Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rhapsody's Top 20 Christian Albums of 2010


Michael W. Smith


His 22nd career project, produced by Bryan Lennox, finds Michael W. Smith returning to the kind of story-based pop ballads that made his career. "I'll Wait for You" is a raw, real take on the desperation and uncertainty so many people feel on a daily basis, while "Welcome Home" is a musical memorial to those who've left us, often seemingly too soon. The heaviness of "Leave," inspired by the touchy topics of abuse and bullying, is balanced by a pair of love songs written for Smith's wife of 29 years. The hurt we feel is real, Smith acknowledges, but it doesn't overshadow the hope found in God. — Wendy Lee Nentwig



Bebo Norman


We first fell in love with this Southern boy's "aw-shucks" charm, but Bebo Norman has grown up a lot since his 1999 debut. Now a married father of two, his music reflects that life change. His seventh studio project, Ocean, tells the story of navigating the choppy waters of adulthood, while still managing to stay afloat. Topics range from getting real and empty nests to love and insecurity, with Norman juggling faith and fear through it all. Coproduced by Bebo and Jason Ingram, Ocean is full of poetic folk-rock gems, but don't miss the Brandon Heath collaboration "Here Goes." — W.L.N.



Hillsong Live

A Beautiful Exchange

A Beautiful Exchange marks several firsts, including the group's first radio single and U.S. tour. As with Hillsong Live's previous releases, the album was recorded live with the talented team at Australia's Hillsong Church. The group's 19th disc includes the confessional "Forever Reign," written by Reuben Morgan and Jason Ingram, as well as the Joel Houston-penned title track and "Like Incense/Sometimes by Step," which borrows from the classic Rich Mullins tune. What has always been most important to Hillsong remains: this is less an album and more a group of people seeking God together. — W.L.N.



Israel Houghton

Love God. Love People.

Israel Houghton has set the bar pretty high for himself. Fortunately, he flies right over it with this release. Tapping the talent of guest stars including Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond and Take 6, he effortlessly weaves together gospel, pop and worship sounds to create tracks like the retro-sounding "Name of Love" and the emotional "Others." Houghton wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs for this collection, and his background as a composer, musician, worship leader and producer combines to make this a multifaceted project with a depth that's rare in today's music world. — W.L.N.




Born Again

Newsboys' 14th studio album, Born Again, marks a new beginning for the Grammy-nominated, Dove-winning band. It's the first recorded with frontman Michael Tait (DC Talk, Tait) and features a wonderfully rejuvenated sound. Produced by The Write Brothers and Mark Heimermann (DC Talk, TobyMac, Michael W. Smith), the album is jam-packed with energetic rock made for live performances. Auditory treats include the funky "When the Boys Light Up" and the redemptive "Build Us Back." Also listen for a cover of "Jesus Freak" and, on the deluxe version, the Tait version of "Glorious." — W.L.N.



The Choir

Burning Like the Midnight Sun

The Choir are back with their 12th studio disc, produced by members Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty. The follow-up to 2005’s O How the Mighty Have Fallen, this latest release from the Grammy-nominated group masterfully integrates the diverse artistic personalities of all five members. The result is an album that shows why these iconic elder statesmen of the Christian music world continue to burn bright when others have long since faded away. Don’t miss Burning Like the Midnight Sun’s stunning cover image by New Orleans-based visual artist R.R. Lyon. — W.L.N.



Chris August

No Far Away

There's always room for another talented singer-songwriter on the scene, and Chris August's debut disc is likely something you didn't even know you wanted. From the earthy, organic "Winter Time" to the oh-so-personal "7x70," August spins a web that draws listeners in and doesn't let them go. The Ed Cash-produced project (August coproduced) showcases the singer-songwriter's understated style and his vocals, which bring to mind Michael Buble or Mat Kearney. But he's not mimicking; August has his own authentic vibe that will make you want to keep No Far Away close at hand. — W.L.N.



The Afters

Light Up the Sky

The third studio release from Texas popsters The Afters may have its origins in a dark place, but Light Up the Sky shimmers and shines. The 10-track album deals with new beginnings after the death of the band's former manager and another close friend, as well as some lineup changes. Talented producer Dan Muckala (MercyMe, Amy Grant) helmed the project, and award-winning songwriters Jason Ingram and Brandon Heath collaborated. The title track garnered attention long before the disc's release, thanks to a featured spot on MTV's The Hills. — W.L.N.



Jeremy Camp

We Cry Out: The Worship Project

This is technically only Camp's second worship release (following Carried Me), but in his heart he's always been a worship leader. In contrast to Camp's rock fare, his worship projects feature more collaborations and covers, providing a truly corporate experience. We Cry Out marks the first time Camp has recorded with his touring band in the studio, delivering a more "live" sound. It's also marked by collaborations with artists like Brenton Brown and Matt Maher. Near the end of the album, two originals, "King Jesus" and "Unrestrained," are both destined to become classics. — W.L.N.



Third Day


Arguably the most high-profile of Christian music's Southern rock acts, Third Day continue to create meaningful music that reaches far beyond the Bible Belt. This project is the first to come out of their new Atlanta-area studio, and it marks a return to Third Day's classic rock sound. Producer Paul Moak (Mat Kearney, Matt Maher) helped steer the band in a direction that highlights their 18-year history without feeling like a throwback to their early days. Don't miss the rocker "Gone," featuring a guest appearance by brothers Bo and Bear Rinehart of Needtobreathe. — W.L.N.



