2013 was another big year in the Christian music scene with several headliners releasing long-anticipated new albums. It was a year of comebacks and rebranding. Artists like Hawk Nelson and Audio Adrenaline came out swinging with new vocalists. Others like Skillet and Plumb returned from multi-year absences in new music. Others followed the regular bi-yearly pace of album releasing. And as always, several new faces stormed onto the scene demanding their place at the musical table. So what songs and albums shined the brightest in the year 2013? And what albums are the most exciting going into the year 2013? Well, this is my take on the matter:
Best Albums of 2013:
10. Hawk Nelson – Made: Longtime Hawk Nelson frontman Jason Dunn departed the band last year and the band promoted from within, appointing Jonathan Steingard to lead vocalist duties. This year, the band’s debut full-length under this new identity debuted, and it was good. While there is a very noticeable style shift and it’s arguably a lot more watered down than anything the band has done before (and it seems like lead-single “Words” has taken off so big that no other songs from the album are finding commercial appeal yet), it was an undeniable success. Maybe it’ll take an album or two before the band totally find themselves in this new style, but as an album, Made was still a roaring success.
9. We As Human – We As Human – We As Human made some big waves in the rock world of both Christian and mainstream markets. Opening for acts like Shinedown and finding some crossover success with rock single “Strike Back,” the band (‘discovered’ by Skillet frontman John Cooper) promises to be a future Christian rock headliner. Their debut album showed potential that will hopefully be fully realized on subsequent albums.
8. Anberlin – Devotion: The only re-release on this list, and likely the only re-release that will ever land on my list for the foreseeable future. This album was an example of what re-releases should (and could) be. More than just a simple money-grab like most re-releases, this one came with discs worth of new content from a Live album, to b-sides, to remixes, to a DVD. Not to mention new artwork and a brand new title. If anything, the new material is so great that the fact that it is a re-release is almost a disservice to it. With little tweaking, it could’ve had a much stronger and standalone musical identity if it had not tried to be “Vital Special Edition” and instead included the remaining few b-sides from Anberlin’s Universal Republic days to form a super ‘extra goodies’ project. Instead, it will sort of stand in the shadows of Vital, a better edition of a terrific album (and my No. 1 last year) instead of the completely epic collection of goodies that it could’ve been. Still, it’s hard to fault this album for what it’s not. It’s still one of the best re-releases you ever will see and probably one of only a small handful possibly worth your money. So for what is, it’s still cracking my Top 10 of the year.
7. Silverline – Lights Out: Silverline is a strange case of a band. They seem to have a fair deal of success on Christian Rock radio, garnering several No. 1 hits. Yet they still seem to be lesser recognized than their other chart-topping peers. But this album proves that they have a sound that commands to be heard and appreciated more. With potential hit after potential hit, Lights Out was an unquestionable home run of an album. And to be fair, “Vicious” did find some success. Hopefully their follow-up album will get the attention it deserves.
6. Red – Release The Panic – By now, Red is solidly viewed as among the top acts in Christian rock, up there with TFK and Skillet. Their 4th album was seen as a mixed bag by many fans. Some experimentation didn’t pay off, but a lot of the songs that had the ‘Red sound’ still resonated with listeners. “Glass Houses” and “If We Only” promise to be quintessential Red songs. While it perhaps isn’t as amazing as it could have been, it was still one of the best things in music this year.
5. Audio Adrenaline – Kings & Queens – Let’s be real. This isn’t your big brother’s Audio Adrenaline. Coming out of retirement with a non-vocalist lead singer and hiring an otherwise all-new band with an iconic singer of another famous 90’s act does not constitute a reunion. But it was still a recipe for a must-hear album. Start to finish, there are pop/rock tunes that demand radio airplay throughout and “Believer” sounds like something that should command just about every music chart out there. So regardless of the bit of false advertising that is calling this group ‘Audio Adrenaline,’ their comeback release was still one of the best releases of the year.
4. Newsboys – Restart – Continuing to prove that the DC Talk members are still the most influential artists in the biz, the Newsboys roared into their 3rd full-length album with Michael Tait as lead-vocalist. While the Newsboys of today are not the Newsboys of years past, they still are one of the most commanding presences in Christian music. Taking a step into a more dance-oriented album, Restart proved to be quite the igniting blend of pop, rock, and industrial beats. Unquestionably a highlight of a crowded year in music.
3. Everfound – Everfound – The biggest surprise on my list no doubt. It surprises me too. I never saw myself ever putting a band like Everfound on my list at all, yet alone so high. They have all the ingredients of a likeable enough pop/rock band that have been coming out in the biz at a good 1-per-year pace (ie. Rush of Fools, Tenth Avenue North, Mikeschair) and definitely seem like a band I’d listen to singles from. But to actually have me liking their album from start to finish is quite an accomplishment. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly it is about Everfound that resonates so much, but it’s undeniable. The melodies and rock beats, the passionate arena vocals, and the tight and emotional lyrics, they all work together to create a true class act that I am eager to hear more from in the coming years.
