NRT contributor Kevin Davis reviews his picks for the top 10 albums of 2009, along with 10 additional honorable mentions that make up one of the best years ever in Christian music.
Before 2009, I would have said the best year in Christian music was 1999, with Time by Third Day, 40 Acres by Caedmon’s Call, This Is Your Time by Michael W. Smith, Choose Life by Big Tent Revival, Underdog by Audio Adrenaline, Without Condition by Ginny Owens, Speechless by Steven Curtis Chapman, If I Left The Zoo by Jars of Clay, New Way To Be Human by Switchfoot, In A Different Light by Avalon, Watermark by Watermark and Listen Closely by Smalltown Poets.
2009 has been the most amazing year for new Christian music that I can ever remember. I can now name fifteen artists who, in my opinion, have released the best albums of their careers this year. And on both lists from 1999 and a decade later in 2009, it's interesting that Jars of Clay and Switchfoot are present on both lists. What a great way to cap off an amazing decade in new Christian music.
Here are my top 10 albums of 2009 and 10 honorable mentions rounding out my top 20 albums of the year. I'd love to read your comments if you have a few minutes to post. Enjoy!
01. NEEDTOBREATHE - THE OUTSIDERS - AUGUST 28, 2009
NEEDTOBREATHE’s third album is called The Outsiders—and listening to the anthemic title track that opens the 14-song collection, it’s clear that they embrace this label as both a badge of honor and a battle cry. The sons of an Assembly of God pastor, Bear and Bo Rinehart had inherited their father’s gift with words, and put it to good use in their songwriting; their mother taught piano, making music a constant part of their young lives. NEEDTOBREATHE was formed in 1999 by Bear and Bo with childhood friends Joe Stillwell and Seth Bolt from Possum Kingdom, South Carolina.
Perhaps you’ve heard past hit songs “Shine On,” “Signature of Divine (Yahweh),” “More Time” and “Washed By The Water” by this amazing band. If you like what you’ve heard before then you have to go buy The Outsiders right away. This album will have you hooked right from the opening title track, which really sets the tone for this album. As Christians, we truly are ‘outsiders’ and we need to ‘stand our ground’ as this anthem urges. “Valley of Tomorrow” reflects on that ‘little voice’ of the Holy Spirit speaking to us, killing our selfishness that turns us away from God. Next is the Peter Gabriel-esque anthem “Through Smoke,” with another picture of the Holy Spirit as the answers and the Truth that finds us ‘through smoke.’
“Lay ‘Em Down” is the first single and is based on the hymn “All Who Are Thirsty.” The gospel feel of the song is similar to Dove award winning “Washed By The Water.” I get choked up when I pray along to the words of the song “Come down to the river, Come and let yourself in, Make good on a promise, To never hurt again, If you're lost and lonely, You're Broken down, Bring all of your troubles come lay 'em down.” The alt-rock edge of “Hurricane” frames an incredible song about the sin that comes from our pride. Here’s the chorus: “We roll the dice we play like fools, We plead with time to change the rules, Its like a hurricane is coming our way, We've all been warned but we still chose to stay.”
Bear’s vocals are emotive yet honest, making the words he’s singing all the more powerful and moving. “Stones Under Rushing Water,” featuring Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek is achingly beautiful, both musically and perhaps even more so lyrically. The song is about the desire to maintain the joy over the years in a married relationship of slow dancing, laughing and smiling and not let those things fade away. Then there’s the blues-inflected rocker “Prisoner,” the back-porch ease of “Won’t Turn Back,” and the philosophically minded ballad “These Hard Times,” which reflects the album’s wide range of sounds.
The last 4 songs really show the musical and lyrical excellence and diversity of NEEDTOBREATHE. “Girl Named Tennessee” is a great fun song about an encounter with an unnamed girl from Tennessee. “Something Beautiful” is my favorite song on the album with these very moving lyrics:“Hey now, this is my desire, Consume me like a fire, 'cause I just want something beautiful, To touch me, I know that I'm in reach, 'Cause I am down on my knees, I'm waiting for something beautiful.” “Garden” is a gorgeous orchestral ballad sung in the person of Jesus in Gethsemane. I am extremely moved by the song and the bridge of “Father let My heart be for You, For You, For You, For You” has me in tears. As if the album wasn’t amazing enough, it ends with another anthem “Let Us Love,” calling us to action to “love like we were children and live like we’re still living.” I can’t think of a better way to cap off an incredible album.
