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Thursday, August 28, 2014

#2 - 'Brave' and 'Oxygen': Trend or Theme?
Music | 212 views

OK, let’s play a little game. I’m thinking of an album. It has been out for a little while now, but it’s certainly still considered recent. It’s put out by a fairly well-known entity in Christian music. It has a pop-worship edge to it, and it has “Brave” in the title.

If your answer was Shawn McDonald’s Brave, Moriah Peters’ Brave or Bethel Music’s You Make Me Brave, you’d be right. (For those with good memories, we can throw in Nichole Nordeman’s Brave too.)

Of course, things are changing, and now the focus has turned toward that just released, much-anticipated new album by that high-profile artist that has “Oxygen” in its title.

You know the one… or two, I might say: Oxygen by Lincoln Brewster and Oxygen:Inhale by Thousand Foot Krutch. 

When I first caught wind of these similar titles from both the “Oxygen” and “Brave” camps, I cocked my head to the side like a puppy dog. I thought to myself that either these bands were copying one another, that the Nashville bubble is spreading around the same ideas or that those themes are soooooo in right now.

Upon further analysis, I think there’s another, more likely option. These aren’t trends. They’re themes--themes God feels passionately about and wants to communicate to the Church. 

In a recent interview with Moriah Peters, I asked her about the fact that her album title is so similar to others released in such a small window of time. Here’s her answer (watch from 7:40 until 9:26).

That really rings true for me. While Christian music is an industry, and a business for sure, we have to remember that at the heart of what’s going on here is one of God’s primary ways of communicating with His church (at least in our culture). And these artists care about being conduits of His heart.

Think about it. At a time when there are plenty of things in the world to scare us and make us disheartened, or at a time when we can feel pressured not to live for God in a world that is increasingly against Him, the message for now--for these days--is be brave. Stand firm. Put on Christ as your strength and your shield.

This is a theme, not a trend, in my view. Because even when Moriah knew that other artists were doing the same thing, she couldn’t back down from “Brave” being the title of the record, because God had impressed that upon her so deeply. She had nothing to gain, and much to lose from sharing a title with at least three other records--two of which had been released the same calendar year! 

(Side note: The theme has found its way elsewhere in music, too, from Sara Bareilles to J.Lo to Josh Groban and beyond… there's something to ponder there.) 

And a great companion to that message, that theme is that of “Oxygen,” which basically reminds us that our core need to truly live is Jesus. Not only do we need Him more than we need to breathe (another reference--ha!), but our desire is to breathe HIM in. That’s captured not only on the two releases that came out within a week of each other--from Brewster and TFK--but from the title Carrollton’s 2014 release, Breathe In Deep.

So let’s see this for what it is: a theme God is weaving throughout His Church that we are to be brave in Him, and to do so requires a supernatural dependence that allows us to live the abundant life that changes the world for Jesus.

What other themes are you seeing in Christian music or worship songs or albums? What else is God speaking to His people through them? Let’s keep the antennae of our eyes, ears and hearts up so we can perceive what the Spirit is speaking in these times!

Here’s my "Brave Oxygen" Spotify playlist I put together, which features the aforementioned albums (minus Lincoln Brewster’s) and some other similarly themed tunes you’ll enjoy!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

#1 - Does Christian Music Stink?
Music | 905 views

Hey! So from time to time, there are things happening in and around Christian music and media that just wouldn't fit in our NEWS section, nor would they fit as an exclusive article or devotional. This place is for that. This is a place where, at least once a week, I'll talk about some aspect of Christian music that begs for discussion. I'm hoping you'll participate in this discussion by commenting and sharing on various social media! Thanks for reading! --Marcus, NRT Executive Editor

It’s astounding to me how many people within the Church I meet who simply don’t listen to Christian music. When people ask me what I do for a living, and I tell them that I’m the Editor of the largest Christian music site online, sometimes I think they look at me like I’m creatively telling them that I’m unemployed.

Of course, then they ask what that means exactly, and I tell them (as best I can) about doing interviews and reviews, managing an incredible staff team, producing articles and content and a host of other things in the Christian music world.

  And when the topic turns to the bands with whom we interact, I often see that confused nod that basically says, “Yeah, I don’t know who you’re talking about.” 

Really? You’ve never heard of tobyMac? In the voice of Vizzini from The Princess Bride: “Inconthievable!”

Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially inquisitive, I’ll ask back, “Do you listen to Christian music?” And surprisingly, more often than not, people will say, “Not really.”

Most of the time, the reason for that answer, they say, is that they’re not really impressed with the quality of music that comes out of Christian artists. 

If you’re in that boat, or know someone who is, the response is clear: You just aren’t aware of what’s out there!

