Skelethon – Aesop Rock

In interviews he reveals a careful and introspective eloquence about the conceptual framework of his album. But rapper Aesop Rock (Matthias Bavitz) is just as apt to drop the gate for verbiage to fire on overdrive like an over-stimulated James Joyce narrating a late-night pillow fight.

Each song lyrically replete, Skelethon chronicles a rough period in Bavitz’s life, themed, in his words, by the “death of friends, house plants, and relationships”. It’s characteristically dark, and can get a little intense. But it also recounts experiences from his life that bring rootedness and meaning. Even the quirky “Fryerstarter” converts trips to Bob’s Donuts into religious experiences that provided Bavitz with home-away-from-home New York as he settled in California. If you can withstand the wordiness and appreciate a unique and headier rap style, Skelethon could be worth digging out.

Bloom – Beach House

bloom beach house

Beach House’s captivating synth cocktail sits well in the eardrums. Lush, without being overpowering or overdone, it’s equally appropriate for a drive, the quieter side of a house party, or perhaps a summery romp in a field. Everything about Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s tone and look is reminiscent of 80’s dream pop, conveying yearnings for simplicity amid the constancy of turbulent emotion. Legrand’s vocals and Scally’s guitar concoct something perhaps intended to soothe recoil from heartbreak: “fleeting moments of happiness before it all disappears”.

Deeper – JJ Heller

Deeper, JJ Heller’s eighth album, possesses raw power seemingly effortlessly. It’s upbeat and substantial, speaking to motherhood, marriage, friendship, fear and faith; these songs are fruit of the heart.

An acoustic guitar-driven collection with a touch of symphony, the instrumentation is delicate and diverse, ranging from roots-rock to soulful pop. JJ’s vocals are matched harmoniously by her husband Dave, who plays various instruments on the album. It’s beautifully produced and resonates richly.

25 Albums That Redefine

Typically, unless you’re Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, no-one cares about your Top 25.

But for those hungry for great music, I’m serving bite size portions from last decade’s best independent music.

These artists, who are writing from a faith perspective, are not in the “Gospel & Religious” category assigned by the music industry. Many of them would rather not be associated with that category at all. They’re artists who produce authentic material in their own right, while not neglecting the deeper dimensions of the human experience.

1/ Misty Edwards – Relentless

Misty Edwards’ 2007 release “Relentless” absolutely rocks. It’s passionate faith sung with sonorous beauty, married with masterful guitar riffs and basslines. The quieter side of the album is just as powerful. The album comes as a double disc, with the second featuring acoustic material.

2/ Shad – TSOL

One of Canada’s best rappers, witty and eloquent emcee Shad is Rwandan-born and Ontario-raised. He articulates plenty of his spiritual insights within his clever and humorous lines of social commentary.

3/ Kye Kye – Young Love

Kye Kye’s Young Love is a gorgeous rippling indie glitch-pop wonder that’s equally performed in clubs and sanctuaries.

4/ Gungor – Beautiful Things

The album title refers to the beautiful things that God creates, but in a way it is self-referential; this is a truly stunning album. Lyrically, it is a celebration of many central and tender tensions in the Christian faith. The vision of this album seems equally inspired by the beauty of God’s works and the realization that there is yet much restoration to take place. Doubt, faith, joy and solemnity are all given their due as the listener makes his or her way through the tracklist. The heart and mind come away nourished.

This is Christian music at its finest. Gungor employ a multiplicity of styles and master them. What Gungor presents to their listeners with this release is an album that is sophisticated but unpretentious, deeply refreshing and reflective with meditation. It expresses the band’s growing understanding of a grander God and it dares the listener to open their mind.

5/ John Mark McMillan – The Medicine

For all of his lyrical and musical prowess, John Mark McMillan is not the sort of musician to produce just any song. He wrote on his blog at the time of his second album’s release, “the world has enough songs… if you have to write a song, write something that no-one’s said before”. He puts his money where his mouth is with this album as he paints rich allegory over stunning blues-rock backdrops.

6/ United Pursuit Band – Found

7/ Amber Brooks – Still I Rise

Amber’s debut album, Still I Rise, is passionate, beautiful, and a cry of the heart, personally and collectively. Find a love story in the lyrics about the mutual divine pursuit. Read my interview with her here.

