Our annual selections for Best Christian Albums in small part serves as a snapshot of the state of the industry, and what’s particularly interesting about this year’s list is how many of the finalists seem “outside the box.” Many of the artists have a foot in both Christian and mainstream markets without finding runaway success in either, and some of them are established artists who today continue to record and distribute music independently. It all reflects our commitment to exploring the full breadth of Christian music (released between December 2005 and November 2006), not because of their reach, but because of their potential to reach with artistic excellence.
Tune in to hear our special program highlighting songs from this year’s list.
Between the Dreaming and the Coming True
Hard to believe that Bebo Norman has been at the singer/songwriter game for ten years already since the release of his independent debut. He’s bought ten more for his career based on the strength of his sixth album—a solid step forward and a slight reinvention of sorts. Twenty-something coffeehouse troubadours are in plentiful supply, though Norman has always been better than most. But now in his thirties, the folk artist reveals that a heart for beautifully crafted melodic pop beats deep within him. It’s a natural progression with his proven ear for memorable melodies, and he matches it with a newfound confidence in the words as well, exploring the journey from fear to faith with hopeful lyrics that are both personable and relatable. Congratulations, Bebo, you’ve graduated from the college scene into the big leagues. Click here for the original review.
Square Peg Alliance
If The Normals had only continued after 2002’s A Place Where You Belong … well, it might have been as impressive as this sophomore effort from front man Andrew Osenga, who also serves as lead guitarist for Caedmon’s Call. Though it’s an independent effort, don’t be fooled—the only shortcoming is a lack of distribution, currently only available at www.andrewosenga.com. As far as quality goes, it’s a match for any other alternative folk-rock release this year, and a no-brainer for those who appreciate the refined style of Elliott Smith, Michael Penn, Neil Finn, or Gomez. Combine that with smart, honest songcraft reminiscent of Bob Dylan or Mark Heard, expressing a progression from regret to redemption through a series of metaphorical illustrations, introspective musings, and heartfelt confessionals. Too bad an album this good will go largely overlooked—but at least now you know about it!Click here for the original review
All right, we confess. It’s mostly the voice. A brassy and gutsy wail that’s also tender and emotional—someone once described it as “sweet sandpaper”—it ranks up there with Bonnie Raitt, Melissa Etheridge, and Wynonna. When Ashley Cleveland sings, we believe every word she says, and that certainly helps an artist who’s forthright with her beliefs without being trite about it. When she sings about fearless faith (“Ready or Not”), times of testing (“The Blessing”), and what it means to be a Christian woman (“Queen of Soul”), she does so not with overused clichés, but a confident songwriting voice all her own. An inspiring blend of adult contemporary blues-rock that has teeth without cutting too sharply, it’s an album that rivals her earlier acclaimed work in the early ’90s. Though here again is another independent release available only at www.ashleycleveland.com. It’s worth going out of your way for.Click here for the original review.
You’ve heard plenty of modern emo-rock bands like Edison Glass before—Denison Marrs, Sleeping at Last, and House of Heroes come to mind (all of whom made our Best Albums lists in previous years). The difference is that this one does it better than most, favoring clear-cut artistic expressions of faith over vague references that are open to broader interpretation. The songwriting is smart enough to be appreciated on an intellectual level, yet transparent enough to touch the soul. Though A Burn or a Shiver represents their national debut, this New York quartet has been playing together for seven years and it shows in the tight musicianship, which at times reaches progressive-rock proportions. What happens when a rock band aspires for something higher than a trendy sound? You get a stimulating, faith-fueled rock experience such as this. “Inventive composer” indeed.Click here for the original review.
For a band that’s demonstrated consistent growth and excellence since their Cutting Edge days in the early ’90s, Delirious has nevertheless long wrestled with competing identities as both a modern worship band and a stadium rock act. Here they prove those qualities need not be mutually exclusive, and can instead work together to fuel each other. With so many other strong albums under their belt, it’s hard to decisively call The Mission Bell their best work, but it ranks up around the top with a broad stylistic range confidently rooted in the grand Brit rock tradition of U2, Radiohead, and Coldplay. The album is also successful in introducing new worship songs for the church that simultaneously call it to action with an eye toward compassion and social justice. Delirious does seem to be getting stronger every day with no signs of aging—it’s entirely possible that their best days are yet to come.Click here for the original review.