I didn’t think NEEDTOBREATHE could topThe Heat, but each album has gotten better and The Outsiders is the most catchy and meaningful album I’ve heard this year. This is truly a 5-star album and ranks #1 for me for 2009 and is in my top 10 albums of the decade. Every song is absolutely amazing.
02. DAVID CROWDER*BAND - CHURCH MUSIC - SEPTEMBER 22, 2009
David Crowder*Band, the Dove Award-winning six-piece band, crafts compelling, inimitably progressive electronic rock. They are back with their new release Church Music arguably their most innovative effort to date. Packed full with 17 full tracks, “It’s our stimulus package,” the frontman player jokes. “We’re doing our part.” The band hopes this album serves as a reminder of the continual evolvement of music within the Church.
One of David’s favorite selections from Church Music is “God Almighty, None Compares,” because he loves “the guitar harmony…the guitarmony, if you will, and shredding is involved, which always makes me smile.” The band is rounded out by guitarists Jack Parker and Mark Waldorp, bassist Mike Dodson, drummer Jeremy Bush and electronic violinist Mike Hogan. For the epic “Eastern Hymn,” which is the rest of the band’s favorite song on the disc, David commissioned the translation of an ancient Chinese prayer book that he found last summer while the band was on the Passion World Tour, and portions of the translated tome appear in the song’s chorus.
The album opens with “Phos Hilaron (Hail Gladdening Light),” which sets the tone for this excellent album and my favorite overall album by this amazing band. If you liked Illuminate, A Collision and Remedy, then Church Music is for you. The album blends previous musical and lyrical styles with some new ethereal and ambient songs and an incredible cover of my favorite song of the year, “How He Loves.” To add to the uniqueness of the album, the 17 songs on the album play continuously from beginning to end with one song blending into the next. In order to accomplish this, the band poured an immense amount of work into the process, sequencing the tracks before anything had been recorded so keys and tempos could be finalized. The result: 73 full minutes of music. “Alleluia Sing” is next and has that signature David Crowder*Band praise and worship style similar to “Open Skies.” “The Nearness” and “Shadows” bring back the electronic feel from “Remedy” like “Everything Glorious” and “Can You Feel It?” “Eastern Hymn” is truly epic and flows beautifully into the next few tracks “SMS (Shine),” “The Veil” and “We Are Loved.” This section reminded me of the brilliant section of A Collision from “Do Not Move” to “Our Happy Home.”
The band even tackles a cover on the disc that has to be heard to be believed: Flyleaf’s “All Around Me.” As if the album wasn’t impressive already, David Crowder*Band's beautiful cover of "How He Loves," originally written and recorded by John Mark McMillan, is spectacular. The band finds a unique balance of capturing the sweet lyrical moments of the song but continually crescendos the intensity of the song and the message as the simple chorus builds over and over again. The genuine sound of the song reminds us of the simplicity yet magnanimity of God's love for us. “Can I Lie Here” and “Birmingham (We Are Safe)” bridge to the final section of the album in the style of “…neverending…” and “Rain Down” before the title track “Church Music (Dance),” one of the most fun tracks on the album. I can’t wait to see this song performed live as it has an electronic feel that will remind you of a 1970’s disco. The album closes with an amazing section from the unashamed praise of “What A Miracle,” and “Oh Happiness,” which reminded me of “We Win!” the guitar-shredding of “God Almighty, None Compares” and the epic closer “In The End (O Resplendent Light).”
