The 10 Most Influential Songs of the Early Years of Contemporary Christian Music
The world of contemporary Christian music (CCM) changed throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. What began as church youth groups developing music that their kids would enjoy and artists and bands turning to Christ and expressing their new faith, became a full-blown industry within a few years.
Those fledgling years of the CCM movement brought several influential artists to the forefront and produced a bevy of songs that defined the new method of expression for a generation of believers. Some of those songs became as dated as the pop music of their time, while others have come to represent the industry, and a few have even made their way into modern hymnals.
Here are ten of the most influential songs of the first decade and a half of contemporary Christian music. They may not have been the biggest hits of their time, but each one of these songs advanced the CCM genre in its own way.
10. “Home Where I Belong” (B. J. Thomas, 1977)
One of the more interesting features of early CCM was the appearance of “secular” artists who had come to faith in Jesus and recording albums that reflected their new lives. One of the biggest hit songs on Christian radio at the tail end of the ‘70s was Barry McGuire’s weirdo “Cosmic Cowboy” (McGuire also co-wrote and appeared on the ubiquitous Christian children’s album Bullfrogs & Butterflies).
While some artists recorded pretty traditional-sounding Christian albums, by the mid-‘70s some newly believing acts attempted to record music that sounded more like their mainstream output. One of those was B. J. Thomas, who became a Christian when his wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t change his ways. Thomas’ next move after coming to faith was to record a Christian album.
The title track to the Home Where I Belong album was penned by Pat Terry, who would go on to write more hits in both the Christian and country realms. It’s a beautiful expression of the thought that heaven is our home as followers of Jesus. Thomas won the first of his four Grammy awards for the album, and that title song was the best-known song from that record. Four decades later, it can still warm the heart of believers.
9. “More to This Life” (Steven Curtis Chapman, 1989)
With a baby face and a penchant for musical and lyrical hooks, Steven Curtis Chapman burst onto the CCM scene in the latter half of the ‘80s as a fresh musical force. Early on, he proved he could rock, but he soon discovered that his bread and butter was middle of the road Christian pop, and he perfected that formula in the decades to come.
Despite some success on his first two records, his third album, More to This Life, became his real breakthrough. He received his first of many gold certifications for the album, and it demonstrates the honing of his musical hallmarks: calls for a deeper Christian walk, clever metaphors for life, and sweet ballads about the love and devotion of a husband to his wife.
The title track exemplifies his songwriting skills as he writes about people who just let their lives happen, who live with no sense of purpose – even people who go through the motions of church. In the chorus, he brings it back to the truth that we believers know: that life has a purpose.
“More to This Life” wasn’t Chapman’s first success, but it was one of his biggest in the ‘80s, and it showed what was to come in a long, fruitful career.
8. “All Night Long” (The Choir, 1986)
(Author’s note: this video was the only one I could find of the song. It doesn’t quite capture the ‘80s alt-rock glory of the original, but I did find a Spotify link to it.)
The alternative rock movement began to flourish in the ‘80s, with bands as diverse as R.E.M., Talking Heads, and The Cure turning heads worldwide. It stood to reason that CCM would see its own alternative bands emerge.
The biggest alt-rock Christian scene blossomed out of California. Bands like Daniel Amos and The 77s began to make a name for themselves, as did The Choir (though they would make Nashville their home by the mid-‘90s).
The band’s 1986 EP Shades of Gray included one of their most haunting and powerful songs, “All Night Long.” The tune demonstrated that CCM didn’t always have to provide pat answers to life’s questions. Instead, lead singer Derri Daugherty sings of emptiness and longing, and the result is effective.
“All Night Long” – both the Shades of Grey version, which also appeared on CD versions of their 1988 album Chase The Kangaroo, and the more uptempo demo, which appeared on the greatest hits collection Love Songs and Prayers: a Retrospective – holds up well alongside the great alternative hits of the era.
7. “Silent Love” (Russ Taff, 1985)
Southern Gospel music made up a sizeable portion of what would become Contemporary Christian Music. So many CCM artists – yesterday and today – have moved up through the ranks of the Southern Gospel circuit, and some styles of Southern Gospel fit squarely in today’s CCM.
Russ Taff is one of those artists whose background was in Southern Gospel. He sang in quartets throughout his younger days, and he revisits those roots often. But in the ‘80s, Taff transitioned to a modern pop sound with tunes like the sophisticated “Silent Love.”
A breezy but contemporary mid-tempo song about the reminders of God’s unfailing love, “Silent Love” proved that Taff’s powerhouse voice could handle something more than the Southern Gospel and inspirational material he cut his teeth on.
The song became a hit, and it paved the way for even more diverse material like his alt-pop take on Charlie Peacock’s “Down in the Lowlands” and the gorgeous countrypolitan of “I Cry.” More than that, “Silent Love” proved that Southern Gospel artists had a place in CCM.
6. “Your Love Broke Through” (2nd Chapter of Acts, Phil Keaggy, and a Band Called David, 1977)
The Jesus Music scene in California played a crucial role in the development of CCM from the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s. Hippies who had come to faith in Jesus were creating a more joyous version of the rock and folk that was the milieu of their peers.
That movement culminated in the astonishing triple album How the West Was One. Guitarist-singer Phil Keaggy teamed up with 2nd Chapter of Acts, a vocal trio of young siblings, along with their backing band (A Band Called David), for a tour of the western part of the United States in 1977. The recordings from those live sets made up the ultimate Jesus Music time capsule.
