Best Christian Albums of the 2010s

A few months ago The Gospel Coalition published their list of the best Christian albums of the past decade, and as the humble music snob that I am, I felt that there were some glaring omissions. It’s a fine list if you’re really into singer songwriters, but I’m…not. I’m more of a band guy. So here are my picks!

The criteria for my list is as follows:

  1. The album has to have been marketed as “Christian music.”
  2. Albums from worship artists are permissible, but albums from churches or worship collectives (e.g. Hillsong) are not.

I am also omitting Christian hip hop and metal from the list, simply because I’m largely ignorant of those genres (y’all don’t need another white guy telling you that he thinks Lecrae is pretty good, right?). Because musical taste is subjective, please be aware that I am simply sharing the albums that had the greatest impact on me. If you don’t like it, feel free to make your own list. That’s what I did!

So, without further ado…

10. House of Heroes – Cold Hard Want (2012)
Cold Hard Want is a love letter to 90’s rock. From the opening riff, the album differentiates itself from its pop rock predecessor, 2010’s Suburba. It isn’t a perfect record (it starts to meander a bit on the back half), but in my opinion it’s the last time House of Heroes truly, unapologetically rocked. Hear for yourself:

9. Five Iron Frenzy – Engine of a Million Plots (2013)
Ten years after what everyone thought was their last show, Five Iron Frenzy put out the best album of their career. Everything is firing on all pistons here – for the first time, the music, the lyrics, and the production are all top notch for a Five Iron album. It’s just too bad we’ve been waiting over six years for a follow-up…

8. Jars of Clay – 20 (2014)
It feels a bit odd putting what’s technically a “best-of” album on this list, but what separates 20 from its peers is the fact that Jars of Clay completely re-recorded every song from the ground up for this project. The result is a cohesive collection of songs spanning my favorite band’s career, including several arrangements that are superior to the originals.

7. The Brilliance – Self Titled (2010)
I first saw The Brilliance open for Gungor during their Creation Liturgy tour in the spring of 2012, and they nearly upstaged the main act. While I love the music David Gungor and friends have continued to make since then, nothing compares to the indie worship vibes of their first record. Sadly, it seems that they’d rather leave it in the past, as only a handful of songs are available on Spotify as The Original Mixtape. Here are two essentials that were left out:

6. The City Harmonic – I Have a Dream (It Feels Like Home) (2011)
I point to I Have a Dream (It Feels Like Home) as the last great CCM album. The City Harmonic was a band with its feet firmly planted in the Contemporary Christian Music industry, yet they somehow were able to produce a record that is theologically far-sighted and musically timeless. If all you’ve heard from this record is “Manifesto,” you really need to check the rest of it out. I come back to this one every couple of years, and it still holds up.

5. Citizens – Self Titled (2013)
While I appreciate all of their records, the straightforward rock worship of Citizens’ self-titled debut is something special. Think about it: when’s the last time you heard a rock and roll worship album? Maybe something from Delirious? I don’t know. In any event, in my opinion Citizens is at the top of their game when Zach Bolen is leading worship with his amp turned all the way up.

4. Remedy Drive – Commodity (2014)
Commodity is a great example of a band reinventing itself while remaining true to its musical roots. As someone who’s been following Remedy Drive since the early 2000’s, it has been a joy to watch them evolve from a worship jam band into a pop rock group into what they’re doing now: abolitionist indie rock. While individual tracks from their previous two records are among my favorite Remedy Drive songs (“Resuscitate Me” might be my favorite of all time), I think Commodity is their most complete and cohesive record. Fun fact: I first listened to both Commodity and Coldplay’s Ghost Stories on a flight to Israel…I liked Commodity more.

3. Switchfoot – Vice Verses (2011)
Can you believe that Vice Verses released during this past decade? It feels like a lifetime ago, especially considering the musical journey Switchfoot has been on since then! When Vice Verses first came out I saw it as little more than a collection of Hello Hurricane b-sides, but it has quietly turned into one of my favorite Switchfoot albums. And the music is anything but quiet: out of all of their albums, Vice Verses‘ amps are turned up to eleven. For a while I considered it to be the last truly great album from Switchfoot (sorry Kevin), but this past year’s Native Tongue has restored my faith in the band. Native Tongue probably deserves to be on this list, too, but it’s such a recent release that I wasn’t sure where to put it. So here’s a song from each…

2. Relient K – Air for Free (2016)
In my mind, the best way to describe Air for Free is that it’s the follow-up to Forget and Not Slow Down that Collapsible Lung should have been. Musically and lyrically, Air for Free is Relient K’s most mature offering to date. It’s an understated album compared to their previous work, but I think that’s a good thing. After all, the Matts are in their late 30’s noawadays…who wants to hear emo breakup songs from old dudes? That would be lame. Is Air for Free their best album? No. But we’ll always have Mmmhmm, so I’m glad they decided to try something different. I sincerely hope we get to hear new Relient K music in the future, but if this is their final work, to me it feels like a proper sendoff.

