Another seller year of music has come to a close. With over 200 releases from major labels hitting stores this year there was certainly plenty to listen to, but as with any year, there were albums that instantly stood out from the pack. There were those that took a bit to discover. And then there were those rare albums that snuck up and surprised.
Whatever method of discovery, these are the albums that I couldn't put down. They inspired, encouraged, healed and strengthened. Some lock on and target our direct relationship with Christ. Some praise and lift high the name of the God we all serve. Some celebrate the overall joys in life. They all bring joy, hope, reflection and even a bit of longing and sadness--like all great music should.
I always say I'm a music fan first and a true music critic last. I'm sure there are better albums you feel I left out. But that's the great thing about music, especially within our industry. There's amazing options in every genre and something for every taste. Hopefully, I'll encourage you to go back and discover an album or two you missed.
Make sure to read other year end lists from our Senior Editor, Marcus Hathcock
as well as from our Senior Contributor, Kevin Davis
. Between the three of us, there should be plenty of music to discover. And that's what this entire process is all about.
01. BRANDON HEATH - LEAVING EDEN - JANUARY 18, 2011
A few years back, Phil Wickham recorded my favorite album of the year, Heaven And Earth
. The songs unlocked that connection we all feel with our eternal destiny and created a real sense of longing to leave this world behind and join our heavenly Father. Brandon Heath
's latest album, Leaving Eden
, returned me to that sense of longing with the opening title track, a beautiful telling of how we continue to move further away from Eden while closing the distance to Heaven. I love that picture because it's not a hopeful song until the end, when we realize that the darkness around us actually has purpose when we look for the light ahead. Brandon doesn't stay on this theme long, unlike Wickham did, returning to the topic only once more at the end of the album with the spectacular song "Now More Than Ever," but the music and lyrics are layered in the same vein. They are catchy enough to sound comfortable and familiar, but different enough of stand apart from the crowd of other Pop/AC artists out there.
Released in the first few weeks of 2011, I can still easily breeze through this release without hitting skip once. From the polished, best driven radio hits "Your Love," "Might Just Save Your Life," and most recently, "The Light In Me," to some of the deeper tracks like "Only Water" and "It's Alright", which pull back and rely more on acoustic guitar, piano and strings, this album is full of hit songs. "It's No Good To Be Alone" even brings in an island/beach vibe complete with horns.
Lesser artists would get lost in this variety, but Brandon's vocals handle all styles beautifully, you get a sense that he and the producers took a few extra steps on each track, and he's never sounded better. Don't miss this fantastic release from one of Christian music's rising artists.
02. SWITCHFOOT - VICE VERSES - SEPTEMBER 27, 2011
After a return to true form on 2009's Hello Hurricane
is back with yet another smashing chapter in their storied history. Could this be their best album yet, eclipsing even The Beautiful Letdown
? I'm not sure, but I do know it's the closest they've come yet to even having that discussion.
On Vice Verses
, the drums and the bass take center stage driving forward a relentless energy backed by Jon Foreman's signature, passionate voice and in-depth lyrics that come alive with repeated listen. And much like their live performances, you get a sense that nothing was left behind in the studio. The band put their all into every song and the audio assault is a pure treasure to listen to.
There are so many fantastic songs on this album. "The War Inside" is one of the lyrical high points of the album and talks about our "low-fi killers" (pride and "I") that are within each of us, despite our race, age or location. Every line is beautifully crafted and designed. "Thrive" is low-key but you feel the angst when Jon sings "I wanna thrive, not just survive." "Restless," possibly one of the band's best songs they've ever crafted, starts soft and crescendos into a passionate creed. The song feels like an arena event, a play with multiple acts and a huge finale, with Jon rising to new emotion in his voice accompanied by an amazing guitar line. It's a song that I simply can't get enough of. And there's a reason "Dark Horses" is in the Top 5 on mainstream rock charts. It's simple an incredible rock anthem.
Vice Verses is just as good as Hello Hurricane, my top pick a few years back, and it's great to continue to witness the latest surge of this incredible band. Hopefully they keep riding this wave for years to come.
03. FRANCESCA BATTISTELLI - HUNDRED MORE YEARS -
With her sophomore album, Francesca Battistelli
proves she's an artist that will be with us for as long as she desires to make music. From her relatable, real-to-everyday-life lyrics, to her unique, approachable and beautiful delivery that transfers easily between pop songs, folk tunes and ballads, Francesca is proving to be Christian Music's reigning female artist, quickly building quick an impressive career and ministry.
