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Saturday, November 19, 2016

My Top Ten Christian Rock Albums of 2016

10.  Deathgrip – Fit for a King
Rating – 3 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – Shadows and Echoes, Cold Room, More Than Nameless

Up until last year, I had not closely followed the career and progression of Fit for a King. But, when I saw their video to the song, “Slave to Nothing,” I was intrigued by their sound and I wanted to give their newest record a spin.  Right off the bat, it’s clear that the members of Fit for a King wanted to put a heavy emphasis on clean vocals.  Don’t get me wrong.  The screams still take up the majority of the time.  But, songs such as “Shadows and Echoes,” “Cold Room,” “Unclaimed, Unloved,” “More Than Nameless,” and “Deathgrip” serve as an enjoyable change of pace from the continual onslaught of hardcore rock. Lyrically, Fit for A King has never been afraid to push the boundaries, and Deathgrip is no exception.  They place their dark themes on full display, by singing about everything from death to the tragedies of war to witnessing the carnage of modern day news coverage. After multiple spins, I have to admit, there is not a lot of hope on this record.  However, Fit for a King has still created their most accomplished work to date. 

9.  It is Well – You the Few
Rating – 3 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – Identity Crisis, Confession, Helpless

In listening to this release, I have to say, It is Well is definitely the surprise of the year. Musically, the members of You the Few do not bring anything new to the table.  Their album is filled with a steady mix of heavy breakdowns, screamed verses, and clean choruses that can be found on almost any metalcore record.  But, what sets this album apart is the overarching theme.  According to You the Few, every song is inspired by the famous hymn, “It is Well.”  Whether you are listening to the brutal screams on “Confession” or the haunting lyrics of “Helpless,” You the Few have seemingly done the impossible.  They have taken one of the most famous and recognizable hymns of all time and made it their own.

8.  To be Everywhere is to be Nowhere – Thrice
Rating – 4 Stars
Top Tracks – Hurricane, Blood on the Sand, Black Honey, Death From Above

After an extended hiatus, Thrice finally decided to record their first album in five years. The end result is a fusion of brooding, dark rock and Dustin Kensrue’s one of a kind, raspy vocals.  With songs like “Black Honey” and “Whistleblower,” the foursome has still kept their heavy, mosh pit sounds.  But, they have also managed to sneak in some of their personal and ethical beliefs.  “Death from Above” powerfully describes the immoral nature of drone bombings, while “Blood on the Sand” discusses the horrors of political warfare. All in all, Thrice’s latest offering is as aesthetically pleasing as it is emotionally heavy. 

7.  The Other Side of Darkness – Decyfer Down
Rating – 4 Stars
Top Tracks – Dead Skin, Nothing More, Lifetime, Anchor Me

Ever since the release of their debut record, End of Grey, I have been a big fan of Decyfer Down.  However, though, their last album, Scarecrow, was disappointing at best.  Because of this, I didn’t have high expectations for The Other Side of Darkness.  I was expecting a few solid tracks, and then an album with 6 or 7 fillers.  But, much to my surprise, I was blown away by this album and was reminded why I loved their early work so much. “Nothing More” is easily one of the best songs of the year.  “Rearrange” masterfully pairs together catchy hard rock and gut-wrenching screams. “Anchor Me” is a hook driven anthem that begs the listener to turn the speakers on full blast, while their updated version of “Burn Back the Sun” is even better than the original.  With strong vocals and a fast paced, momentous sound, The Other Side of Darkness will have you rocking for days.

6.  Air for Free – Relient K
Rating – 4 Stars
Top Tracks – Bummin’, Local Construction, Cat, Marigold

Back in 2000, Relient K burst onto the Christian rock scene with their addicting and off the wall debut.  Fast forward sixteen years later and Relient K has officially shed their punk rock roots and fully evolved into a mature pop group.  Throughout Air for Free, Matt Thiessen and Matt Hoopes have seamlessly blended together quirky lyrics with heavy themes about God, young love, and what it means to be human.  The end result is a finely crafted mixture of pure bliss, sing-a-long melodies, and existential questions about life.

