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Ten Albums to Feed Your Soul

by Tompaul Wheeler

The songs, lyrics, and sounds on these albums never let me down.

     Love music but hate albums that tease you with one or two great songs when the rest is just mush? Me too. I’ll download a song here or there that I like, but a great album—one you can just hit play and get lost in, one that truly flows and takes you on an unexpected spiritual journey—that’s a rare find.

    The following albums are ones that never let me down. Note to note and beat to beat, each song sparkles with unique rhythms, yet unified vigor, adding up to a listening experience that draws you back again and again.
Jars of Clay, Who We Are Instead
    In 1994 Jars of Clay exploded on the music scene like no Christian band before or since. Their self-titled debut spawned instant hits like “Flood,” introspective classics like “Love Song for a Savior,” and did-you-hear-that numbers like “Liquid.”
    After such a successful first album, Jars spent the next decade exploring their sound, breaking the mold, but never quite finding another one that fit. Then, they did it again— 2003’s Who We Are Instead is a fantastic illustration of a band finally finding its groove. The album sounded rather different than anything they’d done before, yet left long-time listeners exclaiming, “That’s totally Jars of Clay!”
    They accomplished that feat by going back to their roots and American roots music. While folk influences had always shaped Jars’ sound, their album Instead dug even deeper into the American music landscape.
    From the lonesome ambience of the blues to eloquent country gospel, Instead explores spiritual paradoxes, buoys spirits, and reminds listeners that they never walk alone—while giving them plenty to chew on. Opener “Sunny Days” kicks off the album with peppy abandon, the whimsical “Amazing Grace” borrows nothing but the title from the old hymn, and “Faith Enough” ponders the paradox of faith: “The storm is wild enough for sailing / The bridge is weak enough to cross / This body frail enough for fighting / I’m home enough to know I’m lost.” The haunting “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” recreates Gavin Bryar’s legendary looping of a British tramp’s improvised praise song.
    See also: Good Monsters.
Delirious?, Glo
    If any group deserves the phrase “often imitated, never equaled,” it’s Delirious? Though they began as a small-town worship band in seaside Littlehampton, England, their music has taken them to scores of countries around the planet.
    They’re best known for invigorating and redefining “worship music,” but albums like Glo prove there’s no pigeonholing their style. Its sweeping sound, riveting yet rollicking choruses, and the way each song flows into the other like a stellar concert creates a mood that’s at times introspective, even repentant (“Investigate,” “Intimate Stranger”), reflective (“What Would I Have Done?”) and celebratory (“Everything”).
    From a fist in the air to a lump in the throat, this album has everything your soul is looking for.
    See also: Mezzamorphis, Kingdom of Comfort.
Take 6, Take 6
    For a generation of music and voice students, this album is a textbook. Take 6’s self-titled debut won fans across the industry—and the world—with their infectious exploration of a cappella’s possibilities. Putting their own spin on gospel standards (“A Quiet Place,” “Mary,” “Get Away, Jordan”) and showcasing a few of their own inventions (“Gold Mine”), Take 6 spellbinds and inspires with each new listen.
    See also: Anything else they’ve released, though I’m partial to Join the Band and He is Christmas.
Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration
    With countless versions of Handel’s 350-year-old Messiah floating around, did the world really need another one—especially one that breaks so radically with the original? Absolutely.
    It may be a favorite of academy choir teachers today, but the original Messiah composition was criticized for making spiritual themes “too secular.” A Soulful Celebration explores the history of African-American music, from spirituals to ragtime to rap, reinvigorating the Messiah’s timeless themes.
    From the Yellowjackets’ stunning and beautiful jazz rendition of “Behold the Lamb of God” to the Boys Choir of Harlem’s “Glory to God” to Al Jarreau’s scatting on “Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage?” this album is a celebration in every sense of the word.
Rich Mullins, The Jesus Record
    I’ve forever counted myself lucky that I got to see the late Rich Mullins in concert when he came to Walla Walla College my first year there. Shaggy-haired and unassuming, yet with a banner for God flying high and bright, Mullins sang songs of simplicity and raw devotion.
    Nine days before his death in a car accident, Mullins recorded rough demos of ten songs onto a micro cassette. The Jesus Record is his posthumous masterpiece. The first disc features Mullins’ own demos, while disc 2 features Mullins’ songs rerecorded by the likes of Ashley Cleveland and Phil Keaggy.
