Gemstones Gemstones stormed on the scene back in 2006 when he was featured in several songs on Lupe Fiasco's debut album. He made waves when he was featured on various mixtapes. He was set to take off with his...
One Of the Best Of 2019 | Posted May-17-2019 What You Need To Know
Formed in 2007 as a mainstream pop band, today Stars Go Dim is the moniker for Christian pop artist and songwriter Chris Cleveland. Chris has spent years at the helm of an acclaimed independent secular band and more than a decade leading worship at Tulsa's Asbury United Methodist Church so he's certainly not new to music. After a long build up the past year with digital singles and EPs, his full-length album, Better, is comprised of twelve pop songs that continue his desire to leave listeners "a little better than they were before listening."
What It Sounds Like
Better is absolutely overflowing with pop songs that sound instantly familiar and comfortable yet never the same, something rarely met in today's radio single driven landscape that continues to force artists to chase similar sounds. Credit Chris' incredible vocal range that easily navigates through the opening urban tinted track featuring Social Club Misfits, "I Look To You," to the powerful ballads "Better," "You Know Me Better,""Invisible" and "I Believe" to the straight up, ear candy perfection of tracks like "Heaven On Earth" and "It's Gonna Get Better." Chris is Christian Music's answer to OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder and Adam Levine of Maroon 5. Better sounds, well, better, the more you listen.
Chris recently said of these new collections of songs, "we all want our tomorrows to be better than our todays. These songs are a glimpse at the journey that I've been on to make that a reality for my family and I." After listening, it's easy to hear the transformative power of Christ in Chris' life. Song after song speaks of God colliding into our messy, self-absorbed and sometimes hurt and beat up lives and leaving us better. The album ends with a joyous celebration of a life made new in Christ with "Autobiography" where Chris sings "I found life, I found truth, I found joy, when I found you. I found me, when I found you."
Best Song on the Record
It's hard not to gravitate towards the singles "Heaven On Earth,""It's Gonna Get Better" and "I Look To You," all of which have been out for a while now, but for those looking for something new from SGD, check out the final track, "Autobiography" which will have you grinning one minute and sixteen seconds into this audible celebration.
Chris Cleveland of Stars Go Dim has crafted twelve new songs that border on pop perfection. Packed with infectious tracks that overflow with strong Biblical truths that speak of the grace, love, and redemption that only God can bring, Better positions Chris as one of the leading songwriters and vocalists in Christian music today. I dare you to skip one track on one of the best albums of 2019 to date!
Long-Awaited! | Posted May-12-2015
Gemstones stormed on the scene back in 2006 when he was featured in several songs on Lupe Fiasco's debut album. He made waves when he was featured on various mixtapes. He was set to take off with his much anticipated debut album, Troubles of the World. Life and circumstances happened and he was no longer on Lupe Fiasco's 1st and 15th label. He also experienced a life change through relationship with Christ and things took a different turn. He is now signed with Xist Records, with T Black and Sean Simmonds at the helm.
So after two mixtapes--On the Road to Glory and Elephant in the Room--he releases Blind Elephant. I have to admit that this is one of the most anticipated albums in a while for me. After hearing him smash over the the instrumental of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," I could not wait for his album debut. Who does that and makes it sound dope? So the "Quick Go In" was definitely meant to be a sequel of sorts to that one. Same tempo and similar musical arrangement. Stones goes from the soft almost-whisper to the aggressive flow a la Eminem to his normal rapid delivery.
One thing about Gemstones that fans should now realize is this: He is not going to stick with one style of rapping on all of this songs. There will be a variety of flows to go along with his vocals. Though he is not a crooner, Stones can definitely carry a tune without sounding as if he was only singing because he was forced to sing. His voice takes the forefront as he sings praise to God via "Believe." The beat is basically a dope loop of a college percussion section with a hint of guitar and strings. Definitely genius of him to use a beat that is seldom used by rappers or singers.
