I really love music, which is one of the reasons why I’m Plugged In’s main music reviewer. But the discouraging reality is that many of the albums and tracks I review each year include problems that span the spectrum from disappointing to heartbreaking to downright foul. So when an album or track turns out to be a pleasant surprise content-wise, it’s always a breath of fresh air to pen an upbeat review.
So I’m happy to report that this year I saw an uptick in the positive music we reviewed, both albums and tracks. These are the five albums and five tracks that stood out to me.
Coldplay, Ghost Stories: I’m going to say this right up front: I’ve never been a Coldplay fan. Call me a hater, but I’ve always thought this British band was a pale imitation of U2. Coldplay’s latest effort, however, seriously challenged that conception. Despite its spooky-sounding title, Ghost Stories’ nine ambient tracks offer upbeat reflections about the heartbreak frontman Chris Martin’s experienced while going through his divorce from wife Gwyneth Paltrow. In my review I wrote, “Emotionally, Martin’s lyrics take us on a raw journey that expresses both his aching sense of loss and a glimmer of hope that perhaps he’ll make it through this season of heartbreak in due time.” Ghost Stories didn’t enjoy the rock radio dominance some of the band’s previous efforts have, but it might be Coldplay’s most thoughtful effort to date.
Foster the People, Supermodel: The second studio album from the band that brought us the eerily disturbing-meets-insightful first-person school-shooter hit “Pumped Up Kicks” in 2011 is packed with lyrics that force us to grapple with our values. Frontman Mark Foster prophetically tackles America’s false gospel of materialism, singing on “Ask Yourself,” for instance, “Well, I’ve found the more I want the less I’ve got/Is this the life you’ve been waiting for/Or are you hoping that you’ll be where you want with a little more?” And lines like that aren’t isolated to just one socially conscious song. Other tracks suggest that we’re accountable to God (“Are You What You Want to Be?”), encourage us to believe we can flourish even when we’re broken (“Nevermind”) and insist that truth isn’t something we dream up on our own but rather an objective, absolute reality that gives us hope (“The Truth”).
Lecrae, Anomaly: Rapper Lecrae isn’t afraid to stand out when it comes to the Christ-centered messages that permeate his aptly named seventh studio album, Anomaly. When asked by hiphopwired.com what that title represented, he said, “Conceptually, [Anomaly is] about how I deviate from the norm just being a product of hip-hop, but yet staying true to who I am and what I’m about, even though the culture is going its own route. It’s saying, ‘Man, I don’t care. I’ll be different.'” Different he is, slinging theology-packed raps that focus on how Christ overhauls our identity. One poignantly personal track, “Good, Bad, Ugly,” deals with hard issues from Lecrae’s pre-Christian past, such as casual sex, abortion and sexual abuse. It concludes, “I’ve been forgiven, my Savior risen/I’m out of the prison.” It’s powerful, passionate stuff, making Anomaly exactly that in a genre too often defined by self-indulgent excess.
Jason Mraz, Yes!: “Forget angst. Forget melancholy. Forget cynicism, sarcasm and nihilism. There’s none of that on this acoustic troubadour’s fifth studio effort, an album that aptly bears the ebullient title of Yes!” That’s what I said when I reviewed Jason Mraz’s latest, an effort exploding with effervescent optimism. Mraz’s lyrics reveal a man who’s learned to slow down and savor life’s best, quiet moments. He’s also grounded enough to find hopeful lessons even amid the pain of a breakup. Indeed, nothing knocks him down for long—if at all—on an album with few problems. (A suggestive reference and a passing nod to evolution are as problematic as it gets.) Yes! delivers plenty of bright spots for fans of melodic, feel-good songs.
Owl City: Ultraviolet: So what if Ultraviolet only has four songs on it! Owl City—who fans know is really just one guy, Adam Young—is one of Plugged In readers’ favorite “groups.” And with good reason: This synthesizer maestro is deeply influenced by his faith and consistently pumps out some of the most hope-infused songs anywhere. Young deviates a bit from that habit this time around, but he ultimately lands things in a positive place. “Ultraviolet comprises four songs that paradoxically pair angst, struggle and mourning with an unquenchably upbeat, optimistic and hopeful outlook—and, of course, Owl City’s equally unquenchably happy, synthy, pop sounds,” I wrote back in June. “Indeed, Ultraviolet proves a perfect title for these songs, referring as it does to a light beyond our ability to see with the naked eye.”
