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The Top Ten Albums Of 2005
These are the records that I played most in 2005. Some may engage. Others will entertain. All will satisfy.

2005 was an incredible year for music. With one of the heaviest release schedules in recent memory, there was certainly plenty to choose from and the process of selecting my favorite ten posed to be quite the challenge. Some of my picks may be predictable, some may even say "boring," but when it comes down to it, these are the records that I played most in 2005. Some may engage. Others will entertain. All will satisfy. Enjoy!

Just when you thought this San Diego alt-rock band couldn't get any better, along comes their fifth studio album, Nothing is Sound, a fierce attack of twelve songs that invades the ears and captures the mind. Recording much of the record on the road, they produced the album themselves with the help of A Beautiful Letdown's John Fields. The result is nothing short of perfection.

It retains Foreman's signature thoughtful, questioning lyrics and bathes them in huge hooks and crashing guitars. From tracks like "Lonely Nation", to the hit single, "Stars," there's certainly a theme of greater expectation throughout. Switchfoot has done a wonderful job of melding everyday thoughts of humanity, vulnerability, loneliness and self-esteem with strong, Biblical theology and values.

It's not a watered down message, but it's certainly directed at the seeker. Those who are reading the same Bible as me will find Jesus' command of "Go, and make fishers of all men" as something we need to do. For Switchfoot, it's obvious that they are utilizing their mainstream success as a platform to impress and share their hearts with their fans, whoever they may be. Be thankful you've been invited on the ride.

Five years is a long time between albums. Sure, Rebecca released two very successful worship projects and a best-of collection, but for fans waiting patiently to hear new music, it's been trying times. So who knew Rebecca would return from a much needed sabbatical to release the best album of her career?

Like the title, Rebecca's fifth studio album has much to offer with Rebecca's trademarked passion for unique self-written music"from rock and pop to symphony"it's music that sonically embraces her passionate lyrics of devotion and praise to God.

The orchestration on this album is beautiful, which gives songs like "You Are Loved," "Love Being Loved By You" and "Shadowlands" beautiful layers that create events more than tracks, offering new surprises with each listen. Rebecca's lyrics show new depth as well as she moves away from always having the answer to asking some important questions that make her more relatable than ever before.

Rebecca also teams up with a few artists with great results. tobyMac joins her vocally and behind the board producing "Thank You" and BarlowGirl help out on the raw and honest " Forgive Me."

Finally, I have to comment that Rebecca's voice has certainly matured with time. Her range has strengthened as she delivers a solid performance that is most noticeable on the opening song, "God Help Me," easily one of her most rock influenced tracks to date. Rebecca's voice has always been unique, but she avoids being too breathy that has plagued past albums. Her voice is just beautiful and I wouldn't be surprised to see a Female Vocalist of the Year nod next year.

Overall, this is a record that should not be looked over. Each track is solid and you'll find yourself slipping away multiple times enjoying a pure return to form from one of Christian Music's most loved female artists.

I've sat in many meetings over recent years where industry veterans, radio programmers and even the artists themselves mulled over the status of Christian hip-hop. Disappointed with sales, lack of support at radio and the minimal budgets that allow creativity to only go so far, everyone seemed to be pointing fingers without coming together to find a solution. My opinion: It's all about the music. There have been very little Christian hip-hop artists that have blown me away with their music, and in order to be successful, artists must reach outside their core audience in the Christian market.

T-Bone's latest offering, Bone-A-Fide is his second release for Flicker Records, seventh studio album and the best Christian hip-hop album to hit the streets in recent memory. The album enlists a powerhouse behind the board with producers Buster & Shavoni (Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams), the Avila Brothers (Usher, Janet Jackson) and Warryn Campbell (Missy Elliott, Mary Mary). The result is a relevant sound that takes pages from the beats of the Beastie Boys, Lil' John and Kayne West while presenting a solid message of redemption and challenging invitations to step up to a better life.

T-Bone isn't ashamed to share how he's paid his dues and deserves your respect. On "Follow T" he says he's "the dopest to breathe on the mic and claim victory" while assuming the title of "the king of the conscience rap" on "A Few Good Men."

I will admit that T-Bone's lyrical themes (giving the people quality music without giving them sex or profanity) border on redundant towards the end of the album, but the quality of the production and the delivery behind the mic more than make up for this forgettable offense.

