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: