-- Chase Tremaine, JFH Podcast Host and Writer
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By: Sarah Felicia
Take Flight: to surrender, let go, and let God carry you. To fly higher with Him then you’ve ever dreamed, or expected. To trust He’ll take you exactly where you need to go, when you need to go there.
Sometimes the unknown can be a little scary, especially when you have no idea what’s to come, or how you’ll even get there. Questions can begin to fill your mind, and you may find yourself asking God for more details to ease the uncertainty, because you can’t seem to see all that lies ahead.
You may not have all the answers, but one thing you can be sure of is God calls us to live by faith, not by sight. It’s all part of a journey, and through faith He draws you closer to Him, as you depend on Him to lead you onward. God continuously calls us to take the leap of faith, and trust in Him.
This is something I’ve had to live and learn through the making of my EP Take Flight, because this whole process was truly a leap of faith, and required absolute surrender, and trust in God. There were times where I felt discouraged, and seemed to be fighting against all odds, and I wondered if my dream of being an artist would ever come true, or if the songs I was writing would ever be heard.
Despite my doubt, God continued to lead me onward, reminding me to just breathe, and be still knowing that He is God. I learned so much not only about myself and music as a whole, but also about the Lord as He took me through this, every step of the way.
Living by faith and not by sight isn’t always be easy, and I’m sure a lot of us can relate to those moments when taking the leap and “flying” may seem quite intimidating, especially when it’s a long way down. But there’s good news! You don’t have to take the leap alone. God is there waiting and ready to catch you, and carry you:
“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not grow faint.”
Even though you don’t see or know all there is to come, God does, and he will lead you every step of the way. You just need to trust Him, and He will give you the strength, courage and wisdom that you need to fly with Him and move forward:
“Don’t be afraid for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”
Love Him with all your heart, and be ready to obey God immediately through your passion for Him, and your passion that drives you to live out His good, and amazing plans He has for your life! Through all the ups and downs, by God’s grace, Take Flight came together in His perfect timing. Although I have no idea what this new journey ahead of me will bring, I’ll continue to take flight, and trust in Him!
Are you ready to fly? Say yes to all He wants to do in your life. Trust Him, and don’t be afraid. Get ready to take flight!
This past summer I took my family to Disney World, the supposed “magic kingdom.” And I can tell you that none of my wishes came true while I was there! I wished for a hoverboard that would take me around the park. I wished for an endless supply of free food and drinks. I wished for lower ticket prices and smaller crowds. Guess what? It didn’t happen. And I knew who was to blame for all of the craziness. It was not difficult because his statue was right in the middle of the park… none other than Walt Disney himself.
In ancient days, rulers would erect statues to let you know whose kingdom it was… reminders of who was ultimately in charge. Have you ever considered that God made you in His image for the same reason? He positioned you on Earth so that you can reflect His holiness and brilliance. Isaiah 61:3 says you will be “a display of His splendor.” 1 Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Did you get that? We are called to be a Kingdom of priests that declare His praises. We reflect a Holy God to the world around us. People make judgments on God based on the actions of those who call themselves Christians. Because of this, it is imperative that we set Him apart in our own lives. What do people believe about God when they look at your life?
Jesus told us to pray that the Kingdom of God would come on Earth as it is in Heaven. Part of that prayer is your responsibility. If you want this world to look like Heaven, then as a Kingdom of priests, you need to do your part. We get a glimpse of it in Revelation 22:3-5, “The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age after age.”
Friends, you become what you behold… you reflect what you worship.
-Dustin Smith of Here Be Lions
1. Melissa - One of the first songs written along with Yeshua & Moonracer for the album. I wrote this at Blind Thief Farm with Kieran Kelly and Erick Cole, starting off with chord arrangement ideas on guitars. After getting a finished structure of the song melodically, I wrote the lyrics down a few days later…. The song became a depiction of a couple different relationships I had with people back in my high school days growing up in Grand Rapids Michigan. I always felt drawn to outsiders and misfits, and a couple of these stories came back to inform the character I sketched in this story. Melissa is ostracized from her surroundings because of being different and is obviously undergoing feelings of judgement within the church and school system. I completely understood this as I went through some of these same feelings growing up in tight-knit Christian community.
The last few months of my life have involved a range of emotions. I’m excited about hitting the road again to do some Third Day shows. But it’s a farewell tour. Definitely a bittersweet kind of thing. I’m mainly trying to focus on the positive, that we’re celebrating an amazing 25 plus year career. It has truly been amazing to see how God’s dreams for us are so much bigger than the dreams we have for ourselves, if we just get out of the way and let him work.
If I’m honest with myself though, there’s another feeling that pops up from time to time.
As I close this chapter of my career with Third Day and move into what’s next, it feels like I’m standing on the brink of something. Usually I feel like it’s the brink of an exciting new chapter. But sometimes, when doubt starts creeping in, it feels more like the brink of a big cliff I’m about to drive over.
During this time, a single phrase keeps popping into my head. It’s a phrase repeated many times in the Bible and one that has helped me through many a difficult time. I love the phrase so much that I’ve written two or three songs based around it.
Do not be afraid.
Lately I’ve been reading a book by Jonathan Martin called How to Survive a Shipwreck. He has an interesting take on this. Martin says that God speaks these words “when he is about to do something new”.
I genuinely believe that God is doing something new during this season of my life. I don’t know exactly what that will be. But I know that I felt a call on my life when I was a teenager - that God wanted me to use music to encourage people and tell them about Him. I also have long felt a calling to write words - books and devotions and blog posts - for the same reason. I’m going to keep doing those things, using what God has given me, until he calls me home or tells me to do something else.
I could look at my surroundings and focus on my fear. Or I could look at God and focus on Him. That’s what I’m choosing to do.
Do not be afraid.
I’ve written a new song called Do Not Be Afraid for my debut EP, Unshakable Heart. Here are some of the lyrics:
Here I stand at the edge of the unknown
The road ahead is overwhelming
I wonder is it too late to turn around?
All my life you have led me, you have shown
You have spoken, you’re never silent
Lord I hear you speaking to me now
Do not be afraid
There is no fear in love
Don’t let your heart be troubled
Cast your cares on the Lord above
And do not be afraid, anymore
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This last season of my life was the most difficult year I’ve ever faced.
After just tearing my meniscus and moving, I thought things were finally getting back to “normal”. That’s when I received the worst phone call in my life. It was my mom, and I could tell by the tone in her voice something was really wrong. She told me my dad had been rushed to the ER and that things did not look good. A couple of minutes later, I spoke with my brother who was at the hospital. He said the doctors told him that my dad had less than 10% chance at surviving. He was bleeding internally due to a aneurysm in his abdomen. Devastated, I could do nothing but cry and pray to God.
That phone call started a 3 month process where my dad underwent 6 major surgeries. During those months, we were told on five occasions that he probably would not make it through the night. One night, after another successful surgery, he flat-lined for 5 minutes due to one of his breathing tubes being clogged. By the grace of God, the doctors resuscitated him back to life. He went through 9 total surgeries that year, and by God’s grace, He’s alive and thriving! One surgeon said' "I didn't save his life - are you people praying?" Praise God! He’s currently in physical therapy and we recently heard the great news that he will be able to walk again.
During that time, if my family and I focused on the circumstances or what the doctors told us, it felt like we were drowning. Hopelessness, numbness, and sadness surrounded us. Yet, if we looked to God during those times, He gave us strength and faith to face the next minute. We literally experienced that God is an “ever-present help in times of trouble”. He comforted us, and extended mercy to us beyond our wildest dreams. My dad loves Jesus, so regardless, we knew where he was heading. However, I’m so grateful to have my dad still around. We named our daughter “Selah Grace” - which means pause and calmly think on the grace of God. His grace truly is sufficient in our weakness!