The album peaks in the middle with "Shake Your Body" in which T-Bone crams what seems to be an infinite amount of rhymes into a fifty second lyrical barrage that ends in T-Bone yelling, "What?" Exactly. Attempting to keep up is a mind bending exercise in concentration but in the end, it's a musical equivalent of the best amusement ride you've been on. It's short and quick, but after it's over, you want to jump back in line and ride the adrenaline rush all over again.

Other highlights on the album include "Let That Thing Go" which catches your attention with phrases that would probably have your parents and peers questioning your choice of music. I also gravitate towards the end of the album's "Bounce" which references pretty much every culture I am not a part of.

And that's what I love about this album. I'm not a gangster. I don't pack a piece. I didn't grow up in Compton or in poverty. I've never stepped into a prison. Yet I've related to this album more than any other this year. It just goes to show, the message of Christ crosses all boundaries. Well, that, and I'm incredibly hip to the beat, yo.

If there ever was a question before, Casting Crowns certainly solidified their spot as one of the top Christian bands in recent years. With over 71,000 units scanned in the first week, their new album, Lifesong, debuted at No. 9 on Billboard's Top 200 album chart, surpassing sales of new CDs from Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. In the digital world, they broke records for Christian album downloads and the first single landed at No. 12 on the mainstream Digital Album chart. For those of you keeping track at home, it's the highest first-week sales for a Christian act since Nov. 2003.

So how does a band less than two years old accomplish such a feat? By creating great music. Lifesong is packed with more of the same heart that drove their debut album past one million units sold and shipped three number one songs to radio.

"The songs on this new album try to look at what a life of worship looks like," says Mark Hall of Casting Crowns. "Whether we are called to 'Praise God in this Storm' or simply 'Love Them Like Jesus' we must begin to see all of life as about Him and not us. That is what we want to say to the church this time around."

Not unlike their debut, Mark slams some hard hitting balls straight at the church with challenges of continuing to reach out, standing strong in faith and staying true to the call on songs like "Stained Glass Masquerade" and "Does Anybody Hear Her." "I don't think it bothers the world that we sin," Mark continues. "I think it bothers the world that we act like we don't."

Stand out tracks on the new album include "Love Them Like Jesus" and what is sure to be their next #1 radio smash, "Praise You In This Storm," a song that still sends chills down my spine after multiple spins. "As your mercy falls I raise my hands, and praise the God who gives and takes away." That's a line that can drive a grown man on his knees, especially with the events Americans are facing with the recent hurricane tragedy. "Set Me Free" is a welcome harder edge to this band that lives comfortably in the contemporary genre.

Casting Crowns has released one of the best albums of the year that is both musically and lyrically solid in every way, shape and form.

For her third release, twenty-two year old Joy Williams has finally arrived. Her first two albums found her awkwardly falling into the teen pop craze that infected too many, giving her talent a potential that was never achieved. Her debut was filled with synthesized sounds and forced lyrics, while her follow-up tried too hard to shed the "teen pop idol" image without providing any solid growth on the song writing.

On Genesis, it's a whole new Joy that will take many listeners, well, by surprise. After growing up on the road fresh out of high school, becoming more independent from those around her and ultimately meeting the man of her dreams (whom she married last year), Joy seems to have finally found herself. It's this self discovery that has clearly filtered down into her music.

Produced by Matt Bronleewe (Natalie Imbruglia, Jars of Clay, Michael W. Smith), Genesis is the first album on which Joy has co-written every song. There is a dynamic feel to her music that is original and fresh. Its progressive pop rock sound combines unique programmed elements, ambient electric and acoustic guitar, driving piano and even stringed instruments recorded in Prague.

Songs like "We" and "Say Goodbye" seem to drive themselves musically, while lyrically, Joy sings about finding yourself ("Say goodbye to the you you knew before / This is your Genesis.").

Joy's voice has always been phenomenal, but it soars on songs like "Hide," "God Only Knows" and "Unafraid." There are not many female artists that could sing these songs as beautifully as Joy delivers.

There is little to trip over on this album, which says so much from an artist who previously had yet to really connect with a solid release. Let's hope that this is the beginning of something new and wonderful. Her Genesis.

