A week ago I offered my criticism of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) and as many have observed, basically critiqued the sorts of songs that get airplay on Christian radio. This week, it is my pleasure to shine a light on some of the good, the true and the beautiful in the CCM industry. Despite what some people have thought from my post, I am not a hater. I have listened to CCM all my life and I still go back in my catalogue to revisit songs and artists that are important to me and I am not ashamed of (and a few guilty pleasures). But before I give you my list, I need to say something about my criteria for chosing Christian artists:
- Christian Contemporary Music is not a genre but a marketing category. There are Christians making beautiful music in every genre, but CCM involves Christians making music for Christians. Some of the Christian artists below eschew the name ‘Christian artist’ but they write Christian lyrics and appeal to a generally Christian audience.
- Once upon a time, the Christian music scene was centered in Nashville with several record labels that were there. Nashville is still very important, but with the ubiquity of iTunes and online music, independent musicians from all over are making great music. Independent artists have revolutionized the industry. Much of the ‘Christian music’ which hits high rotation on my playlist are friends and acquaintances: Andrea Tisher, Ordinary Time, Tom Wuest, Peter Lagrand, Brian Moss, Koa Siu and Ahna Phillips. I have not included them in this list but if you want music which is honest, raw, beautiful, good, deep follow these links.
- An important question you need to ask when you survey the CCM industry and my pasty list below is, “Where the black people at?” Remember CCM is a marketing category. Christian Artists who are African Americans are generally marketed as Gospel artists which is another genre with a storied tradition. The lines are not always distinct (artists like Mandisa, Israel Houghton, Mary Mary, Kirk Franklin, etc. have wide appeal)but generally CCM is a white industry marketed to white people (i.e. white people generally grace the cover of CCM magazine). This doesn’t make it all bad, but it does mean that in profile of artists below I’m only looking at a small slice of Christian artists. If there are not some Gospel artists in your playlist you are missing out on some of the best music anywhere.
- I have chosen to not profile any Christian Hip Hop artists for one simple reason: I don’t like what I see and hear. I think there is some great hip hop being made by Christians which is conscience raising and socially engaged, but generally this isn’t the type of stuff I see in the Christian hip hop scene. I am willing to be educated on this point, but please don’t just tell me how much you like Lecrae or liked Gospel Gangstaz back in the day. Give me something current, beautiful and life altering.
- I focused on artists currently working whom I appreciate. There are legends that I have not named here but without a doubt embody what is good in CCM. This is by no means exhaustive.
So without further ad0, let me give you my 10:
- Derek Webb– Founding member of Caedmon’s Call, singer, songwriter and self-described-agitator Derek Webb is one of the artists I think offering a prophetic challenge to both Christians and the wider culture. Consider his strong words about the judgmentalism which often characterizes Christian public discourse in What Matters More:
- Gungor– Michael Gungor makes beautiful music. He and his group Gungor wed creativity, artistry and lyrical depth. Check out Ghosts Upon the Earth if you want a well constructed worship experience (Michael shares vocals with his wife Lisa). This song however, is a favorite in our house (the kids love it and love this video):
- Sara Groves-Sara writes thoughtful and vulnerable music. I read an interview with her where she was talking about technology, Albert Borgman’s ‘focal practices,’ Eugene Peterson. The thoughtfulness she brings to her songwriting means that you get a lot of substance. She also is not afraid to be honest about her own struggles. I love that there is an artist at the center of the CCM creating songs with insight and honesty. Here is Sara performing Obsolete:
- John Mark McMillan– My favorite John Mark McMillan songs touch heartache, pain and anger but also compel you to trust God more. Think of his How He Loves (also covered by the David Crowder Band). This is a song written after a painful experience (the loss of a friend) and his own personal grief and angst but it compels you to trust the love of God. Here is John with his poignant song, Murdered Son:
- Christa Wells– In my earlier post I bemoaned the lack of lament in Christian music. Christa is the exception in that she’s written some of the most gutwrenchingly honest lyrics in Christian music (including Natalie Grant’s hit Held). I love How Emptiness Sings:
- Phil Keaggy– For what is now decades anytime somebody criticizes the CCM industry for its lack of artistry and musicianship somebody brings up Phil Keaggy. Keaggy is recognized across the music industry as one of the world’s greatest guitarists. Releasing bothvocal and insturmental albums, Keaggy has also lent his amazing guitar work and songwriting to many artists in the industry. Here he is playing Salvation Army Band (worth watching just to see him play):
- Sandra McCracken– Derek Webb’s wife is fabulous folk infested artist and songwriter writing hymns and songs which are both beautiful and sensitive. Can’t say enough good things about her, Can’t Help Myself.