03. JARS OF CLAY - THE LONG FALL BACK TO EARTH - APRIL 21, 2009
Jars of Clay has built an extraordinary career based on the uncompromising integrity of its music, worldview and humanitarianism. Jars of Clay’s last album, Good Monsters, was my favorite Jars of Clay album since the amazing self-titled debut. That album managed to reinvent the band’s sound while tackling subjects as diverse and demanding as social responsibility, spiritual doubt and the duality of the human heart. Now, three years later, Jars of Clay returns with The Long Fall Back To Earth. The album’s first single, “Two Hands,” builds on the duality theme from “Good Monsters.” Haseltine’s lyrics observe, “I use one hand to pull you closer / The other to push you away,” before going on to suggest that this internal conflict can be overcome with a simple, but profound course of action: “Two hands doing the same thing / Lifted high.” According to Dan Haseltine, “‘Two Hands’ was the last song we wrote for the record. We'd been trying to find a way to try to connect all the various themes of the album--relationships, faith, social justice--with one unifying anthem.”
That desire to connect is the primary theme of The Long Fall Back To Earth and nowhere is it more explicitly stated than in “Closer,” the first song recorded for the record. When Haseltine sings “I’ll drop out of the race for more personal space / ‘Cause the rockets we’re in get so cold, and I miss your skin,” he’s never sounded more direct or personal. One of the last songs written for the record is the instrumental opener “The Long Fall,” which gently introduces the theme of the record before giving way to the marching wake-up call of the song “Weapons.”
This is one of the most amazing albums I’ve heard in the past decade. Jars of Clay has managed to channel the best of themselves, almost unanimously agreed to be the self-titled debut album and give fans what they’ve come to expect with anthems like “Weapons,” “Two Hands,” “Safe To Land” and “Heaven,” the stand-out songs for me. They’ve also mixed up their sound and pulled out all of the stops with inventive new electronic songs like the instrumental opener “The Long Fall,” “Closer,” “Don’t Stop,” “Boys (Lesson One)” and the closing song “Heart.” I immediately replayed the songs “Hero” and “Scenic Route,” which are both amazing instrumentally and lyrically.
Whether you are a long-time fan of Jars of Clay or have recently discovered them, you won’t be disappointed with this album, which for me is a 5-star masterpiece.
04. BARLOWGIRL - LOVE & WAR - SEPTEMBER 8, 2009
Since releasing their self-titled debut in 2004, Rebecca, Alyssa and Lauren Barlow have continuously inspired fans with such intimate portraits, as with their sophomore set, Another Journal Entry and with such bold challenges as 2007’s How Can We Be Silent. For BarlowGirl the focus is always on sharing what God has placed on their hearts. They continue to do just that with Love & War. According to Becca Barlow: “I think there are two continuous messages that we are trying to get across on this album: One is that time is short, and we don’t have time to not follow the Lord. We don’t have time to do the things we desire to do. It’s time to be bold and follow the calling God has in your life. The second message is that it’s all about being in love with the Lord and about that relationship with Him. If we don’t have that relationship with Him, we can’t have the boldness.”
The first several songs build on the love and war theme with the upbeat opener “Come Alive” and the cry to “wake up, get out there’s no time to waste now,” which really gets to the heart of the matter, including the charge to “be the change we’ve all been waiting for.” “Open Heavens” keeps the theme of waking up going with the lyrics “can you feel the Spirit move you, calling all hearts to wake.” Both songs really grab me and fire me up to stand up for God and for my beliefs. Then, the first single, “Beautiful Ending,” hit me even harder with the challenging “it scares me to think that I would choose my life over You, My selfish heart divides me from You, It tears us apart”. The song is beautiful and encourages me to live for God. If you are looking for this album’s “Never Alone,” “I Need You To Love Me” or “Here’s My Life,” this is it.
“Stay With Me” keeps the theme of love going with the encouragement that “all I need is Your love pulling me.” “Our Worlds Collide” is also about love and the girls share how God has filled their hearts with love. The personal nature of the songs really draws me in as I have 3 daughters and want nothing more than for them to know the Love of God. “Love Is Marching” is another call to action with the very convicting lyrics “so when we breathe our last, can we say we have lived for more and did we live to die for love.”
