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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

The Best Christian Albums of 2003

  • Christianity Today Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
The Best Christian Albums of 2003

Time again for our annual Best Albums in Christian music, with six journalists teaming up to determine our favorite projects since December 1, 2002. Beginning with a list of 70 nominations, we gradually whittled it down to 12, based on creativity, talent, and broad appeal among the panelists. This year's dozen winners will surprise some, especially since only a few names will be familiar to Christian radio listeners. That's because the emphasis is not on radio singles, but projects that are consistently enjoyable for their entire duration. As such, we hope to introduce you to some extremely talented lesser-known artists worthy of a wider audience. Additionally, as a footnote, we've allowed each panel member to select one album they wish made the final cut, but didn't for one reason or other. Now, on to the Top 12 winners' list, presented to you in reverse order.

#12
Old

Starflyer 59
Tooth & Nail

Like a fine wine, Starflyer 59 just seems to get better with time. Never ones to put their musical career on autopilot, the band has grown seemingly more experimental with each album, progressing nicely from 2001's acclaimed Leave Here a Stranger. With Old, they combine their trademark atmospheric dream rock with classic rock and ambient effects. Lyrically, Starflyer uses abstract poetry to communicate their faith, reflecting on the past and life so far as they enter their 30s. This seminal Christian indie rock band may be growing older, but they're also growing wiser, and with that comes greater artistic accomplishment.
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#11
How to Start a Fire

Further Seems Forever
Tooth & Nail

Yes, there is life after Chris Carrabba. The band's future seemed uncertain when their lead singer left to start up Dashboard Confessional, but they bounced back stronger than ever with the addition of Jason Gleason, who mimics Carraba with added force. The rest of the band supports him admirably. They've smartly shifted away from meandering emo-screamo rock in favor of a tighter, more melodic, hook-filled, and hard-hitting style. Their lyrics have also become more meaningful, addressing real life issues relevant to their target audience of teens and college students. Further Seems Forever is now more memorable and accessible without sounding clichéd or sacrificing creativity.
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#10
Unclassified

Robert Randolph & the Family Band
Reprise/Warner

Hands down one of today's best live acts—a jam band at least as good as Dave Matthews Band and Phish. Robert Randolph & the Family Band are single-handedly reviving the sacred steel guitar genre, taking vintage gospel to a new place. Compared to their previous live album, this studio recording is tighter and more accessible. Perhaps too tight, because the shorter songs don't quite fully showcase the foursome's level of musical proficiency. A glimpse of it is still enough for you to appreciate what they're doing. These guys define "joyful noise" with their unique blend of funk, rock, blues, and gospel.
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#9
Me Died Blue

Steven Delopoulos
Universal South

Rather than rest on his laurels and attempt to recreate the sound of his former band, Burlap to Cashmere, Delopoulos provides listeners with a throwback to great '70s singer/songwriters like Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, and Paul Simon. However, Delopoulos refrains from simply crafting another typical folk-pop album. With the aid of producer Monroe Jones, he succeeds in coloring his music with soft synthesizers, complex percussion, and traditional Greek instruments in addition to the standard acoustic guitars. Delopoulos also paints his introspective words with unique imagery, touching on his faith while remaining poetic. A beautiful and haunting folk album for the thinking man.
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#8
So Much for Substitutes

downhere
Word/Warner

We showered this band's 2001 debut with acclaim. That was no fluke, as evidenced by this solid follow-up, and they prove so without recording the same album twice. A terrific live act, downhere has successfully translated their concert sound to the studio by presenting more aggressive guitar rock. The band is strong in every way, from the solid rhythm of bass and drums, to the excellent guitars and impressive vocals of both lead singers. Their strong material is infectious in melody while striking a perfect balance of faith and artistry in the lyrics. These guys are on a roll, so bring on the third disc!
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#7
Perfect Change

