We’re approaching the top of the list now. Everything here is solid “A grade” material that got nothing but a glowing recommendation when I reviewed it… and most of it has only improved with age.
40. Jars of Clay – Who We Are Instead (2003)
The band’s most laid-back, down-tempo album found them taking a conscious turn away from the side of their personality that just wanted to put on a fun rock show, and toward an earthier, more contemplative approach that came hand-in-hand with a shift toward more openly spiritual songwriting (not that they ever hid it, but most of their work after their debut required a bit of decoding). It was a real treat to hear the band dive headlong into folk music, bringing slide guitars, lap steel, mandolin, and even the occasional hint of Gospel influence out to play, using the heavenly wail of Ashley Cleveland to punch up a few tracks, and sprinkling in their usual pop and rock influences more sparingly. This was the Jars album that took the longest for me to fully digest and appreciate, since it’s not as immediately catchy as their other works, but aside from lighter, more fun moments like “Sunny Days” or the America cover “Lonely People”, this disc digs deep, struggling with the sinful human condition and the unavoidable need for grace. “Trouble Is” might say it with twangy guitars and intentionally out-of-place drum programming, but then you get instant classics on the flipside such as “Faith Enough” and “Lesser Things”, which feel like the soundtrack to a long, hot weary roadtrip undertaken in search of redemption. An overtly optimistic and simple praise song like “Sing” only works near the end of the album because it is the response to the stark conviction of “Jealous Kind”, which finds the band leaving their usual syncopated guitar approach behind for some old-timey piano and handclaps. Listening to Who We Are Instead is like baptism for the ears.
Live Footage: “Show You Love” (Live 8, Philadelphia, PA, 7/2/2005)
39. Matchbox Twenty – More than You Think You Are (2002)
Hey, doesn’t Matchbox Twenty make middle-of-the-road Top 40 radio rock? What on Earth are they doing on a best-of list? Well, for one thing, they cranked up the guitars a notch here and concentrated more on attitude and less on casting their nets wide, so nearly every song packs a bit more punch than the comparatively mushy sound of the otherwise well-written Mad Season. And I don’t think Rob Thomas gets the credit he deserves as a songwriter, either – sure, some of his solo material has bunted where it could have hit a home run, but with his band, he’s shown a surprising knack for digging into the root causes of all the messed-up-ness that can happen in a relationship. His songs take unexpected turns, and often when you’re anticipating a cliche, he’ll dodge to the left and come up with a wry variant on whatever you were expecting. That might give MB20’s work a bitter aftertaste, but there’s just as much blame pointed back at himself here, so I take it all as a hard lesson learned. It’s tough for me to argue with the massive opening punch of “Feel”, the oddball dance/funk of “Disease”, the power ballad kicked into high gear “Bright Lights”, or the banjo-inflected madman ramblings of “Unwell”, and that’s just how the album starts. By the time they whip out a Gospel choir in the bridge of “Downfall”, the diversity of musical ideas on display is just too enormous to accuse the band of playing it safe. Sure, it’s all still vaguely radio-friendly, but I think it’s quite possible to put excellent songwriting and engaging musicianship on display even within those confines, and More than You Think You Are is the album that convinced me Matchbox Twenty was a better band than I thought they were.
Live Footage: “Bright Lights/Bathroom Window” (circa 2008)
38. Incubus – Morning View (2001)
Also skirting that boundary line between edgy and radio-friendly is this largely misunderstood disc, which managed to stymie both fans of the band’s old heavy funk rock and fans of the power chord-heavy melodic hits found on 1999’s Make Yourself. I enjoyed portions of those records musically, but Morning View was different beast, turning away from the harsh “let’s protest the system in every form we can think of” attitude and turning in a surprisingly optimistic album that cuts a wide musical swath while its lyrics take a welcome turn away from revenge and toward reconciliation. If you judge Incubus by how heavy each song is, Morning View will feel like a miserable failure, given that many of its best moments are love songs (the offbeat “Nice to Know You”, the sentimental yet hard-edged “Wish You Were Here”, the wonderfully fluid “Echo”, the gorgeous Eastern-inflected “Aqueous Transmission”). But there’s also some cutting commentary as Brandon Boyd tries to sidestep the desire to pop an annoying person in the face (“Blood on the Ground”), laments the annoyance he feels at a flash-in-the-pan trendy pop star (the futuristic pseudo-epic “Just a Phase”), or simply asks if you can ever know what it’s like to walk a mile in another person’s shoes or see through their eyes (“Have You Ever”, “Under My Umbrella”). There’s even a smooth R&B number written for no other reason than to play as a chill party soundtrack, all awash in Dirk Lance‘s bass and Chris Kilmore‘s DJ effects. Every player gets a chance to shine, some on instruments you didn’t think they’d ever touch, and while Morning View feels like a misshapen pill that’s tough to swallow at first, it’s a powerfully addictive drug once digested.
