In what has now become a Cross Rhythms annual service to its readers Tony Cummings and Mike Rimmer name the best CDs from the 1,000 plus reviewed in 2009
JADE HARRELL - Class Reject (Revolution Art)
Debut albums of urban gospel are as thick on the ground as dust mites, but few indeed make the impact as this one from a 20 year old from Jacksonville, Florida. Signed to Grits' Revolution Art label Jade covers all the bases from electronic dance on "Broken" through to something close to ragamuffin on "Rain" where she's joined by Stefan The Scientist. It's "The Unseen" which is for me the standout with a wonderfully sassy vocal over a funky track which recalls the past glories of Kierra Sheard though the duet with Ayiesha Woods and the Motownesque "Don't Leave" are also very strong. At times there's a bit too much electronic treatment to the vocals but that's the way with modern R&B. And no one can deny that Jade is a major talent who hopefully will be with us for the long haul.
AGENTS OF FUTURE - Sneak
Peaks Of Magic Moments (Independent)
In his review on these pages, Martin I Smith described Agents Of Future as "raw, unrestrained, messy, passionate and raucous garage rock blitzed with erratic melodies and screeching vocals harmonies." I can't argue with that! The idea is to create worship music as part of community and break down the barrier between worship team and congregation or band and audience. Not everybody's cup of tea but in a world of bland, over-produced worship pop rock, this is an album that brings with it a blast of excitement in the way that the Rock'n'Roll Worship Circus once achieved a few years back. Songs like "Nothing In The Way" and "Perfect Love" have been staples of Rimmerama for the last six months of the year since this was released. This is uplifting music delivered with a vibey rawness!
PHILLIP LARUE - Let The Road Pave Itself (BEC
The Cross Rhythms reviewer suggested this was a modern rock record from the Nashville-based one-time hitmaker with LaRue which channelled "the usual suspects like Coldplay, Doves and Snow Patrol to create an emotive canvas onto which LaRue can pour out his heart". True up to a point though I personally feel the review missed the strength and depth of Phillip's songwriting. The fact that the first five songs on this set, "Chasing The Daylight", "Home", "Don't Be Deceived", "Why" and "All I Want", had all been selected for the Cross Rhythms playlist gives a clear indication of how cleverly this crafter of songs has brought his musings of love, both romantic and divine, meet the demans of pop radio playlists. A creative tour-de-force.
ISRAEL HOUGHTON - Power Of One (Integrity)
I have to confess that over the last few years I had become quite bored with Israel's live albums, popular though they are! It just felt that he was treading water creatively and I wanted something more. Well, a stint in the studio working with Tommy Sims and others has seen Israel stretch out creatively and release his most adventurous album yet. There are so many class tracks on here! "Just Wanna Say" is a powerful piece of pop with a groove and "I Receive" is a homage to Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight" and what's not to love about "You Found Me" where he teams up with Toby Mac? His appearance at Big Church Day Out in the summer also introduced him to a wider audience but the big question for me is where the mega church worship man will go next?
JIM JONES - Daylight &
Cross Rhythms scribes and broadcasters have long been fans of the plaintive voice and songwriting skills of Devon-based songsmith Jim. His early work with the bands Carbon 14 and Small Town Mentality made it onto the Cross Rhythms playlist and now comes this mature, nimbly crafted set of introspective and often haunting human relationship songs which really deserve a wide audience. The production here is subdued and satisfyingly organic with Will Greeves on the Cajun drums bringing an Afro-Peruvian flavour to a couple of tracks while Dave Little's work on the Juno 6 is often top class. But it's Jim's smoky voice which takes centre stage while his lyrics are constantly powerful and moving. No wonder Q magazine singled this gem out for praise.