I wrote “Above The Water”, and especially songs like “Stronger” ft. V. Rose, to encourage those suffering around the world. I wanted to challenge others to not focus on their present circumstances, but instead look to the God who is ever-present in the midst of those circumstances. Jesus called Peter out of his boat to walk on a substance he had no business walking upon. The moment Peter took his focus off of Christ and looked at the storms all around him, he sank. It’s no different with us. If we look to Christ to be our strength in the midst of difficulty, we will find ourselves rising above the water. I can’t promise the circumstances will change, but one thing I can promise is that His love will surround you in the midst of the storms. It sounds cliche, but His love truly is enough!
What does it mean to live life to the fullest? To seize the day?
Most of us are really just trying to get through each one of our days feeling like we’ve accomplished something that has some meaning, some purpose.
A few years back the band had a writing getaway and I sat the guys down and had them all tell what was going on in their hearts and lives. Mark said something that kinda sat with me, he said,” I’m tired of feeling like I’m just surviving days rather than living them, I really just want more than survival.” I wrote that line down in my little notebook and the next day came back to it sitting down at the piano and kept repeating, I want more, I want more than survival.
I mean, don’t we all?
Yet we just continue to go through our motions, day after day, trying to to get ahead running on our spinning wheel like a mouse trying to escape its cage. Yet, unlike the mouse, this is a cage of our own making, our own choices, our pursuits and desires to get more, gain more, be more than others, so we built our cage. Before we know it, all that we have built has become our very own prison.
This is not what we are called to. We are called to freedom, to prefer things that are heavenly over the temporal gain that success offers. We were built for more than stuff, we were meant to live, to love, to spread the kingdom of heaven everywhere we go.
Don’t trade contentment for greed, don’t sacrifice the love of Christ for the love of stuff. Live like there is no tomorrow, live for more than just survival.
-Dustin Lolli, Sanctus Real
**You can grab a free download for Sanctus Real's "Surival" right here on JFH. Their brand new album "Changed" will be available wherever music is sold on April 27th!
If you’ve grown up in the past 40 years, you’re hard-wired to believe that the payoff of one’s journey is the Rocky moment… it’s the climbing of the stairs, out of breath, sweating and raising your arms in triumph, and the world cheers; it’s beating the Russian who is better than you, after you’ve been counted out; it’s rising to the challenge and ultimately winning.
Yet the reality of most people’s lives is not the Rocky moment, but a life of ordinary moments – some good, some bad, but everything comes out in the end as pretty average. And in a world made for Rocky moments and Instagram memories, the average journey is seen to be as good as the ones that end with the hero of the story winning or getting what they’ve always wanted.
I’ll admit it. I want the Rocky moment. I want to be more than average. I want my talent and my charisma to carry me and let run (or in my case, walk slowly) up those steps and raise my hands in triumph (exhaustion).
But I’m coming to believe more and more that the point of our lives is redemption – both minor and major – not success according to normal measure.
I was having a conversation with a pastor friend of mine a while back and I was talking about my own failures and the changes I’d made in response. And he looked across the table at me and asked, “Chris, I think you’re really good at identifying what’s wrong in your life and really good at trying to fix it. I wonder if you’re conscious of God’s redemption in those situations?”
I hate to admit it, but I’d not considered this thought before. But I’ve considered it often since. Especially since I began this “comeback” to my artist/songwriter/producer career last year.
I know what I got wrong last time. I allowed the focus to become myself. I allowed myself to become competitive in the realm of art. I allowed myself to be cut off from the people with whom I did ministry. I allowed myself to be consumed by how much money I was making. Etc., etc. There was more I got wrong than right, as I look back. So as I restart, how do I not just identify what I got wrong and repent of it; but how do I see God redeem it?
And that’s the thing. The large part of me wants to have that moment where I sell a Gold record and have number 1 singles and get recognition for what I do. I’ll admit it. That’s what my flesh views as my Rocky moment.
But my redemption is nothing like that. The way I see God redeeming this is through relationship; it’s through provision; it’s through humility. It is in the “average”, not the “victory”. It is every day waking up and building relationships with the pastors and worship leaders I’m booking shows with. It’s submitting myself to what their church needs, instead of what I want (nearly every night these days I do a different set list based upon what the church desires). It’s truly trusting God as my provider, as I go out these days for no guaranteed honorarium, but instead for only love offerings.
My guess is my career over the next few years until I’m done looks like this: pretty average. Yet daily I am blown away by how God moves. Every day I’m excited to see who God brings in my path; by what church I can breathe God’s love to; by what worship leader I get to be in relationship and pour what wisdom I’m afforded into; by what those worship leaders pour into me!
That is success. That is redemption.
And it reminds me that the Apostle Paul’s journey didn’t end with a Rocky moment, but with losing his life. That was success. That was redemption. And yet he proclaimed every step of the way how happy he was, how thankful he was, how incredible the God he served was.
That’s what I want.
There is a possibility that the reason I continue to write music (and this very blog) is a lie. Maybe I believe this lie because a handful of people either believe it too or are too nice (or don’t care enough) to tell me the truth. At least that’s what I constantly ask myself. Most musicians are insecure babies so we can’t help but think about our motives and ourselves relentlessly.
Still, no matter how often I question this lie, there’s a catch—I actually believe it.
Okay, so here’s the lie.... I actually believe I am good enough to earn and deserve your attention, even though I act humble at shows or interviews. RAVENHILL and I have played with hundreds of musicians and bands, some household names and others you’ve never heard of. What’s crazy is I trust that lie enough to truly believe that RAVENHILL is more important of a band than 99% of those other artists. There have been literally only a handful of artists that I believe deserve your love more than me. Why the heck am I telling you this? Why am I not just sharing the same type of interview most people are use to? The ones that say stuff like, “I was washing windows and listening to The Gaslight Anthem and the chorus for 'Brooklyn Blackout' hit me.” That's how it did happen though and we recorded it the next day. But the reason I don’t want to share only that stuff is, I want to be honest. Honest about the fact that I may be buying into a lie and you may be also. If you like RAVENHILL and bought our music, liked our Facebook page, gone to a show, or even if you’re reading this article, you’ve helped perpetuate this lie. The truth is that Jesus Freak Hideout asked me to do a guest spot on their site because we released, ”SPIRIT” an EP of songs that we wrote for or shortly after we released our last full length SOUL. It’s a collection of alternate versions of songs off of SOUL and two songs that I couldn’t see on a real or formal RAVENHILL release. Honestly, these songs are available to you because being in a mid to low level band is tough. You see, I believe we deserve your attention but my beliefs don’t get you to buy records or pay me $1,000 to come play you bar or church youth room. It doesn’t justify my wife continuing to work a job she hates so I can do what I believe “God has put me on this earth to do.”
These beliefs persist because sometimes after enough disappointments, enough shows playing for no one, broken tour vans, hurt feelings and arguments, band members leave or lose interest and leave me questioning if we are good enough. RAVENHILL actually has about 30 songs we could record and put out but something slows us down. Something keeps us from taking risks so we released these 6 songs. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in these SWEETWOOD songs. SWEETWOOD is the name of the street we recorded these songs on and has now become the name of what we call alternate versions of previously released songs. I’d argue that a few of the SWEETWOOD songs are better than their SOUL counterparts.
There’s a chance this article is garbage and the ramblings of a madman. Maybe this should’ve been bounced off my brother Brady or best friend David, but I’m talking to you now.
I get tired of all the lies.
