Last Saturday on Up For Debate, I suggested that if Christians want to improve Christian music, we need to become better consumers. The music played on Christian Radio is great, but it’s also heavily filtered to be acceptable sonically and lyrically for moms and their kids. This means all the great music that Christians write outside that box never gets aired on Christian radio – and many Christians never hear it or support it. I think that’s a travesty. So, I invited one of my guests last week, John J. Thompson, to help broaden our musical horizons and write the article I’ve posted below. Not only is John a high-level executive with a mainstream Christian music label (Capitol CMG Publishing), he’s also a connoisseur of great alternative faith-fueled music. I’m eager to try out his picks – as I’m sure you will be too. Enjoy!
Amazing Faith-Fueled Music:
The 10 Best Bands You Won’t Hear on Christian Radio
by John J. Thompson
Christian radio is awesome if super clean, highly produced, upbeat, frequently worshipful pop music is your favorite fare. Seriously. I’m not kidding. CCM music has really become its own genre not just lyrically, but sonically. Millions adore it. “Songs for the whole mini-van” you might hear an expert say – and for countless mini-vans that is true. CCM music is uniquely positive, motivational, and accessible for a good chunk of American Christians.
But it’s not for everyone.
Many people prefer their music to be a bit edgier. Some would like lyrics that are a bit deeper or more complex. Some want to dance. Some want to raise a rock fist into the air and sing along. Some like blues, country, or classic rock sounds. Some like urban grooves or classic Gospel. You’re not likely to hear any of that on Christian radio. That’s OK, though. You have me.
I’ve been turning people on to good, authentic, true tunes for most of my life. If they gave out degrees in this field I would certainly have a couple of PhD’s hanging over my vinyl collection by now. All that to say; you can trust me. I’m a professional. If you are looking for music that is rich, diverse, interesting, groovy, and relentlessly truthful – even when that truth hurts – I encourage you to check out the following artists as just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more.
I have tried to include representative samples of rock, urban, folk, pop, and alternative music in this particular list. You can also hear a LOT more if you follow me on Spotify or click this link: Tip of the Iceberg. In fact – take a second and click that link and listen as you read. Seriously – you need to be on Spotify like yesterday. Again, trust me. I’m the Dr. here.
And off we go…
Michael and Lisa Gungor, currently operating under the band name “Gungor,” have been blowing minds for well over a decade now. With compositional skills that defy categorization and instrumental chops that rival the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, or anything else you’ve ever heard, Gungor is simultaneously worshipful, psychedelic, and face-melting – even when they play intensely quiet songs like “Beautiful Things.” If there is a boundary in sight you can count on Gungor to challenge it.
This guy. Wow. He just won a Grammy Award for Best Roots Gospel Album so maybe people will start to pay attention. Farris has been crafting soulful Americana Gospel music for years. His rich voice and insanely tuneful guitar will captivate anyone with a pulse. Classic rock and soul fans, be especially careful that you are not operating heavy machinery when you first allow Farris’ music to hit you. Hopefully if you’re a fan of old-school country you already know about artists like Buddy Miller and Phil Madeira – but if you don’t, now you do.
Chicago’s Anita Wilson has released two albums so far and both have been nominated for Grammy Awards. Her latest, Vintage Worship, thoughtfully references classic R&B and Gospel tones from the 1970s and presents them in a funky and immediately accessible way. There is a lot of amazing music happening in the Gospel world and Anita can serve as your gateway. Make sure not to miss Paul Porter, Tye Tribett, Jonathan McReynolds, or Tasha Cobbs while you’re at it.
That Steve Taylor has to be considered “under the radar” is one of the great tragedies of modern Christian music. This incredible songwriter has been challenging hypocrisy, greed, complacency, and a host of other Christian problems with his razor-wire wit and good cheer for well over 30 years. After a ten year run as an artist in the 80s and early 90s Taylor morphed into a record and film producer (Sixpence None the Richer, Burlap to Cashmere, Chevelle, Blue Like Jazz,) but returned with an “all-star” band, The Perfect Foil, last year. Their album, Goliath, is a perfect blend of brainy pop, gut-check alternative, and epic rock.
Andy Mineo’s presence on this list represents an absolute revolution in the world of Christian Rap, or “Holy Hip Hop” as some prefer to call it. Believers have been tackling rap music, some better than others, since the early 1980s. Unfortunately it has been almost entirely ignored by both the black and white Christian communities. Lecrae and his Reach Records crew have changed all that. Mineo, a Reach artist and producer, is just one example of the many exciting urban alternative acts blossoming right now. Listen to the playlist for cuts by Derek Minor, KB, and others too.