“Running Out Of Time” brings back the war theme and makes me think about the choices I make and how I spend my time. “Time For You To Go” is the most rocking song on the album and possibly one of the most challenging songs with the lyrics “Isn't it nice to know, That the media will sway our votes, cause seriously we've got to see, that they choose what we know, our morals get thrown away, for the next big thing we've got to see.” The song finishes with the bridge reminding us that we’ve got to think for ourselves. “Sing Me A Love Song” is another personal love song that really paints a picture of BarlowGirl’s spiritual walk with the bridge ”cause You are what I need, all that I want is You with me.” The most challenging song for BarlowGirl to write was “Tears Fall.” The beautiful ballad focuses on BarlowGirl’s pro-life stance. “Tears Fall” is extremely moving and is filled with emotion, including the cry “God forgive us now.” The album ends with “Hello Sunshine,” which has an upbeat melody and optimistic cry to “let my eyes see the beauty.”
From the opening song, “Come Alive,” I was hooked by the theme and catchiness of this album, the best overall album by BarlowGirl in my opinion. From the standout first single, “Beautiful Ending,” to the gorgeous “Tears Fall” and the rocking “Time For You To Go,” this album delivers with BarlowGirl’s signature blend of excellent harmonies and great musicianship. Love & War has been in heavy rotation for me since it released.
05. SWITCHFOOT - HELLO HURRICANE - NOVEMBER 10, 2009 Hello Hurricane, Switchfoot’s first studio album since 2006’s Oh! Gravity, which debuted at No. 18 on The Billboard 200, acknowledges life’s storms while managing to find an element of hope in them. The band tracked more than 80 songs at its self-built home studio before narrowing it down to the twelve that appear on the new album. Hello Hurricane is the group’s seventh full-length album and its first on Atlantic Records. Switchfoot is comprised of Jon Foreman (vocals/guitar), Tim Foreman (bass), Chad Butler (drums), Jerome Fontamillas (keys/guitar) and Drew Shirley (guitar).
The album grabbed my attention right from the opening notes of “Needle and Haystack Life,” which will thrill long-time Switchfoot fans, and probably win them new fans with the U2-esque epic feel and extremely catchy music and lyrics. This is one of those albums that is meant to be experienced in the order it is arranged as lead single “Mess of Me” switches gears musically and brings a new grunge-type sound with the passionate lyrics “I wanna spend the rest of my life alive!” My favorite new Switchfoot song is next, “Your Love Is A Song” in the style of “On Fire” from The Beautiful Letdown. I’ve enjoyed this band since New Way To Be Human released in 1999 and Hello Hurricane truly brings a great mixture sonically and stylistically that fans of rock anthems, alt-rock and grunge-rock will enjoy. “The Sound” will also have you shouting along with Jon, whose vocals have never sounded better and musically, this song reminded me of “Stars” and “We Are One Tonight” from Nothing Is Sound, my previous favorite Switchfoot album. There is little that reminds me of Oh! Gravity, other than maybe the up tempo but more refined sounding rock songs that perfect the sound introduced with the title track and “Awakening.”
Some other highlights for me come towards the end of the album, which cools down with “Always,” a truly inspirational song in the style of “Twenty-Four” with this great bridge: “Hallelujah! / I'm caving in / Hallelujah! /I'm in love again / Hallelujah! / I'm a wretched man / Hallelujah! / Every breath is a second chance.” “Always” transitions beautifully to “Bullet Soul,” another Switchfoot anthem, which will have you moving with a great guitar riff and a call to action “are you ready to go?” As if the album didn’t have enough hooks, my next favorite track comes next with the ballad “Yet,” a gorgeous contemplative song with a sincere chorus: “I'll sing until my heart caves in, no, you haven't lost me yet”.
I find myself singing at the top of my lungs with each song, and “Your Love Is A Song” is one of my top 20 songs of the year. For me, Hello Hurricane is now the best overall album by Switchfoot and is one of my top 5 albums of 2009. The standout songs are “Needle and Haystack Life,” “Mess of Me,” “Your Love Is A Song,” “The Sound,” “Always,” “Bullet Soul” and “Yet.”
06. RELIENT K - FORGET AND NOT SLOW DOWN - OCTOBER 6, 2009
Relient K’s new album Forget And Not Slow Down is their first project since taking helm of their newly revived record label, Mono Vs. Stereo. Since 2000 they’ve released five full-length albums (three are certified Gold), five EPs and a Christmas record. They have toured the globe, and racked up several hit singles, a Grammy nomination and two Dove Awards. The title track, “Forget And Not Slow Down,” is the best new Relient K song I’ve heard since “Be My Escape” from my previous favorite Relient K album, 2004’s MmHmm. I love the band Death Cab for Cutie, and if you liked Plans by Death Cab for Cutie then you need to hear Forget And Not Slow Down.
