Top 11 Gourmet Albums of 2011
Before we look ahead into the new year, let’s reflect on the wonderful music that was birthed in 2011 – which was an amazing year for fans of gourmet music. With the help of our 10-member panel of critics, we have determined the best of the best – in originality, spiritual insight, and artistry. With great honor, we present UTR’s Top 11 Gourmet Albums of 2011.
[Albums qualified for consideration if they were from a Christian artist/songwriter and released between 11/30/10 and 11/30/11.]
1. Invisible Empires – Sara Groves
This ambitious album hits a cultural nerve as Sara addresses themes of loneliness, self-worth, personal image, and interpersonal challenges in the Internet age. One of our panelists said, “It's hard to imagine, but Sara has now once again released her ‘best’ album topping all of her previous excellent work.” Another UTR critic said, “Lyrically raw, but musically accessible, Sara uses the marriage of melody and verse to infuse her prose into the conversations of everyday people, in their everyday lives.” Still another critic stated, “Lyrically intelligent and vulnerable, sonically lush and melodic, Invisible Empires should not be overlooked by anyone with a musical or social conscious.”
2. Vice Verses – Switchfoot
Many are putting this next to The Beautiful Letdown as one of Switchfoot’s career best albums, which is truly saying something. “If there was any question if the side projects, solo work, or social causes had distracted the band from focusing on rock and roll, this album screams the answer. This will be one of the most lyrically and sonically mature albums on their merch table. And it rocks,” stated one of our critics. Another put it this way, “None of their albums are less than really, really good – but this one is crazy, scary good. The lyrics pull no punches as Jon Foreman and Company use the rebellious energy of rock and roll for its highest purpose.”
3. Love & War & The Sea In Between – Josh Garrels
“This album, an hour-long, 18-track, fine-tuned musical exploration is everything I now expect from Garrels – unique, poetic, and deeply spiritual.” Not only is this his career-best work, it also put him on the map for many music lovers as Josh decided for the first year to give away this incredible album for free (available HERE until June 2012). Another UTR critic shared, “As epic as the sound can be, his lyrics shine with poetic songwriting that unearths the sacred in the everyday and explores the mystery between the beauty of this world and hope for the next.”
4. Ghosts Upon The Earth – Gungor
“The latest from Michael Gungor and his band is a far cry from the worship music sung in most churches today, but it is nonetheless an extremely creative expression of praise.” With the nearly impossible task of following up the Grammy-nominated, buzz-generating 2010 release Beautiful Things, Gungor shows artistic bravado and bold musical ambition in their latest. One UTR panelists declared, “Gungor is simply amazing. Intricate, progressive, alternative rock with deeply worshipful & artistically stunning songwriting – played with a level of musicianship that belongs right up there with the greats. …I’ll probably be discovering things I love about it ten years from now.”
5. Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars
This is the most sparsely-orchestrated album on our list. When we reviewed this album last February, we said, “While the rest of country-folk music is becoming a heaping mess of over-production, Barton Hollow stands out with stripped-down arrangements.” (Click HERE for our full review.) A critic of ours stated, “Joy Williams & John Paul White have a fantastic performance chemistry and stunning vocal harmony. The lovely acoustic melodies and sparse production lend warmth to these songs of love & heartbreak.” Another panelist said, “This Charlie Peacock produced album swirls and churns with tension, soul, grit and grace.”
6. The Reckoning – Needtobreathe
One UTR panelist heralded, “This is a ridiculously fantastic album on all levels… the best album I’ve ever heard.” Yes, Needtobreathe’s 4th release is worthy of high praise, for both quality songwriting and the musical diversity on display. Their somewhat darker tones fit well as they explore themes of restlessness and longing. There’s definitely no less than 5 “favorite tracks” on this CD. A fellow critic stated, “They don’t sound quite like any other Christian artists out there. Needtobreathe is quite simply the king of Southern anthem-rock.”
7. The Long Surrender – Over The Rhine
“The songs are earthy and real, digging into musical backdrops of Americana folk, smoky barroom jazz, and soulful gospel choirs.” This album marks the 20th year of groundbreaking music from this world-class band. “The songs are poetic, rich with uniquely worded expressions of grace and forgiveness,” shared one critic. Another UTR panelist proclaimed, “OTR sings from a place where pain lives. And never has such painful strains sounded so sweet.” The stand-out tracks are “Rave On,” “The King Knows How,” and “All My Favorite People.”
8. A Way to See In the Dark – Jason Gray
Jason Gray is standing right where the scenic path connects with the main highway. He might be the ultimate example of someone who has bridged the expansive gap between fan-friendly, catchy hooks and theologically rich and poetic lyrics. His third major release is a well-crafted exploration of how fear often robs us of our true identity in Christ. One UTR critic said, “Jason Gray is a master at turning heady concepts and heartfelt confessions into accessible, literate pop songs – and for this album, he digs even deeper into the places where hope and fear collide.”
9. Economy – John Mark McMillan
This guy is on the frontlines of a refreshing, new wave of worship music that is raw, heartfelt, passionate, and creatively rich. Here’s how one of our panelist describes Economy: “Musically rich, lyrically gold, passionate, visceral, and hope-filled. McMillan poured his best song-writing efforts into this brilliant album and his talents shine through every track.” Here’s another critic’s description: “It’s the music of blood and tears and longing, with gripping honesty that shows praise songs don’t have to be safe, but true.”
10. Echo Boom – The Farewell Drifters
On their 3rd album, The Farewell Drifters break out of the bluegrass box and explore a variety of sounds that borrow a bit from The Coasters, The Beach Boys, The Mamas & The Papas, and Simon & Garfunkel. One panelist says that Echo Boom is “fresh and traditional at the same time, with song after song that bubbles with youthful verge and disquietingly soulful lyricism.” Another panelist describes it as “modern bluegrass with a delightfully vintage folk vibe. These guys know how to create fun with top-notch talent.”
11. On The Altar of Love – Downhere
“One of the best bands in Christian music, yet also one of the most under-appreciated.” Downhere’s 6th career album shows that they are growing artistically with each new release. A fellow UTR critic stated, “On the Altar of Love is not one for lightweight stereotypes. This artful pop record blends a diverse musical palette with straightforward lyrics that resist cliché and stay fresh and sincere.” Another panelist loves the “singable melodies, songs filled with biblical truth and some of the best vocal combinations in any genre.”
Now the fun begins. I can already hear you pounding your first on the desk on why we left out so-and-so. But there’s only 11 slots. In fact a big number of albums (35+) cited by our critics didn’t make the cut either.
We are excited to get your feedback. So much so, that we are going to randomly draw one commenter below (now through 1/9/12) to receive an $11 iTunes Gift Certificate so you can buy 1 song off of each of these albums. Just answer one (or more) of these 3 questions:
a) Which album on the list is one of your favorites & why?
b) Which “missing” album do you think should have made the Top 11 & why?
c) Are there any albums that you’re going to pay closer attention to because they made the Top 11?