From some of the feedback I have gotten to yesterday’s post, I suspect that I may have given the impression that I am utterly cynical about contemporary Christian music (CCM). Nothing could be further from the truth. While CCM has its fair share of musical pablum to offer, so does secular music. And while there is some brilliant secular music, so there is also in CCM. If I tried to list every CCM artist or song that I have enjoyed over the years, the list would be too long. But there have been some that have had some staying power for me personally—meaning, there was something about the music or the message that still has the power to move me over the long years.
The following list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, don’t be surprised if I come back later and add to it. These are just some of my highlights from the last 25 years or so, though I am excluding albums and artists from the “worship” category. That will have to be a separate post.
I don’t listen to CCM much anymore, but I do listen to Andrew Peterson. He is a poet who sings. In my opinion, he really sets the standard for songwriting. He combines music, lyric, and deep Christian faith like no one else. I became a fan about 11 years ago with his album “Carried Along.” His most recent offering is “Counting Stars,” and it is one of the best albums I have ever heard. Below are my favorite songs from each of those two albums.
Steven Curtis Chapman
From the late 80’s to early 90’s, Steven Curtis Chapman was by far my favorite CCM artist. The songs that he was writing then became the soundtrack for some of the most formative years of my Christian life. I love the music. It was a kind of pop rock with a dash of country mixed-in. What I appreciate most about his music, however, is that his lyrics were always explicitly Christ-centered. The list of songs that I love by Steven Curtis Chapman is as long as my arm. Picking a favorite is difficult, but I think if you pressed me, then “Miracle of Mercy” would be the one I’d choose. If I could write my autobiography in song, I couldn’t do it any better than “Miracle of Mercy.” Listen to the lyrics on this one.
The first time I heard a tape (yes, it was a cassette tape!) of Caedmon’s Call was around 1994. One of my friends had their demo. And from the first song, I knew I was hooked. In the early 90’s, Nashville had little room for acoustically-driven folk music. But that’s exactly what college students were listening to, and that’s exactly what Caedmon’s Call was producing. The music was the best CCM I’d ever heard, their lyrics had a literary quality to them, and their theological perspective was going in the same direction mine was during the mid to late 90’s. My favorite album by a mile is “40 Acres,” my favorite singer/songwriter in the group was Derek Webb, and my favorite song is “Table for Two.” Why? Because this song was about being single (like I was at the time) and trusting in the sovereignty of God.
Michael W. Smith
My church youth group performed a musical based on the music of Michael W. Smith, and I played the angel. I wore white pants, a white turtleneck, a halo, and some wings. I’m sure I was a ghastly site, but at the time I didn’t think much of it. I love his music, and singing it in youth group was about as normal as breathing.
I can recall nearly every lyric from every album that Michael W. Smith produced from about 1984 through about 1991. I think Smith was moving toward being a crossover artist from the 80’s through his 1991 album “Go West Young Man,” so the lyrics seemed to be less and less explicitly Christian through 1991. But after that date, it seems like his music went through a gospel revival. He became more clearly identified. Nevertheless, I love his music throughout and still do today.
A great deal of his music was aimed at Christian youth during the 80’s, and my favorite song is still “Old Enough To Know.” This song has 80’s written all over it.
DC Talk was the original Christian hip-hop group. Back in the 80’s, mainstream hip-hop was by and large just as vile lyrically as it is now. But DC Talk (“Decent Christian Talk”) was the Christian alternative, and they were great. When I was in high school, I thought it was coolest thing of all time when they appeared on Arsenio Hall. They really did have enormous crossover appeal, but I think their lyrics were too explicitly Christian for them to ever get there. They were graduates of Liberty Univiersity, and I think the culture warrior stamp was all over the song “Socially Acceptable.” Still love this song.
And by the way, if there are any young men out there wondering what kind of girl to marry, DC Talk has a tutorial for you in “That Kinda Girl.”
90’s Alternative CCM
Popular music in the late 20th century is divided into two eras: BG and AG (“before grunge” and “after grunge”). Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” marked the dawning of a new era in which alternative music became popular music. The hair bands that dominated the 80’s went the way of the Dodo, and the Nirvana, The Smashing Pumkins, and Stone Temple Pilots, et al. were all the rage.
In the early to mid-90’s, Nashville was producing nothing of this new sound. Zip, zero, nada. There was a record label out west, however, that was. It was called Tooth & Nail Records, and there were several groups that that I loved on that label: Starflyer 59, Sometime Someday, and MXPX, just to name a few. There were some outliers not associated with Tooth & Nail that I enjoyed as well: Sixpence None the Richer, Dakoda Motor Company, and Prayer Chain. I was a drummer in a band back then, and this is the stuff that we wanted to play. I don’t come back to this music as often as the others listed above, but it was all that I listened to for about five years during the mid to late 90’s. Here’s a couple of samples.