That argument may have held water in the mid-1990s. No offense to any of the great CCM pioneers, but I know kids growing up didn’t necessarily want to listen to adult contemporary music when the Beastie Boys, Nirvana and Michael Jackson were making tunes that simply were more fun for a particular age group.

Don’t get me wrong… there were still a few fun options for the youth at that time (hello dcTalk and Newsboys!), but the prevailing artists of that time weren’t really geared towards them.

Christian music is increasingly less a genre unto itself, more about its content than a musical pigeonhole. Bands who claim a relationship with Jesus are putting out inventive, creative stuff these days that rivals (and in many cases surpasses) its secularized counterparts. 

There have been incredible advances in production value, as well as serious swagger in hip-hop, electronic dance music, pop and rock

The fact is, the argument that Christian music somehow is subpar just doesn’t hold water anymore. There's really no reason anymore to listen to the shallow, empty, worldly stuff out there in mainstream land. (NOTE: There are plenty of great bands outside of Christian music making deep, beautiful, perhaps even godly music... but you know the kind of grossness out there I'm talking about.)

There's just so much good stuff nowadays. Let’s just take 2014 as an example. Think about the incredible releases from Hillsong Young & Free, Andy Mineo, Colton Dixon, Shonlock, Beckah Shae, Tedashii, Bellarive, Family Force 5, Danny Gokey, Anberlin, NEEDTOBREATHE and—hello somebody—Switchfoot!

And we’ve heard some of the material from albums yet to come, from for KING & COUNTRY’s “Album of the Year”-quality sophomore record to Thousand Foot Krutch’s strong rock record to Lecrae’s industry-frying Anomaly (and more!). 

There are scores of independent artists and others who don’t even get on the radio who are making some pretty incredible music.

If you know someone at church or in your family who shares the viewpoint that Christian music is cheesy, or somehow lacking in quality, send them to us. (I’m not kidding!) Send them to NRT Radio or our NRT Radio App. Part of why we exist is to mine out the best that faith-first music has to offer… and these days, it’s not that difficult to do.

What arguments have you heard from Christians as to why they don’t listen to Christian music? Talk amongst yourselves...


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Top 10 Songs of Summer 2013
Music | 1356 views

Thanks to a tremendous first half of 2013, there's been a ton of great music available for summer soundtracks. This non-scientific list of THE summer songs of 2013 takes into consideration the upbeat, pop 

1. "Every Good Thing" by The Afters

This one's just a ton of fun. There's so much on the band's Life is Beautiful album that's upbeat and good, clean pop/rock, and "Every Good Thing" is the kind of summer anthem you want while you're cannonballing into a pool with your closest friends. St. Irenaeus said "the glory of God is man fully alive," and this is one of those songs where you feel fully alive, worshipping God in joy.


2. "Ready or Not" by Britt Nicole (feat. Lecrae)

Now, while this song has been out for a while with Britt's Gold album, many people are just discovering it thanks to the single release dance between record labels and radio. Regardless of its age, this song has become an anthem of the summer because it's catchy, it's relevant, it's aggressive in its positivity, and it features a solid rhyme interlude from the premier rapper in Christian music. What more could you want?


3. "Condo in Neverland" by The Jellyrox

Synth rules the roost these days, and nobody does synth-pop better than the Jellyrox. The carefree days of summer are a lot like how Peter Pan's Neverland is described. Like all good things, summer has to end, and this song is a great declaration of how we all just want to walk away from the stress of life and get "a condo in Neverland." It's a ton of fun. In reality, all of The Jellyrox's Embellish EP qualifies as a summer anthem, with special mention going to the song "Rebel Tide."


4. "Chainsaw" by Family Force 5 (feat. Tedashii)

Every summer has to have its signature dance, and Family Force 5 provides that with the earworm song "Chainsaw" from their Reanimated remix project. There's nothing particularly profound or spiritual about this song—though the NRT staff has had fun shoehorning speculative theology into the party lyrics—yet it's just good, clean lumberjack fun. 


5. "Dead Come to Life" by Jonathan Thulin (feat. Charmaine)

This is the most serious song on the list, as it has the meatiest subject matter, spiritually speaking. As is the case with many Jonathan Thulin songs, the real magic is in the music video here. This is easily the best music video of the year—although it's in contention with another Thulin vid for "Bombs Away"—yet the audio certainly can stand on its own. With powerhouse duo vocals and a memorable hook of a chorus ("the dead come to li-i-i-ife"), this single from The White Room deservedly found momentum on Christian radio.


6. "Sick of It" by Skillet

Picking just one song from Skillet's defining new album, Rise, is a tough one, but I thought best to go with the one that started it all—debut single "Sick of It." The song is the rock anthem of the summer, and has electrified audiences at festivals (Christian and mainstream) with its message of "enough is enough" with the brokenness, death and pain in the world. It's got this great vibe of fighting back against the darkness of our times, and screams rock and roll. If you haven't experienced this song live yet, make a point to do so. You'll be raising your hands "if you're sick, if you're sick of it."


