Being a music reviewer (or film or any other kind of art) can be a downer at times, because your intake of mediocre art can be too much. If you let it get to you, then you can wonder if there is anything good happening in your little corner of the music or art world, like somehow all the lights are slowly going out and you’re standing there trying to make sense of what is happening.
So it’s a needed joy to take into account all of the things you liked in the year that has past. It’s refreshing to unabashedly talk about what you thought was great art, and why it has lightened up your soul. Good music can be the best thing in the world. It can speak to your heart and brain like few other art forms, and when you bond with a particular piece of art, it comes to feel like an old friend. Many of the albums on my list already feel like that, like I’ve been listening to them for a long time, though they may be only a few months out of the proverbial womb.
And if your list, like mine, contains a lot of your long-time favorite artists, then it’s critical to ask the question “Do I love this album because I love the artist?” (in the same way I love one of my young daughter’s drawings because I love who it came from), or is this truly a stand-out piece of work that changes my life (not to put too dramatic a point on it).
It’s a salient question, and for me, the question of my musical year. With all these returning artists on my list, what is it about their latest offering that got me so jazzed up? It’s hard to separate the love of the artist and the love of the album, and knowing where one starts and the other stops is difficult. It’s a subject worth tackling.
By my mental arithmetic, seven of the listees are “old friends” of mine (Steve Taylor, Needtobreathe, Switchfoot, The Choir, Anberlin, Peter Furler and David Crowder), two are “acquaintances” that are rapidly becoming “good friends” (for King & Country and Jason Gray) and one feels like a band I just met at a party and had a terrific conversation with (Judah & The Lion). So old friends and new, you all made my 2014 a year to remember by putting out the very best offerings these ears of mine heard. It’s a list of what I liked, not a defining “best of” anything (U2 and Coldplay put out a really great albums in the mainstream, too), but a list of spiritual pop that made my heart sing (and convicted it too) and my mind think deeper, rounder thoughts.
- Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil / Goliath
The word “satire” doesn’t enter the Christian music vocabulary too often these days. With Christian radio play lists filled with earnest (and sometimes over-earnest) artists writing straight-forward songs that are easy to process, there is little room or time on the drive home from work to parse a song’s lyrics out if they prove to be more complex, or in Steve Taylor’s world, lyrically dense and chock-full of protein. It’s the difference between one of those candy-like granola bars that are more like a candy bar, and a health food store hiking bar that are tough to chew, but ultimately will give you a bigger boost.
Thankfully, Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil’s debut album (and that’s an ironic statement I know, as all four members of the group have almost 50 albums out between them) coat their satirical, yet reverent musings with some of the best, most melodic garage rock you will hear anywhere. Catchy tunes are the name of the game, and hard looks at both American and church culture are found throughout Goliath’s 11 lean tracks.
Steve Taylor has always been a keen observer of culture (for example, his great take on Church racism and cultish tendencies in 1980’s gems like “Color Code” and “I Want To Be A Clone”) and it’s been 20 years since we’ve been graced with such observations out of his own mouth. But he hasn’t stopped making them; he just wrote good, scathing lyrics that he gave away, like the Newsboys songs “John Woo” (a take on mindless blockbuster movies and lives of luxury), “Fad Of The Land” and “Lost The Plot”.
So it’s wonderful to hear him take on the subjects of blurred reality in the computer age (“Only A Ride,” “Rubbernecker”), Celebrity and political culture (“The Sympathy Vote,” “Goliath”), lazy, passive media consumers (“Happy Go Lazy”), and his own frustration on being misunderstood by so many “gate keepers” in Christian music throughout the years (“The Comedian”). But Taylor does so much more than fire bullets at others. “Standing In Line” is a hard look at the ebbs and flows of married life, and “A Life Preserved” is a wonderful testimony about how God is faithful even though we drift away countless times.
All together, Goliath hits on so many levels that it will take me another year to sort out the lyrics (seriously, try counting all the puns in “Comedian“), but thankfully, I will be humming these songs to myself all that time. Goliath was worth the wait. Let’s hear some more Steve (and Jimmy and Peter and John Mark).
- Needtobreathe /Rivers In The Wasteland
In any other year, Needtobreath’s fantasticRivers In The Wasteland would have hit the number one spot for me. With its terrific mix of countrified rockers (“The Heart, “State I’m In”, “Oh Carolina”) and thought provoking, epic tunes (“Difference Maker”, which might be the most misunderstood lyric of the year; give it a second listen and think satire), Rivers In The Wasteland is a high water mark (no pun intended) for the boys from South Carolina. Add to the track list a unique and refreshing worship song (“Multiplied”) and the great gospel choir in “Brother” and you have the best set of songs you are likely to hear on Christian radio, but ones that also fit nicely on that play list that your supermarket is playing right now. That’s a true, artistic feat.
- for KING & COUNTRY /Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.
There was no sophomore slump for these Aussies (even if they are 0 for 2 on album cover artwork). The long-titled ‘Live Free’doubled down on the drums and epic songwriting that the Smallbone brothers have made their trademark. I read one reviewer who compared the songs on Live Free with songs from Disney’s The Lion King, and I couldn’t help but agree with that strange comparison. Live Free has the sort of rousing, Broadway like songs that could be licensed for countless sports montages and holiday commercials and episodes of The 100. “Fix My Eyes” and “To The Dreamers” sound like crosses between Graceland era Paul Simon and Coldplay, with massive drumming and tribal grooves to go along with the fantastic harmonies of brothers Joel and Luke. I’m seeing these guys live next summer, and I plan to be in the font of the stage to soak up the energy.