To prep for Forget And Not Slow Down, Thiessen retreated to a remote house in Winchester, Tenn. in isolation for several months writing material for the new record. During his sojourn, Thiessen stayed in constant contact with Hoopes and the rest of the band-–drummer Ethan Luck, bassist John Warne and guitarist Jon Schneck--sharing song ideas and mapping out a direction for the album. For Thiessen, the solitary creative process was a lot like prayer. “Songwriting and praying are kind of synonymous for me,” he says. “You’re using your heart, you’re using your brain, you’re collecting your thoughts, inner emotions, and putting them all together, and you’re saying, ‘Where does this all fit into my life?’”
The results of that songwriting effort are evident as I was hooked from the opening notes of "Forget And Not Slow Down" right to the end of “This Is The End” (If You Want It).” The album is truly a musical and lyrical journey, and as a fan of emotional style rock like Death Cab for Cutie, Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional, this hook-filled album really works for me. In fact, Matt Thiessen’s vocals remind me of Ben Gibbard’s vocal style on this album. Some other stand-out songs for me are “I Don’t Need A Soul,” “Candlelight,” “Part Of It,” “Therapy,” “Savannah,” “If You Believe Me” and “This Is The End (If You Want It).”
This album is now my favorite overall album by Relient K and one of my top 10 overall albums of 2009. Every song is catchy and flavored with Relient K’s signature pop-punk sound, and for me, Forget And Not Slow Down tops all of their previous albums and reflects the maturity and polish of a band that has found their niche and is Relient K's crowning achievement in my opinion.
07. MARK SCHULTZ - COME ALIVE - AUGUST 25, 2009
Platinum-selling, Dove Award winning recording artist, Mark Schultz, releases his long-awaited, fifth studio album, Come Alive on Word Records. One of Christian music’s most acclaimed singer/songwriters, Schultz’s first new studio album in nearly three years is also his most personal recording to date, inviting listeners to “come alive” through these songs birthed by stories of hope, loss, joy and redemption.
I've been collecting Mark Schultz since his self-titled debut and his sincere songwriting and pure vocals have always caught my attention. The emotion behind his songs "He's My Son," "When You Come Home," "Letters From War," "Walking Her Home" and "Everything To Me" have all made my regular rotation of my favorite songs of the past 10 years in CCM. Come Alive Mark's fifth studio recording, is his crowning achievement in my opinion. From the emotional power behind first single "He Is," a great follow-up to hit song "I Am," to his story-song of encouragement "Live Like You're Loved" and the gospel-choir backed "Love Has Come," this album had me singing along in praise to my God and Savior from start to finish.
Opening song “All Has Been Forgiven” gets this great album going with an upbeat reminder of what it means to live in the freedom of God’s grace. That theme continues with the second song “Grace Amazing,” another upbeat anthem that could be sung in churches as a great new version of “Amazing Grace.” Both songs have solid musical arrangements and signature guitar parts that fans of bands like MercyMe, Remedy Drive and even Coldplay will enjoy, especially the intro to “Closer Than I’ve Ever Been,” which reminded me of “Viva La Vida.”
“He Is,” the first radio single from Come Alive, is an expression of this hope that was inspired by the stories of two families battling cancer. "Payton Cram was a girl who came to one of my concerts in Michigan with her dad,” recalls Schultz. “I was really amazed at her maturity for her young age, even though she had cancer. When the cancer started to get bad, I flew up and spent a day with her and prayed with her and her family. She was a beautiful girl. She was never going to blame God for her cancer. She never asked ‘Why me?’ She just always knew there was a bigger purpose in it.” During the same time Payton was fighting cancer, Mark learned from his wife, Kate, about a missionary family whose fourth child was born on a Friday and on Sunday they found out the mother had terminal cancer. “The father of the family said, ‘Well, we can’t praise God on Friday and curse him on Sunday…We have to trust that He knows what’s going on,’ and that’s when the idea of ‘He Is’ was born,” says Schultz. “He is, He was and always will be. It’s a pretty important message–no matter what kind of rough road you are riding through.”
