A Soundtrack For Reflection | Posted December-19-2017
Many people say that Christmas is a feeling, a state of mind, that we can hold Christmas in our hearts year round. Although this is somewhat true, for the majority of Christians, it is one of the foundations of our faith. It is a time of peace and joy, tradition and wonder. Hillsong Worship's new album Christmas: The Peace Project evokes all of these emotions and more. This project is filled with both new takes and traditional treatments of classic carols and a few worship songs that deliver the gospel message and would be as much at home in July as they are during the Lenten season.
The album opens with new, yet respectful treatments of "Joy to the World" and "Hark." While "Joy to the World" sticks mainly to the classic rendition we all have come to know and love, "Hark" is a modern take on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."
Along with these traditional carols, the team from Hillsong gives us a new rendition of "O Come All Ye Faithful" that builds from a simple acoustic guitar throughout into a large chorale ensemble. The drums build and draw us into the place of worship that we are so used to being in with Hillsong. Rounding out the updated carols is "Noel."
If Hillsong has become known for one thing, it is the ability to provide worship songs for the Church that are timely for the here and now. Whether it be the contemplative "Seasons," the worshipful "Prince of Heaven" or the radio friendly "When I Think Upon Christmas," the worship team at Hillsong has provided us with new music that will quickly become classics for the season.
A highlight on this album is the treatment of "O Holy Night." The song holds a special place in my heart as it was during this song 23 years ago that I first felt the presence of the Lord, that opened my heart to walk with Christ. I get offended when the song is mistreated or changed, so it was at this song that my heart rested and cemented Christmas: The Peace Project as an album I will replay again and again.
The album ends with "Peace Upon The Earth." A beautiful lullaby set to Chopin's "Nocturne op.9 No. 2." This new creation from something old is perhaps the most ambitious moment on the album. The lyrics are beautiful and endearing, however, I was longing for soaring vocals to match the composition.
The Bottom Line: Hillsong Worship has given us a very special project with Christmas: The Peace Project. It is the perfect soundtrack as you sit and reflect on the goodness of God at this time, remembering the most precious gift that we ever received: Jesus.
A New Royal | Posted November-04-2017
It's been three years since the last release from The Royal Royal. Their newest release, Rococo, is a step forward in the musical artistry of the Canadian duo.
"Rococo music" is defined as an 18th-century reaction against the baroque style. Less formal and grandiose in structure, it was a graceful rather than a profound style, more hedonistic than venturesome. I don't know about the hedonistic part, but the brothers Finochio have definitely moved on from a standard pop sound to something more ethereal, something more graceful.
We are welcomed into the album with the prelude, "I-90." It is here that the tone is set: we will be moving through the album on a journey, rather than merely through a collection of songs put together to tickle the ears of listeners. The prelude mixes seamlessly into "Water." After welcoming and preparing the listener with "I-90," this track welcomes God to the conversation. Although not a typical corporate worship song, "Water" could easily find its place as the opening song in a worship set. The pre-chorus alone could be sung on repeat to fuel a congregation with the simple refrain "Holy Spirit fill me / You are the water / Living, moving, cleansing / You are the water."
My ears sensed something familiar when "Champion" began. It took me a moment to flashback to the 80s and remember, but it was the homage to Toto's "Africa" in the instrumentation that caught me. The album takes a bit of a turn at "God Who Saves" as it moves from the earlier "high-art" feeling to something a little more standard. This is quickly recovered on "Everything," which returns us back on track to more thoughtful lyrics and the production style of the first portion of the album.
The final three tracks on the album, "King," "Perfecter" and "Love 3," focus on the character, spirit and nature of God, each containing incredibly moving sections. Even with the upbeat tempo of "Perfector," the cry of the heart can be heard.
The Bottom Line: On initial listen I was somewhat underwhelmed by the offering set before me. However, further listens proved that The Royal Royal has delivered a project worthy of such a title. In a world filled with so much noise and flourish, a musical landscape filled with so much sameness, Rococo puts the focus back on songwriting and on art.