- Switchfoot /Fading West
Fading Westwould have been higher on this list if it had been released all at once as the massive double album it deserves to be. Instead, it was released in three parts alongside the surfing film, and lost its impact on me a bit in the process. There is enough good material between the ep, the main release and the b-sides album to fill a whole concert set list. Highlights include my favorite song of 2013 (“Love Alone Is Worth The Fight”), recent radio hit “When We Come Alive” and the swirly, droney title track. I’m particularly fond of the haunting “Edge Of The Earth” from the later release of material. That song sounds like the soundtrack to walking on Jupiter. Jon Foreman, who is releasing a series of ep’s this year, is a restless, creative force and I have been blessed to hear his output for almost 20 years now. Switchfoot is going strong and showing how to mature gracefully into their second decade together.5. The Choir / Shadow Weaver
And speaking of decades together, here is The Choir, launching into their third one as a band of brothers with very little turnover. Instead, it’s the long term friendship of Derri, Steve, Tim, Dan and Mark that has continued to drive the great, late-period of output from this band. 2005’s O How The Mighty Have Fallen, 2010’s Burning Like The Midnight Sun, 2012’s The Loudest Sound Ever Heard and this years Shadow Weaver are a four album hot-streak that most artists would drool over. Add to that a great live album this year and you could say that the Choir has never been better. Shadow Weaver continues Steve Hindalong’s exploration of how our weakness collides with God’s grace, and how our times of weakness (see the sobering take on staying sober, “White Knuckles”) can allow the light of the Holy Spirit (the best kind of ‘spirits‘) to shine.
- Judah & The Lion /Kids These Days
The first debut album on this list is a great slice of Appalachian melodies and instrumentation with insightful lyrics on the subject of growing up. “Sing Me Your Song” and “Love In Me” are honest, down home, yet epic (neat trick) worship songs that bring to mind a more subdued (and humble) Mumford & Sons. “Somewhere In Between” is a great look at the place most believers find themselves in, set against a mellow country groove of banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar. Judah & The Lion have operated clear of the music industry thus far, and have proven that it is possible to get going on a career on your own in this new-fangled musical economy we find ourselves in.
- Anberlin /Lowborn
Saying goodbye is hard, but Anberlin did it in the best way possible. They announced the end, recorded one last terrific album, toured one last time and said “thank you, goodnight.” It’s the rare band that can say farewell in a dignified manner.Lowborn is a great final document for a beloved band.
- Jason Gray /Love Will Have The Final Word
Jason Gray has written perhaps my favorite song of the last decade with “Remind Me Who I Am”, and “With Every Act Of Love” mines the same vein of songwriting for Gray.Love Will Have The Final Word is the best kind of intersection of preaching and pop craftsmanship. Not every believer who writes songs needs to be overt. As the wise Mark Stuart of Audio Adrenaline said, “there’s room for all of it.” I’m glad that Jason Gray writes catchy and overtly spiritual songs, because he adds a layer of introspection that is lacking in Christian pop music over all.
- Peter Furler Band /Sun and Shield
And speaking of old friends,Sun and Shield sounds like a lost Newsboys album, somewhere between Going Public and Take Me To Your Leader. I’ve always maintained that if the Newsboys had come up with a better band name in the early days, they would have been taken more seriously as artists, because Furler has always been a terrific, crafty songwriter. Sun and Shield continues Furler’s winning streak, and made me return to a time in my mind when life was simpler, my faith newer and the music on my radio was a vital component to daily life.
Crowder /Neon Steeple
Like Peter Furler, David Crowder struck out on his own this year, and the swampy, yet disco tinged Neon Steeple showed that Crowder can synthesize genres like nobody’s business. Banjos (the de rigueur instrument of the last few years) and mandolins crash against synth squalls and techno back beats, but all in the service of great songs. Many tracks could (in a simpler form) find themselves on the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Crowder has a strong musical vision, and it comes out full force on the southern-rock-by-way-of-the-night-club-and-Sunday-morning Neon Steeple.
And Some Thoughts On A Few Songs
“Comedian” – Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil
Just try to count all the puns in “Comedian”; you’ll have a good time. This track finds Taylor venting a lifetime’s worth of angst over being constantly misunderstood by the Church. Yet he never gets mean or vindictive, even when he questions the almighty in a “David-in-the-Psalms” kind of way. We need more songs like this in Christian music; daring to (appropriately) question the Lord and His ways. The Lord is big enough to handle any question we can throw at Him.
“No Man Is An Island” – Tenth Ave. North
Hipsters may dismiss Tenth Ave. North as a sound-alike Christian radio band, but they continually write deeper and sharper songs than they get credit for. “No Man Is An Island” burst out of my speakers this summer on a road trip, and I found myself marveling at the alignment of melody, message and songwriting drifting into my ears. The blueprint here is Actung Baby era U2, with processed guitars and Bono-like, wailing vocals, but Tenth Ave. North is growing in their songwriting, and as Picasso said, good artists steal while mediocre ones copy. “No Man Is An Island” is a timely statement about the isolation tendencies of 21st century people, and Christians in particular.
“Sing Me Your Song” – Judah & The Lion
This honest worship song (or, if you will, reverse-worship song) contains one of my favorite lyrics of the year, with the Lord singing a song to a follower: “I want to feel your heart beating / like a melody with a heavy drum / and I, I want to know all the things you hid inside / sing me your song”
“Ain’t No Grave” – Crowder
This is a foot-stomper of the highest order, made to be sung in a back holler Church or on the riverside at a baptism. It’s the best kind of old-timey song you will hear this year.
“Lord I’m Ready Now” – Plumb
Plumb’s Faster Than A Bullet was re-released with this fantastic prayer for deliverance added at the end. Plumb’s new album can’t come fast enough for these eager ears.