I get tired of all these “Christian” “artists” acting perfect and on the other side of the spectrum confusing cussing as being honest, both are immature and fake. The truth is as musicians we never grew up. We don’t deserve your attention. We should probably stop making records, but we won’t. As long as people believe the lie, we will continue.
So is it dangerous to believe this lie? Or is it a necessary evil, a tool by another name to push us creatives further. One compliment outweighs a hundred disappointments. One good review will push me to play 20 more shows for no one. Is the lie worth believing in?
This is just one thing that I struggle with when picking up a guitar, but I believe RAVENHILL to be authentic and pure at its core. We plan on releasing a new EP every four months for the next year and a half. That is the basis for our next set of risks we are going to take. We are ambitious and we are going to try to prove to you and ourselves that we deserve your love.
If you’ve given me the grace of reading this far into this blog, you’ve probably come to your own conclusions about me and maybe RAVENHILL. The truth is that after reading this you may think I’m an arrogant jerk, that I really think RAVENHILL is better than everyone. I hope that isn’t what you take from this. Music is subjective and almost unquantifiable when it comes to the question: Who is better?
I’m trying to be as honest with you as I’m being with myself. While there’s a part of me that worries someone reading this will take it the wrong way, the rest of me is okay with it if you mishear me.
I know that I have believed this lie to produce the music and content I have in the past. I watched these bands we played with and thought to myself: I have to become better than that! I don’t think it’s wrong to be honest. I’ve never hated myself for being honest. I would hate myself more if I allowed fear to dictate my life decisions. I may be wrong in some of my stances, but I’m working them out, publicly, publicly because I trust other people’s point of view. I learn best that way.
-Joshua Clifton (a liar)
I wrote the song Here because of my cell phone.
Strange, I know. Here’s how it happened:
I have a pretty casual morning routine. Making coffee, tidying up. These are rituals which prepare me to think, read scripture, pray and write.
I sit down in my beloved chair, Bible and coffee within reach, the morning light beginning to stream through the windows, creation awakening, my mind a blank slate for the Spirit to direct, so I can open up...
Calendar, Weather, Map location…
The morning spent, the moment lost. The coffee was now empty and of course, I needed to be somewhere. Oops!
I rush to get ready and speed out the door to wherever. You can almost imagine God sitting in the room like, “I thought we were going to spend time together?” much to His disappointment.
I'm always searching for distraction
By desire I'm consumed
I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this struggle- how to best use technology. The majority of us probably think we're the ones consuming - using these apps to make our lives better and more efficient. Instead, it works the other way around. Our desires are used against us. We're the ones being consumed.
These desires are sometimes difficult to channel. Too often, we let them define us. Eventually, we become what we desire.
“My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”
The Spirit had all my attention at this point. I sat quietly, as a child being held in the arms of God. No prayer, just silence, calm, and contentment.
Hold me here like a child in Your arms
Calm my mind
Keep still my rushing heart
All my fears come fleeing out
As all my walls come crashing down
My heart now beating at the rhythm it was intended to. Eventually, there was some dialogue. I was vulnerable at this point, so it was easier to pray deeply.
I hear the music of my home
No better word for it.
That’s when I heard it: The melody, the song, the rhythm and instrumentation.
I quickly grabbed my phone.
That same phone that provided so many distractions before. This time, I used it to write down what had happened. A guided meditation, I suppose. The words flowed quickly.
The song that brought us “Here.”
Smith, James K. A. You are what you love: the spiritual power of habit. Grand Rapids, MI, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016.
Willard, Dallas. Hearing God. Downers Grove, IL., InterVasity Press, 1991.
Currey, Mason. Daily rituals: how artist work. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
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I’ve been writing songs for 20 years now. I’ve spent most of my life putting one note in front of another note - trying to console an age old ache that echoes in the deepest chambers of my heart. These songs, at least at this point in my life, have become the most valuable thing I own. How am I going to invest the currency of my music? What will I spend it on? A more important question - how will I invest the currency of my life? What will I spend it on?
An ancient prophet named Isaiah said “if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
What will we spend ourselves on? The currency of our time, our art, our moral capital - what will we spend it on? Our youth, our privilege, our platform, our creativity, our moral capital, our political capital - what will we spend it on? What if we spend ourselves on the needs of the oppressed and on behalf of the marginalized? What if we used our voice to amplify the voices of those whose voices have been drowned out? To speak truth in the halls of power where the lives of the most vulnerable among us are trampled underfoot by the special interests of powerful corporations?
You might be thinking “but I’m only one voice”. So am I. One voice in the wilderness. One voice crying out at 110dB. We have to be humble enough to believe our own unique voice matters in the mosaic of the kingdom. It seems naive. It seems so childish. But maybe it’s childlike. Maybe it’s like a kid with a few fish and five loaves of bread in the face of probable ridicule. I’ll stand on the edge of the abyss and celebrate the small corner that I’m able to tear off the darkness. Even when it feels foolish to maintain hope - we will push back on the shadow in the twilight.
You might be thinking “how can we really make a difference? - we’re up against such corruption”. I see it. I look into the iron teeth of corruption on a regular basis. Our work with The Exodus Road exposing sex trafficking puts me in close contact with mafias and gangs in cahoots with corrupt government officials and law enforcement. It makes you want to give up at times. But here’s the thing about corruption - even iron rusts and turns to power eventually - in fact, by it’s very nature it will pass away. That’s what corruption is. Something that won’t last.
Your selfless actions, on the other hand, will last forever. There is an enduring quality to something that is done on behalf of someone else. Laying down my rights and my time for the interests of the most marginalized and vulnerable in our society is the whole point of the good news (at least the way Jesus from Nazareth talked about it). “I’ve been anointed to proclaim good news for poor people”, he said. “To proclaim freedom to the captives, liberty to the prisoners and a restoration of dignity to the oppressed, the crushed and the downtrodden”. There is not a love that exceeds a life that is laid down. The only way to find this life, the only way to tap into it is to lose your life.
The design is not flawed. We’ve just fallen so far short of the glorious purpose for which we were intended. The goodness - the bravery - the courage - the selflessness - it already exists inside of you. It’s there - but for most of us it’s just buried under an avalanche of fear, the cares of world, and the idolatry of safety and comfort.
The fear is real. I recognize that. But courage is moving forward in the face of fear. Your courageous actions will be contagious. People will look at your selflessness and get creative - they will ask themselves “how can I do something similar to what she is doing?” Ripples turn to tidal waves. As we join the rising tide of ordinary people who are not willing to look the other way when we have come in contact with such emergencies in the arenas of mercy, justice, freedom and compassion.
I’m using my rock band to shine a light on slavery and injustice. I’m using my time and my resources to volunteer as an undercover operative with a counter trafficking organization called The Exodus Road. Your contribution will be different than mine as your voice is different. But you have a unique contribution to make. It might become your life’s work. It might cost you your life. But you only have one life to live. What will you spend it on?
"What will we spend it on
And when we’re gone
In ages to come
The sages will write
“So raged the bearers of the light
So waged the few with all their might
Against the terrors of the night
With no sight in view
From the depths to the heights”
-David Zach, Remedy Drive
-David Zach, Remedy Drive
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While many staff members are breaking down their top year-end album picks, I was far more impressed with many of 2017’s individual songs as opposed to albums. (This is evidenced by the abnormally high amount of extended plays on my album list.) It is no secret that I was disappointed by the industry’s releases this past year, but there are always some exceptional gems to be found, and I want to break down some of the best offerings you just might have missed…
David Craft’s top ten songs and albums of 2017
Top Ten Albums:
Top Ten Songs:
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One of the best things about our top ten lists is that we never know what it's going to look like. While a lot of us on staff have favorites that we know we can count on to make the list, 2017 also dealt us quite a few wild cards, and I absolutely love it. Some of these wild cards were played differently than others (Young Fox, The Gloomcatcher, Penny & Sparrow, The Fast Feeling), but they were all chosen very carefully, and would all make excellent suggestions for someone wanting to find something new to listen to.
