Musical Musings 2016: Adam Holz’s Year-End Picks

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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-kellyTori 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_lostMoby & 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.

skilletunleasedcoverSkillet, 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.

unsteadyX 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_throughSwitchfoot, 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!

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous 8 months ago
Let me just say, NF's album Therapy Session had hands down the biggest impact on me of any of these albums/artists that you have listed. It helped me through a pretty stressful time in my life, and has helped me since. I also enjoyed Skillet's Unleashed, but nothing can compare for me to Therapy Session.
John Peterson 8 months ago
Yeah, Skillet! Now we're talking. What about mcr tenth anniversary of the black parade album. JK.
Anonymous 8 months ago
By CbinJ
This is a good list. I haven't listened to much music this year, but I've meaning to check some of these picks out. Switchfoot, Skillet, and Tori Kelly. I really need to give these albums a listen beyond the samples on iTunes. I love "Unsteady" by X Ambassadors; It's one of the few songs I bought this year.
By CbinJ
Alex Clark 8 months ago
No "Can't Stop the Feeling"!?!?


bobed 8 months ago
Hmm. No love for Christian, CCM, or gospel music? Interesting.
B Evans 8 months ago
To be fair, a great deal of CCM is incredibly repetitive, predictable, unoriginal, and incredibly dull. If CCM artists want to be taken seriously, they need to focus on making better music.
Anonymous 8 months ago
By CbinJ
Every genre in and of itself has the problems you mentioned--just turn on a country station sometime. I think there is a decent amount of musical diversity in CCM, you just can't depend on KLOVE to provide it. I'm a song person and an artist person. If I like a song, I like a song. I have several artists that are my favorites. I've never been a genre person because 1) genres don't really tell you much about a particular song or artist and 2) because I like all types of music: Hip-Hop, Pop, Indie, Rock, AC, Classical, Country, Gospel--CCM has all of that. The only type of music that I like that CCM doesn't really offer is Disney/ showtune type music.
By CbinJ
bobed 8 months ago
Hmm, so is a great deal of pop, metal, pop-rock and electronica, and yet they are included on this list. Listening to and enjoying ANY genre takes a lot of sifting through the garbage to get a nugget of gold.
zertly20 8 months ago
Where's the love for twenty one pilots?
bobed 8 months ago
Have you read this? http://pluggedin.focusonthefamily.com/musical-musings-2015-adam-holzs-year-end-picks/ As far as I know the band hasn't released a album since then. It'd  be kind of unfair to include the same album 2 years in a row.
Anonymous 8 months ago
Hey Plugged in is there a way that I can search your movie reviews via how many plugs you gave it? I would like to see the list of movies you gave 4-3.5 plugs but so far I haven't been able to figure it out.
Aiden 8 months ago
Hello, friend. We appreciate your interest in Plugged In. You may view the movie reviews based on the plugs by clicking on the Filter button. Here's the link http://bit.ly/1X33AcD. God bless!
Dan Haynes 8 months ago
Ugh...don't insult Skillet by comparing them to Nickelback. My 10 year old loves Skillet and I just don't hear the similarity. Skillet remind me more of Linkin Park or Breaking Benjamin, whereas Nickelback reminds me of every generic bar band I've ever heard. Yuck! 
Robin Laabs 8 months ago
Yep, totally Linkin Park - esque!! I, too, am a panhead. A 56 year old white, female panhead :) :) :) This CD is awesome - can't wait to see them live at Lifest - July, 2017!!