CCM often gets a good bashing for its shallow lyricism and plastic thin music, and as warranted as its criticisms are, does every record deserve the generalized flick? I’m going to provide ten records I believe should be given a fair chance. These I shall call The Ragtag Rebels. To make the defence fair I’m going to set a list of limitations: 1st) There can be no indie records, heavy metal records, or hip/hop records. We’re talking pure “soccer mom” music. 2nd) It must be welcome on mainstream Christian radio (think K-love). 3rd) I cannot lean on mainstream classics for my defence (so no Jars of Clay, DC Talk, or Switchfoot). That about sums it up. Let’s proceed to the list.
10. MercyMe: Coming Up To Breathe (2006)
Following three extremely accessible adult contemporary releases, CCM veterans MercyMe released a stellar pop/rock record with Coming Up To Breathe. “So Long Self” was the infectious lead single, sounding quite unlike anything they had written prior, but the deeper cuts were where the record truly shined. “Hold Fast” is a CCM gem and “Something About You” is one of MercyMe’s most beautifully lush offerings. This was also one of the first records I ever bought so there is a very real possibility that I could be wearing my nostalgia goggles.
9. The Afters: I Wish We All Could Win (2005)
On any other list, The Afters’ sophomore record, Never Going Back To Ok, would be the one to highlight. But this list is strictly for CCM and their debut fits that criteria a lot better than its mainstream pushing follow-up. I Wish…. is a solid pop/rock record in the vein of Fall Out Boy, All Time Low, and even Jimmy Eat World and one I return to even today.
8. Luminate: Come Home (2011)
I remember hearing “Healing In Your Arms” on the radio and thinking it was one of the best songs of the past decade (it isn’t but 15-year-old me sure thought so). I subsequently bought it the day before a family trip to a well-known zoo near the coast and I played it during the entire two-hour trip. The album itself is an admittedly melodramatic mix of pop/rock and acoustic but because of its earnest approach, I’d take it over the artificial pop of most modern CCM any day. I loved it then and I love it now.
7. Group 1 Crew: Power (2016)
Here’s a surprise. Who knew pop and hip/hop group, Group 1 Crew, had a stellar record under their sleeves? Power is a fun and diverse offering that, whilst not perfect, delivers a bunch of fantastic tunes from the glitchy “Download,” the soaring “Burn,” and the EDM infused “Best Is Yet To Come.”
6. Nichole Nordeman: Every Mile Mattered (2017)
Nordeman has always managed to walk the fine line between artistry and accessibility. Every Mile Mattered is a gem of an album with a gentle and loving musical score delivering a profound message that everything we go through matters. No step is wasted. “Dear Me” was one of the best songs of 2017 and it still makes me choke up on occasion.
5. Phil Wickham: Cannons (2007)
Can worship music in the vein of Chris Tomlin and Tim Huges ever be good? It can indeed and Phil Wickham is always the one to show us how. Cannons is one of my favourite worship albums of the 2000s and it has aged well for its genre. Wickham embraces a wonderfully lush pop sound that few have managed to execute as gracefully. Listen to the titular track, “The Light Will Come,” “Shining,” or “True Love” and see if you aren’t swept up by either Wickam’s falsetto or his compositions.
4. TobyMac: Portable Sounds (2007)
Nearly everyone who’s a little familiar with CCM knows TobyMac or at the very least his former band DC Talk. While Jesus Freak is a CCM and mainstream classic and thus not fit for this list, Toby’s third solo effort, Portable Sounds, is just as solid in this critic’s eyes. I have a lot of memories associated with this one, including playing the old theme park simulator Thrillville with my brother and hearing “I’m For You” for the first time. Still a good game, honestly.
3. Leeland: Sound of Melodies (2006)
The Sound of Melodies clearly has the stamp of a mid-2000s pop/rock record yet at the same time it’s almost melancholic aesthetic continues to draw me in even today. Granted, a record like this probably wouldn’t be popular today but dated it is not. If you’re a fan of Copeland or Lydia’s early works this will be right up your alley.
2. David Crowder Band: Church Music
Crowder had always been somewhat of a mad scientist when it came to musical composition (see A Collison) but Church Music saw him applying that unbottled creativity to a musical statement that’s just as relevant today as it was back then. Church music, aka Christian music, should be good. It should shine above the rest as the prime example of artistic excellence yet Crowder’s vision still hasn’t been realized. Christian music can be good but more often than not brilliance is confined to the less than popular releases (you won’t hear last year’s Death Therapy or Porter’s Gate on Christian radio). Still, I hope this list has given the statement that “Christian music is awful” a little challenge.
1. Downhere: Wide Eyed and Mystifed (2007)
Everyone has that record they return to whenever they feel confused, lost, or unsure of themselves. Downhere’s Wide-Eyed and Mystified is that record for me. I don’t think they knew how good this record was when they made it. It brings me back to the simplicity of a child-like faith every time I play it and for my money, it’s one of the best CCM albums ever written. I cannot be more thankful for the guidance it has given me in my Christian walk. It’s albums like these that make me believe Christian music is capable of brilliance. It has disappointed me over and over again but I won’t ever give up on it. I will listen and wait for the day another Wide Eyed…., Church Music, or Cannons come around and inspire us to live excellently in our art and in our lives.