Our annual best-of coverage winds down again with some quick picks for Best Artists, drawing your attention to some of the industry’s best vocal performances from the past year, as well as the most impressive bands and gifted solo artists. We’ve also added a new category that recognizes the artists we feel have shown the most improvement in 2006. The finalists are a mix of veterans and newcomers, some that you would expect and some that may surprise you.
It’s no secret that all of us at Christian Music Today are in love with this woman’s voice, enough to place her indie release Before the Daylight’s Shot among our Best Albums of 2006. In turn, that album is strong enough for Ashley Cleveland to top our list of the year’s Best Female Vocalists. Most say she sounds similar to Melissa Etheridge, but that’s oversimplifying. Cleveland is actually far more versatile than blues, rocking with the best of them before backing off for tender delivery on the next track. She doesn’t just sing—she emotes all the way through.
For the record, we’re not honoring Kathy Troccoli just to recognize her 25th anniversary as a recording artist this year, though that makes it all the more appropriate. Have you heard her latest, The Story of Love? It’s easily one of the best albums in her illustrious career, and a throwback to classic inspirational pop albums of the ’80s (in a good way). Troccoli has seemingly discovered newfound freedom with her KT Records imprint, allowing her to dabble with jazz as much as pop—think Twila Paris meets Ella Fitzgerald. As a result, she sounds like she’s enjoying her work more than ever. We are too.
Wait, three veterans in a row? Is this a reunion for early ’90s artists? The great Cindy Morgan has lost nothing in the five years between her last album with Word and her debut with Reunion. Taking a little more of a rootsy Americana approach, Postcards includes some of Morgan’s most emotional songs to date, and she delivers them with the same passionate voice that’s earned her so many Dove nominations in the past. We hope it’s not another five years before we hear her rich and refined pipes again.
Finally a newcomer that we can’t stop singing praises for. Not that Ayiehsa Woods has the larger-than-life voice of a diva like Whitney Houston or Nicole C. Mullen. Instead, we’re more impressed with her enjoyably smoky vocal quality as well as her versatility, ably jumping between R&B and soulful pop on her debut—not to mention slipping back into her Caribbean roots with the greatest of ease for “Crazy.” Woods seems well on her way to remain a favorite for years to come.
And now a fond farewell, though we know it’s not goodbye. With the release of their concert album A Grateful People, Christy Nockels and her husband Nathan decided to discontinue as Watermark this past year to make more time for their budding family. However, we’ll still hear her sweetly blessed sound as the primary female vocal for the Passion worship conferences. And she’s still a regular for guest vocals and duets on other albums. But we suspect a solo album isn’t far down the line either—may we suggest some country a la Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood?
We’ve always known Todd Smith to be a remarkable singer as a member of Selah, but by the same token, we’ve taken him for granted as part of a package deal. Nicol Sponberg has since left, and in the process of succeeding her (with Amy Perry) Selah released a duets album. Bless the Broken Road shows Smith capable of holding his own with impressive talents like Nicole C. Mullen, Christy Nockels, and Plumb. With great physical and stylistic range, Smith’s impressive voice reveals him to be this generation’s Matthew Ward (2nd Chapter of Acts), offering one knockout performance after another.
This 22-year-old turned several heads in 2006 with his self-titled debut, and if we’re all honest about it, his captivating vocal performance was the primary reason for that. It’s not that he’s stuck in one mode either, ranging from the parlor pop croon of Rufus Wainwright to the stadium rock wail of Bono—Wickham’s with Jeff Buckley and Jason Morant somewhere in between. He shows surprising richness and control for someone his age, making his gorgeous voice part of the artistry, not just the means by which it’s delivered.
Cottrell has earned much respect in recent years a worship leader, recognized most for his work with Beth Moore’s conferences, and his blended worship style already demonstrates great range. But he outdid himself in 2006 with Found, a pop-classical album reminiscent of Josh Groban and Steve Green that revealed an obviously well trained voice, pure and flawless. Amazing that this guy can so effortlessly shift from gospel-inflected pop to something approaching the operatic.
