Back in April of 2006, CCM Magazine editor Jay Swartzendruber wrote an editorial about the flood of rock acts hitting stores in 2006. In fact, over 40 rock albums were on the schedule to be released, overshadowing other genres in Christian music and creating a flood of activity and demand for what has quickly become a dominant force in the industry. So it's certainly no surprise to me that after compiling my fifth annual list of 10 albums I couldn't put down, 50% of them could be found in this category.
2006 was an incredible year for Christian music. With over 400 releases hitting stores, sales jumped 11% over last year and many artists have released career albums that made it difficult to choose the cream of the crop. In fact, I started this list with over 25 releases, more than double any of the previous years.
With that, I present my humble picks for the Top 10 Albums of 2006. I offer these as nothing more than one music fan's gushing over albums that he couldn't put down. I don't consider myself a critic but I do listen to a lot of music. The expertise of my knowledge depends solely on your ability to agree with my selections, or not.
"Best Of 2006" Part 1 PodCast
"Best Of 2006" Part 2 PodCast
1. NEWSBOYS - GO - RELEASED 10.31.06 (BEST ALBUM OF 2006)
Typically for me, musical surprises come from unknown bands or debut artists that have received little or no attention. I always find excitement when expecting "just another band" and instead experiencing one of the "best albums of the year." After four years of wading in the modern praise and worship explosion, Newsboys return to their pop roots on their fifteenth album, and the result is, well, exciting.
I've stated before that I'm a simple man when it comes to music. My favorite albums in past years have been ones that have allowed me to embrace the moment, forget about my surroundings, elicit smiles throughout, temporarily remind myself of my lack of dance floor skills and when the albums over, contemplate what recently soaked my ears in and who I can share it with next. "Go" did all of that for me on the first run through, and has continued to surprise me from a band that has not done so one of their albums since 1998's "Step Up To the Microphone."
This is a fun album that is accessible to a wide range of audiences while keeping the message real and focused on the mission Newsboys have always been called to do. They are what they have always been. However, on "Go," they have released a collection of songs that have created one of their best offerings in years, and it's great to see them continue to reach audiences around the world with such a strong message of hope and encouragement for what lies ahead.
2. PLUMB - CHAOTIC RESOLVE - RELEASED 02.28.06
The latest project from Plumb is one of the best albums I've heard in a long time. Chaotic Resolve is a rarity in today's single driven music world. Every track has something to offer from the pop-driven love songs like "Real Life Fairytale" and "Blush" to the emotional ballads dealing with real-life issues like "Cut" and "Jekyll & Hyde." The majority of this album is up-beat with songs like "Manic" and "Motion" carving out a new pop-rock nitch in Christian music, while other songs like "I Can't Do This" and "Better" provide industrial undertones that bring back fond memories of discovering Evanescence all over again.
Plumb has always had a way of connecting to her listening audience on a real level by singing about real life, and her new material is no different. But it's her subtle content on this album that impresses me most. Plumb's ability to create a cohesive and flowing album out of a multitude of themes and topics is not easy to do. She goes from songs about lifelong love to emotional turmoil. One of my favorite lines is in the song "I Have Nothing." She sings, "Why do I put so much time, on things I'll leave behind, that were never mine?" There's a lot of truth and challenge behind those sixteen words.
3. FAMILY FORCE 5 - BUSINESS UP FRONT, PARTY IN THE BACK - RELEASED 03.21.06
For those that struggle with their music being peppered with originality, humor and words like "snap," "peeps" and "crunk," the debut album from the Atlanta group Family Force 5 is something you can snub on your way to safer tunes. Formed two years ago, Family Force 5 features three brothers, a couple of their friends and some of most mind-blowing combinations of punk, rock, funk and mind-altering grooves that's guaranteed to get you moving no matter where you are at. Business Up Front, Party in the Back is pure hit after hit with the album peaking in the center with "Love Addict" and "Earthquake."
