2008 was a great year for Christian music, despite one of the worst fourth quarter drop offs in recent memory. (Next to no new releases from November to the end of January? Let's not repeat that again next year Nashville!) In my annual year end round-up, my initial list consisted of 22 contenders, more than any other year since I started this article for NRT seven years ago. I had a number of albums destined for the Top 10, which left few spots open and multiple releases to dive into.
The past two weeks have been spent revisiting a number of releases, many of which didn't make the cut. These albums represent the one's that impacted me throughout the year and wouldn't leave my playlist. As a music fan, these picks are my favorites and nothing more.
I certainly don't expect everyone to agree, and chances are your favorites were in my top 20 or 30. I'd love to hear which albums have been impacting you throughout the year and look forward to reading your feedback on my choices. Here's hoping 2009 is as good of a year for Christian music as the past twelve months have been.
01. THIRD DAY - REVELATION - JULY 29, 2008
Three years ago, I placed Third Day in my top 10 of the year for the first time with their last studio release, Wherever You Are. The pick shocked me as I’ve always struggled to connect with Third Day’s recorded music (their concerts, on the other hand, have always impressed me). So while I was eagerly anticipating their ninth studio release, Revelation, a part of me was ready to call Wherever You Are a fluke in my personal preferences.
Revelation grabbed me from the first chord and didn’t get let go. It was one of the few albums this year that was an instant hit as the band returned to straight rock, powered forward with incredible speed by Mac Powell’s unique and solid voice, simply unmatched in Christian music.
I know a lot of people who don’t like Third Day simply because of their success and honestly, I struggled with picking such a mainstream release as my top choice. During the past 15 years, Third Day has built an impressive career. The Georgia-based band has won 23 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards, three GRAMMY Awards, earned two consecutive American Music Award nods winning this year, and multiple ASCAP honors for their songwriting skills. Their catalog of hits has helped define the Christian radio landscape for more than a decade while the band scored 24 No. 1 singles and sold more than six million albums. But every once in awhile, a band surpasses their own greatness and surprises everyone with an album even more accessible than their last. Third Day has done just that with Revelation, pushing the definition and quality of what Christian music can be. It is accessible to anyone, finely balancing themes that Christians and non-Christians alike can relate to in any setting, and it’s an album worthy of everyone’s attention.
02. AFTER EDMUND - HELLO - FEBRUARY 26, 2008
Have you ever met someone packed with so much talent that it frustrates you to the core? Get ready to pull your hair out. After many delays, the much hyped debut by After Edmund finally made it to my desk, but it wasn’t until I saw the band perform a few songs live at a showcase in Nashville that everything clicked for me. I don’t like saying that because it points to a potential weakness in the translations from stage to recording, but I can’t talk about this release without noting my experience.
As I watched this group of five musicians (all classically trained who met amidst college music classes), switch instruments, vocals and stage positions multiple times throughout the performance, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized. Forget that the music was a barrage of well crafted layers, here was something new that I hadn’t seen before. More than a stage trick, After Edmund quickly showed me that this was a group prepared to make the best music they could collectively. As their foundation, everything else would follow.
Their debut is one of the most entertaining albums I’ve heard in a long time, and I can happily attest that I was not hypnotized by a glossy performance. Their album has made it to multiple year end “best of” lists and was recently nominated for a GRAMMY award.
If there’s one album on this list that you may have missed in the shuffle, I’m guessing this is it. Do yourself a favor and say “Hello” to After Edmund.
03. BEBO NORMAN - BEBO NORMAN - SEPTEMBER 16, 2008
It has been a privilege listening Bebo Norman’s music evolve over the years. I’ve certainly been a fan since his debut, enjoying most of what he’s put out there, but his self titled album released this year, and his first of BEC Recordings, has impressed me more than any other album he’s released.
The first track and single from the album, “Pull Me Out,” takes the stripped down Bebo formula and turns it on its head, resulting in Bebo’s biggest track, sonically, to date. Taking depression, a topic that he’s written about multiple times, and struggled with personally for years, Bebo sets a hopeful and even joyful tone to the album with a visual of God reaching to the lowest of low to rescue one of his children. Another standout track is “Britney,” a great example of the depth of story-telling that Bebo squeezes into the majority of his three and a half minute songs.
Beyond a great collection of music, Bebo Norman presents an artist that is truly at the top of his form, both vocally and collaboratively. His openness to work with other songwriters for the first time has certainly paid off and as Bebo begins to confront some of his inner demons beyond his songwriting, we’re seeing an artist who is more vulnerable and honest with the greatness of God than ever before. Given that Bebo has brought us incredible songs like “Light of the World,” and “I Will Life My Eyes,” that’s saying a lot.
