The Top 5 Christian Musicians of All Time

Artsy people seem to like arguing over dumb stuff.  Take Hamlet.  The truth is, Hamlet isn’t some great work of genius – it’s just a really badly-written play with poor plot development.  That’s why no one can understand it – because it’s stupid.  But artsy people like it because they seem to enjoy arguing about things they can’t understand.  It makes them feel superior.

(To be fair, one of my best friends – one of the nicest and least arrogant people I know – loves Hamlet.  He tells me that it really has a wonderful plot.  But because he’s clearly biased by having read the play recently, whereas my mind views it through that unclouded clear sky of vaguely remember reading it in junior high – because, I say, I’m humbly inclined to trust my own vague memory from 30 years ago rather than the opinion of an incredibly intelligent person from a year ago – and because admitting that Hamlet has a great plot sort of ruins my introduction, I’m just going to ignore his opinion and plod ahead).

I feel sorry for the artsy people.  How can you not have empathy for people who feel that literally throwing dog crap on a canvas conveys some artistic genius?  You just want to say “Good heavens, try some Thomas Kinkade or something!  He at least paints real things that actually do convey real meaning.”

Well, I feel that way about a lot of music.  In the next two posts, I’m going to offer my own rankings of the greatest Christian artists of all time.  And, after 3 full minutes of intense market research, I notice with some dismay that my rankings don’t always correspond to other people’s rankings.

And one of the reasons they don’t correspond is this “artsy” dimension.  Take Jars of Clay, one of the bands that consistently rank highly on other people’s lists. Well, I like Jars of Clay and I considered them for this list, but ultimately they failed because, although they did have one truly great album, the vast majority of the time they literally make no sense.  They are the Hamlet of the Christian music world.  Lyrically, I think they are like some kind of random-word generator or abstract art technique – they produce enough volume that eventually one or two songs sounds like it makes an ounce of sense, and so everyone assumes that the rest of the time they actually do mean something.  So while I like Jars of Clay a lot and own a bunch of their albums, they are not the lyrical geniuses that everyone says they are.  Genius means being able to communicate; and mostly, they can’t.  (See also Sixpence None the Richer: Seriously, I like some of their music, but I’ve no idea what all the fuss is about.)

There’s also a different problem with a lot of modern Christian music in quite another direction:  A lot of it is well-done but boringly repetitive.  I don’t like abstract art – but I also don’t like seeing the same boring and flat picture of a mountain over and over and over again.  No matter how recognizable it is, I get tired of it.  And a lot of Christian music these days is like that, and unfortunately, that seems to get rewarded.  So, for example, take the top 3 artists from this “Top 101 Christian Artists of All Time” list:

Those artists are Mercy Me, Chris Tomlin, and Third Day.  All of them are nice, but they only have one song.  I don’t mean that they each only have one hit – I mean, I have several albums by all of them, and they all sing the exact same tune over and over and over again.  I keep buying the albums because it’s a nice song.  But did I mention that it’s the same song?  That mountain gets old – at some point, I want some new color or something more creative.

So what I’m saying is that I don’t like other people’s rankings, and you should listen to mine!  Over the next two posts, I’m going to tell you who I think are the very best Christian artists of all time.  Enjoy and let the debates begin!

1. Rich Mullins.  It’s tough to put someone as the greatest artist of all time of any genre who sings like an out-of-tune elephant and who performs a style of music that I frankly don’t like.  But anything else would be dishonest.  This guy’s music showed me the light during so many dark and lonely days; carried me through so many sinful years to keep searching; pointed me towards God when I had lost hope.  Plus, the guy plays a mean dulcimer, and you can’t say that of too many top-selling artists.  He has written everything from very-famous praise music (Awesome God) to incredibly poignant critical commentaries of the Bible (The World as Best I Remember It) – and just when you think you get your head around his musical style, he has a way of surprising you.  I could pick any song at random.

Signature Song:  Growing Young

2. Guardian.  Back in the days when Christian music was struggling to get off the ground, a friend of mine who heard this band said something like “they are the only Christian band that doesn’t sound derivative – they sound like they would really be talented on any stage, a creative force no matter what world they happened to be playing in.”  And that about sums it up.  This is one of the greatest arena-rock bands of all time that you’ve probably never heard of.  Best lead singer ever (though my daughter’s comment when she heard him was “that guy is terrible, he sounds like he’s yelling and not singing.” It’s safe to say that my violin-playing daughter doesn’t really know how to rock.  It’s so sad, kids these days, what with their love of classical music and lack of knowledge of You Give Love a Bad Name… this interruption was brought to you by the Apologetic Professor; we better get back to the actual sentence now, if I can remember what that was), great lyrics, catchy hard rock tunes, and some of the greatest hair-band ballads of all time.

