Monday, January 27, 2014

The Top 20 Albums of 2013

For those of you who are interested, and as any of my friends know, I am huge music junkie, so each year I try to compile a list of at least 20 albums that were significant in my view, and list them in ascending order, along with a brief synopsis of each. Enjoy!

20. Phil Wickham- “The Ascension.”
Wickham again released a solid album of pop guitar and synth driven worship songs this year. Lots of catchy hook laden melodies and solid lyrical reflections on who God his why we should worship Him alone, as well as amazing ballads like “Over All.” It also contains Wickham’s remake of Bethel Music’s “This Is Amazing Grace” that is quite well done.

19. Ghost Ship- “The Good King.”
One of the biggest deals struck in the Christian music industry this year was Mars Hill Records signing as distribution deal with Tooth & Nail records. Their first two releases were the debut albums from Citizens (which we will get to later on the list) and Ghost Ship. “The Good King” rollicks through your speakers with rootsy worship sounds on tracks like “Mediator” and “The Gospel” and well as blues on “Lion King” which is one of the best tracks on the album!

18. The Lone Bellow- “The Lone Bellow.”
If one feels extreme angst and emotion when listening to this debut album from lead singer/songwriter Zach Williams and company, there is good reason. Williams wrote the bulk of this album’s lyrics in a hospital, while his wife was undergoing treatment after a horse riding accident nearly left her paralyzed. The uncertainly of times like that birthed incredible ballads like “Two Sides of Lonely” and “Bleeding Out.” While hope still emerges, this song collection is intense, but that is truly what makes it so good!

17. Ben Rector- “The Walking In-Between.”
When I first discovered Ben Rector it was in 2012, when he opened for NEEDTOBREATHE on their spring tour. He was extremely impressive in that live performance and really engaged with the audience. This album, Rector’s third full release is full of soulful ballads and catchy folk pop ditties. “Beautiful” is easily one of the best windows rolled down summer anthems to grace our speakers in years. “I Like You” is beautiful in its simplicity of articulating what it feels like to be in love with a girl. Other highlights include the gorgeous love song “Forever Like That” and the anthem like “Thank God For The Summertime.”

16. Ivan & Alyosha- “All The Times We Had.”
 If you are a fan of classic roots rock/folk bands and artists like Neil Young, America, & the droning organ sounds of Procol Harem, you will love Ivan & Alyosha. The sounds swirl and swing along with plenty of slide guitars and organs, especially on songs like “Fathers Be Kind,” “Running For Cover” and the incredible heart breaking “God Or Man.” This album was made for highway drives through Nebraska and Kansas, with nothing but corn fields on either side. The sound is definitely middle of nowhere America, yet Ivan & Alyosha are from Seattle! Hard to reconcile mentally, but eardrum wise it doesn’t matter.

15. Fiction Family- “Fiction Family Reunion.”
Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek joined forces again this year, nearly five years after their debut as Fiction Family. The result was a fine southern tinged rock album featuring some typically biting lyrics from Foreman at times, especially on “God Badge” which featured Foreman snidely singing ‘put your God badge down and love someone.” Elsewhere there was the ode to relationship frustrations on “Up Against The Wall” and “Fools Gold” a warning to young musicians everywhere to not let their art consume them with pride and arrogance.  

14. Bethel Music- “Tides.”
The latest release from Redding, California’s worship band was a solid mix of studio effects and swirling guitars, set at both bouncy upbeat intervals, and ballad like pensive reflections. “Chasing You” is the opening track to get the train rolling out of the station, and old hymn “I Have Decided” gets a synthesized looping remake. However, this albums finest moment is by far “Be Still,” which takes Psalm 46:10 as inspiration and reminds each of us to quiet our hearts before God and enjoy His presence.

13. Shine Bright Baby- “Dreamers.”
The pride of Orrville, OH gave us their major label debut this past May on BEC Records, a subdivision of the famous Tooth & Nail Records. They remind me of a hybrid of the dance pop sound of Owl City, and the girl fronted rock sound of Superchick in their early 2000’s heyday. “Made To Glow” reminds of us that we as Christians are to shine as lights in the world. “Luminoux” features a swirling mix of synthesizers, and the title track round out this fine 33-minute adrenaline shot of sound!

12. JJ Heller- “Loved.”
While this is probably not JJ Heller’s best album of her incredible career, it was a solid effort nonetheless. “If You Fall” features probably the fullest band like sound of her career featuring backing synthesizer as well as guitar, and “Create In Me” is a humble request for God to use us with the gifts He has given us, but the best song by far is “Who You Are” which communicates the fact that we may not always know what God is doing in the trials in our lives, but we can still trust in who He is, God in control at all times.

11. Derek Webb- “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, And I Love You.”
Derek Webb celebrated his tenth anniversary as a solo artist this past year by releasing an album that returns to his rootsy folk rock sound he began it with in 2003 with his “She Must And Shall Go Free” album. This album celebrates marriage, and family life, both literally family and church family. The title track reminds us that we need to seek forgiveness for our actions, and humbly admit we are wrong. “The Vow” is a wonderful celebration of marriage and commitment, and “Eye Of The Hurricane” features some great acoustic guitar work that is bound to get stuck in your head for hours after you hear it!

10. Christa Wells- “Feed Your Soul”
 If you are a fan of the incredibly talented songwriters Sara Groves and Audrey Assad, be ready to add Ms. Wells to your list. She may be one of the more underappreciated artists making music right now. This album focuses, as one might imagine from the title, on the need we all have for God to feed our souls each day. Highlights include “Have Your Eyes Open,” the title track, and my favorite love song of 2013, “The Way You Love Me.”