- Stuart Townend– Together With Keith and Kristyn Getty, Stuart Townend stands at the forefront of the New Hymns movement. You know him as for modern hymns (with Getty) like In Christ Alone, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us, and Beautiful Savior . For decades the criticism sometimes leveled at contemporary worship music is that it is too subjective and not meaty enough. Townend’s response was not to join the throng of critics but to write new hymns which have deepened the worship of churches across the globe (despite a few problematic lyrics). Here is Townend singing Come People of the Risen King:
- Switchfoot likely hates that I put them on my list of Christian artists (I hate myself for including them) with their crossover success. But they got their start at Sparrow records and write from a overt Christian perspective. I remember being impressed with them early on when I went through a stage bemoaning the vacuity of many Christian lyricists (I’ve never fully recovered). I ran head long into Sooner or Later (Soren’s Song), a song which references Soren Kierkegaard and wrestles with faith and doubt. They get my undying love for introducing their audience to the prophetic voice of John Perkins in Sound (John M. Perkins Blues):
- Brian Houston– I discovered this artist 10 years ago because he was the opening act at a Delirious concert I went to. Hailing from Belfast and always hovering on the cusp of greatness, Brian writes music that can be classified variously as folk, folk rock, blues, rock, roots. His most recent album is the Gospel-ly infused Shelter (available on iTunes) and is worth purchasing. Check him out online (you won’t find him in your Christian book store). Note if you do a web search for him, you will invariably get a lot of hits for Sydney pastor Brian Houston. That Brian Houston does not get so high a recommendation from me. Here is a video of Brian (the musician not the pastor) performing Jesus Again:
60 thoughts on “10 Artists to Stop Boycotting Christian Contemporary Music For (Just in Case You Were)”
Josh Garrels and Needtobreathe are musts on this list.
Now that I See this list again I could be included too! JamilaSilvera.com/listen
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Prog rock is not for everyone.
Cannot believe that this or any list of christian artists does not include Neal Morse. What? ….Neal who…?? Never heard of him. If that is really the case then you know diddly squat about real music never mind the christian variety. Unbelievable….
How about Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame. He is still putting out some great stuff.
Interesting. Thanks for the recommendation Richard!
Hi, Just came across your blog. Wow, really enjoyed it. I am a christian and I’m an artist and I have struggled for years about how what I do fits into the whole music category world. I’ve been compared to Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morrissette but with a christian edge. I’d love to get your thoughts on my music and where I fit into this mess … you can listen to it here .. http://www.marjoriewhitley.com .. Thanks for your time and thoughts!
😦 the rythm and just the structure of CCM songs is why I no longer listen to it. Its just damaging for my soul. I can’t stand high tempo, head banging or even rock music. I have no peace when I listen to them. If only I had the musical talent, I would always seek to play heavenly music. Most of what I hear on Christian radio is the same as what I used to listen to before I gave my life and service to Christ. The only difference being the words. I still think music itself speaks to people. My quest goes on to search for that heavenly music….music unlike any other, music that touches and lifts the soul up. I know its out there, the only catch is that its hidden away from commercial businesses. Take care 🙂
I know you criticized Jars of Clay in an earlier post, but… they deserve a spot on the list for their album Good Monsters alone. In my own not always humble opinion that album is about as good as it gets (but I didn’t hear its greatness at first, it took a second listen 10 odd years after its release). And I really agree with Switchfoot, that is the only band with a CCM history that has never released a lemon. Those two bands Jars of Clay (after Good Monsters) and Switchfoot are really the only ones I still listen to.
I’d have to add Shane & Shane to that list. Their guitar chord voicings aren’t like any heard in CCM. Also they have beautiful harmonies which most bands would kill to have. They look to what is hurting and know how to write songs of lament. The song “though you slay me” sounds like Job himself is singing it.