Modern praise and worship continues to evolve as churches around the world hunger for new and exciting ways to worship. One of my favorite worship leaders has emerged after four dry years with a new album. Lincoln Brewster helped kick start the Vertical Music label imprint for Integrity Music back in 2000. Lincoln recently released his second album on Vertical (his fourth all around), and it's a definite step in the right direction. Since Live To Worship, Lincoln moved to Granite Bay, California where he resides with his wife and son and serves as the worship leader for Bayside Church.

The new live recording captures everything that God has been doing for the church over the past couple years and includes a multitude of new worship songs that are just incredible. I haven't been able to put this album away for the past few months. The songs have truly blessed my life and have forced me into a state of worship many times throughout the day.

The album starts strong with "Majestic," "Love The Lord" and "Amazing," three rousing praise songs that include some wonderful moments of rest and sanctuary along with some incredible guitar work. New worship songs include "For These Reasons," one of my favorites on the album and "You Are The One," penned a couple years ago with Paul Baloche. The end of the album gears back up with "Let The Praises Ring" and "You Are Good" by Isreal Houghton.

Overall, it's the perfect balance that allows one to sit back and forget about the world around them. If you aren't afraid of having church in your office, living room, car or wherever else you may listen to music, this is one collection you shouldn't pass up.

Third Day continues to impress me with their eighth studio release, Wherever You Are. Third Day, to me, has always been a solid band, but for whatever reason, has failed to capture my attention from their recorded projects. However, for the second release in a row, I've been pleasantly surprised.

Wherever You Are starts incredibly strong with the rock flavored "Tunnel," built on a strong guitar riff that appears at the beginning and end with full force. "Eagles," soon to be a radio smash hit on a station near you, continues with a driving ballad. The third track is the current #1 hit, "Cry Out To Jesus," which the band used early on in the album's set-up to help a hurting nation during the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. Typically, by track four, you expect things to slow down, but "I Can Feel It" would give U2 a run for their money and gives a welcome change of pace to the typical Third Day rocker. "Keep On Shinin" could be the summer anthem Santana wished he wrote.

The rest of the album remains incredibly solid, combining into what is possibly one of the best albums from Third Day in recent memory. Other than "I Can Feel It," this is still a very familiar Third Day, polished through time and experience on the road. Unlike other bands, who seem to toss their fan base around with each release, (settle on some sound Jars of Clay), Third Day is a sure bet. You know what you're getting, but this time around, the results feel a little sweeter than before.

It's no secret that I'm a huge Jeremy Camp fan. I'm fully expecting him to be closing out festival shows in five to ten years. His ability to capture an audience with song after song of humility soaked music places him in a category above many other artists and groups. So, I want to make it clear that the choice to place his live album on my list did not come from the fan of Jeremy Camp, but from the fan of great music.

It's true that there are no new songs on Live Unplugged, a disappointment that is well forgotten by the end of the second track, "Right Here." After listening to this very familiar song broken down with acoustic guitar, light percussion and a rousing piano accompaniment, one will realize that this is not your typical live album.

Recorded live in Nashville, Tennessee and released with little fanfare, one gets the unique feeling while listening that they have dropped right into the middle of a well rehearsed jam session in Jeremy's living room. The music is raw, yet real"simple, but layerd"quiet, but passionate.

"Stay," one of Jeremy Camp's harder songs, almost works better in its stripped down version and highlights Jeremy's voice, solidifying his two year reign on "Male Vocalist of the Year." The same is true of "My Desire."

The album effectively proves Jeremy is more than solid production and biceps. His music shines brighter the simpler it gets. So, I choose this album not for the songs. They have been rewarded well in the past. This album makes the cut for the innovation that went into presenting the familiar in a new way that is also unexpected. That's one surprise that would be welcomed more often.

I've been a fan of Big Daddy Weave since their debut national release came out back in 2001. Since then, the band has certainly solidified their sound through better production, but their heart and passion has remained true to form. Big Daddy Weave is a worship band with original music. Their lyrics are vertical in nature and their music rouses a desire to turn out everything around you and focus on the grace and mercy of our God. Few artists and groups are able to do that as good as Big Daddy Weave. Their ability to guide the listener into a state of worship within the first two songs is pretty amazing. And when I say worship, I don't mean sitting there with your eyes closed, swaying back and forth to pretty, melodic tunes of praise. Most of the time, it's "shut the shades, close the door, make sure no one's looking and rock out" type of music. Think Napoleon Dynamite without the moon boots.