“What It Means to Be Loved,” is “the only song I’ve ever played in concert that received a standing ovation before the end of the first chorus was over,” recalls Schultz. Kate was again a source of inspiration for the song: “My wife said to me, ‘Since you are adopted, I think we should adopt kids too. I think we should adopt kids with special needs…maybe someday we adopt kids with special needs that doctors know are only going to live for a year or two,’” recalls Schultz. Here are some of the lyrics: “I want to give her the world / I want to hold her hand/ I want to be her mom just as long as I can and live every moment until that day comes/ I want to show her what it means to be loved."
“God of Glory” and “Closer Than I’ve Ever Been” keep the great musical and lyrical intensity going. “God of Glory” is another song that I can imagine singing in church with fellow believers. “Closer Than I’ve Ever Been” is one of the songs I keep playing over and over with the musical hook and the personal uplifting lyrics. The title track, “Come Alive,” was co-written with Matthew West and is another highlight. It is sung in the person of God calling out to “Bring your broken heart to me, Lift it up and you will see, That love can make a heart that’s barely beating, Come alive, come alive.”
As a father of 3 young daughters, I am very moved by the song “Father’s Eyes,” which is an emotional parallel for me of what it means for my daughters to know that they are loved by their earthly and Heavenly fathers. The album closes as strong as it starts with a story-song of encouragement "Live Like You're Loved" and the gospel-choir backed "Love Has Come."
This is the best overall album by Mark Schultz and one of the top albums of the year in my opinion. “He Is,” “What It Means To Be Loved,” “God Of Glory,” “Come Alive” and “Closer Than I’ve Ever Been” are among my favorite songs ever by Mark, and I expect GMA Dove Award nominations for this great album.
08. PHIL WICKHAM - HEAVEN & EARTH - NOVEMBER 17, 2009
In some ways, the seed that eventually grew into Phil Wickham’s third studio album, Heaven and Earth,, was planted while reading Donald Miller’s Searching For God Knows What, which happens to be one of my all-time favorite books. There is a chapter about Adam and Eve and how humanity falls in the third chapter of the Bible. Like Phil, I am also very moved thinking about the concept of struggling with our separation from God knowing that we had Paradise. The first song, “Eden,” is all about that idea and right from the first notes of Heaven and Earth, Phil had me hooked both musically and lyrically. Even with the critical acclaim he’s garnered, for the first time in his career, Wickham feels that he has a story to tell: He wants to remind the Church for what and who we are created for. The album continues with “Coming Alive,” and if you like mainstream Brit-rock artist Keane, then you need to get this album. Not only does Phil’s vocal style resemble Tom Chaplin, but musically his tight guitar licks and synth-rock style also reminds me of U2 and Coldplay, which is pretty amazing company in my opinion.
What sets Phil apart from those best-selling mainstream artists is his sincere and unapologetic faith-filled Christian lyrics. The title track, “Heaven & Earth,” features Phil’s signature soaring vocals with these very convicting words: “these are the lines we’re choosing to cross, between heaven and earth.” That sentiment is really our calling as Christians to live by faith and be in the world but not of the world. Possibly the most catchy track on this very catchy album is next with “The Time Is Now.” The song has another calling for Christians: “let’s be the resistance, it’s time, the time is now for lifting souls, the time is now for letting go, let light and love come rushing through the door.” As I delved into the amazing lyrics, the song swirled musically with a great electronic string melody that I’ve been humming all day. As if I couldn’t be more impressed musically, Phil knocked my socks off with next track “Hold On,” one of my favorite songs ever by Phil Wickham. If you like “Spiralling” by Keane, you need to hear this song. Musically it picks up where “Crumble To Pieces” and “Must I Wait” left off, but takes it up a notch with a synth-dance rock beat and extremely catchy and very sing-able lyrics: “love is going to make it right, just hold on, just hold on, there’s mercy in the morning light, when you’re weak, love is strong, hold on.”
