No hype, no radio play, no major distribution. It’s not always easy being an independent artist, but it’s probably easier today than it ever has been thanks to digital music, CD burners, and of course, the Internet. In the past, the quality of indie releases was far inferior to that of polished major-label projects, but that’s becoming less true every day. Some artists remain independent by choice to retain more artistic freedom, while others still are trying to land a contract with a major record label. What they all have in common is a need to create music and communicate with an audience, specifically the message of the Gospel. With so many major releases available, it’s hard to find time to devote attention to indie artists. Consider this list of recommendations “open mic night” for 10 diverse and talented indie artists I’ve stumbled across in the last year.
Acoustic pop and folk music is alive and well today in Christian music, thanks to artists such as Bebo Norman, Sara Groves, and Caedmon’s Call. The introspective songwriting and honesty associated with the genre make it a natural means for Christian artists to connect with audiences. If folk music is your cup of tea (or should that be coffee?), I’ve got a terrific recommendation for you by the name of Jason Gray. Jason most recently was featured as the opening act for Sara Groves on her tour, a good match for her skillful and thoughtful songwriting. The Sara Groves comparison runs deeper since Jason’s album, A Place Called Hope, was co-produced by Nate Sabin, who also produced Sara’s highly acclaimed Conversations project (Sara also makes a brief appearance on this album). In the limited space of this article, I just can’t do Jason’s songwriting skills justice. If you insist on proof, check out the artists to whom I can’t help but compare Jason: Steven Curtis Chapman, Andrew Peterson, Caedmon’s Call, Rich Mullins (Jason also plays hammered dulcimer), and Mark Heard (a cover of his song “Look Over Your Shoulder” is found here). Lyrically, he’s as gifted as any of these artists, expressing timeless Christian truths and feelings with originality and passion. Jason Gray is as talented a songwriter as you’ll hope to find in Christian music. I can picture him being at home on the Watershed/Essential or Rocketown rosters. Odds are real good that I’ll be doing a review of a major-label release from this guy somewhere down the road.
The Air I Breahtewww.pacificartsgroup.com
Passionate and worshipful modern pop
I knew the song “Breathe” would become a popular worship song after first hearing it on 1999’s Vineyard release, Hungry. Somehow, I doubt anyone expected that it would end up on more than 45 different albums worldwide, most notably on Michael W. Smith‘s Worship and Rebecca St. James‘ Worship God. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the songwriter and worship leader behind that powerful song: Marie Barnett. It’s amazing that Marie started spontaneously writing “Breathe” during an evening worship service! The version of the song that appears on this album may be hers, but there are more impressive covers of it elsewhere — not surprising considering how many other versions there are. What’s impressive is Marie’s consistency in writing intelligent and passionate songs of praise to the Lord. “Fall on Your Mercy,” taken from Psalm 139, is every bit as confessional and intimate sounding as “Breathe.” I’ll be surprised if worship bands don’t jump on this song with the same enthusiasm. The Air I Breathe is wonderfully produced by John Andrew Schreiner, Fernando Ortega‘s longtime friend, producer, and songwriting collaborator. Marie’s music on this album is progressive sounding, earning comparisons to artists such as Kate Bush, Sara Groves, Tori Amos, Twila Paris, and Sarah McLachlan — very ethereal and poetic modern pop. It’s hard to believe that a major label hasn’t snatched up an artist such as Marie, considering the frenzied push to develop new worship artists. With so many worship albums sounding formulaic these days, I’m truly thankful for someone like Marie Barnett, a songwriter who’s passionate about writing creative expressions of art and praise for the church.
