Needtobreathe's Rivers in the Wasteland is arguably the best release of 2014 in the Christian/gospel genre so far. This artful album feels like a natural outgrowth of the artists' lives, with music inspired by actual experiences that give heft to the songs. Carolina boys at heart, the Rinehart brothers and their bandmates meld Americana and Southern rock, creating music that manages to feel modern and classic at the same time.
We're also glad to see the return of MercyMe, with their eighth studio album, Welcome to the New. After the heaviness of The Hurt & the Healer, this is a happy, hopeful collection that finds Millard & Co. rejuvenated, adding some fresh energy to their trademark pop rock sound. Rounding out the bands here are Mikeschair -- whose third studio project, All or Nothing, is a passionate plea to live life with conviction -- and Unspoken, who have just released their self-titled full-length debut. After two EPs from this band, it's great to get a whole album's worth of music, including radio-ready singles like "Start a Fire."
The worship world is pretty male-dominated, but Kari Jobe has been making her mark. Majestic continues to help her carve out a sizeable niche, with live tracks like the declarative worship anthem "Hands to the Heavens" and the stunningly beautiful "Breathe on Us." Meanwhile, Francesca Battistelli continues to stake her claim on the Christian pop market as a singer-songwriter to be reckoned with. If We're Honest is an intensely intimate album that shows her struggle to find the balance between life and art. On the gospel side, Erica Campbell represents with her solo debut, Help. Better known as one half of Mary Mary, Campbell holds her own without the help of her sister and longtime recording partner. (Don't miss the title track, featuring Lecrae.)
In the way of male music makers, it's great to hear from Shawn McDonald again. His redemptive story made waves back in 2004 after he turned his life around, surviving drugs and homelessness in Seattle. That background has always made him stand out in this genre -- in a good way. The gritty, confessional rock found on Brave is just the wake-up call Christian radio needs. Anthony Evans is another faith-based artist who hasn't taken a traditional path to success. He was an established gospel musician when he broadened his fan base by competing on Season 2 of The Voice. He didn't win, but he stayed in L.A., working with CeeLo, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Glee. Those experiences provided the inspiration for Real Life. Real Worship. Then there's Jonny Diaz (be sure to pronounce it "dye-az"), one of CCM's most underrated artists. His newest, Let It Fly, marks a fresh start and a new label home for the talented singer-songwriter who specializes in guitar-based acoustic pop. Sample everything mentioned here with our attached playlist.