Each year, I review about a hundred or so albums and tracks. There have been some years where I’ve struggled to come up with enough really positive choices to compile this best-of list.
But 2016 was not one of those years. Indeed, as I write this, I’ve got the opposite problem: making tough calls about what redemptive albums and tracks to highlight. Intriguing, upbeat and faith-infused music (some of which charted well on the mainstream album chart, which is our criteria for choosing to review it in the first place) was in plentiful supply.
I’m having a hard enough time making these picks, actually, that I’m going to cheat just a little. In addition to the five “official” tracks and albums (combined) I’ve noted below, you’ll find my “honorable mention” list at the end.
Tori Kelly, Unbreakable Smile: I didn’t know much about 23-year-old YouTube phenom Tori Kelly when I reviewed her album, Unbreakable Smile. But it wasn’t long as I listened before I thought, Something is different about her. There was innocence, optimism and wisdom in abundance, and very little of the kind of sensual, suggestive stuff (with a couple of minor exceptions, mostly courtesy of guest contributors) that typically fills pop music. At one point on the title track, she sings, “Who knows, maybe I can sell out shows without taking off my clothes.” Wow. It was a refreshing change of pace. When I did some research on Kelly, I wasn’t surprised to learn that her Christian faith influences the way she approaches her calling. “My faith is a huge part of my life,” she told Billboard magazine. “I don’t force it into my music, but it’s in my experiences, so it comes through. People pick up on what they want to pick up on, but any way strangers connect to a song that I wrote is awesome.” Tori Kelly isn’t pursuing a career in contemporary Christian music (though she probably could have done so). Instead, her faith—paired with that unbreakable smile—is quietly evident on her upbeat-but-down-to-earth mainstream debut.
Moby & The Void Pacific Choir, “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?”: Electronic music pioneer Moby might be best known for his work in the mid-’90s. But in 2016, he released a tension-filled take on our relationship with technology. Lyrics alternate between themes of light and darkness, life and death, apocalyptic imagery and allusions to God’s presence. (Regarding the latter, Moby sings, “Dream a dream of God-lit air/Just for a minute you’ll find me there.”) But the song’s primary focus turns up in its chorus, where Moby articulates his sense of disorientation. “Are you lost in the world like me?” Moby asks, before adding, “If the systems have failed/Are you free?/All the things, all the loss/Can you see?” The provocative video, which replicates the iconic style of 1920s animator Max Fleisher, shows a child struggling to get anyone’s attention in world where everyone’s constantly glued to their smartphones. Taken together, the song and the video powerfully critique the dark, disconnected nature of our tech-entrenched culture.
Skillet, Unleashed: I’m going to begin this one with a confession: My son loves Skillet, and this veteran Christian metal act’s latest effort, Unleashed, has been in constant rotation in my car since its August release. Skillet’s brand of pop metal (Nickelback is a reasonably good stylistic touchstone if you’re not familiar with the group) won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But if heavy, guitar-oriented rock is your thing (or your teen’s), you owe it to yourself to check out Unleashed. Some of my favorite lyrics on the album can be found on the song “Famous,” where frontman John Cooper sings of his relationship with Christ, “I know who I am cause of Who I know.” Love that line. Elsewhere in that song he adds, “I’m no longer dead, You gave me new life/I’m lifting You up with all of my might.” A couple of very minor lyric hiccups are worth checking out in my full-length review. But the majority of the time, Skillet fries up some of the best heavy rock I’ve heard this year—rock that reminds me who I am because of Who I know.
X Ambassadors, “Unsteady”: What does divorce feel like to a child? The alt-rock outfit known as X Ambassadors digs into that question with the song “Unsteady.” It chronicles the emotions frontman Sam Harris had when his parents got divorced when he was 15 years old. The plaintive, aching song is written from a child’s point of view as he begs his parents to work through their conflicts. “Mother, I know/That you’re tired of being alone/Dad, I know you’re trying to fight when you feel like flying/But if you love me, don’t let go.” The subject matter makes this a hard one, to be sure. But the song (and its equally heartrending video, which depicts a father struggling with alcoholism) reminds us that no matter how supposedly “resilient” children are often said to be, divorce is a devastating, destructive blow that fundamentally shapes and shifts a child’s perception of life and relationship.
Switchfoot, Where the Light Shines Through: Longtime readers of Plugged In might recall that I’m a pretty big fan of Switchfoot, too. Album after album, frontman Jon Foreman, along with his brother, Tim, and the rest of this San Diego-based band continue to craft some of the most poetic, theologically incisive songs of any group making music today. This time around, the band tips its stylistic hat to a broad variety of obvious influences, including the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix and Prince. It’s an eclectic effort, sonically speaking. Lyrically, Foreman observes, “The day I lost myself was the day that I found God.” That line encapsulates the overarching message album as a whole: relinquishing our lost-ness and embracing our found-ness in our relationship with God. As is generally true with Switchfoot, the band’s latest never shies away from telling tough truths about the struggles we face. But, as the album’s title suggests, hope is always present when we get to the end of ourselves and allow God to work redemptively in our lives.
As noted above, I’ve got a couple honorable mentions to toss in. The theme song from Moana, “How Far I’ll Go,” (performed by both Auli’i Cravalho and Alessia Cara on the soundtrack) is yet another terrific and empowering Disney anthem. Also worth noting this year are albums from Hillary Scott and the Scott Family (Love Remains), Needtobreathe (Hard Love) and Christian rapper NF (Therapy Session).
See, I toldja there was a lot of good music this year!