Sanctus Real

Pieces of a Real Heart

For their fifth studio album, this Toledo-based quintet continues to evolve, relying on the producing expertise of Chris Stevens, Jason Ingram and Rusty Varenkamp to help them move past the radio-friendly power-pop of past albums to a more guitar-driven sound. While Pieces is decidedly more aggressive, it's still melodic. "Take Over Me" has a heavy rock edge, while "I Want to Get Lost" lightens the mood and "Keep My Heart Alive" is nothing short of anthemic. This is the album that proves these guys are more than just one-time Dove Award winners; they have staying power. — W.L.N.



Charlie Hall

The Rising

Charlie Hall has been part of the Passion movement since 1997, and his talents run from rap to country to spiritual singer-songwriter music. Whatever the style, his songs all stem from his desire to encourage others (and himself) to live like Jesus in a fragmented world. On The Rising, Charlie and his merry band of misfits explore deep questions raised by rubbing up against the world around them, urging listeners to embrace the broken in their midst and love others the way God would. Part album, part social justice message, The Rising is about restoration and reaching out as a form of true worship. — W.L.N.




The Generous Mr. Lovewell

The Generous Mr. Lovewell is a concept album with a kick, based on a fictional character who encourages each of us to change the world through little acts of kindness. The disc began to take shape in a rental cabin on scenic Lake Tahoe before producers Brown Bannister and Dan Muckala put their stamp on it. The result is a mix of dance-friendly pop tunes ("This Life"), retro rock (the title track) and fresh worship ("All of Creation"), all tied together through a message of "extravagant selflessness and faithful optimism." Don't miss the Thad Cockrell cowrite "This So Called Love." — W.L.N.



Audrey Assad

The House You’re Building

This stunning debut is filled with piano-driven pop and introspective worship born from collaborations between Assad and her buddy Matt Maher, as well as Phillip LaRue, Ben Glover, Marc Byrd, Sarah Hart and the album's producer, Marshall Altman (Marc Broussard, Natasha Bedingfield, Bethany Dillon). Recorded in Los Angeles, the project draws inspiration from the writings of St. Augustine, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Francis Thompson, and Assad's own feelings of being an outsider. But don't worry: both misfits and homecoming queens will feel like Assad is singing directly to them. — W.L.N.



Chris Tomlin

And If Our God Is for Us ...

In between helping to found a church, planning his wedding and continuing to participate in popular Passion events, Chris Tomlin recorded his seventh album. This disc is Tomlin's first recorded in his own studio, a cabin next to his home in Atlanta. Providing continuity is the return of producer Ed Cash, who shared duties this time around with Dan Muckala (Amy Grant, MercyMe). The album is permeated by Tomlin's belief that "If you really believe in God, you know that everything is possible." The track "I Will Follow" reminds us why his songs are the gold standard in the worship world. — W.L.N.



Matthew West

The Story of Your Life

Singer-songwriters make their living mining their own lives for fodder for their next big hit, but what if they decided to tell your story instead? Matthew West did just that, locking himself away in a cabin in the woods outside Nashville, where he pored over letters he solicited from listeners. The topics ranged from heavenly to heartbreaking, and the best ones inspired the songs on The Story of Your Life. Don't miss "Family Tree," a track that traces the family dysfunction of a listener before reminding her (and all of us) that our legacy is determined by our role as children of God. — W.L.N.



Mavis Staples

You Are Not Alone

She's a gospel great, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement recipient and arguably one of the greatest singers of all time. You Are Not Alone reminds us why. Produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, this project takes on poverty, joblessness other social ills, hoping to make them better through music. It's something she's been doing for more than 60 years. Staples credits this album, recorded with her own band and augmented by Wilco members and friends, with taking her back to her childhood. Don't miss "Only the Lord Knows," a Tweedy composition written just for Staples. — W.L.N.





TobyMac just can't stop outdoing himself. His fourth album builds on what is already a Grammy-winning solo career. Don't let his laid-back demeanor fool you: it hides a perfectionism that allows him to deliver stellar tracks, such as the heartfelt "City on Our Knees" and "Changed Forever" as well as trademark tunes like "Funky Jesus Music" and "ShowStopper." The disc features an eclectic mix of rap, rock, pop, funk and even reggae, and addresses topics of faith as well as the hard work of building a good marriage. Guests include Israel Houghton, Skillet's John Cooper and Relient K's Matthew Thiessen. — W.L.N.



Jars of Clay

Jars of Clay Presents The Shelter

Some artists make music that is here today and gone tomorrow, while others craft songs that stand the test of time. Jars of Clay make the latter, and The Shelter is just further proof. Known for holing up in a room together when they create, this time around the foursome threw open wide the doors of the studio, inviting in friends old and new. More than just guest stars, though, this community of artists took the task seriously, offering input on writing and recording. The result is a perfect picture of how we can embody God's call to care for each other, providing shelter from life's storms. — W.L.N.



Dave Barnes

What We Want, What We Get

His fourth studio album may be the first Christian fans hear about, but they should definitely start making up for lost time. With the help of longtime producer Ed Cash, this Nashville-based singer-songwriter has crafted a collection that is perfect for a windows-down drive on a warm spring day and deep enough for a contemplative afternoon at the coffeehouse. What We Want, What We Get straddles that fine line between pop and pulpit, asking the question, "What do we do when life doesn't turn out like it should?" The answer: crank up more of this addictive pop and sing along. — W.L.N.