It's hard to believe that we are already halfway through the first week of 2010. This is the latest I've ever written my year-end wrap-up, now in it's eighth year, and it never gets old to plow through all the releases, recalling the albums that have made a permanent impression during the past year. I'm looking forward to quickly diving back in as I prepare my first ever "The Decade That Was." I'm sure there are a couple handfuls of albums that I'll be happy to dust off and dive back into.
2009 will certainly go down as one of the best years in Christian music. Typically, I'm struggling to round out my annual Top 10 with a few albums that barely caught my attention. Not this year. With more than 30 to choose from, many of which were career highs for the artists and groups, the challenge for me was not in writing the reviews, but narrowing down the list of my favorite albums.
Christian music took a giant leap forward for me this year. It seemed that with each month, music that I wanted to keep around kept piling up. This has certainly been a great time to be a Christian music fan and hats off to all the artists who continued to release music that was innovative, creative, and filled with incredible messages for both the church and the unsaved.
With that, I present my humble picks for the Top 10 Albums of 2009. 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. In either case, take a minute to leave a comment and let me know your thoughts on my list.
01. Phil Wickham - Heaven & Earth - November 17, 2009
I can't recall an album ever making me long for the coming of Christ the way this album has. After listening to Heaven & Earth, it's probably an obvious reaction to 12 tracks solely dedicated to the topic, but it goes way beyond that. This album puts a pain in my heart, makes the everyday seem downright trivial and I almost feel that the skies are opening as the album continues on. This album is an experience of one man's true connection with his eternal future, and you instantly want to be there with him, soaking in the pure radiance of our Creator, worshiping at the throne of the Almighty King. What a day that will be!
What connects me most to this album is not only the lyrics and subject, but the overall production. The songs feel as if they are coming to you from another time and dimension. Phil's vocals are echoed, as if being recorded in a massive canyon, and layered in a way that reminds you of an angelic chorus. You hear high notes on a keyboard in the background and long chords that fade in and out, breathing life into the music and taking it to the heights that match the lyrics. In a way, this is one of the few albums where the music compliments, and even lifts the lyrics instead of the other way around.
I'll be honest--Phil Wickham's voice has always grated me the wrong way. But here, it works incredibly well. To give credit to the production is not fair to Phil, because his signature delivery is still very much prominent. I simply feel that the overall style on Heaven And Earth suits his vocals better than his previous efforts and it's a pleasure to listen to something so unique that still resonates to my spiritual core.
As a Christian music consumer, I'm always on the line between two mediums. I want to be entertained and engaged with amazing music that is well structured and accessible. As a Christian, I want lyrics that I can relate with, that encourage me and challenge me to be a better disciple of Christ. It's not often that both connect throughout an entire album. But on Heaven And Earth, the subject is so poignant and soul-stirring, the music so captivating and modern, that I have no other choice than to name this the best album of the year. In a way, I hope you're scratching your head and will pick up the album out of sheer curiosity. That way, we can sing these songs in heaven together before the King.
02. Thousand Foot Krutch - Welcome To The Masquerade - September 8, 2009
2009 was an incredible year for Christian rock, anchored by this stellar, career high album from Thousand Foot Krutch. The band has always been well-respected for their lyrical honesty as well as their ability to rock hard while remaining accessible. With an amazing track record behind them, the bar has been raised with their fifth major release, Welcome To The Masquerade, and all rock acts are hereby put on notice.
The album opens with an instrumental track that sets the tone of the album, building seamlessly into the scathing electric guitar opening of the title track and for the next 14 minutes, through "Fire It Up," "Bring Me To Life" and "E For Extinction," it's a tidal wave of sound that pounds measure after measure, allowing you to come up for air for just a few seconds as the waters calm down during a bridge only to surge all over again.
TFK masterfully mixes living, breathing energy in their music. For example, "Scream" starts with a nice drum beat, then layers on a heavy guitar riff to kick off the song. The music fades on the verse to allow Trevor's vocals to shine clear and strong and then the chorus hits heavy while Trevor kicks it up a notch vocally right before the classic rock whisper. The bridge pulls back almost entirely as a piano plays quarter notes, joined by guitar a few measures later. An electronic fill brings the song back to the beginning. And this is just on one song! It's this musical blender that makes every song such a thrill ride to listen to. This is ear candy at its sweetest.
