What a wild year this has been. When I look at everything that happened this year, both in my life and in the lives of others, I can’t help but wonder what I’ll be saying about 2017. The wheels just keep turning.
If you missed it, I announced on my last monthly roundup that I’ll be calling it quits with JesusWired in 2017. More and more, I’ve been finding I can’t devote the time to this column that I’d like to. Rather than keeping it going at a level I’m not satisfied with, I’m going to step away.
I will, of course, still be listening to Christian music. I plan to talk plenty about what I’m listening to on social media, and I’d love to hear what you’re digging as well – feel free to follow me on Facebook or Twitter.
And with that, I present to you my ten favorite albums of 2016.
#10 Jameson McGregor – Wild One
Resurrection’s rolling through me / Power to live again / The echo of a promise / Of a different kind of end / But I keep misdirecting / The life you give to the life I’ve led / But dying’s not the problem / It’s trying to stay dead
Oh, God / It’s like I’m talking through my teeth / And I can’t find the words I mean / How am I supposed to die to me / When it’s the only thing I’ve been?
I missed this one when it first came out since there wasn’t a whole lot of fanfare to go with it. Once I found it, though, I just couldn’t turn it off, mostly because of Jameson McGregor’s arresting vocals. They’d be right at home on a noisy grunge project, but instead McGregor uses them to craft a gritty singer-songwriter album with thoughtful lyrics about the untameable nature of God and the challenge of living for him.
Recommended Listening: Shadow, Fever, Hope
Download Wild One on iTunes here
#9 Benjamin James – Penumbra
Oh, be kind to the beggar that’s inside of you / And the fiend that you are hiding too / Oh be kind / Feed the poor and lonesome man in your own soul / Love him till he’s been made whole / Feed the poor
Be at peace with the enemy in your own home / Neither you nor he can throw a stone / So be at peace / Be good to the criminal you’ve locked away / That sinful man you learned to hate / Oh be good
When I’m broken to pieces / You make me whole / And through every season / You’re mending my soul
Benjamin James combines ethereal folk reminiscent of Bon Iver with just the right amount of world music and evocative lyrics to make a listening experience that pulled me in from the first measure. There’s a lot going on in each song – which means it’s definitely an album to take in with a good pair of headphones – but it all works together perfectly. Each song is expertly crafted and gorgeous.
Recommended Listening: Beggar, In The Wild In My Home, Sing Eternal
Download Penumbra on iTunes here
#8 Heath McNease – Who Knows? Who Cares?
When the walls around you crumble till the world has no one left / And the dust finally settles while you hold onto regrets / And you level bout a truth / That what you got off of your chest / Was a selfish attempt to stop the hand that stills your breath
When the words of Job offended / And the smoke is in your lungs / And when “holy” is the only word that rests upon your tongue / You’re somewhere in between the Heaven Lazarus has touched / And the flames the rich man can’t escape no matter where he runs
Where was I before the sun? / Where was I before the rain / When the foundations were laid? / Where was I before the sun? / Where was I before the rain? / Did you even know my name?
Heath McNease is just plain talented. He can rap, he can sing, and he can write. After three years of focusing on more of an acoustic pop sound, he’s returned with a hip hop project more along the lines of his brilliant Weight of Glory project. Lyrically, Who Knows? Who Cares? is much more restrained than past hip-hop albums, though McNease still manages to pack verses with more meaning and wordplay than a lot of rappers manage to do in an entire song. Add to that some well-used Local Natives samples, and you have a must-listen album for fans of melodic hip-hop.
Recommended Listening: 13:15, Wide Eyed Skeleton, Endure the Night
Download Who Knows? Who Cares? on Bandcamp here
#7 Citizens and Saints – A Mirror Dimly
If I gained the world would it be worth the price? / To work these hands to death and not be satisfied / If every effort brought another sleepless night / I’d be so tired
I have strived enough to know that this divide / Could never be repaired through countless second tries / Still I stay the cost avoiding what is right / Now I’m so tired / I’m just so tired
I relent / There is nothing for me here / You can have it all; my life is not my own / You give life / That is worth the loss of mine / I surrender all I have to follow You
You never know what to expect from Citizens and Saints. Each of their three full-length albums has its own sound, but each is a solid record in its own right. The band’s third album finds them at – in my opinion – their best by far. A Mirror Dimly isn’t hooky or catchy, but it is incredibly rich in texture. It has a brooding, building passion that presents an edgy contrast to the current trend of super-polished worship music. If the music wasn’t enough, Zach Bolen’s theologically-minded lyrics make the whole album stand out, managing to sound both fresh and classic.
Recommended Listening: Relent, My Joy Is Complete, Faith
Download A Mirror Dimly on iTunes here
#6 NEEDTOBREATHE – H A R D L O V E
Trading punches with the heart of darkness / Going to blows with your fear incarnate / Never gone until it’s stripped away / A part of you has gotta die to change
In the morning you gon’ need an answer / Ain’t nobody gonna change the standard / It’s not enough to just feel the flame / You’ve gotta burn your old self away
Let’s start by acknowledging the stylized titling. The album is listed on iTunes as H A R D L O V E, and, as obnoxious as that is to type, I feel like it’s the most accurate way to refer to it. In fact, there isn’t a lower-case letter to be found on this entire album, and that’s honestly the personality you get throughout. It bold for a group known for its rootsy Americana to move toward a more pop-based sound. NEEDTOBREATHE has absolutely risen to the challenge, though, with one of their strongest albums to date. The melodies are infinitely singable, the music hits hard, and there isn’t a weak track in the bunch.