9. Jars of Clay- “Inland.”
 Jars of Clay’s first indie release apart from any major label affiliation saw them taking a bit of influence from many of their past albums and it was a winner. While, initially this album didn’t grab me, upon multiple listens I found that it was actually much better than I thought. ”After The Fight” kicks things off with plenty of shimmery guitar. “Age of Immature Mistakes” is easily one of the better commentaries on society these days, while “Fall Asleep” is one of the albums strongest love song ballads. “Skin And Bones” features some of the better guitar work we have heard from Jars of Clay in a while, and the closing title track reminds us of our need for one another.

8. The Civil Wars- ‘The Civil Wars.”
The feud between Joy Williams and John Paul White that led to the long hiatus/break up of The Civil Wars was much publicized over the past year, and it was a complete surprise to me this past summer when it was announced a final album would be released, recorded mere months before the duo went their separate ways. The tone of the lyrics of this album seem to hint at discord all over the place, from “The One That Got Away” to “Same Old Same Old” and “Eavesdrop.” Yet that is what makes this album so good! It’s raw examination of emotion and frustration make for a fine parting gift to us fans.

7. Vampire Weekend- “Modern Vampires Of The City.”
If you were to have told me last January that one of the best albums of 2013 written about wrestling with faith and doubt would come from a mainstream band known primarily for their light hearted indie rock grooves, I would have looked at you like you had two heads! However, that is just what Vampire Weekend gave us when “Modern Vampires of The City” dropped this past summer. Songs like “Unbelievers” and “Ya Hey” wrestle with understanding who God is and eternal destinations. So fans know they still know how to have fun though, they include songs like “Finger Back” and “Obvious Bicycle” making for a well-rounded modern rock song cycle!

6. Citizens- “Citizens.”
One of the best worship rock albums of 2013 came from Mars Hill Church’s Citizens, who released an incredible mix of driven rock and roll that is reminiscent of Jimmy Eat World and All American Rejects (“Sweetness Of Freedom,” “Hail The King”) as well as some remakes of old hymns (“I Surrender All” and “Praise To The Lord”). The albums strongest cuts though are ballads, “I Am Living In A Land Of Death” and the drop D tuning grunge influenced closing track “Oh God,” which both build into forte finishing climaxes!

5. The Almost- “Fear Inside Our Bones.”
This is the best straight up head bopping rock and roll album of 2013! The Almost crashed back on the scene this spring with an album that is impossible not to tap your feet and bob your head to. The guitars are loud, the vocals are nasally toned, and the beats are like a freight train rolling past you out of control! “Never Be Like You,” “Down” and the story song “Lonely Boy” will bounce around your brain for days, beckoning you to return for another listen.

4. Audrey Assad- “Fortunate Fall.”
Similar to Jars of Clay, Audrey Assad went indie this past fall and released an album stripped back to often just soft piano and guitar melodies, with an occasional quiet drop backdrop. This sound fit the lyrical tone of the album, which is reflective and meditative on passages of scripture, mostly the Psalms, that reflect on who God and Jesus are, and what they did on our behalf as sinners. If you are looking for a ‘prayer closet’ album, this is it as songs like “Good To Me” and “Lead Me On” will be sure to put your mind and heart in the right place when seeking Jesus.

3. The Digital Age- “Evening & Morning.”
When The David Crowder Band dissipated back in 2012, I was greatly disappointed. One of the best and most talented worship bands were calling it quits! However, later on word got out that the members of the band had reformed, sans David Crowder, and were now going by the name The Digital Age. All summer long I waited for their debut full length album to drop, and it finally did in August, and it was so, so good! Lots of high-energy worshipful songs mix electronic influences with guitars. “Captured,” “Glow” and “Symphony of Grace” all will have you jumping in your seat! “Overcome” and “Through The Night” are wonderful songs about God’s faithfulness and goodness, and their covers of both All Sons & Daughters’ “All The Poor And Powerless” and Bethel’s “Break Every Chain” are spot on and give new takes on already powerful songs!

2. Gungor- “I Am Mountain.”
This album was birthed out of lead songwriter and vocalist Michael Gungor’s trek into losing his Faith and then finding it again! That is correct, Gungor has said in interviews that he actually questioned everything about Christianity and his beliefs about God, Jesus and the Bible, and then came out more in love with Jesus than before! The songs reflect doubt and struggle and depression aplenty here on songs like “A Long Way,” “Wandering” and “The Best Part,” delve into mythology for an allegorical tale about the collapse of marriage’s stability on “Beat Of Her Heart,” and get straight up political on the spaghetti western sounding “God And Country.” The album then closes with what Michael Gungor has described as ‘chaos’ on “Upside Down” which concludes with a crash of crescendo of guitars, keyboards and drums, showing us that life isn’t ever all resolved this site of eternity!

1. Over The Rhine- “Meet Me At The Edge Of The World.”
Anyone who has spent time talking music with me in recent months will not be surprised that this album is my pick for album of the year. Add to the fact that my close friend Sarah and I heard most of these songs for the first time this summer when Over The Rhine debuted them in concert before this album was even released and you will be even less surprised, as you will remember how wowed I was after that concert! Simply put, this is the best album to convey worshipful attitudes through lyrical imagery of the beauty of Ohio and the world God has created I have heard since many albums made by the late great Rich Mullins. It is there in every note song and played from the opening title track of this double album, to the closing chords of “Favorite Time Of Light.” Husband and wife duo Linford Deitweiler and Karin Bergquist have been making music for over two decades together now, and it is hard to say they have ever produced a more stunning and beautiful album! Oh yes, be aware there will be some cuss words here and there, but somehow they never seem too overwhelming. If your heart is looking to fall back in love with God and the glorious creation He spoke into being, I can almost guarantee this will do the trick! 

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