Live Footage: “Aqueous Transmission” (Look Alive DVD, 2007)
37. The Juliana Theory – Emotion Is Dead (2000)
It was rather easy to hate this band on principle by the time their second album rolled around – people who wanted to put them in a musical “emo” box disliked the experiments with electronic music and smooth harmonies, people who thought they were a “Christian band” railed against the ambiguity of their lyrics, people who didn’t like Christian music accused them of making it, et cetera et cetera. Most of the time, I’m not a big fans of bands addressing their critics in their songs, but when you’ve got the audacity to tell it like it is in a hard-hitting song with a title like “To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children” or “If I Told You This Was Killing Me, Would You Stop?”, and a spot-on dismissal of those who think they can tell you who to be in said songs, then shoot, I’m on board no matter how ridiculous it may sound. The over-the-top drama really suited TJT well in their heyday, with electronic laments like “Into the Dark” melting into soft, alt-pop pleas for second chances like “Don’t Push Love Away”, and then rolling headlong into brash rockers like the aforementioned “Screaming Children”. Want a naggingly catchy pop ditty? Check “We’re at the Top of the World”. Want smooth harmonies backed by a simple acoustic guitar? Try “Something Isn’t Right Here”. (Think only boy bands should do that stuff. Take the title as witty irony.) Want over-the-top prog rock drama? The triple punch of the bitter “This Is Your Life”, the ludicrously epic guitar solo of “You Always Say Goodnight, Goodnight” and the dark rave party of the instrumental title track should fix you up quite nicely at the end of the album. It’s the melodrama that makes it all work. TJT wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, a realization that probably made the band a bit bitter when neither a major label deal nor a shot at revamping themselves as a completely independent band worked out, precipitating their sudden breakup without so much as a farewell tour later in the decade. But there’s a lot to love once you get past Brett Detar‘s sneer and occasional sarcasm. (And maybe I was in a place emotionally to love the band for exactly that reason when I stumbled across this disc not long after a really horrible breakup.)
Live Footage: “To the Tune of 5,000 Screaming Children” (Shea’s Theatre, Buffalo, NY, circa 2000)
36. David Crowder Band – Illuminate (2003)
I had a hard time opening up to the deceptively simple joy exuded by the David Crowder Band when I first heard them. Part of it was because comparisons to the Dave Matthews Band were greatly exaggerated – sure, these guys had a violin player in the band and could open up into a delicious acoustic rock jam when they wanted to (see “Intoxicating”, the best combination of Jesus and drunkenness since the DMB’s “Bartender”). But they could just as easily turn out big, electric anthems (since violin player Mike Hogan also happens to be the band’s DJ), some of which would be admittedly easy to confuse with a great many CCM worship bands if not for the DCB’s love of their technology. Check out the intro to one of their most well-loved tunes, “O Praise Him (All This for a King)”, and tell me if that Main Street Electrical Parade-inspired intro doesn’t give it that extra shot of joy that makes all the difference. And that’s how the DCB rolls throughout this album, ebbing and flowing from fully realized songs to inspired musical interludes to little song fragments that reprise or connect thoughts between songs. This album moves along quite beautifully, as a good worship service should, one up-tempo tune segueing beautifully into another and then slowing down midway through the disc for a refreshing set of mellower tunes, many of them hinting at the same quirkiness in several places that would later explode in more obvious ways on subsequent albums. Their second take on the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” comes across as a thing of simple but expansive beauty (unlike the bizarre, half-cooked version on Can You Hear Us?), while elsewhere in the savvy cover band department, they add an ominous sense of longing to Sarah Brightman‘s “Deliver Me”, and Crowder shows small hints of the quick-fingered acoustic trickery of Dave Matthews on the band’s retooled version of “Heaven Came Down”. Even the simplistic chords of the comforting ballad “Stars” which closes the album are magnified by the soaring violin, bringing to the forefront the album’s theme of God’s light reflected by men who can make no light of their own. Up until recently, this was the band’s most complete and most satisfyingly executed album.
