Saturday, December 21, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2013

December is always a good time to look back on things that have made an impact on you over the past 12 months. Since music is such an integral part of my life, I thought I'd see what my "most played" albums were and share them with you.

Best New Artist: The Lone Bellow
I have never been a country fan, but I grew up listening to it quite a bit (thanks, Dad!). I still avoid your typical country artists as much as possible, but I am a fan of the new folk movement, as well as some of the more interesting and artistic country artists.

The Lone Bellow bills itself as "Brooklyn country," and it somehow fits. Their tight harmonies and steel-y instrumentation are fantastic...nearly as good as their lyrics. Frontman Zach Williams wrote many of the songs based off his wife's near-fatal horseback riding accident, scribbling thoughts and lines into a journal throughout the ordeal. The music that has come from those songs makes for soulful, honest, and yet-somehow-hopeful lyrics.

Favorite track: "Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold."

Best New Worship
Obviously, as a worship leader, I listen to a lot of worship music. When you've been doing this for a while, it shouldn't surprise you to know that it takes something special to impress an old, cynical church musician like me. Though the bands below don't exhaust all the decent worship music that came out this year, these three stand out.

The Digital Age
The first concert I paid to go to with my own money was a David Crowder*Band concert. I've spent my own money on many more DC*B shows after that. So to say that I was seriously bummed out when I heard that they were "breaking up" would be an understatement.

Fortunately, although David Crowder and the band were going separate ways, it didn't mean that they were done making music. Crowder's new album comes out in 2014, but the rest of the *Band formed The Digital Age. Their first outing is a concept album around the themes of "Evening and Morning," i.e. the liturgical day. They are one of the few bands that can we re-do an already popular song - such as All Sons and Daughters' "All the Poor and Powerless" - and do it in such a way that's both familiar and interesting.

Favorite track: "Believe."

Hillsong Young and Free
I've said for a few years that the next trend in modern worship music is going to be the dance-pop sound that you hear on the radio so often. Soaring synths, four-on-the-floor digital bass drum thumps, obnoxiously-catchy lyrical licks. A couple of churches and worship bands have tried to pull this off with mixed success (I'm looking at you Newsboys).

The youth group of the uber-successful Hillsong Church has their own worship team (of course) and they have at last released their first album that absolutely nails dance-pop worship. They create a soundscape that at once accurately follows the musical zeitgeist as well as avoids an easy rip-off of actual pop artists.

The question of "attainability" for typical, average churches always comes up with albums like these. But for once that necessarily wasn't Hillsong's intent nor should it have been. This album proved that Christian artists can make music with the best of them. It may have taken years to prove that point, but the point remains.

Favorite track: "Alive."

Honorable Mentions: Dustin Kensrue; Hillsong United "Zion: Acoustic Sessions."

Favorite Soundtrack: Broadchurch, Olafur Arnalds
When you write as much as I do, you have to invest in some good "background music" without lyrics, that doesn't cry for attention, and isn't interesting enough to draw you away from the work at hand.

Arnald's soundtrack to the iTV miniseries Broadchurch fits none of those requirements. His soundtrack is so unique from anything else in film and television that it stands on its own as a musical achievement. It's brooding instead of in-your-face; it uses motifs without using them to death (John Williams, you could use this lesson); its haunting without being creepy.

Favorite Track: "Suspects."

Honorable Mentions: Hans Zimmer, "Man of Steel"; Murray Gold, "Doctor Who Series 7."

Overall New Favorite: Sleeping at Last - The Atlas EPs
I'm not entirely sure how I even came across Sleeping at Last; I'm less sure how I missed it for so long. 

Sleeping at Last is made up of one member, Ryan O'Neal. The genre is best defined as "indie rock," though this really does little justice to everything Sleeping at Last achieves. A mix of orchestral, folk, and ambient sounds combine to produce soul-lifting melodies that just make you feel good. O'Neal's voice is unique without being overly novel; soaring without being cloying.

This past year he has been releasing a series of concept EPs called Atlas, each one focusing on themes of light, darkness, and space. It's in these albums that his lyrical skills truly shine. I don't know anyone who wouldn't have a better day by waking up to "You Are Enough":
“You are enough.”
These little words, somehow they’re changing us.
“You are enough,”
So we let our shadows fall away like dust.
“You are enough.”
These little words, somehow they’re changing us.
Let it go, let it go, “You are enough.”
So we let our shadows fall away like dust.
Favorite Track: "Light."

So these are the albums that I kept putting on repeat this year. What about you? What music moved you to tears, to dance, to worship this year? Let me know in the comments!