For Fans Of: Citizens, Kings Kaleidoscope, Hillsong United
Space X Meets Jesus | Posted September-11-2017
Veteran CHH artist Derek Minor continues to release music at the speed of light. It seems like only yesterday that that the RMG artist released Reflection, perhaps due to his prolific single releasing throughout the period between albums. His latest release Your Soul Must Fly is the first in a series of four EPs that will be released in the Up and Away series over the next four months.
Your Soul Must Fly can be described succinctly as a smooth banger. The first track "Take Off" hits hard and features KB, Ty Brasel and RMG labelmate Canon. Minor introduces the flight theme early on the project in the most logical place: the runway.
"Astronaut" comes up next, featuring Deraj and the lesser known (but no less talented) Byron Juane. This track comes at you, and the beat gets you right in the gut. This is a turn up track with a smooth hook. It has a distinctive Derek Minor vibe that invites the listener to bob their head.
After more strong tracks found in "Anti-Gravity," "Jumpin" and "Level," the project closes with the introspective title track "Your Soul Must Fly." When Derek slows it down is when he is at his absolute best. His own voice shines on the chorus. If any track had the opportunity to be the radio single of the project, this would be it. Derek goes deep into social justice issues, but encourages the listener to follow Jesus and let their soul fly. What starts as a turn up album takes a turn at the end and wraps everything up in the arms of Jesus.
The Bottom Line: No one will ever question whether Derek Minor is a Christian rapper or a rapper that is Christian. He still carries the original mantra of being unashamed long after his Reach Records days, and as he prepares us for the rest of the Up and Away series, Your Soul Must Fly is a perfect launch pad.
Approach With an Open Heart | Posted June-28-2017
It has been three years since we have heard spoken word/hip-hop stylings from Propaganda, the west coast based Christ-follower, artist, activist, father, husband and podcaster. His latest project Crooked is a welcome addition to the current CHH landscape, especially given current headlines. Fans of Propaganda will welcome his no-holds-barred approach to balancing faith and social justice, while others in the church will question his motives and perhaps even accuse Propaganda not focusing on the goodness of God.
Crooked is not an album that a person puts on for fun. This is an album that deserves an honest, open-hearted listen. While worship albums require an open heart to receive what God has for us, this album requires an open heart to understand how broken we truly are as a society. As a white man listening to this album, I find myself becoming uncomfortable at times, but this discomfort is merely a result of the realization that I am broken and recognizing that at times, I have had moments where my whiteness resulted in a lack of understanding of what other races may go through.
From the brokenness of mankind in "Crooked" to the complication of relationships in "Bear With Me," through the powerful questions asked in "Cynical" to racism within the black community in "Darkie:" this album has levels. Propaganda has a way with words that is unrivalled in CHH. He can reach into the heart of the matter by using something as simple as a hatred for cats to explain the foolishness of racism as he does on the spoken word piece "I Hate Cats."
However, it is not just the message that is presented, but the humility and heart of where the message comes from. Propaganda doesn't merely bring these things up in angry street corner prophet style. His words come from a broken heart and true feelings. He is open about his owns shortcomings with self-esteem and his deep love for his wife and daughters. The full renaissance man that is Propaganda is on display here.
In writing a review of the album, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the depth and breadth of the production and features on the album. With production credits from the likes of Daniel Steele, Courtney Orlando and DJ Efechto, there are multiple layers to the production, just as there a levels to the themes. Each song feels original, yet they feel cohesive at the same time.
In terms of features, everyone is represented. There's the unique sound of Marz Ferrer, the hot bars from Sho Baraka and Jackie Hill-Perry, off-the-chain hooks from Courtney Orlando and Micah Bournes, the reflective sound of Aaron Marsh (Copeland) and Audrey Assad offering her unique voice (including singing in Syrian). For anyone who would label Propaganda as anti-white, the features on the album speak volumes to inclusiveness and diversity, painting a true picture of the global church.
Before writing off Crooked as another black lives matter protest against the church, perhaps the approach to take would be to set our offenses aside and listen deeply to the struggles of our brothers and sisters, seeking first to understand and then to be understood. Without truly opening our hearts to understand the point of view of other followers of Christ, putting our guilt and shame away and setting aside our defenses and offenses, we will not truly comprehend what those not in the dominant culture are going through.