The first single on the album, “Safe,” also features a duet with MercyMe’s Bart Millard who just so happened to be passing through San Diego as Wickham was recording the song. The lyrics of “Safe” serve to encourage, strengthen and remind listeners that they are not alone as they say, “You will be safe in His arms, You will be safe in His arms, the hands that hold the world are holding Your heart, this is the promise He made He will be with You always, when everything is falling apart you will be safe in His arms.” The next four tracks “I Will Always Love You,” “In Your City,” “Your Arrival” and “Because of Your Love” all keep Phil’s emotional vocals and catchy musical style going as a great musical experience leading up the two closing tracks “Cielo” and “Heaven Song,” which bookends the concept started with “Eden.” “Heaven Song” has Phil quietly confessing “Oh my God, I’ll be ready for You, I want to run on greener pastures, I want to dance on higher hills…my soul is getting restless for the place where I belong.” This album is just filled to the brim with Phil Wickham’s brilliant songwriting, singing and musical style. He deserves multiple GMA award nominations and is my male vocalist of the decade!
This is definitely Phil Wickham’s best overall album and one of my top 10 albums of 2009. For me the standout songs are “Eden,” “Coming Alive,” “Heaven & Earth,” “The Time Is Now,” “Hold On,” “Safe” and “Heaven Song,” which are all among Phil’s best songs ever along with his all-time classics “Divine Romance," “You’re Beautiful” and “True Love.” I can imagine singing many of these songs with fellow believers and although Phil hasn’t really been a radio fixture in the past, these melodies are off the charts and any test audience will have a hard time not giving these songs 5 star ratings. This is a 5-star album.
09. SARA GROVES - FIREFLIES & SONGS by Sara Groves - NOVEMBER 17, 2009
"This one is the songwriter's album for sure." Almost as an afterthought, Sara Groves concludes an in-depth conversation about her new recording, Fireflies & Songs. Well put. At the same time, it should be pointed out that Sara's parting descriptor is a testament to how the album was approached and recorded rather than a proclamation of Fireflies' superiority over her other widely-esteemed work. With her two previous INO recordings, 2005’s Add to the Beauty, which includes You Are The Sun, and 2007’s Tell Me What You Know, which includes “I Saw What I Saw,” Groves focused on a theme and wrote poetic commentary with songs about social justice and the impoverished.
However, early in the pre-production process of Fireflies & Songs INO Record’s president Jeff Moseley suggested that "It's been a long time since we've heard from you," saying, "I want to check in with you. What's happening now in your life? What is life like for you as a wife, mother, daughter and friend?" Sara's songwriting has long been ubiquitously described as extremely "vulnerable," "honest," "transparent," "intimate" and "real."
Each of Sara’s albums have received well-deserved acclaim for her premier songwriting ability. Sara’s major label debut album Conversations includes “The Word” and she was nominated for best new artist. She has followed up each album with her next “best” album with 2002’s All Right Here which includes “Less Like Scars”, and 2004’s The Other Side of Something which includes “The One Thing I Know.”
Fireflies & Songs begins with Sara musing about “30 years ago I was a little girl" hearing a woman singing “you don’t bring me flowers anymore”. As a late 30’s male who grew up listening to that same song when I was a little boy, I immediately identified with Sara’s reference and also having 3 young children, I found every reference amazingly relevant as I’ve also been married for 15 years, same as Sara. She continues with “From This One Place”, which had me praying along with Sara in response to bouts of anxiety. “Different Kinds of Happy” is another one of Sara’s classic songs of vulnerability with these lyrics “I’ve got to ask you something, but please don’t be afraid, there’s a promise here that’s heavier, than your answer might weigh”. “Twice As Good” is a relational song to one of Sara’s friends.
