I was familiar with three of the artists: Bethany from her Dillon days; Shane and Shane (I have heard of but not listened to); and Papa & Boswell from their appearance on another worship album. I guess it is my fault though since I tend to like a more rock-oriented style of music. :) Great list though. You mention City Alight. One of my favorites. Thanks for the list Jeremy.

        ReplyDelete
      5. Thank you for this! I’m blessed by your faithful work each year. Also thank you for creating an Amazon Music playlist!
        I created a public Amazon Music playlist of all the songs highlighted in the review titled “2021 Best Songs: Jeremy Howard” (https://music.amazon.com/user-playlists/9a3f509a991b4f1bbe7562a91b72a32bsune?ref=dm_sh_ok0dtik6xltYHQs4fmVmGcar7)

        ReplyDelete
      6. Jeremy, thank you. A tremendous resources for all of us!

        ReplyDelete