Never afraid to look at issues such as eschatology, Gemstones tackles the return of Christ on "Rapture" over a simple boom beat. Then he also tackles the fact that people must wake up and see what's going on around them in "New World." A song that will grab many people is "Selfish." He touches on depression, which is something that has plagued men and women in the faith and out of the faith as well. He raps with raw emotion has he prays and speaks life over those who deal with these real issues. No dope beat or super fast rapping, just strings, piano, a little percussion and Gemstones.
"Lyrical Miracle" is a song that may disappoint some believers because Gemstones brags of his abilities. One cannot deny the fact that he "murders" this song with the lightning quick delivery that has gained him much respect and even criticism. Some believe that he goes so fast that he is hard to understand while others understand that it takes serious concentration to do so. There were some parts where I could not understand him, but for the most part, I had no problem.
I'm a teacher, and my students really enjoy anytime I play it for the class. No one can deny nor fail to take notice of Stones' ability to rap, be it fast or with a carefully placed staccato flow. Blind Elephant is an album that fans have waited a long time for. While lyrically he didn't disappoint, I definitely think the mixing and production could have been better. And while there were some places where beats just did not match the lyrics, the ministry aspect and his passion to reach the folks in the streets is evident. For the next release, I know things will be stepped up and he will not have us waiting so long.
Raw and Honest | Posted December-31-2013
There is always beauty in simplicity and that was proven no better this year than on the label debut from Tim Timmons, Cast My Cares. Through eleven tracks, we’re treated to songs that are stripped down to little else than a guitar, piano and drums, yet flow and drive with an urgency that quality production provides.
Tim’s testimony has been told quite a bit. It’s the core of who he is and what drives much of his message of hope and redemption. In June of 2001, he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and given five years left to live. Twelve years later, with four small children at home with his wife, Tim was on the verge of giving up on his music career when Reunion Records came knocking.
Tim’s voice is unique, raw and honest. You know he believes what he’s saying because his story required him to walk some pretty dark roads filled with lots of questions about faith, God and his own purpose. Many of those questions make their way into the lyric on Cast My Cares. “What if I believed in [God’s] power and I really lived it?” He sings on “Christ In Me.” “What can I do to leave a legacy and speak with authority / When I can’t see you?” he sings on “Starts With Me.” On “Let’s Be Beautiful” he questions, “What are we all about? Are we lovely, are we shinning?”
Considering the circumstances, it’s no wonder Tim is questioning everything in his day to day. But they are not questions from a cancer survivor. For anyone who has lived, they are questions of just a survivor. I’ve asked myself these questions plenty of time without staring at a doctor given expiration date.
Much like how Jeremy Camp’s early testimony solidified his early music into the hearts of his fans, Tim Timmons walking miracle of a life personalizes these songs as not just truth in lyrics, but truth in life, humanizing the artist in a way that a simple song just can not touch. And my favorite lyric of the album? “We want to be tethered to your timeline.” I may just have to print that one out and tape it to the inside of my Bible.
Move over Audio Adrenaline. You're not the only band that's navigating a successful reinvention this year. When lead singer Jason Dunn announced his departure from the band he started in 2000, fans were left wondering what would happen to such an iconic sound that they had grown to love over five major label releases. The answer came from within, as guitarist Jonathan Steingard proved ready to step into the spotlight and lead the band to a new label and a more mature sound.
The first taste of what was to come was the massive contemporary hit song, "Words," which features new label mate and MercyMe front man, Bart Millard. For a band that was more known for their goofy persona and youthful energy, not many would have guessed a Billboard Top 5 Christian Song of 2013 would come from Hawk Nelson. But it was a good peak at a more mature band.
That said; don't expect Hawk Nelson to become the next contemporary mainstay. These guys still know how to have fun, evident on tracks like "What I'm Looking For,""A Million Miles Away," and the infectious "Elevator." But beyond that, this is easily the most mellow Hawk Nelson album to date and I've got to say, the new sound suits them just fine. It might be a safe bet in the midst of a pretty huge change in the line-up, but for a band that has taken plenty of risks throughtout their career, safe seems to be paying off just fine.
On the final track, "Fighting For," Jonathan sings "we're not kids anymore." Message heard loud and clear gentlemen.