The Bottom Line: Crooked may leave you with more questions than answers, but these questions should be ones that create a dialog inside the church around the topics presented--a dialog raised from the opening of our hearts to truly empathize with how others are feeling and what they are going through.
Music for The Finals | Posted May-23-2017
Veteran artist Rawsrvnt is back with his latest EP, Shut it Down. It has been two years since we had a new project from Rawsrvnt, and this time around, Rawsrvnt sticks to a simple script: braggadocio and basketball. The basketball references are consistent; in the five tracks I counted two references to Hakeem Olajuwan, a sportscenter reference and of course references to Jordan, Pippen and Kobe.
The collection doesn't dive deep into any one subject, as that would be difficult given the short form EP. The best verse on the album comes from Teron Carter (GRITS) on the second track, "All In." The delivery is smooth, and Carter's flow is in the pocket through all 16 bars. The only issue is that the verse has strong Israelite references, and even though Kendrick Lamar has put a spotlight on the lesser-known religion, its place on a Christian Hip Hop album may be slightly misplaced.
The album ends on a high note with "On the Line (feat. Japhia Life)." The initial verse whets our appetite for something deeper to come, however, the rest of the song falls flat. The production is good on the track and the beat is nice, but it would be nice to have a little more of Japhia's rapping.
After listening through the album a few times, there are a few further highlights that stand out. The beats hit hard on "Shut It Down" as well as on the opener "There Go That Man."
The Bottom Line: The production on this EP is well done. It is the lack of any meat to chew on lyrically that leaves me wanting more from Shut It Down.
Song to Download Now:
"On The Line feat. Japhia Life" (Get it on iTunes here.)
A Journey Through Worship | Posted May-15-2017
Dallas, TX based Christ For the Nations Music is back with their latest collection of congregational worship songs in Melody of Love. With 13 worship offerings, the collective of artists at Christ for the Nations has delivered a project that captures the heart of the Father and the atmosphere of the night it was recorded.
CFN Music's 42nd album delivers a mixture of worshipful hymns and new worship anthems, ready to be incorporated into any Sunday morning service. The artists at CFN Music that are featured on the album include Gabriel Allred, Phil King, Jordan Stewart and Amber Trent. As a special treat, Leeland Mooring (Leeland) also features on four of the songs.
The album opens with the high energy "Every Tribe Every Nation." The song quickly brings us to the heart of the matter of spreading the Gospel of peace to all nations while living a life of complete surrender to God.
The album slows on the third track of the album with "There Is No Striving." This heartfelt worship song written by Jenn Johnson and Matt Stinton of Bethel draws us closer to the heart of God, helping us move in the understanding that we don't have to earn God's affection. It is an earnest prayer, and while listening and focusing on what I was hearing, the Holy Spirit moved deeply within me. There truly is no striving in our relationship with the Father. If you are in a place that you are struggling in understanding the breadth, depth and width of the Father's grace over you, then put this on repeat and believe what you are singing.
This is followed by the title track "Melody of Love." The placement of these two songs on the album leads to a deeper worship. It is as though the initial tracks bring the listener through the outer courts, and the next tracks take us right into the Holy of Holies. It is a wonderful place to just sit and rest, allowing the Lord to sing the "Melody of Love" over your situation. This is aided through the reprise of "Melody of Love." The main song and reprise total almost 13 minutes of honest worship.
The set moves into the piano driven "Incredible Love." The album ebbs and flows through the middle of the set, coming ashore with "I Give It All, I Surrender All." This new take on an old hymn starts what is a triumphant finish for the album. The final tracks of the album leave you wanting to press repeat to start the journey from porch to altar again, to walk through the courts of praise in search of something deeper and more meaningful.
Melody of Love is the latest of many worship albums from the first part of 2017, however, there are standout songs here that will make their way into your favorites playlist. CFN Music makes all the resources available on their website for the worship leader who wants to lead their congregation in a similar journey to the one presented on this album.
The Bottom Line: Melody of Love is a worship album that everyone should put on their "to-buy" or "to-stream" lists. It has been some time since a worship album moved me so much personally.