Each of her albums has always had at least one song that pulls my heart strings and brings out an emotional response. From “Maybe There’s A Loving God” to “I Saw What I Saw,” I always expect at least one of Sara’s songs to make me cry. On Fireflies & Songs that song is “It’s Me.” The picture of how a husband and wife hurt each other with emotional wounding words is capped off by Sara’s crying out to the boy she loves “it’s me, baby it’s me, how in the world can tenderness be gone, in the blink of an eye.” The song makes me cry just writing about it. “This House” is written to Sara’s daughter Ruby and is based on Psalm 84:11. The album ends with two of my all-time favorite songs by Sara, “Eyes Wide Open” and “Joy Is In Our Hearts.” “Eyes Wide Open” is confessional with the lyrics “I’ve got layers of lies that I don’t even know about yet” and concludes with “when the lights come up on this town, when the thing goes down, I wanna be telling the truth”. “Joy Is In Our Hearts” is worshipful and was written to encourage believers serving on the front lines of social justice. Sara is an avid supporter of International Justice Mission and Food For The Hungry.
Sara’s excellent songwriting and captivating piano-based, singer-songwriter style have made her my favorite female artist in all of Christian music. If you like Nichole Nordeman, Ginny Owens and Bethany Dillon, you must get Fireflies & Songs. For me, the standout songs are “Fireflies & Songs,” “Different Kinds of Happy,” “Eyes Wide Open,” “Joy Is In Our Hearts” and the gut-wrenching “It’s Me.” It’s hard to imagine, but Sara has now once again released her “best” album topping all of her previous excellent work.
10. STOP & LISTEN BY BETHANY DILLON - SEPTEMBER 8, 2009
Bethany Dillon's Sparrow Records' debut stood out because at only 14, she was a serious writer and artist creating her own material mature beyond her years, with an authenticity of expression and an ability to own the emotion in her music. Similar to Amy Grant and Rebecca St. James, Bethany has grown up as an accomplished artist in Christian music. Bethany is now 21 and married to Shane Barnard of the group Shane & Shane. Stop & Listen is her newest studio album. Each of Bethany's first three studio albums impressed me, particularly her singing voice. Waking Up really took it up a notch in my opinion with standout songs “The Kingdom,” “Let Your Light Shine,” “Top Of The World” and “When You Love Someone.”
The first song, “Get Up And Walk,” impressed me so much I had to listen to it again immediately. According to Bethany, she read this St. Augustine quote she’d scribbled down a couple months before, “To this you answered me that you are my God, and with a mighty voice you speak to your servant in his interior ear, and break through my deafness.” This inspired me to begin singing the words that start “Get Up and Walk.” The song is catchy and biblical, which really sets the tone for this great album. In addition the first single, “Everyone To Know,” is next and is my favorite song on the album. This song is deceivingly light-hearted sounding, but behind it there’s a very confronting commandment. I often forget what a commandment it is to share who Jesus is in my life and what He’s done. I think it’s a pretty common sentiment among American believers not to want to be too pushy with their faith. Just like “Let Your Light Shine,” this song convicts me to share the Gospel.
“I Am Yours” is based on the story of Hosea and how he was challenged to have faithfulness in extreme circumstances. The title track, “Stop & Listen,” is another favorite of mine on the album and is based on the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. You can take away a clean house, a finished “to-do” list, or a perfectly ordered life, but you can’t take away the good portion of sitting at His feet and listening to what He has for you. “Say Your Name” challenges me to focus on my prayer time and pray to be known by God. “So Close” continues that theme of taking time to be near to God.
“Reach Out” is the story of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garments and was healed by her faith. “Deliver Me” is Bethany’s personal prayer about her insecurities and her confessions of pride and lack of love. “The Way I Come To You” keeps the personal prayer going where she acknowledges our freedom from sin which comes from God’s mercy and grace through Jesus and how we are “forever changed.” Closing song, “In The Beginning,” comes from Isaiah 55 and Bethany wrote it while writing for Glory Revealed II.
Bethany’s ability to put the words of the Bible to song is truly a gift and the melodies and messages of Stop & Listen are all catchy and convicting. My favorites are “Get Up And Walk,” “Everyone To Know," “Stop & Listen,” “Reach Out,” and “Deliver Me.” If you like piano-based music like Ginny Owens, Meredith Andrews and Nichole Nordeman, then you must check out Bethany Dillon.
The following are worthy albums that also deserve your attention. Click on the links below to read my full review.
Kevin Davis is a long time fan of Christian music, an avid music collector and credits the message of Christian music for leading him to Christ. Kevin also writes reviews for ChristianMusicReview.org. He currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and three daughters.
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