While it’s been a rough year all around, it seems to me that it’s actually been solid year for music. Two of my all-time favorite bands each dropped a great album within a week of each other, and I got to see them both in concert, along with some other fantastic artists. I discovered some new-to-me musicians and gained more appreciation for bands I already knew. As I’ve said before and I’m sure I will say again, music is a hugely important part of my life. These songs mean so much to me, and that’s why I love sharing them with you.
So here we go—my favorite albums of 2016:
6) Greatest Hymns, Vol. 2—Selah
I was in high school when Selah released Greatest Hymns, Vol. 1. It became a staple of my life and worship for years. The trio’s classic CCM/Southern Gospel sound is not my usual go-to musical style, but listening to their beautiful, powerful voices belting the hymns I grew up singing was comforting and stirring to me then. And the same is true today.
It is easy to turn this review into an apologetic for hymns. There are plenty of contemporary praise songs that I love and that help me enter into an attitude of worship. But I fear my generation and those to come will lose something if we forsake hymns altogether. These songs are full of deep truth and rich theology, while using words and melodies sung by Christians for decades and centuries. We owe so much to those who have gone before us. It is because of them that we know Jesus today. While we should always be using the creativity and talent God has given us to write new songs, we should not abandon the old ones. But that’s for another blog post, perhaps.
While it’s certainly the hymns themselves that make this album great to me, the passion and talent with which Selah sings makes their particular versions stand out.
Favorite Tracks: The Old Rugged Cross, Revive Us Again, I Surrender All, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us
5) American Wilderness—Matt Hires
Matt Hires wasn’t really on my radar before this album. But I did recognize his name from a previous EP and gave some of his new tunes a listen. And I’m glad I did. He definitely wins my superlative for the best underrated record this year. Matt is a singer/songwriter with a bit of an edge. His songs offer infectious hooks and his clear voice stands out with a unique vibrato.
The lyrics of this album vary between a little too generic, genuine and thoughtful, and brazenly honest. Themes of faith are heavy throughout the record, but they certainly aren’t Christian radio-friendly. Some of the lines are slightly stunning to me, but I think it’s sometimes good to be stunned in a way that makes you think—especially when it makes you more honest about your own feelings. Specifically, the hauntingly beautiful “Glory Bound” truly led me to reflect, contemplate, repent, and pray. I’m not sure that’s what Matt intended, but his honesty allowed me to be more honest, too.
Favorite Tracks: Glory Bound, Fighting a Ghost, The Wilderness, Begin Again
4) Hard Love—NEEDTOBREATHE
It feels a little like I’m dissing my favorite band to have them coming in only at Number 4 this year, but they still released an excellent album.
In past reviews, I’ve labeled NEEDTOBREATHE’s style as a hybrid of alternative and Southern rock tinged with bluegrass. Hard Love takes some small steps toward a more pop-friendly sound. There seems to be a lack of the earnestness that I’ve come to expect from this band. Thankfully, though, there is still plenty of the band’s soul and rock n’ roll to keep the energy up for most—though not all—of the album. I was pleasantly surprised to hear horns on “Money & Fame”—a new direction that I can totally get on board with. So while some of the stylistic microevolutions on this album didn’t suit me, others did. Lyrically, Hard Love touches on familiar themes of relationship, forgiveness, and perseverance, with the title track being the most lyrically poignant song on the album.
Favorite Tracks: Happiness, Hard Love, Money & Fame, Be Here Long
3) The Narrative—Sho Baraka
When I lived in Atlanta, Sho and I went to the same church. But that’s not why The Narrative made my list. It made the list because it is an incredible record full of complexity, rhythm, wordplay, satire, and thoughtfulness. I love art that makes me think—movies, books, TV, music—and this cerebral album offers more to be contemplated in one track than most entire records. Each track’s title includes a significant year from the past, but more than any other record I’ve heard in recent memory, it speaks to our culture exactly where we are right now, specifically in regards to racial harmony and justice (or the lack thereof). Most of the time, I like music that tells stories I can relate to, about experiences that I’ve shared. The Narrative, however, isn’t primarily my narrative. It tells about life from a different perspective, stories and thoughts formed by experiences different than my own. I can certainly relate to some of the lyrics, but for me, this album is more about seeing life differently. It’s more about learning and listening. And that’s exactly how this album, at this time, speaking to these subjects, should be.
