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Christmas Vol. 1 EP by Planetshakers Christmas Vol. 1 EP by Planetshakers
At the beginning of December, Australia-based worship mainstays Planetshakers released their first-ever seasonal effort: Christmas, Volume 1. The four-song EP is a mix of pop and R&B-infused...
Greatest Hits: The First Ten Years by Francesca Greatest Hits: The First Ten Years by Francesca
Usually the release of a "Best Of" project marks the achievement of a number of noteworthy singles and albums. Francesca Battistelli has joined that musical elite with her 'best of' collection,...

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The Flame of Glory and Wonder | Posted September-28-2016
Best-seller Erwin McManus (author of The Artisan Soul) founded Mosaic MSC, a worship band based out of his Mosaic Church in Los Angeles, in an attempt to create music that is "like kerosene igniting a fire in the hearts of millions across the world." Mosaic MSC recorded their second album, Glory & Wonder, at their home church in the heart of Hollywood in an attempt to accomplish this goal. 

The album opener "Across the Universe" sets the pace by establishing the sound and voice of the Mosaic church. The appropriate opener serves as the worship band's theme song, describing how God's love and power is limitless. There is a smooth transition between "Across the Universe" and the album's second song, "Heartbeats."

"Heartbeats" is an upbeat hand-clapping love song that praises the Master of the Universe with a catchy hook: "I wanna know your heart, heart / Show me Your heart." The album's tempo slows with "Speak to Us," a worshipful anthem that speaks to God in reverence: "You are the voice that brings us hope / Speak to us."

The angelic voice and piano in "How Beautiful" flawlessly creates an atmosphere of overwhelming intimacy between singer and Savior. Despite the length and chorus repetition, the song's intimacy lasts until the very end. "Now and Forever" has a catchy hook, however, the verses drag and the sound is predictable--similar to songs on other live worship albums.

Like "Heartbeats," "Not Afraid" is a finger-snapping duet with a clever arrangement that gives the listener an opportunity to praise God while busting a groove. The sound unfortunately lacks diversity and spontaneity--the band uses the same arrangement of instruments in "Not Afraid," as well as other songs on the album.

Glory & Wonder's title track, also the album closer, creates closeness between listener and savior--the completely vulnerable listener can freely worship God in reverence. The singer interrupts this closeness with some unnecessary dialogue, but the right time the worship leader rallies the audience to sing along as the song reaches its climax. The studio version of "Glory and Wonder" is clean and polished and well worth the $1.29 on iTunes. 

The Bottom Line: Mosaic MSC gave a solid effort on Glory & Wonder. Without a doubt, the band can easily establish a sound--fast-paced songs and beautiful, sincere ballads--that entices the listener to worship God in a safe place. I would have liked to see the band use a more diverse set of sounds. Similar to other worship bands, Mosaic MSC falls into the trap of creating predictable songs with cliché lyrics, chorus repetition and unnecessary dialogue. If Mosaic MSC can avoid these common traps, their subsequent efforts will be great.

Song to Download Now: 

"Glory and Wonder" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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The Claim to Fame | Posted September-21-2016
Christian contemporary band The Neverclaim gained some success and media attention with their 2015 album, The Joy. Now, the band hopes to continue the gained momentum with its follow-up effort, Encounter: A Live Worship Experience, an album consisting of both original and cover songs.

Both contemporary and church bands (Hillsong, Bethel and Casting Crowns, among others) releasing live worship albums has become a trend. Consequently, the market is now full of live worship albums. Now The Neverclaim, similar to other contemporary bands, has to deliver a unique worship experience that differs from the competition in a crowded field. Did The Neverclaim achieve this with their new live album? Yes and no.

"Our God Wins," the album opener, is originally from The Joy. The live version has a rough start, but the song turns into a quality listening experience once the rough intro ends. 

