In the midst of the recording industry battling double digit decreases, the sheer amount of new music thrust at consumers continued to explode this year. In the past twelve months, NewReleaseTuesday.com has reported on over 350 new releases from the three major distribution companies. I've had the privilege of listening to the majority of these titles, and unlike last year, narrowing the ten best from 2003 was a much harder task.
Although there was still a lot of unnecessary stuff to wade through, there were some great albums that rose to the top and if you have yet to listen to any of the ten titles listed below, I suggest you get yourself to a music store as soon as possible. Thanks for a great year here at NewReleaseTuesday.com and I look forward to staying with you during the next 365 days.
Phillips Craig & Dean - Let Your Glory Fall (January 28, 2003)
Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig and Dan Dean-better known as Philips, Craig & Dean-released a worship album packed with today's most popular praise songs as well as three new worship anthems. Let Your Glory Fall, the follow-up album to the group's highly successful first worship project, Let Your Words Be Few, encapsulates one central truth: If there's anything good, anything true, anything amazing, anything worth living for, it's all from God and for His glory. The track selection is perfect because most of these songs have yet to be modernized in the recent worship collections. Add to that the three new worship songs that are welcome territory and you get a praise and worship album with such a fresh feeling that is so absent in many of the offerings that we are seeing released today. Vocally, PCD are at their ultimate best. You never feel like you are listening to three voices, but one blended harmony that feel simply natural, a credit to producer Nathan Nockles (Watermark, Point of Grace, downhere). This is the way worship should be and the smooth production allows you to close your eyes and be transformed into a worship experience with God.
Caedmon's Call - Back Home (February 4, 2003)
Let's set the record straight before I start this review. I have never been excited about a Caedmon's Call album before so I'm not familiar with their history. The only thing I know is that Caedmon's new album, Back Home, has captured something in me that their previous recordings have not. I'm not sure what that is, but this album is incredible from every angle. Never before have I found myself simply walking the block in the late night hours totally immersed in music from people that are so obviously connected with the Holy Spirit. From the music, to the vocals, the instrumentation and the lyrics, this album puts a smile on your face and evokes a desire to know God more. It its' purest form, Back Home is a worship album. "You Created" says "You've created nothing / That gives me more pleasure than You," which reminds us that nothing in this world can satisfy us like the love of God. "Walk With Me," (beautifully sung by Danielle Young), says "My cup overflows / You restore my soul" and highlights the promise that God can take our broken lives and make them new again. "The Emptiest Day" says "When you wrap your arms around me / I can walk away or face the emptiest day" retells the truth that with God, anything is possible. None of this is terribly profound, but they are simple reminders that we tend to forget. Sometimes we make God so complicated, we fail to revel in His simplicity. I'm betting that there are more fans of great music who have yet to pick up a Caedmon's Call album, just like myself. To those, I challenge you to pick up Back Home (since fans of Caedmon's will already love this album). I promise you will be encouraged, enlightened and this album will help break any chains that are holding you down.
Switchfoot - The Beautiful Letdown (February 25, 2003)
This group has consistently released some of the best albums in Christian music, and they continue to raise the bar on The Beautiful Letdown, their fourth studio release. With keyboardist Jerome Fontamillas joining the full-time line-up and recent backing by Sony Music, the group continues to evolve into the major success they have been destined for. Lead singer Jonathan Foreman opens up with self-revelatory songs about hope, love, faith and the desire to be more than what he's been sold. Jon connects with subtle emotional power, surveying a landscape of mediocrity in "More Than Fine," digging for painful truths in the title track "Beautiful Letdown" and stepping on a distortion pedal to scream about the dissonance of the modern age in "Ammunition." On the lead single, "Meant To Live," inspired by TS Elliot's The Hollow Man, he strives to survive in a world where love and hate breathe the same air. Musically, the band is as diverse as the topics penned in their lyrics, creating a style all their own. "We've never fit in any of the genre boxes," says Foreman. "I think that diversity is our strength." Whatever the magic formula contains, its charm is on full force on "The Beautiful Letdown."
Evanescence - Fallen (March 4, 2003)
I will make this clear right now. In this review, I am supporting the album and not the group. Evanescence, much like Creed, is a mainstream band and while the group made waves early on by denouncing the fact that they have any connection to Christianity, there is no denying the spiritual themes woven carefully into every song on the band's debut national release, Fallen. While I understand there is a huge chasm between religion and Christianity, I continue to be encouraged by this album in a way that no other collection of songs have been able to reach me. Fallen is an extremely dark album, diving head first into depression, suicide and loneliness. Lead singer Amy Lee dances on the edge of discovery that so many of us can relate to as she lyrically struggles with her inner demons. Life is usually not as black and white as some make it seem, and songs like "Going Under," "Everybody's Fool" and "Imaginary" scream this truth. The drive behind the album is not only in Amy's soaring, ever captivating vocal energy, but also in Ben Moody's driving guitars that assault the choruses with a vigor made popular by bands like P.O.D., Linkin Park and Creed. While the band can rock with the best of them, they understand the whole picture and are able to work a ballad just as well as the inner struggle of acceptance in almost every track. This acceptance is presented best in "Tourniquet" as Amy sings, "I'm dying praying bleeding and screaming / Am I too lost to be saved / Am I too lost?" While the band may be set on cutting the rope attached to the world of Christian music, I hold onto the truths presented that God is always running after us and that his reach has no boundaries. Whether or not Evanescence presents hope to a fallen world, or in the midst of searching themselves remains to be known. Either way, I am finding pieces of the great puzzle with every listen.