I deliberated over my list for quite some time, and even made a last-minute change the day the lists were due (sorry Mark!). Interestingly, I found myself being very certain of which albums to put in my top five, and having to choose between quite a few albums for spots 6-10. The ones that didn't make it still deserve some shine, so you'll see them in the "honorable mentions" after the list.
These are my top ten Christian albums of 2017. Odds are that you list looks different than mine, so I encourage you to share yours in the comments! I also encourage respect - and by "encourage," I mean I demand it!
1. Propaganda - Crooked
Relatively speaking, I'm a bit of a late comer to Christian hip hop. In my teenage years through early 20s, I was into artists like KJ-52, The Cross Movement, and T-Bone. As I grew and my music taste expanded, the underground hip hop started reaching out to me and bringing me in further and further. 2011 was my first experience with Propaganda, as he released Art Ambidextrous for free through the then-new Humble Beast. A few albums later, we have what I consider to be his strongest album to date, Crooked. Prop is immersed in both black and Hispanic culture and is vocal about current events and injustices that plague his communities, but he's also very vocal about his faith in Jesus. I've talked with people who couldn't get past their prejudices long enough to get to the meat of Crooked, but Prop's message here is undeniably drenched in the Gospel and the fact that only Jesus can fulfill us and that justice is in His hands. He's not shy about calling out the racism in our society and the Church (subtle or otherwise), but he's also open about his own imperfections and downfalls. Plus, the music is just so good. A wide range of influences come in to play, from traditional west coast hip hop to Beautiful Eulogy experimental beats. Crooked has it all. Don't miss this album.
2. Krum - Blue-Eyed Devil
Harry Krum flipped the switch on the name change in 2016 with Bare Knuckle Gospel. Then, back in February of 2017, he released one of the finest albums of his career. Additionally, Blue-Eyed Devil is also one of Krum's most personal, honest, and vulnerable albums. This album shined some light on the darkness in his life, from a broken marriage to flirting with sin, Krum opened up about the demons in his life more than we've ever heard before. A lot of the album's runtime is spent on his failures, but ultimately, it's time spent well, as he uses it to show how merciful God has been in his life. He even ends the album with a declaration that, through Christ, the Church is going to tear down the walls of the kingdom that Satan has built on the earth. I'm sure the name change probably left a lot of people in the dark; if you were a fan of Playdough and didn't know about all of this, go and listen to Blue-Eyed Devil and enjoy some of the best work from this veteran emcee.
3. Kings Kaleidoscope - The Beauty Between
This band, you guys. I genuinely believe that Kings Kaleidoscope is one of the tightest and most talented alternative bands in existence, not to mention being one of the absolute best worship bands I've ever listened to. The Beauty Between is a captivating listen. Kings K's hip hop influences have always stuck out to me, and it's wonderful to see them manifested a little more, as this album is half alternative, half hip hop, but still sounds more like Becoming Who We Are than their last album. Featuring the talents of Andy Mineo, Beleaf, Braille, Derek Minor, and Propaganda, this genre-blasting album is a real treat. And it's on cassette, too, to add to the whole "mixtape" vibe. You can't go wrong.
4. Rusty Shipp - Mortal Ghost
This album completely took me by surprise. A couple other staff members raved about it, and I knew I needed to give it a listen. First impressions didn't quite grip me like I was hoping, but something about it kept drawing me back. The more I listened, the more I was pulled in to this intense rock & roll sound that was unabashedly raw and honest. It's heavy, it's experimental, it's slightly funny (if even unintentionally so...I hope Russ doesn't really have caligynephobia), and it features a "Song of Storms" interlude, taken straight from my favorite video game of all time, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (I'm a sucker, what can I say?). I honestly believe this to be the best pure rock album of 2017, and I'll definitely keep coming back to it when I need a rock & roll fix.
5. John Mark McMillan - Mercury & Lightning
Like many of you, I'm sure, I was introduced to John Mark McMillan by way of a song called "How He Loves" (team "sloppy wet kiss"). I've always liked his work, but my appreciation wasn't absolute, as I always found myself acknowledging the quality of his music without actually spending a lot of time listening it. 2016, however, reintroduced me to Mr. McMillan with a live album that really hit me where it matters, and it became one of my favorite albums of the year. Needless to say, I was now hyped for Mercury & Lightning, and I was not disappointed. If you ask me, "Death In Reverse" might be the greatest song he's ever written, with other career highlights such as "Wilderlove," "Unhaunted," and "No Country." It's a spectacular album and I can't get enough of it.
6. Beautiful Eulogy - Worthy
This might have been the album on this list that I was the most excited for. Beautiful Eulogy's first two albums were absolutely stellar, and there was a four-year wait between Instruments of Mercy and Worthy, so the anticipation was great. Worthy featured the theologically-dense lyrics and otherworldly production we've come to expect from the trio, but was also a bit of a different animal, with guest spots from indie/rock singers and worship bands (and no rappers), as well as several instrumentals. It's not my favorite of their discography, but it's a highlight of the year.
7. Demon Hunter - Outlive
Fifteen years since their debut, Demon Hunter has released their most accessible album to date. The band's catalog spans the rock spectrum, from acoustic to rock ballads to hard rock to fast and furious metal.
8. The Fast Feeling - Pulses
In 2016, Five Iron Frenzy's Leanor Till announced a new side project she was working on with Scott and Andy (also of Five Iron), as well as Matt from Eleventyseven/The Jellyrox. That project was The Fast Feeling, and Pulses was the product of their writing and recording sessions. It's a solid pop rock album with a lot of electronic elements that ventures into heavy themes, like my personal favorite track, "Factions," but they also dabble in the light-hearted, like "Wasting Time." I was eager for this album, but I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Needless to say, this is a rather unexpected highlight for 2017, and I hope we get more from this group sooner rather than later.
9. Death Therapy - The Storm Before The Calm
And speaking of surprises, Death Therapy really came out of nowhere. I remember seeing this name on the list of upcoming Solid State Records releases and I wasn't sure what to expect, but The Storm Before The Calm was completely different. A mix of groove metal and nu metal with no guitars save for a bass guitar, combining the sounds of bands like Korn, East West, and Rob Zombie - it's a new sound for Solid State, and I approve.
10. The Ongoing Concept - Places
Heavy music is in a big of a stagnant state right now. There are some great bands putting out music, as the ones listed above and below can attest, but it's really hard to find hardcore and metal bands that keep my attention these days. I'm thankful for The Ongoing Concept, a band that's keeping things fresh. They like to keep it fresh so much that they even call themselves out when things might get too run-of-the-mill. Places is a frantic metal album with traces of southern metal, metalcore, and funk rock, of all things. I highly recommend this album to fans of metal, especially fans that, like me, are also struggling to find something interesting.