1. Kings Kaleidoscope – Becoming Who We Are (2014)
The best Christian album of the 2010’s was also the biggest disruptor in Christian music. After releasing a couple of EP’s under the umbrella of Mars Hills Music, Chad Gardner’s Kings Kaleidoscope finally broke through with their genre-bending full-length in 2014. Fusing rock, funk, big band, indie, and hip hop influences together is no small feat, but when Kings Kaleidoscope does it, it comes across as effortless. The album straddles the fence between sacred and secular music well, too – and by this I don’t mean its lyrical content or even its audience. Becoming Who We Are is undeniably Christian music, but it’s refreshingly absent the decisions you expect from Christian music in terms of arrangement or production. In other words, Kings Kaleidoscope actively challenges the presumption that, if you’re a Christian artist, you have to play it safe. This is especially true of the songs on the album that are explicitly intended for congregational worship, and as a result, Kings Kaleidoscope somehow made the only cool worship album of the 2010s (just ask the kids who were in college when this one came out). There isn’t a single Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin record that came out from 2010-2019 that I’m still spinning, but I could easily see myself coming back to Kings Kaleidoscope’s songs even 10 years from now. The world of Christian music, including modern worship, is enriched by this album.

There are plenty of great selections from this album to share, but below I’ve included a song that I feel perfectly encapsulates what I’ve expressed above. It’s a bit of a slow burn at first, but I implore you to listen to it in a distraction-free environment with the volume up…it’s worth it.

An Open Letter to the Family Who Leaves Their Christmas Lights on All Year

I know this might sound strange coming from someone you’ve never met, but…THANK YOU.

Allow me to explain:

Last February, due to insurmountable financial struggles, my church asked me to step down as their worship and youth pastor. After years of penny pinching and declining attendance, the financial load of two full-time pastors became too much for one congregation to bear. I was faced with the difficult decision of either staying and fighting for my job, or walking away and giving the church I love a fighting chance to survive. I chose the latter.

One of the worst parts of receiving this news is that I was asked not to share it with any congregants, which included my parents. For months, I had to keep the secret that my days there were numbered. It was heartbreaking to lead so many “last” youth events without my students knowing about it. Likewise, it was unsettling planning our Easter celebration knowing that a major announcement would be made mere days later.

Needless to say, it was a rough couple of months for me. I confided in my siblings and a few close friends about my situation, for whose support and prayers I am incredibly grateful. But in my day-to-day life, the secret I was carrying left me feeling abandoned and alone. I would play video games for hours, go to movies by myself, or drive aimlessly while praying. Anything to keep myself occupied.

One habit I picked up during my winter of discontent was listening to Christmas music. As you probably remember, this past year’s snowfall was particularly brutal. It felt like we had snowdrifts from December until March! In my aimless driving, I would often pop in Perry Como’s Greatest Christmas Songs and pretend that I was prolonging the magic of Christmas (After all, back in December I had a stable job and a sense of security). I also had a wonderful childhood when it comes to Christmas – my parents pulled out all the stops to make it a special time for me and my siblings. Combined with my penchant for sentimentalism, driving around in the snow suddenly became a welcome escape from otherwise dreary conditions.

So what does this have to do with you? Well, I play in a rock and roll band, and we practice at a house in your neighborhood. After rehearsal one night, I decided to take a different route home…and that’s when I saw it, the house that still had its Christmas lights up! In the bleak midwinter, with Perry Como crooning in the background, the light of Christmas continued to shine for me. It caused me to reflect on the meaning of Christmas: Immanuel, God with us. It served as a reminder that, even though I sometimes may feel alone, I am not. If anyone can relate to me feeling this way, it’s Jesus. He is with me in the midst of my suffering. All this was stirring in my heart just because one family decided to leave their lights up.

So here we are, nine months later…and I wish I had good news to share about finding a new job. But this is real life, and sometimes stories don’t get wrapped up with a bow like a Christmas present. I have faith that God will eventually lead me to the right church, so I am doing my best to trust in his timing. In the meantime, the lights on your house will serve as a reminder of Jesus’ faithfulness. The same baby who was born in a stable would one day die on a cross to save sinners, including me. I am blessed, and I am grateful.

Thank you for the wonderful gift. Merry Christmas!

Song Explanation: Heaven Is My Home

Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
– Philippians 3:20-21

Heaven Is My Home is a song that I wrote in honor of my friend Chris, who went to Heaven in September of 2004. I have been singing this song for 15 years because he deserves to be remembered. He was a genuinely kind person who loved Jesus and had a heart for helping others.

