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Staff Picks – Our Favorite Recordings of 2017

Welcome to the annual feature where we at AbsolutelyGospel.com list our favorite recordings of the year. The albums here may not have been rated in our album reviews as the best of the year – but they were definitely among our favorite. Perennial favorites like 11th Hour, Karen Peck & New River, Joseph Habedank, and Gaither Vocal Band show up again, as well as new faces like The Blythe Family, Bowling Sisters, and Victoria Bowlin.

 

avatar_813Chris D. Unthank
Editor-In-Chief

Michael English
Love Is the Golden Rule
Daywind Records

Fans have been longing for a brand new studio recording from one of Gospel music’s most beloved vocalists for years, and this record did not disappoint. The Nelons’ Jason Clark sat in the producer’s chair this time around, and he really helped Michael reclaim some of that sound that fans have loved from him for so long. “Love Is the Golden Rule” is a great song, but my favorite has to be his cover of Salvador’s “Cry Holy” or “Little Is Much.”

Bowling Sisters
The Beginning
Independent

It’s no surprise that this trio of sisters can out-sing just about most groups on the road, especially considering the fine pedigree from which they come (hello, Mike & Kelly Bowling). The Beginning is a fantastic grab bag of styles and musical steps you don’t necessarily see coming from afar. These girls have a mighty bright future ahead of them, that’s for sure.

Sisters
Simply Sisters
Independent

There really  is no greater thing than family harmony, and Sisters proves that once again with this beautiful recording. The trio released it just in time for their first ever lady’s conference last year. These girls have never sounded better on songs that walk the line between Southern Gospel, worship, and inspirational sounds. Heather Ruppe Bennett is the real breakout on this record, proving that she’s just as talented as her more praised siblings. This is a must-own from 2017.

Karen Peck & New River
Hope For All Nations
Daywind Records

I don’t think there’s one group who’s showed up on my year-end favorite list more than this group. Karen and company’s blend of progressive and country sounds always makes her recordings a must-own, in my humble opinion. Hope For All Nations is probably her finest recording since Triumph. There’s not a single song on this recording that couldn’t be a hit at radio. This is easily a milestone recording from this already ground-breaking group.

Misty Freeman
Turn the Page
Daywind Roots

It’s been far too long since we’ve had a recording from this strumming singer/songwriter. The biggest downfall to this recording was that it was only six songs, but even then, it’s six songs of catchy country and deep rooted theology. Misty often gets overshadowed by her talented parents. But make no mistake, she’s a talented vocalist and songwriter in her own right, and Turn the Page proves it through and through.

Honorable Mentions
Joseph Habedank – Resurrection (Daywind Records)
11th Hour – Silence the Stones (Sonlite Records)
The Freemans – Tower of Song (GoldenVine Records)
The Perrys – Testament (StowTown Records)
Triumphant – Thankful (StowTown Records)

avatar_2James Hales
Head Reviewer

Michael English
Love Is the Golden Rule
Daywind Records

Michael English is arguably one of the greatest talents to ever sing a gospel song.  Michael doesn’t just take a song a sing it…he takes the song and owns it!  Each song has a little “English” put on it and bares his signature vocals and style.  While Michael has put out some great music in recent years with The Prodigal Comes Home (2008) and Some People Change (2012), his last couple of efforts in 2015 fell short and appeared to be more Karaoke than anything.  With this latest release, we have Michael returning back to his more soulful roots and the kind of music that put him on the map.  As I was listening to this recording, I felt a sense of nostalgia or déjà vu …it took me back to his first solo efforts back in the early 90s with his self-titled release and Hope.  This recording has a similar vibe, but with a lot more depth to it, vocally and musically, and it is absolutely refreshing.

Steve Ladd
No Excuses, No Regrets
Sonlite Records

Steve Ladd is an amazing talent!  He never ceases to amaze with the power and finesse he sings with.  Whether in a group or as a soloist, Steve comes across as confident, genuine and a pure singing machine!  Each song on this EP shows a different side of Steve and showcases his abilities perfectly and is a tremendous collection of songs that showcase the powerhouse vocals of Steve Ladd.  This was one of the most anticipated releases for 2017 and it lives up to the hype!

Joseph Habedank
Resurrection
Daywind Records

Joseph Habedank is definitely one of the finest vocalists in our genre.  He definitely made the right decision when he decided to go solo and this recording proves it.  This is probably the most solid recording released this year, and probably my absolute favorite!  Filled with strong, Biblically based lyrics coupled with Joseph’s soulful, deeply emotional delivery, you can’t help but be taken in.  Each song is as refreshing as the previous, and you can’t help but become part of the song.  This is the kind of music that lives on long after the music stops!

The Nelons
The Americana Sessions
Daywind Records

This is probably one of the most diverse and unique recordings released this year and it features mostly songs that are woven into the very fabric of what is “Americana”.  This recording is an excellent collection of tunes that are part of our American history and culture, and they churned out some excellent and memorable renditions of this memorable tunes.  While a departure from the norm, this is a refreshing release and one of the best releases for 2017.  The Nelons took a classy approach with this recording and put together a true representation of “Americana” music.  Though I wouldn’t classify it as a “gospel” release, these songs are closely knitted together by strong religious undertones and most people will be able to closely relate to the spiritual aspect of most of these songs.  If not, the nostalgic undertones will fill in the gaps!

