Hey look! Another year-end top ten list! You know you’re pumped to read it.
I have a blast putting these things together, both because I love writing about Christian music, and also because writing a list like this means I have to listen to a ton of music. I feel like I’ve listened to hundreds of albums this year, and that’s probably not an exaggeration. Some of the albums got turned off after only a few seconds, while I’ve listened to others from start to finish dozens of times. There was so much great music this year that it was incredibly difficult to narrow my favorites down to only ten.
That said, here’s my best shot at putting together a top ten:
#10: The Devious Means – Other Animals
Made up of a bunch of Biola grads and fronted by a pastor, The Devious Means is a raw, old-fashioned blues rock band. There are no frills and no heavy post-production to smooth things out. I’m a fan of any band that can make limited instrumentation sound huge, and The Devious Means pulls that off masterfully on Other Animals. The guitar tones are crunchy and distorted, the drums are harsh and driving, and the keys and bass beef things up nicely. Their lyrics range from typical blues love-gone-wrong anthems to refrains you’d expect in an old-time gospel song. Highly recommended if you like garage rock bands like The White Stripes or the Black Keys.
#9: Kye Kye – Fantasize
I covered this one in my my mid-year checkup. Short version: synth-drenched soundscapes, heavily reverbed drums, gorgeous vocals.
#8: Levi the Poet – Correspondence (a fiction)
I’m fairly picky when it comes to spoken word poetry. It’s not a go-to genre for me, so that means if I’m going to enjoy a project in the genre, the poetry has to be especially well done and the music has to be especially moving. Levi Macallister hits both of these marks and then some on his latest Levi the Poet project. Correspondence (a fiction) is a concept album, telling the love story of a whaler’s daughter and an orphan boy through the letters they write to each other. Levi uses the backdrop of this story to talk about family dynamics, growing up, and religious philosophy. I’m not an expert on poetry, but to me, what he does stylistically is phenomenal. Levi uses wordplay, interior rhymes, and alliteration to perfection as he tells his story. His voice drips with passion through the whole thing, and the combination of piano, brass, and sound effects only add to the emotional punch. This is not an album to put on in the background. This is an album to be experienced sitting down alone with the lyrics in front of you.
#7: Artifex Pereo – Time In Place
This is the only album in this list that I didn’t fall in love with immediately. My first impression was that it was noisy, chaotic, and just another fast and loud rock album. But for some reason, I kept on coming back, and I kept on coming back…and now it’s grown on me to the point that it’s my go-to pump-up album. The drums are absolutely frantic in Time and Place, but they work well with every arrangement. The entire album feels like an exercise in building and releasing tension with its sudden shifts in dynamic and rhythmic feel. I’ve seen complaints that the album is a little pessimistic lyrically, but I have a soft spot for Christian artists who are willing to write about pain without wrapping things up in a nice, pretty bow.
#6: John Mark McMillan – Borderland
Another one from my mid-year checkup. Click here to see what I said. The short version is that this is John Mark McMillan at his most polished without losing his bite. Love at the End remains one of my favorite songs of the year.
#5: White Lighter – White Lighter
A few years ago, fans of the underground Christian rock scene were treated to the supergroup Neon Horse. Featuring members of Stavesacre, Starflyer 59, and Project 86, they put out two albums and then disappeared. Now, almost the exact same lineup has resurfaced with a different name: White Lighter. Stavesacre’s Mark Salomon is back on vocals, and Project 86’s Steve Dail returns on bass. The “big” change here is that Starflyer 59’s Jason Martin has changed roles from guitarist to producer. Other members from Starflyer 59 – as well as guys from Pedro the Lion and The Prayer Chain – have rotated in, but the sound remains very similar to what Neon Horse did when they were active. Even though Jason Martin has left his post at guitar, his influence as a producer is unmistakable. The instrumentation is very similar to Starflyer 59’s masterpiece Old, which is a definite positive in my book. Salomon shines as a songwriter as usual, dealing with faith and doubt in his usual raw, poetic honesty. Omens is definitely a highlight track, where he explores the line between wishful thinking and true faith. This album has grown on me with every listen. Highly recommended.
#4: Copeland – Ixora
It’s been five years since Copeland officially broke up, which was a shame, because the breakup came just a year after dropping the best album of their career thus far in You Are My Sunshine. They’d put out a few other solid projects before then, but their 2008 release had the sound of a band who’d hit its stride and was ready to continue building on success. It was hard to watch them go after that, but now that they’re back with Ixora, they haven’t missed a beat. Aaron Marsh’s falsetto vocals are just as haunting as ever, and the piano and synth-based instrumentation fit his tone perfectly.
#3: Colony House – When I Was Younger
Honestly, these next three albums could be 1a, 1b, and 1c. They’re that close in my mind.
For the record, Colony House doesn’t see themselves as a Christian band, but their faith certainly shines through in their lyrics. They write songs about life, love, and heartache, but there’s an underlying theme of hope and purpose in everything. Interestingly enough, two of the three guys in Colony House are sons of Stephen Curtis Chapman. This isn’t their daddy’s music, though. Their debut album is a fantastic collection of indie rock and pop gems in the vein of artists like The Shins. It’s fourteen songs long, ranging from the bluesy 2:20, to the wistful Waiting For My Time To Come, to the epic Glorious. This album is so much better than a debut has any business being.
#2: Neulore – Animal Evolve
After releasing a solid EP exploring the relational difficulties Adam and Eve might have faced after experiencing the Fall together, Neulore returns with a full-length EP and a much fuller sound. Where Apples & Eve was a straight-up folk album with little beyond guitars, strings, and percussion for instrumentation, Animal Evolve adds in synths, electric guitars, and more to give the project a bigger sound. Lead singer Adam Agin gives a fantastic vocal performance, aided by some great lyrics exploring the human tension between a desire for righteousness and a nature bent toward sin.
#1: Brooke Fraser – Brutal Romantic
This is the same Brooke Fraser who wrote and performed the worship classic “Hosanna,” but you wouldn’t know it listening to this new album. The dark melodies and synth-heavy instrumentation on Brutal Romantic have drawn a comparisons to Lorde, but that’s only half the story. While Fraser’s new sound does pair electronic elements with a very human, very powerful voice, Fraser’s arrangements aren’t nearly as sparse. Instead, she opts for the lush soundscapes of artists like Imogen Heap. Lyrically, she’s not writing straightforward worship songs, instead opting for observations of real life from a perspective of faith. The best example is the unexpectedly profound “Psychosocial,” a song about social media, written from the perspective of a fan who expects an artist to be exactly like the filtered, social media version of herself: “I love your projection, but I don’t love you.”
And that makes ten. There were several that I absolutely hated to leave out, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. If you want to find more stuff I enjoyed this year, I’ve got a Spotify playlist that you can check out here.
Happy New Year!