Live Footage: “Open Skies” (Baylor University, Waco, TX, circa 2006)
35. Sleeping at Last – Ghosts (2003)
It’s probably a no-brainer that if you’re an indie band opening for Switchfoot who has been “discovered” by the likes of Billy Corgan, then you oughta be signed, pronto. I’m not exactly sure how the timeline played out for this dreamy Chicago rock act, but it gave way to their mainstream debut (and thus far, their only album on a label), which foundRyan O’Neal‘s existence-probing poetry awash in a swooning sea of guitars and pianos and sometimes strings, for a set of songs that seems to get more delightful the more each individual piece comes into focus. At first, SAL’s sound seemed largely midtempo and easy to lose track of as one song blurred into the next, but it was only a matter of time before a distant, hazy memory of the song “A Skeleton of Something More” came back up from the deep crevasses of my brain, and then one by one more beautiful songs started to take hold in my mental playlist, be it the up-tempo, glittery paranoia of “All that Is Beautiful”, the hushed calm of “Hurry”, or the playing of light against the shadows of a deep forest in the engrossing closer, “Trees (Hallway of Leaves)”. Ghosts is a disc that remains charming in its translucent musings, as if momentarily enabling the listener to pass through the wall separating this life and the next, and get a brief glimpse of just what all the fuss is about.
Live Footage: “Trees (Hallway of Leaves)” (Exit/In, Nashville, TN 11/6/2008)
34. Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King (2009)
I was really convinced that the DMB had lost their mojo after 2005’s Stand Up. Looking back at the decade so far, I could see that Everyday didn’t hold the initial excitement I had about it, and Busted Stuff, while still an enjoyable and musically accomplished record, was too languid to really recapture the spirit of those 90’s albums that got me into the group. Big Whiskey was a sudden comeback that doesn’t exactly mirror the feeling of those early albums, but that certainly finds the band on confident new ground, responding to the tragic death of saxophone player Leroi Moore with a glass raised and a fair share of peppy horn blasts in his honor (whichever ones he didn’t play himself before he died were seamlessly filled in by new member Jeff Coffin). Drummer Carter Beauford has also bounced back with thundering energy (see the dense romp of “Shake Me Like a Monkey” or the loud, haunting rhythms of “Squirm”), and as for Dave Matthews himself, we might never fully understand the depths of his borderline gibberish as he muses about oceans and swamps and mind-blowing trysts and heaven and hell and even Jesus, but let’s just say that pondering death has given him new license to live life to its fullest. He tears it up on both acoustic and electric, and it’s an absolutely stellar set of songs, with my only complaint being the restrained presence of Boyd Tinsley. Where he does appear on solo fiddle or as part of a dramatic string section, it’s a welcome element, and I hope the band brings him to the forefront more often next time around. But as a collective, the DMB hasn’t been this solid since before the turn of the century.
Live Footage: “Funny the Way It Is” (Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY, 4/14/2009)
33. David Crowder Band – Church Music (2009)
…and we’re back to that other David band! Remember how said Illuminate was their best until recently? That’s because the band underwent a creative project of insane proportions in 2009, setting out to create one continuous mix of worship music that aims to explore the history of praise songs throughout the centuries while speaking a thoroughly modern musical language, with drum programming and other forms of synthesized noise leading the way on a great many of this gargantuan project’s 17 tracks. I just can’t stop listening to this puppy – it’s joyous, it’s infectious, and yet it’s brave enough to speak to those times when God feels distant, as He no doubt did in some of the darkest hours of Christianity’s early days. While fans inclined to dance could easily hold a holy rave to the tune of the title track, “Eastern Hymn”, “The Nearness”, “The Veil” and a good chunk of the rest of the albums, the band also proves adept at recording sweeping ballads (their take on John Mark McMillan‘s “How He Loves”), oddball covers (their transformation of Flyleaf‘s hard-hitting “All Around Me” into a delicate piano number and their futuristic take on “Phos Hilaron”, one of the oldest known hymns to have survived through to modern times), and even an epic rocker at the album’s climax (“God Almighty, None Compares”). Old DCB fans need not fear, as more familiar tunes like “Can I Lie Here” and “Oh, Happiness” serve as a link to the band’s past without breaking the continuity in any way. In a business climate such as Nashville where it’s nearly impossible to do “worship” and “art” at the same time, the DCB has once again excelled at both.