The Neverclaim's lead vocalist Jeremiah Carlson poured his heart into "Through Christ" lyrically--in his words, the song comes from a very personal place in his story. Carlson says, "Through the healing process of all of [my previous] broken situations, Christ alone has been my strength, guide and the only one who could speak the reality of my true identity in him." In the song, Carlson sings: "We are not condemned by the sins of our father / We have been restored, reborn to live forever."

The band hit a home run with two of the album's cover songs: Hillsong United's "Touch the Sky" and the timeless hymn "How Great Thou Art." By far, The Neverclaim's rendition of "How Great Thou Art" is the best song on the album. The band turned a reverent hymn into a highly energetic worship anthem. On "Touch the Sky," The Neverclaim decides to play it safe by staying true to the song's original arrangement--it is Carlson's vocals that give the song The Neverclaim touch.

Some songs--particularly "Testimony" and "Rules and Reigns"--on Encounter: A Live Worship Experience lack energy and sound similar to many other worship songs available on Spotify and iTunes. But on a positive note, The Neverclaim keeps most songs short and, for the most part, avoids chorus repetition. "Encounter," the album's longest song, has a great build, but falls flat after the five-minute mark.

Closing Thoughts:

"How Great Thou Art" clearly demonstrates that The Neverclaim can deliver solid worship anthems. I would love to see the band do this on future albums, both live and in studio. Some songs also had some very impressive guitar riffs, an important element when delivering any type of anthem. Carlson is a former drummer for a heavy metal band-- I would love to see The Neverclaim inject more rock influences into their music.

So, how did The Neverclaim differentiate themselves from other worship bands? Carlson's dynamic and unique vocals and The Neverclaim's impressive guitar riffs are two elements that help the band claim their own unique fame.

Song to Download Now:

"How Great Thou Art" (Get it on iTunes here.)


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Guitar Heroes | Posted August-25-2016
In the past few years, Michael Sweet has been working double duty: he has been touring and releasing material with his band, Stryper, while also touring and releasing solo albums. Most recently, Sweet released his seventh solo album One Sided War, the follow up to his 2015 release I'm Not Your Suicide

Sweet calls One Sided War his heaviest solo album to date. Similar to Stryper's material, One Sided War has predominately an '80s metal sound, with only one ballad on the entire album. For his latest release, Sweet sought out some heavy hitters, including Evanescence drummer Will Hunt and Whitesnake guitarist John O'Boyle.


"Bizarre" kicks off the album with heavy guitar riffs, high-energy vocals and intense pounding of the drums. Not once does the intensity subside; the song stays in high tempo for four minutes. To be honest, I was inclined to jump out of my chair, play air guitar and do some serious head banging. The second song on the album--the title track--keeps the intensity moving along. I can imagine WWE using this spiritual warfare anthem as an entrance theme for one of its wrestlers. 

The guitar riffs and solos are the highlights of "Can't Take This Life." Michael Sweet rocks out with 16-year-old up and coming artist Moriah Formica on the alternate version of "Can't Take This Life," the album's bonus track. Formica and Sweet's vocals, along with the heavy guitar riffs, make the duet version of this song one of the best tracks on the album. 

"Who Am I" is the project's only ballad. The arrangement in this piece is well done. This song is set up as a duet between Sweet's vocals and the electric guitar. In the song's verses, the guitar is used effectively to complement Sweet's impressively emotional vocals. The different ways the guitar is used in this power ballad is very clever. Without a doubt, "Who Am I" is the most diverse song on the album. 

The lyrics in "You Make Me Wanna" could be interpreted as a love song for either God or a girl. "Comfort Zone" and "One Way Up" are album fillers. Most songs on One Sided War sound similar to one another, and the lack of diversity hurts the album's impact. Oftentimes, Sweet's voice can't quite keep up with the album's heart-pounding guitar solos.  

The Bottom Line: All in all, Michael Sweet delivers a solid rock offering with One Sided War. At times, the constant musical intensity becomes mundane and overkill, but One Sided War definitely has its high spots--particularly the impressive guitar riffs.

