Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Twenty Great Christian Rock Albums

I participate frequently in the Arts and Faith forum. Unlike most Internet discussion lists, this one is almost always civil and intelligent, and some of my favorite people hang out there. One of those people, author Jeffrey Overstreet, linked to a recent article in The New York Times where the author listed and discussed ten great Christian rock songs.

Well, I thought about that. The particular confluence of the words "great," "Christian," and "rock songs" is a problematic one. "Christian" music, almost by definition, tends to be driven by an agenda. That's not only true of Christian music, of course. It's true of Michael Moore films, and Steve Earle albums, and George W. Bush photo ops on aircraft carriers. But if your overriding concern is to get your message out, then it behooves you to make that message as clear and as attractive as possible. There's nothing wrong with that if that's your goal. You're trying to convince somebody to buy your product.

It just happens to make for lousy art. Good art is full of tension, complexity, and ambiguity. It recognizes that the world is not black and white, that it is in fact very messy, and that even when one is addressing issues of objective truth, the message is muddled and compromised by the messengers. It knows that there are at least two sides to every story, and sometimes as many as six billion sides. And hence my struggle with the words "great" and "Christian rock songs" being used in the same sentence. Propaganda serves its purpose. But nobody is ever going to mistake Bush's Axis of Evil speech or Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code as great literature, either. Oops, I take that back about Dan Brown. It's worse than I thought.

Nevertheless, I have encountered not only songs, but entire albums made by Christians that I would consider great, at least partly because the messengers display something that is almost always in short supply: humility. Well, except for Bono. I've listed twenty of them below, with no order implied other than alphabetical. A few of them come from the insular Contemporary Christian Music industry, proving that, incredibly, sometimes good can even come from "ministers with guitars." Many more of them come from folks who would identify themselves as Christians, but who are taking their chances out there in the bars and small clubs, just like everybody else. Each album deserves some commentary, and I'll try to get to that within the next few days. But for now, here's my list of Twenty Great Christian Rock Albums (and cut me some slack; "rock" is used pretty loosely in some of these selections).
  1. Adam Again – Dig
  2. Aradhna – Amrit Vani
  3. T-Bone Burnett – Proof Through the Night
  4. Peter Case – The Man with the Blue, Postmodern, Fragmented, Neo-Traditionalist Guitar
  5. Bruce Cockburn – Humans
  6. Delirious – Mezzamorphosis
  7. Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming
  8. Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace
  9. Mark Heard – Dry Bones Dance
  10. The Louvin Brothers – Satan is Real
  11. Julie Miller – Broken Things
  12. Ed Raetzloff – It Took a Long Time to Get to You
  13. Resurrection Band – Awaiting Your Reply
  14. Son Lux – At War With Walls and Mazes
  15. Mavis Staples Have a Little Faith
  16. Sufjan Stevens – Come On, Feel the Illinoise
  17. Tonio K. – Life in the Foodchain
  18. U2 – War
  19. Vigilantes of Love – Killing Floor
  20. Victoria Williams – Loose


Ruben said...

OK, I realize that this falls under the "six billion sides" umbrella but:

I really think that "Stop The Dominoes" is a better album than "Dry Bones Dance".

I also think that "Romeo Unchained" is a better album than "Life In The Foodchain" because Tonio K's writing is more mature (although "H-A-T-R-E-D" is great!).

I can't believe you didn't include "Only Visiting This Planet" on your list - quite an oversight, since it's easily better than half of the albums you listed.

Karen said...

adam again: dig. man what a great album. i think i need to buy that one (no idea what happened to ours).

Karen said...

oh wait. we still have it. awesome.

woodsmeister said...

Great list. I would be inclined to find a spot for some Daniel Amos. It's unfortunate that the Alarma Chronicles records and "Darn Floor Big Bite" sound pretty dated today, because they were all gems, but "Kalhoun" still remains brilliant and enigmatic.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're getting at, and I'd agree that tension, ambiguity, and the rest of it often help, but they are hardly essential. Nothing prevents great art from expressing a clear and undivided heart. Think The Ghent Altarpiece and "Here Comes the Sun". (Did I just name those two things together?)

Boy, oh boy, I love lists, and yours is a really interesting one. I'm surprised to see The Resurrection Band on there; that's an album I've not only never heard, but never heard of. Do you know if it's still available? I'm also intrigued by the title of that Louvin Brothers album. I'm making a note of it.

If I was to build my own parallel list -- and I might -- it would probably include at least one album by Daniel Amos (probably Motorcycle or Kalhoun), the Seventy-Sevens' Eighty-Eight, Amy Grant's Lead Me On, and Mark Heard's Second Hand, all of which I love dearly. I don't know if I could come up with twenty.

Andy Whitman said...

Ruben, I thought about "Only Visiting This Planet," but I intentionally left if off my list. It's a very good album. It's just not in my Top 20. I confess that I like Side 2 of my old vinyl copy (which has "Six O'Clock News," "Great American Novel," and "Reader's Digest") better than Side 1, which has a couple too many Jesus Freak anthems ("The Outlaw," "I Wish We'd All Been Ready").