7. "Believer" by Audio Adrenaline

The new incarnation of Audio Adrenaline, with Kevin Max at the helm as frontman, rode its title track for quite a while as its first single before releasing their second single from Kings & Queens. And that single is "Believer," which takes Kevin's already strong vocals and pairs them with the equally impressive (but infinitely different) performance of keyboardist Jason Walker. The song was inspired by a blind surfer, which is equally inspiring and eternally summer-riffic. The song's all about taking big risks for God, knowing that He is with you.


8. "Beautiful Love" by Shine Bright Baby

This new band on BEC Records really wanted to communicate joy in this song, and that's exactly what they did (in the music as well as the fun music video). The song—the first single from Dreamers—is a head-bobbing pop/rock gem. It's a love song, really, but while so many songs on mainstream radio are talking about their fleeting summer crush, Shine Bright Baby is enthusiastically and endearingly singing about the perfect love of God.


9. "I Feel So Alive" by Capital Kings

If you're looking for the club track of the summer, look no farther than Capital Kings. Their song "I Feel So Alive" is a declaration of the life that Jesus brings us. It's got a great modern sound, a simple, unforgettable hook, and a great introduction to what has quickly become one of the top dance-pop groups in Christian music. Check out their entire self-titled release.


10. "Never Beyond Repair" by Everfound

There are definitely more summer-y songs on Everfound's self-titled album, but this is the one that's experienced traction so far as the band's first single. This epic-sounding rock band presents a Sanctus Real-like declaration anthem about how we're always within the healing reach of God. It's the ballad of summer 2013, and fills that necessary role of emotional heart strings-puller.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What a Weekend with Michael W. Smith!
Music | 540 views

There's no denying that when it comes to Christian music, Michael W. Smith looms large. He was part of a key group of artists in the 1980s that changed the face of Christian music by pairing timeless truths with modern sounds. Known for his hit songs such as "Friends", "Missing Person", "Go West Young Man" and more, Smith found a new musical sweet spot in the late 1990s with his worship projects. Now he's continuing to push himself creatively with his instrumental compositions.

Now, with 30 years under his belt, "Smitty" celebrated with a few hundred of his "friends" at the exclusive "Michael W. Smith & Friends - A Tennessee Weekend" event June 20-23 in his hometown of Franklin, Tenn.

Basically, it was the ultimate VIP fan experience for "Smitty fans." I'd liken it to a Michael W. Smith camp for grown-ups or like an intimate, miniature Christian music festival where the headliner plays a half-dozen sets and brings along some friends (no pun intended—OK, it was intended).

Some fans showed up a day early to the festivities—on Thursday night—to experience a special dinner, dessert, concert and recording studio experience. The dinner—billed as being prepared by "the best chef in Nashville"—was put together and captained by no other than Barbara Smith, Michael's mother. The entire thing existed to benefit Michael’s charity, Rocketown, which helps at-risk teens find a positive place to be after school.

On a perfect Franklin night, we enjoyed salmon with chipotle cranberry sauce, a special feta-and-fruit salad, and later, amazing white cake. We were fortunate enough to sit with Michael and his wife, Deb. Having never met Michael before, I didn't know what to expect from one of Christian music's all-time greats, and I was pleased to see how down-to-earth and, dare I say, normal he was. There was no hint of any ego or diva within him; he was just genuinely excited to see old friends and meet new ones.

We were treated to his first show of the night in a courtyard just a stone's throw from Michael's office near the famed Paragon Studios, which included songs such as "Love in His Right Hand" from A New Hallelujah, "Breathe In Me" from I'll Lead You Home, and of course, his breakout song "Friends" from his first album. It wasn't just a blast from the past in the intimate courtyard; he did a new song called "Take Me Home" that likely will find its way onto a new album of Smitty tunes in February/March 2014.

Fans got immediately familiar with that new song later that evening when they served as a studio choir on the track. At the world-famous, multi-million-dollar Paragon Studios—where Michael has recorded many times—two different groups of fans belted out three-part harmonies to the climactic chorus of the new song: "I wanna be forever / With You forever / Oh won't You take me home?" Whether or not the group's final product makes it onto the album remains to be seen, but everyone involved enjoyed getting a taste of the studio experience, while having Smitty be their choir director.

That was just the first night, and the official weekend festivities hadn't even begun! Friday kicked off with a fantastic dinner that sought to benefit and bring awareness to Family Affair Ministries—a non-profit organization that provides resources to low-income families and seeks to eliminate the things that keep people in poverty. Then, the magnificent Liberty Hall at The Factory was converted from restaurant to concert venue.

