We've come to the completion of yet another year of amazing music. More than 450 albums we're tracked this year on NRT and the majority of those came across my desk for at least a spin or two. Some blew me away, demanding a permanent and consistent rotation in my play list. Others were more stubborn as they tried to capture my attention, being discovered later than they would have liked. Of course, there were plenty of releases that left as fast as they came, destined to collect dust or be auctioned off at a church event.
These are the ones that stuck around. They represent a music fan's favorites. Some are overtly commercial, others may be a bit predictable but each has impacted me on a different level. You might not agree with all my choices, but I challenge you to pick an album on this list that you may have passed over and give it a second chance. It just may become one of your favorites as well.
Either way, take some time to post a comment about my choices and anything you feel I missed. The great thing about NRT is that we're all music fans, and by the end of the year, we should all be pointing to a few albums for others to check out.
TOBYMAC "PORTABLE SOUNDS" - FEBRUARY 20, 2007
I debated for awhile about putting such a successful release at the top of this year's list. tobyMac's third album is so sugar coated that is goes down a little too smooth. I've never questioned the album's music and have had no trouble digesting anything it's had to offer, but it almost seemed too easy to fall in love with. I questioned whether my "fanboy" was violently taking over, shielding my ears from truly being able to judge the album on its own merit.
This is tobyMac's third album, and the third time he's made it into my top 10, however it's the first time that I've honestly enjoyed his music more than anything else during the year. From the pop sensations of "Made To Love," "I'm For You" and "Suddenly" to the rockin' choruses of "Boomin" and "Ignition" to the "bring me some roller skates and a disco ball" addiction of "Feelin' So Fly", there's something everyone can latch onto and enjoy. True standouts include "No Ordinary Love" and the final track "Lose My Soul" that invites Kirk Franklin and Mandisa to the party.
The proof of a top album is in the details, and you'll find them all over Portable Sounds. You get them in the layered elements of each song, in the hilarious transitions between songs and the return of Toby's son, TruDog. You can actually hear the sweat and time that went into this album, and if it came as easy to Toby as it is to listen to the final results, then huge props to one of Christian music's most popular artists today. Either way, this album can't be denied as one of the best of 2007.
STEVEN CURTIS CHAPMAN "THIS MOMENT" - OCTOBER 16, 2007
Steven Curtis Chapman completely lost me around his album All About Love. His follow-up, All Things New had some incredible moments ("Much Of You," and the title track), but overall, it failed to capture enough of my attention for it to be memorable. So, naturally, I gave This Moment a fair shot because of Steven's incredible musically history, but I wasn't expecting much. It's always nice to be surprised.
From the opening line that says "It's time for letting go / all of our phonies" I was hooked. Something about that line said that this would be a different ride, full of transparency, purpose and challenge. Steven is really taking an opportunity to capture what's happening in the here and now and that instant reflection on the present seems to be a wonderful foundation for an album concept. In "Broken," he talks about our need to be put back together before we're anything but effective in our day to day. In "Cinderella" he challenges fathers to not miss a minute with their children"time that can not be regained. And in "One Heartbeat At A Time" he speaks to his wife about the challenges of constant motherhood and the true value of installing values into their children.
Steven's desire to continue to grow musically started with the electric guitar companion on the cover of his album Declaration and has continued (sometimes with embarrassing misfires) on albums since. He hits the bulls-eye this time around with songs like "Something's Crazy" and the Sunday morning anthem "Children of God" with the help from his sons.
After the first listen, I had no doubt that fans would soon be discovering Steven Curtis Chapman all over again. He is an incredible story teller, communicator and vocalist and this album should not be passed over by any Christian music fan.
MONK & NEAGLE "THE TWENTY-FIRST TIME" - SEPTEMBER 18, 2007
This album may very well be my "happy surprise" of the year. After a less than impressive debut a few years back on Flicker Records, I almost passed on even giving this album a chance, but after Reunion Records (their new label) played a few songs for me and asked if they could take part in an NRTeam Album Preview, I was forced to listen to the entire album. To think that The Twenty-First Time could have gone buried in my stack of "music to get to too eventually" is a shame. It's one of the better albums of the year.