It's tough to choose highlights on Hundred More Years
. The first half of the album is packed with hit songs, some of which have already dominated at radio. "This Is The Stuff" and "Motion Of Mercy" have already been radio mainstays and "Constant" and "You Never Are" will provide future hits. "Angel By Your Side" is easily one of her best songs to date and has the potential to be a crossover senstation into mainstream..
Francesca pulls from recent life experiences for the rest of the album like getting married and having her first child, which may leave some desiring more overt spiritual content. However, this is certainly an album full of positive hope, pure love and biblical principles. "So Long" talks about saying goodbye to lonely living, and while there's no clear indication of if she's singing to God or her new love, it's a song about companionship and God has certainly wired us to cling to one another and not travel this world alone. "Don't Miss It" is song that encourages us to slow down, breathe and embrace the day to day moments in life that we take from granted. "Worth It" talks about the toughness of constant love we're called to give out and the reality that we will all need pure love some day. The title track should bring any parent to tears. It's a beautiful reminder to cherish the moments we have with our children.
Overall, Francesca answers on her recent Dove Awards for Artist of the Year as well as Best Female Vocalist and has delivered one of the best albums of 2011 that you can't miss.
04. OWL CITY - ALL THINGS BRIGHT AND BEAUTIFUL - JUNE 14, 2011
Part of me feels a need to justify my choice in including an album with so little overt spiritual content. The other part of me is annoyed that I feel the need to do that. And all of me understands that no matter what, someone will disagree with it either way. The fact remains, I'd be purposely leaving out this album from a self-professed Christian, that does work to reach out to the Christian music community (Adam Young headlined Creation East this year and "Galaxies" was a hit at CHR radio), because of a lack of buzzwords, and I just feel that's a bit shallow. Music to me envelopes not only the lyrics, but beat, and Christians go through a huge range of emotions and relationship woes, so why not sing about it? Truth is, I haven't been able to put this album down since it released, so here we are. And it's where we should be,
Adam Young, the one man show behind Owl City
, fascinates me in that he does everything on his albums. Writes, composes, records, sings, plays all the instruments and apparently, challenges himself to use the name of every animal known to mankind in his lyrics including deer, tigers, bugs, mice, crows, bees, butterflies, eagles, barracudas, sharks, bears, bats, crickets and tree frogs. It's quite the display of creation if you think about it.
There are also shout-outs to tiny feathers, balmy breezes, sugar maple wings, wild fires, ruby redwood trees, velvet ivy, story brushes and satin air. And that's just in the first song, "The Real World!" Yes, the lyrics are a bit wispy, matching Adams vocal delivery, and take a few listens to get used to, but then you appreciate how different they are. Adam's lyrics are poetic in the truest sense, and he's a hopeless romantic who is searching for love, acceptance and the getting lost in wonder of creation all around us. He finds a plethora of adjectives to describe the world around him and he wraps it all around some fantastic synth/dance/electronic music that is instantly his own sound, and incredibly catchy.
Yes the lyrics are borderline odd, but there are so many hope filled gems to be discovered if you dig. "My captain on a snowy horse has come back to take me home," Adam sings on "Kamikaze," a creative reference to Revelation 19. On "Hospital Flowers," a song about reawakening after a tragic event, Adam sings, "My burns were third degree, but I'd been set free, because grace had finally found its' way to me." In "Plant Life," he's longing for companionship and sings, "If I were to pluck on your heart strings, would you strum on mine?"
This isn't a praise and worship album, but it sure is an amazing fun celebration in hope and positivity, soaked in lyrical whimsy that's tough not to appreciate.
05. MAT KEARNEY - YOUNG LOVE - AUGUST 2, 2011
By now, you should know if the song you are listening to is by Mat Kearney
. You may still be getting introduced to his music, but his sound is unmistakable. It's acoustic pop layered over hip-hop and urban beats. It's a wispy and cool voice that's a combination of singsong and melodic rap. And it all blends together to create some pretty unmistakable songs. Young Love
is filled with many musical moments that are hard to ignore.
Young Love, as the title suggests, revisits a time of falling in love. A time filled with butterflies, happiness, discovery, innocence and more, reflecting Mat's own life of recently getting married. Songs like the title track, "Ships In The Night," "Count On Me," "Young, Dumb and In Love," and "She's Got The Honey" focus on young relationships. They are fun, carefree and bring me back to that time in my own life as well before life starts complicating all of our relationships.
