We love discovering the most meaningful music being made. Were you able to keep up on all the new well-crafted, faith-inspired music in 2023? There sure was a lot! We can help point you to the gotta-hear releases as we bring you the 15th consecutive year of our most-loved UTR tradition. This isn’t just one person’s opinion, but a collective list comprising of the input of a 10-member panel of music critics. Plus, we want to get YOUR feedback as well (with a prize drawing below). Without further ado, we are proud to present to you UTR’s Top 11 Gourmet Albums of 2023.
[Albums qualify if by an artist who is a Christian, has over 50% new material, and is released publicly between 12/1/22 and 11/30/23.]
1. Circle Back, Start Again – Tina Boonstra
This UK artist’s prior release, City of Doubt, surprised some of our followers when it was named UTR’s #1 gourmet album of 2020. Tina Boonstra’s follow-up hits another bullseye and WOWed our panelists again. One described this as “a stunning album filled with brilliant lyrics and thoughtful musical nuances about life’s struggles that left me awestruck.” Another called this “rich and moody with depth and maturity that defies her young age.” Circle Back, Start Again is the #1 best gourmet album of the year! [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
2. Bare and Bones – Candace Coker
This album features top shelf songwriting, wonderfully original vocals, and a beautiful glow to the music (with thanks to producer Lori Chaffer). One of our critics said, “This is one of the most creative albums this year.” Another shared, “Bare and Bones is soulful and moving on every listen.” And yet another added, “The inspired songwriting, impeccable musical production, and Candace’s transcendent vocals make this an extraordinary album.” What an amazing achievement for a debut studio album! [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
3. Welcome – The Arcadian Wild
“Tight interweaving instrumentation with delicately perfected melodies are the perfect package to ‘welcome’ anyone into a musical journey of hope and wonder,” quipped one of our panelists. In an age increasingly defined by information, technology, and devices, The Arcadian Wild calls us to rekindle the wonder and warmth of place, marked by face-to-face relationships. One critic detailed, “Welcome is everything that I have come to love about music over the years: it’s warm, vocally enthralling, musically riveting, and lyrically poignant.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
4. Lauren Daigle – Lauren Daigle
How would Lauren follow up her crossover breakout and Grammy-winning album Look Up Child? With a new slate of songs that are even more layered and vibrant, both musically and thematically, that should take her career to new heights. One UTR critic proclaimed, “This release embraces old-school soul and Louisiana flavored arrangements that perfectly suits Lauren’s voice.” Another shared, “Insatiably joyful and delivered with power, Daigle returns with a candor and passion for her faith that is beautiful.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
5. Memory Unfixed – Mike Mains & the Branches
Don’t be surprised if you are drawn in by the infectious and melodic indie-rock hooks, and then find yourself chewing on the deep lyrics and weighty themes. One of our panelists shared, “You’ll enjoy the emotive vocals, musical excellence, and tight harmonies on one meaningful song after another. It’s one of the most energetic and emotionally engaging albums I’ve heard this year.” Another mentioned, “Mains writes songs to help people feel less alone and this mix of sweet and salty is the perfect combination.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
6. The Cannonballers – Colony House
“Colony House cuts loose in ways only previously hinted at on prior albums,” reviewed one panelist. This album has an ingredient sometimes forgotten in modern rock music: fun. After over a decade of touring, these fellows are now seasoned pros, and this February 2023 release oozes confidence and joy. A UTR critic called this “an album that is as playful as it is nostalgic in its songs reminiscing on the past.” Another described it as “such a rich tapestry of songs to explain the highs and lows of the human experience.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
7. Manna Pt. 1 – Chris Renzema
These songs are about a faith re-orientation – not afraid to doubt, lament, and ask hard questions – while also never throwing faith out the window. Chris has carved an impressive niche that’s too gritty for KLOVE and too faith-centric for NPR. One UTR critic celebrated, “Here, we see Renzema at his most mature lyrically as he dives into themes on how faith and church are challenged and changing.” Another added, “This album is a surprising burst of orthodox theology woven in gorgeous tones, which all comes across as peaceable, beautiful, and true.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
8. Featherbrained Wealth Motel – Dave Barnes
It’s a glorious experiment gone right. In an effort to expand his musical horizons, Dave Barnes dedicated an entire year of listening to the full Beatles catalog, and this album is the creative result. One panelist stated, “While an obvious nod to the Beatles, Barnes adds his superb songwriting skills to produce an engaging listening experience.” Another mentioned, “While bearing some signatures of the Fab Four, Barnes filters it through his singer-songwriter lens and produces a true delight of new originals.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
9. Caves – Needtobreathe
These guys are becoming prolific in their musical output. This is their 3rd full-length studio album in the last four years – and they are showing no signs of slowing down. One UTR critic describes this September release as “profoundly hopeful with anthems that will point you upward.” Another panelist quipped, “Another solid effort from a reliably great band, this time exploring themes of forgiveness and hope while fusing Americana and gospel styles to their rock sound.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
10. Land of the Living – Jason Gray
Jason Gray has this uncanny ability to write songs that feel commercially strong yet with an indie heart… songs that feel both personal and universal. This slate of songs has lots of pop hooks, but so many moments that will surprise you with depth and vulnerability. A member of our panel stated, “Whimsical, authentic and hopeful are words that come to mind when listening to the latest delivery from Gray. Lyrics challenge the believer to see the bigger story in every smaller interaction.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
11. Pioneer – Cory Asbury
“Surprise!” exclaimed one critic. “There’s more to Cory Asbury than worship music. Turns out he has a heart for country/folk that perfectly suits these personable faith-based songs of longing and gratitude.” What a delightful musical risk, as this Dove and Grammy Award-winner, detours from his praise and worship roots (co-writer of “Reckless Love”) to make an earthy and engaging old-school country album that would make Dolly and Johnny proud. As one panelist shared, “This album took me off guard.” [SPOTIFY LINK] [YOUTUBE LINK]
There you have it! Our critics’ picks of the Top 11 albums of 2023. Our panel has a wide taste and interest in music, so it’s always interesting to see how the final collective list shakes out. This also means that there were around three dozen albums cited by our critics that did not make the list above. So we are giving a quick nod to each of these as an extended “best of the year” list. The first six listed are our Honorable Mentions, but the rest are listed in no particular order.
We LOVE getting your feedback. In fact, lists like these are mostly good discussion starters. Answer either or both of these below and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a Kindle Fire – comment by 2/11/24. a) What is your overall reaction to the Top 11 list? What do you agree with? Which albums, in your opinion, are missing?
b) Are there any albums that you’ll try out (or give a second chance) based on this list?