I can't believe that we are wrapping up yet another year. The first year of the new decade was packed with some amazing releases and I feel incredibly blessed to be able to reflect and share with you my picks for the best albums of the past twelve months for the ninth year in a row! Next year, I'll have to carve out some additional time to write a "Best Of The Past Ten Years" article. I'm sure there are a couple handfuls of albums that I'll be happy to dust off and dive back into.
One of my favorite activities each year is opening up iTunes and pouring through recent releases, recalling the albums that have made a permanent impression during the past year. Like last year, 2010 was a fantastic year for Christian music. Writing the reviews came pretty easily. Choosing my favorites from a list of 25+ candidates was a little more challenging.
Hats off to all the artists who continue to push the genre forward despite challenge times for the music industry at large. Many artists who have been around for years released some of the best music of their careers, and a number of new artists made an instant, positive impression. Christian music continues to be innovative, creative, and filled with incredible messages for both the church and the unsaved.
With that, I humbly present my picks for the Top 10 Albums of 2010. I always offer my choices as nothing more than one music fan's gushing over albums that he couldn't put down. I don't consider myself a music 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, let me know your thoughts and don't miss NRT's Kevin Davis' selections as well.
01. Newsboys - Born Again - July 13, 2010
Christian music, for the most part, lives controversy free. There are few announcements that stir up instant and heated reaction in our community, but in March of 2009, Christian music fans were stunned to learn that Peter Furler of the Newsboys was stepping down as frontman and was being replaced by Michael Tait, formally of dc talk. The news set off a firestorm of conversation and left the band's hope of dominating Christian music up in the air. Thankfully, the boys not only conquered the difficulties of replacing an iconic lead singer, but have rode the challenge to yet another career high album. Despite my low expectations, Born Again quickly replaced 2006's Go as my all time favorite Newsboys release, and if you've followed my Top 10 throughout the years, you'll know this is my second time placing Newsboys at the top. I'm not a rabid fan boy, I just like great music, and Born Again has some of the best you'll hear all year.
From the infectious first single and title track to the instant crowd pleasers "When The Boys Light Up," "Escape" and "Miracles" to the deeper cuts on the album like "Build Us Back" (an incredibly moving ballad) and "Impossible" (one of the best songs from the 12 cuts, if not the entire year), Born Again never fails to disappoint. Even the final two tracks on the album are enjoyable, although, I'd argue unnecessary. "Mighty To Save" continues the group's latest trend of remaking popular worship songs but adds little to the arrangement, and the way-to-obvious inclusion of a remake of "Jesus Freak" is a fun fan nod-and-wink acknowledging that two of Christian music's most iconic groups have merged together.
The fact that the band quickly overcame the challenges of switching gears while in full force (they remain once of the most active touring bands in Christian music, and their new live show with Tait is stellar), integrating seamlessly a powerhouse vocalist and personality in Michael Tait with grace, style and substance and putting together a career album that rarely, if ever, misfires, is simply incredible. For that, they deserve to be right where they are. On top.
02. Chris August - No Far Away - August 24, 2010
Rarely does a new artist capture my attention as quickly as Chris August did. I had the opportunity to meet him before hearing any of his music, and was instantly inspired by his character, his humbleness and his willingness to be used however God would have him. Of course, I've met many artists who haven't inspired me as much musically as they have in person, but thankfully, Chris was one of the few exceptions that captured me with both.
Not new to music, (Chris has had many opportunities in the general market), Chris comes to Christian music polished and ready to roll. Helped along with big production by Ed Cash, who has worked with artists like Third Day, Chris Tomlin and Bebo Norman among others, No Far Away is packed with great hooks, challenging and hope filled lyrics and Chris' voice just shines
Listening to No Far Away is like an riding an emotional rollercoaster. Chris tackles topics of love, faithfulness, hope, struggles, battles, personal pain and through it all, awe in God's plan and creations. The lyrics are all rooted in spiritual truths and you get a sense that there was actual growth and spiritual discovery as these songs were being written. It's that connection that Chris makes through an audio recording, as well as face to face, that gets me more excited about Chris August than any other new artist this year.
03. MercyMe - The Generous Mr. Lovewell - May 4, 2010
Bart Millard and team have seemed to be on autopilot for a number of years, creating some very solid, but predictable, albums. After their national debut, Almost There, released in August 2001, the band recorded 4 more albums in just 6 years, producing multi-platinum sales, numerous chart topping hits and a solid following culminating in this year's recognition as Billboard magazine’s “Christian Song Artist of the Decade.” Like them or love them, the group has perfected their songwriting. So it was a surprise when the band took some extra time, to the tune of almost two and a half years, to deliver their sixth studio album, The Generous Mr. Lovewell.
