Lend Them Your Ear: My Top 10 Favorite Songs of 2014

Before I begin, an important distinction. There’s a difference between my “favorite” songs and my “best” songs. My “favorite” songs are ones I can relate to or I enjoy. The “best” ones are the songs that are well-constructed instrumentally and perfectly-written. These are my “favorite” for your reading pleasure.

1. “Fear” | Lecrae | Anomaly | Reach Records

There are so many lines in this song that I can 100 percent relate to. Lecrae raps about fear and how it can grip us, how it can hold us back from doing what God has called us to do, but also a reminder of how God is there the whole time, and all we have to do is call on Him. The line “Bible on my dresser that could teach my pain a lesson but I’d rather not address it” sticks out in particular.

I often find myself in that place when there’s things I’m struggling with. I use the wrong tools to deal with my issues, the wrong methods, the wrong paths, when instead, I should just go to the Lord, remember His Word, believe afresh in the truths of God. It’s like trying to drive in a screw with a saw: it won’t do anything positive and it will definitely hurt things. At least, that’s what I think will happen if you try to screw something in with a saw.

The beat of “Fear” is nice and the overall production is quite stellar. It didn’t get the Grammy-nomination-sized recognition that “All I Need Is You” did, but I think “Fear” is the best song on the album and my favorite song this year.

2. “Sweet Victory” | Trip Lee featuring Dimitri McDowell and Leah Smith | Rise | Reach Records

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks. “Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us” (Romans 8:35,37). Trip raps about the struggles that he’s faced from popularity and health issues and how we can only find victory in our circumstances through Jesus. I love this song because the message is true and it’s super-personal.

I love songs like this and “Fear” in which the artist is vulnerable and transparent, and it’s something that I’ve found is most beneficial in my life, when I’m honest about what I’m dealing with. It’s easy to feel overcome by life’s worries and circumstances, but we are more than conquerers through Christ.

The hooks from McDowell and Smith are killer, two great voices that contribute beautifully. I wasn’t a fan of this album as a whole, but this song went to my top list as soon as I heard it. Not even a question. And that’s why it’s here at No. 2.

3. “All of Me” | John Legend | Love in the Future | Columbia Records/G.O.O.D. Music

The soulful voice, the solitary piano, the honest, straightforward lyrics, I dig just about everything about this song. It’s well-written, something uncommon for a lot of popular songs today. It’s a unselfish look at love, with John praising his lady’s “perfect imperfections” and promising to “give (his) all” to her. The song is dedicated to his wife, which makes it even sweeter.

I’m a big fan of sappy love songs that are actually well-done, like this one. And I fell in love with chill music this year, and this fits the bill so well. And, as I said, it’s incredibly noble, especially when you contrast it with something like Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything.” When this song first got popular, two of my roommates and I had a brief heated debate about which one of us would claim it as our wedding song. I passed up eventually, but it wasn’t an easy decision. Plus, I imagine that stuff can change.

Also, check out this video with added violin by Lindsey Stirling. Just beautiful.

4. “Wanna” | Christon Gray featuring JGivens | School of Roses | Collision Records

This upbeat tune from probably my favorite Christian singer Christon Gray (no, not the one from 50 Shades of Grey) examines the dangers of succumbing to sinful desires, particularly with a seductive woman (which the video focuses on) and potential musical stardom. School of Roses just might be my favorite album from this year because Gray’s songwriting is a growing talent and his voice…good gracious, that voice.

The production is great and JGivens’ talent as an MC is super-evident throughout his verse. He appears once more on this list and is, I think, a rising talent in the CHH industry. Collision is putting out a bunch of good music right now – they’re one to watch for the future.

5. “Not a Bad Thing” | Justin Timberlake | The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 | RCA Records

Last year it was “Mirrors.” This year, it’s “Not a Bad Thing.” JT just has a pulse on my sappy love song desires right now. Again, a reminder that you don’t need vulgar lyrics or super-selfishness to make a great song in the “secular” industry these days. Plus, I want his voice. One of six people in the world whose voices I want, along with Michael Buble, Josh Groban, Matt Thiessen of Relient K, John Legend and Sam Smith. And, according to the personnel credits, JT also played guitar on the track. Bonus points.

