It’s been a fun year for Christian music. I don’t know if it’s because I made a much more concentrated effort than I did before to find new music and listen to it this year, or just because it genuinely happened to be a great year for Christian music, but there was a ton of great stuff in 2013. To that end, I’ve changed the categories I list. I’ve broken things up by genre, and eliminated the “Artist of the Year” category.
Anyway, enough with this unimportant opening ramble. Let’s talk music!
Debut Album of the Year
Leagues – You Belong Here
I basically discovered Leagues because Audio Adrenaline got back together. I was excited to hear Audio A snagged Dave Ghazarian – who happens to be one of the most talented people in Christian music – to play guitar, but I still wondered what their old guitarist Tyler Burkum could be up to that he wasn’t interested in being a part of the reunion. Tuns out, Leagues is what he was up to. They put out an EP before this, but You Belong Here was their first full-length album, and it’s fantastic. I’m a fan of bands that write great songs without using tons of instruments, and Leagues nails it. Reverb-laden guitar riffs, fantastic bass lines, and great, syncopated drums all form the perfect complement for singer-songwriter Thad Cockrell’s spacey, falsetto vocals. They aren’t a Christian band in the way that worship bands are Christian bands, but Cockrell has said that he sees each song as a “conversation with the Creator,” so you can take that to mean whatever you want. Lyrically, the band tends to focus on the nature of love, which I would argue is a pretty darn Christian thing to talk about.
Citizens - Citizens
Capital Kings - Capital Kings
Nations - Nations
EP of the Year
Abandon Kansas - A Midwest Summer
This was the hardest category to choose. Any one of the runners-up I have listed below could have gotten the nod here, and even some of the ones that I bumped off the list completely could be in this spot. But I had to pick one, and I went with the EP that made me most excited about the upcoming album. That award definitely goes to Abandon Kansas. They’ve really honed their quirky indie-pop sound to a point where I don’t think they’ve sounded better their entire career. They’re about as polished as you can get without sounding lifeless. I absolutely love Jeremy Spring’s voice. I can’t remember if I’ve made this comparison before, but he occasionally sounds like a more melodic version of the dude from Interpol.
Mike Mains & The Branches – Everything EP
Switchfoot - Fading West EP
Harvest - Curtains
Solo Album of the Year
Heath McNease - The Weight of Glory: Second Edition (A Hip Hop Remix Based on the Works of C.S. Lewis)
Heath McNease is one of the most prolific, under-the-radar artists in the Christian music world. This year, he released this album and an EP. That didn’t even come close to matching his output from last year, which included two full-length albums, an EP, and a mixtape. The dude just writes tons of music, and it’s all really high quality. And then he offers it for free. At the time I’m writing this, you can go to his Bandcamp and snag a free download of just about everything he’s done since he went indie. Anyway, The Weight of Glory: Second Edition is one of the best albums he’s ever done. It’s exactly what the title implies. Last year, Heath wrote a collection of songs, all based on the works of C.S. Lewis, and this year, he worked with Greg Lafollette to remix every one of those tracks. The final product is incredible. It’s a folksy hip-hop project with unbelievable lyrics. Heath is a great songwriter who has some insights of his own, but when you add to his talent the wisdom of Lewis, you end up with some beautiful, honest, insightful songs. I can’t say enough good things about Heath and his work, this album especially.
Also, the EP he put out this year, American Snake Oil Salesmen Visit the Great White North, isn’t too bad, either.
Bradley Hathaway - How Long
Jimmy Needham - The Hymn Sessions: Volume One
Derek Webb - I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, And I Love You
Rap/Spoken Word Album of the Year
Andy Mineo - Heroes For Sale
I’ll admit: rap, hip hop, spoken word, talk music – whatever you want to call it – is a new artform to me. I’ve listened to more of it this year than I have in my entire life. So maybe it’s that I’m finally learning how to appreciate this stuff, but I felt like there were a ton of great albums in the talk music vein this year. It does make sense. With the rise of Reach Records and Humble Beast Records, more and more talent is gravitating to this corner of the music world. Andy Mineo’s album was definitely one of the highlights of the highlights for me. What I love about him is how much he addresses the intersection of Christianity and singleness. It’s no secret the church tends to skew towards married folks, and it’s nice to see a guy talking not just about what it’s like to be single, but also how that affects his faith.
Twenty One Pilots - Vessel
Listener - Time Is A Machine
Sho Baraka - Talented 10th
Pop Album of the Year
After Edmund – Art and Commerce
After Edmund is another one of those great, under-the-radar groups. Their latest album is a near-perfect pop-rock album. It’s fairly long at 15 songs, but there really aren’t any duds to be found. They’re all really catchy, fun songs, with a great vocal performance throughout. Their songs are unquestionably pop songs, but they maintain enough of their rock roots to keep everything from being too sugary-sweet. There’s a nice aggression to all that polished instrumentation, and it works really well. Lyrically, they’re not as strong as other artists, but they make it work and manage to avoid total cheesiness, even when using superhero metaphors to talk about the Christian life in Superhuman. Subject-wise, their songs are all over the board, from straight-up worship tunes like Deserve and Never Let Me Go, to heartfelt and often quirky love songs like Fairy Tale and West Georgia.
No video for this album, unfortunately, since After Edmund hasn’t really messed around much on YouTube this year. Not so much as a lyric video from this album. Because of that, I’ll share this one from Royal Tailor. Their album totally blew me away. They grew up a lot this year, and I hope they stay in this business for a long time.
Royal Tailor - Royal Tailor
Jars of Clay – Inland
Digital Age – Evening : Morning
Rock/Alternative Album of the Year
Gungor – I Am Mountain
First of all, putting Gungor’s new album under any sort of genre heading is a disservice to the piece of art they’ve created, but I’ve stuck it here, because “Alternative” seems to be the best label of the mashup of folk, EDM, dance, and blues that these guys unleashed on the world this year. This is easily one of my favorite albums of the last several years, not just 2013. There’s a stretch on the album where you go from a spacey, soaring wall-of-sound ballad, to a Daft Punk-esque dance-rock tune, to a bluesy folk-stomper, to something that makes you believe that dance, rock, and cheesy western movie soundtracks can all coexist and thrive in one song. And yet, the whole album feels cohesive. This is largely thanks to the ongoing narrative running through the lyrics of each song. Lead singer Michael Gungor said I Am Mountain is a loose concept album. It’s maybe not as on-the-nose as the creation-fall-redemption story of Ghosts on the Earth, but there is definitely a lot of unity in the songs as they deal with wandering, feeling lost, finding a way back home, and hoping for a day when all is made right. Gungor has long been one of my all-time favorite artists, and this album only solidified that position for me.
The Almost – Fear Inside Our Bones
The Ember Days - More Than You Think
The Last Bison – Inheritance
Well, that’s all I’ve got. Did I miss something? I’d love to hear from you! Hit me up in the comments, Twitter, or Facebook, and we’ll chat.
Also, if you want to see more of my favorites, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist. Some of the bands I’ve listed here prefer to keep their music off Spotify, so you’ll have to find their music elsewhere, but most of these guys are on there. I have one song from each of the artists I’ve listed that are on Spotify, as well as a smattering of other songs from bands that just missed the cut this year. And at the very end of the playlist, I have a few really fun covers, including a gorgeous indie-folk cover of The Safety Dance and a super heavy re-imagining of Whip It. Check it out here!