Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) has a reputation — and it isn’t always good.
I get it. Some of it feels like a watered-down version of mainstream music, and the writing can often be corny or tone deaf. I understand why Hank Hill told a Christian rocker “you’re not making Jesus cool; you’re making rock and roll worse,” just as I think there’s some validity to South Park’s claim that a Christian song just takes a love song and swaps “Jesus” for “baby.” Music made specifically for Christian audiences — known in the 80s and 90s as CCM — sometimes just isn’t good.
But, like any format of entertainment, there is good and bad. There are insipid lyrics and inspired ones. Did some CCM try too hard to mimic what was going on in the top 40? Sure; but some of it did it really well. Do some lyrics make me roll my eyes? Absolutely; but some continue to challenge, encourage and inspire me. So, here are seven CCM albums* that still find their way in my Spotify rotation.
i2eye, Michael W. Smith
I can’t be totally sure, but I think Michael W. Smith’s “Secret Ambition” was the first Christian rock song I heard. My parents saw Amy Grant in concert and Smitty was the opener; they bought his cassette and played it constantly. My cousin had a VHS tape that included the music video; we all watched it not just because the song was good but because I think the crucifixion scene in it was the closest we were able to get to watching an R-rated movie.
The song came out in 1988, but I still crank up the sound when I hear those opening drum beats. If I’m driving alone and the song comes on, I’m not above joining his cries of “No! No! No!” at the end. “Secret Ambition” is still pretty great. I have a similar reaction when I hear the harmonica intro to “Providence.” I’m guessing most young people today, if they know Michael W. Smith at all, know him as a worship singer or friend of George W. Bush. But before that, he was a pretty established pop singer-songwriter, fashioning himself after Billy Joel or Phil Collins.
I2eye is Smitty’s best work. In addition to “Secret Ambition,” there’s also the instrumental number “Ashton,” inspired by Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness. I have no idea whether Peretti’s book holds up, but the drumbeats and synthesizers bring back memories of all the youth groups that staged interpretive dances to this. “The Throne” is a worship number that has more to it than a catchy chorus. I don’t know if “Pray for Me” or “Leesha” ever got the play that “Friends” did, but they’re solid entries in Smitty’s “sometimes life is sad, but God is good” genre. Even a triptych that veers a bit too much into “Christians behave good, sinners behave bad” is excusable because Smith seems to be singing from his own experience, not casting judgment. For an album that I first heard before I hit the double-digits, i2eye holds up.
40 Acres, Caedmon’s Call
This wonderful little folk album was released when I was in college and just beginning to ask my first serious theological questions. Aaron Tate and Derek Webb’s lyrics, brought to life by Webb, Cliff Young and Danielle Young, created the perfect soundtrack for that time.
Caedmon’s Call may have been the first time I heard lyrics that wrestled with deep theological questions. “Thankful” spoke to a young Baptist twerp who was reading up on total depravity and irresistible grace. “Where I Began” and “Shifting Sand” resonated with a young doubter who constantly bucked at his faith traditions only to find himself back in church on Sunday. “Table for Two” was an ode to trusting God’s plan even when I felt lonely in my single days. “Faith My Eyes” spurred on a kid taking his first steps on his own and encouraged me that home was never far away. This was an album that seemed to be written expressly for my 20-year-old self, asking the same questions and dealing with the same challenges.
I’m not that kid anymore. I’m no longer the cage-stage Calvinist of my youth, and I’ve been married a decade now. But 40 Acres still gets a spin every now and then, both for its ability to bring me back to that time and for having a thoughtful, well-assembled lineup of songs.
Jesus Freak, dc Talk
You have no idea how much I didn’t want to include Jesus Freak on this list. It’s the cliche pick, usually followed up by some variation of “dc Talk was The Beatles of Christian music.” Jesus Freak was the album every youth group kid in 1995 took to their school to convince their unchurched friends that, yeah, Christians can rock. No way was I going to fall into that trap.
But here’s the thing. Jesus Freak is really good. Every time I think I’m over it, I hear that grunge-inflected intro and Tobymac whispering “I’ve got something for ya, man” and I’m a 14-year-old burning all his Nirvana albums again. dc Talk wasn’t Christian music’s Beatles, but they were skilled artists and thoughtful writers, turning out Jesus jams that sounded just like anything you might hear on the radio (if you wanted to make an argument that Free at Last or Supernatural belong on this list instead, I would entertain it).
Sure, these days I may have some issues with the persecution complex the title track instilled in me; that doesn’t mean that its thrashing guitars don’t still get my heart beating. Toby, Mike and Kevin turn a hippie-dippie anthem from Godspell into a rock sound about discipleship. “What if I Stumble” is one of the few vulnerable and introspective CCM hits, and “In the Light” is an acoustic worship song that still feels like a great campfire sing-a-long. With “Colored People,” dc Talk was one of the few Christian bands to openly address racism. And so help me (God), but when they let rip the goofy lounge-lizard cover of “Jesus Freak,” I still lip-synch along.
