Many of the best Christian music albums go unnoticed. There are many reasons for this–lack of radio play, lack of name recognition, or other factors. Here are the top ten most underrated Christian albums:
10. Kendall Payne’s Jordan’s Sister: This is a piano based pop/rock album, somewhat similar to Jewel’s Pieces of You, although Kendall Payne knows how to rock as well. Although a number of the songs on this album were used for TV Shows or films, it went largely ignored in Christian music circles.
9. Margaret Becker, Susan Ashton, Christine Dente’s Along the Road: This album brings together 3 of the most talented ladies in Christian music in the 1990s. Produced by Wayne Kirkpatrick, each of the 3 ladies gets lead vocals depending on the song, but the other 2 sing background, making this more of a “group album” than simply a collection of 3 ladies doing solos. The title track, “Along the Road”, is a Dan Fogelberg cover. Folk/Country is the style of the album, and it really has a feel all its own, as there were no powerhouse Christian folk/country albums in the 1990s that was not full-blown Southern Gospel.
8. Jason Gray’s Acoustic Storytime (Live Songs and Stories): Any of Jason Gray’s solo efforts could go here, but this album is especially touching because it is a live album in which Jason tells the story of his struggle with stuttering. (The talking is confined to tracks all their own, so they can be easily skipped after one has heard the stories dozens of times.) Jason exhibits great song-writing talent, comparable to what Keith Green was doing 35 years ago, except Gray’s weapon of choice is an acoustic guitar. This live album also includes an acoustic cover of Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down”, which is just the icing on a very, very tasty cake.
7. Shedaisy’s Brand New Year: While Shedaisy may not be on a Christian label or produce specifically Christian music, as this album is a Christmas album, it qualifies as Christian music. Their harmonies are tight as usual. The arrangements of the well-known songs are unique, rather than simply being “just another version” of a Christmas carol–the best example being the medley of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Carol of the Bells”, which includes a rap from Contemporary Christian artist Tobymac. The album closes with a poignant, a capella version of the hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing”. This album has become a classic during the Christmas season at our house.
6. Susan Ashton’s A Distant Call: Susan Ashton is Christian music’s answer to Trisha Yearwood or Shania Twain. While Ashton’s previous albums had done well, only one song from A Distant Call was even released as a single. Despite that fact, this album is arguably her best. Produced by Wayne Kirkpatrick, the album includes songs co-written by Kirkpatrick and Ashton, as well as songs written by Amy Grant, Sheryl Crow and Michael W. Smith. Country singer Garth Brooks was so impressed with Ashton, he re-recorded the song “You Move Me”. A Distant Call is a solid country/pop album that deserves some listening time.
5. Wes King, Phil Keaggy, Scott Dente’s Invention: Invention brings together the talent of the 3 greatest guitar players in Christian music. Four of the songs on the album have vocals, seven do not, making it a good mix of instrumental and vocal music. The album is appropriately titled as there is nothing quite like it anywhere else. This is a great album to blare in the car with windows rolled down. This album is a must-have for any guitar lover.
4. Over the Rhine’s Ohio: Named after the state they hail from, Ohio is a double-cd set of 21 songs that is a song-writer’s delight. With a blend of pop, rock and jazz, the husband-wife duo of Over the Rhine blends these many genres seamlessly. With 21 songs on 2 cds, one would expect to be hitting the fast-forward button frequently. Writing all of the songs themselves, though, there is not a throw-away song on either cd.
3. Out of the Gray’s The Shape of Grace: Out of the Gray’s self-titled debut album is generally regarded as the group’s best album. As a result, The Shape of Grace suffers from sophomore syndrome–the generality that a group’s second album will be judged harshly if their first was well-received. Although the album did yield a couple of singles, its beauty as a whole work of art is often lost on its listeners. Made up of husband and wife Scott Dente and Christine Dente (see #s 5 & 9 on the list), Scott’s guitar work is exquisite and Christine’s vocals are angelic. The guitar work on a song like “Bigger Than Life” is at the same time unique and appropriate. Yes, Out of the Grey’s self-titled debut was marvelous. The Shape of Grace is even better.
2. Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ: Behold the Lamb of God tells the Christmas story, but it starts all the way at the story of Passover. In telling a larger part of the story than a normal Christmas album, Peterson gives greater meaning to what it means that the Messiah has been born. This by no means a solo album–this is a community effort. Enlisting the talents of Jill Philips, Phil Keaggy and Derek Webb, the artistry on the album is unparalleled. Especially touching is Jill Philips singing “Labor of Love”, in which she tells the story of Mary’s labor in a realistic way. Every year Peterson tours the album at the end of the year with different artists taking different parts. Those who have participated in the past include the artists on the original album, along with artists like Andy Gullahorn, Andrew Osenga, Sara Groves and Bebo Norman. If you have the chance to see this live, you must go!
1. Rich Mullins’ A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band: Many times a concept album doesn’t hold up to the idea. This album is the exception. The idea with this album was to present the first half as a liturgy in a church service and the second half as application of the liturgy to everyday life. Starting with a call to worship, the liturgy portion of the album moves from this to Scripture, praising God, a call for help, proclaiming belief with a musical version of the Apostles’ Creed and closes with a communion song. The “Legacy” portion of the album deals with many topics in the Christian life, including the difficulty of imitating Christ, a Christmas song and what it is like to live in a place that is not our home. The album ends with “Land of My Sojourn”, whose lyrics alone deserve to be studied in English courses across the country.
Having never received an award before his death in 1997, Rich Mullins may very well be the most underrated artist in Christian music. Go get this album, the most underrated album in Christian music, and you will not be disappointed!