It’s a song about taking a risk on love. “Don’t act like it’s a bad thing to fall in love with me, ’cause you might look around and find your dreams come true with me.” It’s a song about making a lifelong commitment, uplifting the woman and sacrificing for her. Plus, it’s got a sick boy band vibe (which makes sense). Anything with that kind of vibe, I can dig it. Always a good thing.

Note: the album technically came out in 2013, but the song was released as a single in 2014, and it wasn’t until it was a single that I found out about the song, so it counts as 2014.

6. “Doubts” | KB | 100 | Reach Records

KB begins the song explaining how his life since 16 has been all about living for Christ doing full-time ministry. He’s lived unashamed, like it’s his middle name. “But sometimes I still feel like I’m in the dark/Let me explain the conflicts of Kevin’s heart/maybe the fact that my father left me plays a part/and why I’m so afraid that I could one day walk away and leave God.” It’s another song with a high amount of honesty and forthrightness about struggles, something that Christian music seems to either avoid or be super vague about the majority of the time.

When I first head this song, I instantly related to it (in other words, bonus points). It hit me square in the chest because I’ve been struggling with doubt this year, doubt of my salvation, doubt in Jesus, doubt that God loves me, a lot of things. And to hear a guy I admire be honest about his struggle on an open platform really encouraged me. Is this the best or most creative song I’ve heard this year? No. But it ministered to me on a Top 3 level.

7.  “Royalty” | Mali Music | Mali Is… | RCA Records

I can’t remember how I discovered this album, but it’s probably my favorite album this year. It’s not the best album, but it’s my favorite. The voice behind the hook on Lecrae’s “Tell The World” brings a mix of storytelling and powerful statements, none more pertinent to believers than the one on “Royalty.” We who are believers are sons and daughters of the king, making us royalty. 1 Peter 2:9 states, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

The production is top-notch, with piano keys complementing tight 808s with the occasional guitar strum and strings coming in the background. And his voice is almost as beautiful as that beard on his face. He challenges people to know their identity and to live their lives based on that. “Mercy changed everything for me and you,” he says. It did. And continues to do, those of us who are believers.

8. “Awkward Pt. 2” | Social Club featuring Abiv | Misfits 2 | Self-released

So this is a straight-up silly addition to this list, as is the next one. I discovered the rap duo Social Club through their mixtape Summer of George last fall, and their 2014 album Misfits 2 did not disappoint. This song is about being awkward, which is the calling card of Social Club member Marty. The song isn’t what you would expect from a couple Christian rappers, but that’s what Social Club is about, doing the unexpected.

9. “Paisano’s Wylin'” | Andy Mineo featuring Marty of Social Club | Never Land | Reach Records

There’s a music video coming soon, apparently, that I can’t wait to see. Bring in Marty of Social Club, and you get Andy Mineo’s goofy side. There are a couple good theological points in here, but really this song is aimed at paisanos (“a peasant of Spanish or Italian ethnic origin,” here Italian) having a good time. It caps off with a Godfather-tinged punishment for “running your piehole” from Andy.

10. “#SameTeam” | Swoope featuring Yaves, Tedashii, Dre Murray, JGivens, John Givez | Sinema | Collision Records

10a. “#SameTeam Remix” | Swoope featuring Jackie Hill Perry, Taelor Gray, KB, JGivens, Alex Faith, KIDD

It’s hard to mention the original without including the remix. The song promotes community and unity in the body of Christ, particularly in the Christian rap industry, not competing but working together, being on the, if you will, #SameTeam. Killer verses from JGivens, John Givez, KIDD and Tedashii make this pair of tracks must-haves.

Honorable Mentions:

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Three Tips for Maintaining a ‘Solid’ Beard

Note: So normally my posts are about spiritual things, encouraging songs or Bible verses or convicting passages, even sometimes touching on music. This is none of those things. 

I was having a conversation with my brother today about facial hair – which happens once in a while – and he said that my beard was “solid.” It wasn’t the best beard he’s ever seen, apparently, which is slightly insulting, but, no matter.

When I was in high school and even into college, a beard seemed to be a sign of masculinity, being a man. So I would grow one as often as I could and leave it as long as possible before my mom complained or I just felt like getting rid of it. I still think beards can be very masculine, but it doesn’t make you a man.