2. Plumb – Need You Now – Plumb hadn’t released a full-length album in nearly 6 years, and it’d been even longer since it was a proper non-lullaby Plumb album. Delayed a good a two or so years and retitled in honor of last year’s tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, it felt like Need You Now would be forever in limbo. But through all the sporadic single releases, name changes, and delays, the album finally dropped in February of this year. And what an album Need You Now was. Even at the end of the year, it still has one of the most powerful collections of songs this year. The powerful “Need You Now,” the peppy “One Drop,” the heartbreaking “I Want You Here,” the encouraging “Drifting,” this album had it all. Plumb took everything you loved about her and mixed it into one of the most satisfying final products she’s ever put out. And so it’s a no-brainer that she’s so high up on my year-end list, and many others as well.
1. Skillet – Rise – This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read my review of the album here on NRT. (Hint: It was the only release I gave 5 stars to all year.) To put it simply, this album was from start the finish the most memorable and challenging piece of music released this year for me (with a 1-song exception I try hard to forget about). When a collection of music moves me all this time later and forced me to go out and snatch up the deluxe edition on Day 1, not simply as a fan but because it is simply a must-hear record, it’s a rare thing. There’s simply no competition this year. Rise rose to the top on Day 1, and it stayed there all year.
Just missed it: Marc Martel’s Prelude EP was a satisfying and memorable solo debut from Marc Martel. The only reason I didn’t include it here is because it’s a bit unfair to compare EPs and full albums, and I didn’t have any many other EPs to include this year.
Jars of Clay – Inland – This is a popular favorite among many year-end lists I’ve seen. I get it. JoC is a class act and a legendary presence in Christian music. There’s not been a truly bad album released from them. I suppose, for me, Inland just wasn’t the memorable piece of art it was for others.
The Afters – Life is Beautiful – I honestly could see myself swapping this and my No. 10 choice over time. I found myself considering including it several times as I enjoyed several cuts from it. So this is a definite honorable mention in my book.
The Best Songs of 2013:
Here are the individual songs released this year (so that excludes songs like Need You Now that came out last year) that, for me, have earned their place at this exclusive year-end table. While still limiting myself to 1 slot per artist, I’ve decided to let some artists have 2 songs in their slot if I feel they had 2 songs among their ‘best’ this year. So without further ado:
10. The Letter Black – “The Only One”/”Found” – Emotional and powerful rock ballads are where this band excels and these two are them at the top of their game.
9. Mikeschair – “People Like Me” – A personal ballad about overcoming struggles through Christ, this song promises good things for Mikeschair’s next album.
8. Plumb – “I Don’t Deserve You” – Whether sung to God or a loved one, this song about being loved despite being broken is a powerful and relevant message in a time where it seems feelings of abandonment are all too common.
7. John Elefante – “This Time” – This powerful song speaking about how Elefante’s adopted daughter was saved from abortion is a truly powerful message and could serve as a new anthem for being Pro-Life. These days, it’s tough to imagine an evil that needs more addressing in Christian culture than this. Elefante proves courageous in not falling into a quasi-acceptance of the horrid practice.
6. Everfound – “God of the Impossible”/”Torch” – Everfound was arguably the best new artist this year and these songs are some of the best off of their debut.
5. Anberlin – “IJSW” – Anberlin gave us 3 new tracks with Devotion, and IJSW is arguably the most mysterious and infectious of the bunch. Seemingly random nonsense at times, it somehow still manages to be beautiful and meaningful. Sometimes called “I Just Sang Whatever” because Stephen Christian just went into the studio and recorded the demo without writing it first, the song proves that a true artist can make even spontaneous offerings resound with relevance.
4. Audio Adrenaline – “Believer” – A passionate pop anthem that can stand up to anything on mainstream Top 40 without question.
3. Red – “Glass House” – It’s got strings, a passionate chorus, a rocking bed, and Mike Barnes’ signature vocals. In other words, it’s a quintessential Red hit.
2. Marc Martel – “No More Hurting People” – Written in honor of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing (and the youngest victim, Martin Richard in particular), this powerful anthem is a rallying cry to work to bring Christ to the world so that, one day, it’s title might become reality.
1. Skillet – “Not Gonna Die” (HM: “Rise”) – Two of the best songs of Rise were ones that followed the tried and true Skillet formula. Strings, duet between John and Jen, and crunchy rock music. It’s the best treat of the year and the kind of music I can listen to on repeat for hours and not be bored. The operatic interlude to NGD is alone enough to warrant it’s placement at the top of this list.