Need This Album | Posted December-30-2013
It is so good to see Plumb back on the scene. Back to crafting pop music. Back in front of audiences on major tour and festival stages. Back to inspiring us with creative music and engaging lyrics that come straight from her heart and personal struggles. It's been a long and dry wait for Plumb fans. The last album to really tap into her full potential was 2006's Chaotic Resolve. She followed that with the lovely, but sleepy by design, lullaby tinged Blink that fully abandoned her trajectory as a Christian music pop sensation. It left fans feeling a bit empty and we were teased for a full two years with Need You Now. The wait, as they say, was definitely worth it.
We've since learned what was holding this amazing artist back. Her own desire to raise her family and struggles with keeping her marriage intact were too consuming to properly balance the life of an artist, but with those struggles behind her and in control, we're back to the ballgame and it's those struggles that have inspired some of the most moving songs she has released.
"Need You Now (How Many Times),""I Want You Here" and "Say Your Name" speaks to the challenges of keeping a strained relationship on the verge of implosion intact while dealing with loneliness and seclusion in the midst of a waning faith. It's some heavy subjects but Plumb has never been one to shy away from tough topics. "Unlovable" is about our inability to put politics and judgments above the love Christ wants us to reach out with. "Cage," the album's break out rock song, speaks above loving through rage and anger and admits "I've got issues, that's for sure / But it's kind of why you like me".
Plumb is, by far, one of the most interesting female voices in Christian music today and Need You Now prove she deserves your attention. She can speak to both sexes with an honesty and purity not found on many other albums. Her honesty and vulnerability can be heartbreaking and healing at the same time. Her need to be loved not only by her Creator but her partner in life and those around her is something we can all relate with.
Christian music is once again in this cycle of declining female voices that I hope to see reversed as we head into 2014. In fact, on this list of twenty albums, females make up just three selections. We need more female artists like Plumb who can come at issues from a different perspective and encourage us all in the process. This is an album that Plumb fans have been waiting for for entirely too long. It should hold them over for whatever's next from this amazing artist.
Everfound Is An Amazing Find | Posted December-31-2013
I love it when a debut captures my attention as strongly as Everfound's have. It's rare to see so much passion poured from a new band and speaks to the fact that Everfound is not as new as we think. The brothers have been playing music together for years in their native Russia, but everything has led them to this moment stateside.
Everfound is a blend of electronic rock led by driving drum beats that pulse each chorus home. Lead singer, Nikita, is instantly one of the best voices in the industry with an amazing range and depth of passion in his vocals that forces you to hang on every word. It feels that so many of the lyrics are sung with such a heavy urgency. Just a touch heavier and we'd be at a full-blown scream. It's that intense but still very melodic and controlled.
The lead singles, "Never Beyond Repair" and "God Of the Impossible" are designed for repetitive play on radio, but they don't represent the album as a whole. These guys have so much more to offer than just another hit song and truly have the ability to redefine the produced template that we hear dominate the charts today.
Take, for example, "Take This City," the best song on the album and, if and when the label gets around to releasing it to radio, will be one of the biggest hits of the year. (That's called "going out on a limb" kids, but I'm that confident in this track.) This song is instantly singable, yet it's unlike anything on radio today. "Count the Stars,""Hallelujah" and "Torch" follow the same footprint. This band is so much more than a standard CCM hit single, and that's why we'll be hearing amazing music from Everfound for many years to come.
The world of Christian Music is better off with bands like Everfound coming onto the scene. They push boundaries, try new sounds with amazing results, and love people around them like crazy while encouraging us all to do the same.
They Are Just Restarting | Posted December-30-2013
The hardest working band in Christian music continues its reinvention with Restart, the second full-length album with lead vocalist Michael Tait at the helm. From the opening track, "That's How You Change The World," you get a sense that this is going to be a different album than any Newsboys album before it. Michael's vocals sore quickly, reaching out and grabbing you by your ears while yelling, "pay attention, buddy." Yes sir! This here is serious business, but make no mistake, we're going to sound amazing in the process.