The Freemans
Tower of Song

Independent

It’s been 4 years since the Freemans last major release, which makes this is one of the most anticipated releases for 2017 and it’s loaded with some great songs.  Re-enlisting the production assistance of Dony McGuire and Michael Sykes (who helped produce their last recording), they managed to pull the best out of the Freemans and create a great recording filled with great songs, aptly titled, Tower of Song.  Collaborating with Michael Sykes and Dony McGuire is definitely a winning combination as they are able to enhance their sound and offer some new ideas, while remaining true to their sound.  The Freemans are country gospel at its finest.  They have consistently remained at the top of their field as they continually release solid recordings, remaining true to who they are, while pushing the envelope slightly and thinking outside the box.

Honorable Mentions
We Have This Moment – Gaither Vocal Band (Gaither Music Group)
Unbreakable – Selah (Curb/Word/WB Records)
Questions & Answers – Mercy’s Well (Independent)
Long Run – Old Paths (Sonlite Records)
Still Happy – Goodman Revival (Gaither Music Group)
The Last Big Thing – Kingdom Heirs (Sonlite Records)
Can’t Hardly Wait – Dixie Echoes (Independent)
Hymns & Classics, Vol. 2 – Mylon Hayes Family (Independent)

avatar_16395Jennifer Wilkerson
Staff Writer/Reviewer
Bowling Sisters
The Beginning
Independent
This project is fresh, and these girls can flat out sing! Their future is bright! Love the variety of songs and the depth of emotion to which they sing at such young ages.
Lauren Talley
The Gospel
Horizon Records
This was the much anticipated solo project from one of the best in gospel music, and it did not disappoint. I love how Lauren can take a classic song and make it all her own and draw you in like you never heard it. There are so many fabulous songs on this one!
Sisters
Simply Sisters
Independent
This project was like a balm for the soul. It is so worshipful. These sisters can just about sing anything and it sound good. It was so great to have new music from them!
Joseph Habedank
Resurrection
Daywind Records
I’m not sure anyone can so passionately deliver a song quite like this guy. This project has some awesome songs and Joseph only gets better and better.
11th Hour
Silence the Stones
Sonlite Records
It is so awesome to have new music from this mixed trio! Their sound only gets better, and their songs get better & stronger too.
Alan Kendall
Monthly Contributor

Dixie Echoes
Can’t Hardly Wait
Independent

Another big wow for the Dixie Echoes and their impeccable harmony arrangements. I figured it would be difficult to top their previous album, Wonderful Days, but I think Randy and Scoot and the boys accomplished this. Stephen Adair’s tenor can be best described as flat dependable. My kind of tenor. Nothing fancy, just the fundamentals delivered to perfection. And Mark Cates is one of my very favorite bass singers these days. Among the five best albums of the Echoes’ entire 57-year career.

 

Kingdom Heirs
The Last Big Thing
Daywind Records

The Kingdom Heirs still have some fresh surprises up their sleeves. “The Last Big Thing” is their best “country quartet rocker” in years. And I advise any young quartet enthusiast to study “I’ll Trust You With Tomorrow”. Even what I would call the less-strong selections are approached with the same enthusiasm and I enjoy them as well. This vocal lineup is the type gospel music fans patiently wait for years to listen to.

Triumphant
Thankful
StowTown Records

Lyrically uplifting , musically energizing. Triumphant just flat-footed sings from the heart here. The first five songs are the highlights of the album. All ballads, but there is a very special energy felt with each one. By the time you hear “Thankful, So Thankful”, your poetic cup is quite full, and in a good way. This album joins Everyday and Songs From the Heart as their very strongest.

Gaither Vocal Band
We Have This Moment
Gaither Music Group

I do have a weakness for the GVB albums. Their Better Together album was sorely underrated, but this album brings them back to the familiar territories of soaring ballads and envelope-pushers that most seem to enjoy. As I expected, GVB hasn’t missed a beat with Reggie Smith. A group of five team players makes for six star performers, each individual plus the group itself. Props to Gaither for assembling one of his very best teams in this lineup.

Joseph Habedank
Resurrection
Daywind Records

Enlighten likes Joseph Habedank…a lot, so I felt like surely I had heard a good portion of this album on radio. But I recently sat down and paid much closer attention to this album. It didn’t take me long to further admire Habedank’s ability with a song, both by voice and by pen. There are no stand-out songs here…..simply because all are well-written and well-performed. I am normally bored to death with soloists, myself included, but I will admit, I am impressed by Habedank all around. In fact, I predict that Joseph Habedank will achieve the same level of prominence as that of Jason Crabb and Michael English, and there’s very little extra (if any) that he will have to do to reach such heights.

 

Janice Crow
Monthly Columnist

Kingdom Heirs
The Last Big Thing
Sonlite Records

Just more of the good old traditional stuff they’re known for!

 

Joseph Habedank
Resurrection
Daywind Records

He makes me rethink everything I know about Gospel music.

