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Late Registration - Kanye West (2005)

The word "genius" gets batted around far too much these days. Forget Shakespeare, Stephen Hawking and Einstein... according to Rolling Stone, Eminem qualifies. And so does Charlie Weiss, the head football coach at Notre Dame, due to his ability to call the right plays at the right time. And then there was Ray Charles, God bless his soul, who really didn't do much but marry church music with secular lyrics, and inspire a very good movie starring Jamie Foxx.

The Listening - The Listening (2005)

Like all traveling shows, the circus has left town. The Rock 'n' Roll Worship Circus, that is. But don't worry just yet; they've changed their name to reflect a whole new musical exploration. Much like the fog of concert dry ice, The Listening seeps into the ears. Or perhaps the cover-art analogy works better than my contrived image: a dead dandelion, full of seeds, listening for that wind to carry its influence across a huge expanse.

Uncommon Days - Circleslide (2006)

You have to hand it to Gabe Martinez and his cohorts in Circleslide. It takes no small amount of moxie to name a band after one of the most revered albums in Christian alternative music — that, of course, being the Choir's pioneering 1990 release of the same title. To their credit, the Circleslide foursome can cite five years of tireless touring, a first place finish at 2003's Music in the Rockies contest and uniformly glowing praise from those in the indie crowd (the ultimate badge of honor for many a rock-oriented group) among their list of accomplishments.

...And the Rest Will Follow - Project 86 (2005)

Given the varied nature of the band's back catalog, it is hardly surprising that debate currently runs rampant over which Project 86 record constitutes the Orange County foursome's defining work. The self-titled debut and sophomore outing, Drawing Black Lines, were of a piece with the energetic, rap-metal workouts of artists like P.O.D. and Rage Against the Machine.

The Need to Feel Alive - Forever Changed (2005)

Formed in the late '90s by a trio of high school friends who were barely old enough to drive, the Florida quartet now known as Forever Changed was a classic case of North meets South. Singer Dan Cole moved from Cincinnati to Tallahassee in 1999 after his freshman year in high school. It was there that he met guitarist Ben O'Rear at a local church and the two began getting together intermittently to play music. Not long afterwards, Cole heard Nathan Lee tapping enthusiastically on the top of his desk in chemistry class and invited him to join the duo on drums.

The Legend of Simon Peter - The Blackstones (2005)

After five and a half years of musical exploration as The Tremolo Cowboys, The Blackstones rupture the scene with a genuine rock collection. Working with a maturity not often felt in independent acts, these musicians hold a smartness that could have only come from their years of performing with groups like The Violet Burning and The Rock and Roll Worship Circus.

Dawn Escapes - Falling Up (2005)

A couple of years ago, pop-metal juggernaut Linkin Park teamed up with legendary emcee Jay-Z to produce an intriguing album orchestrated by the folks at MTV. Elements of existing songs from both artists were mashed together, marking what was perhaps the most legitimate and exciting fusion of real rap with real rock and roll since Run DMC and Aerosmith dropped their seminal track "Walk This Way."

On A Search In America - Dizmas (2005)

While almost all aspiring rock musicians have undoubtedly had to face their fair share of obstacles on their way to fame, Zach Zegan's biggest hurdle may well have been his own mom, who informed the singer that he couldn't start a band unless his kid brother, Josh, came along for the ride. With the younger Zegan duly in tow, Zach (a mere 14 years old at the time) enlisted drummer Clayton Hunt, bassist Nick Aranda and guitarist Daniel Shaff to round out the Dizmas quintet in the summer of 1998.

Bullet - Mat Kearney (2004)

There have been many musical fusions and marriages of styles in the world of rock and roll. Recently we have seen the success of the forced union of rock and rap oversaturate the industry to nauseating levels. It was only a matter of time 'til the "genre" would be given an extreme makeover and reemerge as a polished masterpiece. Enter Mat Kearney ...maybe. With a deep appreciation and regard for the culture of hip-hop, rather than re-birthing an illegitimate step-child of musical lust, he creates a sound unlike any other.

X&Y - Coldplay (2005)

All of a sudden Coldplay has hit the scene with radiant force. Could it be blamed on a rush of blood to the head (either the album or the actual state)? Perhaps it's a mixture of both. From online news sources to glossy magazine spreads, the media moguls are calling Coldplay "the next U2." Only time will tell whether or not this claim is valid. For now, we have the third studio release from one of the most popular bands on the planet.

The Mint - The Mint (2003)

I know very little about The Mint. I do know that they've produced each of their albums without the help of record labels and have met decent success. For instance, what indie band sells 1,000 CDs in 3 months with no promotion? Does word of mouth spread this fast for other groups? It probably would if they sounded like The Mint. This band has a smart sound and basic presentation, and the songs remain appealing through both musical intelligence and simplicity.

In Motion - Copeland (2005)

Do you ever face the dilemma of enjoying a CD so much that you can't describe what it is that makes your feet tap, your voice sing, and your heart start beating in sync with the bass drum? Friends (even casual strangers) come up to you and ask, "So, tell me about such and such. Every other word you say is about that band." And all you can do is stare wide-eyed, hand on your chest. You blame a lack of oxygen for your lack of verbal communication. So you gasp, "They're amazing," while your mind is writing a review stellar and crisp enough to land in Rolling Stone.

Room Noises - Eisley (2005)

I first heard of Eisley (back when they called themselves Moss Eisley) on a dark, humid night in Dallas, TX. I was enchanted immediately, especially by the haunting plea found in "Telescope Eyes." Even on the flight home several days later, the chorus of "Please don't make me cry / I'm just like you, I know you know / I'm just like you, so leave me alone" rang through my brain like a loose school bell. This was the music of recess during young school days, and an aura of innocence covered the siblings and childhood friend while they were on stage.

Never Take Friendship Personal - Anberlin (2005)

When vocalist Stephen Christian and his cohorts in Anberlin marched out of the proverbial starting gate in the spring of 2003, it was to nearly universal critical praise. And rightly so. The band's debut album, Blueprints for the Black Market, boasted a near-irresistible combination of gritty hard rock vigor, heartfelt emo-tinged passion, bristling post-punk attitude and a proficiency with hook, harmony and melody that would make most power pop combos green with envy.

Space In Between Us - Building 429 (2004)

Right around the time last year that Building 429 was releasing its full-length debut, Space in Between Us, I was busy reviewing its predecessor, the Glory Defined EP. Since I wasn't overwhelmed with what I heard on the shorter version, I didn't hold out much hope for the full-length release. Now that I've taken some time to savor the flavor of this disc, though, I can honestly say... that I haven't been disappointed.

Flyleaf EP - Flyleaf (2004)

My sister is one of those girls who would seriously frighten me if she weren't a Christian. She encapsulates everything punk, everything rock, everything rebellious and alternative. Recently she called me into her room to tell me about this band "where the lead singer screams" (something quite common with the music she enjoys). But I paused when I hear a girl's voice. "Yeah, the girl screams!" said my sister with wide eyes and a large smile. So now I sat to listen. This isn't the neighborhood brat girl releasing a whiny scream about a lost toy.

Day of Fire - Day of Fire (2004)

If one were penning a modern-day Saul of Tarsus conversion story, they might well want to hire Josh Brown as a consultant. Born in the late '70s, Brown was already taking hard drugs by his fifteenth birthday. After playing in a succession of bands, Brown met the members of what would become Full Devil Jacket in 1995 at a tattoo parlor run by his brother. The group's rising popularity netted them gigs at increasingly larger venues over the next several years, including a slot at Woodstock '99.