One of the highlights of How the West Was One is the dreamy testimonial praise ballad, “Your Love Broke Through” (you may also see it listed as “Love Broke Thru”). Keaggy’s unique voice and supple guitar work meld beautifully with those sweet harmonies that only siblings can bring. It’s a true high point in a set full of terrific songs.
Randy Stonehill, one of the co-writers of the song, had a hit of his own with a rock version in the mid-‘80s as well, proving how versatile the tune really is.
5. “Friends” (Michael W. Smith, 1983)
Michael W. Smith started out as a songwriter and keyboardist for several Christian acts, including Amy Grant. His debut album, The Michael W. Smith Project, included the go-to youth group anthem of the ‘80s.
Smith co-wrote “Friends” with his wife Debbie, and the song featured Grant on harmony vocals. The lyrics focus on the idea that God’s love keeps friends connected, even when they’re apart physically (clearly penned before the rise of social media). “Friends” accompanied just about every youth group graduation party and college departure and capped off every week of church camp throughout the decade.
A cynic may say that the song was intended as a tearjerker, but Lord knows how many tears had been shed whenever “Friends” hit the turntable or tape deck. It remains a remarkably tender reminder of those youth group days for a generation.
4. “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” (Keith Green, 1980)
The rock world is littered with artists who died young – whether at their own hand or accidentally. CCM has its own version in Keith Green. Green was a musical and acting prodigy who nearly became a teen pop idol.
When those dreams died, he turned to drugs and Eastern mysticism before giving his life over to Jesus. Green cultivated an unusual musical and ministry career before 28-year-old Green and three of his children perished in a tragic 1982 plane crash.
Green and his wife Melody started Last Days Ministries, and he recorded within the framework of the CCM industry until he felt the conviction to give his music away – for free or for whatever listeners could afford to pay – beginning with the 1980 album So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt, which included appearances by Bob Dylan, 2nd Chapter of Acts’ Matthew Ward, and worship leader Kelly Willard.
Green’s live shows often included passionate calls for repentance, and hundreds came to faith in Christ at the concerts. But the main draw was Green’s soulful voice and heartfelt songs, including the gorgeous worship tune, “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful.”
The hymn-like artistry of Green’s songs like “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” helped pave the way for modern worship songs by artists like Hillsong United and Jesus Culture. It’s just a horrible shame that Green couldn’t have a longer career, although he did serve the Lord wholeheartedly in the last few years of his short life.
3. “Heaven” (BeBe & CeCe Winans, 1988)
Plenty of African-American artists with a heritage in gospel music transitioned into CCM, but none of them embraced fresh, of-the-moment sounds like siblings BeBe & CeCe Winans.
Benjamin (BeBe) and Priscilla (CeCe) Winans came out of a famous gospel singing family and began singing with the PTL Singers before striking out on their own as a duo. Their self-titled album established them as CCM stars, but their second album, Heaven, gave them their first big CCM hit song in the title track – as well as some R&B crossover success.
BeBe & CeCe teamed up with songwriter-producer Keith Thomas to cultivate a modern R&B sound with a pop sensibility. Heaven sounded like nothing the CCM world had heard before, and it resonated with the public enough for the title cut to become the number one CCM song of 1989.
Bebe & CeCe raised the stakes on subsequent albums and then carried on to successful solo careers. Not bad for the younger siblings of one of the premier families of traditional gospel music.
2. “Find a Way” (Amy Grant, 1985)
In 1977, teenage singing sensation Amy Grant released her self-titled first album, and she quickly became the first lady of CCM. Her wholesome girl-next-door looks and talent that went well beyond her years made her one of the genre’s earliest success stories.
By 1985, Grant was ready to take her career to the next level. Mainstream success was calling, and she responded with the more rock-influenced Unguarded album, including its first single, “Find a Way.”
“Find a Way” wasn’t her biggest Christian success – that was 1982’s “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.” It didn’t make the hymnals – that was 1984’s “Thy Word.” It wasn’t even her most critically acclaimed work – that was the Lead Me On album in 1988. But “Find a Way” gets its significance in that it was the first song from a Christian record label to hit Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, peaking at #29.
The song and album paved the way for the massive success that followed for Grant on the Christian, pop, and adult contemporary charts, as well as on television. It also directed the world’s attention to the CCM industry, and other artists like Sixpence None the Richer and Switchfoot followed in Grant’s footsteps.
1. “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (Larry Norman, 1972)
Larry Norman emerged from the rock act People! to become one of the early pioneers of CCM. His conversion to Christ led him to engage in street ministry and to take homeless young musicians into his home. He began recording songs about his life-changing faith on Verve Records, and the label didn’t know what to do with the albums.
Norman released what would become his masterpiece, Only Visiting This Planet, in 1972. The record reflected the artist himself – quirky, outspoken, uncompromising. Norman made no apologies for his commitment to Jesus, and the songs on the album included pointed social commentary.
The first side of Only Visiting This Planet closed with the poignant “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” Basically a musical version of Jesus’ discourse on the Mount of Olives, the song talks about what will happen when Jesus returns – one friend ascends to heaven while the other is left behind. With all the grace of a late-period Beatles ballad, Norman laments that everyone should have been ready for this moment.
All these years later, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” stands as a sobering call to believers to reach out to their loved ones and neighbors. For all his idiosyncrasies and political rants, Norman was at his core a true believer in the life-changing power of Jesus.
It’s sad to note that, as one of the fathers of a massive music industry, Norman died nearly broke in 2008.
That's the list! What other songs do you think of as influential from this period? Share in the comments below.