Daniel Amos -- yep, very fine band, and the musical accompaniment to my first date with my wife. I have a soft spot for Terry Taylor. Again, just outside the Top 20.

Craig, "Awaiting Your Reply" was Resurrection Band's first album from 1978. It proved conclusively that Christians could do Led Zep and AC/DC as well as Led Zep and AC/DC. "Satan is Real" is one of the greatest Louvin Brothers albums, and is from 1960. The cover has to be seen to believed, and pretty much defines "cheezy," but those close high harmonies are sublime, as are the songs.

Anonymous said...

What about Over the Rhine? Trumpet Child, Drunkards Prayer, or Ohio, either one. Thoughts?

Andy Whitman said...

Sure, those are very good Over the Rhine albums. I gave "Ohio" a 5-star review in Paste, one of only two I've written for the magazine. So I like that album, in particular, quite a bit.

But I intentionally limited my list to 20 choices. And part of the fun (really) is watching 73 people semi-indignantly write in about their 117 choices that aren't on your Top 20 list.

Anonymous said...

Andy, thanks for the list. In the same spirit of your post, I thought I'd pass along a recommendation for everyone to checkout the Bored Again Christian podcast, which does a great job on a regular basis in recommending and playing great (mostly independent) music for Christians tired of "Christian Music."

J. Lincoln Hurst said...

I won't quibble with your list at all, Andy, though I will state, for the record, that Joe Henry's Tiny Voices is my favorite Christian rock album. :-)

Mark said...

Fun list andy. I would join others in voting for romeo unchained over life in the foodchain... though the andy whitman "tonio k. intro mix" was way better than any one album... especially the radio talk show about "illusions".

A few albums I would have on my list that are missing on yours are Martinis & Bikinis by Sam Phillips, True Decay by T-Bone Burnett, and Hymms to the Silence by Van Morrison. I don't have it anymore, but I have very fond memories of Randy Stonehill's Equator and Bryan Hayworth's "The Gap. Not sure if they would be in my top 20 because I don't have clear enough memories of them.


Catfish Vegas said...

Check out a very interesting article on Sufjan's faith fits into the indie rock world here:

robert said...

Amrit Vani - BRILLIANT! And while other's are bringing up other greats, consider Chris Hale of Aradhna's wife, Miranda Stone, who put out "Seven Deadly Sins" a few years ago...and it's debatable whether these can be called "rock", but the innocence mission's "Befriended", and both of Christopher Miner's incredibly sparse albums of rewrought hymns are testaments that faith and art can be done well together...

Dad said...

Wha? What about Carmen? I guess he's not firmly in the "rock" category. That must be it.

Unknown said...

Hey, Andy!

Interesting list. I don't know some of the artists on here but the ones I do know are favorites: Mark Heard (favorite all-time songwriter), Bruce Cockburn, Bill Mallonee, Peter Case, T-Bone Burnett, Tonio K (I vote with the others for Romeo Unchained), early U2, The Louvin Brothers (Hell... yeah!), Mavis & 'Retha (I got to sing with Mavis when I was on the Bobby Jones Gospel show on BET), Dylan... Julie Miller's a friend and I love that record but I wouldn't put it in my Top 20. Victoria's kinda in the same boat; great record but not in the elite. Of course, I'd agree with CNB about Mark's Second Hand. I also might include the iDeola record. I'd probably have a record from The Call in here (Into The Woods?) as well. And I might include Dave Perkins' The Innocence and definitely Chagall Guevara's record! Leslie Phillips' The Turning stands the test of time. There's some good stuff out there. Interesting to see your list, though. Nice memories.


Michael N. said...

You know ny thoughts on Christian music (I wish I could enjoy more of it), but one song which immediately comes to mind is the joyous 1967 song "Oh Happy Day", by The Edwin Hawkins Singers (based on a melody written in 1704).

jasdye said...

even though i know that the list is organized alphabetically, i still got goosebumps noticing Dig at the very top.

it's been my favorite record for well over a dozen years.

Anonymous said...

I'll throw my hat in the ring on this one as well.

Great list by the way.

I would have to supplant four of yours with the following, though I am not sure what four.

1) 77's-sticks and stones (talk about some struggling stuff and non bible verse with puppy poster)

2) the call - let the day begin (I listened to this before becoming a Christian and I new there was something different going on with this one, even though "let the day begin" was on rock radio

3) Chagall Guevera - ST (maybe my 3rd favorite record of all time). I still remember paying 1$ to see these guys record there as yet unreleased live record in Nashvegas)

4) Lost Dogs - Scenic Routes (had the possibility of being a complete waste of time, but turned out to be something beautiful). I would love to see "Breathe Deep" somehow put into a hymnal somewhere.

Anyway. Fun list again Andy....as always keeping the conversation going forward...

Anonymous said...

Not familiar at all with this one. I also noticed only available on vinyl. Do you know of a cd anywhere or where I could hear it???