Song to Download Now:

"Bizarre" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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Out of the Caves, Into the Light | Posted August-19-2016
Josh McCabe was once a pastor at Carruthers Creek Community Church (C4). During his tenure, God used McCabe to significantly grow C4's youth ministry through music. McCabe was one of the musical masterminds behind C4's highly successful Nine O Five Ministry. Besides being aware of his pastoral work, I knew that McCabe himself was talented musically. To what degree, I wasn't sure--it wasn't until I heard McCabe's worship project Caves, created with friend Matt Shaban, that I experienced his true musical talents.

McCabe and Shaban dropped Caves' self-titled debut album in 2015 to much acclaim. The duo recorded tracks with Amanda Cook of Bethel ("My God") and multi-genre superstar Aaron Gillespie ("Take All Our Titles"). 

Truthfully, I shied away from listening to Caves initially because I thought it would be just another collection of worship covers. I was wrong. Most songs on the album are originals, with the exception of Delirious?'s "Obsession" and a fantastic cover of John Mark McMillan's "King of My Heart," the latter being recently released on Caves (Deluxe Edition)

Caves (Deluxe Edition) has three bonus tracks: "My God (Radio Edit)," "Take All Our Titles (Live)" and the previously mentioned "King of My Heart," the album's only new song. In the faster-paced "My God," Amanda Cook and McCabe sing together intimately and honestly words of praise to our loving God: "I need you more than the air I'm breathing / My God / Heaven let your rain fall / My love / My God." McCabe and Shaban use only vocals and an acoustic guitar for "Take All Our Titles (Live)." It is a beautiful song, but it feels too long, and McCabe speaking to the live crowd disrupts the song's flow.

I would have liked to see McCabe and Shaban record a faster-paced rock version of "Trust," my favourite song on the album. McCabe's soft vocals, playing only with an acoustic guitar, brings atmosphere to the song's reverent lyrics: "I've seen failure, I've seen favor / In this ever raging war / So help me, God, to trust you even more." "Trust" really speaks to me on a personal level.

The Bottom Line: Deluxe editions can either complement or diminish an album's release. In this case, the three bonus tracks enhance an already jam packed musical effort and help to balance the album nicely. 

Songs to Download Now:

"King of My Heart" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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These Are The Days of Celebration | Posted August-18-2016
Love & the Outcome, a husband-and-wife duo from Winnipeg, Manitoba comprised of singer/songwriter Jodi King and bassist Chris Rademaker, arrived on the Christian music scene three years ago with their self-titled debut album. The duo carries musical attributes that are different than their CCM modern contemporaries: a pure, upbeat and catchy sound accompanied by King's angelic voice. King's voice reminds me of Leigh Nash, the lead singer of Sixpence None The Richer. 

Personal hardships influenced Love & the Outcome's debut album, but their sophomore effort These Are the Days finds King and Rademaker in a season of celebration. In a video interview, Rademaker and King say they are in a completely different season in their lives, and the album's title is reflective of this fact.

The album's first radio single "The God I Know" is already in the top 10 on the Billboard Christian radio audience chart. Creatively, the song itself is as catchy as the hit singles released from their first album. Even better, "The God I Know" is a sample taste of what you will find on These Are The Days.

The spiritual anthem "Gates" is an album standout: "I'm pressing into you / You are my battle song / I fight a war already won / I will run to the gates." Another standout is the reflective title track: "These are the days / The days we'll never get back / And these days are all we have."

The full quality and harmony of King's voice can be found in "Hear From You," a song of reverence to the Creator of the Universe: "Holy spirit, speak, speak through / I'm waiting until I hear, hear from you... Where do I run when my heart's confused / Where do I turn when my world's unglued."

"Since Chris and I are both huge fans of 80's films like 'The Breakfast Club' and 'Say Anything,' we decided to give this one a throwback feeling," says King, referring to the music video for "The God I Know." The duo's love for the 80s is reflected throughout These Are The Days, particularly in songs such as "Good Life." A brief low point comes in the song "Galaxies," album filler that removes energy from Love & the Outcome's sophomore effort.