After a particularly devastating personal loss, independent alternative singer and songwriter John Mark McMillan wrote a worship song called “How He Loves.” Little did he know that a cover by David Crowder would blast that song into the mainstream Church. As an artist, however, McMillan has remained firmly entrenched on the fringes. His worn-leather baritone and penchant for dark Americana rock is often more at home in bars than churches, but that really matters very little. I got to see McMillan perform at a bar in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. He was suffering from terrible laryngitis and could not sing a note. The packed club took over and there, in a space usually designated for hooking up and getting wasted, a few hundred souls sang joyfully broken worship songs at the top of their lungs. McMillan isn’t alone, either. He is simply one of the better-known examples of a growing number of independent, alternative, worship artists. You’ll find many others, such as Pacific Gold, Rivers & Robots, The Brilliance, The Followers and others on the playlist. This stuff is amazing.
When I was a kid the Christian station I listened to played rock and alternative music every night from 9 to midnight. That doesn’t happen much anymore. So this new track from Seattle based metal act Demon Hunter is just one taste of the incredible variety of hard rock and metal music being done in the name of faith. What many CCM listeners do not realize is that many of the most popular metal bands on the scene today are Christians and are not afraid to admit it. We’ve come a long way since the days of Stryper, but even they are still at it and sounding good. Rock on!
Kierra Sheard, formerly known as “Kiki,” is a Gospel artist with urban alternative ambitions and the talent and heart to change things. Her presence on this list is intended to represent a slew of progressive R&B artists out in the trenches today. Her new album, Graceland, is a conceptual masterpiece that I find far more interesting than anything Kanye or Beyonce have done in a long time.
Daniel Amos is a band, not a person. They took their name from the two Old Testament books when they first started blending contemporary music with lyrics of thoughtful faith OVER FORTY YEARS AGO! Yes, you read that correctly. Singer, songwriter, and front man Terry Scott Taylor and his various accomplices have been challenging preconceptions and establishing artist high-water marks since I was but a toddler. They returned last year with a breathtaking album entitled Dig Here, Said the Angel. Fans of Tom Petty, The Byrds, Elvis Costello, U2, or The Beatles will find little to like on modern Christian radio. Dip into the incredible archives of music crafted by Daniel Amos, as well as other bands like The 77s, The Choir (who also release the best album of their incredible 30 year career last year,) Phil Keaggy, Lost Dogs, Bill Mallonee, Glenn Kaiser, Charlie Peacock, and others and realize that rock and roll and the Gospel are still very close friends.
I first heard Josh Garrels as he strummed an acoustic guitar along to beats being played on a boom box in the food truck area at a Cornerstone Festival some time in the early 2000s. Since then he has become one of the most beloved and respected singer-songwriters in the American independent music scene. Garrels represents an incredible wave of forward-thinking neo-folk artists who explore issues of life and faith through music that is far more developed and intricate than the folk music of yesteryear. Let Garrels be a gateway for you to discover other like-minded artists such as Jill Phillips, Timbre, Amy Stroup, Trent Dabbs, Vespers, and many more.
TO BE CONTINUED… Online:
Follow me on Spotify (johnjthompson) and on twitter for regular tips on amazing new music. I regularly cover mainstream music from a Christian perspective at www.ThinkChristian.net and you can find more at my blog, www.33andaThird.net. You should also seriously consider checking out a different kind of radio experience; the Under The Radar podcast. You can find them at www.RadarRadio.net. For the latest on the Christian hard music scene make sure to visit www.HMMagazine.com. Relevant Magazine is often a good source for new music tips as well.
About The Author
John J. Thompson has been chasing the thread that dangles between truth, beauty, faith, and community since he was barely a teenager. He has carved out a living on the fringes of the music industry for over 25 years; first as the founder of a Chicago-based music store, magazine and concert venue called True Tunes, then as a freelance writer, consultant, and speaker. He volunteered as an inner city pastor for over a decade before relocating to Nashville in 2007. He currently serves as a Creative Director at one of the biggest music companies in the world, serving Gospel artists and independent filmmakers. John also continues to chase his passions as an artist, a songwriter, husband, and father of four while remaining a teacher, preacher, small-group junkie, brewer and roaster. His new book, Jesus Bread and Chocolate; Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass Market World releases April 7, 2015 on Zondervan books. For more information visit www.JohnJThompson.com.