Top Ten Albums of 2011

Soon, we will get to the albums.  But first, the rules:

1.  The albums had to be released during the calendar year of 2011.

2.  The albums had to be full-length albums of new material.

3.  The albums couldn’t be live albums that consisted primarily of live versions of previously released material from the artist. Continue reading

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Artist’s Best: David Crowder Band

What comes to mind when I say “Worship Music”?  Maybe good things such as–praising God, rejoicing, maybe images of Sunday morning worship services at your local church.  If you are a bit more on the cynical side, you might think of the fact that seemingly every popular singer in Christian music has released a “worship album”, whether or not worship is the particular individual’s calling. 

One artist who has proven that he knows how to worship well is David Crowder.  His best work to date is his newest album–Church Music

Lyrically, Church Music is timeless.  One can picture someone singing these lyrics 100 years from now.  If one didn’t know any better, the lyrics could be 100 years old.  This is one key to having great, genuine worship music.  The images Crowder uses are beautiful, ageless and universal.  Let me just quote a few songs:  “Like calm comes to a sea/Like snowfall quietly/You come to me…Like a song rising up/With your heart filling up/Like a heart’s not enough/For this love” (Alleluia Sing), “Heaven loud with glory ringing/Fill the air with angel’s singing/Earth take up the heavenly cry/Lord of all reigns on high” (What a Miracle).   With the abundance of worship music available, Crowder does not take the simple way out, lyrically speaking.  Crowder trades in the schmaltzy lyricism popular today and trades it in for lyrics that are eternal and genuinely worship-oriented. 

Musically, Church Music is a force unto itself.  First of all, the music is continuous throughout the album–there are no breaks between tracks.  Also, the last song ends the same way the first song begins, so if one leaves the cd on “repeat”, the praise would continue forever and ever.  What a thought! 

It turns out that the title Church Music is a bit ironic.  The music David Crowder Band employs is not what one would normally think of as, well, church music.  There are many styles included, but most have a flare of electronic/rock.  As usual, though, Crowder refuses to be easily categorized stylistically, which in itself is a unique quality for a worship album. 

Church Music also includes two remakes of contemporary classics: “All Around Me” originally by Flyleaf and “How He Loves” originally by John Mark McMillan.  “All Around Me” is done in a haunting piano-driven style.  “How He Loves” is simply glorious and praise-inspiring.  Both feel very natural to include on the album.

If you’ve never heard a David Crowder Band album, this is the one to start with.  If you are looking for genuine worship music, maybe something original, this is the worship album for you.  Buy this album–you will not be disappointed!

Artist’s Best: Rich Mullins

“I am so grateful for Rich’s songs.  They teach me how to notice, how to worship, how to write, and most importantly, how to live.”  That is what Chris Rice wrote for the liner notes to “Awesome God:a tribute to Rich Mullins”.  That statement is true of most of Rich’s music, but it is especially true of his best album: “A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band”.

“A Liturgy…” is a concept-album.  Now, sometimes concept albums feel forced.  Often, they feel like songs were crammed into a certain format or style in order to fit the concept.  This concept album, though, is quite the opposite.  The first song serves as a sort of call to worship.  Tracks 2-6 together form a liturgy–a tool used for public worship.  First, the Scripture is proclaimed in “52:10”, which is Isaiah 52:10 sung in a way that is reminiscent of a monk chant mixed with beautiful piano and drums.  The rest of the tracks in the liturgy section of the album praise God (“The Color Green”), ask for his help (“Hold Me Jesus”), proclaim Christian belief in a musical version of the Apostle’s Creed (“Creed”), and the liturgy closes with a Communion song (“Peace”).  Tracks 7-12 form the “Legacy” section of the album.  This section focuses on what it means to live out “the Liturgy”, that is, what it means to live as a Christian in the world.

Lyrically, this album is chock-full of beautiful imagery and poetry.  Mullins’ songwriting is at its best here.  Take these lyrics for “The Color Green”, a song that praises God for His creation:  “Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands/Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land/Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made/Blue for the sky and the color green that fills Your fields with praise”.  Mullins is witty when appropriate, too.  For example on the song “Hard”, which discusses the fact that living a life full of values is not easy:  “Well I am a good midwestern boy/I give an honest day’s work if I can get it/I don’t cheat on my taxes, I don’t cheat on my girl/I’ve got values that would make the white house jealous”. 