One of the first things you'll notice when going through the album is the complete absence of ballads. Every track gains speed with energy unmatched by any other release I've listened to in years. The only thing missing from the equation is the extreme lack of Christian content from this Gotee/Virgin Records release. There's an acknowledgement that love's "sent from above" and the song "Replace Me" is pretty blatant in its message of renewal through Christ, but other than that, it's all about girlfriends, breakups and having fun. There's nothing wrong with that, and of course every song is done without question to taste, but some may take an issue with this. I actually enjoy seeing guys put out some decent music without "Christianizing" every other line. I'd rather have the pop radio filled with believers singing about every day issues we all face as humans (not Christians) than the trash that's currently polluting the airwaves.
Bottom line, if you're a fan of pop, rock or hip-hop, you're not going to be able to put this one away. Give it a few spins, prepare to hear something new and unique and then, as these white boys say with tongue-in-cheek, "get crunk."
4. SKILLET - COMATOSE - 10.03.06
It's amazing what a little production can do. Skillet's previous efforts have been solid, but fans of the band noticed an immediate change within the first 10 seconds of the first track and single "Rebirthing." If I had a list of "Top 10 Song Intros In 2006," this song would top that chart.
With classic rock riffs, swirling drums, monstrous hooks, and undeniably catchy choruses, Skillet has produced a fusion unlike any other release this year, making their fifth album one the year's best releases. Their hints of old school progressive rock mixed in with modern alternative flourishes on songs like "Rebirthing," "Better Than Drugs," "Falling Inside the Black," "Looking for Angels," "Whispers in the Dark," "The Older I Get," the title track.
It's nice to hear lead singers John's wife, (and "Keyboard Entertainer Of The Year") Korey take a more prominent role with vocals on this album. She adds a great a layer to some of the songs and brings an edge that complete most tracks. Overall, this album leaves little to be desired, and after completing 11 songs from the same artist, that's a great feeling to have.
5. JARS OF CLAY - GOOD MONSTERS - 09.05.06
Newsboys was not the only established band that surprised me this year. On the first album since their debut where the band appears on their cover (albeit dressed as a furry four headed monster), the guys of Jars of Clay embrace their pop/rock roots and deliver and album that actually moves. Songs like "Work," "Dead Man" and "Take Me Higher" are some of the most driven songs in recent memory.
Jars of Clay have always flirted with a little Americana and the remake of the Julie Miller-penned anthem "All My Tears" is about as close to perfection as they've come. "It don't matter where you bury me / I'll be home and I'll be free / It don't matter where I lay / All my tears will be washed away." It's a classic song made new that you can't miss.
Lead singer Dan Haseltine explains the inspiration coming from the head scratching that the title and cover elicits by saying, "This record is part confessional, part euphoric love poem, part bitter divorce, and part benediction. It was born out of many experiences and conversations between addicts, failures, lovers, loners, believers, and beggars. And so the language of recovery and the honest discourse about our attempts to live apart from God and apart from each other is a theme. Engaging people who are doing the hard work of laying their lives open to others, and avoiding isolation, has allowed me to see that there is both immeasurable evil and unfathomable good mixing under my own skin and it is grace, mercy and freedom that allow me to not simply be a monster, but to be a good monster."
Many critics praise Jars for creating incredible music with lyrical depth. Typically, I shy away from projects that require me to dig deeper to find any meaning whatsoever, but on Good Monsters, Jars balances the line of accessible music with solid themes that grow stronger upon inspection.
6. BEBO NORMAN - BETWEEN THE DREAMING AND THE COMING TRUE - 09.19.06
Bebo has always been one of the most open and honest songwriters in Christian music. His albums capture the true place where he is at, and for the longest time, he was one "eHarmoney.com spokesman" away from becoming our industry's poster boy for the lost, single soul searching for their long lost mate. His recent marriage has brought new perspective on his world and it is has translated into songs like "Into The Day," "Bring Me To Life" and the stirring first single "I Will Left My Eyes."
"I wrote a lot in my earlier days from turmoil and loneliness," Bebo says. "A lot of that had to do with being single and living on the road without much of a home. The funny thing was that when this began to change and I entered into a season of my life where, for three or four years now, I've understood what peace is, that made me worry a bit too, because I didn't know how to write from peace. I'd never done that before."
