We finish up our 2004 season of year-end lists with this brief summary of Best Christian Artists. The finalists for Best Female and Male Vocalists were selected for their vocal skills, as demonstrated on albums and in concert. The Best Band or Group and the Best Solo Artist are both chosen based on the whole overview of ability, songwriting, and impact on audiences.

Best Female Vocalist

1.Charity Von

We’re always going to have the memory of Charity singing for us with her guitarist outside our offices on a beautiful sunny summer day, her powerful and soulful rock vocal soaring over the Chicago suburbs like a young Janis Joplin or Ashley Cleveland. Amazing that she never took a voice lesson until the summer of 2004, after recording her self-titled debut. Now if she only had equally strong and interesting songs to match for her next album, we’d have a breakthrough on our hands. If you plan to catch Point of Grace’s Spring 2005 tour, prepare to be wowed.

2.Nicole C. Mullen

Mullen remains one of the Christian music industry’s most dynamic and soulful vocalists, as she’s proven again in 2004 with Everyday People. Her voice is more than capable of matching her diverse songwriting—a playful blend of pop, soul, and funk that is both contemporary and retro—whether belting out a classic power ballad or nimbly warbling over some upbeat R&B.

3.Sandi Patty

With her latest double album Hymns of Faith … Songs of Inspiration, Patty reminded us once again why she’s been long regarded as one of America’s greatest vocalists. Classic hymns, patriotic standards, modern worship, pop, gospel, orchestral accompaniment, backing band—it all works for this versatile, professionally trained soprano.

4. Christy Nockels (Watermark)

She’s always had an impressive voice, richened by a beautiful tone and pure emotion, but Nockels seems to be improving with time. She demonstrated her considerable skill in a busy year that included the release of The Purest Place (possibly Watermark’s best work yet), contributions to the latest Passion worship projects, and a vocal lead on Rocketown’s Gloria Christmas tour.

5. Sarah Kelly

Everyone was buzzing about this husky-voiced powerhouse after the release of her national debut Take Me Away. Like Rita Springer before her, she redefines passionate worship with her bold and affecting outpourings. It’ll be fun to hear Kelly stretch herself in the years to come.

Best Male Vocalist

1. Bart Millard (MercyMe)

Say what you will about MercyMe. Whether you find their material dull or inspiring, this dude can sing. In 2004, the band proved their crossover success with “I Can Only Imagine” was no fluke, thanks to the popularity of the new album Undone and its hit single “Here with Me.” No doubt a key component to that popularity is the strength, range, and clarity with which Millard delivers—both on stage and in the studio.

2. Steven Curtis Chapman

Chapman wouldn’t make this list only based on past merit or popularity. The truth is, at the age of 42, he seems to be varying his vocal style today more than ever … and succeeding. He tries new things on All Things New, integrating some subtle new techniques, and the accompanying Fall 2004 tour was easily one of the best we’ve seen in Christian music for some time.

3. Matt Hammitt (Sanctus Real)

One of the best rock vocalists in the biz right now, Hammitt strikes a nice balance between loud and melodic. Check out the high notes he belts on choruses like “Alone” and “The Fight Song”—almost screamed, yet still controlled. The rock energy carried over into their live act too.

4. Chris Tomlin

One of the most respected worship leaders and songwriters of today also has one of the strongest and most underrated voices. Tomlin’s assertive tenor bridges the gap between what’s comfortable for men and women to sing, though there are probably more than a few guys who wish he wouldn’t sing as high while leading God’s people in praise.

5. Andy Chrisman (4Him)

Chrisman is well known after a decade’s worth of harmonizing with 4Him, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he finally stepped out on his own for his first solo album, One. As a result, the voice you know and love is heard more than ever, singing pop/rock that’s more diverse and interesting than anything the popular AC quartet ever sang.