Honorable Mentions (chronological order):
-The Brilliance, All Is Not Lost: A worthy follow-up to the indie pop duo's debut, exploring themes of redemption and hope, with a little extra gospel and r&b flavors. -nobigdyl, Canopy: A rap album that's equal parts humorous, serious, and introspective. -Eisley, I'm Only Dreaming: Despite the slight stylistic change, the indie darlings have done it again with a more down-to-earth approach to songwriting. -Hearts Like Lions, If I Never Speak Again: This indie rock band's first full-length album says a lot about their future in the industry, and it's all good. -Flatfoot 56, Odd Boat: If this was a top 11 list, this would have made it. A strong Celtic punk album from a great talented bunch of rockers. -Aaron Sprinkle, Real Life: Any work by this legend in the industry is sure to be great, and this is no exception. -Earth Groans, Renovate EP: If this EP is any indication, Earth Groans has the potential to reinvent the hardcore game when their inevitable full-length comes out. -At the Wayside, The Breakdown and the Fall: One of Indie Vision Music's greatest new contributions to the independent punk rock scene. -'68, Two Parts Viper: Scogin and McClellan pair up to create some dynamite grunge, alternative, and screamy rock. No sophomore slump here. -The Sing Team, Sing On!: A reinterpretation of hymns in a variety of styles and sung by Brian Eichelberger and a host of other voices. -Deepspace 5, 5:55: The first release from this crew since 2010. It's short, and it's not the whole crew, but it's 100% quality. -Southlen, Places EP: This highly underrated pop rock group continues to impress with a much-too-short EP. -Swingin Hammers, Swingin Hammers: An independent artist with an arsenal of high-quality southern rock and Americana. -Blank Books, EP1: Aaron and Jesse Sprinkle teaming up for an alternative rock album is a dream come true. -Keyes., Animal. House.: Half of FREE DAPS with his second solo EP, featuring excellent production and a signature flow.
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After seeing the latest Star Wars film, I had a lot of thoughts about how it relates to the Christian faith, but to discuss it, I have to reveal a ton of spoilers from the plot. So be warned, I discuss the movie and its plot here as if you've already seen it - so proceed with caution!
The events of the latest Star Wars film have sparked all kinds fan reactions, but the most common ones seem to be polar opposites: they either totally love the film... or totally hate it. The most negative feelings seem to be inspired most of all by how writer/director Rian Johnson treated the beloved hero Luke Skywalker. But I've found that it's this treatment of Luke that has spawned all kinds of parallels I've experienced with life as a Christian, and working for over two decades in the Christian music industry.
Last WARNING!! Major Star Wars: The Last Jedi SPOILERS ahead...
In the film, Luke has secluded himself on Ach-To island, ashamed of the unintentional role he played in his nephew, Ben Solo, turning to the Dark Side (and becoming Kylo Ren). He's even shut himself off entirely from "The Force" and believes the ancient Jedi religion should end. The once passionate and on-fire believer in The Force that we saw in the '77-'83 trilogy is now broken and discouraged and has given up on his faith.
Does this sound familiar at all to anyone?
Enter Rey. Rey has just had The Force "awakened" in her (hence the 7th Episode's film title), and now, only days after facing Kylo Ren head-on and discovering her strength in The Force, she's come face-to-face with the legend, Luke Skywalker. She's heard the stories that fans all know and love, and she's come to believe that Luke is the galaxy's last hope once again. However, she quickly discovers that Luke doesn't believe this in the least. Worse yet, he's given up all hope. As Rey holds out the very lightsaber Luke used to face his evil father -- the very lightsaber that was his father's--Anakin Skywalker--before he turned into Darth Vader -- Luke takes it into his hands (one of them being a now-metal hand in place of the one he lost when he lost this very lightsaber)... and merely tosses it aside. Despite Rey's plea for him to teach her again and again, Luke bitterly refuses and insists that it's the Jedi's very hubris that led to the rise of the Empire in the first place. He makes some valid points as to why the Jedi should end, but Rey sees the positives -- something Luke has completely forgotten.
When I started "The Jesus Freak Hideout" (JFH) in 1996, I was 16 years old. I had been raised to believe and follow God, but I never really accepted Christ into my life as my Lord and Savior until I was about 13 years old. It was around that time that I discovered Christian music. I soon found these musical pilgrims to be larger-than-life heroes to me. I loved their crusade for the faith, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to do whatever I could to help others find these artists and their music and feel what I felt when I listened to their songs. If I could spend hours of my life sitting in front of a computer screen, promoting this kind of music from the comfort of my dad's home office, then I'd be more than honored to do it. Obviously, over the years, JFH grew and so did its presence in the music industry. And with its growth, came more of my own involvement in the industry, mostly interacting with record labels, publicity groups, and even tour production companies and artist managements. I was suddenly meeting some of these heroes of mine -- whether in person or via email or phone. The curtain, so to speak, was being pulled back and I became privy to a world most don't get to see - and it was exciting!
But it didn't take long for reality to set in. Two years after the site began, I experienced the business side of the "Christian music industry" in a very negative way when a record label took advantage of my naivety, and their "help" turned into a fight for me to gain ownership of something that was always rightfully mine. I was starting to see that the passion and love and hope and positivity that was radiating from my teenage heart was not really shared by everyone who I had assumed would if they were involved in promoting this music that touched my heart so much.
I was Rey.
And now I was meeting my Luke Skywalker's. These artists and labels and champions of the faith that I was reading about monthly in CCM Magazine, seeing them grace the covers while talking about their music ministries and love for Jesus within those paper pages, were proving to be something I never considered: Human. Flawed. Just like you. Just like me!
Upon seeing The Last Jedi, and loving the film but being disappointed by seeing our hero, Luke Skywalker, as someone who had lost his faith along the way -- basically because of shame and discouragement -- I realized how sadly REAL that is. I've seen it time and time again. People of the faith we look up to - heroes - suddenly walking away from everything they preached or sang about. (I've seen it happen to friends close to me, even family, too.) I have recorded songs on CD and on my iPhone about personal beliefs and passionate faith that are sung and performed by artists who no longer believe these declarations. Now when I hear them, I hear the hearts of someone not declaring, but struggling to believe. And sadly, I know where that struggled eventually led them.
I debated on whether or not to write any of these thoughts down, but then I saw a social media post from one of the aforementioned heroes making a bitter reference to something in the Christian music industry -- and it wasn't their first post like it. A little bit later the same day, I was listening to John Williams' brilliant Last Jedi score and these thoughts came flooding back, and my heart broke all over again.
In the film, Rey's passion and fire help Luke to start to rethink his current position on his faith. He lets The Force back in, and we start to see just how powerful of a Jedi this man really is. (We see the potential he has for good that he has forgotten!) He's then visited by his old friend and teacher, Yoda, who helps remind him that he's lost focus... that he's always looking in the wrong place for answers. It's a callback to a younger Luke being trained by Master Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, but it's also such a real moment where a mentor in the faith helps get through to someone who's lost the plot and lost their way. It's a turning point for Luke. By the film's end, it seems he gives his life to save his friends one more time, and his faith in The Force is restored. It's a hopeful conclusion, and it gives me hope that some of those who've inspired us through the years who've fallen away and let discouragement and brokenness consume them can rediscover the fire that brought them to their faith in Jesus in the first place.
But another lesson can be gleaned from Luke's story: we all can fall. We all can let discouragement cloud our vision and make us lose sight of the cross. It's up to us how we respond to the disappointments and hardships in our lives. What I miss most about Christian music from the 90's and early 00's is how much of it was about living the Christian life. People would complain then that much of it was "preaching to the choir," but what many failed to realize is that believers NEED encouragement and fuel to fan the fire of faith inside us. And, ironically, it seems that so much of the music today is made almost exclusively for Sunday morning services (but that's an entirely different loaded topic for a different kind of blog), and it's drastically shrunken the diversity of what Christian music once was. I feel like the songs of yesteryear often talked about things to really chew on and make you think, while also encouraging you in your faith. Songs like "I Don't Understand" by PFR, "Rubber Meets the Road" by Steven Curtis Chapman, "See Through" by Audio Adrenaline, or "Lost the Plot" by Newsboys were songs that were honest, vulnerable, and helped believers navigate their doubts and fears in the faith (and musically, they were just really good and cool to listen to, too).
