A list of songs that represent a thorough (though not comprehensive) selection of the best counter-cultural, indie, rebellious, and quirky Christian music of the past 50 years.
Last week on the Hipster Christianity Facebook page, I posted YouTube videos from the last 4 decades of "Christian hipster" music, or music that was at least pivotal in the ultimate development of today's culture of hipster Christianity. Here they are, in chronological order... Enjoy!
A lot of Christian hipsters today were raised in the evangelical Christian subculture in the 90s. Thus, while most of them have completely abandoned CCM by now, they still look fondly and nostalgically (with a smidge of irony) upon the Christian music they were reared on. Here are 20 albums that Christian hipsters today love to listen to for a trip down memory lane. What would you add to this list?
I’ve been reminiscing/laughing about my CCM youth a lot recently, sort of longing for a return to a musical world where we knew Christian bands from secular. Things are so fuzzy nowadays (are they or aren’t they Christian?), and it seems that many CCM bands are trying a little too hard to be subtle about it. Be out with it, I say!
I’ve been pretty hard on contemporary Christian music on this blog, but let me just say this: it’s much better today than it was, say, ten or fifteen years ago. But who knows, maybe we’ll say the same thing about today’s music ten years from now. In any event, I thought it would be fun (in a self-flagellating sort of way) to revisit some of the kitschy horrors of Christian music’s past. These are the songs that dominated the “special music” circuit at evangelical churches everywhere back in the 90s. They are the ones we wish to forget, but also have a semi-fondness for (ironically, of course!). Here are my picks for the top ten kitschiest Christian songs of all time, with visual aids where available!
10) TIE: “This Means War!” and “Get on Your Knees and Fight Like a Man” – I couldn’t decide which cheesy Petra song to include, so I just picked these two (which might be the cheesiest). These songs may not be familiar to many, but as examples of deliciously awful 80s Christian metal, these gems more than represent. Thank you John Schlitt, for being the big-haired bad boy of CCM. You gotta love hellfire-and-brimstone lyrics like this: “Now it's all over down to the wire / Counting the days to your own lake of fire.”
9) “El Shaddai” – This 1982 classic, penned by Amy Grant and Michael Card, is as vintage CCM kitsch as you can get. The desperately somber, uber-melodic song features multi-lingual lyrics that lend it its patented sense of gravitas. This song also works very well when performed in sign language (preferably by a church’s “signers ministry”).
8) “Household of Faith” – There was a time in the 90s when this harmony-heavy Steve Green song was performed at every Baptist wedding within a six state area. But apparently people are still (remarkably) choosing this as a wedding song, as recently as 2007. And it looks like it’s still a favorite for Sunday night special music as well!
7) “Who’s In the House? (Kickin’ it for Christ)” – Ne’er was there a more disastrous attempt at white guy Christian rap than in this Carmen catastrophe from 1993. And the scary thing is there are still Christians getting jiggy to this song. See this horrifying clip from Jesus Camp. Oh, and for more painful laughs, here’s the official music video.
6) “Via Dolorosa” – Anyone who grew up in a Baptist church no doubt saw this Spanglish tearjerker performed by some unfortunate wannabe soprano once or twice as a “special music.” Props to the “first diva” of Christian music, Sandi “the Voice” Patty, for this gem!
5) “Behold the Lamb” – Subtlety is a rarity on this list, but it is absolutely nowhere to be found in this overblown wonder. Check out the video of David Phelps singing it. If there was a Christian version of American Idol, this would be performed every season.
4) “In the Presence of Jehovah” – This song is a great example of the popular “white church ladies trying to sing black” church music genre. Tons of opps for runs and trills, crazy vibrato and hand flailing. It’s also a great one for making the old ladies cry, and sometimes works well with a wind machine!
3) "People Need the Lord" – The most epic of all Steve Green songs! This tear-inducing evangelistic anthem is oft-used as background music during missionary montage videos. It also makes for a good duet, though be warned: his one is excruciating to watch!
2) "Thank You For Giving to the Lord" – This 1988 Ray Boltz weepie is the quintessential offertory anthem. Put some dynamo tenor in a suit up on stage and poof, the money will pour into the offering plates. This one definitely warrants a youtube viewing. Get those Kleenex ready!