Worshipful R&B with touches of African music
Daniel Nettey has some respectable musical credentials on his resume that help explain his sound. In 1998, he toured with worship leader Ron Kenoly as a back-up singer, and he later performed in the UK on the same bill as Ron Winans (of the famous gospel-singing family). Not surprisingly, Daniel’s music is mostly a blend of smooth R&B, inspirational pop, and contemporary worship, not too unlike some of the music from BeBe Winans. His deep baritone on beautiful piano ballads such as “I Will Worship” and “Revive Us (Revive America)” even sounds a bit like Ron Kenoly’s worshipful sound. His soulful performance on “Sanctify Me” recalls The Winans from the late ’80s and early ’90s. The pop/R&B of “In Your Presence” and “Thank You” have the same pop-R&B sound of Gerald Levert or Luther Vandross. What sets him apart from other similar-sounding artists is his heritage — Daniel originally hails from the Gold Coast of Ghana, West Africa, and he lets that shine through in some of his songs. The African groove on songs such as “Ywe Yie (Take Heed),” “God’s Eyes on Africa,” and “It’s Not Hard” are buoyant and a lot of fun, blending reggae with rhythmic pop and traditional African folk (featuring a terrific — but uncredited — bass player on these songs). If only Daniel straddled cultures more often on Thank You. Those are the songs on which he demonstrates the most creativity, and the Winans-esque ballads begin to sound the same after the album’s 14 tracks. Still, those ballads are easily adaptable into any church’s contemporary worship service. There’s plenty here for fans of worship and R&B to warrant a serious listen to Daniel Nettey.
Referring specifically to verse four in the last book of the bible, Rev 21 is comprised of brothers Rick and Tim Hammond, who sing and play all manner of guitars. They are joined by the talented Christian producer Alan Shacklock, who did a smashing job on albums by Shaded Red (Red Revolution) and Phil Keaggy (True Believer). The Hammond brothers are relatively new to the Nashville community, so I haven’t a clue how they scored such a talented producer for their debut album, Hope. His talents make a big difference, giving their songs that extra layer of sound effects and thick keyboards to make them more polished and credible. Rev 21’s sound falls somewhere between the guitar pop of artists such as Jude Cole and Duncan Sheik and the modern rock/pop of Collective Soul. “The Captives Are All Free” starts off innocently enough with light guitar and drums only to explode into big heavy-metal guitars and drums on the chorus, proclaiming the joy of life conquering death. Similarly, “Hope” and “Confession” have that big drum-kit sound reminiscent of Phil Collins or INXS in the ’80s, lending that much more ambience to Rick and Tim’s powerful songs about man’s sinful nature and God’s plan for salvation through his Son. The big sound is cool but almost too bombastic for the duo’s own good. Can they recapture this sound in concert without an awesome drummer, a bassist, and a keyboardist? Still, they balance the album nicely with the gentle guitar pop of “My Cup Overflows,” the soft jazz-club sound of “A Soft Answer,” and “This Ring,” a sweet and joyous love song written by Tim for his wife. If these guys can lock down a full band and beef up their songwriting a bit, then Rev 21 has a hopeful future, which makes their debut’s title even more appropriate.
Imagine Yourself Forgivenwww.robinwelty.com
Considering the first-rate production, the talent of the musicians involved, and the hype surrounding her project, it’s a wonder Robin Welty isn’t already signed by one of the major record labels such as Sparrow, Word, or Rocketown. Robin has been performing since her teen years and studied music at Anderson University. She moved to Nashville in 1995 and soon was writing and performing backup vocals for numerous artists. I’ve read articles and reviews comparing her music to that of Alanis Morrisette, but Robin isn’t nearly as alternative-rock sounding. She does, however, have a very modern-pop sound. I imagine Amy Grant sounding a lot like this if she hit her stride today rather than the early ’80s. Robin’s vocals even sound much like Amy Grant (especially on “Simple City”), though there’s a deeper quality on her other songs that recall Margaret Becker (who, incidentally, has cited Robin as one of her favorite indie artists). Many of the nine songs on Imagine Yourself Forgiven have a driving-pop anthem to them, such as the rhythmic “No Tomorrow,” a song similar in sound and theme to U2’s classic “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Robin does a fine job of balancing pop melodies with soaring pop/rock anthems, switching to balladry on a couple of the tracks. Her songs wrestle with concepts such as God’s grace and the fragility/impatience of human nature, and her lyrics have the same honesty and depth as Ginny Owens or Kendall Payne. This is thoughtfully written and skillfully made Christian pop. The only things separating Robin Welty from some other similar-sounding Christian artists right now are the facts that she’s unsigned to a record label and that she’s writing better music.
