THERE IS no such thing as “Christian” music. Music is music, and music about God no more deserves to be packaged and sold as “Christian” than music about love, loss, or society. They’re all part of life. So it might surprise many of our readers—particularly those who have been with us through our rocky relationship to “Christian music” as it was once defined—to see a list of faith-inspired albums appearing on Patrol. But after a few words of explanation, we hope you will peruse this list with the same excitement with which we present it.
This magazine is unapologetically critical of those who suggest art is superior—or more “Christian”—simply for dealing exclusively with religious subject matter. On the other hand, it’s perfectly legitimate for publications with Christian leanings to spotlight music made by believers; to promote those using their musical talent to explore deeper questions. The worthiness of that goal should not lead to unmerited adoration or uncritical promotion. It should not feed a “bias” toward music made by Christians, a partiality that often prevents such endeavors from being evaluated objectively. But the goal itself—a desire to see truly inventive, talented Christian musicians succeed—is one every Christian magazine should wholeheartedly support.
To that end, Christian publications have, year after year, compiled lists of the “best Christian albums.” But when it comes down to selecting those albums, Christian music editors have traditionally been beholden to other objectives entirely: satisfying the swathes of evangelical readers who prefer stock religiosity to real spiritual tension; keeping alive a nostalgia for the apocryphal “glory days” of Christian pop subculture; and perhaps most of all, pleasing the narrowly-focused Christian music industry that will be paying thousands of dollars to advertise on the facing page. To make the situation even bleaker for believers laying down their lives to create excellent art, the work of discovering them in their obscurity is much more laborious than simply queuing up the “best” of the glossily-hyped, expensively produced releases that landed on one’s desk over the past twelve months.
Laborious as it may be, it is well past time that someone tried. So this year, rather than add another layer to the heap of general-interest best-of lists, Patrol has done exactly that. Of course, we started by covering the standard bases: sorting through the major-label releases, monster singles, and even a few worship albums. But for the first time, a Christian magazine has also journeyed into the pubs, coffeehouses, and small churches where the best faith-inspired music is made, including some well outside the congratulatory spotlight of any major Christian publication. For the first time, someone is publishing a “Christian” list for which collaboration with Michael W. Smith or a slot at Cornerstone are not qualifications. For the first time, you won’t find any “old favorites” appearing just because they made an album this year and we are thus somehow obligated to show proper respect (though old favorites are not by any means categorically excluded). Instead, we have collected a group of artists connected with our faith—be it explicitly, implicitly, intimately, loosely, or previously—and, with no influence but their notes and our ears, ranked them as justly as we are capable. The result was eclectic and surprising.
As we present our selections, we above all hope that a list like this—especially one preceded by so much qualification—will not always be necessary. We look forward, however idealistically, to a day when Christian artists are enjoyed and reviewed next to the latest from TV on the Radio and Fleet Foxes. But for that to stand a chance of becoming reality, Christian magazines must step forward to fulfill their responsibility: to ignore the tawdry and meritless, and to engage the effort necessary to put the greatest faith-inspired artists—musicians who understand the delicate balance of faith and life—into the spotlight they so richly deserve. The fifty albums below represent our best attempt to lead in that path.
The Birds and the Bee Sides
The best of the rest, swept from the edges of record label woes and fallen through the cracks of changing seasons.
Spring & Summer
Although not on equal ground as four separate parts, they cohese some respect out of us as a complete quadrilogy. Foreman poses unusually sincere questions about God as he wistfully longs for home, love, justice, and a song for the journey.
So Far: The Acoustic Sessions
A short recap of Bethany Dillon thus far, unplugged and untainted by the lost innocence of growing up.
Jars of Clay
A lovely glance at the in-between-albums stage, with a couple of bonus remixes (which we’ll admit, are just as unnecessary as always). But if it’s an accurate sign, it means we could be on the cusp of a brilliant full-length, not to mention the possibility that after 15 years, they still haven’t peaked.
If you can’t be entirely original, you might as well rip off the best. A huge step up on the production front, Reiterate borrows the best laid plans of Justin, Big Boi, and Timbaland in an attempt to take over the dance floor.
White Lights EP
(Brave New World)
A couple of misdeals and a little table talk, but Deas Vail still play most of their cards intentionally, opting at times for a poker-faced bluff rather than going all in. It’s good that some bands still know their standing in the world, and the value of beauty over wannabe radio-crunch brawn. [Review]
My Paper Heart
Unapologetic summer-drive radio pop-rock from a surprisingly young artist well beyond her age in musical chops. The best of the CCM juggernaut this year. [Review]
The Lassie Foundation
Jetstreams, Three Wheels EP
Coming after the “oh-so-mythical California shoegaze sound” of 2004′s Face Your Fun, this EP strikes a balance between the band’s previous impenetrability and their more recent pop stylings. It’s purposefully dark and brooding, but in a fun way as Everett conjures up images of planes being shot down, filled out with lovely, wordless “babaduhs.”
A Little Bit Longer
With their career hardly begun, the Jonas Brothers have transcended their own startling youth, purity rings, Disney associations, screaming junior-high girls, and the over-15 world’s endless mockery. They’re for real; dismiss them at your own risk. [Review]
The New Frontiers
(The Militia Group)
A foot in the post-emo of underrated bands like Lakes, Daphne Loves Derby, and Waking Ashland, and another in the melodic structure of much of modern worship music, Mending makes for a failing recipe on paper, but succeeds with much simple beauty in execution. [Review]
(CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1)
A headrush of lovely vocals, harmonies, and naive (in the best way) Eisley-style indie folk-pop. A truly wonderful debut album.
(Tooth & Nail)
By no means their best work, but it’s a testament to their prolific prowess that one of their worst efforts is still so far ahead of most people’s best.
Richard Swift as Onasis
This jumble of basement groans, backyard jams, and instrumental boogies shows that if nothing else, Richard Swift is incapable of repeating himself.
Plunder, Beg & Curse
Colour Revolt, five young men from Oxford, Mississippi, launch their full-length debut with a head-splitting line: “God is swinging from the liquor tree, licking everything He finds.” The rest of this raw, gritty rock record is just as compelling, from lyrics exploring Southern religion to ear-splitting howls of passion. [Review]
House of Heroes
The End is Not the End
After years of obscurity and speculation, they’ve tossed out the playbook and given us one of the year’s most ambitious post-hardcore albums.
Darling Maybe Someday
Proof that latter-day sins are just that and nothing more, former Audio Adrenalite Tyler Burkum channels the spirit of Jeff Tweedy’s … living … spirit.
Lost in the Sound of Separation
(Tooth & Nail)
After perfecting (and then killing) screamo with their previous two records, the Florida six strike an impressive balance between art and face-crushing force. [Review]
From consistently electric live performances to consistently fresh, addictive rock albums, it’s difficult to find anyone who have done more for Christian rock’s credibility than these guys. On their major label debut, front-man Anberlin introduce the world to the muscular riffs and soaring melodies it’s been missing for way too long. [Review]
(Dog & Pony)
Arguably the only member of dc Talk to continue mattering post-breakup, the ever-adventurous Kevin Max decided to back his quavering, rootsy singing with organic fusion of organic gospel and indie rock. Only a musician with some versatile talent and genuine soul could pull off an album like this. [Review]
Cold War Kids
Loyalty to Loyalty
Like Delta Spirit backing Jack White at a 4th of July BBQ, the buzzworthy soul boys of Fullerton, CA offer more of the bluesy rock that made them famous, with a little more pomp, a little more maturity, and a little more piano-inspired self-confidence.
The Alchemy Index, Vol. III & IV: Air & Earth
Air & Earth are a true testament to something only age and experience can give you: confidence in your art, and the ability to be proud of where you came from while you remain humble enough to never stop growing.
God’s gift to cuter-than-heck electro-pop, Valerie Poxleitner was the It Girl of 2008. And though she owes some of that to Old Navy, she owes more of it to her knack for all things accessible and adorable.