1) “Love in Any Language” – This song beats them all. Just watch this fantastic video of (who else?) Sandi Patty leading a multi-ethnic chorus in a “we are the world”-type performance at some Gaither family event. I mean… what can be said?
BONUS! - “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb”: I simply can’t resist mentioning this song—another Ray Boltz classic.
Yes, it is ridiculous that there is such a thing as “Christian music.” I am totally of the mind that the contemporary Christian music industry is something that never should have existed, and that most of its output has, in fact, been utterly forgettable. That said, however, I must admit that not ALL of so-called “Christian” music (and in my definition, it’s basically any music made with Christian spirituality in mind or in heart) is horrific bilge. Some of it is good, and some even great. I suppose that in any largely-crappy genre of anything, there are some standouts. In this case, I think that the following ten albums more than hold their own in the company of any other “best-of” list, secular or otherwise. So, without further ado, here’s my list of the best “Christian” albums of all time (and when I say “all time,” I mean anything after 1990… which is when I started buying albums):
U2, The Joshua Tree (1987): It might seem cheap and superficially obligatory to include this album on a list like this (b/c U2 has never and will never call themselves a “Christian” band), but there’s no denying: this album is the one of the most glisteningly spiritual creations in pop music history.
Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans (2004): Again, not a traditionally CCM artist, but Sufjan Stevens can’t be left off of this list. I’m convinced that history will look back on Sufjan as a turning point in the musical trajectory of “spiritual” music. Perhaps now Christians who are into good music won’t feel ashamed if they care more about being true and artistic rather than obvious and didactic.
Jars of Clay, Much Afraid (1997): Some might claim that Jars of Clay’s debut album (with that happily earthy feel) is their finest work. However, I’ve always contended that Much Afraid is their masterpiece. Subtle, subdued, and sonically rich (with gorgeously lingering songs like “Frail”), this sophomore album from a seminal CCM band is truly worthy of accolades.
Pedro the Lion, It’s Hard to Find a Friend (1998): When David Bazan (aka Pedro the Lion) emerged from the Seattle indie/emo scene in the late 90s, he was like the Christian version of Kurt Cobain (tortured, passionate, dark) with the mellow style of Eddie Vedder. His first full-length album remains his best, with quietly tragic (and catchy) tunes like “Big Trucks” and “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run.”
Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003): This could be my favorite album of all time. Certainly it’s the best album ever to come from blatantly Christian artists. The folky double-disc masterpiece from Cincinnati’s best kept secret is nothing short of magnificent, with its backwoods mystery and latter days prophetic gravitas (“Changes Come”). There are about six songs from this album that should be sung in churches every Sunday.
Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1998): Though the uber-catchy “Kiss Me” got all the press, the rest of this album is equally marvelous. Leigh Nash—the queen of CCM’s “indie” sound—gave beautiful form to Matt Slocum’s well-crafted classics on this album, which remains a rainyday staple and a major step into mainstream success for CCM.
Caedmon’s Call, Caedmon’s Call (1997): This is an album of the “college folk” movement in the late 90s in which “earthy” bands with world music leanings became “alternatives” for the over-18 set. Caedmon’s Call filled the Christian niche nicely with this album, which—among other things—launched the solo career of Derek Webb, who would later become the Martin Luther of CCM.
Waterdeep, Everyone’s Beautiful (1999): Even more grassroots and folky than their contemporaries Caedmon’s Call, the Kansas City-based Waterdeep became something of a legend among Christian hipsters for a few years in the late 90s/early 00s. Everyone’s Beautiful is their most diverse, satisfying album, though their live shows are still this band’s strongest suit.
DC Talk, Jesus Freak (1995): Though it can’t be denied that this album is a two-year delayed derivative of the grunge craze, it also can’t be denied that Jesus Freak is a super catchy, well-crafted effort from CCM’s favorite boy band. Give the trio credit: they went from rap outfit to rock band in seamless fashion, reinventing the Christian music industry (and giving it license to rock!) along the way.
