I know this list will probably have less wide appeal than my usual lists and reviews, but I am a Christian and wanted to do something in honor of Lent and Holy Week. At first, I thought I’d do a list of Christian movies, but the sad truth is that most Christian films just don’t compare with “regular” cinema as far as quality and are often written off as preachy. (For the record, that list would have been topped by The Passion of the Christ, The Nativity Story, and Sheffey.)
So, upon second thought, I decided to count down my favorites of the Christian music scene, which surpasses movies in actually matching its secular counterpart. While many Christian songs rely on inspiring lyrics over a rather bland sound, my choices below feature unique instrumentation and catchy rhythms that can stand toe to toe with much of what’s on the radio nowadays, IMO. In fact, if not for the religious lyrics, these songs would probably be much bigger hits, and some of the artists actually have enjoyed crossover appeal. These are songs that I would gladly listen to whether they’re Christian or not, but the fact that they feature uplifting lyrics is icing on the cake. I’m only including one placement per band, and I’m not counting superficially Christian songs like ”Spirit in the Sky” or songs from musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, or The Prince of Egypt (though I love those too). Whether you’re a Christian or not, I have no doubt that there’s a song here for everyone to enjoy.
- “Hallelujah” from The Call (2016) – Joy Enriquez
Joy Enriquez jumped from a backup singer to a solo artist over a decade ago, and one of her most recent digital releases is now a personal favorite of mine. With some background violin courtesy of Lindsey Stirling, “Hallelujah” is an instant modern classic of praise, and the homey music video is just plain sweet.
- “Beat the System” from Beat the System (1985) – Petra
Just as many recent Christian rock songs don’t appear much different from the usual radio fare, the Christian songs of the ‘80s had the same ‘80s sound. Petra was the shining example of a hit Christian band back then and a favorite of my mom’s. While their style has evolved over the years, my favorite is the Journey-like “Beat the System,” boasting a video replete with early MTV imagery. “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” is also another great song of theirs.
“Believe” from One (2004) – Andy Chrisman
“Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” from Pictures on Mantles (2004) – Russ Lee
I got both of these albums as gifts around the same time and played them to death while doing my homework. These two songs (probably the most evangelical on the list) are the standouts. “Believe” is one of those uplifting professions of faith that gets people testifying and just barely edged out “Complete” from the same album.
Not to be confused with the Alabama hit, “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” is also a Christian single from Russ Lee, who left the band Newsong to go solo. Before returning as their lead singer, his solo efforts delivered underrated beauties like “Pictures on Mantles” and “Living Life Upside Down.” “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” is the best, though, with its blend of acoustic and electric guitar and country-ish beat. Sadly, I couldn’t find his solo version of the song, but the slightly altered version from when he rejoined Newsong is still great.
- “Call My Name” from Revelation (2004) – Third Day
Third Day is one of the biggest bands in contemporary Christian music, thanks in part to the husky voice of lead singer Mac Powell. “Call My Name” is their masterpiece with an encouraging message second to none.
- “My Last Amen” from Ending Is Beginning (2008) – downhere
Having a completely different, almost quirky vibe compared with most of these songs, “My Last Amen” from Canadian band downhere is just a fun song worth singing along to. It also has drawn some comparisons to the music of Queen.
- “Beating My Heart” from OK Now (2008) – Jon McLaughlin
This energizing hit may not be an exclusively Christian song, since it climbed through both Christian and secular Billboard charts, but it’s a good example of how lyrics can be written to appeal to both audiences. The words might refer to God or to a romance, and McLaughlin’s high voice lends “Beating My Heart” a Coldplay-style quality.
- “Give It All to You” from Yellow Cavalier (2009) – Yellow Cavalier (now Anthem Lights)
Why this song isn’t more well-known I don’t know, except that Yellow Cavalier promptly changed their name to Anthem Lights after this one EP. “Give It All to You” has a swelling, dance-worthy rhythm with some fantastic background trumpets at the end.