Recommended Listening: HARD LOVE, HAPPINESS, MONEY & FAME
Download H A R D L O V E on iTunes here
#5 Branches – White Flag
I feel like a dried up fountain waiting for rain to fall / To fill the cracks and holes and see if there is hope for me at all / I feel like an empty inkwell with nothing left to say / Cause all the letters that I wrote to you have all been thrown away
If your eye is on the sparrow / If you’re worried about the dove / Have you heard all of my shouting / Will you come down from above? / If your eye is on the sparrow / If you’re worried about the bird / Did you get all of my letters / Did you read my troubled words?
But if your eye is on the sparrow / If you’re worried about its wings / Then I’m a fool to think that you ignore the worries that I sing / Rather if I hear an echo / And if the shadow’s there / Then you must be on the other end / To make these things appear
Indie-rock instrumentation meets folksy multi-part harmonies in an album I totally didn’t see coming. With every listen, I’ve enjoyed this one more and picked out another nugget of meaning from the lyrics. Every song is ridiculously catchy, but this isn’t just a bouncy collection of tunes that gets old quickly. There’s some real depth to the fun, both lyrically and musically.
Recommended Listening: Sparrow, Tomorrow, Should We Let The Fire Die?
Download White Flag on iTunes here
#4 Kings Kaleidoscope – Beyond Control
We’re afraid to set sail / We’re afraid to exhale / Afraid of adventure / We just stumble and stall / ‘Til we crumble and crawl / Back to our shelter / It’s enough that He’s here / It’s enough that He knows our frame / We are bound to the end / On a journey through fire and rain
It’s okay to be afraid / It’s alright in this ocean / Come and feel, this is for real / Come alive in this ocean / If we wait, it’s no escape / We’re alright in this ocean / To be whole, beyond control / Is to die
It’s crazy to say this about an album like Beyond Control, but this is Kings Kaleidoscope’s most understated project to date. Of course, when you have an eighty-four-person band (only a slight exaggeration) creating a blend of rock, jazz, pop, and gospel, it’s safe to say musical simplicity isn’t a thing you really strive for. And yet, in the midst of multilayered, multigenre chaos, we find Kings Kaleidoscope at their most dialed in, creating some of the most compelling music of their young career. The lyrics haven’t taken a backseat either, with the usual blend of a strong theological focus and deeply personal themes.
As a warning, the album features a word-for-word prayer from a dark time in lead singer Chad Gardner’s life, and the track does include a strong expletive. Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the topic, so all I’ll say on the matter is that there is a clean version of the album if that’s what you’d prefer. That’s the one I’ll link to, just in case someone misses this disclaimer.
Recommended Listening: In This Ocean, Dust, Enchanted
Download Beyond Control on iTunes here
#3 Relient K – Air For Free
Sweet Jesus, I was coming to pray / But all the hip kids sent You running away / You got egg on your face / But the faithful keep washing your feet
Wish it was simple but it’s trouble to say / Cause nobody believes that there’s a debt to be paid / For the things that come easy day after day / Week after week
I am the champion of wine / You’re the bread on my tongue / I am the last one in line / The prodigal son
As the guys in Relient K have matured and changed, so has their music. Even though Air For Free is a continued progression away from their pop-punk roots, it still feels very much like Relient K, mostly because of an element of playfulness that had been missing the past few years. Whether it’s the bleating horns of Elephant Parade, the sound-effects-as-percussion on Local Construction, or Thiessen’s goofy, shouty harmonies on Cat, the album just sounds fun, and that’s not even bringing the lyrics into account. They combine the wit and whimsy of early Relient K with the heavier, more introspective themes of their later work. We’re left with a collection of solid musings on the nature of faith, friendship, and growing up, all set to music that dares you not to tap your toes along.
Recommended Listening: Prodigal, Cat, Elephant Parade
Download Air For Free on iTunes here
#2 My Epic – Viscera
Wake, you’re haunting me again / There you stand every time / So alive it’s scaring me to death / Wave, you’re beckoning me in / To the places between all the dreams and nightmares in my head
Seeds will never bloom till they die / Wicks don’t shine until they’re on fire / And every newborn leaves a scar to remind
If it costs me nothing / Is it worth anything? / I hear you calling me, but my God, I am scared / Still if you lead me I will follow you there
Usually, I don’t put EP’s on my top albums of the year, but the more I listened to Viscera, the more I realized these five songs are so good that I really only enjoyed one album more than this one. If it was just a few songs longer, it might be number one for me. The lyrics are poetic and challenging, the music is haunting and heavy, and the whole thing only gets better with more listens.
Recommended Listening: Ghost Story, Memoir, Wive’s Tale
Download Viscera on iTunes here
#1 House of Heroes – Colors
Maybe God is a hard man / Who can show you mercy but it won’t come free / And he offers protection / If you stay on the take and you take what he needs / And nobody sees him / But they pray wholehearted when they need forgiven / But if God is a hard man, why am I still alive?
If I forsake my family / If I forsake my blood / Tell me, what’s in it for me? / What’s in it for me? / If I forsake my demons / If I forsake my love / Tell me, what’s in it for me? / What’s in it for me?
I’m beginning to think House of Heroes is incapable of making a mediocre album. Before going independent, they released released three straight rock and roll masterpieces, the weakest of which was better than a lot of rock bands are capable of at their best. Colors only continues the streak of solid, blue-collar rock and roll. This time around, the band tells a small-town story of love, crime, and family as a way to talk about freedom, faith, and choices.
Recommended Listening: God, Pioneer, Feel
Download Colors on iTunes here
There you go. Ten albums well worth your time from 2016. What were your favorites this year? What are you excited about next year?