The band still hasn’t broken big, and so he’s still not a household name. But any fan of Downhere knows what a terrific lead singer Marc Martel is, and he continues to mature as a vocalist, varying his technique to suit the song. He’s previously been compared to Kevin Max of dc Talk, but on Downhere’s third album Wide Eyed & Mystified Martel makes those high notes sound easy—enough to recall a young Freddie Mercury (Queen).
Because Lang is so skilled as a guitarist, it’s easy to lose sight of how great a singer he is. Especially considering that a 25-year-old white kid from North Dakota can sound so much like a seasoned blues veteran. But the styles clearly come naturally to Lang as he switches between blues, pop, soul, rock, and gospel on Turn Around, which is rapidly earning him a following in Christian circles beyond the mainstream.
If you have doubts about this band placing first, then you obviously haven’t seen them in concert. Hands down, Mute Math is the most exciting live act we’ve seen in a long time—and this coming from guys who enjoyed last year’s tours from Coldplay and U2. They’ve got the anthemic accessibility of those bands, plus the instrumental precision of journeymen, the modern sonic experimentation of Blue Man Group, and the extended jams of a classic progressive rock band. Oh, and their faith is manifested in their lyrics and vocal ad libs. Next time they come to town, we’ll be there.
Speaking of jam bands, Robert Randolph & The Family Band has a reputation for wild improvisation with their sacred steel fusion of funk, rock, and gospel. Their new album Colorblind, however, finds them scaling back on the ten-minute instrumentals in favor of tighter hook-laced songs. The result makes their music more memorable while still showing off their talents with infectious grooves and guitar solos. Others seem to agree, with many of the songs appearing in commercials and promo ads for AT&T, college football, and more. A fun album that is sure to be at least as exciting in concert.
Some are saying that this worship band from the UK is old news and past its prime. We say that their Now Is the Time DVD proves otherwise. Delirious has shown remarkable consistency in the ten years since their major label debut, and seem as energized as ever with last year’s release of The Mission Bell. Few Christian bands sound as authoritative as this one does, and you can see it in the first class production of their new video. That they can pull it off for the sake of worship is all the more impressive. These guys aren’t done yet—not by a long shot.
For those longing for the classic rock of the ’70s and the pop metal of the ’80s, yet performed with today’s more contemporary sensibilities, DecembeRadio does the trick. The band combines the Southern rock appeal of The Black Crowes and early Third Day with thee retro feel of Foreigner, Petra, and Kansas. So yes, you can expect some lean, mean guitar riffs and a bona fide rock show from these guys and their self-titled debut.
Pan Heads have always loved this band with unshakeable devotion, but if Comatose is any indication, the year ahead has a lot of potential for Skillet. They crossed over to the mainstream in 2004 with Collide, and now have the opportunity to break bigger with a broadly appealing mix of pop and metal reminiscent that works much like Evanescence. It’s a step forward for Skillet that’s sure to yield a great tour in 2007.
We get the sense that Derek Webb will never be fully embraced by the Christian music community. His alt-folk sound is probably a little too underground and his lyricism a little too bold. But then again, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Webb’s firm grasp on his sound and songwriting are strong, but it’s his clear focus that sets him apart from everyone else today. There’s nothing vague about the way he asks Christians to consider what they truly believe as followers of Jesus, applying his teachings to our present day culture. If nothing else, listen to his songs just once to gain some serious food for thought.
Young Mr. Lang could make this list for sheer talent alone considering his strong skills as a blues guitarist and vocalist. But spiritual rebirth has also infused his music with a sense of purpose. Before he was a very good blues revivalist. Now he’s so much more—a blues revivalist with a powerful testimony that reminds us no one is beyond God’s grace. Turn Around may not be the blues album that his longtime fans would expect, but it’s an eclectic array of soul, R&B, funk, and pop that puts his considerable talent to creative use with heart and authenticity.