I'm not an album theme guy. It's probably why I can't get into the artier side of music. I enjoy sitting down, getting lost in a great tune and then being moved by the lyrics (in that order). So all the background about building a fictional character, Mr. Lovewell, and writing themes around this and that...it goes in one ear and out the other. It means nothing to me if the music isn't interesting, captivating and rewarding to listen to. But believe me when I say, The Generous Mr. Lovewell, takes the formula that MercyMe has perfected and drop kicks it out of Mr. Lovewell's window.
The Generous Mr. Lovewell is 11 tracks from a popular worship band growing musically and pushing their comfort zone forward. They deliver electronic drives and dance beat feelings on "This Life" and "Move," as well as musical throwbacks to an earlier generation with "Crazy Enough," "Back To You" and "This So Called Love." The band certainly hasn't fully departed their worship AC core evident by the amazing first single, "All Of Creation" as well as the perfected ballads "Only You Remain" and "Won't You Be My Love."
The lyrics are just as powerful, encouraging us to become better people and be the light of the world that God has called us all to be. Overall, a fantastic album from MercyMe that never misses.
04. Group 1 Crew - Outta Space Love - September 21, 2010
One of the most anticipated albums of the year certainly didn't disappoint. This year, I'm hearing more and more urban and dance music hit the scenes from Christian artists. The trend is certainly embedded heavily in general music as almost every popular artist is driven by huge production and heavy beats so I expect this trend to continue. Group 1 Crew's timing of Outta Space Love is perfect and builds on the style of their past releases.
Comparisons musically to Black Eyed Peas are obvious and I won't disagree. "Live It Up," "Need Your Love," "Breakdown," "Manipulation," "Transcend" and the title track all have a club feel with all three members sharing the front and center giving the songs a lot of dimensions and wildly entertaining. Great messages and vocals are present on the slower tracks like "Beautiful," "Lean Of Me" and "Please Let Me Go."
Hearing something unique and fresh is always nice in this genre. Group 1 Crew are truly in their own space in Christian music and Outta Space Love is one of the best releases this year by far.
05. Jars Of Clay - The Shelter - October 5, 2010
I can't get enough of this album. I haven't been able to say that of many Jars of Clay releases. They seem to be incredibly hit or miss for me, but this year's The Shelterjust blew me away. The concept, bringing together a community of as many artists that would come (so it seems) produced an album that lives up to its call by sounding bigger, having greater purpose and feels more completely realized than past projects.
The Shelter features an 11-voice choir and appearances from 15 fellow artists including Brandon Heath, Mac Powell, Amy Grant and Mike Donehey (of Tenth Avenue North) who contribute their voices on top of the stripped down, acoustic folk style that Jars has embraced in recent years. The entire album has a very organic feel to it, almost like you're listening in to a living room jam session with some of Christian music elite's music makers.
Some of the highlights on the album include "We Will Follow," "Shelter" and the first single, "Out Of My Hands."
06. Chris Tomlin - And If Our God Is For Us... - November 16, 2010
Tomlin has done something with his fifth studio release that I've been wanting him to do for awhile...break out of the mold of Sunday morning corporate worship. He has one of the best voices in Christian music, works incredibly closely with some of the best producers working today, and it's no fluke that he's penned some of the biggest modern worship songs of our day. I've been waiting to hear what that combination would produce if focused on a pop album, and not a worship album, and on And If Our God Is For Us... we get our closest glimpse yet. It's just a few songs, but I'll take it.
The lead single, "I Will Follow," is an incredible departure for Chris musically. As a worship leader, I find it tough to see any congregation singing this together and I can't get enough of it. It's refreshing to hear Chris take a step in another direction and make music for a larger audience. That said, make no mistake, "I Will Follow" is still very much a worship song, and this is still very much a worship album. The lyrics are all focused directly to God and full of praise, adoration and awe. "I Lift My Hands," "Majesty Of Heaven," "Lovely," "The Name Of Jesus," "Faithful"--these are all fantastic worship songs, but Chris and his team has added a new layer that give these songs greater depth than what they were doing before.
Chris Tomlin is incredibly anointed and his lyrics have brought many into a closer relationship with God, whether it be listening to his music alone in the office, or with other believers during a local worship service. I'm excited to see him push forward musically on this release and create one of his most accessible albums to date.