While I'd highly recommend the entire album, standout tracks besides the ones already mentioned include "Forward Motion" (an instant classic that even non-rock fans will be able to appreciate) and "Smack Down."
As one of the many career defining albums in this year's list, 2009 is certainly a year of incredible music and with Welcome To The Masquerade TFK is sitting at the top of the rock genre, hands down.
03. Switchfoot - Hello Hurricane - November 10, 2009
Switchfoot returns to form with their seventh full-length album, Hello Hurricane. After the misstep of Oh! Gravity and lead singer Jon Foreman's solo efforts that were critically accepted but made little impression to me, I was afraid that Switchfoot's glory days of dominating popular music were over. Granted, Jon's solo efforts were always music that Switchfoot would never make, but I was still looking for something to grab hold of and shout about. Needless to say, I'm excited to be excited about Switchfoot again.
Hello Hurricane is on par with the incredible albums Nothing Is Sound and The Beautiful Letdown. From instant rock classics like "Bullet Soul," "Mess Of Me" and "The Sound" (all of which pull heavy influences from artists like Foo Fighters and Green Day) to soaring anthems like "Free" and "Enough To Let Me Go," the album is overflowing with tracks that will please any pop, alternative and/or rock consumer.
The album's crowning achievement is "Your Love Is A Song," easily my favorite track from Switchfoot in a long time. It's simplistic, soaring, layered and instantly familiar and you'll be challenged not to crank up the volume and sing about God's amazing presence symbolized through songwriting at the top of your lungs. This is Switchfoot returning at the top of their game, and it's great to have them back.
04. Israel Houghton - The Power Of One - March 24, 2009
Israel has always impressed me with various songs throughout the years ("Again I Say Rejoice," "Say So," "Friend Of God"), but I've never been captivated by an entire album of his. The Power Of One is his career defining album, containing incredibly anointed choruses of praise, and I haven't been able to put it down all year.
Stepping away from the live atmosphere of The New Breed, the group he has headlined since the early 90's, Israel's first solo album still feels like a collaborative, live event, featuring guest artists like Mary Mary, tobyMac, Martin Smith (Delirious?) and reggae vocal queen, Chevelle Franklyn, along with soaring vocal choral arrangements. The result is a very polished studio album that feels like a living, breathing live event.
The songs are still injected with Israel's gospel and reggae roots, giving this album massive amounts of soul than your average modern praise and worship release. As a result, you truly feel the emotions of these songs. It's more than vertical worship. Israel is an anointed songwriter and vocalist and it comes through clearly on every track.
Highlights for me are "Just Wanna Say," "Everywhere That I Go" and "Saved By Grace." There are two songs that stop me in my tracks every single time, and those are "Moving Forward" and "I Receive." If you don't purchase this album, buy these two tracks. They are some of the best moments of personal worship I've had all year long.
05. Red - Innocence & Instinct - February 10, 2009
The "sophomore slump" is more than just a phrase. It's a reality that many bands face after having years to write and shape their debut release, only to find themselves forced back into the studio months later to record their "much-anticipated" follow-up. Many times, recreating the magic is tough to do and results in a disappointing, and under-performing album. Thankfully, the Grammy-nominated rock act, Red, took one giant leap over this common hurdle, releasing Innocence & Instinct, one of the best albums of the year in the midst of massive competition in the Christian rock genre.
The group’s debut, which sold over a quarter-million copies and earned several awards and nominations, focused heavily on personal struggles. Bringing back End Of Silence producer Rob Graves and mixer Ben Grosse (Sevendust, Disturbed, Depeche Mode), Innocence & Instinct goes a giant step further by tackling the fight itself. It’s about the dueling impulses that wage war within our souls.
The band continues to use full orchestra and string arrangements to compliment heavy hitting guitars, strong drums, chest-beating bass and aggressive vocals. It's definitely more melodic than what a group like Skillet is doing, and you get a feeling of what a true rock opera would sound like when listening to songs like "Death Of Me," "Mystery Of You" and "Start Again."
Like any great rock act, the power ballad stands strong, and songs like "Never Be The Same" and the surprising Duran Duran cover of "Ordinary World" are two of the best tracks on the album.