Live Footage: “God Almighty, None Compares” (Grace Community Church, Houston, TX, 10/3/2009)
32. Vienna Teng – Warm Strangers (2004)
The mostly placid, piano-based poetry of Vienna’s debut Waking Hour gets stretched out in several new directions on her follow-up album, which might have suffered ever so slightly in the consistency department for it, but which firmly re-established her penchant for writing outside of the box and never letting herself rest on her laurels, which was what drove my obsession with this brilliant singer/songwriter in the first place. From the hushed, abstract “Feather Moon” to the paradoxically pop-oriented and yet dizzying time signature shifts of “Harbor” and all the way through to the Mandarin Chinese hidden track “Green Island Serenade”, there’s nary a dull moment on Warm Strangers. Colorful fictional characters who may or may not be related to one another fill the genre-hopping trilogy of “Shasta”, “Homecoming”, and “Anna Rose”, all musically distinct and lovely songs in their own right. Elsewhere, a Greek goddess struggles with thoughts of infanticide in the haunting “My Medea”, Vienna struggles with a very real and very noisy neighborhood in “Mission Street”, and oddly enough for an album released in February, the solemn “Atheist Christmas Carol” ponders the holiday season from the point of view of a non-religious person. And if the chilling story told by Vienna’s bare, unaccompanied voice in “Passage” doesn’t move you to tears, you’re probably not paying attention. It’s worth noting that this is my least favorite of Vienna’s four albums so far (all of which I’ve rated five stars), and the only one not to eventually settle at the #1 spot on my hit list for the year it was released (2004 had some tough competition, but Vienna trumped her competitors in 2002, 2006, and 2009, and she remains the only artist to be so reliable as I do my year-end music roundups). So if you’re tired of hearing me gush about her, you might not want to read the final article in this series.
Live Footage: “Harbor” (with Alex Wong, The Independent, San Francisco, CA, 12/23/2006)
31. Sleeping at Last – Keep No Score (2006)
I’ve come to see SAL’s follow-up to Ghosts a happy medium between that album and the almost fully acoustic musings of Storyboards – the mood is mellower, the strings play much more of a role than the electric guitars, but there are still moments where the band can clearly be tagged as “rock”, albeit in the indie sense. “Tension & Thrill” delivers exactly what it promises at the beginning of the disc, while the upbeat cut “Umbrellas” is such a wonderful glimpse at the future promise of romance and parenthood that I’ve made it the ringtone for whenever my wife calls, and the ghostly theremin impressions of “Dreamlife” and the awe-inducing drum intro to “Hold Still” have to be heard to be believed. SAL did their best work thus far as a trio, as evidenced by the way drummer Chad O’Neal and bass player/multi-instrumentalist Dan Perdue would lock together on several of these gorgeous tracks. But even left hanging out on his own with a sole acoustic guitar or piano to accompany him, lead singer Ryan O’Neal always has a way with words and a winning optimism to even his most fragile yelps. I compared the band’s music to angel food cake when I covered this disc in my roundup at the end of 2006, and I’m sticking to that story. Keep No Score remains their finest work thus far.