07. Matthew West - The Story Of Your Life - October 5, 2010
2008's Something To Say established Matthew West as a great singer/songwriter in my book. He emerged as a fantastic story teller, wrapping his personal experiences in accessible hooks and pop music. For his fifth studio album, Matthew solicited stories from his fans, receiving an overwhelming amount of letters (over 10,000) from which he crafted the 11 songs of The Story Of Your Life. The songs that emerged deal with the burdens that so many were carrying on their backs. Abuse, being forgotten, bad self-image, divorce and hate.
With so many heavy topics, it's amazing to me how this album didn't turn out to be one of the most depressing albums I've ever heard, but through the entire album, West weaves poignant hope around these dark moments, shining light into the corners of these lives. It's right on par with the promise that God brings. He is with us in the valleys as well as the mountaintops. And despite circumstances around us that may be clouding our view, there is a God who loves us and wants to grab our hand, and lead us out of the darkness. This is far from a heavy listening experience and knowing the source material came from true stories makes it an incredibly personal challenge to listen to the stories around us and usher hope wherever needed.
Highlights on the album include "Broken Girl," "Strong Enough" and "My Own Little World."
08. Lincoln Brewster - Real Life - September 28, 2010
One of the most talented guitarists in Christian music is taking his skills once again and using it to amp up his songwriting that has, for the most part, been for the church. Real Life is a dynamic worship release with "Shout For Joy," "Best Days," "Reaching For You" and "So Good" leading the energetic charge. "Reaching For You," "More Than Amazing" and "Whom Shall I Fear" (featuring Kari Jobe) are some of the best worship choruses I've heard all year. But the song that grips me and gets me excited about the album is the title track.
"Real Life" is a great singer/song-writer style song, not meant for Sunday morning at all. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all if this didn't eventually find its way to an audience on country music. The song is a riveting reminder of time gone by and solidifies Lincoln as more than just a worship leader (not that there's any wrong with that at all).
Overall, Real Life is one of Lincoln Brewster's best albums to date. His guitar shines almost as bright as his vocals, and is truly unmatched in Christian music, let alone the worship sub-genre. You don't want to miss this great album by this fantastic artist.
09. The Afters - Light Up The Sky - September 14, 2010
I gravitate easily to dynamic music. Music that breathes, that seems to have three dimensions while building to a giant crescendo. The Afters certainly have this style down. Each song seems to be moving forward to a greater revelation right around the corner, which I love. It keeps me interested, invested and wanting more.
Light Up The Sky, the group's third studio release, is an excellent collection of music that never dulls or bores throughout its ten tracks. Each song has its' own unique character and that's what I love most about this album. The first four tracks are driven by guitars, piano, drums and strings, all at different times.
Lyrically, the songs on Light Up The Sky reflect the faithfulness of God amidst the hard times the band faced before recording including losing their longtime friend and manager to a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, two band members deciding to part ways, a nearly life-threatening car wreck and a new member losing a close friend one week after joining the band. “Life Is Sweeter” is an ode to a beautiful, abundant life on “the other side.” Songs like “Lift Me Up,” “I Am Yours” and “We Won’t Give Up” reaffirm the band members’ faith and the source of their strength; while cuts like the title track, “Start Over” and “For the First Time” reiterate the theme of rebirth.
For fans looking for guitar and piano driven pop music, Light Up The Sky will be an excellent addition to your collection.
10. tobyMac - Tonight - February 9, 2010
I'm starting to think that Toby McKeehan can do no wrong. After four incredible solo albums, following the leadership of one of the most successful groups in Christian music, it's more than apparent that tobyMac is one of the most significant artists performing today. Few artists are consistently releasing hit music, packed with truth and excitement, like tobyMac. Period.
Tonight is not Toby's best album. I still feel 2004's Welcome To Diverse City holds that title. But it certainly comes close. Tonight finds Toby embracing more vocals and less rap, but don't expect that to reduce the overall drive of the album. Each song, even the slower tracks, are packed tight with beats and layers of instrumentation in almost every corner. Toby always hits almost every genre with "Showstopper" and the title track leaning heavy on rock, "Get Back Up" and "City On Our Knees" satisfying pop fans, "Changed Forever" (one of my favorite tracks from Toby in years) and "Funky Jesus Music" diving in disco/dance and "Hey Devil," "Start Somewhere" and "Captured" smashing everything together.
It's nice to hear Toby move into some new directions allowing him to explore even more styles than before. Like his band, his music continues to be diverse, and incredibly entertaining.