MATT REDMAN - We Shall Not Be Shaken (Survivor)
It isn't hard to underestimate the impact of the global downturn on the Church and people in the Church. Sales of CDs and concert tickets are down, ministries are affected by a drop in financial support and individuals in congregations have their faith stretched as they pursue God. Into this scenario comes a worship album that gloriously and prophetically reflects what is happening on the ground but helps believers get a hold of eternal realities. Redman may have moved to Atlanta and fathered his first son born on American soil - who is eligible to become president! Meanwhile the songs for 'We Shall Not be Shaken' seem more than ever to resonate with the times including the powerful title cut. Here is an album of worship songs that remind us that there's no downturn in the Kingdom of God, only an increase in God's government. The timing could not be better and Redman shows us why he is regarded as one of the world's best worship songwriters.
STEVEN CURTIS CHAPMAN - Beauty Will Rise (Sparrow)
Although the multi-award winning songsmith did on one occasion write a set of love songs directed at his beloved wife, Mary-Beth, by and large songs expressing deep personal feelings have not been what Steven Curtis Chapman normally does. But now with the tragic loss of his daughter in that ghastly home driveway accident, Steven has used the recording studio as a means of expressing all his jagged emotions in song. In doing so, he has created a profoundly powerful work about which Christianity Today's Mark Moring commented, "I don't think I've ever encountered a piece of art where hope and pain are so beautifully intertwined." Indeed they are. The title track is a stunningly honest account of his travails. At first it's almost unbearable listening ("It was the day the world went wrong/I screamed 'til my voice was gone") which amazingly ends in hope ("Out of these ashes/Beauty will rise. . . for we know joy is coming in the morning"). There are other compositions of equal power. "See" is inspired by a picture of a flower Maria had drawn just before she died. The flower had six petals and only one of the petals was filled in. Next to the flower was the word "see". There were six children in the Chapman family. From this Chapman has written, "From the other side of all this pain/You are here, laughing loud, calling out to me/Saying, 'See, it's everything that he said it would be/And even better than you would believe/And I'm counting down the days until you're here with me/And finally, you'll see.'"
DANYEW - Danyew (Sparrow)
San Diego-based Phillip Danyew is one of these artists who prefer their own company! He writes, plays and sings most of the parts on his own releases. 'Danyew' is the perfect introduction to his talents and although it would be nice if he'd enjoyed a full length release - he apparently has the songs recorded - the label wanted to dip their toe into the market with just six songs. Combining a lush full rock sound with sterling songwriting and Danyew's expressive voice, this ranges from the panoramic epic sound of "Streetlight" to the emotive "Close Your Eyes" which is a song begging to be used for a mobile phone advert! Polished and perfectly formed, I can't wait to hear a full album!
DAVID CROWDER BAND - Church Music (Survivor)
If 'A Collision' was an album about death and 'Remedy' an album about salvation, 'Church Music' is a multi-faceted, superbly produced celebration of the joy that follows. "Church Music (Dance!)" is a funky chorus that DEMANDS we get our praise on with bodies as well as voices, "Oh, Happiness" has one of the memorable worship couplets of the year ("Oh happiness, there's grace/Enough for us and the whole human race") while "God Almighty, None Compares" has a truly stunning two minute guitar solo which could well bring air-guitar into the worship sanctuary. This is church music of our dreams of course; most churches I know wouldn't dream of allowing the dance-driven rhythms heard here to infiltrate their buildings but with 17 cleverly crafted songs and stacks of high-tech production this breathtaking set is an exciting guide to where the worshipping Church is heading.
PORTLAND - These Broken Hands (Stereo Tree)
Okay, so I am biased because this band are based in my home city but Birmingham's Portland have done a great job of making friends elsewhere and the BBC's Bob Harris has already become a fan! Built around the songwriting of Rory Thompson, this trio manage to combine strong acoustic melodies with some very soulful harmonies and the results are compelling. They also manage to create songs that tackle emotional topics and spiritual matters without ever reducing their lyrics to clichés. Thus they are ideally placed to make an impact well beyond the walls of the Church without compromising the heart of who they are. There isn't a band who have created music that has moved me more than this in 2009. If you haven't yet discovered this album, put it on your gift list!
