One of the greatest joys in Christian music is the diversity with which artists express their faith through song, and it’s not simply a matter of genre. Some of this year’s choices feature subtle expressions of faith, while others openly declare it through hymns and worship songs. Some of the artists made their debut this year, while others are making a return visit to our annual list. Six editors and writers nominated more than forty albums to consider, from which the top twelve were chosen. They’re all winners.
Men and Angels Say
With so many albums of reworked hymns released in 2005, it’s only fitting that we start off recognizing one of the best. The key in making an album like this work is a fine balance of fresh interpretation, musical versatility, and faithfulness to the texts and melodies of the source material. Ashley Cleveland has long been heralded as one of the greatest voices in the history of Christian music, and her bluesy, smoky pipes are a comfortable match for these church standards. You’ve rarely heard “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “I Need Thee Every Hour” belted with such conviction and soul—naturally, since Cleveland says songs like these literally saved her life when she was strung out on drugs years ago. Hymns are indeed powerful medicine for the soul.Click here for the original review.
House of Heroes
House of Heroes
A remarkably strong debut from a band that sounds more seasoned than they really are—and one that easily stacks up to their mainstream indie rock peers. With sing-along anthems perfect for live shows, the music is melodic enough for radio, yet still sophisticated enough in its intricacies and musicianship to maintain underground credibility. And though House of Heroes isn’t one of the most spiritually overt bands out there lyrically, there’s still enough to convey simple truths of human longing while planting subtle seeds of faith. Tim Skipper, A.J. Babcock, and Colin Rigsby add up to a tight power trio, reminiscent of a younger Switchfoot or Relient K. Suffice to say that House of Heroes can rock with the best of them.Click here for the original review
Meet the heir apparent to the Christian alternative pop throne left vacant when Sixpence None the Richer called it quits in 2004. Not that Eisley is a direct copycat with their more floating and dream-like progressive pop. But the vocal resemblance is uncanny between Leigh Nash and the gloriously tuned harmonies of Eisley sisters Stacy and Sherri DuPree. This mostly all-in-the-family band of home-schooled Christians isn’t blatant about faith in their lyrics, but there are still hints of faith, hope, and love to be found in their poetry, which reads like something out of Narnia or Middle Earth. “Memories” illustrates grace in its depiction of ugly things made new, and “Lost at Sea” could possibly be interpreted as a worship song. If Eisley can make music this artful and haunting barely out of their teens, imagine how they’ll mature in the next five to ten years.Click here for the original review.
Hymned No. 1
It was a year full of surprises in Christian music, but perhaps none greater than this uplifting solo debut from the lead singer of MercyMe. We all assumed Bart Millard would have performed his favorite hymns in the same straightforward AC pop style that characterizes his band. Instead, this sumptuously varied collection of church standards is rendered in a wide stylistic array of Americana, ranging from Southern gospel and country to jazz, soul, and early rock. Backed by strong and versatile musicianship—not to mention guest appearances from the likes of Russ Taff, Vince Gill, and Robert Randolph—Millard demonstrates why he’s one of the most highly regarded vocalists in Christian pop. But most striking of all is the way
proves that these beloved songs of old transcend denominations, generations, and genres.Click here for the original review.
The Far Country
A songwriter’s songwriter of the same caliber as Rich Mullins and Sara Groves, and one deserving of more recognition for his strong sense of melody and lyrical insight. Andrew Peterson has long relied on Scripture and personal anecdotes to color his storytelling, but this time he refines his wordplay further by drawing on his love of fantasy and literature, resulting in songs of increased depth, yet still very approachable. Though the album is seemingly preoccupied with death, it is actually a joyful affirmation of life and the journey to our true home in heaven. That’s a message all can appreciate: old and young, healthy and infirmed. Bolstered by top-notch musicianship, The Far Country ranks with the artist’s best—an engaging folk pop album much richer than the average coffee house offering.Click here for the original review.
Jars of Clay
Essential Records/Provident Music Group
continues their streak of artistic excellence. The album is in essence another modernized collection of old hymns, giving new life to church favorites with earthy folk/pop arrangements like “Nothing but the Blood” and “I’ll Fly Away.” But in a creative twist, Jars keeps the primary focus on the profoundly worded lyrics of comfort and grace, even setting 18th century texts to music for the first time in songs such as “Hiding Place” and “God Will Lift Up Your Head.” This is a stirring mix of old and new—not to mention familiar and obscure—that connects the modern church with its rich musical legacy. And this is an album that resonates and rewards more and more with every listen.Click here for the original review.
Stereo: The Evolution of HipRockSoul
4th Avenue Jones
The most wholly original sounding release of the year, but then you might have guessed that just from the title. Comparisons to The Roots, early Black Eyed Peas, 311, N.E.R.D. and a far more urban sounding Earthsuit are all apt, yet not one of them is completely accurate either. 4th Avenue Jones offers a potent stylistic blend of hip-hop attitude, with aggressive electric guitar riffs, and soulful vocals from both front man Ahmad Jones and his wife Tena—oh, and why not color it with some funk, R&B, jazz, and a violin as well. The genre bending all works together as a soul-searching conceptual rock opera documenting relational struggles. Theatrical, dramatic, and captivating—it’s sonic mishmash unlike anything else on the scene, and an example of what more Christian hip-hop artists can aspire to creatively.Click here for the original review.
Add to the Beauty
Four albums in a row and counting—it’s almost becoming a bit predictable for this singer/songwriter to make our annual list, right? But such is the artistic excellence of Sara Groves, one of the most consistently strong and relatable Christian songwriters of the last decade. Here again she relies on simple-yet-profound introspection to articulate our own thoughts, emotions, fears, and epiphanies. On this album, Groves takes the listener a couple steps further than Michael W. Smith once did by allowing Christians to feel and think about their place in this world through gems like “Just Showed Up,” “Rewrite This Tragedy,” and the title track. Though musically it resembles much of her past work, the piano-based folk pop is nevertheless almost flawless in its execution. This is masterful songwriting, so do yourself a favor and add to the beauty by adding this beautifully crafted album to your collection.Click here for the original review.
