This is one of our favorite UTR traditions – to honor the best of the best music from the year gone by.  Our honors are not for popularity, sales, or radio spins – our 10-member panel of critics voted on releases that were truly creative, honest, spiritual, & artistic.  A lot of records are worthy for consideration for this list… in fact, our critics cited 62 albums total as Top 11 recommendations, but these finalists are the ones that were mentioned multiple times.  No it’s not easy to make this list – especially when combining the collective feedback of 10 music connoisseurs. We are excited to present… The Top Gourmet Albums of 2016. [Albums qualified for consideration if the recording was made by Christian artists, contained over 50% new songs/arrangements, & released between 12/1/15 and 12/1/16.]

1. Fault Lines – Andy Gullahorn

We think the secret is out… Andy Gullahorn is one of Nashville’s finest songwriters.  The layered acoustic melodies, the authentic lyrics, and those classic Gullahorn “turns” (where he takes you from laughter to tears in just seconds) are all on full display here on Fault Lines. One UTR critic called this release “a raw and honest look at humanity & its desperate need for grace.” Another stated, “This is a master class in the art of musical storytelling.”  Fault Lines is THE best album of 2016!

2. Where The Light Shines Through – Switchfoot

Fine wine. Poets. Cathedrals. Baseball cards. Some things naturally seem to get better with age. Rock bands are usually not on this list, but Switchfoot is.  Instead of chasing the nostalgic sounds of a former glory, they keep growing and evolving as incredible artists. One of our panelists says Where The Light Shines Through is “arguably the band’s strongest release to date.” Another described it as “thoughtful lyrics, punchy hooks, and a crisp sound that continues to explore new territory.”

3. Hard Love – Needtobreathe

“This is one of the most meaningful albums I’ve ever heard.” Our critics adored the latest effort by Needtobreathe, which was (justifiably so) the most commercially successful album on this list. One critic said, “Full of groove, great horns, amazing vocals, and thoughtful lyrics, Hard Love stands the test of repeated listens.”  Another chimed in, “This might be the most mood-changing album this year. The synth, grungy beats, soul, and wall of sound on Hard Love can brighten anyone’s day.”

4. Far Side of the Sea – Eric Peters

Eric described this album as “an intentional left turn.” Producer Gabe Scott said “that was a rule, not just an idea.” They pushed each other to not make any predictable musical and production choices, and the result has been described by our own panel as “breathtaking,” “ambitious,” and “mesmerizing.” As one of our critics stated, “Of course the lyricism is fantastic as ever, but the epic electronic soundscapes breathe plenty of fresh life into these songs.”

5. Where The Light Gets In – Jason Gray

Jason Gray’s previous album dealt with pain and heartache, and here we get the natural expression after walking out of darkness and into light… joy.  Some of the production choices are clearly aimed at a CCM audience, yet what truly shines is the excellent songwriting. As one UTR panelist described, “His most joyful and fun record-to-date mixes thoughtful songwriting with catchy hooks.” Another said, “It may be his career best work. Gray wears happy well.”

6. House On Fire – Kerosene Halo

“These guys offer well-crafted, unpretentioius music that is sure to delight fans of classic country rock.” Derri Daugherty of The Choir and Michael Roe of the 77s team up to form this side project, Kerosene Halo, and we finally get the follow up to their 2011 debut. One UTR critic stated, “House on Fire is one of the under-rated highlights of the year.” Another agreed, “This quiet and soulful record would have knocked me out even if the ones behind it weren’t musical legends.”

7. White Flag – Branches

Gritty yet singable. Thoughtful yet relatable. Indie yet commercially viable.  It’s not easy to describe the jaw-dropping new album White Flag by Branches. Rawckus Magazine described the sound as “think Peter, Paul & Mary singing Arcade Fire tunes.” One panelist said, “The whole album is around the theme of surrender – very catchy songs, and at times very psalm-like.” Another wrote, “This mature and layered record will ‘wow’ you on first listen, and even gets better after that.”

8. Ghost of a King – The Gray Havens

“It feels like the soundtrack to a familiar story you haven’t read yet.” Our critics instantly fell in love with this April 2016 release, the third career project by The Gray Havens. This fan-funded album was produced by Ben Shive and gives a more epic tone to these well-written songs. One UTR panelist described it as “a stirring collection of songs with folk sensibility and rich, layered soundscapes.” Another stated, “Ghost of a King will take your ears and heart on a memorable journey.”

9. Inheritance – Audrey Assad

These are not your grandma’s hymns. Well… actually they are, but these new arrangements are as sweeping as a movie soundtrack. Here’s how one critic described Inheritance, “Floating and crystal clear vocals are supported by a lush bed of instrumentation – sweeping and beautiful.”  Another explained, “Audrey’s vocals will soothe your soul – all of the songs are reverent and worshipful.”  This project might be the perfect compliment to your personal time of prayer and worship.

10. American Prodigal – Crowder

This is the 2nd release of David Crowder’s new band, and there is no sophomore slump here. Their unique swamp-pop/folktronica style will have your feet stomping with a smile on your face. You’ll find some worship songs, some of them will gain some CCM radio airplay, but it’s the more grunge-Americana songs that are the true gems.  One panelist said, “David Crowder once told me he wanted to blend the front porch with the dance floor. Mission accomplished.”

11. God’s Highway – Sandra McCracken

Over much of the last 2 decades, Sandra McCracken has quietly become one of the most prolific songwriters & psalmists of our generation – especially in her contributions to a “new sound” of worship in the Church. One critic shared this about God’s Highway: “McCracken’s voice has found a natural home amongst Scripture songs, and this album is lovely.” Another said, “So beautiful. Several of these songs bring water to my eyes whenever I try to sing along.”

Are these the only GREAT albums from 2016? Of course not — but these 11 are a great place to start for high quality soul-enriching music.  And though the Critics picks were widdled into this collective Top 11 list, a total of 62 ALBUMS were cited by our panel — and you can read the entire list here!

On January 9 & 10 respectively, we will be releasing an audio podcast and a video feature sharing this Top 11 list. Of course, these types of lists can spark good conversations. Answer one of these questions [or both] in the comment section below, and we will draw one random commentor to receive a $25 iTunes Gift Card on 1/31/17.

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?