The Bottom Line: The sound remains consistent on These Are The Days. Integrating an '80s sound to the album is a nice touch, which continually sets the duo apart from their CCM contemporaries. I can't wait to see what Love & the Outcome release next!

Songs to Download Now: 

"Gates" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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Worship Album in Disguise | Posted July-08-2016
What is the difference between a worship project and an acoustic collection? The answer is subjective. To me, "acoustic" or "unplugged," means no electric guitar, as well as minimal production and orchestration. An unplugged performance involves only acoustic instruments (think of an acoustic guitar, a keyboard and vocals) and a microphone. When I think acoustic, I think of Eric Clapton's 1992 Unplugged album or Bryan Adams's 1997 MTV Unplugged collection.

A live worship project, on the other hand, is similar to Sunday morning worship. Worship bands such as Hillsong United, Bethel and Jesus Culture play music live with many instruments. Production, electric instruments and orchestration are part of the worship experience. Audience involvement-- clapping and singing along-- is also part of a worship project's DNA. 

Recently, Jesus Culture released Let it Echo: Unplugged (Live), which sounds more like a worship project than a traditional acoustic album. The tracks on this collection are alternate versions from the band's full-length worship project Let it Echo, released earlier in the year.

"Fierce" is the standout song on the album. In a video interview about "Fierce," Quilala said "I wrote this song, 'Fierce,' with a couple of friends; I wanted to write a song that sort of painted a picture of God's pursuit for us. The word fierce is a heart-felt powerful intensity. For this song, the word fierce is a description of God's relentless pursuit after us." 

Chris Quilala's quality vocals praise God's name with such passion that worshipers are compelled to raise their hands in worship: "Like a tidal wave / Crashing over me / Rushing in to meet me here / Your love is fierce / Like a hurricane / That I can't escape / Tearing through the atmosphere / Your love is fierce." Quilala's vocals can also be heard on the piano-led track "Let It Echo (Heaven Fall)."

"God With Us" is the other standout, led by Bryan Torwalt. This song definitely feels more like an unplugged piece-- acoustic guitars, intimate vocals, minimal clapping and an organic sound. "Where there was death, You brought life, Lord / Where there was fear, You brought courage / When I was afraid, You were with me." The original version of the song, also from Jesus Culture's full-length worship album, has more production and instrumentation. Both versions provide an intimacy that invites the listener to become closer with the Savior in praise and worship.

Jesus Culture veteran Kim Walker-Smith contributes her powerful, grainy vocals to three of the seven tracks on Let it Echo: Unplugged (Live): "Alive in You," "In the River" and the album opener, "Never Gonna Stop Singing." While each track is a great listen, they do not quite compare to her memorable performance on "Rooftops," a favorite from Jesus Culture's 2010 worship project Come Away (Live)

The Bottom Line: For listeners who enjoy shorter worship anthems, Let it Echo: Unplugged (Live) is for you. Of the seven tracks, only three songs are over five minutes in length. In each song, Jesus Culture does not disappoint in praising Jesus Christ, the one who gave us a direct gateway to the Father.

Songs to Download Now: 

"Fierce" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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Breaking Genre Barriers | Posted June-24-2016
Classified as a pop-rock band, Bread of Stone breaks music genre barriers to once again showcase their passion for God and others on Hold the Light, their fifth studio album. Bread of Stone mixes rock, hip hop, pop and adult contemporary influences together to create a hybrid masterpiece. The band used a similar method on their 2014 album Not Alone.

Of course, Bread of Stone could not achieve this hybrid sound without a little help from the genre experts: Matt Dally and Tricia Brock (both from Superchick) as well as hip hop superstars Manafest and Beacon Light

Bread of Stone re-recorded "Parachute," a song that originally appeared on their 2012 album, The Real Life.  The new version contains heavier guitar riffs, a hip hop solo from Matt Dally, and a more polished sound. For those who like to rock, this song will quench your thirst for ear-blasting beats.

