Ten Christian Albums Worth Revisiting

Perhaps you are like me: you're a twenty- or thirty-something who grew up weaned on a steady diet of CCM ("contemporary Christian music") and didn't discover the broader world of music until, say, late high school / early college. This may have put you in the embarrassing position of telling your friends about how much you love Under the Table and Dreaming and, depending on whether you went to a Christian college or not, having them stare at you blankly, or having them stare at you blankly and then say, Yeah, did you not grow up going to DMB concerts and getting unintentional contact highs like the rest of us? (And then this process was maybe repeated with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Californication, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Vitalogy...you get the picture.)

My growth as a singer/songwriter has been greatly helped by expanding my musical tastes and rethinking how faith influences my music-listening habits. Part of this process involved exiling music created under the label "Christian" from my life for a time. After the exile, however, was a sort of return, during which I was able to appreciate afresh some of the music I grew up with. I consider these artists prophetic in one way or another; all of them were trying to speak to evangelical culture and push it ahead of itself somehow. I see a lot of myself in that. The following ten albums are, in no particular order, some that I've found myself returning to more often than not.

1. Newsboys - Take Me To Your Leader (1996)

Newsboys' songwriting used to be clever and edgy, and this album is proof. They had this great 90s alt grunge pop sound and ironic, pun-filled lyrics; furthermore, the penultimate track, "Lost the Plot," is one of the most searingly prophetic songs I've heard in a long time and is actually full of things like cynicism, sarcasm, and lament. Most contemporary Christian albums now would never have a song like that, because that's not family-friendly, uplifting radio. Also, someday I will write an entire essay on the aesthetic gymnastics involved in corporate Christian radio's decision to cut a line from the song "Reality" because it contains the phrase "elephant dung."

2. Rich Mullins - A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band (1993)
Sometimes you want to write songs that are uplifting and positive, and that's great. Many "Christian" artists attempt to do this all of the time, however, and it often sounds sappy and inauthentic and blasé and frustratingly uncreative, and it sometimes seems like there's an entire industry of corporate Churchianity that supports it. But Rich Mullins is a breath of fresh air. He did the thing right. His music is filled with a sort of expansive, orchestral wonder, able to do 'positive' and 'uplifting' in ways that don't make you feel condescended to. He was an excellent musician and songwriter who made no effort to fit his music into anyone's formulas. "Creed" is one of the better-known tracks from this album; it features him playing hammered dulcimer and a driving beat that pounds with the sort of folk energy that compels fans of Mumford and Sons. In addition to thoughtful and musically excellent songwriting, his music is straightforwardly articulate about faith, biblical truth, and theology in ways that manage to be poetic and concrete at the same time.

3. Brave Saint Saturn - So Far From Home (2000)

Ska outfit Five Iron Frenzy is legendary for many twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with any awareness of the CCM scene. (Apparently they're touring again and have a new album coming out soon?) Brave Saint Saturn was one of frontman Reese Roper's side projects. This album (and follow-up The Light of Things Hoped For) leaves behind ska for a sort of alt-pop concept feel marked by Roper's characteristic lighthearted-but-also-epicness, irony, and iconoclastic perspectives on Christian faith. I actually prefer Light of Things Hoped For to this album, but this was my first introduction to them and it still brings back memories whenever I listen to it. And there's a great meta-CCM-self-referential bonus here: this album contains an awesomely cheesy cover of CCM legend Michael W. Smith's Rocketown.

4. Jars of Clay - Jars of Clay (1995)

This album has a great 90s acoustic alt-rock sound and represents an interesting moment in the history of CCM bands "crossing over" into the broader world of commercial music (what people used to call "secular" music; I have problems with this terminology, but that's a much longer post): the music video for the song "Flood" was on MTV for a time. Frontman Dan Haseltine has consistently written thoughtful songs and has always desired to have a broader audience than the label "Christian music" usually implies; I saw a blog post from him recently about creative frustration and the difficulty of pleasing various sorts of audiences, especially when those who love music labeled "Christian" only want and expect certain things. I take him to be a kindred spirit, and this album, marking as it did the beginning of their career, is always worth returning to.