But along with that, there's also a few songs that dive into the darker places in Mat's own life, revealing some very personal struggles, none more prevalent than on "Rochester," a song about Mat's own father who faced loneliness, hardships and physical abuse. It's raw, rough, and tough to listen to, but it grounds the album in a reality that life isn't just about the up and joyful times. "Ships In The Night" is one of my favorite songs on the album, but despite the joyful beats and delivery, it pulls from a tough place in a relationship that continues to pull apart. But the lyric is just genius full of gems line after line. For anyone who's been in a relationship that gets past the initial butterflies, you'll be able to relate right away with this song.
Lyrically, the album is wonderful but like Owl City, there's not a ton of spiritual take away here. I'm ok with that because Mat's been very open about his own spirituality and I'm one that believes we need just as many positive songs about relationships and love as we do about our relationship with Christ. After all, there's more to love in this life than God and He designed it that way. We have our significant others, our family members, our friends and that's life. Mat sings about life and places his lyrics against a musical landscape that continues to be refreshing, relevant, intricate and inventive. If you enjoy great music, you don't want to miss this album.
06. BECKAH SHAE - DESTINY - AUGUST 16, 2011
continues to release music on par, and many times better, than anyone else coming out of the major labels. As an independent artist, with the backing of her producer/husband, Jack Shocklee, Destiny
comes on strong as one of the best overall pop albums of the year.
Her sound is comparable to a mash-up of Beyonce, Rihanna, Mariah Carry and more of the heavyweights on the mainstream female urban/pop side. There are few artists in our own industry who are doing this type of music well, which has allowed Beckah to truly make a name for herself without the backing of a major label, and more are taking notice every day.
The new album kicks off with the harmonic and chord driven "Are You Ready?" a bold question to the church about getting prepared for the coming of Christ. But the album really kicks off with the powerful single, "Music," boldly declaring Beckah's desire to take music back for God.
The dance infused, electronic club-beats keep coming strong with "Supernova," "Holy," "We Are," the title track as well as early single hits "Gold" and "#putyourloveglasseson," which proved a huge summer single for Beckah earlier this summer. This is a dance album through and through, but Beckah still slows it down while maintaining the beats for "Just To Know" and "For Such A Time Is This."
Beckah is fully engrossed in her musical ministry, using her platform to deliver words of encouragement for a world that's consistently becoming darker around her. She pulls no punches and gets to the heart of the matter on many songs. There's no question for what she stands for, and what she wants you to stand for as well. Destiny is inspired by Top 40 radio as much as it is from scripture, and it's done as well as anything we've yet to hear.
07. NEEDTOBREATHE - THE RECKONING - SEPTEMBER 20, 2011
I'm way late to this party. NEEDTOBREATHE
is respected by many to be one of the best bands in our industry and I've been scratching my head, wondering what I've been missing as I've seen their past three albums make it to countless year end "Best Of" lists. I don't know what it is, but I just haven't been captivated.
Well, you're reading this now, because that has all changed with The Reckoning
. This album had me with the first song, "Drive All Night," and didn't let go until 55 minutes later with the closing track, "Learn To Love."
I believe I know what the problem is. I tend to gravitate to more produced and polished fare. We all have our vices and mine is a song dripping with production. So artists that, at times, are more rough around the edges tend to escape my radar, for better or worse (many would argue worse, but it is what it is). But because of that, I'm appreciating my love for this album even more. It seems to be one of the few that has bridged my taste of a good hook with something of even more substance. I found myself absolutely engrossed by this album, and the more I unearthed, the more I discovered.
The passion in these songs is something very much akin to what has been driving me to Switchfoot as of late. This sounds like nothing guys could do sitting in the studio surrounded by empty space, wires, sound engineers and lava lamps. "Drive All Night, " "Oohs And Ahhs," "Slumber," "Devil's Been Talkin" and the title track should all be required listens for any upcoming artist on how to place emotion and heart into a vocal. I'm talking goose bumps, shivers and at moments, even tears. I'll be listening to this one for a long time to come.