Live Footage: “Dreamlife” (Exit/In, Nashville, TN 11/6/2008)
30. The Myriad – With Arrows, With Poise (2008)
It might just be the fact that both words start with “my”, but I can’t think “myriad” without thinking “mystique”. That’s because mystique is what sets The Myriad apart from ordinary modern rock acts. You’ve heard bands try to straddle the divide between catchy popular music and idiosyncratic indie music before – you’ve heard all the Radioheadinflections translated into comparably more accessible song structures. The Myriad’s take on this genre does owe a bit to Radiohead and their electronic antecedents, but also to the emotive pop songs of Mae and the stadium-level grandeur of Muse. It’s an intoxicating mixture, giving us the pounding drums and shifting time signatures of “You Waste Time Like a Grandfather Clock”, the slightly creepy synth whispers and braille beats of “Throwing Punches”, the joyous piano pop of “A Thousand Winters Melting”, and the dazzling dance rhythms of the highly addictive single “A Clean Shot”. The lyrics are on par with the best of the spiritually-minded bands who have their eyes on the mainstream – you can dig deep into the apparent theology behind the grinding beats and shouts of a song like “The Holiest of Thieves”, or you can just enjoy the music and lyrics on their own abstract level. No two songs are alike here, and many refuse to take the predictable route despite their overall accessibility, which makes With Arrows, With Poise an intriguing listen regardless of the level of attention you’re willing to pay to it.
Live Footage: “You Waste Time Like a Grandfather Clock” (The Union, Naperville, IL, 2/8/2008)
29. Switchfoot – The Beautiful Letdown (2003)
This was the big one for a lot of Christian music fans – the moment a noteworthy band from within the CCM walls truly broke out and scored a few mainstream hits while serving up a solid album that fans of good pop/rock music on either side of the fence could enjoy, that didn’t dumb down the intelligence and wisdom shown on earlier efforts, but that also didn’t seem to pander to either market specifically. Switchfoot has always been about trying to get listeners to ask the basic questions, not necessarily about offering explicit answers to the questions and trying to bypass the necessary journey for a person to get to A to B. I think it’s for that reason that a crunchy rocker simply declaring “We were meant to live for so much more” or the newer take on their get-off-your-butt anthem “Dare You to Move” hit it big beyond just the Christian audience. This was before the point where Jon Foreman‘s “more to life” songwriting template became a bit stale for the band – many of their best efforts to communicate this theme are contained here, while also taking a long, hard look at materialism in entertaining ways (“Gone”, “Adding to the Noise”), or honestly approaching the penchant we religious folks seem to have for shooting one another down and admitting, “We’re the issue” (“Ammunition”). The juxtaposition of failure and grace was well explained in the title track, and restrained but lovely ballads such as “On Fire” and “Twenty-Four” took their deserved place as fan favorites. New member Jerome Fontamillas was used to great effect on a more synthesized set of songs than established Switchfoot fans were used to, but given his presence on tours leading up to this album, it wasn’t totally unprecedented. This gave an extra kick to more pop-oriented ditties like “This Is Your Life”, “More than Fine”, and the aforementioned “Gone”, while the rockers still carried plenty of bite to balance things out. In many ways, this was the perfect storm of ideas for Switchfoot – not their most challenging album or necessarily even their most hard-hitting on a musical level (I’d prefer the two albums that followed when given such criteria), but certainly a tough one to top when you add up the massive appeal of nearly every single song.
Live Footage: “Ammunition” (circa 2003)
28. Dixie Chicks – Home (2002)
I had found the Dixie Chicks to be either offensive or just plain boring on their breakthrough country/pop effort Fly – the ballads were mostly too mushed up and overproduced, and I wasn’t exactly a big fan of premeditated murder or sin binging. Ironically, the band managed to impress me most with the album they made just before they managed to offend the vast majority of their fanbase by way of Natalie Maines‘ ill-timed remarks about President Bush during a 2003 concert in London, which subsequently caused this fine album to be overshadowed by the controversy. But that controversy was what sparked my curiosity about whether the music actually warranted the criticism and mass CD-bulldozing gatherings that were sweeping the Bible Belt, so I finally took the plunge in 2004 and discovered a defiantly old-school collection of songs that completely eschewed the electric guitars, drums, and overall pop/rock feeling that passed as “country” on most radio stations, fully committing itself to the three ladies in the band, their wonderful voices, and their instrumental combo of fiddle, mandolin, and acoustic guitar (with a few extras true to the genre such as the occasional banjo, upright bass, or even Nickel Creek‘s Chris Thile contributing his mandolin skills to a couple tracks). This was pure heaven to my ears, even when the girls sounded defiant about their place within a rural community driven by religion and superstition, because their defiance toward the world of pop music seemed much more pronounced (see “Long Time Gone” and its clever name-dropping of country music legends as an implicit comparison to the flaccid state of modern radio). Beautifully haunting melodies abounded in haunting covers like “Travelin’ Soldier” (its solemn military funeral march being the only time you’ll hear a drum on the entire record) and originals like “A Home” and “More Love”. Even the slightly crass ode to a hickville marriage performed under duress (“White Trash Wedding”) came across as highly amusing, and the surprising glance heavenward with the heartstring-tugging “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” and the haunting Patty Griffin cover “Top of the World” showed a lot more depth than I’d have expected from a group whose popularity seemed to hinge on a rebellious image. Underneath it all, the Dixie Chicks were sentimental softies, and since they did it to the tune of gorgeous music that felt no need to apologize for the level of twang involved, I had no choice but to give Home full marks.