Red has emerged as a powerful player in what has been a huge year for Christian Rock and with their ability to excel at many styles while layering their music with many different instruments, this band is sure to continue to lead the way in the years ahead.
06. Skillet - Awake - August 25, 2009
Artists must hate the phrase "much anticipated follow-up." Trying to live up to something that so many regard as a career defining album has got to be frustrating. So the artist is left with two options: give the people more of what they want, and risk being redundant, or go an entirely new direction, and risk losing their audience. I feel that's the position Skillet was forced into with Awake. Coming off one of the most successful rock albums of all time, and certainly the biggest album of Skillet's career, there was a lot of expectation for huge things from this band, especially given the three year gap between records.
Make no mistake, Awake did not disappoint in its delivery and is one of the best releases of the year, but for anyone that lived and breathed their last album, Comatose, which took the Christian rock world by storm three years ago, it felt more like Comatose: Part II than the album we were all waiting for.
So here, we get the hard-hitting, rock orchestra songs that trade male and female leads ("Hero," "Awake And Alive," "Forgiven"), the grunge anthems ("Monster," "It's Not Me It's You," "Sometimes") and the power ballads ("Don't Wake Me," "One Day Too Late," "Should've When You Could've," "Never Surrender"). If it ain't broke, why fix it?
That said, it's not entirely fair to judge an album under the shadow of another, especially when most of us can agree with the saying "if it's not broke, don't fix it." You can't blame the band for revisiting a successful pattern of songwriting. Is Awake better than Collide? I don't think so. But it does more than a fine job satisfying a hungry fan base wanting more from Skillet.
Awake will continue to keep Skillet at the top of the Rock charts, and their aggressive touring schedule will keep the rock fists pumping to new tunes for many years to come. I'm simply hoping that both the fans and the band can now move forward, hungry for a new course instead of satisfied by more of the same, and that it's cooked up in half the time.
07. Jonny Diaz - More Beautiful You - May 5, 2009
Last year's most overlooked album is this fantastic release from Jonny Diaz, a seasoned independent artist whose INO Records' debut, More Beautiful You, is a perfect example of beauty in simplicity. Shunning the overproduction and spectacle that saturates so many releases in today's market, More Beautiful You relies heavily on acoustic guitars, simplified beats and Jonny's accessible vocals. The result is an album that stands out as true work from a gifted singer/songwriter, versus a gifted producer with all the right software. This is the same magic that initially drew me to artists like Shawn McDonald, Bebo Norman and female artists Sara Groves and Bethany Dillon.
There's a calm honesty in Jonny's music. From the island themed, "Love Like You Loved," to the laid back style of "Nashville," to more radio friendly cuts like "More Beautiful You" and "Stand For You," Jonny writes with a self-perspective that many artists simply don't. He sings about loyalty to Christ, missing friendships and inner beauty aimed at teenage girls, a topic that not many male artists talk about. This album feels like a breath of fresh air every time I put it on. It's far from groundbreaking and I can understand an initial reaction to brush it aside and move on, but there's a quiet soul waiting to be discovered here. Don't miss it.
08. Jars Of Clay - The Long Fall Back To Earth - April 21, 2009
These guys are on a roll and The Long Fall Back To Earth may be the album that finally surpasses their debut in terms of quality from start to finish. After 2006's stellar Good Monsters, and 2003's equally impressive Who We Are Instead, Jars Of Clay continues to produce creative music and engaging lyrics that few other bands are matching.
The Long Fall Back To Earth, the band's tenth studio album, is a captivating collection that kicks off with the engaging instrumental song "The Long Fall" and doesn't let go until the last electronic beat of the album's final track, "Heart." The Long Fall trades in the acoustic guitars from their debut for synthesizers, creating a very raw electronic drive, powered by key lines and beats that sound lifted from a Joy Electric album. Lead vocalist/lyricist Dan Haseltine delves into the bare bones reality of the beauty and tension of relationships, and what makes them worth fighting for, a common thread that has tied everyone exposed to Jars of Clay’s music together for more than a decade.
Stand out tracks include "Closer," "Two Hands," "Safe To Land" and "Hero." This album not only sounds different from everything else out there, it feels different as well. There's a greater purpose to most of these songs that require repeat listenings to fully appreciate the depth both musically and lyrically. What makes this one of the best albums of the year is the fact that these songs get better the more you explore them, and that's a very rewarding process to experience over and over again.