    Opening with the haunting “My Deliverer,” which proclaims “He will never break His promise / He has written it upon the sky,” the album is a tribute to Mullins’ Savior. It’s capped by the endlessly catchy “That Where I Am, There You May Also Be,” a song looking forward to an eternity with Jesus.
City on a Hill
    The City on a Hill series (including City on a Hill: The Gathering, Sing Alleluia, and It’s Christmas Time) is based on a simple premise: bring uber-talented musicians together and let ’em loose. But don’t expect any showboating here, just an incredible synthesis of talent directed to God’s glory.
    As producer Steve Hindalong explained, “Our concept of ‘community,’ is one that takes the emphasis off of the particular artist who may have their name on the song, and places it where it belongs, in worship and exaltation of God.”
    Artists such as The Choir, Out of Eden, Jennifer Knapp, Third Day, Sara Groves, Ginny Owens, Andrew Peterson, Sonicflood, and more contributed their gifts, singing in each other’s songs and making true sonic art. The result is a collection of songs with a remarkable unity and beauty, unpretentious and transcendent. When Peter Furler sings “We are seized by the power of a great affection,” it’s more than just words.
    I love this album. A “various artists” by a who’s who of Christian music, it soothes, enlivens, and on many a weekend, just plain starts my Sabbath out right. Somehow, it’s the perfect mood music for reflection and meditation, yet simultaneously stirring and compelling.
    Michael W. Smith’s rousing opener, drumbeats slowly building to a choir over crashing piano, paints an aural picture of God’s people stepping out into a hostile land in hopes of a better one to come.
    DC Talk’s “My Will” explores the struggle between self and righteousness: “Complexity haunts me / for I am two men / entrenched in a battle that I’ll never win . . . But you are my shelter, all the strength that I need.”
    In Sixpence None the Richer’s plaintive “Brighten My Heart,” Leigh Nash sings an ancient Celtic hymn: “My heart is as dark as the soil / sodden with winter rains / My soul is as heavy as the peat / freshly dug from the bog . . .
Help me open my heart to you.”
    Cindy Morgan’s “Make Us One” asks God to bring His people together, while the Katinas’ “Draw Me Close” sucks listeners in with a heart cry of devotion.
    Throughout the album the music perfectly complements the messages, drawing you in and pulling you along as one gem leads to another.
Switchfoot, The Beautiful Letdown
    I first laid eyes and ears on Switchfoot when they opened for Delirious? in 1999. They were young and scrappy, and I had a feeling they’d go places.   Have they ever.
    One way or another, each Switchfoot album has explored life’s meaning in a material world— and never better than this. The album’s title refers to the “beautiful letdown” when we discover that “all the riches this world had to offer . . . would never do.” It proclaims, “We are a beautiful letdown / painfully uncool / the church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools.”
    “Gone” tells the story of a girl who’d “rather fix her makeup than try to fix what’s going on,” and reminds us that “All the riches of the kings / end up in wills.” Clever, quirky, triumphant—the world may not satisfy, but this album sure does, while pointing you to “the God who’s not short of cash.”
See also: Oh! Gravity.
Johnny Cash, My Mother’s Hymnbook
    The legendary Johnny Cash never sang a song more mesmerizing than the title track of the last album he completed before his death, The Man Comes Around (a reference to Jesus’ Second Coming). But there’s something about My Mother’s Hymnbook, in which Cash reached back to the first songs he ever learned as he helped his family pick cotton in Arkansas fields. Recorded in a blur of productivity in his life’s last months, Cash’s well-worn voice brings weary yet ever-hopeful life to songs reflecting a hard-earned faith.
Mute Math, Mute Math
    When Earthsuit folded after one album, I figured that’d be the last I’d hear of their endlessly innovative sound. Then came Mute Math, formed in part by former members, and the smashing result was well worth the downtime.     Effortlessly blending elements of rock, jazz, and whatever else catches their ears, Mute Math explores the tension between human limitations and God’s endless love. “Typical” declares “I know there’s got to be another level / somewhere closer to the other side / and I’m feeling like it’s now or never—can I break the spell of the typical?” “Chaos” praises the One who “stay[s] true when the world is false / everything around breaking down to chaos”. “Plan B” begs God to “Come mend it all / All I've torn, all I've run to the ground / Broken down, come mend it all.” 
Tompaul Wheeler is the author of Godspace, the 2008 teen devotional. He loves photography, travel, the gospel, and his home city of Nashville, Tennessee.

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