One of the most striking changes on the new album is the inclusion of other musicians. In fact, an entire band showed up to help record the new songs. Instrumentalists on Between the Dreaming and the Coming True include: Adam Lester on guitar; Tony Lucido playing bass; Ken Lewis on drums; Gabe Scott on accordion; Shane Keister at the piano; among other extraordinary musicians. String arrangements were done by John Painter. Bebo, along with Painter, arranged horns on "I Know Now," with Painter playing French horn, trumpet and trombone on the song. Norman and Ingram took control of co-producing ten of the eleven tracks on the project, enlisting the talent of Glenn Rosenstein on "The Way We Mend," a song Norman wrote with Dave Barnes. The result is that choruses soar, drums thunder, and the piano lets loose drapes of brilliant texture bathing Norman's message with a more vivid light. The final outcome is one of Bebo's best albums to date.
7. STARFIELD - BEAUTY IN THE BROKEN - 05.16.06
Two years after the release of Starfield's debut album, brothers Tim and Jon Neufeld return with a collection of songs filled with more raw emotion than most of the year's releases combined. Beauty in the Broken starts incredibly strong with the rising anthem, "My Generation" that calls for something greater than what the world has to offer. That audible ache for honesty and relevance resonates throughout the entire album--all the way to "Shipwreck," where the yearning becomes more intimate in the album's final, whispered line, "Your life in me, changing who I am to who I need to be."
For their sophomore effort, Starfield returned to producer Matt Bronleewe (Michael W. Smith, dcTalk, Plumb) while also enlisting the talents of GMA Award-winning producer Ed Cash (Chris Tomlin, David Crowder Band, Steven Curtis Chapman). The end result is a tightly produced album with lyrics that encourage movement and action from today's believers.
Between the edgier tracks that dominate the record lie gems of quiet worship like "Captivate," "Unashamed" and "Son Of God," featuring a guest vocal by Chris Tomlin. What Starfield accomplishes though is a mixture of emotions, tempos and styles that all encourage personal worship while remaining incredibly captivating and catchy at the same time. Overall, Beauty in the Broken is an album that certainly deserves your attention.
8. MAINSTAY - WELL MEANING FICTION - 02.21.06
BEC Recordings, (home to Jeremy Camp, Kutless and Falling Up among others) is quickly turning into a respectable and solid label. Mainstay continues the label's streak of signing talented artists and groups.
Produced by Aaron Sprinkle (Kutless, Pedro the Lion, Anberlin), Mainstay's debut album, Well Meaning Fiction, is full of melodic, thought-provoking songs that will challenge both the believer and nonbeliever alike. "Absolutes are everywhere," singer Justin Anderson says, "and hopefully our music will allow everyone to think beyond themselves and get in touch with a Higher Purpose."
It's these absolutes and key themes of sin and repentance that set the tone for the entire album. Between the grinding guitars and ethereal piano nuances throughout "Mirrors" is encouragement to turn away from the emptiness of the world and filling in the gaps with faith that penetrates much deeper than temporary remedy. The momentum building "Yesterday" attempts to curb listeners out of longing for pointless nostalgia in favor of seizing each new day in Christ, while the speedy guitars and harmonies throughout "This Could Be" serves as an anti-stress out anthem of spiritual sustenance. Then there's the riveting "Take Away," a lushly brimming ballad about the sovereignty of God and His ability to transform people's hearts away from humanity's sinful state.
Mainstay's debut does find the band setting comfortably into a familiar sonic tone and by the end of the album, you find yourself wondering if you've heard the song already. However, given that Mainstay has obviously mastered the art of writing a decent hook, that's not such a bad thing.
9. HYPER STATIC UNION - LIFEGIVER - 05.09.06
When Third Day discovers a band, Mac Powell produces the record and then says that lead singer Shawn Lewis of Hyper Static Union is "hands down, the most talented guy" he knows, well, I pay attention. Artists have made plenty of mistakes hand picking and personally recommending other artists before (remember Jaci Velasquez's Michael Cook or Michael W. Smith's Taylor Sorensen?) so I approached this latest find with caution. However, after just six tracks, when my wife entered my office and stated "Who is this? This is some of the best Christian music I've heard in a long time," I knew it was something special. A few complete spins later, I was also on board.