A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band, Rich Mullins
Rich Mullins was Christian music’s troubadour, a singer-songwriter whose love of Jesus led to some of the great praise songs of the ‘80s, but who also had an honesty that made some of the more pious uncomfortable. I spent a week one summer at Moody Bible Institute for an evangelism trip; Mullins visited while we were there. Rather than give a huge concert, he played a few songs in a lecture hall and then led our evening worship. I remember him as self-deprecating, soft-spoken and almost bashful about being in the spotlight.
I struggled a bit with which Mullins album to include, because I think The Jesus Record, a collection of demos released after his death, has some of his most thought-provoking songs. But A Liturgy, A Legacy… contains some of Mullins’ most poetic lyrics and haunting arrangements. I love the folksy “Here in America” that kicks things off, and the way every song feels of a piece with the others on the album.
Mullins wasn’t a worship singer in the way we think of people like Chris Tomlin or David Crowder. There was a vulnerability to his writing that you don’t see in the Jesus cheerleading music of today. Instead, Mullins wrote songs that felt like they came from a place of true worship. “The Color Green” is a magnificent celebration of nature, “Creed” puts the words of the Apostle’s Creed to music, and “Hold Me Jesus” is an aching, haunting reminder that lament and doubt are just as much parts of the Christian experience as triumph and faith. Rich Mullins died in 1997 at the age of 41, but he left behind a rich legacy (and a pretty solid ragamuffin band).
Bloom, Audio Adrenaline
I feel like Audio Adrenaline is not celebrated the way as some of their peers. Sure, “Big House” is a giant youth group staple and “Ocean Floor” is pretty well-known. But I rarely hear someone mention their third album, which was really their career standout (I’d also go to bat for Underdog). After messing around with some louder sounds on their first album and then veering into rock-pop with their second, Bloom is just a flat-out rock album with a strong sound and catchy hooks.
I’ll admit that, lyrically, Audio Adrenaline was one sometimes a bit too on the nose. They never had the cleverness or poetry of dc Talk or newsboys, and their songs were often earnest bops about living a Christian life or celebrating Jesus. Nothing wrong with that, but I can see how it might not have made them the band people stuck with as they eventually dealt with weightier matters.
But there are few CCM albums that still are as much fun to roll down the windows and drive to with the stereo cranked. Bloom is an energetic album. “Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus” is fun, and “Good People” would feel at home on your local classic rock station. Likewise, the band’s cover of “Free Ride” is solid, and “Man of God” is another song dealing with vulnerability. If the guys in Audio Adrenaline were sometimes a bit lightweight in the lyrics department, they made up for it with some really muscular guitar work. Bloom hits me on a nostalgic level, but I also think it’s still a genuinely good album.
Much Afraid, Jars of Clay
Most people will say that Jars of Clay never topped their self-titled debut. I’ve made the case that Good Monsters or Inland represent the band’s best work. But the older I get, the more I find myself returning to their sophomore album, a work that I originally hated upon release.
At a time when CCM tried not to be angsty or doubtful, Jars of Clay followed up their first album with a moody, low-key work. I imagine it put a few people off; it definitely wasn’t what I wanted to hear as a senior in high school. But years down the road, I keep coming back to it, moved by its haunting melodies, soul-searching lyrics and an approach to faith that leaves room for uncertainty.
The album opens with “Overjoyed,” whose lyrics celebrate grace but wonder if too good to be true. “Fade to Grey” leans into the murky combination of faith, doubt, despair and hope. “Frail” is a haunting ode to insecurity. “Crazy Times” gives the album a brief respite, but then the band steers back into uncertainty with the title track. At the time, I wanted something louder or more blatantly theological, like Jars’ first album. The older I get, the more I appreciate the artists who make room for the harder aspects of faith.
Take Me To Your Leader, Newsboys
The Newsboys have had quite the ride. A quick scan of their Wikipedia page includes a chart to keep track of the changes to their lineup. Today, they’re fronted by Michael Tait, formerly of dc Talk, and best known for showing up in God’s Not Dead. They largely sing worship songs. But there was a time when they were one of the most clever and unpredictable Christian bands working.
Those were the days when Steve Taylor was their producer and John James their frontman. Taylor had a knack for clever, often weird lyrics, and James was adept at selling them. The lyrics throughout often pop in a way few Christian bands could. Newsboys never had the insight or depth of dc Talk, but they brought a fun spirit that bordered on irreverence.
The podcast Good Christian Fun once targeted this album’s “Breakfast” as one of the worst Christian songs of all time. I disagree. I think every cereal-related pun is a hoot (but I like cereal), just like every bizarre turn of phrase on the title track is pure delight. The band has songs with lyrics about running off to the circus and clowns with knives. Yes, it’s a strange album. But being intentionally weird is a unique look for Christian artists, and the Newsboys were the one group that could pull it off.
* I debated whether to refer to these albums as “Christian music” or CCM. I erred on the side of the latter, mainly because I think that label best refers to a specific time and place. I understand those who think CCM refers to a style — your Amy Grants, Michael W. Smith, etc. But for me ,the phrase encompasses anything you would find at a Christian bookstore in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and would find its way into the Wow compilations. So, bands like dc Talk might not technically be CCM, but would definitely have been written about in CCM magazine, if that makes it clear as mud.