Dave Foraker & True Blue
In All You Dowww.bluesfiddler.com
Classic blues/rock with a little gospel
I’m not sure why there are so many people who think Christianity and blues music are incompatible. Half of the Psalms seem kinda bluesy to me. Dave Foraker and his band, True Blue, combine the best of both worlds with their joyous brand of blues-styled rock. True Blue hails from the Charlotte, North Carolina-area and features lead singer and violinist Dave, drummer Rick Hodges, bassist Ted Robertson, and guitarist Tom Williams. Things started off strongly in 1996 with their debut CD, but their success was cut short when Dave suffered a stroke and was unable to play fiddle, sing, walk, or even talk. By the grace of God, he was able to slowly rehabilitate himself, and the band reunited to record their second CD, In All You Do (and yes, they do continue to play live). Dave’s got a terrific road-worn, scratchy voice perfectly suited for the blues-rock musical style, reminding me very much of Delbert McClinton or Kim Wilson (of The Fabulous Thunderbirds). Glenn Kaiser is another artist to draw natural comparisons to. However, while Glenn can be a little heavy on the rock side for some blues fans, Dave and his band play with less intensity and are perhaps a little more palatable for general audiences. Less intensity does not mean mellow, however. These guys can rock with the best of them, especially on songs such as “He’ll Take the Blues From You,” “Preacherman Told Me,” and “You Gotta Have Jesus.” The band takes a more soulful turn on the title track (a thoughtful variation on The Prayer of Jabez) and on “Life on the Run,” and embrace more of a country blues sound on “When We Get to Heaven” and “Seven Promises.” Excellent musicianship abounds from all involved in this album, and it’s helped by Dave’s joyful and original songwriting. I dare you to check out In All You Do — interestingly enough, it’ll chase your blues away.
It’s a Mysterywww.danielswindow.com
Melodic modern guitar rock with techno
Hailing from Joliet, Illinois (just outside Chicago), Daniel’s Window blends modern guitar rock with melodic pop and techno-dance, drawing strong comparisons to Garbage and No Doubt. In fact, lead singer Heather Hershey is about one step away from sounding like Gwen Stefani (No Doubt). The rest of the band is comprised of guitarist Alby Odum, bassist Bill Coleman, keyboardist Caleb King, and drummer Jesse Burkhead. For an indie release, this is a remarkably well-produced debut that features some pretty creative arrangements. All five members contribute to the songwriting, which largely focuses on God’s endless love for us and the change he affects in our lives. The band succumbs a bit to overly simplistic pop-worship songs that sound rather similar to each other, but they make up for it with radio-friendly modern-rock gems such as “Sorry” and “Loves Me, Loves Me Not,” which is as good as anything I’ve ever heard by No Doubt. Also check out their slick, modern take on the old hymn “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” on “Solid Rock.” On top of all this, the band truly has a heart for youth ministry, performing for youth groups across the country and even developing a six-week Bible study that relates to this album. Considering the popularity of Christian bands such as Plumb, Skillet, The Benjamin Gate, and Superchic[k], it’s no mystery that Daniel’s Window is a hit with youth groups across the country. They’ve got a style that’s just aggressive enough for the boys, yet melodic and danceable enough for the girls. Listening to It’s a Mystery, I can’t help but believe that this band’s on the verge of a national breakthrough.
Filling the Pageswww.matthewebel.com
Thoughtful piano-based pop.