For those who are waging war against the Prince of Darkness, "Battleground" is your spiritual warfare anthem. Manafest rallies the troops with some hip hop and background vocal assistance while Bread of Stone utilizes heavy guitars and passionate vocals to move the listener to stand strong and declare war in the name of Jesus.

The album's first single, "The Change," is similar to the aforementioned songs in guitar riffs and hip hop (from Beacon Light), albeit lighter in sound. While the single stands out, I think Bread of Stone should have chosen "Parachute," "Battleground" or even "Be Still" as their first single.

"Be Still" is a catchy pop tune, which utilizes the impressive vocals of Tricia Brock. Together, Brock and Bread of Stone's lead vocalist Ben Kristijanto harmoniously sing about Psalm 46:10: ""Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth."

"Sing Hallelujah" is an uplifting track that utilizes a '80s pop sound. However, the background vocal stylings diminish the quality of the song. Many contemporary bands utilize this backup vocal style in their music, thus making many songs sound painfully the same. 

Adult contemporary enthusiasts will love the soothing "It's All for You," a gentle ballad that brings the listener closer to God in worship: "Wash me clean, take my soul and make me new," as well as "These are my dreams / these are my hopes, this is my fear/ These are my woes / I will give up / I will trust with all of my heart." The song rivals "Be Still" as having the most inspirational lyrics on the album.

The Bottom Line: Bread of Stone delivers an album that stays true to their signature sound, but offers something new for recent and long-time listeners alike. The adult contemporary sound on the album is weaker, but the heartfelt lyrics praising God's name make the save to give Hold the Light a solid four-star rating.

Songs to Download Now: 

"Battleground" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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Back to Classic Rock Basics | Posted June-15-2016
Many rock bands have traded their heavy guitars for catchy dance beats. However, the Union of Sinners and Saints-- a hybrid of classic rock bands Petra and Whiteheart-- defies this trend. The Union of Sinners and Saints's lineup includes Schlitt, Smiley, Anthony Sallee (Whiteheart) on bass, John Ellis (lead singer from Tree63) on guitar and vocals and new artist Jason Fowler also on guitar and vocals. Combined, the supergroup delivers a quality rock album that is easy on the ears.

On their eponymously-titled album, the newly formed band gives a clever rendition of John Wesley's classic hymn "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." The song also serves as the band's first single. It takes talent to deliver a rendition of a cover song that surpasses the original. Many artists and bands butcher the pieces they cover, but the Union does Wesley's hymn justice.

Most of the songs are originals, however, this new album also contains updated versions of Whiteheart's "Independence Day," the band's second single, and Petra's "Beyond Belief." These new versions are comparable, if not better, than the originals. For power ballad fans, "The Offering" and "The Call" do not disappoint. Lyrically, "The Offering" takes the award for most inspirational song. Petra's John Schlitt sings, "So take me, use me, mold me and make me into the one I should be / Teach me, show me, lovingly change me into the one I can be / This is my offering." Power ballads like this one will never go out of style.

The empowering message of praising God and seeking him in difficult times is consistent on the album-- except for "Old Guys Rule." The lyrics are over-the-top, but the gritty guitar arrangements in the song are impressive. In fact, the guitar work on almost every track is extraordinary, even on filler songs like "Lone Soldier." There isn't a lot of blandness on this album. 

The Bottom Line: Together, the Union of Sinners and Saints deliver a refreshing masterpiece that pays homage to good old-fashioned rock n'roll. Schlitt says, "The album [incorporates] the kind of artistry and ministry that will remind [listeners] of the early years of Christian Rock, but also usher in a new energy and excitement." That it does, John. That it does.


Songs to Download Now: 

"The Offering" (Get it on iTunes here.)

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