Yes, it is ridiculous that there is such a thing as “Christian music.” I am totally of the mind that the contemporary Christian music industry is something that never should have existed, and that most of its output has, in fact, been utterly forgettable. That said, however, I must admit that not ALL of so-called “Christian” music (and in my definition, it’s basically any music made with Christian spirituality in mind or in heart) is horrific bilge. Some of it is good, and some even great. I suppose that in any largely-crappy genre of anything, there are some standouts. In this case, I think that the following ten albums more than hold their own in the company of any other “best-of” list, secular or otherwise.
So, without further ado, here’s my list of the best “Christian” albums of all time (and when I say “all time,” I mean anything after 1990… which is when I started buying albums):
U2, The Joshua Tree (1987): It might seem cheap and superficially obligatory to include this album on a list like this (b/c U2 has never and will never call themselves a “Christian” band), but there’s no denying: this album is the one of the most glisteningly spiritual creations in pop music history.
Sufjan Stevens, Seven Swans (2004): Again, not a traditionally CCM artist, but Sufjan Stevens can’t be left off of this list. I’m convinced that history will look back on Sufjan as a turning point in the musical trajectory of “spiritual” music. Perhaps now Christians who are into good music won’t feel ashamed if they care more about being true and artistic rather than obvious and didactic.
Jars of Clay, Much Afraid (1997): Some might claim that Jars of Clay’s debut album (with that happily earthy feel) is their finest work. However, I’ve always contended that Much Afraid is their masterpiece. Subtle, subdued, and sonically rich (with gorgeously lingering songs like “Frail”), this sophomore album from a seminal CCM band is truly worthy of accolades.
Pedro the Lion, It’s Hard to Find a Friend (1998): When David Bazan (aka Pedro the Lion) emerged from the Seattle indie/emo scene in the late 90s, he was like the Christian version of Kurt Cobain (tortured, passionate, dark) with the mellow style of Eddie Vedder. His first full-length album remains his best, with quietly tragic (and catchy) tunes like “Big Trucks” and “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run.”
Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003): This could be my favorite album of all time. Certainly it’s the best album ever to come from blatantly Christian artists. The folky double-disc masterpiece from Cincinnati’s best kept secret is nothing short of magnificent, with its backwoods mystery and latter days prophetic gravitas (“Changes Come”). There are about six songs from this album that should be sung in churches every Sunday.
Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1998): Though the uber-catchy “Kiss Me” got all the press, the rest of this album is equally marvelous. Leigh Nash—the queen of CCM’s “indie” sound—gave beautiful form to Matt Slocum’s well-crafted classics on this album, which remains a rainyday staple and a major step into mainstream success for CCM.
Caedmon’s Call, Caedmon’s Call (1997): This is an album of the “college folk” movement in the late 90s in which “earthy” bands with world music leanings became “alternatives” for the over-18 set. Caedmon’s Call filled the Christian niche nicely with this album, which—among other things—launched the solo career of Derek Webb, who would later become the Martin Luther of CCM.
Waterdeep, Everyone’s Beautiful (1999): Even more grassroots and folky than their contemporaries Caedmon’s Call, the Kansas City-based Waterdeep became something of a legend among Christian hipsters for a few years in the late 90s/early 00s. Everyone’s Beautiful is their most diverse, satisfying album, though their live shows are still this band’s strongest suit.
DC Talk, Jesus Freak (1995): Though it can’t be denied that this album is a two-year delayed derivative of the grunge craze, it also can’t be denied that Jesus Freak is a super catchy, well-crafted effort from CCM’s favorite boy band. Give the trio credit: they went from rap outfit to rock band in seamless fashion, reinventing the Christian music industry (and giving it license to rock!) along the way.
Switchfoot, New Way to be Human (1999): Though this San Diego surfer band has since fallen victim to “crossover” MTV irrelevance, their older stuff is actually quite good. I especially like this album for its beautiful ballads (“Sooner or Later,” “Let That Be Enough,” and “Only Hope”) which appeared all over teen media (Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, A Walk to Remember) in the late 90s.
Honorable mention: Burlap to Cashmere, Anybody Out There? (1998), The Innocence Mission, Christ is My Hope (2000), Eisley, Room Noises (2005), Danielson, Ships (2006), Half-handed Cloud, Halos and Lassoes (2006), Rich Mullins, Songs (1996), Vigilantes of Love, Audible Sigh (1999), Damien Jurado, Rehearsals for Departure (1999), Relient K, The Anatomy of Tongue in Cheek (2001), Audio Adrenaline, Bloom (1996).