08. NEWSBOYS - GOD'S NOT DEAD - NOVEMBER 15, 2011
The first lines sung by Michael Tait, with a simple synth chord behind him, ushers in one of the best artist driven worship project in years from a band enjoying new birth in their long storied career. "The King Is Coming" wonderfully kicks off the album and is one of only five original songs on God's Not Dead
. That fact alone should hold back an album from a year end list, but when Newsboys
are able to breathe life into one of the most covered songs of the past few years, ("Revelation Song") it's time to take notice to what they are doing here. This is more than a collection of their favorite praise chorus, slapped together to form a new album.
In multiple interviews, both Tait and drummer Duncan Phillips said they had no interest in covering a song unless they could make it better. It's a statement every band will say, but few actually pull it off. Newsboys has managed to take popular worship songs like "Your Love Never Fails," and "Like A Lion" and re-imagine them into pop perfection. You know the songs, but you've never heard them like this.
One song you won't know, but soon will, is "I Am Second," welcoming back a familiar voice to pop music, Kevin Max (Kevin also sings on the title track, though not as prominently as here). The song, I predict, will be the biggest hit off this album, and hearing Kevin pulled out from his heady, indie hole he's been hiding in for years is so welcomed. Let's hope this is a step that returns Kevin to the spotlight, because his voice is still simply unmatched and it so accessible in the right setting. This is it.
Michael's voice is so good as well and it just shines all over this album. With Duncan driving the beat on drums, Jody providing the passion on guitars and Jeff behind the majority of the programming, the Newsboys are in full stride and have delivered yet another must-own album.
09. DARA MACLEAN - YOU GOT MY ATTENTION - JULY 12, 2011
I had the privilege to see Dara Maclean
perform acoustically to a small audience as her label, Word Records, began introducing her before her summer debut. I remember thinking to myself, "Wow, I'm getting a first glimpse at next year's New Artist of the Year." And 10 months later, I'm fully expecting not only a nomination, but a well deserved win for Dara. Watching Dara sing her heart out, in perfect pitch was one of those moments I'll remember for a long time. She is a true artist through and through, humble and patient in His plan, and it was apparent she loves God and gives Him all the credit for her path.
Dara has a great, unique voice that is so needed in today's polished pop landscape. I appreciate albums that sound a little different and voices that stand out from the pack and Dara's music and voice does both extremely well.
Musically, You Got My Attention
fuses R&B, Pop, Soul and even elements of Jazz. Listeners will certainly appreciate the tones of Lauren Hill, Adele and even her own label mate, Francesca Battistelli.
I love listening to songs where you can actually see the artist smiling in your mind. Joy is not just lyrics on paper, it's a full emotion and not always brought through the speakers well. But Dara has joy and you hear it in the lyrics and the voice throughout songs like "You Got My Attention," "Free," "Nothin' You Won't Do" and the first single, "Suitcases."
Dara also provides some nice moments of vulnerability on songs like "Yours Forever" and "Had To Be You," which are musically stripped from production yet just as shiny as the other tracks.
As an artist that's not coming onto the scene fresh out of grade school, Dara has a great perspective on life that many new artists in our industry are only starting to discover. I believe that gives Dara an instant depth that is a joy, and instant comfort, to jump in. It's certainly one of the few debuts worthy to be placed on my Top 10 list this year.
10. ICON FOR HIRE - SCRIPTED - AUGUST 23, 2011
Surprisingly, I didn't gravitate to much rock this year, but the debut from Decatur, IL's Icon For Hire
is one that appeared instantly on my radar out of nowhere. From the opening electronic "Overture" I knew Scripted
was going to go beyond my expectations from the latest female fronted rock act. The electronic sounds over hard guitar lines instantly reminded me to Skillet, Fireflight and RED. But it was the lyrics, specifically the sheer amount of them, that peaked my interest the most. There are so many words crammed into each line, each delivered beautiful from lead singer Ariel that I wondered how on earth it would translate to a live show. Surely the studio is removing moments of breath, but I'm happy to say the live show is just as engaging as the record, and that impressed me just as much as the quality of musicianship.
There are few misses on this 12-track album that just doesn't slow down for what is a disappointingly short 32 minutes (I wanted more!) and "Get Well," "Off With Her Head" and their huge first single, "Make A Move" are some of the best on the album. Lyrically, the band is all about acting and moving forward in our spiritual walk, encouraging non-complacency in our faith.
Building a distinctive sound from the ground up on a debut album is getting tougher and tougher to do, but Icon For Hire has done it and I can't wait to hear more!
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.