Stacie Orrico - Stacie Orrico (March 25, 2003)
The number of Christian artists making a true impact in the world of mainstream music can be counted on one hand. The number of those artists who are seriously seeking the lost on a day-to-day basis is even smaller. And narrow the list even further to artists that have yet to be legally recognized as adults, and Stacie is the last one standing. With a gold-selling debut behind her, Stacie has found new life as Virgin Records pushes her solid sophomore release to the MTV generation. The new record finds Stacie stepping up the R&B grooves, combining her amazing strong vocals with hit makers Dallas Austin (Pink, TLC), the Underdogs (Tyrese), Diane Warren (Whitney Housten, Mariah Carry) and Virgin CEO Matt Serletic (Santana, Matchbox Twenty, Aerosmith). Lyrically, the album does a fine job of balancing the mainstream/Christian tightrope, giving her Christian fan-base plenty of songs to enjoy and providing mainstream hits to broaden her reach in the new marketplace. On "Stuck" and "More To Life," the first hit-singles from the album, Stacie speaks of wanting something greater in both relationships and everyday living while "Hesitation" talks blatantly about wasting time: "Why the hesitation / God is ever waiting / Gotta stop procrastinating / Can you feel me?" Musically, the album is a comfortable transition from the teen-pop phenomenon, but songs like "Tight" and "Bounce Back" give throw backs to the format that put Stacie on the map just a few years ago. Overall, Stacie passionately delivers a solid album that has already more than doubled her fan base...all before the age of 18.
Amy Grant - Simple Things (August 19, 2003)
If you desire to know Amy better, all you need to do is listen to her music. Her lyrics throughout the years have told stories of love, broken hearts, hard times and on Simple Things, her eleventh studio album and seventeenth release, she returns full circle to sing of healing, forgiveness and happiness. Unlike her 1999 release, Behind The Eyes, which highlighted an incredibly dark and painful time in Amy's life, Simple Things finds Amy falling into the pure grace of God and reveling in a forgiveness that humanity will never be able to match. One of the most personal songs on the record happens to be one of only two songs that Amy didn't write, and it captures the heart of the album. She sing son "Innocence Lost," "I can be pure again / In spite of my innocence lost / In his eyes I'm a new born child / Cause I expect his love / I have a new found hope / For I found my innocence lost." For years, many in the Christian community have shunned Amy due to past decisions, but this record should help to continue the healing that Amy is obviously searching for in herself and from her fans. No one is better off and for her to go through the pains of life in front of all only to discover her faith stronger than ever before is the testimony we need to listen to and grasp a hold of. "Simple Things" is an album that everyone needs to experience and breath in. I hope you have that opportunity soon.
Big Daddy Weave - Fields Of Grace (September 30, 2003)
Big Daddy Weave released their debut album in 2002, capturing the highest debut for a new artist and securing the highest charting AC single for a new artist that year as well. As good as that album was, it failed to capture the group's high-energy live performances. Consider that issue resolved with the group's second album on Fervant Records, Fields of Grace. Produced by Jeremy Redmon (guitarist) and Mike Weaver (lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter) of the band, Big Daddy Weave has successfully taken their songwriting and their production to the next level, delivering an album overflowing with songs worshiping the freedom, grace, forgiveness and healing that God delivers to all who seek Him. Highlights on the album include "New Every Morning," showcasing the pure musical talents of this group including saxophone and keyboard player Joe Shirk in some incredible solos and "Completely Free," a simplistic ballad that speaks the truth of finding new life in Christ. Big Daddy Weave has proved that their first album was not a fluke. The band is gifted in writing captivating songs, contagious in both their rhythm and their worship. While comparisons have been made to Big Daddy Weave and even Steven Curtis Chapman it would be unfair to group this band into a genre. They are truly a unique find in a land full of copycats.
Casting Crowns - Casting Crows (September 30, 2003)
Casting Crowns began as a student worship band in Daytona Beach, FL in 1999, but unlike many of the "youth group bands" that are releasing sub-par music into the marketplace, the debut album from Casting Crowns is a wonderful collection of songs overflowing with challenging lyrics pointed directly at the forehead of the church. Lead by Mark Hall, a youth pastor for the past 12 years, the group's ability to blend captivating choruses, harmonies and hard-to-hear truths were perfected in the studio by co-producers Mark Miller (the hyper-animated frontman for the veteran country group Sawyer Brown) and Steven Curtis Chapman. On songs like "American Dream," which documents a father's neglect as he chases after the material nature of providing for his family, and "If We Are The Body," challenges Christians in the church to step outside the exclusive circles we are involved in and see the needs of others around us. Standout tracks include "Voice of Truth," a beautifully written song about keeping your focus in a world that continues to distract us, and "Who Am I," a powerful ballad where Mark drops a simple reminder of God's grace: "Not because of who I am / But because of what You've done / Not because of what I've done / But because of who You are." The song is given even more depth by Melodee DeVevo's vocals, reminiscent of Caedmon's Call. After listening to this album, you can't help but feel reenergized to continue to reach higher for God's standards...just like any good Sunday sermon should do.