09. David Crowder*Band - Church Music - September 22, 2009
Inventive. Daring. Artistic. These are not words typically used to describe a new album by a praise and worship band. Modern worship has fallen into a familiar rut as of late and while that's certainly not a bad thing (as a worship leader, worship music will always be an untouchable art form to me) there's certainly been a successful formula that many worship artists have followed. Hats off to David Crowder Band, one of the most successful praise and worship groups, for crumpling up the manual and drop kicking it out the sanctuary doors.
Lyrically, Church Music is a worship album through and through. The songs are filled with "hallelujahs," "praises" and "holies." Musically, Church Music is made for the dance floor. Think Nitro Praise (remember that series?) meets Passion. The result on paper almost certainly sounds disastrous, full of cheesy clichés' and wannabe production aspirations. Neither is the case with this incredible collection of music. Songs like "Eastern Hymn," "The Nearness" and "The Veil" are some of the best electronic songs you'll hear all year. "All Around Me" takes a hit Flyleaf song (yes, a FLYLEAF song) and transforms it into an incredible worshipful experience. "How He Loves" is by far the best take on this modern worship song that has been recorded by many other artists this year as well. They hit it out of the park.
I give huge props to David Crowder Band by taking a giant leap forward in their music, forgetting about how many churches can pull off their songs on a Sunday morning or how their fans would react to what is an obvious progression, but still a bit shocking at first. They have produced an entertaining album full of vertical lyrics that never point anywhere else but up and created a subgenre that they can own all by themselves. Well done.
10. Steven Curtis Chapman - Beauty Will Rise - November 3, 2009
My heart is broke for the Chapman family. Tragedy in any circumstance is never easy to understand, yet it's something that most of us will face in some form or another. The loss of a child, as the Chapman's experienced in 2008 with the death of their five-year-old daughter Maria, is simply unspeakable. As a father of two young children, my emotions overtake me when I think about where I was when I heard the news.
For Steven, life and music have always been inextricably intertwined so it's no surprise that this project is defined by the process of healing. Beauty Will Rise is filled with raw emotion, song after song. A longing for a daddy to once again play with his daughter. An overwhelming sadness of trying to move forward without Maria by his side. An expectation of rejoining his daughter in Heaven in a joyous embrace. These are Steven's personal Psalms. They are cries to heaven that Steven has decided to share with the public.
Songs about tragedy in Christian music are nothing new. Artists like Casting Crowns and Mark Schultz have made a career out of singing about the more challenging times we face and the hope that tomorrow brings. But hearing about personal tragedy from an artist so respected is certainly a jolt to the senses, and a part of me wishes this album would never have seen the light of day.
Many of these songs will never make it to the radio, which is probably a good thing since tears flow freely whenever I put this album on. It's possible this will not be a commercial success for Steven. I doubt we'll see a Beauty Will Rise tour. But I guarantee this album will do more for more people throughout the years than most of the albums on this Top 10 list ever will. The reality of losing a loved one, in any circumstance, is something we will all face, and Steven could have done what so many people do in this circumstance--retreat, hide and let anger set in. Instead, we find a broken man, much like the one we read about in Job, walking on the dark side of God's Sovereign purposes and plans. And in the process of being made whole, Steven leans hard on the biblical truths that he's been singing about since he released his first album twenty-two years ago.
I strive for that faith every day, in the good times and the bad. On the mountain tops and in the valleys. And now I won't have to look far when needing an encouraging song to remind me the path built on pain also leads straight to the heart of God.
I simply wish it were not so heartbreaking to listen to.
Honorable Mentions (By Release Date):
- VOTA - VOTA - February 10, 2009
- Kari Jobe - Kari Jobe - February 10, 2009
- Mandisa - Freedom - March 24, 2009
- Aaron Shust - Take Over - August 4, 2009
- Mark Schultz - Come Alive - August 25, 2009
- BarlowGirl - Love & War - September 8, 2009
- Hawk Nelson - Live Life Loud - September 22, 2009
- Shane & Shane - Everything Is Different - November 3, 2009
- Casting Crowns - Until The Whole World Hears - November 17, 2009
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.