SHELL PERRIS - Beautiful Life (Authentic)
The improvement on the Warrington-based singer's debut is boldly demonstrated here. The songs are equally catchy (with the hook of "Don't Take Your Clothes Off" being the successor to "The La La Song" in refusing to vacate our brains once it's lodged there) but now there's a greater focus in Shell's songwriting while the punchy guitar-fuelled rock production by Dave Healey is top notch. In fact, once or twice the shredding guitars almost make you think you're listening to Paramore. The title track is a punchy exhortation for Shell's growing fanbase to find the colour in the day the singer has, "Every Time I Fall" shows Shell has the vocal armoury to draw the listener into a tender declaration of divine love and the bonus track, the "Boys" version of "Don't Take Your Clothes Off", with singing and rapping from thebandwithnoname's Chip K is a clever slap-in-the-face to the MTV generation.
ROB HALLIGAN - Best Thing
Thats Happened (Independent)
When will it happen that this Midlands journeyman gets the recognition that he deserves? The Coventry-based songsmith has been working hard for the last few years establishing himself on the live circuit. Now Rob has finally delivered an album that supports these endeavours. Hooking up with Graeme Duffin in his Scottish studio to record this album has made all the difference and now Halligan's excellently written compositions have the production they deserve. From the gentle devotion of "You", to the confessional "Christians Brother" and story song "Friend Of God" and the After The Fire cover "Carry Me Home", Halligan is a gritty musical communicator. 'Best Thing Thats Happened' is where it's all finally come together, even if Rob still refuses to use apostrophes!
U2 - No Line On The Horizon
The critics were divided about this one. Some journos were unimpressed while others declared 'No Line' to be the megastars' best ever. I veer towards the latter view. Maybe the reason for some scribes' disdain is that God and those sublime epiphanies which can light up the greyest day are the central themes on this brilliantly conceived and executed album. The team of production maestros Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite put together vast aural soundscapes where The Edge's rings and reverberates across the aural mountains and valleys and Bono's voice has never sounded more passionately urgent. There are North African colourings on "Fez - Being Born", the guitar work on "Unknown Caller" seems plucked straight from a Pink Floyd track while Bono's lyrics boldly take in the tales of junkie and war correspondent yet never leave their sense of the transcendent. Cross Rhythms' Jonathan Bellamy's favourite cut is "Stand Up Comedy" while I'm plumping for "Magnificent". What we both agree on is that this album is timeless rock'n'roll art.
RESURRECTION BAND - Music To
Raise The Dead (Grrr)
The Christian music industry has, in the main, been particularly poor at re-issuing an act's back catalogue. How many compilations of dc Talk's oldies have there been now and still every one lacks decent sleeve notes? It seems CCM labels seldom put the time in to create the excellent re-issue packages that the mainstream manage. However, in the case of The Resurrection Band, the Chicago group now own the masters of all those classic albums on labels like Star Song, Light, Sparrow and Grrr and therefore the presentation of this collection of their songs is simply brilliant. No one is ever going to agree on the ultimate track listing and it must have been a challenge to get this down to size but the results take in all eras of the band's career and even includes a never before released live DVD concert. The powerful selection of heavyrock songs and ministry as well as the extended sleevenotes which includes the story of the band is a thing of beauty and should be required reading for all labels thinking of exploiting a band's back catalogue! A fantastic package that only enhances the band's performances of classics all the way! Jesus music devotees and young rock dudes alike should search out this handsome box set.
MALI MUSIC - The 2econd
Every now and again, you discover an artist who really excites you! In 2009, Mali Music is such an artist. I'm part of a panel that reviews new music for a BBC gospel show and I will always remember bringing this CD to the rest of the team and watching them respond live on the radio. Across the board, there was almost a sigh of relief that at last we'd discovered some new music that was worth getting excited about. The multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/producer has created an album that doesn't just sit in the R&B gospel mode but stretches out musically and spiritually. It is a rare thing that brilliant music is accompanied by spiritual insight but Mali Music has done just that and isn't afraid to stretch things creatively. The challenge for 2010 is whether as an independent he can take his music to a larger audience but my feeling is that he deserves to be heard. Songs like "In The Light", "I Hate U" and "No Muzick" just demonstrate his versatility.