Dakona
Maverick/Warner

Dakona cut its teeth on the independent circuit for five years, and it shows. Combining the anthemic qualities of U2 with the melodic neo-grunge edge of Lifehouse, this Canadian quartet is as appealing as either of those bands. The quality of the recording makes it one of the best debuts we've heard, Ryan McAllister's lead vocal is often excellent, and the songs balance subjects of faith and relationships well (much like Lifehouse). Here's yet another example of a band of faith getting its start in the mainstream, earning considerable airplay and opening for big names like Michelle Branch and Third Eye Blind. There's a lot to like here.
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#6
Jill Paquette

Jill Paquette
Reunion

Those of you wishing that Jewel hadn't strayed from folk-pop should give this 24-year-old Canadian songwriter a try. She similarly covers a stylistic gamut ranging from the gentle to the roots rocking. Writing with an honesty and vulnerability that's as inviting as her lilting voice, Jill Paquette credibly articulates matters of doubt ("Not the Only One"), struggles ("Katie-Lynn"), and faith ("Free [Take My Life]"). And as a classically trained pianist and a talented acoustic guitarist, she has the instrumental talent to back it all up. This stunning debut firmly ranks Paquette in the same league as the other great folk-pop songwriters in Christian music.
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#5
She Must and Shall Go Free

Derek Webb
INO

The former member of Caedmon's Call tells it like it is in this musical epistle to the church, without pulling punches or resorting to trite expressions. Because some of the metaphorical wording is so strong, some Christian bookstores wouldn't carry it. Nevertheless, Derek Webb convicts without condemning, lovingly pointing out the church's weaknesses by first pointing to himself. It's a challenging message of grace and faith that more Christians need to hear. He also stretches himself musically, effortlessly blending country and blues with his familiar folk-pop/rock sound. Caedmon's Call's loss is our gain with an entire album's worth of Webb's bold and insightful songwriting.
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#4
Ghosts

Sleeping at Last
Interscope

An absolutely beautiful modern rock record in the spirit of early Radiohead, U2, Coldplay, and Smashing Pumpkins. Yet Sleeping at Last draws on those influences to shape an elegant sound all their own—all done with a quality and precision rare for a band this young (ages 19-21). What's more, the trio's lyrics aren't nearly as obtuse as other Christian bands, and their spiritual themes only become more evident as you absorb the music over repeated listens. In little more than a month, Ghosts has already become a favorite for many of us. Sleeping at Last is on the frontline of musical creativity; expect to hear more great things from them in the years ahead.
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#3
Who We Are Instead

Jars of Clay
Essential

Yes, we all knew Jars of Clay was a capable rock band. Who could have guessed they were capable of being a blues-folk-country-gospel-pop-rock band, or that they'd sound so strong and comfortable doing it? Time and again, this band continues to surprise us, consistently proving that they're committed to the long haul and sooner willing to experiment with their sound than become predictable or stagnant with their art. Serving also as a powerful expression of faith in light of brokenness, Who We Are Instead is easily their best work since the 1995 debut—some of us will even go so far as to call this their greatest work yet.
Click here for the original review.

#2
Stacie Orrico

Stacie Orrico
Forefront/Virgin

This is modern pop/R&B at its finest, rising above the clichés and stereotypes that have plagued the genre for years. Part of that is the exceptional production, rivaling anything in the mainstream. But a bigger part is Stacie Orrico's maturity, incredible for a 17-year-old, surpassing that of artists 10 years her senior. Her songs are just as relevant to adults as they are to teens. Case-in-point: the smash hit "Stuck," written about harmful relationships. Those who claim that Orrico is hiding her faith clearly haven't heard this CD's other songs. That an album this spiritual can be so readily accepted in the mainstream bodes well for pop culture and the growth of Christian music.
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#1
The Beautiful Letdown

Switchfoot
Sparrow/Columbia

When we first heard this album's opening guitar riff to "Meant to Live" last December, we suspected this would be the one to beat in 2003. And it probably didn't hurt that The Beautiful Letdown received universal acclaim. Switchfoot continues to thrive, steadily building an audience in Christian and mainstream markets. And why not? This is practically perfect modern rock with broad appeal—memorable hooks, catchy melodies, tight musicianship, big rock sound, pop sensibilities. Jon Foreman's intelligent lyrics ask listeners to consider what they believe, leading them to a state of brokenness in order to deliver "The Beautiful Letdown"—life's not about us and we don't belong here. The hard truth of Christianity has never been easier to take. Switchfoot only gets better and better with each album, so we can hardly wait to hear what's next.
Click here for the original review.