Jars of Clay - Who We Are Instead (November 4, 2003)
Jars of Clay have often claimed that their records begin with a question. The group's latest studio release, Who We Are Instead, tackles the issue of who we are truly called to be as Christians in a world that is not our home. Gracefully balancing the mirror themes of joy and suffering, the band maintains their distinctive harmonies and signature guitar sounds while musically exploring gospel, blues, rock and organic influences. While exploration with various sounds is not out of the ordinary for this band (their musical landscape evolves with each release), this is the first time since their 1995 debut that it has felt comfortable from beginning to end. A big surprise on the record lies right in the center. "Trouble Is" captures the Americana flavor of the record in full force, and you can't help but wonder if Jars is toying with the idea of becoming the next Soggy Bottom Boys of O Brother, Where Art Thou. They pull off the southern gospel flavor wonderfully. The standout track on Who We Are Instead is the infectious "Show You Love," one of the best pop singles from the band in recent years. Who We Are Instead fails to provide a song to jam to, but in it's stripped down simplicity you find a peace and joy that is akin to quiet times spent with God. It is there that Jars of Clay lands in the latest offering from a popular group that redefines its sound with each release...this time, for the better.
Tait - Lose This Life (November 4, 2003)
It is extremely rare to find a new group so on top of their game with just one album under their belt. While lead singer Michael Tait has had lots of practice as one-third of the mega-group dc talk, there's no denying his new band, Tait, has gelled into a solid group striving to attain credibility on their own. Consider it secured. Lose This Life is eleven well-produced, well-written songs that weave pop, rock and sometimes rap into a cohesive blend of sonic candy. Songs like the gorgeous ballad "Fallen" (written after Michael's sister died of AIDS), the plaintive techno-pop gem "Child," the poignant "Heartbreak" and the passionate heart-cry "God Can You Hear Me," all draw listeners into that place where the experience of their own hurt and God's comfort coexist. The record also includes a throwback to the 1980's with Eddie Grant's reggae-flavored hit, "Electric Avenue," which has been updated on Lose This Life with a matrix dance-pop feel. With the addition of a few words to the chorus, the song, originally about suffering and injustice, now communicates a message of love, hope and peace that this world so desperately needs. It is arguably one of the best cover songs a Christian group has created in many years. Produced by Mark Hiemerman (dc talk, Stacie Orrico, tobyMac) and Michael Tait, Lose This Life finds the guys in a comfortable place with a clear message of the gospel to those who are searching, hurting and even compliant with their faith.
It's my article. I could have easily made this the Top 15 of the Year, right? Unfortunately, I caved to the pressure of continuing the road that was paved before me. Greats like David Letterman and the Cookie Monster can't be wrong. So I'll take a risk and list five other albums that deserve your ear. Hey...it's my article!
Derek Webb - She Must & Shall Go Free (March 25, 2003)
The lead singer of Caedmon's Call went solo and released a potent album of truth aimed at the heart of the church. The challenges in most of these songs take a little research and careful listening to figure out, but what can you expect from the the lead of one of the deepest bands in Christian music? The music and message remains raw and true to form.
downhere - So Much For Substitutes (June 10, 2003)
The critically acclaimed band skips the dreaded sophomore slump with So Much For Substitutes and delivers an album that is rougher around the edge than their debut. Just the sound they needed to match their live performances. Musically, this album is full of passion and the lead vocalists soar with just the right amount of "Kevin Max inspiration."
Across The Sky - Across The Sky (July 8, 2003)
If you love pure pop and good vocals, this album is for you. Ben Kolarcik and Justin Unger combine their unique styles and musical flair on their national debut release. The music is incredibly catchy and well produced, but it never goes over-the-top meaning it should be relevant for years to come. This is a very comfortable album to get into.
ZOEgirl - A Different Kind Of Free (September 16, 2003)
On their third studio release, ZOEgirl's sound matures with their audience and the result is one of their best efforts yet. The lyrics are just as strong, tackling major issues that relate to today's woman versus girl yet it appealed to me in it's honesty. Admit it or not, us guys struggle with popularity and acceptance just as much as the opposite sex. We're just so great at sucking in...speaking of which, do I look fat?
Michael Gungor - Bigger Than My Imagination (November 11, 2003)
Bigger Than My Imagination is one of the best praise and worship albums I have heard in a long time. This studio recorded album is mixed just like a live praise and worship event, melding all ten songs into a continuous set, but it avoids the distracting clapping and background vocals that permeates many releases today. The music is original, vertical and best of all...good!
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.