In its first incarnation, Heaven Is My Home was a sappy “I know my soulmate is out there somewhere” kind of song. I don’t remember any of the original lyrics except the bridge: “I’ll wait for you, my love.” Lame. But upon Chris’s passing, the subject matter of life, death, and eternity started to permeate my songwriting. If anyone remembers the Perfect Paradox song, Blur the Lines, I wrote it around the same time: “You blur the lines between death and life.”

Essentially, Heaven Is My Home is a reminder that for Christians, the end is not the end. Even though we all die a physical death, we will be raised in Jesus to eternal life. As Jesus said to his friend Martha when her brother Lazarus died, “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (Jn 11:25-26).

It’s interesting to consider how my thinking has changed from when I first wrote Heaven Is My Home to what I believe today. While my faith in Jesus has remained steadfast, my theology of the afterlife is different than when I wrote it. Lyrically, it’s apparent that, as a 19-year old, my understanding of Heaven was more abstract and cultural than it was Biblical; the song paints a picture of a far-off place to where we escape when we die. I think there’s room for that within orthodoxy, especially considering Jesus’ words to the repentant thief as he hung on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Nevertheless, if all that comes to mind for Christians is an other-worldly state of nirvana, we’re missing at least half of the picture.

Today, my hope is not so much in escaping the world but rather in God’s promise to redeem it. Consider Revelation 21:1-5a:

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

On the last day, there will be a co-mingling of Heaven and Earth in which God himself dwells with humanity. Heaven won’t be far away; it will be right here! How this plays out is a mystery, but I am confident in two things: God will be with us, and he’s going to make everything right. At the end of the day, I’m still just a kid whose understanding of God is only a water drop in an ocean of comprehension.

Heaven Is My Home means even more to me now than when I wrote it. In addition to the song being written in honor of my friend Chris, I’ve also had the sacred privilege of singing it at both of my grandmothers’ funerals. The older I get, the more I understand that every moment is a gift. Every second we’re alive, every breath we breathe, every heartbeat…it’s all grace. And through Jesus, we have confidence in a life that never ends. Because of this truth, I’m looking forward to hanging out with Chris – and my grandparents – again someday.

Lyrics:
Fear, it means nothing
to the one who is most assured of
a life everlasting;
there’s nothing to be afraid of

Heaven is calling
This time I intend to answer
I don’t belong here
I yearn for the day I’ll be there

‘Cause I know that Heaven is my home
And my hope is in your love alone

It’s so ironic
that death could be arbitrary
But life everlasting
makes our endings so necessary

I’ll wait for you, my Lord

You can stream and purchase Flight Metaphor via Bandcamp, iTunes, and Spotify.

Song Explanation: You’re There

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
– Psalm 139

I am terrible at writing worship songs. Allow me to explain:

Part of my job at Community Covenant Church is evaluating and selecting appropriate music for our worship services, and it’s something I take very seriously. There’s a (dated) saying that goes, “If you want to know what’s important to a person, look at their checkbook.” Well, it’s kind of like that with a church’s theology: if you want to know what they believe, look at their songbook.

Consider these words from Constance Cherry in her book, The Worship Architect:

The persons responsible for song selection are accountable to God for what they ask the community to sing. Selecting music is a holy duty that carries the weight of great spiritual responsibility. The implications for our choices are enormous because…song selection wields tremendous influence on singers…Selecting song texts, then, is one of the most significant things that worship architects do because they are shaping their congregations’ theology (and therefore worldview) by the texts they select. It is an awesome responsibility. (182)

This is a very high standard! If I’m responsible for putting words in the collective mouth of the congregation I serve, then I want to be sure that I’m selecting songs consistent with our theology. The music that’s popular on Christian radio or churned out by mega churches isn’t always a good fit for us. If I’m not careful, I can inadvertently use songs that confuse people or lead them to believe the wrong things about God. I need to be careful, mindful, and most of all, faithful.

Of course, when evaluating a song I’m also mindful of practical concerns: is the song congregationally-friendly? Is it easy to pick up on the melody? Is it in a singable key? What’s the melodic range? Is it in a style or genre that works for my church, and if not, can I adjust it? Does the instrumentation make sense for our team? Is it worth pushing musical boundaries for the sake of good theology? Etcetera, etcetera.

So what does this have to do with You’re There? Well, You’re There is a worship song, and it’s one of the only worship songs I’ve written that I actually like. Most of the time, I overthink it. If I sit down with the goal to write a worship song, I get bogged down asking all of the questions listed above before I write a single note or lyric. What comes out is something clunky, or too heady, or so mind-numbingly simple that it sounds like a poorly written Tomlin knockoff.

