Album Review: for King & Country - A Drummer Boy Christmas | Posted October-29-2020 What You Need To Know
The current kings of Christian pop, the brothers Smallbone of for KING & COUNTRY, have slowly been building up their repertoire of Christmas tunes. This culminates in their first full-length Christmas studio album, A Drummer Boy Christmas, themed after their signature rendition of the classic carol.
What It Sounds Like
For anyone who has followed the band over the past few years, the album's sound should come as little surprise. Many of the carols selected were featured on their Live Christmas album released a few years ago. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and its outro "Won't You Come" make their studio debut here. Bear Reinheart of NEEDTOBREATHE will surprise listeners with a guest appearance. His voice fits perfectly on the track's eerie and spine-tingling atmosphere and will make you long for future collaborations between the two. I still think these two tracks should be a single one as "Won't You Come" is the obvious grand finale to the track and doesn't stand on its own properly. But those are technical footnotes to the quality of the listening experience. "Joy to the World" gets the beautifully bombastic FK&C treatment and the result is unsurprisingly glorious. Other cuts are intimately low key and bring out the worship side of these classics. "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Angels We Have Heard on High" get upgrades from their previous EP versions and the new versions fit well here.
The highlights for many fans will be the two new cuts. "Heavenly Hosts" is the standout and primed for radio success. With a slow-building approach, the song definitely feels like a classic in the making. While following the formula for many modern worship songs, the execution is filled with more wonder and emotion than comparable tracks. The track is a success of dynamics, with both soothing, reflecting harmonies balancing the grand choral highs. All wrapped in just enough of a Christmassy feel to be at home in the season, but not to distract from the setting of a quiet midnight field in the middle of nowhere where the message of the heavenly hosts occurred.
"The Carol of Joseph (I Believe In You)" takes a quiet approach to capture the wonder of Joseph, an often overlooked character in the Nativity narrative, at being the caretaker of the newborn king. While the brothers Smallbone are often known to go big in their song's climactic moments, this is an example of them keeping it simple and quiet throughout and successfully replicating the mood of cradling the newborn king in the night.
If there's any gripe, it may be that the 13-track length is a tad deceptive, with one of the tracks being a monologue, and the aforementioned "Won't You Come" being an extension of its lead-in. Add in the "In The Bleak Midwinter" Intro and Outro (both well done but their truncated nature doesn't leave room for either to break out) that bookends the collection, and only about 9 fully-fledged songs are present. With fine originals like "Baby Boy" and "Glorious" available, it would've been nice to see if they got reimagined mixes similar to "Drummer Boy" or "Angels." That said, the album doesn't feel shorted for their exclusion as the songs present still shine bright.
Not to knock the sleigh bells and Christmas party side of the season, but I always found that the songs focused on the true meaning tend to have the most replay value. Luckily for me, this album is, start to finish, focused on the birth of Christ. It's a reverent and intimate Christmas pageant of an album.
The new songs giving the perspectives of the shepherds and Joseph round out the worship themes of the classic carols. While perhaps these songs don't reinvent any perspectives on the birth of Christ, they do offer plenty to meditate on by the fireside this Christmas season.
I'll add in a special mention for the album art. I've always loved the drummer boy/soldier boy motifs of for KING & COUNTRY's past Christmas EPs and singles and this newest addition definitely captures the mood of the album's music.
for KING & COUNTRY have become the gold standard of popular Christian music this past decade. On paper, they more or less do what their contemporaries do, albeit sometimes a lot bigger. But their execution tends to have more emotion, more genuity, more passion. You can feel the authenticity in every note of their work. This Christmas album is no exception. While there isn't anything here you really wouldn't expect if you're familiar with the current conventions of the genre, it's hard to find much here that isn't flawlessly executed. This could be the Christmas classic album to kick off the new decade of Christmas music.
Album Review: RICHLIN EP | Posted October-28-2020 What You Need To Know
Brandon Richardson, stage name RICHLIN, aims to add his voice to the Christian Pop scene. He starts this journey with his debut EP. With several singles released throughout the year, this album gathers them into a cohesive collection for listeners.
What It Sounds Like
There's a little something for every Christian pop fan on this release. "Royal Blood" boasts a foot-tapping base beat to its chorus that makes you want to get up and move. A softer, more-worship oriented version is also included. This version shifts the mood to a slower and more reflective listening atmosphere.