Just found this site … thanks for sharing a “sound” Top 10! I think I’d trade Derek Webb, though, for Ashley Cleveland and Jill Phillips. As much as I enjoy creative music and reflective/introspective lyrics, I also love straight-up rock and blues – and Cleveland is queen on my list. What a refreshing discussion; thanks again for your post!
Matichuk – very good stuff here!! How do you actually bring this across to ‘worship’ ‘leaders’ who have ears but don’t hear and eyes that don’t see? I’m not asking this rethorically, but seriorly aware that these people are often as proud and unreflective as their secular counterparts. What-s your pastoral take on this challenge?
Eduardo I would say two things:
1. When you find a quality artist with depth, evangelize their work. Tell people what you find that is true, good and beautiful about what that artist is doing. Let them discover that music can be deeper, more awe-inspiring and beautiful than the popular fare which is market driven.
2. But there is also a problem we have with ‘hero worship’ in the church (and beyond). Because someone throws a ball well, has a nice voice or a pretty face, doesn’t equate spiritual maturity. I think there is a western tendency (maybe beyond) to give more weight to the words of people just because they are famous. So when your favorite worship leader comes out with a new album, you go buy it and put their songs of heavy rotation and teach them at church because they have a nice hook. We ask the truthiness questions later. Pastorally I would challenge our cultural idolatry that puts celebrities on a pedestal.
The trick is to do number 1, without feeding the same idolatry with better packaging. Even great, spiritually mature artists, are still human and flawed.
Those are my initial thoughts. What’s your take?
Yeah, I’m inclined to responding similarly. Good one. Don’t have much more to say to be honest…
Surprised to see Switchfoot there as they’ve always say that they are not a Christian band but a rock band who happens to have Christian members.
Anyway, Tenth Avenue North was missed out. Yeah, they started out as another pop rock band but it is undeniable that Mike Donehey’s lyrics are brilliant aaaandtheir sound is promising. Then they delivered with The Light Meets The Dark and The Struggle.
Thanks, yeah…with Switchfoot and with Derek Webb I’m breaking my own rules. But both started out in the CCM industry before moving past it.
By the way this list is not exhaustive. Nor is it a top ten. There are lots of other beautiful examples inside and outside of CCM.
Love that Gungor song and Switchfoot! I also like tobyMac and I love Skillet! 😀
Wait.. not fair. Your first article posts complaints about 80’s and 90’s acts like Carmen, and (Late 80’s) DcTalk, and many artists that are trapped in the 90’s. Then you go to to post a list that’s largely the 21st Square Peg Alliance Neo-Folk sound. All the artists above are terrific, but this list is more an indictment on the narrow scope of your musical tastes than Christian Music as whole.
For instance if I came up with reasons to boycott rap music and listed The Fat Boys, McHammer, and Vanllia Ice as the reasons, and then posted 10 Artists you should listen with examples of Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West, you’d have many Rap/Hip Hop fans ticked off at you.
I’ve worked at a fairly large Christian Radio station outside New York City for 12 years. I’ve seen a lot of band come and go. I’ve also seen (Tenth Avenue North comes to mind) thoughtful bands show up for a gig in a 15 passenger van, with almost nothing rise to stardom. I’ve seen huge bands like Casting Crowns come into town, and be honest to goodness nice people (who still make time to be at Youth group every week, even though they’ve sold enough records to buy a private island. I kid.), and I’ve sat in a room with Amy Grant, and I watched her make time for every person in the room (and if there’s a person in the world that doesn’t need to do that, it’s her).
I’ve also seen 15,000 people with their arms up in the air singing the most inane and repetitive worship song and you know what I discovered in that moment? It’s less about the artistry of the words, and more about who they’re being sung too. I think we can (and should) raise the bar creatively but we can also broaden ourselves and learn from Genre’s we don’t like or understand. WORD!