Then we come to what I believe is Rich Mullins’ most well-written song, “Land of my Sojourn”.  It is the last song on the album, and it sort of combines the Liturgy section with the Legacy section, combining the stories of Scripture with imagery and metaphor from our present life, in a statement that the world we live in now is only the Land of our Sojourn when compared to the world we will live in when Creation is restored.  Mullins uses beautiful imagery, metaphor and similes to combine the present world with the stories of Scripture.  “And this road, she is a woman/She was made from a rib cut from the sides of these mountains/Oh these great sleeping Adams who are lonely even here in Paradise/Lonely for somebody to kiss them…”  Each verse ends with the same line:”And I’ll sing my song in the land of my sojourn”.  Through the verses, though, the narrator goes from singing “my song” to “their song” to “His song”.  This is a beautiful way to reflect that as a Christian lives and grows in Christianity, we ought to be moving away from ourselves and toward God.  There are so many details I could give about this song, but I will refrain from simply reprinting the whole lyric here, which I am sure is available elsewhere online if you are interested.

The music perfectly matches the lyric for each song.  The word that best describes the song “52:10” is probably proclamation.  The music and singing is strong and refuses to be ignored, which is exactly what is appropriate for proclaiming the Word.  “Hold Me Jesus” is piano driven and intimate, which is what is needed for a prayer to God for his strength.  The hammered dulcimer, which Mullins is famous for playing, is featured throughout the album.  It combines with the drums perfectly on “Creed” to set a meter and rhythm that is the perfect backdrop for a statement of what one believes.  The rhythm seems to say that these things that I believe are what keep time in my life–they are what keeps me going, steadily and firmly.

This album makes one a bit sad to realize that Rich Mullins has been gone now for 12-13 years.  We will not be getting any new music from Rich for a while.  As Andrew Peterson puts it in his tribute song to Rich Mullins, “Three Days Before Autumn”: “the angels in Heaven are dancing around to the music that I wanna hear”.  Just think–if Rich Mullins wrote this album while he was still earth-bound, what might he be writing now?  I can’t wait to find out!

Music Review: Sara Groves’ Fireflies and Songs

Personal.  Honest.  Original.  These are all words that describe great artistry.  These are also words that describe Sara Groves’ newest cd, Fireflies and Songs

Lyrically, Fireflies and Songs explores personal relationships–relationships between husband and wife, one’s personal relationship with God and understanding oneself.  “Different Kinds of Happy” celebrates the power of confession and honesty in marriage (and in any relationship): “It’s a sweet, sweet thing/Standing here with you and nothing to hide/Light shining down to our very inside/Sharing our secrets/Bearing our souls/Helping each other come clean”.  “Twice As Good” tells of the joy of having a person or group of people with whom we can share our deepest thoughts and feelings: “With every burden I have carried/With every joy it’s understood/Life with you is half as hard and twice as good”.  “It’s Me” speaks to some of the harder aspects of marriage.  “Setting Up The Pins” is a fun, modern-day work song.  Groves’ personal honesty shines throughout the record, perhaps shining brightest in “Eyes Wide Open”, where Groves is not afraid to address weaknesses in her own life: “I’ve got layers of lies I don’t even know about yet”.  Fireflies and Songs ends with “Joy Is In Our Hearts”–a sort of benediction that challenges us to remember that as we weather good times and bad in our personal relationships, through it all, Christ is our joy and strength.

Musically, this album has a sort of piano, folk, acoustic sound.  It’s a very original mix that one has to think was influenced by the Producer of the album–Charlie Peacock.  The instrumentalists Groves surrounds herself with are top-notch.  Of course she and Charlie Peacock play piano throughout the album.  Matt Slocum (Sixpence None The Richer) helps with the strings.  Jerry McPherson (Amy Grant, Rich Mullins, Trace Adkins, Dusty Springfield, Out of the Grey) plays guitar.  Scott Dente (Out of the Grey) plays guitar.  Buddy Green plays harmonica.  And to top it all off, Bruce Bouton (Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, Lonestar) plays Steel Guitar.

It is clear that even though Fireflies and Songs is a very personal album, Groves has made it a community effort.  And the effect is to multiply the album’s appeal with each new member of the community.  Fireflies and Songs is simply a must-have.

