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Musical Musings 2017: Adam Holz’s Year-End Picks

We sometimes get emails that take us to task for “hating” what we review. To an extent, I get that. There’s lot to critique, and sometimes it can feel as if all we do is categorize varieties of moral dreck.

But I have a confession: One of my great joys is when a musical artist that we’ve been sharply critical of in the past does something that’s really good. That happened this year with Kesha’s song “Prayer,” perhaps my biggest “I can’t believe what I’m hearing” musical moment of the year. It’s a remarkable song in many ways.

So to begin this year’s round up of the best albums and tracks I reviewed, let’s dive into Kesha’s surprisingly profound song about prayer and forgiveness.

KeshaKesha, “Praying”: Sometimes it can be tricky to judge whether an artist’s lyrics are autobiographical, or whether she is just spinning a narrative yarn. Kesha’s “Praying” definitely falls in the former category. This painfully poignant track alludes to her legal battle against longtime producer Lukasz Gottwald (aka Dr. Luke), whom she accused of sexual assault in 2014. But emotionally, it sounds as if Kesha has moved on: “I’ll just say this as I wish you farewell,” she sings in the chorus. “I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’/I hope your soul is changin’, changin’/I hope you find your peace/Falling on your knees, prayin’.” Wow. Kesha’s latest album, Rainbow, has a number of significant issues. But this song, at least, is a ray of light.  The young woman who once infamously bragged about brushing her teeth “with a bottle of Jack” now intercedes for the man whom she says attacked her. It’s proof that even the most unlikely candidate can move in a redemptive direction (even if the rest of her album suggests she’s still got a ways to go).

Foster the People, Sacred Hearts Club: Do you get tired of celebrities unleashing sharp-tongued political invectives? Boy, I do. And, it turns out, so does Mark Foster, frontman for his band Foster the People. In an interview about this album, Foster talked about this culturally divided moment.  “I felt like people needed a hug,” he said. So a sonic hug it is. At times, Sacred Hearts Club sounds like an earnest, alt-rock homage to Beach Boys-style melodies and harmonies. As is typical of this band, lyrics occasionally meander into cryptic territory, and a few mildly bumpy lines embrace reckless behavior. But most of the time, Mark Foster and his band sing songs with positive, even spiritual themes. “Pay the Man” includes this plaintive prayer: “Call out to God, praise to the Most High/Call out for help, ’cause I’m playing with fire.” Other tracks critique our unhealthy dependence on technology, emphasize hope and love, confessionally address recovery from alcohol addiction and voice our longing for purpose amid our human frailty. This Foster the People album sports a reflective, philosophical vibe that prompts listeners to ponder what matters most in life.

Mandisa, Out of the Dark: Depression drapes our souls in suffocating dread, doubt and despair. And even though Christians should, theoretically, be equipped to deal with it through faith, we are not exempt from that debilitating mental illness. On Out of the Dark, Mandisa pours out her own struggles with depression, which were sparked by the death of a close friend. She’s not afraid to deal honestly with her despair. But his album also finds her renewing her faith and striving to help others who may be battling to cling to God as well. On the song “I’m Still Here,” we hear her sing, “And by the grace of God/I’m still here/ … Guess my God’s not done with me yet.” And on “Good News,” she’s determined to let her story be an encouragement and inspiration to others: “I’ve been quiet for way too long/ … Got a story and it’s time to tell.” I concluded my review of this album by saying, “This authentic, gritty, hopeful collection of songs may very well help others who find themselves in similarly shadowy places.”

Keith Urban, “The Fighter”: What does faithfulness over the long haul of a relationship look like? Keith Urban’s upbeat, country-pop hit “The Fighter” answers that question. He’s joined by country superstar Carrie Underwood here in a duet where she voices her relational insecurities, and he reassures her that he’s always going to be there. “What if I fall?” Underwood asks. “I won’t let you fall,” Urban promises. “And if I get scared?” she wonders.  “I’ll hold you tighter,” Urban replies. This track certainly would seem to have an autobiographical inspiration: Urban’s wife, actress Nicole Kidman, was famously married to Tom Cruise for 11 years—a marriage that ended disastrously and painstakingly documented in the tabloids. It’s understandable that she might have some lingering anxieties, but Urban does his best to assuage them here, chivalrously assuring her that he’ll always be there to contend for her honor: “When they tryna get you, baby, I’ll be the fighter.” If all that wasn’t romantic enough for you, a second video for the song featuring Urban and Kidman singing a portion of this song to each other in their SUV is just about as adorable as it gets.

Lecrae, “Blessings”: “Won’t take that credit, I know where we get it,” Lecrae raps. “Them blessings be comin’ from God above.” Those lines capture the thematic essence of this Chrstian rapper’s message on his single “Blessings.” You won’t find Lecrae bragging about his bling. Nope. Instead, he and guest rapper Ty Dollar $ign join forces, encouraging listeners to live with humility, gratitude and proper perspective on where the good things in life truly come from. In an interview with, Lecrae said, “My thing is just like I always tell people before you complain, be grateful you got breath to complain with, just appreciate the little things. Just the small blessings that you just have. You woke up, you can walk and you’re alive.” This redemptive track exemplifies that thankful mindset. Rap fans looking for redemptive lyrics instead of reckless ones would do well to check out this track.