Love it or hate it, there's a lot to take away from the story of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And I feel like it really gives Christians a lot to talk about and discuss. Are you more or a Rey? Are you more of a Luke? And if any of us are feeling more like a Luke these days, what can we do to get that fire and passion back in our lives?
It's my prayer that our fallen heroes in the faith may find the fire and hope again. If you know someone like that in your life, the very least we can do is seek the Lord for them and pray for them. Their story isn't over yet. :)
-- John DiBiase
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2017 was, in many ways, a year of lamenting, both within the music industry and about the music industry. Many of our staple “heavyweights” in Christian music released albums in 2016, which meant that 2017 was truly a year for indie artists to step up to the plate. Thankfully quite a few did, as evidenced by our staff’s overall and individual top ten lists. Here are my personal picks for the top ten albums of 2017, along with the reasons why I chose them:
1. Mortal Ghost, Rusty Shipp - I didn’t go on vacation to the Jersey Shore this past summer, and I missed the beach terribly. Thankfully it was around this time that Michael Weaver’s review for Rusty Shipp’s album Mortal Ghost was posted, and after reading his positive feedback as well as some comments from our readers, I decided to give the album a spin--and it was honestly one of the best decisions I made in 2017. From the Muse-esque intro “Sea Sentinals” to the epic closer “Davy Jones,” this album truly transported me to the nautical place I longed for, and the production values were top notch. This became my go-to album for this year, and my most-played. I went on to interview Russ T. Shipp for our site and asked him all my burning questions about this album. Lyrically and musically, it’s just satisfying all-around, and still maintains spiritual substance throughout.
2. Can't Curse The Free, Jetty Rae - My interest in this album piqued when Jetty Rae posted about the production process on Facebook, and how this album had a much different sound from her previous ones. I managed to get an advance copy for my review, and I was so impressed with how well-executed this new sound was. There’s an earthiness to it, yet it’s also ethereal. Like I said in my review, there’s just something very “American” about the sound, because it composites different musical styles that started and evolved in the US. The story behind the album is even more compelling--Rae wrote these songs while traveling around the US with her family in an RV, and during this time her father was sick with cancer. Seeing the rugged landscapes while weathering emotional turmoil stirred Rae’s songwriting in a new direction, and this is Rae at her most soulful and raw. Tracks like “Can’t Curse the Free” and “Still Gotta Fight It” were particularly encouraging to me this past year.
3. Crooked, Propaganda - After hearing several of my JFH colleagues rave about this album, I decided to give it a listen--and it was a tour-de-force. This was one of my favorite albums to listen to during my commutes on the subway, because I would people-watch as I listened. It’s a long album--I only reached the end once or twice--but it moves quickly. The mixing in this album is superb (kudos to Beautiful Eulogy who co-produced this album), and the first time I listened to “Gentrify” I looked around the subway car to see if there was a man yelling in Spanish. That’s how much detail went into the mixing process on this record. I’m not as familiar with Propaganda’s catalog as my staffmates, so I didn’t compare this album to any of his previous ones. Overall, I was impressed by the amount of pop cultural and historical references that were seamlessly incorporated into the lyrics, and how each song emotes differently from the others. Propaganda doesn’t waste time on bravado or critiquing the rap industry and its critics--he’s looking at the bigger picture, at our nation and at the world, and he raises thought-provoking questions about what he sees, instead of telling us the answers.
4. We Are Fearless, Fearless BND - It’s rare for an album to “grow” on me--I usually don’t listen again after a bad first impression. However, because I volunteered to review We Are Fearless, I had no choice but to listen to it multiple times to give it a fair review. Nobody was more surprised than I was but my turnaround in opinion--with each listen, I succumbed more and more to the earworms present here, and found myself tapping my toes to the beats and moving around to the synths. It’s a joyous and reverent affair, yet it still has the commercial production values to rival anything on current pop radio. Stylistically, it’s the antithesis to The Porter’s Gate’s Work Songs (which I’ll get to next). This album is all about pushing the boundaries of electronic worship, while still sounding cohesive and catchy. The only exception is the track “White Flag,” which still incorporates synths after the halfway mark. What I enjoyed most about this album was that it made me want to get up and dance, and this buoyancy helped brighten those difficult winter commutes back in January and February. Sidenote: it would be interesting to hear these songs reinterpreted in an acoustic setting (Fearless BND--if you’re reading this, that could be an EP idea for 2018).
5. Work Songs: The Porter's Gate Worship Project Vol. 1, The Porter's Gate - This was a late discovery for me, one of those albums I listened to while I was compiling my top ten list for the end of the year. I listened through it during a commute home on the express bus, so I got to watch some scenery while I listened. It felt cinematic--the opening track is mesmerizingly beautiful, with Madison Cunningham’s clear voice almost whispering over an acoustic guitar. The organic instrumentation and raw vocals on this album ushered me back to the church days of my childhood, when we’d sometimes have services where we sang “the choruses” acapella, yet it was still anointed. The fact that this album was recorded live raised the stakes for the performances, and the result is, like us, perfectly imperfect and beautifully flawed. The songs feel more genuine than they would have in a studio setting. There’s also a slightly retro gospel sound to these songs, and if you enjoy the music of The Followers, you’ll enjoy The Porter’s Gate’s Work Songs as well.
6. I Quit Church, Matt & Toby - When I first heard about this project, my initial thought was “Is this going to be ironic?” Matt & Toby’s reputation precedes them, and I was expecting this to be a scathing critique on the hypocrisy of church culture (which, in many ways, would be justifiably warranted). I know people who have “quit church,” saying they can’t stand the preaching, or the people sitting next to them, or the music being played during worship. Surprisingly, though, this album is much more reverent than I anticipated, and I was blindsided by how emotional I became while listening. The traditional hymns are given new shape and life in this album, and I liked Matt & Toby’s decidedly retro, laid back sonic interpretation of them. This is an ideal album for driving at night, but be warned, it hits you hard in the heart. The original songs on this album loosely shape its “narrative,” about someone leaving church, and later his pastor visiting his home to ask him to return. What happens from there is left up to the listener to imagine. The point of this album is not to tell us about all the things that are wrong with today’s churches--instead, I Quit Church redirects our attention to why we go to church in the first place--to seek God, to worship Him, to hear His Word, and to collectively encounter Him with other believers.
7. Lifer, MercyMe - The Reinvention Award of 2017 would have to go to MercyMe. Admittedly, I’m not well-versed in their back-catalog, save for one album and some radio singles. But I know for certain that I would never associate words like “funky” or “swagger” with their music. Lifer turns listeners’ expectations upside down--MercyMe has made an album we can dance to, and not just in the boot-stomping way we did with their previous efforts. The opening title track sounds like something Bruno Mars would release to top 40 radio, and I mean that in the best way possible. The brass, the synths, the guitars, the bass--everything here is working in tandem to create what is arguably the catchiest MercyMe song of all time. There are other standout tracks--the guest appearance of rapper John Reuben in the groovy “Grace Got You” is a pleasant surprise, “Even If” is one of the most honest Christian songs about keeping faith in God, and “We Win” makes me cry happy tears when I listen to it. Overall, this was a standout effort from MercyMe, and it’s put them in the musical forefront for me.