You would do well to look into the 116 crew and Lecrae’s ministry. It’s so much more than music. It’s really a shame that you would have a list excluding all Christian hip hop because you don’t like most of it. Neither is there a single mention of any gospel artist. Typical subconscious segregation. ‘Us’, and then ‘them’. My disgust aside, I will be fair in saying that your part ‘A’ article to this one was for the most part spot on and insightful. So keep up that good stuff and perhaps widen your range of generes. Take an honestly look and the ‘non white’ world of Christian music too.
I was asked to respond to CCM, specifically, and as I noted, I think that it marketed ‘white.’ This is the sole reason I didn’t include any gospel artists as it is one of my favorite genres. Also I did note that people owe it to themselves to have some gospel artists in their catalogue because some of the best music anywhere comes from gospel artists.
On Christian Hip Hop: I am willing to admit I may be wrong here. I happen to think there are some great Christians making Hip Hop but I haven’t personally liked the Hip Hop marketed ‘exclusively’ to Christians (which is how the Christian Hip Hop scene comes off to me). When I was compiling my list (1 yr ago), I really wanted to include some Christian hip hop but didn’t like what I saw. I may be unfair to Lecrae here, he seems like a good guy with substance, but I’m not a fan.
But like I said, I’m willing to be educated and I’ll check out 116 crew. Thanks for thoughts!
I’ve just posted my top ten “free” Noise Trade Downlands. I think apart from No.1 they are all Christians… or at least some kind of Christian influence. (Not sure they would fit in the CCM category though)… http://fourthopinion.net/2012/06/08/top-ten-free-noise-trade-downloads/
Thanks! I’ll check it out! For this list I really tried to restrict myself to ‘christian artists writing for christians’ but that clearly isn’t all that is Christian in the music world.
Regarding Stuart Townend, you mentioned “despite a few problematic lyrics”. Can you explain what you mean?
Sure…in general I think he is a brilliant lyricist and has some real depth. However I take issue (and my denomination takes issue) with the line in In Christ Alone that says, “On the cross where Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” There is a theological problem here of playing off the attributes of God and the Godhead against one another (the love of Jesus versus the wrath of God). I think it is a brilliant song, but I struggle with the line (and it isn’t because I don’t believe in God’s wrath). The cross is a demonstration of God’s love. My denomination asked Townend for permission to change that lyric to “the love of God exemplified” instead, but he wouldn’t budge on it. But we still sing the song and it is in heavy rotation in our church.
I don’t think that song lyric fails to show the cross as a demonstration of God’s love; it simply is telling the story of that love. The Father, out of great love for us, led Jesus to the cross, where Jesus willingly died, and God willingly forgave…it tells of God the Father and Son working together to rescue His children.
Yeah I got no problem with that. . .I just think sometimes when you make a shorthand of penal substitution we run the risk of misrepresenting God. This may be more my issue than Townend’s but I have heard enough popular presentations of how the Father is out to punish us and Jesus, the God of Love, came to save us from the wrath of God. I just want to be bolder in my proclamation that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, that this was the work of the whole Trinity. I know it’s nitpicky and I like In Christ Alone and think it is a wonderful song.
That is because the lyric exemplifies vicarious substitutionary atonement. Jesus took the punishment meant for you and me. It is the very essence of the Christian faith. Without it, we are still in our sins. Without it, why do we preach or blog or make music?
Christopher, without the death of Jesus (and resurrection) we are dead in our sins and without hope. One of the ways that theologians have described what happens on the cross is the substitutionary model. In modern guise, this is usually penal substitution. I actually don’t really have a problem with penal substitution if it stated carefully and allows for a richer understanding of all that God did in Christ. I think more of what I react to in the the Townend lyric is that the shorthand ‘wrath of God was satisfied’ makes it sound like God came to save us from his angry dad. I don’t want to ignore the wrath of God, but we also need to set this in the context of how God was in Christ reconciling the world to him (2 Cor 5:19).
The essence of the Christian faith is that the Trinitarian God acted in Jesus Christ to restore sinful humanity and reconcile them to Himself.
Excellent, James! Many old friends (well – ipod friends) on this list… and some new ones, I think.
Fantastic list. Couldn’t agree more. Especially fond of Christa. As wonderful (and humble) in person as in ones and zeros.
Would love to send you my latest. E-mail me and I’ll send you a download link. Or, of you’d prefer a physical disc, shoot me your address. Thanks, sir.