The first single, "Sunny Days," spent a complete 30 minutes on repeat and the rest of the album has quickly found its way into my musical rotation. The album is a combination of Lenny Kravitz and Shawn's voice is a polished version of the late Scarecrow & Tinman's lead singer (going a few years back). Shawn's also got a great range with a falsetto that seems to complete any song. Shawn says, "Ultimately we are about the craft of songwriting, and occasionally we are able to incorporate all things funk and rock into a sensible, three-and-a-half minute package laced with a passionate melody. We feel inclined to produce music that requires people to 'tune-in' mentally and spiritually. We want the audience to consider certain things about their salvation, the state of the world, their hearts and their relationships." Personally, I would say mission accomplished.
10. JAMIE JAMGOCHAIN - REASON TO LIVE - 06.06.06
This debut album is the perfect combination or worshipful lyrics that could fit into Sunday morning services and amazing orchestration that can dominate the radio. In fact, Jamie was recently named Radio & Record's #1 Inspo artist for 2006, which means she was the most played performer in the format. But make no mistake, this is a worship record through and through, with every song glorifying our creator. Jaime proves herself a worthy songwriter with prose that freshly defines a pure relationship with Christ. On "Hear My Worship," (which my own church has embraced this year), Jaime sings "Beyond this bended knee / Beyond the words I speak / Beyond the songs I sing / Hear my worship." It's cut from the same passion that made "Here I Am To Worship" such a huge church anthem a few years back. "Glorious King" does the same with lyrics that say "All the earth stands amazed at Your fame / Every heart born to worship Your name / Angels dance and the ocean will sing / For our glorious King."
There are similar moments throughout the album where you can't help but glimpse the vision of Heaven that Jaime is singing about"and that is what makes this album so great. It's new, powerful and creative worship that transforms your ordinary day into an extraordinary time of reflection of our glorious King.
Still craving for more? Here are five albums that barely missed the Top 10.
Chris Tomlin - See The Morning (09.26.06)
"See The Morning" is everything you loved about Arriving and all that you have come to expect from Chris Tomlin. This album was titled to describe God's faithfulness. He is as sure as the rising sun. No matter how dark it gets, the morning will come. This new music is sure to draw congregations and individuals into a time of worship with its easy to sing music that inspires the soul.
Jennifer Knapp - Live (01.24.06)
A nice surprise to this year's release schedule was the addition of a Jennifer Knapp live CD, recorded on the "Back Forty Tour" in Spring '01. The album includes 13 favorites including a 14 minute version of "Undo Me" that sounded incredible. We may never hear from Jennifer Knapp again, but this live album gives justice to the songs that we'll remember for years.
Shawn McDonald - Ripen (03.29.05)
Ripen will again bring you deeper into Shawn's daily life, and will have you listen repeatedly, and along the way you'll find places of your soul you didn't know existed. In an effort to simplify his music, Shawn's lyrics take on almost a repetitive nature with chorus consisting of few words, however, the worshipful style continues to impress and expectations are high for his third album.
Fighting Instinct - Fighting Instinct (6.27.06)
The debut release on Gotee Records (who seem to continually be pulling away from their hip-hop roots and embracing more of the rock acts) is one of the best surprises of the year with radio friendly hits like "I Found Forever," "Back To You" and the energetic "You Don't Know." They sing about the call "of the great I Am" and crying out for more of God on "My Heart Cries Out."
FireFlight - The Healing Of Harms (07.25.06)
Dishonesty, lies and brokenness are demolished by truth, love and boldness in the debut release from Flicker's female-fronted rock band Fireflight. With The Healing of Harms, a brash display of raw energy colliding with a beauty that heals, melodic vocals soar like a shining hope. Highlights on the album include "You Decide," featuring Josh Brown of Day of Fire and "It's You."
Kevin McNeese started NRT in 2002 and has worked in the industry since 1999 in one form or another. He has been a fan of Christian music since 1991.