I must say that I am completely beyond veclempt (that is, I am incredibly annoyed) that Guardian did not make any list of top Christian bands that I saw, including the top 101 list I referenced earlier (I mean, are you telling me that there are 101 bands better than this one!  One of the bands is “August Burns Red” – I have one of their albums and it sounds like a tuba player formed a hard rock band; are you kidding me?).

I could pick any number of rock-it-out songs or cool ballads, but because most of the songs on this list are actually meaningful ballads, I’ll opt with the former to shift it up a bit (I challenge you to listen to this song and not feel totally awesome):

Signature Song: Dr. Jones and the Kings of Rhythm

3. Charlie Peacock.  Another guy who didn’t even make a single “Top Christian Artist” list.  Shocking.  I could write the same thing here as I did about Rich Mullins:  Charlie Peacock cannot sing.  There’s that.  (Although unlike Rich Mullins, he has that “Peter Cetera” or “Phil Collins” this-guy-cannot-sing-but-I-like-his-voice-anyway listenability.)  He generally likes jazz (which I hate – worst art form ever) and is way, way too funky for my tastes.  But the songwriting talent is beyond compare and the number of deep, thoughtful, life-changing lyrics he has produced is hard to briefly discuss.  I’d probably have him a bit lower, but he’s my wife’s favorite artist of all time (by far), and she reads this blog once a year, and who knows?  It could be this week.  So I don’t want to risk it.

I could have picked almost any song off of his “Everything That’s On My Mind” album, which is one of the greatest albums of all time of any genre. This one is sort of picked at random.

Signature Song: Monkeys at the Zoo

4. Amy Grant.  A friend of mine once dared me to listen to a One Direction song and not like it.  Hating boy-band pop music with every fiber of my being, I took her up on the challenge smugly, because I was sure I would not like it. Seriously, right?  It’s One Direction.  How hard is it going to be to not like…good Heavens, the truth was…it was a catchy song that was impossible not to like.  There – I said it out loud – I like a One Direction song, ok?

Now, speaking of humiliating admissions: I am embarrassed by this selection.  Putting Amy Grant here is worse than admitting I like a One Direction song (although, contrary to what you may hear from some people, the rumor going around that “One Direction completely changed my life” is a reckless exaggeration).

But not putting Amy Grant here is horribly dishonest.  The truth is: Her early music was transforming.  I still go back to that music when I’m down to find comfort and inspiration.  There are so many songs she’s sung that have helped me find God that I cannot begin to count them.  So, while her later pop-act music was hardly the stuff of U2 legend (though some of it was ok – see her very nice cover of “Big Yellow Taxi”), her first few albums alone would be enough to land her here.

If I were going to list my favorite songs of all time, she’d probably have two of the top 10 – including “So Glad” and this one, which would almost certainly be number one:

Signature Song: Arms of Love

5. Steve Camp.  This last spot was incredibly hard to pick.  Probably the best overall musical artist left, the one that has produced the best albums and the best music, would be Geoff Moore and the Distance.  But while Geoff Moore can totally rock (“Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” is a classic) and has produced one of the most powerful forgiveness ballads in history (a song that helped change my life called “Mercy for the Memories”), overall, they just don’t have a lot of…heart.  So as you’ll see next week, they slide way down the list.

As I am prone to do, I used the heart factor here to pick the last artist in the Top 5.  This is a bad choice for two reasons: (1) This guy can be super annoying.  Half his songs drive me crazy because they are manipulative, shallow-ish songs that have quasi-political overtones.  I don’t mind preachy, but this guy is preachy, if you follow me.  (2) He can’t really do a fast song to save his life.  All his fast songs sound like 1970’s television show tracks.  Look up the soundtrack for The Facts of Life…and if you think that’s good music, I…feel sorry for you.  Maybe try using an iPhone.

With all of that bad stuff said, why on earth is this guy on the list?  It’s simple – he has a collection of incredibly powerful, incredibly honest, heart-rending cries to God that are basically unparalleled in Christian music, now or then.  Songs where he cries to God and means it – songs where God speaks back and you can almost feel His love.  And his voice has got that scratchy Bryan Adams quality that is so good for soaring ballads.  His “Doing My Best” album is still one of the music sets I gravitate to the most, and Steve Camp holds the honor of producing the only song in history using the word “holiness” (which is a concept I mostly don’t get – I mean, what the heck is that, anyway?  It seems like a word too vague to be meaningful to me) that I actually like (“Stranger to Holiness”).  I could pick many songs here, but I’ll pick the one that probably meant the most to me in my youth.

Signature song: He is All You Need.

Next post, we’ll pick up with #6!

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