Anyways, I’ve gotten many compliments on my bearding skills over the years – and a couple over the last few days, that’s why this is so fresh in my mind – and I wanted to share my tips for growing a perfectly adequate, apparently “solid” beard. This applies to people who have beards that are grown and that they keep, not for those who shave every day.

1) Trim often.

This cannot, I repeat, CANNOT be overlooked if you want to grow a “solid” beard. I shudder sometimes when I see facial hair creep up the cheeks or down the neck in an unruly, un-groomed manner. There’s a difference between being a “mountain man” and a “live-in-the-woods-with-no-running-water mountain man.”

No. Just no. Never.
No. Just no. Never.

Guys, for real, take the time to trim. The advantage to trimming is that you can shape your beard how you like. No one wants to see those nasty neards. They’re not cool. I can’t emphasize how much. Also, cheeards are no fun either. The cleaner it looks, the better it is.

I trim once every two or three days. All it requires is taking a razor and just shaving the neck and cheek areas to remove any hairs that have started to grow. Maybe you need to do this every day. It’s 100 percent worth it.

2) Wash it. Every day. Twice a day.

This also cannot, I repeat, CANNOT be overlooked if you intend to grow a “solid” beard. Having nastyness hanging off your face is no fun for anybody. For you, it’s like smelling a sweaty sock all day. For your significant other, imagine trying to kiss with that junk in the way. For your other family, friends and co-workers, it’s just really unseemly.

Ben Affleck can rock a beard, if I do say so myself.
Ben Affleck can rock a beard, if I do say so myself.

Every time you shower – which I hope is at the least once-a-day, preferably twice – wash your beard like you wash your hair on top of your head. Get some good shampoo and scrub it. Get your fingers in there. You don’t know what might have nested within the thickets of facial hair.

I cannot emphasize this more. I do this every time I take a shower. It might be hard to remember at first, but just remember all the people who will suffer if you don’t. Including you. Friendly reminder: don’t forget the mustache. It’s just worth it.

3) Make sure the hair (or lack thereof) on the top of your head doesn’t clash. 

The whole picture has to look like a Monet, not a Picasso. This isn’t really that hard to do, but you’ve got to be careful. There was one year I kind of shaved and left a goatee around Christmas time, but I hadn’t had a haircut in a long time. It looked real ratchet. And I don’t use the word “ratchet” lightly. I hate looking at pictures from that Christmas. It scares me to think I could be that silly.

Brian Wilson. No, not the Beach Boys' one.
Brian Wilson. No, not the Beach Boys’ one.

You can really make just about any hairstyle work with a perfectly “solid” beard. If you need help making sure, ask someone, anyone who has ever seen a beard before. They should be able to tell you what the deal is. This is just like not wearing stripes with plaid. No beards with mohawks. No. Just don’t. Sorry Brian Wilson, just no.

4) BONUS: If necessary, comb/brush.

This might sound a little silly, but no use coming into work or going on that date with hairs strewn all over the place. What does that really accomplish? Will it give you that rugged look? Perhaps. But what good does that do if you’ve got a piece of hair sticking straight at your date’s face? People seem to like 3D, but not with your “solid” beard.

So use that brush or comb in the morning. A well-groomed “solid” beard is complete when the hairs are straight and in-place. Again, this might ruin the whole “mountain man” idea. But let’s be honest for a minute about “mountain men.” They’re in the mountain by themselves because no one wants to spend a lot of time with someone who’s got a nasty beard!

————–

Well, I hope you soaked in my tips. Those of you who have “solid” beards like mine or wish to one day get there, I wish you well in your quest. I don’t promise to have all the answers, and I definitely don’t have as much experience as some, but I hope this will help you.

Perhaps the best example of a “solid” beard I’ve seen is Drew Holcomb from the band Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors.

Well-kept, clean, a gorgeous beard.
Well-kept, clean, a gorgeous beard.

Oh, to have that kind of beard. It’s not over-the-top, it’s just beautiful.

Note: When I started writing this post, I had a beard. I no longer have a beard. Sometimes, to be honest with you, when that beard starts getting out of control, is to start over.

There’s Not Enough Gas Stations to Suit My Stubbornness

Last night I was driving to Durham to meet my cousin at the Streets at Southpoint to go to the Duke-Elon men’s basketball game. My gas light was on in my car by the time I pulled up the ramp on Exit 267 off of I-40 W, and I had a decision to make.