Changing the Narrative | Posted October-21-2016
With one of the most awaited CHH releases this year, Sho Baraka has blessed his listeners with The Narrative. This album was over three years in the making, starting out as an independent release that was to be released under the name of Louis Portier as a partnership between Sho and featured artist Jamie Portee (who also produced eight tracks on the album).
The album is unique. Sonically, the album brings a strong jazz, funk and soul feel thanks to the production of Portee along with Nate Robinson (the BeatBreaker), JR (aka Courtney Orlando) and Swoope. Throughout The Narrative you will get a sense of James Brown, Marvin Gaye and John Coltrane.
Through artistic wordplay and blunt force, Sho pays homage to black history and elevates the conscience of the listener to want to learn more about the truth and "stay woke." Every track on the album has a message. The message may not be as "gospel" oriented as some may wish, however, it will create important discussions. The album probably won't win any awards in Christendom because it will offend the establishment. The album may provoke anger in some, and I can imagine some of the comment sections regarding some of the issues talked about here already.
Sho is a legend and always thought provoking. The Narrative evoked within me emotions such as sadness, remorse and repentance. This is probably due to the fact that I am a white man with a bucket load of white privilege. On the other hand, I can also feel the pain and hurt caused by systemic racism based on the fact I am in a bi-racial marriage with bi-racial children.
The Bottom Line: Sho Baraka gives us conscious hip hop that makes us think. It is not intended for easy listening. It was created to provide an important narrative during a critical time in our history.
P.S.: If you want a detailed listen of The Narrative you can check it out on First Spins on Forth District (be warned, it's 3.5 hours). It is a detailed breakdown of the album and discussion between Sho Baraka and the show host, Adan Bean.
Mark is a Christ follower, husband to one wife and father to three daughters. Mark's three passions are Jesus, Hip Hop and Coffee. He invites you to grab a single origin coffee and visit him at themarkcryan.com. You can also find him on twitter and Instagram as @themarkcryan.
New Name, Same Misfits | Posted May-24-2016
Fresh from their recent signing with Capitol Records, Social Club, now known as Social Club Misfits, released their most recent EP The Misfit Generation on May 6. Since their last outing, Marty and Fern have both released solo projects, Marty got married and, most recently, they joined label mate NF on the Therapy Session Tour.
This newest project proves that not all artists "sell out" once they sign with a major label. Social Club Misfits deliver the same provocative and fun-loving lyrics alongside the same hard-hitting beats that brought them this far.
The project opens in classic misfit style with "Wavemasters," a track featuring Pastor Chris Durso from Misfit Church in New York. For those new to the Social Club family, Durso has appeared on each of Social Club's previous albums in a very similar fashion. Also featuring on the track is Aha Gazelle. These intro tracks continue to introduce new listeners and reinforce to long-time fans the mission and vision of Social Club Misfits.
"Marriage Goals" interjects typical Social Club humour while dealing with something as serious as marriage. Whether it's newlywed Marty or veteran Fern, we get the honest truth from these guys in every bar.
Newcomers Tree Giants join the Social Club family on the radio friendly single "Courage." This track has garnered plenty of attention and was the lead single from the EP. The melodic vibe matched with a hard hitting kick drum fits perfectly into any summer playlist.
The project closes with the title track "The Misfit Generation." With this track it becomes evident that Social Club Misfits fit perfectly with NF on Capitol's CHH roster. Marty and Fern have never shied away from serious topics on their albums, and this song tells us exactly who the album is for. It is for the misfits, those who are unaccepted, not for a particular race or social class, but for every person who has felt rejected in their lives. This is real music for a generation who are tired of being pandered to, and with a major label finally promoting such a message, perhaps the misfits won't feel like rejects much longer.
The Bottom Line: Social Club Misfits may have changed their name, but with a larger platform than ever, their unchanging message of hope and accepting yourself as God created you can truly reach a new generation of misfits.
Soul Music | Posted March-10-2016
It is rare that an album comes along that I have been anticipating for 10 months (since the exclusive release of The Demos on TheOverflow.com in May 2015). The Glory Album from Christon Gray is exactly that. As he teased fans first with The Demos, then with the build-up to the release of which label he was signing with after leaving Collision, then with the slow build to this album, it has been a crazy ride for fans. I am happy to say that the wait, the excitement and buying the t-shirt Christon wears in the "Connor McDees" video has all been worth it.