Best Band or Group

1. Mute Math

Mute Math was an easy choice for this list. There’s no question they offers the year’s most creative sound in Christian music, mixing modern programming with ’80s styled anthemic rock. The lyrics are spiritually informed, but also artistic in expression. And this is a great live band. If the Reset EP is an indicator, then Mute Math’s full-length debut in 2005 is going to be amazing. Get on board now with the band that has everyone buzzing.

2. Salvador

It’s no secret that this is one of Christian music’s best live bands. The weird part is that it took four years and five albums to finally release an original studio project that does their musical prowess justice. And yes, despite the constant roster changes, the band still plays great and remains on fire about expressing their faith through song.

3. Relient K

This enormously punk pop band takes another mature leap forward with mmHmm. No, it’s not as goofy as their previous efforts, but there’s an air of playfulness, and it’s still stuffed with wit. Relient K has gradually evolved into a skillful rock band with some of the industry’s most intelligent song lyrics. Few of us would have expected that five years after “Hello McFly.”

4. Sanctus Real

Early in 2004, this Ohio band got off to a strong start by making the most of “Beautiful Day,” a U2 cover that ironically got them nominated for a Gospel Music Award. Then they demonstrated that they were capable of even better with their much heralded sophomore effort, Fight the Tide. Power chords, cool guitar licks, and strong vocals (see above)—Sanctus Real deserves more respect for the quality of rock energy they exude in concert and on CD.

5. Switchfoot

Switchfoot didn’t release any new music in 2004, but there’s no question that it was their year to shine. Nearly a year after The Beautiful Letdown initially released, the mainstream caught on big with radio success helping the album sell millions of copies. They’ve become the hottest thing in Christian Music Today, and we can hardly wait to see what artistry and opportunities arise next.

Best Solo Artist

1. tobyMac

A few years ago, fans were skeptical that the members of dc Talk could make it as solo artists. Though he hasn’t yet achieved the same level of success, tobyMac is indeed soldiering on alone as an eclectic rock/hip-hop act, a record label executive, and an industry leader. Welcome to Diverse City is one of the year’s best albums, but more importantly, tobyMac is making great strides in the spotlight and behind the scenes uniting people of diverse races and tastes under the banner of Christ.

2. Steven Curtis Chapman

Stuck in a rut? We hate to disagree, but Chapman’s music sounds more catchy and relevant today than it did ten years ago, fusing his familiar approach to songwriting with varied pop/rock sounds reminiscent of Five for Fighting, Coldplay, and John Mayer. And likewise, he sounded more energetic than ever on the All Things New tour last fall. As he sings on the new album, he’s “only getting started.”

3. Derek Webb

We think Derek Webb is one of the smartest songwriters in music today. Lots of Christian artists sing about what they believe, but Webb makes listeners apply their beliefs to the world around them. It’s tough, it’s challenging, and it can’t help being compared to similar songs from a young and passionate Keith Green—all set to an ambient alt-folk sound reminiscent of Wilco and Daniel Lanois that’s still relatively new to Christian music.

4. Sara Groves

Her sound leans on the mellow side, but more and more people are discovering the heartfelt and insightful songwriting of Sara Groves. Like Webb, she’s not content recycling her faith for music, but instead shares it on a deeper level that causes listeners to reflect on their relationship with God long after the CD is over. The Other Side of Something finds Groves still going strong with an increasingly more accessible and creative folk-pop sound.

5. Jeremy Camp

Two years ago, Camp was a new guy with a powerful testimony about faith through love and loss. Today he’s one of Christian music’s most popular recording artists. Clearly he’s connecting with audiences and insiders alike—his albums are selling and he earned two major Gospel Music Awards in 2004. Things are looking up for Jeremy Camp.

Lists compiled by Andy Argyrakis and Russ Breimeier.

In addition to 2004’s Reader’s Choice Awards, don’t forget to read the rest of our year-end coverage with The Best Christian Albums, Best New Artists, and Favorite Worship Albums of 2004.

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