As the year comes to a close, here are favorite Pop/Contemporary Christian albums of 2015.
10. Brandon Heath "No Turning Back" (Reunion)
There's a sentimental streak in Brandon Heath that puts a familial warmth to his music that is conspicuously missing from that of his peers. For his previous non-seasonal recording, Heath taps into his childhood memories as he allows his grandparents' Appalachian home to be the muse for his 2012 "Blue Mountain" disc. Now almost three years down the track, Heath celebrates 20 years since he first made his commitment to follow Christ. To re-conjure up the first flushes of excitement and joy when Heath first came to know the Lord, he went back to the Young Life Camp where he first encountered Jesus. And to heighten the nostalgia of the momentous turning point, he has enlisted Ed Cash (who was the Camp's musician then) as the album's producer. Thus, "No Turning Back" is in many ways similar to "Blue Mountain" in the sense that it is flourished with personal anecdotes and emotions sanctioned by the wisdom of 20 years of hindsight and wisdom.
9. Carolyn Arends "Just Getting Started: An Acoustic Reflection on 20 Years of Music" (Independent)
"Just Getting Started: An Acoustic Reflection on 20 Years of Music" is a landmark album in Arends' richly storied career. Featuring 11 re-imagined makeovers of songs she has had released, the album also features one brand new song, the title cut "Just Getting Started." However, this is far from your typical retrospective compilation. Rather, the 11 re-cuts were lovingly voted on by her legion of fans. This means they are not necessary her biggest hits or her radio singles. Rather, what you get here is a wide smorgasbord of tracks that range from her debut album for Reunion Records "I Can Hear You" in 1995 all the way to 2009's "Love Was Here First."
8. Matt Maher "Saints and Sinner" (Essential)
Our appreciation of Matt Maher's latest album "Saints and Sinners" heightens when we understand the embodied nuances of the project's title. Like the unfolding of the proverbial onion, one layer of the album's title refers to the songs' theme of sinners struggling with our foibles in our life-long process of sanctification. Here you will hear songs about our daily strives situated in the dust and dirt of our everyday bouts and how they come to a crossroads with the life-transforming grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, another layer of meaning of the album's title reveals Maher's process in crafting this project. Finding his muse in the writings of "saints and sinners" of the church's history, such as Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, the words of many of these songs were inspired by the prayers, devotions and homilies of such saints and sinners. As a result, there is a treasury of wisdom is embedded in the album's lyrics giving us a thesaurus of Godly vocabulary.
7. Amy Grant "Be Still and Know... Hymns and Faith" (Sparrow)
Speaking of crossing bridges from one world to another, Grant is the best at such cultural exegesis. And this album is a testament of her prowess; once again on this disc, Grant shows how she can engage the modern world with the old sonic treasuries of the church with glowing results.
6. Unspoken "Unplugged" (CentriCity)
Acoustic albums are now the hip thing for many artists to do. And acoustic albums are often time buyers as singers spend more time preparing for their new album. Unspoken, thankfully, is not just a crowd follower. With the amount of creativity, re-imagination, and emotions invested in this album, "Unplugged" feels like a brand new album; an album not to be missed.
5. Mia Fieldes "Ashes" (Essential)
The EP is preceded in its release by the single "Fearless." A pop-centric ballad, "Fearless" is more than a song. It's a faith builder. Those who find their faith been shaken by life's circumstances will find great comfort in this song. Not because the song dispels our fears. Rather, it elevates Christ in such a glorious way that fear itself has to bow down in the Savior's presence. So when we come to the song's bridge when Fieldes sings: "No fear in the crashing waves/No fear when the cost is great/No fear in the midnight hour/You've given me the spirit of power" we know it's no longer Fieldes just singing; it's Jesus singing through her.
4. Josh Wilson "That Was Then, This is Now" (Sparrow)
"This Was Then, This Is Now" continues to provide heart pricking devotions that will get us ruminating, talking, and changing as Wilson contemplates how the Gospel changes us in bringing us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. Most blatant in terms of developing upon the album's theme is the current single and title cut "That Was Then, This Now," which is tailored made for CCM radio busy pop staple. More avant garde is "House Divided." A rock n' roll piece that features lots of crunchy guitar blasts, "House Divided" recalls Romans 7 which speaks of the struggle between our former sinful life and our new identities in Christ. When listening to "House Divided," don't abort the song too early, wait for how the song ends with just the serene playing of the electric guitar. Fans who appreciate a great guitar lick will have their jaws dropping by the end of the song.
3. Nichole Nordeman "The Unmaking" (Sparrow)
Despite the EP's brevity, "The Unmaking" is worth every second of it. The title cut "The Unmaking" underscores a lesson often bereft in our modern prayers. While many often plead for God to save us from life's trials, "The Unmaking" speaks of how such are the most fertile times for God to nurture our faith. Partnering with Plumb in terms of vocals and song writing is "Not to Us." The song bears all the imprints we have come to love about Plumb: the dramatic pauses, the soaring chorus, and the ethereal synth-driven interludes.
2. All Things New "The Good News" (BEC Recordings)
To avoid the sophomore slum, All Things New has opted to return to the grassroots of what's at the cynosure of our faith, the Gospel. Distilling to the issues that are indispensable as far as the evangel is concerned, these 10 newly written songs deal with Christ's work on the Cross ("The Good News"), Christ's transformative power ("Change"), the defeat of Satan and all things evil ("Can't Hold Me Down"), and faith ("Believe"). "The Good News" is thus a cohesive treatise on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its practical permutations in our everyday lives; an album that strikes at the bull's eye of everything that is important.
1. Cheri Keaggy "No Longer My Own" (Elevate Ent)
In this milieu of plagiarised beats and sunkissed electronica where melodies are mostly borrowed over recycled rock-based templates, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has unfortunately suffered from anonymity. Few are singer-songwriters who can craft melodies that are not only original, but also ones which can prevail through the passage of time. Cheri Keaggy is an exception. Instead of regurgitating the same riffs and hooks that you hear on Christian radio, she takes time to construct melodies with an old fashioned tenacity yet contemporary enough to rival the music that is on radio now.