5. Switchfoot - Legend of Chin (1997)

This is where Switchfoot got started. Recorded while the original three band members were in college, Legend of Chin finds frontman Jon Foreman writing songs about things like the shallowness of pursuing success, struggling with apathy and personal identity, girl problems, and ever-present spiritual longings - themes that have continued to mark Switchfoot ever since. Their sound has since been produced and polished to a much greater degree, but the focus on guitar-driven rock coupled with spiritual themes accessible to a broader audience and the occasional tongue-in-cheek moment has stayed constant for what's now been fifteen years. They are one of the few examples of bands who operate under the label "Christian" but have managed to have a musical impact on broader culture.

Bonus: here is what Jon Foreman used to look like (from this music video).
"Oh The Nineties!"
You're welcome.

6. Audio Adrenaline - Some Kind of Zombie (1997)

Anyone who spent their formative middle and high school years as part of a conservative evangelical church youth group will probably understand what I mean if I talk about "youth group theology": there are just certain concepts and images that seeped into you by osmosis, and many of these later had to be either heavily modified or dropped. Think about, for instance, the idea that the only righteous approach to music was to burn all your non-Christian CDs; or, in my case, all of my Pokemon cards. True story, friends, but, again, for another post. Some Kind of Zombie is full of youth group theology (what Roger Olson has called "folk religion"), but it is also a really fun grunge rock album in which you can hear young Christian rockers do things like negatively reference Nietzsche and evolution, use zombification as a metaphor for the Christian life, and long for the rapture.

7. DC Talk - Jesus Freak (1995)

If you know this album, you probably aren't at all surprised to see it here: it was a Christian subculture phenomenon that was, for a lot of white suburban Christians, possibly the first time they became aware of "rap" (member Toby McKeehan did that a bunch and later had a solo career doing it, and their previous three albums were primarily hip-hop). This is what rebellious conservative Christian teenagers listened to loudly so that they could be rebellious but not too rebellious, since it is, after all, about Jesus. But one of the enduring things I especially enjoy about this album is the song "Colored People," a plea for racial reconciliation in the church. Most of the suburban church kids who were their primary audience were part of a Christian church culture that was and still is seriously racially segregated, in practice if not in theory. I still love listening to "Colored People"; it encourages me to hope for a brighter future in which the church is not complicit in racial segregation in any way.

8. Michael W. Smith - Christmas (1989)

My father had a series of albums that were the only CDs allowed to be played aloud in the house during the Christmas season; it was mostly the Winter's Solstice series (by Windham Hill) and this album. Michael W. Smith tends to be the butt of many jokes about CCM by slightly jaded twenty- and thirty-somethings. After all, who among us hasn't ironically sung "Friends are friends forever" at some point or another? But this album reminds you that he is actually a very talented composer and arranger; it is a sweeping, orchestral, choral tribute to Christmas that combines classic tunes with some of his original writing and is actually a quite good Christmas album. In fact, I'm listening to it as I write this in September, and it's making me feel so much like Christmas that I feel awkward, because, well, Halloween hasn't even happened yet.

9. Tourniquet - Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance (1992)

This album helped teach me that the label "Christian" doesn't automatically mean "unoriginal and sub-par." These songs are an insane collection of prog thrash alt-classical-metal, and at this point in the history of CCM it was really hard to find anybody else doing this sort of thing, or, for that matter, anything this original. My best friend Tim and I used to listen to this album early in highschool with mouths hanging open and think, I didn't know Christians did this. This isn't a disc I spin on a regular basis - it's just too genre-specific for that - but these guys are really talented, and also there is a song on here called "Gelatinous Tubercules of Purulent Ossification," which basically sells itself. Think the epic prog of Dream Theater combined with the weirdness of Umphrey's McGee, some Norwegian-style black metal, and a whole lot of strange psychological and medical terminology, all used to deliver Christian messages. Right? You're probably intrigued even if you're also sure you'd hate it. Go listen to it.

10. Delirious? - Mezzamorphis (1999)

This was my first experience with a UK-based band. These guys are legends in the contemporary Christian "worship" arena, but on this album they're just doing their UK alt-rock thing, with moments of U2 and even early Radiohead-esque sounds. The second track, "Heaven," was a very emotional song for me when I first heard it; it strongly and beautifully expresses the tension between present suffering and hope for future vindication. This has since come to play a much greater (and more nuanced) role in my life and writing. But I can remember, even as relatively young as I was, being very strongly affected by that song and by the whole album.

If you enjoyed this list, you might also enjoy these previous posts:

Female Singers I Wish Eminem Would Do A Track With

Fifteen Books That Have Shaped Me

Songs So Good I Still Remember How It Felt Hearing Them For The First Time