From the opening notes of “Carry On My Wayward Son,” you knew the night was going to be something special. Michael’s good friend, former Kansas frontman and Christian musician John Elefante, lent his formidable pipes to do a special set with brother, Dino, on guitar, playing songs such as “Carry On”, “Dust In The Wind” and even a new one from his latest solo effort, On My Way to the Sun.

If that wasn’t enough, it was followed by a Smitty set that was very different than the intimate gathering of the first night. For some of you who are uneducated or uninitiated, hear this: Smitty still rocks. Although he began and ended his set with passionate worship, Michael and his band wailed on songs like the throwback “Wired For Sound” (from 1986’s The Big Picture) and “The River is Rising” (from 2008’s A New Hallelujah).

After a speedy tour through his discography, Michael devoted the second half of his set to worship, leading the assembled in powerful renditions of “Mighty to Save”, “Above All”, “Majesty”, “Healing Rain” and “Agnus Dei” and “I Am Free.”

“It’s hard to survive success in this business,” Smith said to the crowd—which included recent American Idol alum Scott MacIntosh and his wife, Christina. Michael said the music business takes a toll on people, and sincerely thanked his most steadfast fans for their fervent ongoing support over the years. “Your prayers kept me alive.”

Saturday morning began with a special time of worship—led by Michael and his son-in-law, Jack Mooring of Christian band Leeland—as well as devotionals shared by Michael’s wife, Debbie. Mooring, who sings backup in the band for his younger brother, Leeland Mooring, showed his own vocal prowess and heart for worship as he led simple-yet-profound renditions of “Your Love Never Fails”, “10,000 Reasons” and “You’re Worthy of It All” (from IHOP worship).

“I feel like my flame is small,” admitted Smith in a moment of vulnerability during the devotional time. “It used to be a big ol’ flame. I want my flame to be a roaring fire.”

The organizers of the event called the Tennessee Weekend a “land cruise,” and like any cruise, there were excursions. People fanned out all over the Nashville/Franklin area, taking in sights, shopping and listening to music. In the mid-afternoon, everyone converged on Smitty’s sprawling acreage outside of Franklin, called Deer Valley Farm.

A long, winding path from the street through the woods provided an air of mystery as people approached the Smiths’ personal retreat space. Upon arriving, guests lined up to take their photos with Michael, enjoying the bluegrass stylings of a hired quartet while they waited.

Beyond the photo line was a Tennessee theme park of sorts on the Deer Valley property, with multiple cornhole games available, hot air balloon rides (tethered, of course) and skeet shooting. NRT’s Founder, Kevin McNeese, and I approached these games with some friendly competition in mind. Check out the results of that here.

Smitty himself took part in the activities, playing a rousing round of cornhole with his immediate family. When asked whether her husband was competitive in such family activities, Deb Smith’s eyes widened. “Oh yes!” she said.

A flowing pond and a towering willow tree served as a backdrop for the main event of the evening, which of course meant more music. Jason Gray kicked things off with a few songs of his own, including “More Like Falling in Love” and “Remind Me Who I Am.”

He was followed by a special unannounced guest: country music superstar Wynonna Judd. Wynonna—who is Smith’s neighbor—praised Smith for reaching out and inviting her to his farm. The more seasoned individuals in the crowd were delighted to hear a number of her career hits, including “Heaven Help my Heart” and her rendition of “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

After getting a standing ovation from the still-shocked and enthusiastic crowd, Michael took the stage with Brandon Heath., Ben Glover and Tom Douglas for a special Nashville experience: Writers in the Round. This kind of thing, which happens a lot in Nashville, features songwriters talking about their tunes and singing them with one another to build community and appreciation for the art. Glover and Douglas aren’t active performers in their own rights, but masterfully performed the story-songs they’d written for country and Christian artists. In particular, Glover’s performance of “Stronger”—which was recorded by Mandisa—totally presented the song in a new, almost country, light.

When each artist had performed three songs, the party shifted to a massive bonfire in the field, where the more daring souls braved singed eyebrows and extremities in order to roast a marshmallow for s’mores. Then, like summer campers heading back to their bunks, the partygoers made their way down the winding path back to the busses.

Sunday morning began much like Saturday morning—with worship. In addition to son-in-law Jack Mooring, Michael was joined on stage by his daughter, Whitney, and three-year-old grandson, Smith, who told the crowd at the beginning of the session, “I’m a worship leader!” Whitney, Michael and Jack took turns leading songs before a closing devotional word from Jack.

The Smitty Weekenders ended their time with both a sense of sadness at leaving their most favorite artist, and anticipation at the 2014 Alaska cruise he’s doing with Darlene Zschech and Phillips, Craig & Dean.

“I was asked in an interview why I do this,” he told the crowd in his parting remarks (referencing our exclusive chat with him). “The reason’s because I love you guys! Together, we’ve become a church!”

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