04. KRYSTAL MEYERS - MAKE SOME NOISE - JULY 15, 2008
The latest release from Krystal Meyers has given Christian music a much needed punch of positive energy. Very few albums from the past two years can stand up to the mainstream production powerhouses of Madonna, Ashley Simpson and Britney Spears, offering some amazing hooks without the sex.
Krystal Meyers’ official attempt to conquer both the popular clubs and Christian charts is evident by the subtle lyrics throughout the album, often criticized for being too vague. However, for a pop record, there is incredible depth for those who want to spend a little more time diving in. “Love It Away” could double as an ode to a caring boyfriend until the bridge ends with “our Father will restore.” Other songs like “My Freedom,” and “In Your Hands” could pass as any other pop song about a significant other, but anyone looking at the release in the Christian market will see the strong redemptive message of both.
Songs like “Shine,” “You’ll Never Know” and “Up To You” offer no spiritual message, but I’m ok with that. “S.O.S.,” the only blatantly Christian song allows us to see that the boy next door isn’t the only man in Krystal Meyers life. She has a desire to find love both here on earth and in the heavens and she embraces the search for both throughout Make Some Noise.
On the surface, Make Some Noise is glossy fun with little ambition to be anything else. Is the album full of double meanings and ambition to live outside of youth group meetings and Sunday morning drives? Sure. Is that so wrong? Let me put it this way. I’d rather have a vague song that can either be about a boyfriend or about God from a known Christian artist than the latest trash from so many other pop artists out there.
05. MICHAEL W. SMITH - A NEW HALLELUJAH - OCTOBER 28, 2008
From the beginning track of Michael W. Smith’s third worship album, thankfully titled A New Hallelujah instead of Worship Some More, you know your about to hear something extremely special. Very few artists can lead a live worship service in front of a crowd of 15,000 worshipers, with a full choir, orchestra and a multitude of rotating guests, but Michael seems most comfortable and at home surrounded by massive talent and doing what he feels is his calling—leading worship. The result is an emersion of live music filled with heart, diversity and unwavering passion that pulls you in and doesn’t let go.
The addition of Israel Houghton, the world renowned African Children’s Choir and an incredible young worship leader named Coalo Zamorano provide new layers that help separate this project from Worship and Worship Again. The new songs are incredibly accessible, including the title track, “Help Is On The Way,” “The River Is Rising,” “Grace” and the simplistic victory chant “Shout Unto God”. Michael adds his trademark touch to familiar songs like “Mighty To Save”, “Healing Rain/Let It Rain”, “Majesty” and “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone,” stepping aside and allowing the 12,000+ vocals to do the work. It’s an incredible sound to behold and the grandiose of this project was captured brilliantly.
There are few worship albums that truly blow me out of the water these days, but it’s obvious with A New Hallelujah, the only worship album that captured my attention and held it in 2008, that worship can be fresh, new, exciting and original. Hats off to Michael for continuing to set the bar for artist driven worship.
06. FAMILY FORCE 5 - DANCE OR DIE - AUGUST 19, 2008
As one of the most creative and unique bands in Christian music, Family Force 5 returned this year with their highly anticipated sophomore release, Dance Or Die. Their debut album was a pure dance party revolution that assaulted listeners with twelve unforgettable tracks. With a debut as strong as theirs, it certainly set up a lot of expectations, fair or not, for any follow-up.
With Dance Or Die, consider those expectations unmet. This album is certainly the weaker of the two, and yet is has quietly become one of my favorite albums again for the past year. I’ve had to redefine my definition of Family Force 5 as they’ve gravitated to a heavier, unpolished sound. The production is muddier, which could be a sign of moving to their own label, however it serves the grunge sound of songs like “Fever” and “D-I-E-4-Y-O-U” well. The messages are still clearly tongue in cheek and themes of dancing fill in for full on spiritual warfare and battle.
Highlights include the club anthems” Get Your Back Off The Wall” and “Party Foul” alongside the distorted sounds of “Radiator” and “Wake The Dead,” one of their best songs to date. Family Force 5 show their diversity on songs “The First Time” and “How In The World” which are more aligned with the pop/rock sound of bands like Relient K than anything they’ve done previously. The songs stand out like a sore thumb on the album, interrupting the overall flow, but stand just fine on their own.
It may not be what we all fell in love with a few years back, but Family Force 5 have put together an entirelly different album that continues to hold my attention.