So what was the difference this time? I threw my “worship rules” out the window, and, instead, tried to write an honest song that doesn’t suck. Does this mean that my concerns about congregational worship don’t matter? Hardly! But what I realized is that if I’m a follower of Jesus and I care about good theology already, it will naturally be reflected in the songs that I write. Will I always hit a homerun? No, but not every song that I write needs to be sung by my church. I just need to keep trying to write good songs, and once they’re complete I can evaluate them based on the criteria that’s important to me.

I recognize that this entry is more about my philosophy of songwriting, but I figure some of you might appreciate having the curtain drawn back a bit. This is the kind of stuff that worship leaders and songwriters are thinking about all the time!

Fun Fact: You’re There is used as the opening music for the Husker Football Fan Podcast. It’s the kind of thing that happens when one of the co-hosts is in a band 🙂

Lyrics:
When I’m surrounded by friends, you’re there
When I’m alone in my bed, you’re there
Through the night and the day
When asleep or awake
I will not be afraid, ‘cause you’re there

Oh, you’re everywhere
And you’ve made my heart your home
Yeah, you’re always there
And I will never be alone

When I’ve figured it out, you’re there
When I’m scared by my doubts, you’re there
When the world’s crashing down
And there’s no one around
Still your mercy abounds, ‘cause you’re there

You can stream and purchase Flight Metaphor via Bandcamp, iTunes, and Spotify.

The Perfect Paradox: 10 Years

Ten years ago today, The Perfect Paradox released our self-titled album. Ten years! This is the first record I ever made that I was truly proud of, and I’m still not embarrassed to share it with people today. Sure, our youth and inexperience show through on pretty much every track, but these songs meant a lot to me and they still do. I could play That Edge at a show next week and still mean what I was singing.

The project was recorded in the summer of 2006 at Empty House Studio (otherwise known as Matt Tobias’ basement).  The band was at the height of our short-lived existence – several memories come to mind:

  • Playing the Pella Church youth group overnighter (soggy french toast)
  • John screaming in pain from dry sockets during our show at Pit Crew the day after he had his wisdom teeth removed
  • Driving to York for a show with Sequel to Adam and learning about the “Mugician”
  • Forgetting my guitar when we played at Edge 64
  • Playing with Sleeping at Last and O Lovelle at the Sokol Underground (Ben still owes me the forbidden EP with “Better Off” on it)
  • Having our one legitimate invitation to play on the main stage at Lifelight get rained out (and getting bumped to a muddy tent)

The CD release show for The Perfect Paradox was held on February 9th, 2007 at The Foundry in Benson. Within a matter of months the band would break up, which means that I still have unopened boxes of CDs in my parent’s basement. Nevertheless, I’m incredibly grateful for the time that we had together, and I’m happy to say that I still consider Ben, Cherron, and John my friends.

Instead of inundating you with additional trivia about the band, here’s a collection of photos from 2004-2007:

2004 – One of our earliest performances as “Mike Harvat and the Sleepy Jacks” at the Anchor Inn. The original lineup was me, Cherron on upright, Ben on drums, and Mike on piano. We were going for an organic “folk rock” sound at first, but that started to change when we brought in Ben to play electric.

2004 – Cherron hanging out before an outdoor performance at UNO

2004 – The band after one of our many performances at The Rock

2004 – Ben laying down some licks on the back of my car at Lifelight

2005 – Our second audition for Lifelight. Nothing was grounded, so I couldn’t perform barefoot like I wanted to (I’d be shocked by the microphone otherwise)

2005 – Playing the main stage at Lifelight…at noon. We told everyone we opened for the Newsboys nine hours early. We’re also wearing t-shirts that we got for free because we promised to wear them on stage.

2005 – The first and only “Do It for Marco” show. We briefly sponsored a child through Compassion International, but they lost him. Apparently this was one of John’s first shows with us.

2006 – We thought it would be funny to wear sweaters when we played at UNL. It wasn’t funny.

2006 – Playing the Lutters’ “First Thursdays” event in Sioux City. The stage was like a tiny cave that threw all the sound back at us…thanks to Ben’s cymbals I experienced significant hearing loss that night.

2006 – Playing at Benson Nite next to The Foundry. Our friend Aaron was filling in on bass. I met Danny Sabra that night.

2006 – Recording the album, part one

2006 – Recording the album, part two

2006 – Recording the album, part three

2006 – Recording the album, part four

Our friend Telia created the artwork for the album. The original canvas hangs in my office at work.

Artwork sketch, part one

Art sketch, part two

2007 – Our CD release show at The Foundry

Last but not least, I’ve uploaded the album to Noisetrade, and you can download it for free right here:

If you ever came to a Perfect Paradox show, listened to The Perfect Paradox on Myspace, bought a Perfect Paradox t-shirt or CD, or were in one of the various incarnations of The Perfect Paradox, thank you!