Live Footage: “Long Time Gone” (Top of the World Tour: Live DVD, 2003)
27. Nickel Creek – Why Should the Fire Die? (2005)
An equally fine, though more boundary-stretching folk/country album was turned in by this precocious young trio at what turned out to be the close of their surprisingly short tenure as a band. Ironically, I picked up this disc full of cautionary tales about divorce, deception, and being a downright lying, cheating b@st@rd, in the middle of my honeymoon, which means that the lion’s share of these songs provoke a powerful sense of nostalgia for that blissful week spent on a small Hawaiian island, as far as possible from the troubles a real-life marriage is bound to face months or years down the road. The lush harmonies and inventive instrumentation are largely to blame for this mental association, but my love for this album runs much deeper than ironic nostalgia. What might seem on the surface to be a bitter turn of events for the band (many songs were inspired by Chris Thile’s then-recent divorce) gives way to their most mature, thematically cohesive, and overall well-written set of songs, which means it no longer feels like they’re just taking any idea that fits and throwing it onto the album (as much as I loved This Side, it was a bit all over the place). The biting post-breakup sarcasm of Sean Watkins‘ “Somebody More Like You”, the fiddle-drenched lull leading into the startling surprise of “Can’t Complain”, the snippy alt-pop of Sara Watkins‘ “Best of Luck”, and the retelling of a cheating husband’s dastardly deeds in “Helena” (complete with a thrilling coda that included the only use of drums anywhere on a Nickel Creek album) provided perfect examples of what not to do in a relationship, while the humble title track wrapped it up with the gentle question of whether we can’t give it one more honest try to make this thing work despite all the crap we’ve done to each other. Thile also reached one of his most emotionally vulnerable points in “Doubting Thomas”, a heartfelt apology to God which treads the uneasy tightrope between genuine religious faith and healthy skepticism. Sure, Fire is more alternative, more downbeat, and less about showing off pure instrumental skill than the band’s previous albums, and that’ll annoy the bluegrass purists, but it also shows the band at their collective compositional best before they went their separate ways, and the Watkins siblings began to skirt the border of Dullsville while Thile went completely off the deep end. This is how I always want to remember Chris, Sara, and Sean.
Live Footage: “Best of Luck” (Richmond, VA, 8/3/2007)
26. Anberlin – Cities (2007)
Now this is the kind of rock and roll that cities ought to be built on! Anberlin’s driving take on moody alternative rock with a penchant for 80’s-inspired melodrama reached its pinnacle with this ambitious album, which might have not jumped out at the listener with immediate highlights like past albums, but which turned out to be their most consistent work yet, from the kamikaze riffs of “Godspeed” all the way through to the macabre children’s choir antics of “(*Fin)”. There’s still the occasional bouncy pop number like “Adelaide”, but even that has a bit of dangerous bite to it, which is the kind of attitude that this band does best. Just when you think they’d hit rock bottom after plumbing the depths of a man’s wretchedness (“Reclusion”), a depression so pronounced than a man can no longer identify his own feelings (“Alexithymia”), or a road trip to the end of nowhere (“Hello Alone”), they pop out with a surprisingly redemptive number like the lush acoustic plea of “The Unwinding Cable Car” or the plucked strings and communal drum-pounding of the unabashedly lovely “Inevitable”. Hard-hitting but versatile, this album shows Anberlin hitting all the highlights of a straight-ahead rock album done right, without ever feeling like they’re going through the motions.