07. MANAFEST - CITIZEN ACTIV – June 24, 2008
Christian rap simply gets overlooked. There are plenty of releases throughout the year in this genre, but rarely do we see a year end wrap up that includes a rap release (and no, tobyMac does not count). In fact, since I started writing this annual article in 2002, I’ve named just one rap album in my Top 10--T-Bone’s BONE-A-FIDE, released in 2005. I’m willing to take a bet that I’ll be one of the few that site Chris Greenwood’s (AKA Manafest) latest, Citizens Activ as one of the year’s best.
Manafest first caught my attention with his last release, Glory. Songs like "Bounce," "Where Are You?" and "Don't Turn Away" were incredibly solid, but I still never got into the album. That has changed with Citizens Activ, the most commercial and accessible Christian rap album I've heard in years.
Manafest layers rock, hip-hop and pop styles into an album overflowing with memorable beats and rhymes. Standout tracks include the rockin' "So Beautiful" (with an awesome video that was filmed to compliment the first single) and "Top Of The World," featuring Trevor McNevan of Thousand Foot Krutch, with a soaring chorus that says "your love and grace / they comfort me / no one can take it from me". I also dug the intro club track "4321" and the futuristic sound of "Free." The album closes on "Yahweh," a beautiful song that talks about leaning on God in all circumstances.
Overall, this album takes everything we love about KJ-52, everything we dislike about EMINEM and wraps it in an extremely tight package that glorifies God, has some fun with everyday relationships and gives Christian rap a new tent pole project to tout.
08. FRANCESCA BATTISTELLI - MY PAPER HEART - JULY 22, 2008
There were many female artists that released new and debut music this year including Superchick, Fireflight, BarlowGirl, Brooke Barrettsmith, Joy Whitlock, Worth Dying For and a few others. None impressed me more than the debut from newcomer Francesca Battistelli.
Bypassing the typical teen-angst that fills so many releases from younger artists, Francesca has filled her album with bright colors, joyful messages and positive outlooks. It’s a welcome change and you can feel the smiles come across in songs like “Beautiful, Beautiful,” “I’m Letting Go” and the title track. Inspired by everyone from the jazz greats her dad introduced her to as a kid, to contemporaries like John Mayer, Sara Bareilles and Nichole Nordeman, Francesca provides a hopeful debut that should continue into an encouraging musical career.
09. MATTHEW WEST - SOMETHING TO SAY - JANUARY 15, 2008
One of the first albums released this year has ultimately turned out to be one of the best. Close to a year after its release, Something To Say remains one of my favorite albums of the year, and the only album by Matthew West that I’ve been able to embrace. The majority of the album is incredible and songs like “The Motions,” with its building chord chorus and “You Are Everything,” with its rich piano lead, gives the album an incredible start.
The album ends with one of the best songs of the year that you haven’t heard, and probably won’t unless you own the album. “Stop The World” is one of the few songs that prevent me from getting anything done whenever it comes on. I have yet to not sit back, close my eyes, and spend some time reflecting on God’s goodness in this otherwise crazy life we live. No other song has spoken to me as strongly as this one. “I’m tired and empty/This life is relentless/It’s weakened my knees and it breaks my defenses/It’s wearing me down and I’m desperate to hear from you.” I doubt anyone can reject a message of needing to hear God’s voice “above the senseless noise” and it’s contained in a song that builds to a beautiful, fully realized chorus that matches the grandness of who God is, with the quietness of His spirit.
Thankfully, it’s a single moment in an album filled with joy. Beyond that, the testimony and story of what Matthew went through during the making of the album brings the messages to life even more. As West says, the album is a “powerful reminder that God is speaking every day out of the broken places and pieces of our lives.” I encourage you to seek out these songs that God clearly put on Matthew’s heart. You won’t be disappointed.
10. SANCTUS REAL - WE NEED EACH OTHER - FEBRUARY 12, 2008
Christian music will always have groups like Sanctus Real that assemble the masses and give something for everyone to enjoy. Getting parents, grandparents, youth pastors and pastors jumping in the same room isn’t easy, but entirely possible with the music from We Need Each Other. Sanctus Real has quickly become that band, left empty by the passing of Audio Adrenaline and Delirious, to name a few.
Their music is packed with emotion and dynamic energy, released in full force on songs like “Turn On The Lights,” “Leap Of Faith” and “Legacy.” “We Need Each Other,” “Lay Down My Guns” and “Sing” drive home messages of love and unity with resonating choruses, multiple harmonies and crowd like chants. “Whatever Your Doing (Something Heavenly)” and “Half Our Lives” are radio-friendly ballads destined to dominate radio airplay.
Their fourth studio release offers one of the most solid collection of tracks from the entire year, and I have yet to find a track that I consistently skip over. That’s tough to find in this day of the digital single.
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.