Echosmith, “Cool Kids”: The catchy chorus from the electropop newcomers known as Echosmith (four siblings from L.A., led by 17-year-old Anna Kendrick lookalike Sydney Sierota) encapsulates this song’s core yearning: “I wish that I could be like the cool kids/’Cause all the cool kids, they seem to fit in.'” That longing is something almost everyone can relate to. But Echosmith doesn’t just articulate the desire, they take the theme a significant step further by suggesting the external trappings of coolness aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. “They’re driving fast cars, but they don’t know where they’re going,” Sierota sings. “In the fast lane, living life without knowing.” “Cool Kids” subtly suggests, then, that being yourself is more important than being cool—not a bad message at all from a band of siblings mostly still in their teens.
Magic!, “Rude”: One of the more provocative songs of 2014 was the chart-topping reggae-ish jam “Rude” by the Canadian band Magic! Here, a man’s desire to marry his gal gets trampled on by her dad. He not only says no but insists he’ll never say yes. Frontman Nasri responds, “Why you gotta be so rude?” then says they’ll tie the knot anyway. We liked the song’s affirmation of marriage, despite this guy’s failed attempt to get his would-be father-in-law’s blessing. We got letters, though, from some who felt the young man’s insistence upon getting married without her dad’s OK was insufferably problematic. Meanwhile, in the secular press, Magic! drew fire for its supposedly sexist and archaic ideas about a father’s authority in his adult daughter’s life. “Rude,” then, offended folks at both ends of the social spectrum—even as Plugged In found the middle ground on a song that offered an old-fashioned take on marriage rarely heard in pop music today.
Nico & Vinz, “Am I Wrong”: Who are Nico and Vinz? I’ll let these two reggae-inflected Euro-pop practitioners answer that question themselves: “We are Norwegian and African. It is important for us to inspire. We sing about things we’ve been going through and about finding ourselves. To us it’s important to have a message, and the goal for us is to inspire people to find happiness.” That’s exactly what this duo does with “Am I Wrong,” a song about busting out of confining cages. They ask, “Am I wrong for thinking out of the box from where I stay?” Then they encourage those who are vacillating because of others’ criticism to “Walk your walk and don’t look back/Always do what you decide.” Obviously, there are times we need to carefully weigh others’ counsel. But sometimes we must courageously shrug off controlling criticism too, which is what Nico & Vinz advocates here.
OneRepublic, “Love Runs Out”: Despite its melancholy-sounding title, OneRepublic’s latest hit isn’t about failing at love at all. Quite the opposite. On this foot-stomping anthem, frontman Ryan Tedder insists he’ll keep caring for his beloved no matter what. “I’ll be your light, your match, your burning sun/I’ll be the bright in the black that’s making you run,” he promises. “And we’ll feel alright, and we’ll feel alright/’Cause we’ll work it out, yeah, we’ll work it out.” Later, he suggests that not even the whisperings of deceptive spirits can undermine his ardor (“Got an angel on my shoulder and Mephistopheles/But mama raised me good, mama raised me right/Mama said, ‘Do what you want, say your prayers at night/And I’m sayin’ them, ’cause I’m so devout/’Til the love runs out, ’til the love runs out”). By song’s end, it’s clear he has no intention of ever letting his love run out.
Carrie Underwood, “Something in the Water”: Failure. Forgiveness. Baptism. Salvation. That’s what the latest hit from country superstar Carrie Underwood is all about. And even by country music’s often faith-friendly standards, this new track from her Greatest Hits album wades into surprisingly deep theological waters. Redemption is at the forefront here as Carrie sings of our Heavenly Father’s character-transforming forgiveness (“Felt love pouring down from above/Got washed in the water, washed in the blood, and now I’m changed/And now I’m stronger/There must be something in the water”). Carrie Underwood has never been shy about her Christian beliefs, of course. But not since early in her career has that conviction been so powerfully, proudly evident. In a world where a bold witness to Jesus’ cleansing blood increasingly attracts scorn and derision, Underwood is to be commended for unabashedly testifying to His amazing grace.
I’ll end my list of tracks with an unusual honorable mention that didn’t make the cut by way of a technicality: It was released in 2013. When I reviewed it this year, I said of the Memphis metal act Devour the Day’s song “Good Man.” “It’s the kind of song that might have secular rock fans who hear it on the radio wondering if they’ve accidentally ended up on a Christian rock station by mistake.”