 

11th Hour
Silence the Stones
Sonlite Records

These folks can sing the paint off the wall.

 

Greater Vision
Still
Daywind Records

A little different for them, but they pull it off so well.

 

The Whisnants
Still the Same
UIA Records

Probably their best CD to date.

 

Andrew Stephens
Staff Writer/Reviewer

Karen Peck & New River
Hope For All Nations
Daywind Records

As Karen Peck & New River embarked on this recording process, they aimed to put more effort in song selection and arrangements than ever before. Working with other artists as well as the Wilmington Celebration Choir provided listeners with a variety of sounds, yet Karen Peck & New River continued to build upon the central theme, hope. Full of worshipful moments and stirring truths, Hope for All Nations continues the long standard of excellence associated with Karen Peck & New River.

Highlights: “Hope for All Nations,” “The Reason,” “Victory Is Mine,” “I’ll Keep on Praying,” and “Love Will Never Give Up”

Blythe Family
Restoration
Independent
While this group is unfamiliar to most listeners, the name, Sandy Blythe, has appeared among many artists’ songwriting credits. Sandy and her family have traveled throughout the states for the past 25 years in an evangelist ministry. Although most tunes will likely see a nationally-known artist’s project, it’s always a unique experience hearing the writer(s) perform their original material. With songs written by Sandy and her brother, Richard, the Blythe Family shares great examples of God’s restoring power and comfort in the most difficult situations.

Highlights: “Restoration,” “Free to Worship,” “Lean on Jesus,” “I Choose to Stand,” and “You Can Trust Me, Lord”

Joseph Habedank
Resurrection
Daywind Records

On the heels of a highly-successful solo debut, Joseph Habedank released his award-winning follow-up, Resurrection. Full of tunes of God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love, this album allows the listener to hear Joseph communicate from the depths of his heart & soul. ‘Resurrection’ is proof that Joseph Habedank will be listed among Southern Gospel’s greatest soloists for years to come. Soaring vocals, yet passionate pleas make for a well-rounded effort from one of Gospel Music’s strongest communicators.

Highlights: “Here He Comes,” “Just When You Thought,” “I Love You (from an Old Rugged Cross),” and “I Believe in the Resurrection”

The Whisnants
Still the Same
UIA Records

In an ever-changing world, consistency is a highly-regarded treasure. The Whisnants offer listeners their strongest album to date with Still the Same. With Trey Ivey in the producer’s chair, the Whisnants build on their trademark traditional Country flavor with their traditional singing. Full of ballads, bright up-tempo tracks, and the signature mid-tempo arrangements, this album gives listeners the expected Whisnants sound, while bringing fresh lyrics & melodies to the table.

Highlights: “Keep Me Close,” “Caught Away,” “Keep Counting Stars,” and “Lord of All of Me”

The Perrys
Testament
StowTown Records
While the Perrys have been producing high-caliber music for close to 50 years, the group has endured a variety of struggles and trials along the way. Testament gives the listener a glimpse of their testimony of overcoming obstacles while leaning on God’s provision. Whether it’s the more traditional sounds or the more Country-flavored arrangements, the Perrys provide an excellent listening experience for any Southern Gospel fan.
Highlights: “I Will Pray,” “It’s Not Here to Stay,” “Find Me Faithful,” “Who I Could Have Been,” and “Moses & Elijah”

Victoria Bowlin
Staff Writer

Victoria Bowlin
You See Beauty
Chapel Valley

I feel like I really found myself on this project. The style, songs, and quality of the album reflected that.

 

Joseph Habedank
Resurrection
Daywind Records

There’s a really cool theme throughout the album. Joseph’s songwriting and song selection are awesome. His voice is incredible!

 

Matthew Lawson
Staff Writer/Reviewer

Brian Free & Assurance
Beyond Amazed
Daywind Records

 

 

Kingsmen
They Don’t Know
Horizon Records

 

 

11th Hour
Silence the Stones
Sonlite Records

 

 

Karen Peck & New River
Hope For All Nations
Daywind Records

 

 

Kingdom Heirs
The Last Big Thing
Daywind Records

 

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Formed over 19 years ago by Deon & Susan Unthank originally as SoGospelNews.com, the site was birthed from an email discussion group by the same name. The SoGospelNews email discussion list was created by the Unthanks after the Singing News shut down its extremely popular discussion list. SoGospelNews started as a simple webpage listing artists, fans, individuals, etc. that were avid supporters of the newly formed SoGospelNews talk list. The site eventually took on printing news for Southern Gospel artists, and eventually took on reviewing the latest recordings from both signed and independent artists within the small genre. SoGospelNews became the most viewed Southern Gospel website on the Internet with over 4,000,000 hits per month.

The Unthank family are now involved in the site, as well as the addition of over two dozen staff writers. The website is based out of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In April 2010, SoGospelNews changed its name to AbsolutelyGospel.com. The name change allows them to cover news items of not only Southern Gospel, but also Country Gospel, Inspirational, and Black Gospel.

On January 5, 2011, Susan Unthank passed away, leaving the website in control of Deon, their son, Chris, and their daughter Amy.

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