5.  Unleashed – Skillet
Rating – 4 Stars
Top Tracks – Stars, I Want to Live, Out of Hell, Watching for Comets

Coming off a string of successful albums, gold singles, and massive world tours, the members of Skillet have returned with their latest release.  Not surprisingly, Skillet continues their same formula of hard rock anthems and moving power ballads.  At this point in their career, Skillet knows exactly who they are and what the fans want. Unleashed clearly delivers on that level.  However, the main downside rests in the sophomoric and, at times, slightly corny lyrics (“Undefeated,” “Lion,” “Famous”).  Also, a few critics have taken issue with the chorus of “Saviors of the World.”  Personally, I do not think that Skillet was trying to be heretical or preach a human based form of salvation. Instead, the song is mainly referring to how we should rebel against the sins and ways of this world.  Ultimately, if you turn on Unleashed and expect some deep and poignant messages, then, you will probably be disappointed.  But, if you come in with an open mind, ready to hear radio rock at its finest, then, Skillet’s latest offering is just for you.

4.  Types and Shadows – Wolves at the Gate
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – Asleep, War in the Time of Peace, Broken Bones, Chasing the Wind

If you have read my blog extensively, then, you know that I am a huge fan of this group. As expected, Wolves at the Gate have created another album filled with unified and masterful musicianship.  Nick Detty’s screams are intense and forceful without being overpowering.  Steve Cobucci easily has the best clean voice in Christian hardcore music today.  If you have any doubts of this, just go and listen to “War in the Time of Peace,” and “Broken Bones.”  Not to mention, Ben Summers and Abishai Collingsworth perform a clever and subtle style of post-hardcore rock.  To this day, Wolves at the Gate continue to be an underrated force.  After three amazing albums, it’s time for these guys to finally get the credit and recognition that they deserve.

3.  Exhale – Thousand Foot Krutch 
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – Running with Giants, Incomplete, Lifeline, Born Again, Honest

Back in 2014, many longtime fans were upset because of the toned-down approach of Oxygen:Inhale.  On that record, less than half of the tracks were true, hard rock tunes. The majority were either ballads or made for radio pop songs.  Thankfully, with this latest offering, Thousand Foot Krutch has returned to their roots.  Exhale features everything from their usual, high energy rock and roll (“Running with Giants,” “Incomplete,” “Lifeline,” and “Born Again”) to a touch of southern rock (“A Different Kind of Dynamite” and “The River”) to even some hip-hop melodies (“Push” and “Adrenaline”).  Even though this album is not perfect and includes some filler tracks (“Off the Rails” and “Can’t Stop This”), Exhale is still another notch in Thousand Foot Krutch’s impressive arsenal.

2.  Long Live the Rebels – Disciple  
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars
Top Tracks – First Love, Secret Weapon, Erase, Spirit Fire, Spinning

It’s been over 20 years since Disciple released their debut record.  In being a band for so long, many would wonder if the guys still had the drive and passion to make great rock music.  After listening to their latest album, the answer is a resounding yes.  Long Live the Rebels is by far Disciple’s strongest record since Scars Remain.  Kevin Young’s unique, raspy vocals have never sounded clearer, the hooks are about as catchy as humanly possible, and the newest members of Disciple seem to have solidified their sound and place in the group.  I know it’s hard to believe but, after 20 years, Disciple may be just hitting their prime.   

1.  Life Screams – Lacey Sturm
Rating – 4 1/2 Stars 
Top Tracks – Impossible, The Soldier, Rot, Feels Like Forever, Run to You

Like many fans, I was heartbroken when Lacey Sturm announced her departure from Flyleaf back in 2012.  Of course, I understood the reasoning behind her decision, but I also knew that Flyleaf would never be the same.  Thankfully, the rock and roll world did not have to wait long for her triumphant return.  From start to finish, Sturm’s debut solo record is very similar to the heavy guitars, piercing screams, and catchy choruses of Flyleaf’s earliest offerings.  But, Sturm also throws in some surprises along the way, which include her use of spoken word and a live version of the classic hit, “Roxanne.”  After listening to Life Screams multiple times, all I can say is welcome back Lacey Sturm.  Welcome back.

I hope you have enjoyed this look at my Top Ten Christian Rock Albums of the year. This list would not be complete without honorable mentions. These albums were very solid, but ultimately did not make it into the top ten.

1.  Colors – House of Heroes
2.  Where the Light Shines Through – Switchfoot
3.  This Light I Hold – Memphis May Fire