Gone are the tongue-in-cheek lyrics that have defined the group for decades. While musically, the boys have never sounded stronger, lyrically, it's time to make the world around us a better place while bettering ourselves and there's little room for creative puns and crafty lyrics. Instead, we get some new tricks compliments of electronic mastermind Jeff Frankenstein. I think its safe to say that Newsboys have grown out of the gimmicks that made people pay attention in the first place and they have plenty to still stay and encourage us with.
"Love Like I Mean It" and "We Believe" are some of my favorite Newsboys tracks ever. The Deluxe Edition also includes a few drool-inducing tracks with former band mate Kevin Max, and they are as great as you hope they would be. "Man On Fire" is the stronger of the two while "The Living Years" leans on a classic 80s song for its structure.
Need more proof that this isn't just another Newsboys album? Turn on track 6 as Michael Tait sings on top a background of simple synth and piano about his relationship with his now deceased mom on "That Home." It's also an incredibly intimate part of their current tour and a rarity to actually get deep, personal lyrics from a Newsboys track. It's a testament to where Michael Tait can truly take this band on future albums and I hope to see more songs that bridge the gap of relateability on a much more personal level.
Michael Tait calls this the best album he's been a part of since Jesus Freak. Besides wanting to remind him of Supernatural, I can't say I disagree. This is certainly the best, and most current, Newsboys album I've heard.
Skillet Continues To Rise | Posted December-30-2013
I'm so impressed with this band on so many levels. For eight years over the past three albums, (Comatose, Awake and now Rise), they have been on a total rampage dominating every chart they touch. 2006's Comatose combined the best of their earlier rock/synth styles of Alien Youth and Hey You, I Love Your Soul with their raw hard rock sounds of Collide and kicked off what has been an incredible run of albums that continue to top each other. Most bands would kill to have just one or two hits (well, not Christian bands, but you know the saying). Skillet keeps packing entire albums with them!
Now that the successful transition of lead guitarist is behind them, I keep waiting for the next leg of Skillet's 18+ year journey to be marred like so many bands before them. Surly, musical greatness can't continue at this level for much longer, can it? Of course, I was saying the same thing when Awake overtook Comatose as my favorite Skillet album ever. And here I am three years later, knocking off Awake for Rise.
John's vocals sound like they are one scream away from combustion. Jen beats on those drums with the intensity of a super-human, driving every single song to the core of your being. Kory's programming at both guitar and keys is an undeniable force shaping their original and unique sound. And Seth produces jaw-dropping guitar solos in his sleep. The guys (and gals) are performing at an incredible level, and making it looking like it's just another casual Friday at work.
Rise is heavy hitting and filled with the strings Skillet fans have grown to love. "Not Gonna Die,""Circus For A Psycho," "Madness In Me,""What I Believe" and one of the best songs of the year, "Sick Of It," punch incredibly hard. Jenn and Kory trade vocals with John giving songs yet another layer to love and on "Fire And Fury" the melodies and trade-offs on lead are simply beautiful. Even when Skillet steps a bit off track of their norm, as on "My Religion," a southern drag of rockabilly, it works. "Good To Be Alive" and "American Noise" prove Skillet can still write a driving ballad like none other.
Skillet is at the top of their game and have released yet another career-defining album packed with some of the best songs of the year. Their dominance is for good reason. And they continue to point towards messages of hope, redemption and faith in the midst of some pretty dark times. This world needs Skillet and I'm encouraged they are being so welcomingly received.
A Beautiful Balance Of Emotion | Posted December-30-2013
I’ve been around Christian music long enough to know that in order to fully appreciate the landscape; it’s required that I have mad-respect for Aaron Sprinkle. Behind the soundboard and in the studio as producer and songwriter, the man is a beast, pretty much getting his hands dirty in almost every genre on the majority of Tooth & Nail’s/BEC Recordings’ releases throughout the past two decades. A quick look at his Wiki profile will show you this guy knows music and is incredibly adept and diverse. But as an artist? His bands Poor Old Lu, Rose Blossom Punch and Fair came and went for me. And his four previous solo releases were small blips on my radar. The man is a massive workhorse, but until now, his own musical endeavors were a bit too quirky and on the fringe for my taste.
So it really surprises me that I’m sitting here, writing about one of my favorite albums of the year from none other than Aaron Sprinkle.