To my right was a gas station. I could see it from the highway. I had some time, so I could go to the right, get the gas, and then go back the other way, to the left of the ramp, to get to Southpoint to meet up with my cousin.

However, in my “I know everything there is to know” mindset, I thought, “Well, there’s got to be a gas station over by Southpoint.” Southpoint, for those who don’t know, is a pretty popular mall in Durham, N.C., with some nice restaurants and a movie theatre. Really popular place. They’ve got a Chipotle and an Apple store; what else is there needed for a great mall?

So I turned left (keep in mind, I completely ignored the gas station to the right). And then what did I do? I drove for 15 minutes away from Southpoint, eventually ending up in Cary at a small gas station with just four pumps. All the while, my needle was teetering on the E. I prayed several times to God that my car wouldn’t run out of gas on some back road somewhere.

To be fair to myself, I used Siri to ask her, “Where’s the nearest gas station?” She would tell me, but she was telling me to take a U-turn to get there. No, I’m not u-turning. For whatever reason, in my mind, I thought it would be dumb to take a U-turn. Reminder: the gas needle is past the E. I’m pretty sure I was 5 more minutes from being out of fuel. Thankfully, I got that fuel, but it took me much longer. I was also 15 minutes away from Southpoint.

I didn’t realize how stubborn I am until last night. Boy, it was a revealing situation. And it opened my eyes to how stubborn I am in other areas of my 22-year-old life.

Particularly when it comes to being a disciple of Christ. I know that there’s help in this one direction, in taking a way that seems unnatural at the time and maybe doesn’t “feel right.” But I decide to go my own way and figure things out on my own.

Taking fighting sin, for instance. It would seem easy and natural for me to take the left turn, to go my own way and figure things out on my own. “Besides,” I reason, “there’s got to be something down the road that will help me out if I do things my own way.” I do this knowing full well that, if I take the sometimes awkward and always out of “my way” path, I just might actually accomplish something.

But my stubbornness kicks in. Usually turning right means confessing the sin to someone (sometimes an incredibly awkward conversation), or putting out an uncomfortable amount of effort that sometimes I just don’t want to put out. It comes down to me, in the moment, trusting myself more than trusting God, putting more faith in my ability to make something up instead of trusting the tried and true way that is laid out for us in Scripture.

Following Jesus is a lifelong struggle of learning to let go of doing things “our way.” To be honest, I’m still not 100 percent sure how to do it. I’ve told a few people in the last couple months that I’ve not trusted God enough times to know that’s dumb. Let me explain.

So many times in my life I’ve said that I’ll take my way over God’s way, whatever that is. You kinda have to take it one situation at a time. I’ll assess the situation and say, “OK, I’ll do things my way.” Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, sometimes it just happens. I then realize later, whether that’s seconds, minutes or days later, that I was being dumb and I should have just done things God’s way.

I’ve got to kill the stubbornness I live with. It’s got to go. There’s no benefit to my stubbornness when it’s all about me and what I think is right, UNLESS what I’m stubborn about is God-glorifying. That’s a big unless. And that’s a whole other blog post in itself. We are called to stand firm on the truth, stand firm for what we believe.

And that means standing firm on killing the stubbornness that distracts us from God.

I’m Not Convicted Enough

Going to be honest with you here: right now, I’m convicted by sin in my life. But it’s not enough conviction.

Do we ever really see ourselves as we truly are? Are we ever honest enough with ourselves that we’re willing to admit just how jacked up we are? We spend so much time trying to show others that we are good people, that we know what we’re doing. This is super evident in the Christian church.

I look at myself in this very moment, deep in conviction, and think, “Do I really realize how bad this is? Do I really realize how much my sin will affect me? My family, current and future? My friendships? My ministry?” I don’t think I know it enough. I don’t think I have a grasp on the consequences of sin that I should.