Three of the four unique songs are included twice, a notable feature of this EP. Hearing these songs delivered in two different styles allows listeners to contemplate the lyrics in different ways. The anthemic "Love Like Thunder" does this well, flawlessly executing the pop anthem and reflective ballad approach. The fittingly titled pop anthem "One and Only" is the only song that doesn't have two versions. Once again, with a groovy singable chorus that would sound great on the radio, "One and Only" captures the listener's attention with chants and abundant hooks.
"Royal Blood" praises God for the gift of his blood saving us. "Love Like Thunder" marvels at the power of God's love. "You're The Wine" and "One and Only" continue the worship focus of the lyrics. While the music's sound may be rooted heavily in moveable beats and accessible pop melodies, it's topical and lyrical focus is squarely on the love of Christ and its work in our lives.
Richlin manages to capture a lot of the famous sounds of Christian pop in 2020. Whether it's the bold and anthemic choruses with just a hint of hip-hop or the soaring worship anthems, Richlin manages to give listeners a sampling of all of it. And, it works well to make his songs pop and engage the listener.
Micah Tyler - Feels Like Joy (Single) Review | Posted October-21-2020 What You Need To Know
One of Christian music's brightest up and coming stars releases his first Christmas single.
What It Sounds Like
"Feels Like Christmas" is a fun, toe-tapping Christmas song. While some songs make you want to sit by a fireside, this one is a "get up and decorate the house" type of song. With a trumpet solo in the bridge and a sugary holiday sounding hook, this is a great song to get you in the festive mood.
Taking a sort of "kitchen sink" thematic approach, the song balances traditional Christmas imagery like lights on a tree and snow in the air with the more faith-centric motifs about the newborn baby and joy. There're so many holiday motifs of both the mainstream and faith variety thrown so effortlessly into the music mix. It's commendable it all pulls together into such a cohesive idea. There's not a swing for new spiritual depth, but that's not really the aim of this track. Tyler aimed to deliver a fun tune to get people in the mood for the holiday season. The Christmassy imagery overflowing from every line of the track is sure to deliver.
Austin French - Peace On Earth Review | Posted October-16-2020 What You Need To Know
After establishing himself as a name to watch in the Christian music scene, Austin French introduces his first ever Christmas single.
What It Sounds Like
"Peace on Earth" takes all of the best hallmarks of Austin's style for an enjoyable spin. The slow-building structure allows for both Austin's vulnerable soft vocals to shine, as well as his knack for creating a rousing anthemic chorus. Some production flourishes give the track enough of a Christmassy feel to be relevant in the season. But, since it isn't dripping in sugar plums and sleigh bells, the song may very well find itself at home in non-Christmas playlists, as well.
The song's theme plays to a well-respected one for Christian Christmas originals. This is that the newborn King is the ultimate bringer of peace. In a year that has seen more than its share of turmoil, the reminder of the peace that only comes with Christ is needed more than ever.
This one should connect with fans of popular Christian music. If you're a fan of some of Contemporary Christian music's recent output of Christmas hits, be sure to add this one to your 2020 Christmas playlists.
Album Review: Skillet - Victorious: The Aftermath | Posted September-09-2020 What You Need To Know
Deluxe Editions of Skillet albums have become par for the course. Dating all the way to Collide, every album has either been re-released as or co-released with a version featuring extra songs. When the very first song Skillet played live in advance of Victorious called "Dead Man Walking" ended up not making the final tracklisting, fans immediately knew we were in for another "Deluxe Edition" of some sort to come about a year after the new album released.
Sure enough, here we are about 13 months since Victorious blasted onto the scene and Victorious: The Aftermath is ready to keep the victory coming. (Which, if I may say, is the best name yet I've seen for a Deluxe Edition.) The album's 12-track listing is expanded to 20 with three new songs and five alternate versions of popular cuts from the standard listing.
What It Sounds Like
"Dead Man Walking" translates well to the studio. Those who've heard the live videos floating around YouTube likely know what to expect. The song is a classic Skillet amp-up rocker that will certainly become a workout jam for many. "Sick and Empty" is probably the standout of the new tracks, offering an electric number that juxtaposes laid back verses against a rocking chorus to rousing success. This definitely has fan favorite written all over it. It was already a favorite of Ledger's, who had expressed disappointment it wasn't included in the album's standard release.