Their fourth full length in almost as many years, Rosebuds again push their dancy folk-pop agenda gently down our throats.
The Welcome Wagon
Welcome to the Welcome Wagon
We wonder what Sufjan Stevens thought when he first heard The Welcome Wagon. “It sounds like me, but a retro me, but still me, but less over the top, but a little ballsier, but still me.” Probably something like that. Probably something exactly like that.
Caught in the Trees
There’s something vital about Damien Jurado and the full on roots-rock that is Caught in the Trees. The drums keep steady time, Jurado strums away on acoustic guitars, and electric riffs fill the background as he sings about all the regulars—life and love and desperation. This is among the sturdiest work of the year.
My Brightest Diamond
A Thousand Shark’s Teeth
Opting to strip away the trappings of her previous release, Shara Worden’s Diamond takes on a less conventional texturing of strings, bells, and operatic melodies, resulting in an album full of odd, spiraling beauty. [Review]
Cotton Jones Basket Ride
The River Strumming
When Page France dissolved, there was barely time for the calls of “what next” to be answered before Michael Nau had already moved on to his next project. The River Strumming turns a psychedelic ear to his former band, digging deeper into the past and pressing harder for the perfectly minimal.
Joseph Arthur & The Lonely Astronauts
Joseph Arthur’s an instinctive artist. After all, he released four EP’s this year before he got around to making Temporary People. On his second album with The Lonely Astronauts (his backing band), Arthur’s instincts led him to mix folk, gospel, and rock. For the most part, it works.
You Are My Sunshine
(Tooth & Nail)
Copeland’s come of age. They’ve always been kings (if somewhat inexplicably) of vaguely Christian, vaguely indie pop/rock, and they finally deserve it. You Are My Sunshine is a surprisingly cohesive album that gets right to the heart of what the band is good at: vocal harmonies to die for. What they lack in insightful lyrics they more than made up with Aaron Marsh’s voice. This time around, it’s drenched in synthesizers and more effective than ever. [Review]
The culmination of one-man teenage band Daniel Hunter’s short time at Island Records, Texas is an exercise in hiding his obsession with Ben Gibbard. Which, although not always successful, is delightful.
(CONTINUED FROM PAGE 2)
The Sparrow and the Crow
The illegitimate love child of Sam Beam and Sufjan Stevens (ew), his craft ever improves, and his intimate, humble croon ever swoons.
Feel Good Ghosts
Terrible cover art and typography aside, this Minnesotan experimental Baroque pop collective known for playing amazing live shows and polarizing music snobs everywhere has crafted a rambunctious, impossible-to-ignore record.
Carry the Weight
(The Militia Group)
For the first real time ever, he ties himself to the anchoring of a full backing band, instantly losing some of the intimacy he is adored for but making up for it with new moods, feelings, and lovely compositional colors.
Songs from A Small Town
Espe wears hats of Damien Rice, John Mayer, and James Taylor without any of the fanfare, arrogance, or preconception. The perfect collection of unknown folk songs. Instantly singable, effortlessly lovable, and incredibly well for the wear.
Pink & Blue
Christian music’s most ambitious and shape-shifting husband and wife duo shed more of their worship-leading past for the big wide world of quirky folk-pop. Waterdeep gains fresh new ideas and lovely new melodies in the process.
(Shameless Records Canada)
The soon-to-be Canadian folk star’s label debut contains years worth of his brilliantly simple crowd favorites, and flexes his seemingly limitless songwriting potential, a la Sondre Lerche, Sufjan Stevens, and Paul Simon.
Sure, part of our adoration for Anathallo (and, particularly, the resurrected Anathallo) has to do with a weakness for this kind of stuff: never-ending vocal harmonies, handclaps and group hugs. But there’s no denying Canopy Glow, from first to tenth listen, is intoxicating. [Review]
(Wood & Bone)
Ditching the oceanic worship supergroup responsible for carbon-copy Coldpraise around the world, Brooke Fraser gets as close to subtle, tasteful, and fresh as anything resembling worship music has maybe ever been.
