5 Recent Christian Albums Worth Hearing

Writing a blog post about one’s favorite recent Christian albums feels a little bit like writing about the best brands of VCRs for 2015. I’m aware that most people nowadays simply stream their music from Pandora, Amazon, Spotify, or some other service. It is increasingly rare to purchase an album from your favorite artist – or some newly discovered one – and savor it fully.

However, I was one of those kids who used to buy new cassettes, and later CDs, and play them on repeat until I got bored of them or had to replace them. I would grab the liner notes (another sad casualty of our digital age) and eagerly read them while I listened to the songs.

Like many people, my enthusiasm for discovering new music took a hiatus while my children were small, mostly because there was precious little time or quiet space to actually listen to music. I’ve always been a fan of artists whose lyrics are more contemplative and thought-provoking – Rich Mullins is my all-time favorite artist – so identifying music I love requires more concentration and space than I had when there were babies and toddlers at home.

This year, though, I have found or rediscovered a number of artists whose recent albums have deeply impacted me. Here are five new-ish Christian albums that I recommend: 

Burning_EdgeAndrew Peterson, The Burning Edge of Dawn

This is hands-down my favorite album of 2015. From the first song to the last, Peterson weaves a story of loss and redemption, pain and healing, and death and resurrection. I’ve listened to it on repeat for several weeks now, and continue to find it deeply moving. Songs like “We Will Survive,” “The Rain Keeps Falling,” and “My One Safe Place” speak poignantly of the joy and sorrow that often permeate one’s middle years of life. Like an Old Testament prophet, Peterson always manages to shine a beacon of hope through the middle of life’s darkness. The title song, “The Dark Before the Dawn,” fits perfectly with “The Sower’s Song,” which concludes the record. Both speak of the power of God to bring life from death, and both are beautiful descriptions of Christ’s return and coming kingdom. This album is highly recommended.

Garrels_homeJosh Garrels, Home

I’ll admit that, for me at least, Garrels was an acquired taste. His vocal stylings sometimes make his lyrics difficult to understand unless you listen very carefully. But it’s worth the work. Garrels uses imagery throughout this album that is tied closely to the story of the prodigal son, one of my favorite biblical parables about grace. Even the title of the album reflects the theme. My favorite track is “At the Table,” a heart-breaking tune about the return of the prodigal: “Come on home, home to Me, and I will hold you in My arms, and joyful be; There will always, always be a place for you at My table, return to Me.”

needtobreatheNeedtoBreathe, Rivers in the Wasteland

If you listen to Christian radio, you’ve heard NeedtoBreathe. Their upbeat style of Southern rock is fun to listen to, even when you can’t understand what they’re singing about. That said, it’s worth taking the time to hear the lyrics, as well, because they are thought-provoking and well-crafted. These songs are about finding purpose and real community in a world that sometimes feels meaningless and isolated. Not to mention that “Brother,” probably the biggest radio hit on the album, is my kids’ favorite tune right now. If you want to get your family dancing in the kitchen, give this one a try.

unfettered_ross_kingRoss King, Unfettered

In the spirit of full disclosure, I know Ross, since he has led worship at my church periodically for the past couple of decades. He’s a rare songwriter, one who seems able to move with skill between writing worship albums and singer-songwriter projects like this one. His most recent album is his best to date. My favorite song is “What Kind of Person,” in which he identifies with the sins of various biblical characters and then ponders why Jesus died and rose again “to save the kind of person that I have always been.” Ross centers on the person and character of Jesus, along with the hope that knowing Him brings in the midst of loss and trial.

sara_grovesSara Groves, Floodplain

Like Josh Garrels, Groves has been an acquired taste for me, and I don’t think I really “got it” until this brand new release. Her themes revolve around the concept that sometimes the line between pain and hope is fairly thin. “Some hearts are built on the floodplain,” she says, meaning that some people see the waters of doubt and fear rise regularly, but that they can also see the Lord plant hope and character and love in the midst of those struggles. I admit that I’ve only listened to this one through twice so far, but it’s already a new favorite. Perhaps the most poignant track is “My Dream,” in which she relates her grandfather’s story of falling asleep each night for years to the image of Jesus standing in his driveway, welcoming him home, not angry but running to greet him in the midst of his doubt and fear. Be prepared to cry if you buy this one.