Switchfoot, New Way to be Human (1999): Though this San Diego surfer band has since fallen victim to “crossover” MTV irrelevance, their older stuff is actually quite good. I especially like this album for its beautiful ballads (“Sooner or Later,” “Let That Be Enough,” and “Only Hope”) which appeared all over teen media (Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, A Walk to Remember) in the late 90s.
Honorable mention: Burlap to Cashmere, Anybody Out There? (1998), The Innocence Mission, Christ is My Hope (2000), Eisley, Room Noises (2005), Danielson, Ships (2006), Half-handed Cloud, Halos and Lassoes (2006), Rich Mullins, Songs (1996), Vigilantes of Love, Audible Sigh (1999), Damien Jurado, Rehearsals for Departure (1999), Relient K, The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek (2001), Audio Adrenaline, Bloom (1996).
I’ve been thinking a lot about "worship music" these days. I’m very suspicious of the term. I’ve been suspicious of it for a long time, so much so that at a point during my time at Wheaton College, whenever I’d get a “worship” CD in the mail (I was A&E editor of the newspaper; I got lots of free CDs), I’d rarely even open it. Here are just some of the reasons why I’ve become so jaded with what modern evangelicals have come to call worship music:
- It’s 90% crappy, knock-off Keane or secondhand U2 (i.e. it is usually very predictable and unoriginal)
- It’s an industry. How bizarre and kind of disgusting that branding your music as “worship” and selling it as an “experience” earns the most money in CCM.
- It’s a very fickle, trendy industry. Every month there’s a new “it” song that eventually filters down to every evangelical church across the world… only to be replaced by a new “it” song a month later. No more standards, no more canons.
- It turns its nose up at good writing. Most worship music wallows in bad water imagery, fire metaphor, or pseudo-sexual verbiage (“Jesus your love is ravishing, intoxicating, orgasmic, etc).
- It’s more about creating an emotional response than eliciting a profound spiritual reflection. The measure of a good worship leader is often how many in the audience stand up or raise their hands out of their own volition.
- It’s much too happy and self-satisfied. “Make a joyful noise” does not mean “don’t worry, be happy.” Some of the most beautiful (and yes, joyful) hymns have come from places of sorrow and brokenness (e.g. “It is Well With My Soul”)
- It’s much too focused on the words. Can’t the music be worshipful on its own? Could not an all-instrumental song be just as worshipful as one with lyrics?
So, as you can see, I have issues with modern worship music. It really pains me, because I want to like it; I want to think that God is pleased by it. But I can’t get over the fact that it is mostly just mediocre, conservative, and stuck in a box. Worship is so much broader than just a “genre” of music that can be “entered in to” as a corporate, religious activity. Worship is much bigger than that.
Worship music should be first and foremost honest music, and excellent music (artistically). It should come from the same place any musician goes to when writing a song. If that place is dark and has only a glimmer of hope, then that is your worship, and God rejoices in it (see Pedro the Lion sing “Be Thou My Vision”). If that place is effervescent and giddy about life, and that is honestly where you’re at, sing about it. Don’t force your music into formulas. Let it come out organically, creatively. There is nothing more worshipful than using our creative minds and talents to create the best and most creative thing we possibly can. Not the most commercial—not what is easy listening or reductive. No, our worship music should not be made for the masses.
Even as I’ve been ranting and raving about worship music and how bad it is, there are signs that it is beginning to get better. Thankfully there are Christian musicians out there beginning to realize that God is also honored by music that doesn’t have His name in it! Music can be about so much and still, in the end, be about God.
Here is a sampling of artists who I think make artful, forward-thinking music that is also rather worshipful. Some are more obviously “worship” artists, while others are just Christians making beautiful music. But most importantly, all are good.
- The Brilliance
- Future of Forestry
- Sandra McCracken
- The Welcome Wagon
- Half-handed Cloud
- Aaron Strumpel
- Young Oceans
- Audrey Assad
- John Mark McMillan
- Josh Garrels
- King's Kaleidoscope
- Sara Groves
- Andrew Peterson
- All Sons and Daughters
- Bifrost Arts
- Stuart Townend
- Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus
(This post has been updated since its original posting in 2007)