Live Footage: “Godspeed” (Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, 3/5/2007)
25. Thrice – The Alchemy Index, Vols. III & IV: Air & Earth (2008)
The followup to Vols. I & II picks up right where Thrice left off, exploring the “experimental rock” side of their sound (Air) and stripping things back for a humble but lovely set of mostly acoustic, folksy compositions (Earth, my favorite disc of the four). Aside from a few heavier moments on Air‘s rockers “Broken Lungs” and “Daedalus” that remind us of Vheissu‘s weightier moments, this was almost completely new territory for Thrice, finding them indulging in a short sonnet filled with electronic flutes and woodwinds (“Silver Wings”), a dusty bar turn in which a man shrugs of his vices and addictions (“Digging My Own Grave”), a surprisingly nimble adaptation of 90’s math rock in an unplugged setting (the Frodus cover “The Earth Isn’t Humming”), and even wisdom gleaned from the Bible, rephrased as twangy folk (“Moving Mountains”) or in a laid-back blues-rock setting (“Come All You Weary”). ForDustin Kensrue, religious faith doesn’t mean towing the party line often expected of Christian musicians – see the one-two punch of 9/11 conspiracy theory and an anti-jingoistic plea in the aforementioned “Broken Lungs” and the fabulously quirky “The Sky Is Falling”. These last two volumes aren’t quite complete without the first two, since Air on its own feels disjointed and Earth on its own more closely resembles Kensrue’s solo work than any Thrice album (just with better songwriting), but put all four elements together, and you’ll begin to understand the heart of a band who isn’t content to limit their sound to a single genre box.
Live Footage: “The Sky Is Falling” (Saltair Pavilion, Salt Lake City, UT, 11/11/2008)
24. Delirious? – Glo (2000)
The turn of the century found this British worship band, then riding close to the highest heights of their popularity, wanting to recapture the mood of their early Cutting Edge recordings while adapting it to the megachurch-sized musical language they’d learned to speak since then. So they churned out Glo, which remains the most ambitious project of their nearly two-decade-long career, a slab of fiery yet liturgical rock songs flowing beautifully from one into the next, often peppered with inspired segues that truly earned their placement as part of the ongoing service rather than being skippable throwaway bits that might upset the mood. What’s planned well in advance (the chanting monks on “God You Are My God”, the soaring minor key soloing of “Investigate”, the Scot-inflected bagpipe blasts of “Awaken the Dawn”, the eerie string section driving “Jesus’ Blood”) mixes beautifully with what happened spontaneously (the “Glo in the Dark” sections that segue out of each of these tracks), while elsewhere the band turns in some of their most blistering guitar workouts in the marathon “God’s Romance” and the slow, heavy groove of “My Glorious”. They don’t miss a note here, and while Martin Smith‘s wailing may seem a bit too fervent for the uninitiated, there’s a deep devotion running through the calm undercurrents of autobiographical tunes like “What Would I Have Done?” and “The Years Go By” or the hushed, reverent sing-along “Intimate Stranger” that balances the heavy “spirit fire”-type moments quite nicely. Some will scoff at the repetitive lyrics which are the Achilles heel of the “modern worship” genre, but it’s the musical talent behind the repetition that turns it into a delightful exercise in “taking it wherever it goes”. For all of their unusual attempts at topping the pop charts or experimenting just for experimentation’s sake on other albums (which I’ve generally enjoyed), Glo was the watershed moment where Delirious? was on fire and just plain unstoppable.