There you are! Five albums I hope you’ll enjoy. Happy listening! Also, are there others you’d recommend? Feel free to include them in the comments below. 

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Reflecting on the Legacy of Rich Mullins

I first encountered the music of Rich Mullins as a kid, when my younger brother got a tape of his album Pictures in the Sky. Although I wasn’t initially drawn toward Mullins’ musical style, I — like many — took notice when “Awesome God” became a smash hit.

However, it wasn’t until the release of The World As Best As I Remember It, Volume 2 that I became a real fan. “Sometimes by Step” was a beautifully written song about faith in the midst of struggle and doubt. I connected with that song and that album deeply. The release of A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band was the clincher for me: from that point on, Rich Mullins was far and away my favorite musician. I attended his concerts, bought everything he released, and even purchased his music videos.

When I had a chance to coordinate and promote a Christian concert during my sophomore year at A&M, I knew immediately that we had to bring Rich to our campus. That’s how, in April 1996, this star-struck kid found himself riding in Mullins’ Jeep, on our way to eat together at The Black-Eyed Pea. We ate with a group of roughly 15 students. During the few hours we spent together, I found that his personality off-stage was essentially what I had seen on-stage. First, he was friendly. He went around the table and asked every one of us about our studies, our home towns, and our favorite music. Second, he had an offbeat but charming sense of humor. To be honest, he told some mildly off-color jokes. He seemed to enjoy lightly teasing and shocking our religious sensibilities. Third, he was as talented from up close as he was from far away. I stood in the wings of the stage that night and watched in awe as he played the piano, guitar, and hammered dulcimer with near virtuoso skill. At times, his fellow musician Mitch McVicker stood off-stage, and he was clearly just as surprised and in awe as I was. The depth of his songs, the power of his preaching, and the skill of his playing were simply unmatched in Christian music.

I’m still unaware of any Christian musician who writes or plays like Rich did. I’m also unaware of any Christian musician who better captured in song the “reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.” When I listen to his music, I feel like I’m getting a small glimpse behind the veil of God’s love and power. It’s as if Rich knew something about God that I don’t, and was kind enough to let me in on it for the duration of a 3-5 minute song.

I provide all of this background as context for my evaluation of the new movie Ragamuffin, based on Rich’s life. (In case you don’t know, Rich Mullins died in a car wreck in 1997, at the age of 41). The film is currently being screened at churches and small venues across the country.

It’s clear the filmmakers had a single underlying goal, to demonstrate how radically the unconditional love of God transformed Rich Mullins. They were also determined to show that God can use broken vessels. Rich’s father is portrayed as a difficult man, a farmer who worked hard but struggled to express tenderness and love to his children. Because of this deficiency and other early rejections in his life, Rich struggled throughout his life with loneliness, anger, and even alcoholism. Despite those struggles — and in part because of them — he wrote unbelievably powerful songs that changed lives like mine.

Here’s what the film does well: Rich is portrayed as an ordinary guy who was effective primarily because of God’s hand on his life. None of his sins or struggles diminished the very real presence of God’s Spirit in his music and life. I found myself in tears at one point during the film, when Rich comes to terms with the deficiencies of his earthly father and accepts the unconditional love of his heavenly Father.

Here’s what I think the film did wrong: Rich is often portrayed as a man without grace, kindness or humor. (So is his father, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). If I lacked my previous familiarity with his life and music, I would have walked away with a negative impression of the man. It has taken me a few days to process what I felt and thought during the film, especially since it centered on one of my heroes. However, I think the filmmakers, in an attempt to avoid “sainting” Rich, have erred too far in the other direction. There were a few moments of kindness and light in the film, but they were too few and far between.