Ed Raetzloff – It Took a Long Time to Get to You

St. Izzy said...

The Turning by Sam/Leslie Phillips. There was some tension, both musically and lyrically (the funky upbeat underneath the slow melancholy of "I Can Wait," for instance) -- but it's definitely pop rather than rock.

Rez is uneven in my mind, and I eventually made myself a playlist of selections from Awaiting Your Reply through Colours.

And I'm probably showing myself for the Phillistine that I am, but my favorite Tonio K remains Notes from the Lost Civiliazation, with Romeo Unchained a close second.

But it's a very thought provoking list, and that's much more than can be said about the lyrical or musical content of most CCM.

Unknown said...

Hey, gar...

That live Chagall record will very likely see the light of day in the not-too-distant future! They've been working on it. They're talking about a live show (or 2 or 3) to go with it! Keep your ear tuned toward Music City!

Andy Whitman said...

Speaking of Steve Taylor/Chagall Guevara, I once saw Steve at a local Christian college. Dancing was strictly prohibited, as were most other fun things. But there was a labyrinthine system of sub-rules that allowed students to get around the issues (you could, for example, rent VHS tapes/DVDs from the local video store, even though you weren't supposed to go to a movie theater; go figure).

At any rate, pogoing with your arms at your sides was apparently not considered dancing. So I have fond memories of Steve playing his hits, and watching a couple thousand kids pogo up and down.

Andy Whitman said...

Gar, I think that Ed Raetzloff album (from 1980 or thereabouts) is long out of print. My only suggestion would be to look on places like eBay.

It's a great album, though. Ed was a rock/blues guitar slinger in the Stevie Ray Vaughan mold, and he does some formidable Christian blues boogie. His lyrics were way above average as well, and dealt with the real conflicts of "coming out of the world" (that's a nice euphemism for sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, you know), and having to settle for one out of three. He did the one really well, though.

Anonymous said...

I love this stuff, and the discussion it creates. Andy, I really enjoy your list. I'm surprised at how many of your albums are exactly the albums I would have chosen. T-Bone's Proof Thru the Night is one of my all time favorites, and I think seriously unappreciated. Killing Floor is still my "go to" album whenever I decide to listen to VOL. I'm hard pressed to choose between U2 albums, but War is definitely up there. Humans is by far my favorite Cockburn album...really strikes a chord with its honesty. And Loose...what an album. Also love your Julie Miller choice. and of course Sufjan. For me, with Mark Heard, its a toss-up with Dry Bones Dance, Satellite Sky, and Second Hand. And I'm in the Romeo Unchained camp for Tonio K. One of the best collections of love songs out there...

As to albums I might add...even though its sort of the black sheep of the Over the Rhine canon, I'm still partial to Eve. And as for Sam Phillips, I'll go back to her Leslie days, because I think The Turning is simply brilliant. I'd probably also throw some Van Morrison in there, but would have a hard time choosing. I've always loved Into the Music, though.

Man, I could go on forever (no comments....) but I won't.

Andy Whitman said...

Hi, Ken. Great to see you here. I wanted to note that I visited your old stomping grounds at the Museum of Radio and TV in NYC (now renamed the William Paley Extravaganza, or something like that). I thought of you as I watched some old "I Love Lucy" episodes. What a great gig that must have been (at the museum; not with Lucy. Just thought I'd clarify.)

Martin said...

As the Webmaster of the Tonio K. fansite, I have to put in a vote for Olé!, since it looks like no one else is going to do it.

Martin said...

And speaking of Carman, does anyone remember which two McDonald's menu items were named in his lyrics?

Paul said...

Another list, another debate, another chance to discover new music (I'm trying to get round to listening to all of it, but it's taking a bit of time). Great stuff.

I'm right there with a number of the choices - Bruce, Tonio K, U2 etc (how about "Victims of The Age" as best Mark Heard though?) but a few from my top 20 would be... 'painfaithjoy' by Judson Spence, 'White Horse' by Michael Omartian (title track guitar solo probably my all-time favourite), 'So Long Ago The Garden' by the Late Larry, 'Wonderama' by Sir Stonehill (like 'Equator', produced by Terry Taylor - great combination), and 'Loud Symbols' by Geoff Mann (I have to admit to a bias as he was a good friend of mine).

senormedia said...

In making my own list I'd have to have both LITF and Amerika from Tonio, and there would definitely be at least one 77's album.

Good to see Slow Train Coming getting some love, too.

AmyBee said...

How about some love for the great Christian rock musicals? Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar? I've listened to both of those since childhood and they never get old. And as far as Amy Grant, I would vote for Age To Age. Not as gimmicky as some of her others. But back to Christian rock narratives -- has anyone but me ever heard "It's Getting Late"? My parents had this album, a 70's rock ode to end-times theology, way pre-dating the Left Behind books. I guess it was inspired by Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth." I loved it, and the musical quality was excellent. It sounds somewhat dated today, but no more than most 70's stuff. Thematically it's still incredibly current.