Live Footage: “Investigate” (Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, IL, circa 2006)
23. Something Like Silas – Divine Invitation (2004)
I was gushing about Future of Forestry since before they were Future of Forestry. While my interest in “modern worship” bands began to wane early in the century after I realized too many sound-alike bands wanted to be like either Delirious? or Chris Tomlin, the arrival of Something Like Silas, an intelligent young band from San Diego who was surprisingly signed to a major CCM label, briefly renewed my faith in the genre. Here was a band with a solid grasp on both energy and restraint, and sure, they could evoke the shimmery guitar sounds of U2 at times just like too many other praise bands were doing, but they also held a deep reverence for the more underground/alternative sound of The Violet Burning and the experimental yet angelic ice age rock of Sigur Rós. That meant that a slow, sparse, intimate ballad could open up into a droning yet beautiful soundscape as electric guitars were played with weird objects while keyboards and glockenspiels brought a heavenly snowfall down around the band. The hushed beauty of the title track, the acoustic “Spirit Waltz” and the sparse finale “I Fall” bring a lovely, wintry mood to the album, while dynamic warmth abounds in fluid, fast-paced cuts such as “Rains Pour Down”, “Infinite”, “Creation’s Call”, and the stellar “In the Burning”. Even their cover of Matt Redman‘s “Better Is One Day”, a song most worship bands would probably do by rote, is transformed effectively due to SLS’s creative vision. Other than lead singer Eric Owyoung, you’d be hard pressed to recognize any familiar faces when comparing SLS to the current Future of Forestry lineup, since co-founding member Nick Maybury (who offered much of the guitar wizardry and clever knob-twisting that added subtle texture to many of these songs) is no longer hanging around, the drum/bass spots in the band were a bit of a revolving door, and Malina Owyoung‘s heavenly keyboards and backing vocals made an abrupt exit from the band after her marriage to Eric dissolved in 2005. So it’s somewhat bittersweet to glimpse this band as they used to be, in a more innocent time when they might have still had a shot at reshaping the way Christian listeners thought about “worship music”, seeing it as less bouncy entertainment and more of an opportunity to create a beautiful, sacred space for pondering God’s vastness and the limitless nature of His grace. (Not that I’m anything less than fascinated with FoF’s current sound and lineup, but their songwriting these days is definitely more abstract and artsy than the major labels are willing to touch.)
Live Footage: “In the Burning” (Soma, San Diego, CA, circa 2004)
22. Mew – No More Stories… (2009)
“Mew is transcendence embodied”. I was pretty sure a friend was overselling the band when he made this claim after hearing a pre-release of their latest disc, because I had never heard the Danish trio before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I don’t regret for a second that questioning this statement sparked my curiosity to the point where I just had to dive in and listen for myself. It is hard to avoid hyperbole when discussing Mew’s music. (It is also hard to say the phrase “Mew’s music” out loud.) It’s part twee indie pop, part slow Sigur Rós drone, part genre-hopping experimentation. No More Stories… (whose title I’m too weary to type out in full) is one of those rare albums where every song stands out for a different reason, with the band sometimes even cramming three or four musical ideas into one song, yet miraculously enough, it manages to be cohesive and delightful. I’m almost afraid to discuss highlights because I’ll probably just end up repeating the gushing blurb from the “Best of 2009” write-up I wrote just recently. Just start anywhere. It’s all strangely gorgeous.
Live Footage: “Hawaii” (Terminal 5, New York City, NY, circa 2009)
21. Anathallo – Floating World (2006)
It’s still hard for me to believe that Floating World is this Chicago-based septet’s idea of a debut album. There were a string of EPs from back in their indie days (I mean, indier than they still are nowadays), but this is their first full-length project, and yet it feels like the kind of restless experiment a band would try three or four albums in, just to shake up fan expectations. At first listen, it’s a mess – stories told out of sequence, odd rhythms that can’t seem to stay put, horns blaring and sometimes going off key, and exuberant choir-geek vocals springing out of the woodwork to interrupt lead singer Matt Joynt‘s oddly formed observations. On top of that, most of the album is inspired by Japanese folklore. A bit much? Perhaps, but once I got the hang of it, Floating World proved to be a delightful maze to wander around in, populated with grimacing anime samurai one minute and then sounding as pastoral as a grove of blossoming cherry trees the next. Despite some brief pastiches of the Japanese language, the music doesn’t actually sound like an attempt to imitate the music of Japan, instead opting for an overdriven rock ensemble backed by an abundance of instruments that appear to have wriggled their way loose from a stray marching band. Sufjan Stevens is an obvious inspiration here, but Anathallo has their own weird way of taking that off-kilter, multi-instrumental inspiration and going for “baroque” with it.
Live Footage: “Dokkoise House (With Face Covered)” (Messiah College, Grantham, PA, 1/26/2008)
And we’re almost down to the Top 20! Stay tuned for the conclusion of this insanely long series… coming soon, I promise.