HM: Newsboys – “We Believe,” Silverline – “Lights Out,” We As Human – “Zombie,” Jonathan Thulin “Dead Come To Life,” *(Technically released last year but was released as a single and exploded to the tops of the charts this year)
Christmas Corner: There seemed to be a lot of Christmas releases this year that offered some memorable potential classics. John Schlitt released a Kickstarter-funded Christmas project that was solid from start to finish and offered us here at NRT an outlet to get our rockstar groove on for our Christmas card. For King & Country released one of the strongest Christmas EPs by any artist in years. And several others such as Brandon Heath and Sidewalk Prophets at least gave us some memorable Christmas original hits (ie. “Just A Girl” and “What A Glorious Night” respectively) that I could surely see standing the test of time. With quality like this, it should definitely have enough power to carry us over to next year’s release. The funny thing about Christmas releases is that we almost never know who will be recording Christmas songs for next year. I suppose it leaves the speculation field all the more interesting.
Best Music Videos: Jonathan Thulin: “Bombs Away”/“Dead Come To Life”
John Elefante: “This Time”
Biggest “What Ever Happened To?” Act: Ivoryline
Most Anticipated Albums of 2014:
For King & Country – Untitled – They had one of the best albums of 2012 and are poised for a follow-up next year. If it’s anything like their first, it’ll definitely be one to top year-end charts come this time next year.
Marc Martel – Untitled Full Length – I’ve been looking forward to this album since before Downhere even semi-retired last year. And given that Martel’s tended to drop new music without much notice, I am expecting this album at any time now. I’m eager to see what a full-length record from the famed Mercury-soundalike will do. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait too far into the new year to find out.
Anberlin – Untitled – There’s no confirmation of a new Anberlin studio album yet but they haven’t missed their 2-year schedule yet and I am hoping they don’t start now. (Although the label change and release of Devotion could delay this until 2015…) Either way, their next album is sure to dazzle. The only reason it’s not higher on the list is because I honestly don’t know for sure if it’s even coming out this year.
Switchfoot – Fading West – I love Switchfoot. I do. I suppose I just don’t love them quite as much as everyone else to give them the automatic top place on my list of anticipated albums. Still, I am excited to finally hear the much-anticipated soundtrack to their documentary.
Mikeschair – All or Nothing – I’ve always liked Mikeschair and felt that they transcended much of the blandness that dominated much of AC radio. Their third full-length is poised to drop early next year and I can’t wait to get a look at it based on the high quality of the initial songs I’ve heard from it.
Kutless – Glory – It seems the Kutless of Hearts of the Innocent and To Know That You’re Alive is officially in hibernation. Kutless seems to have embraced their worship side almost fully now. Their last outing, Believer, offered a respectable balance between their two sides. And hopefully their follow-up, Glory, will keep that going and not veer too far from the rock side of Kutless.
Daniel Kirkley – Limitless EP – Daniel Kirkley has the voice to make just about anything he sings sound good. Some describe his voice as Josh Groban meets Billy Joel. After over 6 years in the business, Daniel has felt God calling him back into the career path he initially was going to choose, medicine. Which means his music is likely to at least take a back seat in the near future. This makes the release of his already-planned EP all the more special. And it makes me all the more eager to hear it. It’s set for an early-January release. Here’s hoping whether it’s a grand musical sendoff or just an intermission, it’s as truly satisfying as everything else Kirkley has done.
The Classic Crime – What Was Done Vol. 1 – This Kickstarter Acoustic Anniversary Project was funded fully within a few hours: Reason 1 to be excited about this. It’s The Classic Crime: Reason 2.
Sumerlin – Runaways – Sumerlin is a new name that is slowly creeping onto folks’ radars. And many notice their stylistic resemblance to early Anberlin. Given that I am such an Anberlin junkie, I suppose it’s a no-brainer that I am more than a little excited to see what their new release has in store.
Nine Lashes – From Water To War – I liked a good deal of songs from their debut and am curious to see what their follow-up looks like. Hopefully it doesn’t fall into what is becoming a fairly dreaded curse of second albums from T&N bands being finales.
Closing Thoughts: So there you have it, the best in Christian music this year, according to me. Here’s hoping that next year is even better, despite 2013 being a fairly tough act to follow. Who (if anyone) will get the coveted 5-star reviews? Who will surprise with an unexpected (or early) release? Who will make a comeback? Who will break hearts with departures? Who will disappoint with below-average quality? Who will do something nobody is even thinking about right now? It’s full-speed ahead to what is sure to be another fantastic year in Christian music. As cliché as it is, recent history proves that literally anything can happen.