Right now, reading through Jeremiah, I’m getting a good picture of the consequences of generational sin that come from ignoring and disobeying the God of all creation, the one who literally created everything. Yet the people didn’t seem to get it. Jeremiah was straight up telling them, “Hey, you guys, you’re going to be judged severely because of your disobedience. You can turn to God and avoid this judgement, or you can just keep going and face it.”

uturn-e12694741572891So often, I’m like one of those Israelites who just shrugs their shoulders and is like, “Eh, doesn’t matter.” I think the consequences of our sin are immensely more than we will ever realize at the time. But we’d rather think about others’ sin before we really face what’s wrong in us.

This is a really difficult thing to do for me, especially because I’m learning so much about grace in my life right now. I’m learning, really deeply for the first time, the depths of God’s love for me and what it means. I spent so much time in the last few years criticizing and judging myself for my sin, and that was not the right approach. So I’ve been refreshing myself on the greatness of God’s grace, and it’s been AMAZING! So awesome.

But the point of God’s grace is to bring us to repentance for our sins, the ones we committed before we came to Christ and the ones we commit while we’re one of Christ’s. Paul questions the Romans: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).

God will never run out of kindness and forbearance and patience with us, but it’s all meant to lead us to repentance, to turning the other way, to changing how we live and behave. If I’m not taking that U-turn, something is desperately wrong with me. And I admit, that’s where I’m struggling right now. 

“If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness,” Paul said in 2 Corinthians 11:30. I boast in God, who shows me my weakness and shows me that He is the answer to my weakness. I hope this is my boast forevermore, nothing else, no one else.

My help comes from Him. He’s right here pulling me through. He carries my weakness, my sickness, my brokenness all on His shoulders.

Faith Doesn’t Come Through Understanding It All

I’m somebody that needs to know the steps of doing something before I do it. Otherwise, I’m super nervous about doing that thing.

For instance, in college, when I worked for the student newspaper, I had to go through media relations people to talk to the school’s athletes or coaches for an interview. But when I worked for the newspaper in my hometown the summer after graduation, often there weren’t media relations people. I had to learn how to do something all over again, more or less.

Since the steps were new, I was a little unsure when I first started, a little nervous, to be honest with you. It’s like when you go on a first date with someone you don’t know all too well – you’re not quite sure what to expect, so you try to prepare for every eventuality. You end up sounding like Leslie Knope from Parks & Recreation. Seriously, watch the video.

But in those situations, any of them, we need to learn to step forward anyways. Following Jesus is kind of the same thing.

I’ve been reading Jeremiah over the last couple weeks (you can read here some thoughts I’ve had already), and this thought occurred to me today. It is not our understanding of things that saves us, but our faith that is counted as righteousness, even when we don’t fully understand.

I was reading Jeremiah this morning and reading about how God was going to judge the Israelites, and I just wondered why God acted the way He did towards them. Why did He not show them grace? Why did He not show mercy? He’s full of grace and mercy, why couldn’t He show it then?

I don’t understand why, but I don’t have to understand. He’s God. He’s majestic. He’s glorious. He’s in control. He’s all-wise. And I’m not. And I don’t get it.

For whatever reason, as Christians, we’ve been told that we have to accept everything full-on with no questioning, no real processing. We can’t be “good Christians” and try to think through things. I say that’s awful. I’d say that we shouldn’t just accept everything at face value because someone told us to. What kind of faith is that? It’s based more on somebody else’s thoughts than your own.

To be honest, I read Jeremiah and I wonder why God was the way He was. I question God. It’s in those moments of questioning where we need to bank on what we know about God, what we believe is true and know for sure and have no doubts about, and trust that He’s got a plan and that He knows better.

If you’re questioning God or things about God and you’re in a church/Christian context, don’t be afraid of it. Maybe it’s something the Lord is using to create a stronger relationship with Him. That’s definitely how it’s working out in my life.

Recently I’ve been going through a dry spell in my walk with Jesus where I’ve questioned a lot of things, even, at times, whether or not I believe, whether or not God really cares for me, whether or not it’s worth it to follow Jesus. I know it’s worth it, I know that God is the only way this world makes sense, but I’ve allowed myself some space to work through some things instead of getting down on myself for questioning things in the first place.

I think that, in that space, God has done some of His best work on my mind and on my soul.

But I have to remember that, at the end of the day, there are some things that, this side of heaven, I may never understand. And then, I recall to mind Romans 4:5 –

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…

It’s not me understanding everything that saves me, it’s me believing in God, who justifies the ungodly, of whom I am most certainly one.