Before Sara Groves and Nichole Nordeman, there was Cindy Morgan, who started out in the early ’90s as seemingly just another Christian pop singer before proving herself one of the industry’s finest singer/songwriters. Fifteen years after her start, she made a triumphant return in 2006 with Postcards, an Americana flavored pop release that shows she’s still got the skills and sophistication that shape and define genuine artistry. Like Derek Webb, Morgan deserves commendation for writing with a voice uniquely her own, challenging and strengthening our faith with honesty, boldness, and hope.
After debuting in the Christian market with Bullet in 2004, Mat Kearney has gone on to become the industry’s biggest breakout artist since Switchfoot. His tweaked re-release of the same album, Nothing Left to Lose, has earned him spots on mainstream radio and television, not to mention a high profile tour opening for John Mayer, sharing his creative blend of Brit pop, folk, and hip-hop with a broader audience. Hopefully Kearney’s rising star will allow him to continue as a light to the world in his own unique way.
It’s nothing new to note Bebo Norman’s popularity and talents as a songwriter and performer. The guy has proven himself capable of melodies that are soaring and memorable. However, after years on the college circuit as a folk artist, Norman surprised us with a more polished pop approach on Between the Dreaming and the Coming True that’s still compatible with his acoustic sound. It’s a move that should add years to his career longevity, proving himself equally adept at adult contemporary as he is with folk.
(Note: This category is in no way intended to be derogatory. Instead, it’s meant to recognize the solo artists and bands that have made a significant leap forward with their music this year.)
Yes, “I Can Only Imagine” and “Here with Me” were huge hits for MercyMe, but honestly, how long did we expect them to get by on worshipful pop ballads about heaven? And keep in mind, this is a band that once relied on covers of Phil Collins and U2 to open and close their show with something upbeat. Which is why Coming Up to Breathe is such an important album for MercyMe, revealing the rock band that they always intended to be and proving that there’s more to them than simplistic adult contemporary. It shows that they’re capable of growth and diversity, leaving us all to wonder with some anticipation where they’ll go from here.
After a long and successful run, the ever-popular newsboys enjoyed some of its greatest success with a pair of worship albums—but in the process, they also ended up polarizing their fan base. Go finds Peter Furler and his mates returning to the irresistible modern pop and dance rock that first made them a hit in the mid-’90s, and though it’s not their most creative effort to date, it’s nonetheless a much welcome return to their strengths. Please don’t let it be a temporary return!
Bebo Norman has drawn acclaim from day one with his folk and acoustic pop, though even his greatest fans would have to admit he tended toward the mellow side of things. In 2006, he surprised everyone with a pop album, Between the Dreaming and the Coming True. And fortunately, he hasn’t compromised his artistry in the process—his sound isn’t different as much as it’s bigger. If nothing else, it proves that Bebo has added another tool to the toolbox, capable of more than one style and thus broadening his potential.
When The Elms parted ways with Sparrow after their 2002 release Truth, Soul, Rock & Roll, we feared the classic rock influenced band from Indiana was done. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and The Elms have never sounded better. The Chess Hotel is raucous rock at its finest, reminiscent of The Who and The Stones crossed with The Strokes and The Vines. What this album may lack in spiritual content it makes up for with pure rock ‘n’ roll punch.
Including an internationally renowned worship team may seem odd at first glance, but for all the good that Hillsong has done for the church over the years, their live worship albums have grown rather formulaic in recent years. 2006’s Mighty to Save puts them back on track with stylistic variation, practical arrangements, and memorable songs. Hopefully this marks only the start of a worship music renaissance for this blessed congregation from down under.
To see our past selections for Best Artists, as well as our other year-end lists like Best Albums and Best New Artists, please visit our Best-Of Archives.