Seven Underrated Christian Music Artists You Need to Know About
I’ve written a few articles about the Christian music industry lately, and I still think of it as the sleeping giant of the record business. Christian music has a tremendous, proud history, and its heyday of the ‘70s through the ‘90s is probably worth reams of examination.
These days if you turn on a Christian radio station, you’re likely to hear plenty of worship music, the occasional older song, and a few newer artists like Lauren Daigle, but probably half of the songs you’ll hear are by Casting Crowns and Mercy Me.
The CCM industry is better than radio would lead you to believe, and there are tons of incredible artists who seldom or never get on the radio. Here’s a list of seven of them. Some of these solo artists and bands are still making music today, while others have floated in and out of the music business, and still others are long gone from the industry. Even if it takes a little digging around to find them, these folks are still worth checking out. Enjoy!
8. Elim Hall
I grew up on what I didn't know until later was the alternative rock of the '80s. Something about those chiming guitars and deep, sludgy bass lines caught my attention more than so much else that was out there at the time. When I discovered that bands out there made the music that I loved and shared my Christian worldview, I was hooked.
Bands like the Choir and solo artists like Steve Taylor created albums that spoke to both my ears and my soul. Canada's Elim Hall released a single album that blew me away. Things Break addressed topics like freedom in Jesus, disposable consumer culture, and even evolution in ways that spoke truth to my generation. Their songs were irresistible, and their passion was evident. Things Break was a picture-perfect snapshot of alt-rock in 1986, and Elim Hall opened for Michael W. Smith on his tour supporting his album The Big Picture.
They weren't able to follow Things Break up with an album on the same label, but they released an independent album called Let It Thrive around 1990. I never got to hear the second record, and I never got to see them live, but I did have an email conversation with Glenn Teeple, who played keys and guitar for the band, and I let him know how much the band meant to me.
It's worth the search to find Things Break, especially if you grew up on '80s alternative like I did.
7. Brooke Fraser
You may already know the name Brooke Fraser. She's a one-hit wonder on the Christian charts in the States for the amazing "Shadowfeet" (see the video above). She has also made a name for herself with Hillsong and Hillsong United, writing and leading worship on songs like "Hosanna" and the Grammy-winning "What a Beautiful Name."
Fraser has also carved out a successful career in pop music in her native New Zealand without compromising her Christian faith. In fact, her faith informs most of her music, from her earlier, more organic songs to her more electronic-oriented material. And although "Shadowfeet" is her best song, she's had plenty of other terrific singles that deserved a shot on Christian radio.
The Christian marketplace hasn't really given Fraser a shot, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. After all, a nation of Kiwis can't be wrong. Believe me, her music will uplift and entertain you at the same time.
6. Ashley Cleveland
If anybody has a story that is perfect for Christian music success, it’s Ashley Cleveland. God blessed her with a powerhouse voice and an incredible songwriting ability, and her story of redemption from drugs and alcohol is a powerful testimony.
Cleveland's debut on Atlantic Records, Big Town, didn’t go anywhere – a terrible shame – so she signed with a Christian label and began recording in that industry. She’s never had tremendous success and now records independently, but she has had the respect of the Nashville community. She also became the first woman to win a Grammy in the Christian Rock category, and she grabbed three of them before the Recording Academy did away with the category.
All in all, Ashley Cleveland has had a wonderful career between her solo albums and plenty of years hustling as a session vocalist, but I still don’t think enough people know who she is. Do yourself a favor and check her out. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
5. Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love
I’m always excited to talk about one of my musical heroes, whom I’m also proud to call a friend. Bill Mallonee and his band Vigilantes of Love sprung from the fertile Athens music scene that revolved around the University of Georgia. The band cultivated a uniquely rootsy sound that blended Americana and Southern Rock with a splash of Britpop. That combination gave them a cult following in college towns and across the Atlantic.