8/ Audra Lynn (Hartke) – Vow

9/ Sean Feucht & BURN 24-7 – Sacred Mountain

Imagine what ambient progressive instrumental music would be if it was inspired by God, then find it in listening to Sacred Mountain.

10/ John Mark McMillan – The Song Inside The Sounds of Breaking Down

The album with the song that took the world by storm, “How He Loves Us”, is filled with all kinds of good stuff. McMillan is a poet of rare calibre.

11/ The Listening – The Listening LP

With the experience of former band Rock ‘n’ Roll Worship Circus behind them, musicians Gabriel Wilson, Josiah Sherman, Chris Greely, and Eric Lemiere return as The Listening to release this creative and beautiful debut album.

Confident musicianship (You’ll hear them play in 3, 4, 5, and 7 time) paired with yearning lyrics fills The Listening LP and highlights not just the bands’ musical and lyrical maturity but their very passions and dreams. The album is filled with diverse sounds, melodies, and textures, revisiting the same echoes which could be heard in The Worship Circus’ music – Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Doves, Radiohead, and more. Each song is fresh and different, yet there is an unmistakable unity to the album. Each part articulate yet seamlessly woven together with the others; the work compliments the artistic sensitivity behind it and reminds this author of Paul’s demand of the church in 1 Corinthians 12. Whether it is the delightful metamorphosis of sound on “Triple Fascination” and “Be In Your Eyes” or the haunting musical narrative of “Lovely Red Lights”, each piece contributes to a greater vision, a vision the band has laid open to their listeners, an inspired message of hope. The Listening weave a musical story rich with contemporary insights as well as biblical allusion indicative of their spiritual convictions. One song on the album, “The Factory”, is a parable that, like the parables of Jesus two thousand years ago, followers do not always grasp immediately without explanation.

The innovative sound, honest lyrics, and oftentimes unusual instrumentation on The Listening LP blows a fresh breeze into the alternative rock world as well the sphere of Christian contemporary music. Overall, a fantastic record on multiple levels and should appeal to a wide audience.

12/ Brock Human – Come Away

Returning to the States from a trip with Iris Ministries in Mozambique and with the intention to record an album, Brock Human had a puzzling fall into depression and a complete creative block. With his desperate need for God to be real, God spoke to him in a dream. Brock writes, “in six days he showed me greater love than I could have imagined”. Within a week six songs were complete and the album was finished.

The album comprises simple, profound statements of faith and truth set against the backdrop of sweeping guitars, rich piano, and pulsing African drumbeats. The middle tracks are an encouragement of God`s good plans for each life, and a commitment to wait on the Lord. The album closes with a sung Apostles` creed and an instrumental progression. Let Me In is a flowing album filled with the real hope and inspiration of a real God. It is a true testament to the words of Jesus in Luke 18:27, “What is impossible with man is possible with God”.

13/ Matt Gilman & Cory Asbury – Holy

Two virtuoso voices come together to create one astounding album rich in scriptural allusion and prophetic insight.

14/ Will Reagan & United Pursuit Band – In The Night Season

Honest and unpretentious; this album set up the United Pursuit Band to become an influential force in contemporary worship music.

15/ Branches – Everything You’ve Ever Done Has Been Beautiful

Electronica wizard Jonny Hughes’ fantastic side-project called BRANCHES is ambient electronica that is peaceful and phantasmagorical all in one, well-fit for soaking (listening/meditative) prayer. This, his sophomore EP has been called a “heavenly slice of electro indie-pop” and described thus by XLR8R: “Throughout the instrumental affair, Hughes implements a bath of ethereal synths and arpeggios which is built upon using a seemingly endless supply of delicate melodies with interlocking rhythms that precisely play off each other. The first blown-out drum loop enters the procession just after the one minute marker, eventually disappearing only to pop up again in short spurts between a number of incredibly melody-washed breakdowns. In customary electro-pop fashion, the biggest burst of energy is saved for the track’s climax, where giant, glitched kicks and snares fire at will as Hughes’ melodies soar above, unscathed by the tumultuous sounds below.”