Fans of John Mayer, Bebo Norman and Shawn McDonald will instantly love the acoustic drive of this album. Those who love the story telling of Mark Schultz and Casting Crowns will love the lyrics of songs like "Beautiful You," "What Soldiers Do" and "Wonderful Angel." If your favorite music is typically driven by vertical worship like Chris Tomlin, David Crowder*Band and Sonicflood, you won't be able to put this album down. Personally, I think Monk & Neagle are now in great company.
One of my favorite things about this album is the clarity of the lyrics over very simplistic music. There are a lot of love songs to wives, families and Jesus on this album. On "Beautiful You" they sing "The only thing I ever wanna do / Beautiful You / Is have you hold me in your arms." It's a great song that would apply to any relationship, but in this example, they are singing to the one who "put the stars in the sky and then taught them to shine." My wife can't do that, but it's a great example that we should love Jesus first, and our family second. Most guys have trouble expressing "love" and "admiration" to a God that typically has a "male" image in our society. It's a nice change of pace that can't go unnoticed and it's duplicated over and over. Monk & Neagle don't just love Jesus, they adore Him.
Overall, listening to The Twenty-First Time encourages me to love God more as well as everyone around me, even those I've never met. It also encourages me to start from the start and listen all over again. And that's a sign of a great album.
RELIENT K "FIVE SCORE AND SEVEN YEARS AGO" - March 6, 2007
I missed the Relient K boat early on and it seemed that no matter how many times it docked, I failed to hop on board. Maybe it was my inability to get past what I heard was an immature sound. It could have been their inability to write a song that didn't blur the lines between girlfriend and God. Most likely it had to do with my resistance to anything in the "punk" genre as nothing more than music typically enjoyed by 12 year old boys who were old enough to hate their parents, society and embraced "bucking the system." Whatever the case may be, I finally got on board with their fourth studio album, an incredible jump in my mind of an extremely talented band that finally embraced their full potential.
The album opens aggressively with "Come Right Out And Say It" and "I Need You" and flows into the more accessible "The Best Thing," "Forgiven" and their first single "Must Have Done Something Right." The band still sings about girlfriends of the now and then, but songs like "Give Until There's Nothing Left" and "Bite My Tongue" at least throw in a few morals for good measure. At the end of the day, "Five Score" is Relient K's most assessable album date, sure to please long time fans and capture everyone else who loves great music.
CASTING CROWNS "THE ALTAR & THE DOOR" - AUGUST 28, 2007
Mark Hall, lead singer of Casting Crowns and the group's main songwriter, recently said that the group's music is simply a means to the message, and it's apparent through The Altar & The Door that Casting Crowns continues to have things to say. There's something about they way they encourage, challenge, question and entertain in every song that no other group in Christian music is doing.
The third studio release contains some of their most powerful songs and moments including the first single "East To West" which speaks of the immeasurable distance God places between Himself and our sin and "The Word Is Alive," an instant anthem on the fact that God's word and promises are as real today as they were two thousand years ago. As a father with a wife and daughter to protect, the song "Slow Fade" reminded me that Satan attacks with baby steps, barely noticeable in the day to day. It continues to challenge me to run towards God. "I Know Your There" finds vocalist Melanie stepping up on lead and she carries it beautifully.
However, the group's third album is also their weakest offering to date. Maybe it's the constant interruption of music for youth group chatter, shouting preachers or a daughter's serenade (I'll never say it isn't cute). It could be the suddenly weak ending with "Prayer For A Friend" and the confusing hidden track that made no sense until it was explained to me at a concert that it was inspired by their recent visit to China. That said, I keep coming back to these songs and having to stop what I'm doing to reflect on my relationship with Christ, and that's why I'm still extraordinarily interested in what they have to say.
NATE SALLIE "RUINED FOR ORDINARY" - MARCH 20, 2007
The first single from Ruined For Ordinary, "Breakthrough" is an easy contender for "Song Of The Year" in my book and the video is one of the best I've seen since Jeremy Camp's 2005 video for "Take Your Back." Pair that with one of the most incredible artist transformations in recent memory (Remember his debut? You're not alone...) and you've got a pretty compelling reason to check out the sophomore release from Nate Sallie.