Thanks for reminding me of Phil Keaggy! I met him backstage once and had a groupie moment. I was enthralled by his artistry.
Have you heard of Shad? He’s Christian, but doesn’t write for a Christian audience. Probably the closest I get to “Christian Hip-Hop” these days.
Love Shad. One of the artists I was thinking of as a good, Christian not doing Christian hip hop
Great list! I’ve heard of all of these, but have only listened much to about half of them. Thanks for the recommendations.
*without further ado
yes of course! How silly of me, I’ll change that!
Good list- I will have to check them out more. The only one I currently own at least a few songs is John Mark McMillan. I do enjoy Jeremy Camp, but I know he probably wouldn’t make a top 10 list and you are more versed in the subject than I am.
I don’t know J.Lo-Jeremy Camp usually has one of the top songs on Christian radio. A lot of these artists don’t get much radio play at all. My tendency is to like the margins a little more.
I wouldn’t even know where the margins are. I haven’t listened to radio in a long time myself, wouldn’t really know who is getting plays or not. I just know that there’s something in most of Camp’s songs that speaks to me or my situation.
Just read comments on the earlier CCM post- I do like Natalie Grant’s “Held.” And I forgot, I do have a lot of Switchfoot, a few Sara Groves, but the rest I will have to take more of a listen to, so thanks for writing this!
And actually, I guess I should’ve said a top 10 list like yours? lol I don’t know.
Don’t forget the Hip Hop Scene. Solid Christian Rappers out there like Lecrae, Trip Lee etc
Thanks Albert! I said above that I am not impressed with the Christian hip hop scene but I do love a few hip hop artists that are Christian and doing beautiful things. Like Shad.
Though I’m a bit ripped off that his website address is “thejohnmark.com”…
Consider launching therealjohnmark.com or theotherjohnmark.com
Yes! Delighted to see our own Brian Houston get a shout out on your list. He’s an amazing live performer and deserves to be heard by a much wider audience. He leads worship in churches etc but he’s at his best in a small pub on a Saturday night. (the Gettys are also from our wee country but not so much my cup of tea).
Most of my favourite music is made by people who profess some kind of Christian faith but are not anywhere near the CCM scene. Over the Rhine, Sufjan Stevens, Vigilantes of Love, Mumford and Sons, Pierce Pettis, Martyn Joseph, and (two more from Northern Ireland) Duke Special and Foy Vance.
I must give this guy John-Mark McMillan a listen if only because he has such an almost cool name.
I was mesmerized when I saw Brian Houston live. I bet he’s great in the pub because I like his ‘secular’ music even more. I like your list and will have to check out Duke Special and Foy Vance!
Foy Vance is the greatest musician named here.
Woot woot not only am I stoked to see a shout out for Foy Vance, I’m even more stoked that it was years ago!!! Making waves 😀
nice list. What about Keith and Kristyn Getty themselves who you mentioned in #8? And also – Carolyn something or another – the chick studying up @ Regent now giving them all that press.
And here’s my 0.02:
Mumford & Sons
heck, I even heard Arcade Fire got their start in CCM
I could have gone either way with the Getty’s or Townend but Townend was the lyricist on some of the songs everybody sings. Mumford and Stevens are obviously phenomenal but they don’t write for a Christian audience which is why they didn’t make the list (they have wide appeal). I didn’t know that about Arcade Fire, that’s cool.
I’m going to go ahead and throw Josh Garrels into the mix here. He’s my favorite.
I was bummed to hit number 10 and to not have put down Josh Garrels! Seriously good stuff!
I know this is years late. Also for awesome-sake, these folks are also grand:
Laura Mvula, James Vincent McMorrow, Brother M, MaliMusic, Liz Vice, Sara Macintosh
Josh Garrels was my first thought as well. Spiritually, musically, and intellectually intriguing.
You’ve got great taste!
haha yeah, I can’t imagine making a list like this without Josh Garrels. His production, phenomenal lyrics, and incredible diversity.. On the other hand, I only new probably 1 person on this list, so I’d rather have artists I don’t know than ones I do!
Josh Garrels is fantastic. I planned to just give him his own post but of course never got around to it.