Water & Guns, is a bright and happy pop record. It’s full of bouncy synth leads, syncopated, and programmed drums, light choruses that float by themselves and instantly singable melodies. And all of it performed by Sprinkle himself (think Owl City and The Rocket Summer). But when you start to dig into the lyrics, you find the yang to the musical ying. Lyrics like “All my hope lies here / Six feet down with fear” on “Whisper Something.” “I’m feeling borrowed, feeling blue / You didn’t notice, shame on you” on “Can’t Last Forever.” “When your life rips at the seams / When it seems like the worst is really happening / When you can’t see the light / It’ll be alright” on “It’ll Be Alright.” In fact, I could just post almost every line to every song. Aaron is struggling with quite a bit lyrically, yet we’re dancing through a field of flowers on a clear blue sky. This is musical bipolarity at its best, but what’s really going on?
“I want to relate to people,” says Sprinkle. “I wanted to be honest, both musically and lyrically. I’ve realized that every time I’ve been brutally honest in an intimate setting, I’ve never been greeted poorly. This is what I like, this is how I feel, this is who I am.”
This album is a beautiful accomplishment for an artist that has been around as long as Aaron has. Aaron’s lyrics deal with a full range of human emotion. They speak of grace and blessings surrounded by sin and death. They tell stories of perseverance through trail. They are filled with a desperation for relief from all-consuming struggles. In other-words, the address real life. But what I love is that, as believers, we are allowed to experience the full range of emotions that God has given us, under the context of a bright and sunny love that continually shines down upon us from above. Every day is new, and the sky is blue and the birds are singing. It’s that full picture that I believe Aaron set out to paint. He not only relies on the lyric to tell his story, but he allows the music to complete the full picture and balance the life so many of us truely stumble through.
One of the Best Albums of 2013 | Posted December-30-2013
One of the worst kept secrets of late 2012/early 2013 was Kevin Max taking the helm of an Audio Adrenaline relaunch. With the same behind-the-scenes team that oversaw the successful transition of Kevin’s former band mate, Michael Tait, taking over for Newsboys, there was a collective “been-there, done-that” sigh from the Christian music fan base. Let’s face it, relaunching a band as iconic as Audio Adrenaline was a big enough mountain to climb. Putting one of Christian music’s most iconic voices on lead mic appeared crazy ambitious.
Then the debut single, “Kings & Queens,” came out, alongside a beautifully shot video that won VIDEO OF THE YEAR in last year’s We Love Christian Music Awards, and shut everyone up. All ears were perked, waiting to see if this was simply a brilliant fluke or overall brilliance in the making.
Thankfully, it was very much the latter.
Kings & Queens is the album that I’ve been waiting for Kevin Max to make since his debut solo effort in 2001 gave hints of his pop dominance in songs like “Existence” and “Angel With No Wings.” Kevin never stopped making music and kudos for him for paving his own way and direction, but he simply lost me in his deep and thick theology and creativity. I can’t fault an artist for making music they love, and not becoming a slave to the popular audience, but with a musical brand like Audio Adrenaline to now steer, the reflective poet and artistic flare would have to take a backseat (at least for the time being) and make way for radio friendly hooks and a more mainstream message that everyone can consume without too much brain power involved.
Many may say Kings & Queens breaks little ground musically and lyrically. I’m not going to disagree with that, and I don’t believe you need massive invention to write a hit song, but there’s unique power in Kevin’s voice that really rises this material to heights that not many others could reach (both literally and figuratively). There’s a reason that after twenty years, this guy can still turn heads. And he proves it by singing the notes off track after track. His vocals have never sounded more energized and current, and I believe it’s because this is Kevin’s sweet spot. His voice is so powerful, so unique, so controlled that it takes the right production and song to make it shine the way it should. And when that happens, game over!
From the opening track of “He Moves You Move,” to the U2 channeling of the Martin Smith penned “Fire Never Sleeps,” to the incredibly unique sound of “20:17 (Raise The Banner)” to the closing track (and one of my favorites), “The Answer,” Kings & Queens proves that at the end of the day, the music speaks and stands above and beyond a band's roster of musicians and vocalists.