But it’s not all just serious. While you can tell Sho is passionate about the things he’s rapping about, you can also tell that some songs are Sho being Sho and having a good time. This is a fun album to listen to, infusing hip hop with jazz, soul, and gospel flair. It’s different than a lot of Christian hip hop, but it’s well worth the trade-off. Props to Sho for such a brilliant, honest, exciting, and helpful record. I highly recommend giving it a listen, even if hip hop’s not usually your thing.
Favorite Tracks: Piano Break, 33 A.D.; Maybe Both, 1865; Here, 2016; Words, 2006; Myhood, U.S.A., 1937
2) Where The Light Shines Through—Switchfoot
Switchfoot has been one of my favorite bands since middle school. I was jamming to Learning to Breathe and New Way to Be Human on the school bus before The Beautiful Letdown‘s “Dare You to Move” and “Meant to Live” started getting mainstream radio play. While I lost some excitement for them after 2011’s Vice Verses, I did enjoy 2014’s Fading West. And I’m happy to announce that with Where The Light Shines Through, Switchfoot is truly back. At least in my book.
Where The Light Shines Through is certainly a modern album, but it has elements that also make it feel like a throwback—which I love. As I listen, I can almost pinpoint which former Switchfoot album each track reminds me of. The band continues to apply their alternative pop/rock laced with Jon Foreman’s ever-recognizable voice to rock anthems, high-energy fist-pumpers/foot-tappers, and ambient and thoughtful slow jams. As always, Switchfoot’s lyrics are inspiring, uplifting, fun, and optimistic, while still being heavy on the honesty and low on the cheesiness. In the midst of some difficult moments this year, Where The Light Shines Through helped remind me of my hope and purpose.
“I wanna sing with all my heart a lifelong song
Even if some notes come out right and some come out wrong
Cause I can’t take none of that through the door
Yeah, I’m living for more than just a funeral
I wanna burn brighter than the dawn” —Live It Well
Favorite Tracks: Hope Is the Anthem, Live It Well, Float, Where the Light Shines Through, If the House Burns Down Tonight, When Was the Last Time
1. Cleopatra—The Lumineers
The Lumineers rose to fame with the smash hit “Ho Hey” in 2012. While I enjoyed that song (which quickly became massively overplayed), as well as some of the other tracks off their self-titled debut album, I didn’t fully appreciate their songwriting ability until I listened to the first few singles from Cleopatra. Ever since the full album was released in April, I haven’t stopped listening to it. I’m not at all tired of it and I don’t expect to be any time soon.
Though short and charmingly simple, Cleopatra is a musical and lyrical masterpiece. The Lumineers mix ear-pleasing folk rock with singer/songwriter lyrical awareness and authenticity. The songs are soothing, pensive, and passionate. But the brilliance of the album is in the stories it tells. Nearly every song weaves its own heartbreaking or beautiful or thoughtful tale, some metaphorical and some literal—but they all still feeling accessible to the listener. Cleopatra‘s first five tracks are especially well-crafted, with the title track itself providing an experience akin to reading a novel. As someone who loves good stories and good music, this combination is ultimately why this album became my favorite of the year.
The Lumineers have taken the storytelling aspect of their album a step further by releasing a set of intriguing, beautiful, interconnected music videos for four of their songs. Watch them here.
Favorite Tracks: Cleopatra, Ophelia, Gun Song, Sleep on the Floor, Angela
Ghost of a King—The Gray Havens
And here’s a little taste of one of the concerts I had the privilege of attending this year. Enjoy!
COMMENT: What were your favorite albums of 2016?