Mallonee has also been unafraid to write about faith. Even if he’s not writing an explicitly religious song, there’s an undercurrent of Christian faith in his music. In the mid-‘90s, a Christian record label tried to introduce VoL to believers with a greatest hits collection. There’s a certain segment of Generation X believers, especially in the South, who navigated young adulthood with the music of VoL as its soundtrack.
Bill Mallonee still makes music today; in fact, he’s getting ready to release his 83rd album. He still negotiates the easy and difficult questions of faith in his songs, and his music packs a punch that’s definitely worth a listen.
In the late ‘90s, husband and wife Don and Lori Chaffer fronted Waterdeep, a folk-rock band with a hippie ethos and challenging lyrics about faith and life. They wrote and recorded the worship song “You Are So Good to Me,” which went viral (before that was even a thing) when Third Day gave it a Southern rock spin.
Waterdeep recorded a couple of albums that combined their unusual sound and lyrical perspective, and the Everyone’s Beautiful album almost gave them a brush with success. The band’s label promoted the single “Sweet River Roll” to Christian radio. The thoughtful, sensitive song explores the perspective of people dealing with trials in their lives. Christian radio stations balked at the second line of the second verse: “Her husband left her for some bimbo after 22 years.” Apparently, the word “bimbo” was too much for the “safe” environment of Christian radio.
That’s both a shame for Waterdeep and an indictment of how ridiculous Christian radio has been for years at not allowing challenging music onto the airwaves. But you can still grab any of Waterdeep’s albums to listen to a band that could’ve made it big.
3. Liz Vice
My friends are probably tired of me trying to get them to listen to Liz Vice, but there's no shame in my game. I only share her amazing music because everyone should experience these uplifting and challenging songs.
Vice sought to become a filmmaker, but God had other plans for her life. From leading worship at her Portland church to more expansive stages, Vice worships, tells stories, and holds forth on the state of a fallen world. She expanded from her 2015 debut, the retro-glorious There's a Light, to more modern sounds on 2018's Save Me. The constants on both albums are Vice's faith-filled outlook and her powerhouse voice.
If you're looking for a uniquely soulful take on music that is as pleasing to the ears as it is to the soul, you can't go wrong with Liz Vice.
2. Melanie Penn
I interviewed Melanie about faith and art here at PJ Media a few years ago, and I’ve been a fan of her music since her first album, Wake Up Love, came out nine years ago. Melanie’s bright indie pop reflects her faith in such a way that even when she’s not singing about Jesus it’s clear what she believes.
On all three of her albums – 2010’s Wake Up Love, 2014’s Hope Tonight, and 2017’s Christmas outing Immanuel – she approaches the ups and downs of life from a clear Christian worldview, weaving scripture into the lyrics in a way that’s sincere and honest.
Melanie’s stuff wouldn’t necessarily always fit in on Christian radio – there are few pat answers and plenty of acknowledgment that life isn’t always easy – but her music has appeal for believers and non-believers alike. She’s planning on releasing some new material soon, so you have plenty of time to catch up on this tremendous talent before the next album comes out.
1. Dakoda Motor Co.
I’ve written about Dakoda Motor Co. before, and I consider them one of the most influential bands in my life. It’s hard to classify their sound – “Christian surf rock” sounds weird and maybe a little cheesy, but it might be the best way to describe them.
Dakoda Motor Co. came out of the surf scene in La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego. Champion surfer Peter King (of MTV’s Sandblast fame) began holding Bible studies for surfers, and from those studies the band was born. The band made its mark at a time when Christian music was changing and diversifying, and they sounded like nobody else.
Their first two albums, Into the Son and Welcome Race Fans, drew from diverse sources like punk, country, and alternative to create something truly unique. Their sound was both accessible and edgy. Lead singer Davia Vallesillo left, and Melissa Brewer joined for the third album Railroad, which didn’t hold a candle to the first two.
It’s a shame they didn’t catch on 25 years ago. The original lineup has gotten back together for a few shows, and supposedly there’s new music coming soon. The college kid in me can certainly hope for something new from these guys.