We can definitely use a few more like Derek Webb, a modern day street preacher of a songwriter who carries a fire with as much zeal and humility as Keith Green 25 years ago. As the new social conscience of Christian music, Webb is unafraid to channel his passion into seeking God’s ways by addressing the topics that most other artists are afraid to touch. Yet he does so without self-righteous condemnation or polarizing agendas, instead singing about ethics, politics, and poverty through the filter of Scripture, the goal simply to start discussion and challenge what we truly believe as followers of Christ. Though Mockingbird is not his strongest effort musically, it’s still strong enough an alt-folk album in its own right for fans of Wilco, Elliott Smith, and Bob Dylan. And here’s a first for our Best Albums list—like Keith Green, Webb’s has allowed free download of this album over the Internet (until December 1, 2006). Assuming that you’re reading this online, you’ve little excuse to miss this one, but it’s still well worth your money.Click here for the original review.
L-Town Music Group
As the title says, this album marks a striking metamorphosis for an already interesting group. The new moniker reflects a comparatively unconventional approach to worship music, taking the emphasis off expressing our desires to the Lord and attempting to hear what he has to say for a change, with songs like “Hosea in C minor” and the prophetic feel of “Untitled.” Yet there’s also room for some creative praise—”Triple Fascination” gives adoration to the triune God with a fresh perspective. It’s also rare to hear a band use their dynamic range and ambience to so perfectly capture the emotion of their lyrics, working in perfect tandem to carry a message by establishing a mood. Passionate and poetic, The Listening continues to grow by challenging themselves artistically, and also continues to impress by challenging their fellow listeners. But be aware, this isn’t passive rock—make sure you’re paying attention.Click here for the original review.
Robert Randolph & The Family Band
If you can sit still while listening to this record, you have no pulse. An amalgamation of Sly and the Family Stone, Lenny Kravitz, and Eric Clapton, Robert Randolph & The Family Band know how to groove. That much was established on their previous two albums, but here they’ve reigned in their jam band tendencies to craft tighter songs with irresistible hooks. The result puts Randolph’s electrifying skill with the pedal steel guitar on full display against tasty morsels of funk, rock, gospel, and soul. The lyrics are a bit more abstract this time and open to interpretation, though there’s still a clear focus on love, unconditional acceptance, thankfulness, and help from above (“Deliver Me” and even a rousing cover of “Jesus Is Alright With Me”). Randolph’s faith may not be particularly evident here, but he and his band know how to use their joyful noise to fill a room with jubilation and gladness of heart. Quite possibly the most fun album of the year.Click here for the original review.
Blues wunderkind Jonny Lang has taken his share of praise and critical lumps over the last ten years, and continues to receive it today. Yes, some Christians are seemingly only embracing his latest album because of his conversion five years ago; no, Turn Around is not completely grounded in blues like Lang’s earlier albums. Preconceptions and expectations aside, it remains a sizzling and eclectic effort, stretching beyond the blues to effectively dabble in soul, gospel, funk, and even some pop balladry. It’s also a powerful testimony for Lang, an album he needed to make to explain that the dramatic change in his life is possible for anyone. Plus, let’s face it—we’re all still amazed that a white kid from North Dakota in his mid-20s can sing and play like a timeworn veteran three times his age. Taking his music from the streets to the sanctuary, Lang’s album overflows with talent and hope.Click here for the original review.
Sheesh, ever since their self-titled debut in 2001, we just can’t keep Downhere from placing high on our lists. Of course, that should probably tell you something, and if you haven’t discovered how strong this Canadian foursome really is, why not? They haven’t really done anything dramatically different with their third album that they haven’t down before, and that’s precisely why they’re here again—they’ve only managed to improve upon their greatness. Lead vocalists Marc Martel and Jason Germain remain distinctive yet operate wonderfully together, the band plays like a well-oiled machine, and at a time when Christian songwriting tends to gravitate to either mindless sentimentality or meaningless ambiguity, these guys are proudly proclaiming their faith with substance and heart. Considering that some of Christian music’s most popular and successful bands right now are blending adult contemporary pop with rock verve and forthright lyricism, it’s downright mystifying that Downhere doesn’t get more recognition for similar-yet-superior songcraft. Oh well, if they continue to make albums this good, we’ll continue to honor them.Click here for the original review.
There was some fuss as to whether or not Mute Math is a “Christian band,” so let’s clarify. They’re a group of musicians with Christian beliefs who happen to be singing about things like awakening from complacency in search of purpose (“Typical”), finding peace in a broken world (“Chaos”), discovering new life (“Noticed”), and receiving the grace to persevere (“Stall Out”). Draw your own conclusions, but what should be clear to everyone is how insanely talented and creative this band really is. You’d be hard pressed to find a more exciting live act today with a more distinctive sound—an electronic rock crossbreed of The Police, U2, and Blue Man Group for the 21st century. Blending sonic experimentation with pop accessibility, it’s hard to decide if the band is more renowned for their futuristic innovation or old-fashioned musicianship (drummer Darren King is, in a word, amazing). A thrilling and faith-affirming full-length debut that successfully builds on the acclaim surrounding 2004’s Reset EP, expect Mute Math to break even bigger now that audience exposure is on the rise through Warner.Click here for the original review.