The Ones That Got Away

Our six panelists each choose one CD they wish made the final list.

Andy Argyrakis
Freelance writer and critic, Christian Music Today

Ohio

Over the Rhine
Back Porch/Virgin

This double disc was ineligible for our list because of one strong profanity in "Changes Come," ironically one of the album's most prayerful songs. There are still 20 other superbly crafted songs on Over the Rhine's greatest work to date. This folk-pop-rock-country-gospel duo is more focused on the emotional than on the evangelical, letting Christianity permeate their writing and reaching listeners on a deeper, more intangible level. OTR makes you feel your faith through poetic lyrics and powerful performance, perhaps even awakening or inspiring faith in their mainstream fans. Plus, Karin Bergquist is simply one of the best female vocalists alive today.
Click here for the original review.

Russ Breimeier
Director and Chief Music Critic, Christian Music Today

Photographs

Andrew Osenga
independent

Despite only one copy of this independent project floating in our offices, it still almost cracked our Top 12. That says something about Osenga's riveting songwriting, though we always knew he was capable of greatness from fronting The Normals. Playing most of the instruments himself, Osenga's solo debut resembles The Normals while hearkening to Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Bob Dylan. But most impressive is the breadth of subject matter—lost love, small town life, and broken homes, providing a more meaningful framework for the CD's more spiritual and prayerful songs. A brilliant folk-pop album from one of Christian music's most thoughtful songwriters.
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Jackie Chapman
Editor, Seven Ball and Release

Fallen

Evanescence
Wind-Up

Evanescence's off-color remarks about the Christian market made Fallen ineligible for Christian Music Today's list. It's fine for a band to resist classification as a Christian artist, but believers should be careful not to condone the band's behavior while appreciating its music. That said, the powerful, passionate, girl-fronted rock with driving guitars, soaring vocals, strings, and pulsing rhythm section is nothing short of beautiful. The lyrics of "Bring Me to Life," "Everybody's Fool" and "Taking Over Me" conjure images of souls familiar with God but disillusioned with an imperfect Church, making this CD a strong wake-up call.
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Michael Herman
Promotional Director and Contributing Writer, Christian Music Today

Illuminate

David Crowder Band
sixstep/Sparrow

I would've liked to have seen this album make the final cut. It struck me from the first listen. I've always appreciated that David specifically tries new things in leading worship; so much so that he once told me that "it's okay to fall on your face doing so," as long as the effort was pure. That effort shows brightly on this aptly-named project, and its absence from the final list of 12 shouldn't discount its value as one of the top albums of the year.
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Todd Hertz
Associate Editor, Campus Life magazine

The End Is Near

Five Iron Frenzy
independent

You know how some TV shows are cancelled without being able to do a fitting finale? Well, FIF knew The End is Near would be its final episode. And the band used it to go out swinging, with confidence and at the top of its game. It's a party that I can't stop returning too. The ska/punk/metal/rock/horn hybrid that set them apart is at its tightest. The lyrics are again laugh-out-loud funny and relevant. Plus, they give winks to their past as they ride off into the sunset. This is a fitting goodbye.
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Mark Moring
Editor at Large, Christianity Today International

A Beautiful Glow

Rock 'n' Roll Worship Circus
INO

I hold the distinction of being the only voter whose top album didn't make the official Top 12 list. I love this album's versatility; call it "eclectic rock." I hear everything from Zeppelin to the Beatles to the Monkees to the Stones to Lou Reed. It's lyrically solid, and sets itself apart from the mostly bland worship music currently on the airwaves. For my No. 1 album, it was difficult to choose between this CD and those from Jill Paquette and Andrew Peterson. The tiebreaker was this album's appropriately titled "Gift of Cool," absolutely the year's coolest rock song.
Click here for the original review.

Agree or disagree with our winners? Click here to view our first annual Reader's Choice Awards, and see what the masses picked as their favorite albums and artists.Want a blast from the past? View our previous best-of lists from 2002, 2001. and 2000.


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