Atomove Elektrarne EP
(Burnt Toast Vinyl)
A very short collection of beautiful, meandering ambeince, floating without rhyme, reason, or regimen.
Bodies of Water
A Certain Feeling
Gospel + Tropicalia + Danielson + Randomness – Consistency = A Certain Feeling.
Family Force 5
Dance or Die
(Tooth & Nail)
The Christian dancefloor, to the extent such a thing can exist, is littered with examples of colossally bad commercial judgment that led to even more embarrassing music. But that was all before Family Force 5, the band of (mostly) brothers that has shaken down everything anyone thought they knew about Christians and club jams. Irresistible for its enthusiasm, brazen production and wicked melodies, this will always be a Christian pop-culture moment to remember. [Review]
Instantly fascinating folk-pop wrapped in precious married-couple vocals wrapped in unexpected grooves wrapped in simply wonderful little songs.
Doug Burr’s fierce sincerity, attention to detail, and timeless southern sound were the perfect fit for an album of word-for-word NASB Psalms.
The Ill-Tempered Klavier
A seasoned studio musician for years, his solo debut is part jazzy Ben Folds, part accesible Richard Swift, and all endlessly underrated folky power pop. A brand new voice of timeless retro melody.
The Khrusty Brothers
The Khrusty Brothers
Don Chaffer (of Waterdeep) and his new band piece together the fictional story of an Appalachian family band carrying forth the legacy of their deceased, opium-addicted father, in all its lumbering rock glory. After some awkward lyrical heaviness, deep hurts, and some (almost) rapping, we’re confused, spent, and impressed.
Few albums have the potential to get past the defenses of the listener’s soul so quickly and so poignantly. McCracken sets up camp in the best light of Sheryl Crow’s shadow and begins to clean house, settling for nothing short of her trademark spontaneous perfectionism. Thanks to this record, people will now refer to Derek Webb as Sandra McCracken’s husband.
The Mae Shi
(Phantom Sound & Vision)
Straight from LA’s “The Smell” to Pitchfork’s recommendation list to this very spot, its been a good ride so far for the bizarro mess The Mae Shi. From insane bursts of avant-garde pop to classic-rock power riffs, HLLLYH is a smorgasbord of musical A.D.D. delights.
Ode to Sunshine
These “wandering souls” have something to say. Matthew Vasquez, and the rest of Delta Spirit, articulate philosophical and religious angst with an honest bitter passion that’s only accentuated by vicious live performances combining the soulful musicality of the folk rocking 60′s with the anger of the punkish 70′s. Modern music’s been waiting on this revival.
At War with Walls & Mazes
A remix artist in the truest sense, Ryan Lott makes every sample, loop, and stolen idea his beautiful own. Not threatening Greg Gillis’ mixtape throne anytime soon, he lives in precise splice rather than frantic excess. It’s been said that his compositions have the ability to grab you by the collar, throw you the ground, and then apologize.
Heal for the Honey
There’s an immediate familiar beauty about Heal for the Honey, wrapped in stark originality and an innocent, timeless gift of melody. Equal parts conventional formula and irreverent bombast, it unfolds with song after song of new creative beauty. Out of nowhere, Brooke Waggoner has crafted an elaborate pop masterpiece and stolen the show.
To send your thoughts to Patrol’s editors, email email@example.com.
Tags2012 Election Andrew Sullivan Atheism Barack Obama Bible Book Review Books Capitalism Catholic Church Charles Taylor Christian Christianity Christianity Today Conservatism Conservatives Evangelicalism Evangelicals Facebook Faith Feminism Gay Marriage God Gospel Coalition History Jacques Derrida Jesus Journalism Mark Driscoll Marriage Martin Heidegger Marvin Olasky Marxism Media New Sincerity New York Times Patheos Philosophy Politics Religion Religion and Spirituality Ross Douthat Same-sex marriage United States Women Young Evangelicals