The previously released "Dreaming of Eden" is a terrific anthem that balances the ballad and rocker sensibilities into one of the band's catchiest songs to date. It also makes a great theme song to the band's graphic novel series.
The reimagined songs that make up the other new inclusions will likely be more polarizing to fans. While "Legendary" gets a bit of a standard remix treatment, several of the album's rockers get turned into piano ballads. The title track gets a cinematic version that highlights its melodic strengths. The previously released "Save Me (Reimagined)" offers a slow-building epic ballad take on the piano rocker that highlights the song's emotive core. But, perhaps the standout of the bunch is the "Reach (Falling Deep Mix)." A stark departure from the original's aggressive rock structure, this version is pure haunting piano ballad, with Ledger taking over a whole verse of the song, adding in a whole new layer of meaning to the words. This was stated to be a favored arrangement of Korey Cooper's and one need not listen long to see why. It's quite refreshing to see a song that is billed as a reimagining actually come out drastically different than its original. While the original was a favorite of mine on Victorious, I cannot deny that this version is also one of my top picks of this whole collection.
The single "Terrify The Dark (Reimagined)" closes out the project. And, while the song is still a strong ballad, one will need to listen closely to catch the subtle differences in the mixing between this and the original. In contrast to the drastic changes, some of the other remixes underwent, many listeners may come away a bit disappointed that there weren't a few more risks taken to differentiate this version from its original album arrangement.
For those craving new Skillet, The Aftermath delivers in spades.
Some of the new cuts on The Aftermath probe some meatier spiritual waters than the standard Skillet pump-up or "man versus society" anthem. While "Dead Man Walking" fits nicely into the themes blazed by "Reach" or "Back to Life," "Sick and Empty" digs deeper. Exploring themes of self-loathing over one's sinfulness, the song serves as one of the darker entries of Skillet's catalogue, while still offering hope. Standout lyrics include, "I don't deserve Your tears/Or to be happy here/This ended when You gave Yourself to me."
"Dreaming of Eden" sings of the joy and reward we will find when we get to heaven and are free from our sinful state.
"Reach (Falling Deep Mix)"
For Fans Of
Red, Thousand Foot Krutch, Seventh Day Slumber
The new material on The Aftermath is mostly strong additions to the Skillet cannon. Fans would do well to add these new tracks to their streaming and download playlists. These new cuts will likely cement themselves as an integral part of the Victorious legacy. Those jaded by re-releases are unlikely to be moved by the bonus material, whereas those of us still clinging to the charm of physical copies will have to weigh whether or not the new inclusions merit a repurchase. Regardless of one's feelings on the idea of Deluxe Editions, The Aftermath offers enough new content to give Skillet fans something to ease the sting of a rough 2020 and hold us over until we can get another full-length project from one of the most iconic bands in the business.
Album Review: Graham Jones - The Story's Still Alive | Posted September-09-2020 What You Need To Know
With an aim to uncover the spiritual in the everyday, singer-songwriter Graham Jones puts thoughtful lyrics to gentle and memorable melodies in this worshipful offering.
What It Sounds Like
With an acoustic guitar driving the album coupled with Jones's soft vocals, the album takes a much more atmospheric approach to music than the trends of the genre currently allow. These are the kinds of songs that could easily be sonically placed in the background of a commercial or television drama. But, far from being sombre, there is a lot of joy to be had here, such is in the upbeat "I Am Here For You." "Carry Your Heart" brings in a faster pace to add variety to the album's approach, while still feeling right at home.
Far from the easy worship of most in the genre, Graham Jones both encourages weary listeners ("Carry Your Heart," "The Story's Still Alive") and also challenges their preconceptions ("God Loves People Everywhere"). "I Am Here For You" and "Resurrection Song" offer examples of common themes of the genre, but done with a more thoughtful and personal execution.
Album Review: Kim Walker-Smith - Wildheart (Live) | Posted August-15-2020 What You Need To Know
Jesus Culture's Kim Walker-Smith has released her first solo project in three years. Her new worship album, Wild Heart, explores life, new beginnings, and returning to one's first love.
What It Sounds Like
Kim Walker-Smith has one of the biggest voices in Christian worship. Both powerful and soft, her voice carries these worship songs to new heights. Musically, each song takes the melodic, slow-build approach popularized in recent years by the Hillsongs and Jesus Cultures of the business. The title track is one of the best examples of this style working well, with a musically complex and dynamic chorus, culminating in a rousing finish. While some of the songs would benefit from being truncated some, songs like "Wild Heart" are stronger for their tighter runtime.