8. Projections, Landry Cantrell - One of my JFH colleagues pointed out to me that my 4.5 star review for Landry Cantrell’s album sounds more like a 4 star review when you read it. Nevermind what I wrote, this is a 4.5 star album. What I enjoyed most about Cantrell’s album is that is sounded fresh, yet relevant--it certainly ranks up there with what the secular market is putting out, from a production standpoint, but the lyrics and vocal delivery are heartfelt and genuine. There’s some nice, catchy, encouraging cuts on this record--the energetic and worshipful “Before You,” the finger-snappin’ “Fly,” and the Romans 8:38-inspired “Separate,” to name a few. “Indian Summer” is a beautiful love ballad, and the fact that it was a duet between Cantrell and his then fiance (now wife!) Kelsey Hicks makes it more special. I’m looking forward to seeing what Cantrell will release in the future, but for now, let’s continue to savor Projections.
9. Where His Light Was, Kristene DiMarco - When I saw that Kristene DiMarco was releasing a solo album, I was concerned that it was going to sound too similar to her peers’ solo efforts. Thankfully, it does not--DiMarco’s style strikes a balance between the organic and the electronic, and while there aren’t any fast songs on this album, the album moves quickly. This is straightforward worship, with some anthemic moments (“Your Love Stand Alone,” “I Am No Victim”) and some intimate ones as well (“Never Ever,” “I Just Want to Worship”). I felt encouraged in my faith when I listened to this album, and it helped to be reminded that God is with me, that He won’t fail me, and that my identity is found in Him.
10. Only the Lonely, Colony House - This was another last minute discovery for me, like The Porter’s Gate and Matt & Toby’s records. It’s unfortunate, considering that one of my JFH colleagues sent me a hard copy of this album earlier in the year, but I’m glad I finally got around to listening to it. This album brought me back to the indie rock I listened to when I was in college not too long ago, and also reminded me of the oldies I listened to in the car growing up, so the familiarity of the sound made me nostalgic. There’s some clever production choices on this album--the whistling leading into “1234,” the Black Keys-esque guitar and vocal effects in “Lonely,” the surf rock harmonies in “You Know It.” Pensive closer “This Beautiful Life” hits all the right musical and lyrical marks. I anticipate becoming better acquainted with Colony House going forward.
-- Nicole Marie Vacca
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John Underdown's Top Ten Albums and Songs of 2017
This was my first year writing for JFH, joining the staff in March. While I considered myself a fan of CCM, this year was a learning experience. I discovered some artists for the first time, rediscovered others I thought had faded out, and enjoyed releases by those whom I follow.
As I learned more about the music industry, I was also learning more about life. My wife and I had our first child midway through the year and that took most of my energy. But as I discovered new joys and pains through our son, the year’s music was there to help me along the journey. These 10 albums and songs were the ones that stuck with me the most and kept me coming back to them for various reasons.
1. Colony House- Only the Lonely
I really enjoyed Colony House’s debut, When I Was Younger, and was stoked for this release. Turns out this album was what I needed for this year. Though it comes from the perspective of a traveling musician struggling to keep his family together, I could still draw parallels to my life. I often want to do things alone, my own way. But, as this album reminds me, I cannot handle life alone and need the help of my wife and others to make it through. While the music is loud and raucous, the lyrics are dripping with wisdom. From start to finish, this record drew me in and challenged/encouraged me with every tune.
2. John Mark McMillan- Mercury and Lightning
Before this year, I only knew McMillan as the guy behind that “sloppy wet kiss” song. I remember watching the music video for “No Country” off this album and thinking, “This is kind of weird and yet profound.” With the release of each new video or single I became more intrigued and excited about this album and found that, in the end, it is kind of weird and yet profound. McMillan’s wrestling with his doubt and fears is done in a moving, tactful way that feels much like a Psalm in the Bible that begins with despair and ends in hope. I could relate deeply with some of McMillan’s fears and found comfort in many of the songs on this album.
3. Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors- Souvenir
I enjoyed some of Holcomb’s songs in the past, but Souvenir is where I bit my teeth down on his work. This laid-back album about life, love, and everything in between is something special. Holcomb shows what the true value and power of folk music is: the ability to view the world through a simple yet provocative lens that lingers with the listener after the music fades.
4. 12 Stones- Picture Perfect
When this album came up for review, my initial reaction was, “These guys are still around??” I remember their self-titled debut coming out when I was in high school and hadn’t heard much from them since then. But I appreciated their music (especially their willingness to lay out a good guitar solo) and took a chance on this record. It did not disappoint! This was a fun, rollicking romp that kept me pumped in the sweltering weeks of summer leading up to my son’s birth.
5. Matt Redman- Glory Song
Redman was always one of those artists I appreciated but never followed. Glory Song may change that for me. Most new praise music out there today makes me weary of this world, but something about Redman’s latest was refreshing and catchy. The longing to return to a deeper passion for God resonated with me and made this a fun album to review.
6. Daniel Bashta- My Resurrection (Live)
Yet another worship-artist-known-for-a-big-song-covered-by-other-bands surprised me this year. Bashta, the man behind “Like a Lion”, released a truly worshipful album with My Resurrection. Appropriately, it came out around Easter and perhaps that helped ingrain it in my mind. Something about Bashta’s approach to worship feels genuine, dipping into depth and artistry. I would come back to this one at various points through the year and enjoyed it every time.
7. Loud Harp- Hope Where There was None
I’ve been a fan of Loud Harp for a year or two now and highly anticipated this release. Somehow this band can craft an atmosphere with their music that makes up for weaknesses in the lyrics. This album about hope and God’s presence in time of crisis is comforting and mesmerizing.
8. The Little Roy and Lizzy Show- Going Home
Bluegrass is one of those genres I enjoy occasionally. It’s not my favorite genre, it’s not my go-to choice when I want to listen to acoustic music, but I fancy it every now and then. That said I was surprised how much I enjoyed this little album. Maybe it was the down-home charm it possesses and the feelings of Kentucky it awoke in me, but I found myself revisiting this album at various points throughout the year.
9. Army of Bones- Army of Bones
I became aware of this band (and their debut album) late in the year and I wish I had heard them sooner. The way they write and sing about relationships is relatable and the longing they express through lyrics and music reach across the divide to stir emotions in the listener. I will be playing this album well into the new year.
10. Young Fox- Sky Beats Gold
Here is an album that cloaks itself in poetic mystery but invites the listener in with its haunting music. I went back and forth with this album for half the year, wanting to like it, not sure if I did, then deciding it is worth investing more time into. Another release I will be returning to frequently.
Top 10 Songs
“Where Your Father’s Been”-Colony House: Becoming a father this year made me think about my father, who died a few years ago. Thinking about my life from the perspective of retreading what my father did was encouraging.
“Enemy, Love”- John Mark McMillan: This song has so much raw emotion in it! McMillan struggles with losing control and letting down his family. I feel the same struggle and took solace in this song’s sentiment.
“Honestly”- The City Harmonic: Too easily I can get wrapped up in myself and feel prideful and selfish. This humbling prayer song reminds me to not lose focus on God and His greatness.
“Weeping Mary”- Loud Harp: The way they cover this song is beautiful. It offers simple Gospel examples to teach simple biblical truths.
“Thank You Jesus”- Daniel Bashta: Sometimes a simple, sincere “thank You” is all we can offer God for what He’s done for us through His Son. This song, with its easy-going pace, reinforces that and gives the listener a layout for that prayer.
“Devil Jonah”- Rusty Shipp: I don’t know why, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, but the night after my son was born the chorus of this song kept playing through my head. Maybe because it’s catchy, maybe because of sleep deprivation. Not sure.
“One Day (When We All Get to Heaven)”- Matt Redman: The way Redman reworks the refrain from an old hymn into a modern praise song is subtle and effecting. You feel the longing and can get lost in the moment. Redman’s prayer extension at the end ruins the moment some, but still a good song overall.