RED UMBRELLA - Living And Surviving (7 Spin Music)
Pop rock albums bombard Cross Rhythms in an unrelenting torrent and, if truth be told, most are in the "okay but no cigar" category, lacking that magic something to lift them from the formulaic heap. But that's not the case with Canada's Red Umbrella. This is a gem. Though released in their homeland in 2008 Cross Rhythms only got their hands on a copy this year and have subsequently been playing "Forest Fire" (which would sit nicely on a Franz Ferdinand album) and "Prison Side" (about the sin of judgmentalism) regularly on its stations. Dennis and Jeremy Michaelis have the songwriter's Midas touch when it comes to hooks while there's even a nod at an urban vibe with MC Playdough guesting on "Boompop". A delightfully crafted set.
THROUGH SOLACE - The World
On Standby (Independent))
Cross Rhythms described the sound of the Welsh hardcore band as "As I Lay Dying meets mid-career Zao" which summed up their old sound rather well but as shown on this impressive debut, the band have now laced melody into their crunchy cacophony to make an album which improves with every play. "Tides 2" has to have one of the most eerily beautiful endings on any hard music track while "Landmark" has the most effective set of tempo/time changes since the golden age of thrash. If you're a mosh pit frequenter you'll already have discovered the delights of this most impressive debut but if you're bored with the generic pop rock template and feel you could take some controlled musical brutality, this is one to search out.
STEVE ARRINGTON - Pure Thang
It isn't often that an artist leaves 20 years between releases but that's what's happened for Arrington. Signed to a mainstream label in the '80s and enjoying successful singles in the UK charts (remember "Feel So Real"?), the newly saved Arrington combined spiritual themes with great soulful pop music before moving out of music into ministry. A couple of years ago, I tracked him down to his church in Ohio and discovered that he was about to return to music. And here it is, his first gospel project! 'Pure Thang" shows that Arrington still has the voice and the funky production and hook-filled songwriting are equally strong. With a pumping positive message of love to the world that pours out of every track from the opening "Right Here Right Now" to the closing "It's True" this has to be the comeback album of the year.
BRIAN HOUSTON - Gospel Road (Brian Houston)
It's been a while since Brian Houston has recorded an album of material that has been uniquely and directly Christian in its lyrical content. Certainly he's been embraced by segments of the mainstream for his recent albums and rightly so. I was therefore surprised at the release of 'Gospel Road' where Houston pens a set of songs which are worshipful without compromising his musical edge in the mainstream. You have to admire his approach. Drawing on all his Americana influences, Houston has penned a set of songs that sound like they were written back in the 50s in the Southern gospel style of the times. Some sound as though they belong in the Pentecostal Church hymn book. All of them fit perfectly within Houston's oeuvre and the delightful cover art only adds to the allure of the project. As usual, passionate, expressive vocals are combined with perfectly crafted songs and the results are a white gospel album that sounds fresh and traditional simultaneously!
JAKE HAMILTON - Marked By Heaven (Elevation)
Squeezing into this listing at the last possible moment comes this stunning live worship set from the latest signing to Redding, California's famed Jesus Culture Music. If "live worship" suggests another songsmith offering worship-by-numbers as he goes over the increasingly well trod musical ground of Hillsong United, this album is going to be a shock to your system. For a start, Jake has a blues rock voice of gravelly intensity while his band offer riffs raw and jagged enough to rip worship apathy to pieces. Then let this prophetic worship man loose on a set of self-composed songs that manage to be courageously intimate yet, with such a gutsy musical approach, never mawkish or sentimental. So when Jake roars "You're a good, good daddy" we aren't running for cover but worshipping our Abba Father.