Hailing from Spokane, Washington, and graduating with a degree in music composition from Whitworth College, Matthew Ebel recalls the classic singer/songwriter from the ’70s. For most of his second album, Filling the Pages, his vocals and music recall a young Keith Green, though you easily could make comparisons to Don McLean and Five For Fighting. The Don McLean comparison is most obvious on “Jesse,” a song that recalls the classic “American Pie” and tells the story of Jesus in modern language much like the popular book Joshua. His songs flow with a storytelling narrative that you rarely find in Christian music these days — sort of like modern-day parables. He uses the long drive from Nashville to Spokane as an illustration for “Coming Home” to Christ, and on “Rain” a thunderstorm serves as the backdrop for a man searching for God, eventually finding him in an unexpected way. Matthew does a fine job of varying the sound throughout, making each song memorable (especially the self-vocalized, a cappella prayer song “Devotional Song #21”). I listen to Filling the Pages and wonder what Matthew Ebel lacks compared to singer/songwriters such as Shaun Groves and Mark Schultz. There are some smart touches to the songwriting and production on this album, which was self-produced by Matthew, but the sound’s a little too retro for much of the album. If he were matched with the right producer for guidance and additional brainstorming, I think this burgeoning songwriter could gain more widespread recognition in short time.
The Cross Movement
Modern hip hop
As far as I can tell, there’s only one genre of music that hasn’t quite made a successful transition into Christian music, and that’s hip hop. I believe artists such as Toby Mac and John Reuben are making great strides, but we’ve yet to see artists such as L.A. Symphony and Tunnel Rats earn the full recognition and accolades they deserve. Add Philadelphia’s The Cross Movement to the list of unsung Christian hip-hop heroes, a five-man hip hop collective consisting of Tonic, Earthquake, The Ambassador, Enoch, and The Phanatik. Where Tunnel Rats leans in a more experimental direction and L.A. Symphony toys with old-school elements, The Cross Movement is firmly rooted in the popular hip-hop styles of today. Their most recent project, Human Emergency, is extremely well-produced; it doesn’t sound like it was made in someone’s bedroom with an old cassette recorder like so many other underground hip hop projects. Not ones to simply copy popular trends, The Cross Movement offers some truly experimental touches to the programming and songwriting structure. However, what I really enjoy most about The Cross Movement are their witty and insightful lyrics. I imagine this is what Steve Taylor would sound like if he were a hip-hop artist. From the album’s intro — a 911 dispatch calling an individual to inform him he’s in mortal danger — be prepared for some truly clever pop-culture references that manage to clearly convey the message of the cross without being overly preachy or lacking the attitude necessary in the genre. The Cross Movement is more than a hip hop collective — they’re a group of artists committed to ministering to those directly involved with and affected by the hip hop music industry. Here’s hoping they make a strong impact on the lives of young people and help open the door to make Christian hip hop a credible genre.
Gypsy Flat Roadwww.sandramccracken.com
Acoustic folk rock
Sandra McCracken needs the least introduction of all the artists in this year’s list. At the very least, you’re probably familiar with her relationship to Caedmon’s Call — her husband is Derek Webb (one of Caedmon’s singers) and she arranged a few old hymns for the band’s recent worship album, In the Company of Angels. Sandra also has sung duets with Derek on a few albums, most recently on the City on a Hill: Sing Alleluia album. Sandra has earned plenty of attention in her own right, however, as an acclaimed independent artist. Her second album, Gypsy Flat Road, is a wonderfully made acoustic-rock album with poetic lyrics that can be mulled over and reflected upon for many listens. “Trade My Love” is a wonderful tribute to God’s grace and comfort, and “Ticket Home” speaks of our longing to find our true place in heaven. “Now and Then” powerfully interprets Psalm 139 into something original, sad, and comforting (not so unlike many of the psalms): “I know where I’m bound and where I’m chained and where I’m left alone / I know no hunger and I know no pain, but tonight I wanna go home.” Sandra’s voice is something of a cross between Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, and a young Emmy Lou Harris, and her music has the same folk sound as Shawn Colvin or Julie Miller. Let me warn off casual listeners who are looking for songs that plainly express the Christian faith with simple words and familiar phrases. There’s plenty here for all to enjoy, but these are exquisitely worded songs that thoughtfully use poetry and imagery to convey faith and emotions. That’s what marks Sandra McCracken as a true Christian artist.
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