“Voodoo Doll”- 12 Stones: Plain and simple, this is a fun rock song. The jaunty rhythm mixed with the dark metaphors creates an enjoyable romp through your ears.
“Sometimes the Monsters Win”- Young Fox: This is the mesmerizing opening track to Sky Beats Gold. The sentiment behind the lyrics also helped me cope with much of the horrible things that happened in the news this year.
“Fight for Love”- Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors: I was reminded this year that to have a good marriage you have to fight for it. This was an appropriate anthem and reminder.
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So 2017 is just about over, another year gone in an absolute flash. It was an interesting year in music for me as many of my longtime favorite bands either didn't release new music, or still remain dormant. (Switchfoot, Relient K, Jars of Clay, 21 Pilots, Dctalk). As such, I didn't have high expectations for the year, but ended up being pleasantly surprised as I look back and survey the large amount of music I’ve heard this year. When it all shook out, I made quite a few new bands/artist discoveries and I'm pleased with what I was able to hear.
The combination of my favorite bands being largely silent, and joining the review staff at Jesus freak Hideout, stretched me beyond my typical tastes this year. It caused me to listen to both the greatest amount of music, and the greatest variety of music that I ever have in a calendar year. The following ten albums (plus five honorable mentions) are the ones I found myself going back to most often, and I highly recommend each one.
1. John Mark McMillan - Mercury & Lightning
I could go on and on about the layers of depth on John Mark McMillan’s latest, Mercury & Lightning, but suffice it to say, it’s stellar. This is master-craft songwriting that only gets better with repeat listens. I found the metaphor he uses of Greek mythology to be a deep well of truth with multi-layered meaning. My favorite track is the closer, “Nothing Stands Between Us,” which wraps up an album that wrestles with questions of faith, doubt, and the unsatisfying pursuit of the idols of money and fame. Other songs that stand out are “Death In Reverse,” “Enemy, Love.” “Persephone,” and “Mercury & Lightning.” I cannot recommend this album enough. Give it a few spins and let the depth of layers unravel. It will be well worth it. For my full review of this amazing album click here:
2. Propaganda - Crooked
Never have I listened to an album like this that was equal parts heartbroken lament, historically informative, and spiritually challenging in the area of racism. Propaganda goes big, and although he’s calling out the church, he never does it in an accusatory or condemning way. In fact, he does a great job pointing the finger at himself first, and helps listeners understand his thesis that we are all “crooked.” Can’t-miss tracks are “Crooked Ways,” “It’s Complicated,” “Bear With Me,” and “I Hate Cats.” The beats are sparse but catchy and allow the lyrics to shine. Not an easy listen, Crooked is a necessary listen, as we all continue to root out the sin in our hearts. We can love each other better, but we first have to be honest about where we are, and relentless in our pursuit of God's heart for all people.
3. Young Oceans - SUDDENLY (or the nuclear sunburst of the truth revealed)
Simply put, this is a beautiful sounding record. Laid back in its approach, subdued but not boring, SUDDENLY praises the Lord with chilling reverence. Highlights for me are “This Wild Earth,” “Heaven Has Come,” “SUDDENLY,” and gentle yet powerful closing track “Humility of God.” This independent band with ambient electronic sounds is excellent in their song crafting and would be a shame to ignore.
4. Army of Bones - Self Titled
At this point, I don’t even remember how I heard about these guys but boy am I glad I did! Another 2017 musical discovery, Army of Bones is fronted by former lead singer of now defunct band Delirious? Martin Smith, and their song “Dead in the Water” was the first to catch my attention. On many songs, Army of Bones' self-titled album rocks in a way I wish U2 would. The only vestiges of Delrious? is Martin’s voice, but musically, they borrow sparingly from musical acts like U2, Radiohead, and The Killers. Other terrific songs are “Break Away,” “End of Time,” “Love Song For A City,” and “Batteries.” This one is a can’t-miss, and I hope they receive more attention in 2018.
5. Colony House - Only the Lonely
My year end report from Spotify will rightfully tell you that Colony House’s Song “You & I” was one of my top played songs of the year, and for good reason. What a catchy tune! On this their second release, Colony House offers more of the indie rock/alternative vibe of their debut, and for the most part, it works. Other songs that struck me were “Cannot Do This Alone,” “1234,” and album closer “This Beautiful Life.” Although not as consistently stellar as the debut When I Was Younger, sophomore release Only The Lonely swings big, and for the most part connects. Definitely a highlight album deserving repeat listens.
6. Third Day - Revival
Upon hearing the possible musical direction of Revival, I had high hopes that it would trend back toward my favorite era of their sound. For the most part, it hit all the right buttons for me, and I really enjoyed the gospel/rock sounds of songs “Gonna Be There With Me,” “Revival,” “Leave This World Behind,” and “Devotion,” among others. If you like their albums Time and Offerings, then this one may be one for you to give a few spins as well.
7. Beautiful Eulogy - Worthy
Beautiful Eulogy is a rap act I had always heard great things about but for whatever reason I’d never fully checked out. Boy, was I missing out! They have been another pleasant surprise music discovery for me in 2017. It’s intelligent hip-hop with thinking man’s lyrics and creative beats. I really enjoyed songs “If,” “Sovereign,” “Doxology,” (which was my overall favorite track) “Messiah,” and “Immanuel.” No pun intended this album Worthy is definitely “worthy” of your attention.
8. Nichole Nordeman - Every Mile Mattered
A fantastic return after a 12-year absence between album releases, Nordeman comes back with plenty to say on Every Mile Mattered. The highlights are the opening trio of “Every Mile Mattered,” “You’re Here,” and “Dear Me,” as she treats listeners to her trademark piano pop and pensive lyrics. Best overall song of the track list goes to her letter to her younger self, “Dear Me,” but others of note are the song “Lean” and her gentle cover of U2’s “Beautiful Day.” I for one am very glad to have her back in the CCM scene and hope that there is still more to come.
9. Iron Bell Music - God That Saves
One of my great surprise discoveries this year, Iron Bell Music, has released a terrific worship driven debut. A worship collective of sorts with several different people sharing lead vocals, these songs have been honed in community and delivers the goods with stripped back acoustic praise. Song “Sons and Daughters” is my overall favorite on the album, but others that stand out are title track “God that Saves” and “Belong to You.” In a crowded worship scene with well known acts like Hillsong, Hillsong United, Bethel, and Elevation Church churning out yearly offerings, this simple approach of spirit soaked songs stuck out to me above the crowd.
10. MercyMe - Lifer
A solid pop album, Lifer is full of catchy tunes. From the fun title track “Lifer,” to the radio hit “Even If,” to the infectiously danceable “Happy Dance,” it’s the rare pop album deserving high praise. This one was a Balogh Family car ride favorite. Ultimately, I think Lifer is MercyMe’s best overall albums in years.
Top Ten Favorite Songs:
Lastly, each list always has a few artists that almost made the cut. The following five albums below are ones that I also enjoyed but fell just short of the top ten. All in all, it ended up being a great year for music despite my doubts, and I eagerly await what 2018 may hold in the music world. Happy listening!
-- Josh Balogh
Sara Groves - Abide with Me
Sandra McCracken - Steadfast
Ellie Holcomb - Red Sea Road
Lecrae - All Things Work Together
Rusty Shipp - Mortal Ghost
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Crooked, Yet Still Fumbling Towards The Light
On A Spiritual Journey Through 2017 With The Best Albums Of The Year
The old Baptist hymn says “This world is not my home / I’m just a’ passing through / If Heaven’s not my home / O Lord what will I do?”
“O Lord, what will I do…”
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