Tooth & Nail Records
In 2003, a young band from Virginia released their acclaimed debut with little fanfare. Two years later, they’re headlining tours and packing mainstream venues across the country with minimal radio play. The difference between then and now for Mae is absolutely incredible, and that growth is clearly reflected in this wonderfully packaged concept album. The Everglow is not an openly Christian album, but it does reflect a spiritual journey that’s consistent with the faith in its quest for meaning amidst emptiness. In fact, the abstract wording helps make it an experience worth repeating again and again—wherever you are and whatever you’re going through. It also doesn’t hurt that the band has sharpened their skills and tightened their precision, offering some of the most aggressive yet catchy modern rock since Switchfoot and Foo Fighters. Melodic, progressive, purposeful—The Everglow deserves to be regarded as a classic.Click here for the original review.
A Collision or (3+4=7)
David Crowder Band
In a word, wow. The David Crowder Band has always been good at what they do, but here they make the dramatic transformation from college ministry praise team to top-notch modern rock act. Oh, it’s definitely still worship music, but it manages to glorify our Creator by radically breaking from the conventions of the genre. Rock, folk, worship, pop, electronica, bluegrass—what is this exactly? Why, all of the above, of course, just like it’ll be in heaven someday. This is a densely layered album in music and lyric, simple enough to be taken at face value, yet packed with enough nuance to inspire repeated listens and discover new insights. What could have easily been another rehashed worship effort is so much more interesting, and what might have been sonic chaos instead yields a musical masterpiece that forces everyone to take the David Crowder Band a little more seriously.Click here for the original review.
Over the Rhine
Back Porch/Virgin Records
If nothing else,
Everyone keeps asking whether
Freelance writer and critic,
The songwriting of Chris Rice demands attention every time he releases an album. And though Amusing just barely missed our list this year, it remains an exceptional album in this acclaimed singer/songwriter’s discography, primarily because it reveals strong artistic evolution. As always, Rice excels lyrically with beautifully crafted images and stories that are as clever and memorable as ever, but this time he also offers songs that are relatable to mainstream audiences. And he grows musically by adding a variety of pop, funk, and jazz flourishes to his familiar acoustic/folk backdrop. Commercially viable and critically lauded, this could be Rice’s most enjoyable and radio friendly album yet.Click here for the original review.
Freelance writer and critic,
Universal South/EMI Music
There’s rarely room for middle ground with concept albums—they either work very well or more often they fall into gimmicky territory. Matthew West pulled it off this year by making History, a concept album that also managed to serve up a tasty collection of pop/rock. Rather than write about the usual tired Christian themes that we’ve all heard before, West added extra panache to catchy and relatable songs by revealing a little about himself in the process. And as for the sound, the stellar production serves up plenty of hooks that’ll take residence in your cranium for days. In other words, History is memorable.Click here for the original review.
Online Associate Editor,
Let’s give credit where credit is due to the year’s breakout success in inspirational adult contemporary. Natalie Grant has flourished in 2005, in large part because of this, easily her best album so far, and its hit crossover single “Held.” She and husband/producer Bernie Herms have ditched overly trite and simplistic expressions of faith in favor of songs that are more personable, relatable, and relevant not only to fellow believers, but also the world around her. The music is polished and varied, bouncing between pop, rock, urban, and gospel. Plenty of inspirational pop albums showcase a pretty voice and a heart for God. This one goes the extra mile by demonstrating thoughtfulness and effort.Click here for the original review.
Freelance writer and critic,
Asthmatic Kitty Records
Incredible that a virtually unknown indie-pop folkster has delivered one of the year’s most critically acclaimed albums. But Sufjan Stevens’ homage to the Prairie State isn’t just a music critic’s dream. The second in Stevens’ ridiculously ambitious desire to chronicle the life and times of all 50 states,
is awash in obscure historical, biblical, and religious references. Though it’s not as clear-cut as 2004’s more spirituality-laden
, this is still a densely produced and rewarding listen that defies convention and categorization. It’s a collection that’s sure to challenge your own notions of Christian and alternative music.Click here for the original review.
The debut from Dizmas is a cranking collection of heavy rock spiked with hard-driving guitars, punk screaming, and melodic hooks. This unique rock/punk/metal blend (borderline hard emo) has frenetic energy and a youthful punch that any hard punk fan could appreciate. And the band’s faith-based yet universally relevant songs have great potential to reach mainstream audiences. Sing-along lyrics connect with listeners by focusing on need: for a place to be real, for someone to guide you, and for an escape from sin. And then, they point to the answer for those needs—using their music to lower walls, make personal connections and save souls.Click here for the original review.
Online Managing Editor,
I think of Ginny Owens as Christian music’s best jazz musician dressed up in a pop star’s clothing. It’s that jazzy bent that attracted me to her tunes and her alternately silky/sultry voice in the first place, with 1999’s Without Condition. And it’s those same qualities that make this such a great album—her finest studio effort since that debut (though the all-jazz bluEprint EP was sensational). And I’ve waited for years to hear Ginny sing about the relationship between her blindness and her faith—and with “Wonderful Wonder,” she delivers with a number that’s simultaneously tear-jerking and heartwarming. “Fellow Traveler” is a nice encouragement to others on the faith journey, the title track is a rousing mix of jazz and gospel, and Owens even outright rocks on “Pieces.” Put those pieces together, and you’ve got one of the year’s finest.Click here for the original review.