16/ Josh Garrels – Jacaranda

Sublime lyricist and instrumentalist Josh Garrels’ breakbeat folk album weaves lyrical poetic tapestries that challenge and clarify.

17/ Jon Foreman – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter EPs

Jon Foreman (lead singer of Switchfoot)’s solo project brought forth an EP for every season, and did not shy away from allowing us to peer into his own wonderings and wanderings.

18/ Extol – The Blueprint Dives

Extol’s technical musicianship earned the band a Spellemannsprisen nomination for best metal album of 2005. The progressive extreme metal band writes music in subgenres including death metal and thrash.

19/ Jason Upton – Between Earth And Sky

Have you ever heard an angel sing? At the recording of Jason Upton’s album “Remember”, there were full grown men on their faces on the ground. Between Earth And Sky contains live versions with a studio quality of some of Jason’s most powerful songs.

20/ Jesus Culture – Your Love Never Fails

Jesus Culture’s 2008 CD/DVD release featuring Kim Walker, Chris Quilala and Melissa How (Wise) helped bring fresh spirit-led worship to the forefront of CCM by using material from the likes of Misty Edwards, Sarah McMillan, Chris McClarney, and others.

21/ Nina Landis – Fly

Nina’s clarion call to the church carries the urgency of a modern prophet, calling us back to our senses and to God’s heart. It’s incredible how strong the responses one album can provoke. “Fly” is as likely to have you weep on the floor of your bedroom as to rock out in your car.

22/ Phil Wickham – Cannons

The song “Beautiful” of this album is a diamond in a field of gems.

23/ Jeremy Enigk – World Waits

Jeremy Enigk, one of the founding fathers of 90’s melodic punk, became a Christian during his time as lead singer of the Seattle emocore band Sunny Day Real Estate and made a bold move in the punk community by opening up about how he had come to love Jesus and wanted to sing about him. His conversion to Christianity was met with mixed reactions and Enigk’s faith journey continued to be a point of contention in his fanbase. He has since released a handful of albums, carrying a change of tone from his old songs with Sunny Day Real Estate. A biographical account can be found here:

24/ MewithoutYou – Brother, Sister

Masters of the modern parable.

25/ Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus – A Beautiful Glow

Pioneers of Christian indie music, the Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus’ bizarre name clues you in to the fact that they weren’t afraid to be different. Speaking powerfully of hope for humanity, A Beautiful Glow radiates joy via Moog Synth. Rock n’ Roll Worship Circus now exists as music collective The Listening.

Seryn – This Is Where We Are

Symphonic and delightful. Sometimes the music tiptoes through your headphones and at other times it soars above your head.

Nominated one of the best acts of SXSW 2011. Especially for fans of Mumford & Sons, Good For Grapes, Anathallo, Sleeping At Last.

Major/Minor – Thrice

Thrice shows itself to be a band that can go the distance in the ring. With each album, the punches gain force. From the beginning, Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics have been potent but Thrice’s latter releases reveal his true knockout force as he sings everything from marriage to media to morality in a sagacious drawl.

Major/Minor is a powerful album, but a lot of fans may not know what to do with it. Sonically, it’s a little confusing, revisiting a weirdly out-of-place grunge sound. Lyrically, though, it’s a heavyweight boxer. Hard-hitting “Yellow Belly” bookends the album with a grungy, gritty electric opener and offers an acoustic reprise to close. Careful listeners will catch allusion to the difficulty of confronting the hypocrite within as well as criticism of those who pray for rapture instead of confronting evils around them.

Kensrue uses his powerful parabolic style to narrate his own faith journey and challenges others to consideration. “Words in the Water” tells of the lifting of the law and “Listen Through Me” describes the crucifixion.

Major/Minor is unmistakeably Thrice, regardless of their frequent experimentation. This heavier, more minimally produced record is somewhat similar to Beggars and may please fans of Vheissu. Stickwork and guitar are grungy yet somehow pretty crisp, drawing together with the vocals into anthemic sound. As a band, Thrice continues doing what they want to do and paying little credence to the tastes of their fanbase. Love it or hate it, they are Do-It-Yourself poster boys, revolutionaries in a people-pleasing industry.