Jars of Clay
Freelance writer and critic, Christian Music Today
After spending a decade playing primarily to the Christian subculture, Skillet spreads its wings even further into the mainstream with this seeker-friendly effort. The follow-up to the Grammy nominated Collide, Comatose features a much more melodic and accessible musical palette meshed with the band’s familiar blend of electronic pop metal. Tunes like “The Last Night” and “Rebirthing” evoke Evanescence from a more spiritual perspective, while melodic ballads “Yours to Hold” and “Say Goodbye” represent the band’s tasteful orchestral interests. The disc hit stores late in 2006, so expect Comatose to become a major breakthrough in the New Year, piggybacking off the well received secular single “Whispers in the Dark.”Click here for the original review.
Freelance writer and critic, Christian Music Today
While some have dismissed Shawn McDonald as the Christian equivalent of pop-folkies Jack Johnson or Damien Rice, there really was something to the laidback groove of Simply Nothing, a collection of earnest and hopeful songs catchy enough to stick with you for the long haul. Now with Ripen, McDonald bravely foregoes pop hooks in favor of more intriguing and contemplative songwriting and arrangements. The album isn’t consistently a slam dunk, but there’s plenty of poignant, reflective material to be found if you’re willing to make the investment, especially on “Perfectly Done,” “Poured Out” and the stripped-down-yet-powerful closing strains of “Lovely.”Click here for the original review.
Online Associate Editor, Christian Music Today
It’s rare to find an album so purposeful, spiritual, and musically unique these days, much less on an artist’s debut release. Yet the artist known as Liquid somehow accomplishes all that with the greatest of ease, offering about as seamless a mixture as humanly possible of R&B, soul, hip-hop, rock, and funk with some jazz, Latin, and reggae thrown in for good measure. Disjointed as that may appear on paper, the sound is remarkably cohesive throughout, but moreover, Liquid uses the eclecticism to his advantage, sharing stories from his inner city Philly neighborhood while expressing his hope to see it transformed through the love of Jesus Christ. A genuinely creative and affecting piece of work.Click here for the original review.
Freelance writer and critic, Christian Music Today
Critics across the board agree: The Elms rock and they rock hard. But don’t come expecting radio-friendly, emo-flavored, post grunge, blandly crafted, flavor-of-the-moment rock. Instead, the Indiana foursome chose to go back to the ’60s for a dose of freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll that recalls the unpolished bravado of The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty in their prime. The Chess Hotel is the perfect backdrop for the band’s everyday stories of heartbreak, complacency, and stagnancy facing small town Middle America. It’s in-your-face with rock, but not necessarily on the spiritual front. But consider it a concept project of sorts for people thirsting for redemption from their own circumstances.Click here for the original review.
Associate Editor, Ignite Your Faith
Family Force 5
2006 was a big year for great rock debuts (including The Classic Crime and Flatfoot 56, two others I wish could have made our list), but none was more unique than this “Southern Crunk Rock” release—a hybrid of hard rock, hip-hop, and dance grooves—from Family Force 5. Youthful, fun, and energetic, the band combines ripping guitars, solid rock musicianship, and a goofy randomness (cheerleader chants and wildcat growls, anyone?) to create an appealing party rock alternative for teens. Save for some shout-outs to the love “sent from above” and a desperate call for renewal on “Replace Me,” there’s not much in the way of spiritual content, but FF5 succeeds at throwing the biggest party in Christian music today.Click here for the original review.
Online Managing Editor, Christian Music Today
Once again proving that Gotee exec and CCM vet tobyMac has a great ear for discovering relatively unknown talent, Ayiesha Woods splashes onto the scene with one of the best albums of the year. Featuring everything from funk to R&B to pop to jazz to dancehall reggae, this eclectic disc has a little something for everyone—a little bit Alicia Keys, a little bit Ella Fitzgerald, some Nicole C. Mullen, and a dash of India Arie. Woods shines as one of the few female Christian artists around that isn’t restricted to just pop and rock, and in my opinion, is hands-down the best new artist in Christian music this year. Can’t wait to hear what’s next.Click here for the original review.