Big Daddy Weave's third album on Fervent Records finds the band expanding sonically with the rousing intro "What I Was Made For" (one of the best songs I've heard from the group, although it goes by too fast at just under 3 minutes) and the equally rocking "For Who You Are." Fred Hammond stops by for some Sunday morning church on "Killing Me Again" and the band threw on their worship duet "You're Worthy Of My Praise" with label mates BarlowGirl. The rest of the tracks, and I mean every single one of them, are solid reminders of God's strength, power and solidity. So with their third album, the bases are certainly loaded with great music. I expect their fourth at bat to be nothing less than a Grand Slam.

Christian music's most licensed band ever (most recently, "It's On" will be the theme for NBC's broadcast of the 2006 Winter Olympics while "Anthem" will be the theme for MTV's new Real World/Road Rules Challenge) dish out 10 more tracks for their anti-conformity fans.

Beauty From Pain takes an in-depth look at the artists' personal lives. Over the past year, most every band member faced the breakup of a serious relationship, and as these painful moments took root, the band naturally allowed the experiences to flow into the songs.

The album starts strong with "Anthem" which rallies the masses that "don't give up" including "the girls on their boards with bruises and scars" and "the girls whose fingers bleed from playing guitar." I might not be able to relate, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the pop perfection overdubbed with heavy guitars.

"Pure" is a catchy song that plays well at radio and "Wishes" is the classic Superchick love song filled with heartbreak and choice between love and growing up. One of the most gripping songs I've heard in a long time is the title track, which is a beautiful ballad that delivers hope in Christ when faced with the worst situations. "After I've cried my last, there'll be beauty from pain" sings Tricia Brock, whose voice is allowed to flourish with little but piano backing her up.

tobyMac comes on board to help with "Stories (Down to the Bottom)" which was also featured on his Welcome To Diverse City album. It's a great song that's given more layers with the eclectic members of the group.

The album wraps with "We Live," which shares the stories of those facing the end of the road. "What do we do then, with tragedy around the bend?" For all of us, we'll face similar situations at one point in our lives and our choices are to rejoice or regret. Superchick answers with "We live, we love, we forgive and never give up. For the days we are given are gifts from above." It's a great way to end an album that is at times fun, at times reflective while always being mindful of Christ's love for our lives. In the end, the band spent nearly a year and a half composing the album and six months recording it and it shows as one of the better releases of 2005.

Still craving for more? Here are five albums that barely missed the Top 10.

Falling Up - Dawn Escapes (10.25.05)
Falling Up returns with their second album that delivers their hard-edge sound that so many fell in love with last year. Towards the end of the album, you begin to think you've heard it all before, but the solid drive throughout creates an enjoyable listen no matter what track you jump into. This is certainly one of the best rock releases of the year!

Shawn McDonald - Live In Seattle (04.26.05)
Shawn picked up the guitar for the first time a few years ago, and since then, it's been a match literally made in heaven. Shawn's got our vote for the most potential as he prepares to release his second album in March 2006. Until then, enjoy this live album that delivers all his best in an acoustic setting with three new songs thrown it to tide the craving for more McDonald.

4th Avenue Jones - Evolution Of Stereo (03.29.05)
A solid debut from this new hip-hop group can easily stand right next to any Black Eyed Peas release. The album falls off towards the end, but there are not many places to get a solid hip-hop record in our marketplace. Check out the songs "Stereo," "Fabulous Dramatics," "Overloaded," "Unhappy Birthday" and "Take Me Away."

Sara Groves - Add To The Beauty (10.04.05)
Candidly truthful and compassionately hopeful, the fourth release from acclaimed singer-songwriter Sara Groves is another creative expression of faith and relationships. At times, Sara's music gets a little slow, but her lyrically ability to wear honesty on the sleeve, tapped with her organic and beautiful voice, creates an album that shouldn't be looked over.

Bethany Dillon - Imagination (08.16.05)
Her second album showcases an artist whose eyes and heart are open wider for trying, all the while carving out her own unique place among the most respected singer/songwriters in Christian music. Did I mention she's seventeen? Expect great things to come and enjoy this album in-between. "Dreamer" was also the title song for the mainstream movie release by the same name.

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.

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