Being a praise album, listeners would not be surprised by the fairly straightforward nature of the album's spiritual themes. In the title track, Kim sings of God's wild heart in pursuit of us. Others praise the wondrous works He's done for us. The themes should feel familiar to fans of the worship genre, carried to new depths on the strength of Walker-Smith's vocal delivery.
Seventh Day Slumer - Unseen: The Lion EP | Posted August-10-2020 What You Need To Know
Seventh Day Slumber has developed a reputation for producing both quality crunchy hard rock as well as passionately delivered rock worship. The band spent the better part of the last decade or so mixing these two styles. After a slew of rock-driven releases, the band's worship side is ready to roar back with a vengeance with a two-part rock worship release that hits many of the genre's biggest hits of the past decade.
What It Sounds Like
While these worship cuts don't dial up the energy quite as much as the originals, Seventh Day Slumber, nevertheless, injects some of their signature style of guitar-driven rock into these popular worship tunes. "Reckless Love," in particular, sounds great with its new amped-up makeover. The song's iconic hook translates very well into a rock setting. Francesca Battistelli's "Holy Spirit" also gets the rock treatment. Initially a slow-building worship epic, this cover features punchy guitars and edgy vocals. "Eternity" offers an original break amidst the popular worship tunes; the song is one of the more low-key of the tracks. Nevertheless, "Eternity" fits in fairly well with some of the biggest worship hits of the decade.
"Eternity," being the song listeners are least familiar with, offers the most spiritual meat to chew on. Its chorus feels so relevant in what has been an unquestionably turbulent year, "Looking for flashing signs and wonders/Looking for saviors on our screen/But you are a God who speaks in whispers/Echoing through eternity/You echo through eternity." Whether it's the remarking on the depths of God's love for us or how God carries us when our feet won't, these songs touch on both our human experience and praise for the creator of it all.
Single Review: Caleb Crino - Lord Jesus Come | Posted July-31-2020 What You Need To Know
For rising singer-songwriter Caleb Crino, music is a product of a life surrendered to God. His music is reflective of that surrender, full of pop-influenced gems delivered by smooth vocals that all reflect back on a trustworthy God.
What It Sounds Like
With a simple beat and a lush sound, "Lord Jesus Come" is a radio-ready hit that manages to sound at home with other hits of the day while also sounding more alive and less overproduced than other music that tops the charts. With a sound like this, expect to see Crino's songs spun with other A-listers.
Life has been difficult for everyone in 2020. And this song is a reflection of that. This song's plea for Lord Jesus to come and conquer our worldly troubles is one that I think most of us can relate to--even on a good year.
Album Review: Sidewalk Prophets - The Things That Got Us Here | Posted June-30-2020 What You Need To Know
Almost five full years after the band's last release, Sidewalk Prophets is back with their 4th full length LP, The Things That Got Us Here. With a deliberate attempt to create a more organic and authentic sound, the band took a grassroots approach to crafting the songs on this album.
What It Sounds Like
Sidewalk Prophets has always viewed their fans as part of their "great big family." This has developed their sound into one that is both energetic and intimate. If anything, this album finds the band fully comfortable with who they are and what works for them. Lead single "Smile" is the very burst of bubbly energy that has made the band a success. Others like "Where Forgiveness Is" or "You Were There" build to a soaring finish that flirt with terms like epic. Perhaps the band's most signature material is the borderline acoustic numbers in the tradition of "Help Me Find It" and "Come to the Table." "The Light" should be another fine entry in this category. David Frey's vocals have always had this genuine honest quality that makes you pay attention to everything he's singing, and he's at the top of his game once again here.
Sidewalk Prophets once again have their finger on the pulse of their fans. Never one to shy away from the struggles their listeners are going through, we have another batch of songs speaking to the anxieties and fears listeners are facing. Songs like "The Comments Section" are so relevant, especially this year. These days, it seems like every social media page is just a post away from an online war. "You Were There" and "Real to Me" impart the wisdom of experience from seasoned veterans. "Smile" has become a very timely entry for a year where it's becoming harder and harder to smile. While nobody could have seen 2020's twists and turns coming, The Things That Got Us Here has managed to be just the album we needed, with the wisdom of good friends there to help encourage us and remind us of how grace has already taken us this far.