Christon is a special talent in Christian Hip Hop. As much talent as he has in singing hooks, he has equally in spitting bars. His silky smooth voice and his incredible range combined with his lyricism and versatility on the mic makes for something special. The album opens with "The Glory, Pt. 1," a simple intro with a sweet little piano melody line overlaid with Christon's smooth neo-soul vocals and then a tidy little rap, gently easing us into what is to come.
The Christon Gray that we are not so used to shows up on the first full track of the album. "Stop Me" hits hard. The driving piano and the kick drum drive the beat forward while Christon exercises his lyrical abilities. On "Fort Knox," the versatility is shown once again. But beyond the pure talent, the artist shows his vulnerability. On several tracks on the album Christon offers deep truths regarding relationships. Whether it's a relationship with God or with his bride, Christon bares his soul on this album. "Afraid With You" and "Nowhere" are perfect examples of this: beautiful ballads where there is nothing held back, and all that can be pictured is a man emptied of himself and laying it out for the One he loves.
We move from the soulful and beautiful to the pure boom bap on "Connor McDees." The lyricism on this track is so good, you find new metaphors and double entendres on each listen. On this track Christon is joined by his brother Taelor and by Skyzoo.
Christon also doesn't shy away from the political realm with "Black Male (Blackmail)." It is a story of a mixed race couple and the struggles that go along with it. This was an incredibly powerful song for me personally. I honestly don't know if the Church is ready for this kind of truth from within its walls, but it is something that needs to be heard.
The album wraps up with the beautiful worship song "Follow You." The declaration to follow God after the heart wrenching "Black Male" is the redemption at the end of the road.
The Bottom Line: Christon Gray has crafted together an incredible piece of art that will touch each area of the soul. It rips it apart and heals it. It shows versatility and vulnerability. With The Glory Album, Christon Gray takes himself from the underground of Christian music to the front lines.
Vulnerable Truth | Posted March-02-2016
The ministry of Bethel Music has become a mainstay on the worship scene in the past few years. Beginning with their various live and studio projects as a collective of artists, then continuing with solo projects from individual worship leaders, several of their songs have become commonplace in churches today. With the recent additions of Leeland and Cory Asbury to the collective, the gang at Bethel are truly setting themselves apart as the premier source of worship music.
Bethel's latest offering, Have It All, once again shows the breadth and depth of talent in this team of artists as well as the heart of worship that is alive and well. The album opens with William Matthews' distinct vocals on "Shine On Us." The song is beautiful and reflects on the beauty of God. Rather than starting with a high energy song, they opted to go with a reflective piece that truly draws you into the presence of an almighty God.
The title track, "Have It All," is new song of surrender. The sound of the congregation singing along with Brian Johnson draws you into the evening it was recorded. The subdued guitar and muted kick drum in the opening leave the listener with an ethereal sense of being. This is a song to be sung from your knees with hands raised in surrender.
A highlight of the album comes with Leeland singing "Lion and the Lamb." When I first listened to the song, I was brought back to May 2015 when Leeland led worship at YC Alberta. This is an incredibly powerful song. Leeland's voice and style match perfectly with the rest of the Bethel artists.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the ladies of Bethel on this album. Steffany Gretzinger, Jenn Johnson and Amanda Cook all deliver emotionally charged performances on "Pieces," "Heaven Come" and "Mercy," respectively. "Pieces" speaks to how God gives us all of Himself, not just pieces. It talks about the perfection of God's love, drawing on 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Jenn Johnson delivers "Heaven Come" with power and authority, a call for Heaven to come and fill the Earth now and forever. On "Mercy," the rhythmic piano and driving bass line are a perfect backdrop for Amanda Cook to bring her distinctive style. This song, of course, is from Amanda's own solo project Brave New World, and focuses on the truths of Micah 7:18 and James 2:13.
The Bottom Line: This album is full of truth and reflection. It is not a high energy praise-fest, but rather an album designed around the concepts of vulnerability, honesty and resilience. Songs from this album will become personal reflections for many in the Church as they touch on the greatness and purity of God and our own desires to draw closer to the heart of God and let Him Have It All.