Artist’s Best: Caedmon’s Call

Caedmon’s Call has had a prolific career.  In their independent years they gained a following with an acoustic folk-rock sound.  Their self-titled and 40 Acres albums were the epitome of this acoustic folk-rock sound.  With Long Line of Leavers they added different elements to their sound, including brass.  They experimented with more radio-friendly fare on Back Home.  They released two praise and worship offerings with In the Company of Angels: A Call to Worship and In the Company of Angels: The World Will Sing.  Caedmon’s Call recorded their missions experiences with the sounds of the lands they visited on Share the Well.  And they returned to their folk-rock roots with Overdressed

But what is their best work to date?  Hard to say.  Most long-term fans would probably say it’s a toss-up between their self-titled album and 40 Acres.  But here we have a winner.  And the winner is….40 Acres.  Why?  Well, there are two words that best describe 40 Acres: Rich and Layered.

Lyrically, this collection of songs pulls together Scripture and real-life experience like no other album to date.  Take the second verse of “Where I Began” (written by Aaron Tate) for example: “So you have yourself your ninety-nine/Isn’t that enough for you/Still you followed me to the shadowed valley/Carried me on your shoulders too”.  The Scripture that is most obvious is Matthew 18:12 & 13, where a shepherd leaves his 99 sheep in order to find the 1 who is lost.  The idea is that each one of us is the 1 lost sheep, and Jesus is willing to do whatever it takes to come find us.  Looking back at the lyric, though, there’s still that pesky line about “the shadowed valley”.  What shadowed valley?  Psalm 23 has the answer.  This is perhaps the most well-known Psalm of them all.  Look at verse 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  The “shadowed valley” is the valley of the shadow of death.  In these four short lines, Tate has woven together the story of the 99 sheep and Psalm 23.  The picture he is painting is one of a wandering sheep, lost in the valley of the shadow of death, and our Shepherd is willing to leave the 99 in order to carry the lost sheep back home.  These stories are woven together seamlessly and in a way that helps us appreciate both passages better.

Or take the title track, “40 Acres” (written by Aaron Tate).  On first listen, this could be the most confusing song on the album.  It seems to be a song about rain and fields and perhaps we might simply relegate the metaphor to likening redemption to being washed by the rain.  And this is true–that is an element in the song.  But there is so much more!  In the 1860s, when African-American slaves were freed, they often times were given 40 acres and a mule in order to be able to start a new life.  Tate is using this idea to reflect on what redemption really is–not simply forgiveness of sins, but the start to a new life where everything is changed.

While layered lyrics make up the majority of the album, there are points where the lyrics are more straight-forward, but no less challenging.  The opening lines of “Shifting Sand” (Aaron Tate) are “Sometimes I believe all the lies/So I can do the things I should despise”.  Not much mystery in what is being said, but a challenging acknowledgement of reality nonetheless.  Or take these lines from “Faith My Eyes” (Derek Webb) “But I get turned around/And I mistake my happiness for blessing/And I’m blessed as the poor/Still I judge success by how I’m dressing”.  Again, the point is pretty straight-forward, but still challenging to put into practice.

The album 40 Acres is just as layered and rich musically as it is lyrically.  On the face of it, we have a pretty standard folk-rock album.  Lead guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, drums, bass.  On the 3rd or 10th or 100th listen, though, we realize it is not quite that simple.  Some elements we know are there, but they blend so well into one song we don’t always recognize the individual elements.  Aric Nitzberg playing bass on “There You Are” is a great example of this.  The bass in the chorus moves the song along arguably as much as the lead guitar.

Another element that is easily overlooked but much appreciated is the simple fact that Caedmon’s Call has two percussionists: Tod Bragg on drums and Garett Buell on various percussion instruments.  And when I say various percussion instruments, I put the emphasis on various.  Including trash cans on “Thankful”.  I have seen Caedmon’s perform that song more than once and every time it is great fun to watch.

It’s the little musical touches that set Caedmon’s Call, and the specific album 40 Acres, apart from other folk-rock.  We’ve already noted the two percussionists.  There is Randy Holsapple on the Hammond B-3 organ.  The addition of the organ doesn’t feel like one more instrument, but it holds each song together as one cohesive piece of art.  There is Randy Holsapple’s harmonica and accordion.  There is Phil Madeira’s accordion on “Table for Two” that makes you feel like you’re really in a diner sitting at a table for two.  There is Derek Webb’s banjo on “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)”.  There is the way the music perfectly fits with the lyric on “Daring Daylight Escape” (Derek Webb).  All these little touches put Caedmon’s Call and 40 Acres at the top of their game.

If you are a long-time listener to Caedmon’s Call, pull out this classic album (it’s been 10 years!) and give it another listen.  If you are unfamiliar with Caedmon’s Call, there is no better place to start then 40 Acres.