Nate proves he has vocal chops, song writing abilities, incredible charisma and enough passion to deliver and sell songs that are much bigger than him. There are not many artists that can outshine background choirs, huge orchestrations and building bridges that collapse into a whirlwind of a chorus. It's true that songs like "Let Go Of Me" and "What I Believe" are more like musical events than they are ordinary tracks. If Kirk Franklin was a pop singer, he might sound like this, weaving his way between punching piano transitions, brass explosions and rock elements.
If you're looking for an album that bucks the trend and delivers a unique experience, this is definitely it.
MERCYME "ALL THAT IS WITHIN ME" - NOVEMBER 20, 2007
For once, I would love for MercyMe to release an album in February. It seems that with each release, I'm scrambling to cram it into my ears before my annual round up and by the time I've had a chance to truly discover the album, it's fallen off my radar and never gets mentioned. This year, I made it a point to listen to MercyMe's latest and I'm glad I did. Unfortunately, I haven't listened to anything else the past two weeks. The album has consumed my daily rotation.
MercyMe is one of Christian music's most steady acts. They have faithfully put out new music on a regular basis and while they rarely break new ground with their songwriting, their albums consistently feel fresh and new. Much credit should be given to lead singer Bart Millard's incredible voice that consistently takes an ok song and turns it into a soaring balled or pop performance.
The groups' sixth national release finds MercyMe doing what they do best. There are driving pop songs like "Time Has Come" and "Goodbye Ordinary", beautiful ballads like "I Know" and worship-filled moments like "You Reign" and "God With Us". There are just some albums that are just easy to listen to and not much needs to be said about them. This is simply one of those albums.
THOUSAND FOOT KRUTCH "THE FLAME IN ALL OF US" - SEPTEMBER 18, 2007
The energetic Toronto band is back with their best album to date after misfiring with the disjointed The Art of Breaking. Completed in just three weeks after being challenged to record in the studio live, The Flame In All Of Us is an album that feels consistent, solid and seeping with raw energy.
TFK has never been shy about writing a hook, and The Flame In All Of Us does not disappoint. Songs from the title track, to "What Do We Know?" and "Falls Apart" are instantly familiar. The band also balances rock and pop perfectly from the low throat growling on "My Own Enemy" and "InHuman" to the final acoustic track "Wish You Well. They are one of the few bands that can go from rocking your face off to gently washing it (awwwwwww).
If I'm being completely honest, I stumble on songs like "New Drug" and "Favorite Disease." Relating a relationship with God to drug addictions and inescapable viruses is hard to bye into. I realize that makes me sound like a 90 year old grump, and I know it speaks to some, but I question the continued efforts to spin a new hook on the common mistakes that a lot of people work hard to avoid.
NEEDTOBREATHE "THE HEAT" - AUGUST 28, 2007
When initially creating this list, I had a few close friends suggest that I revisit this album. Needtobreathe's second national release came out at an incredibly busy time for Christian music, competing for attention with over 40 other releases around it's street date. Needless to say, needtobreathe got lost in the stack. I'm glad I have good friends, because after finally spending some time with this album, it has a well deserved place on my favorite for the year.
I heard the lead single "Signatures Of Divine (Yahweh)" back in April when the band was setting up the record and it blew me away as easily one of the best songs of the year. So it's really not a surprise to me that I instantly "got" the rest of the record. There are strong harmonies throughout, the vocals have subtle effects that add uniqueness and depth and the music is a continuous drive that's results in a fully flowing set of songs. The Heat is a simply a great rock album, and I'm fine with leaving the review there.
GROUP 1 CREW "GROUP 1 CREW" - FEBRUARY 20, 2007
There's probably not a review of this album that doesn't compare the group to the Black Eyed Peas and that's an incredibly fair comparison. The Christian market gets a lot of flack for mirroring the styles and looks of a mainstream world that always seems one step ahead. I'm a little more understanding of the desire to provide an alternative to what continues to be a genre void of any moral compass.
Group 1 Crew has come out of the gate with an impressive album packed with quality production, intriguing lyrics and musical depth. They balance their songs with equal parts rap and female led singing that gives each track. Really, the only fumble on the album is "Clap Ya Hands," a Latin flavored song that simply doesn't fit with the rest of the album's street feel. The rest of the album is so solid, it's hard to cite any flaws. Group 1 Crew's sophomore album is coming in early 2008. Let's hope this foundation is one they build on and we're talking about them again this time next year.
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.