There are clearly good reasons why even Rich’s close friends and family consistently talked about him with a sort of reverence, why they followed him across the country and back to play with him and listen to him. He inspired loyalty and trust, and I would have been interested to learn more about exactly why he inspired those feelings in people. There was a depth to his life and writing that the film could have emphasized better.

All that to say, if you are a fan of Rich and his music, this is worth viewing, if only because it provides a different perspective. If you are unfamiliar with him, I’d recommend getting to know him a bit first. Listen to both of his compilation albums (Songs and Songs 2, the titles of which give you a bit of perspective on his sense of humor). Find a copy of Here in America, and watch the concert and interview DVDs. You’ll see a bit of a different man than the one portrayed in the film. Then, if you want to learn a bit more about his struggles and how God prevailed through them, find a screening near you and watch the movie.

Artists and poets like Rich are often quite complex and difficult to understand. The challenge we face is learning to appreciate them for who they are, without canonizing or demonizing them. Watching this movie and thinking about it has been a good exercise for me in learning those skills.

And whatever you do, go buy his albums and listen to them if you want to encounter the love and power of an awesome God.

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Why Christian Music Needs Break-Up Songs

Many years ago, while I was at a Rich Mullins concert, he made a comment that stuck with me for some reason. He had just released his album Songs, which was a greatest hits collection with one or two new tunes thrown in for good measure. One of the new songs was called We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are. Rich explained that he wrote the song about a romantic break-up. It was a beautiful ballad about human frailty and the grace it requires to navigate relationships well. In the process of talking about the song, he made this comment: “I decided that Christian radio needs a few more good break-up songs, so I wrote one for them.” The audience chuckled at what was clearly a tongue-in-cheek comment. In retrospect, though, I think there is a deeper truth behind his comment that merits exploring.

Why does Christian music need break-up songs (and songs about other personal disasters, big and small)?

First, Christians are not immune to the slings and arrows of everyday life. And I think our art — music, literature, movies, etc. — ought to reflect this. Relational awkwardness and pain invaded the lives of men like Paul, David, and Moses. Why should we be immune? In fact, the Scripture even promises persecution and suffering to those who follow Christ (2 Tim 3:12). Christian art has the potential to reflect the realities of life in a sinful and broken world and to provide a biblical and redemptive perspective on those realities.

It just so happened that when I first heard the song I had recently experienced a difficult break-up of my own, in need of some relationship coaching. I felt relieved and even vindicated to know that my favorite musician understood my pain and could offer me some encouragement. I’m not saying that Christian artists should be Debbie Downers who sing angry and bitter songs all day. But neither should they pretend that the Christian life is a constant barrel of laughs. The Christian life is joyful because we have Jesus, not because we never experience pain. That’s a critical distinction to make.

Second, we need artists who consider suffering from a counter-cultural perspective. We live in a culture that values pleasure over character. Instead of growing through our pain, we run away from it. Entire theological systems are built around the idea that Christians should be healthy, happy, and rich. Thoughtful Christian artists can speak the truth in a way that impacts the mind and the heart. Specifically, they can remind us that both our culture and prosperity theology are wrong in their understanding of suffering.

Finally, suffering is transformative if we view it biblically. See, for example, Hebrews 12:4-13 and James 1:2-4. We certainly learn God’s character through praise songs, happy songs, and love songs. But we learn a great deal about Jesus when we suffer. And artists who write biblical songs about suffering do the church a great service. In fact, music and art can be tools God uses in the process of making us more like Jesus.

When I listened to Mullins’s song, I was reminded how necessary it was for me to rely upon God’s grace and kindness in a difficult time in my own life. I was challenged to practice humility and forgiveness as well. Those disciplines have continued to serve me well in suffering as an adult, and I think a well-written song at the right time helped begin the process of growth for me.

So if you’re an artist, consider writing songs that express the full range of human emotion and experience, not simply the happy ones.

If you’re a civilian like me, consider listening to music that challenges you rather than music that simply entertains you. (On a related note, the song “Blessings” by Laura Story is one of the better treatments of suffering that I’ve heard on Christian radio).

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