Ghosts Upon The Earth – Gungor

It is a show of confidence in their identity and the power of journey for Gungor to open doors to styles left untouched by the Christian establishment for decades. With the release of Ghosts Upon The Earth, which received more pre-orders than their distributor could expedite on schedule, Gungor delivers another phenomenal album replete with kingdom creativity.

Despite early albums the band was not completely satisfied with, their acclaim and the clarification of their identity since Beautiful Things seems to have removed any fear of rejection for experimenting. Michael Gungor (lead singer, guitarist) sees Beautiful Things as an album that everyone loved for its honesty but wanted to steer clear of producing a “Beautiful Things, Volume 2” style record. Instead, his desire is the album will find its audience, rather than simply cater to an existing market.

The opening track metaphorically paints a fitting soundscape to celebrate the original creative action that brought forth the universe, ambling along minimally before bursting forth with explosions of syncopated sound. The second track, “Brother Moon” seems flavoured by Jonsi’s (of Sigur Ros) 2010 album Go; perhaps a nod to a fellow experimenter and serendipitous musical visionary. Another highlight is, “You Are The Beauty”, which segues through styles from bluegrass to jazz, keeping listeners on the edge of their seat the whole time.

With this album, Gungor continue on a mission to embrace their heritage of diverse and eclectic influences and redeem it just like they articulated in Beautiful Things. Their increased use of natural metaphor, weaves parables like “when death dies, all things live” that explicate their “liturgical post-rock”.

Love Is Patient – Brianna Gaither

2812489571-1Brianna Gaither is a singer-songwriter from Oklahoma City with a knack for creating music that’s more than pop, yet contains all the elements that make it so listenable.

Love Is Patient is her new release. Available on iTunes and noisetrade, I’d recommend this album for its masterful lyrics and exquisite music – the whole album is very rich in texture, depth, and style. Brianna and her band team capture the art of a song that’s listenable and innovative. They appear not to settle for the redundancies of mainstream pop, and yet learn from it, allowing it to inform the music. Tracks “Stepping Stones” and “Let It Go” are great examples here, as Brianna’s thoughtful lyrics reflect upon coming home or freeing oneself from anxieties or negativity, but are offered in a musical package that is highly accessible and even radio-friendly. She reminds me a little of Ingrid Michaelson and Maria Taylor (who are each impressive in their own right).

Other things an audiophile will enjoy on this album are the fantastic harmonies (for example, on “Let It Go”, “Harvest Moon”, and “Find You”), and the use of piano as well as orchestral tones to enrich the soundscape, as well as the the spotlight placed on the lyrics, purposefully elevated sonically above the music to really stand out.

Opening track “Find You” is a song about waiting for someone special – but it’s not one of “those” saccharine songs about the perfect person. She asks, “Will you be true when I find you? Will you still be you?” When we meet that person, they’re going to be real! Will we allow and encourage them to be themselves, or will we try to turn them into our own selves? Listen to this track at Spirit, Ocean, Dust, Life and enjoy its lush textures and its surprises; this song is incredibly catchy and yet so distinct from the typical indie-pop hook.

 Brianna’s impressive range shines on “Find You” as she follows chromatic scales up and down in the verses before hitting some notes at the top of her range in the choruses, doubled with some gorgeous harmonies. The track then segues into a pretty crazy stylistic adventure in what my drummer roommate and I are nicknaming “polka-dot-funk” (catch it at 3:44) and slips back into driving 4-beat rock paired with conviction by Brianna’s simple yet powerful, “I’ll…find…you…”.

That’s just one track. As the album opens up, Brianna shows us she’s not a one-style composer. “Harvest Moon” and “Home” are powerful ballads that can’t prevent me from thinking of Michael Buble or Josh Groban. And although I’ve personally not been a big fan of either of them, the fact that I hear them in those ballads is not a bad thing, because I’m making a connection to their talent and eminence in their genres, and the power that lies behind the contemporary ballad. “Home” could easily find itself on a wedding playlist.

The last two songs on the album also surprised me very pleasantly. Rich in metaphor and reflective upon the most important things in life, you’re really going to have to listen to tracks for yourself, because the message here is a tad ineffable.