- “Alive Again” from Alive Again (2009) – Matt Maher
As far as straight, rousing inspiration that could get hands raised in praise, few can compare with “Alive Again.” The Canadian Catholic Matt Maher won the Dove Award for Songwriter of the Year last year, and it’s clear that his musical talents are still going strong.
- “Galaxies” from All Things Bright and Beautiful (2011) – Owl City
The best example of a Christian artist with crossover appeal would have to be Owl City, aka Adam Young. His electronic stylings have graced films like Wreck-It Ralph and Legend of the Guardians (I knew I could work in some movie references!), and songs like “Good Time” and “Fireflies” are still played semi-regularly on pop stations. One of his best songs looks upward to the galaxies and the glory of God, with Young’s uniquely offbeat lyrics and strong synthesizer at play.
- “Dive” from Speechless (1999) – Steven Curtis Chapman
“Dive” is the kind of energetic earworm that gets a crowd excited, starting slow and then bopping along with increasing buoyancy. I remember being scared stiff on a high diving board at camp as a kid, but this song could have had me leaping for joy.
- “Hard to Believe” from VOTA (2008) – VOTA
After changing their name from Casting Pearls, VOTA gave the world this awesome track along with one of my favorite music videos ever. This song is meant to be sung along with and deserves so much more air time than it’s gotten. The groovy syncopation matches the kaleidoscopic video, and I never get tired of it.
“Way Beyond Myself” from Born Again (2010) and
“Stay Strong” from The Greatest Hits (2007) – Newsboys
I confidently assert that the Newsboys are the greatest Christian rock band. Since their formation in Australia in the 1980s, they’ve supplied so many hits that I could probably do a top twelve list of just their songs (“Shine,” “Take Me to Your Leader,” “The Way We Roll,” “In the Hands of God,” “In the Belly of the Whale,” and “Escape,” for example). Their style is so varied and distinctive that it’s too bad that their song “God’s Not Dead” got its own movie instead of their greater work. It’s a good song (and so-so movie) but far from their best.
My top spot is shared by two different but equally deserving tracks. “Stay Strong” has the best lyrics, inspiring and devout while its melody matches perfectly, especially the synthesizer bridge proclaiming “This race can be won!” On the other hand, “Way Beyond Myself” places the fast-paced beat as the star, the kind that gets a huge crowd undoubtedly pumped. One is a heart-winner, and the other’s a head-banger. Together, these two songs exemplify the greatest strengths of contemporary Christian music.
Runners-Up (quite a few, in alphabetical order by artist):
“My Savior My God” – Aaron Shust
“Breath of Heaven” – Amy Grant
“Kings and Queens” – Audio Adrenaline
“What Life Would Be Like” – Big Daddy Weave
“Give Me Your Eyes” – Brandon Heath
“Where I Belong” – Building 429
“Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Something in the Water” – Carrie Underwood (another good example of crossover with country music)
“More of You” – Colton Dixon
“Shine” – David Crowder Band (really beautiful and unique stop-motion video)
“Dear X (You Don’t Own Me)” – Disciple (the hardest rock song in the list)
“Oh Happy Day” – Edwin Hawkins Singers
“It’s Not Over Yet” – for KING & COUNTRY
“Christmas with a Capital C” – Go Fish
“Alive” – Hillsong Young and Free
“The River” – Jordan Feliz
“He Is with You” – Mandisa
“The Motions” – Matthew West
“Move” and “You Reign” – MercyMe
“Lay ‘em Down” – NEEDTOBREATHE
“Remember” – Passion
“Be Still, My Soul” – The Imperials
“Therapy” – Relient K
“Forgiven” – Sanctus Real
“The Words I Would Say” and “Live Like That” – Sidewalk Prophets
“Something Holy” – Stellar Kart
“Stand in the Rain” – Superchick
“You Are More” – Tenth Avenue North
“City on Our Knees” – TobyMac
With Easter around the corner, I think the best way to end this post is with the ultimate uplifting Gospel song, “He’s Alive” by the Gaither Vocal Band with David Phelps. Hallelujah and Amen!