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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Best New Artists of 2003

  • Christianity Today Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Best New Artists of 2003

With more than 50 new acts introduced to the Christian music scene in 2003, one could call it "The Year of the New Artist." With so many to choose from-including established independent artists and solo acts making their national debut-it wasn't easy to select the 12 best. But we managed to anyway, weighing talent, creativity, original expressions of faith, and quality of album to come up with a list of artists we feel have the strongest potential to affect and entertain for years to come. In chronological order of release dates (dating back to December '02), here are our picks for Best New Christian Artists of 2003.

Sanctus Real

Say It Loud (Sparrow)

It typically shows when a band has been cutting its teeth on the independent circuit before going to the majors, and this Toledo, Ohio group is no exception. Sanctus Real packed a wallop with their aggressive-yet-accessible sound beginning with their national introduction on the 2002 Festival Con Dios tour. Since the December 2002 release of Say It Loud, they've been a breath of fresh air to the Christian rock scene, offering power pop that is extremely relevant because of the popularity of Jimmy Eat World and Foo Fighters. The lyrics have a clear Christian slant without sounding trite. But you ain't heard nothing yet if you haven't seen them live—they will rock your face off. Based on their initial reception, the future bodes well for Sanctus Real.
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The Swift

The Swift (Flicker)

Simply put, The Swift is pure ear candy. Offering a relatively unique sound to the Christian music scene, this North Carolina quartet (originally called Puddleglum) draws on wide array of musical styles: Keith Green, Ben Folds, Queen, Joe Jackson, PFR, and Todd Rundgren. A lot of artists have tried and failed to put the rock back into piano rock. The Swift pulls it off on their self-titled national debut with especially catchy pop songs that will stick in your head long after. It's a nice balance of worship and fun, but sadly they have yet to catch on. They're not getting much radio airplay, and we'd love to see them get more exposure. We can only hope that this band catches on—whether by word of mouth, through better marketing, or by any other means.
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Holland

Photographs & Tidalwaves (Tooth & Nail)

This evocatively titled album is a standout for Tooth & Nail, which debuted more new artists this year than any other Christian label. And like many T&N debuts in 2003, Holland's CD benefits greatly from Aaron Sprinkle's production genius. Still, credit Will and Josiah Holland for giving their career a strong launch with such likeable melodic rock. Though their faith is somewhat veiled in these songs, there are some pretty powerful stories behind them that teens can surely relate to (the death of a friend, working with disabled children, fear of the uncertain). There aren't nearly enough Christian rock stations to give this band due attention, but response has been positive so far thanks to heavy touring. Here's hoping they hit the ground running with their follow-up.
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Derek Webb

She Must and Shall Go Free (INO)

You're familiar with the voice and songwriting behind numerous Caedmon's Call classics, such as "Thankful." While we miss Derek Webb's involvement with his former band, he's clearly doing well artistically on his own. This is a highly enjoyable acoustic roots album, featuring plenty of strong musicianship all around. But Webb scores the most points for his gutsy songwriting, unafraid to challenge the church on its weaknesses. The trick is that he does so by balancing boldness and conviction with candor and love. The result is an album that Martin Luther and the Apostle Paul would have easily identified with. Webb's taken a lot of chances with this album, but it has paid off greatly in many ways.
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Cool Hand Luke

Wake Up, O Sleeper (Floodgate)

Cool Hand Luke shows its versatility here, considering that they were a hard rock act before this album. Wake Up, O Sleeper kinda snuck in under the Christian music radar—it's not exactly radio-friendly material—but at least Cool Hand Luke scored some dates opening for Switchfoot on the rock club circuit. Under the guidance of producer Steve Hindalong (The Choir, City on a Hill), their ethereal indie rock sound is bound to appeal to fans of Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Starflyer 59, and even Sigur Ros. It's unusual without being inaccessible or dissonant, and the passionate lyrics adequately balance poetic imagery with overtly Christian expressions—no small feat! If you're looking for a truly alternative worship experience, don't miss this one.
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Anberlin

Blueprints for the Black Market (Tooth & Nail)

This Florida quintet hasn't been together very long, but you would never know it listening to their first-rate debut (produced by Aaron Sprinkle). It's explosive and energetic rock, reminiscent of Jimmy Eat World and Denison Marrs, and bolstered by a tight rhythm section and larger-than-life guitars. Stephen Christian's impressive vocal range is reminiscent of The Smiths' Steven Morrissey, The Cure's Robert Smith, and Tree 63's John Ellis. Though the songs are obtuse lyrically, Christian approaches his words with originality and never undermines his faith. Anberlin has received considerable exposure in opening for Relient K and other high-profile bands. Response has been strong among teens and college students, so expect them to be around awhile.
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Steven Delopoulos

Me Died Blue (Universal South)

How we miss Burlap to Cashmere, one of Christian music's most original and promising bands from the late '90s. At least we still have the band's songwriting in the form of ex-lead singer Steven Delopoulos. A true thinking man's singer/songwriter, he stylistically fuses the folk music of '70s songwriters like Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, and Paul Simon with modern day artists such as Bebo Norman, Eli, and the Greek-influenced sound of Burlap. There's not much overt spirituality on Me Died Blue, but the themes are woven within the soul-searching lyricism. Though his solo debut hasn't garnered the same attention as Burlap's Anybody Out There?, it has given Delopoulos and Universal South a chance to explore mainstream opportunities.
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Todd Agnew

Grace Like Rain (Ardent)

Todd Agnew's range is so diverse that his national debut impressively mimics Dave Matthews on one track, Creed the next, and a little Southern rock á la Third Day or Hootie on another. That he can stylistically imitate these artists so well is commendable. Even better, he successfully fuses all these genres to his passion for worship, coming up with some of the year's best praise songs. On top of that, Agnew nicely blends traditional worship texts with modern worship styles, evidenced by his fine hymn arrangements. It all adds up to a worship artist with wide appeal. It'll be interesting to see how Agnew's musical career develops because of his reliance on musical trends, but we're sure he'll be making some kind of music for years to come.
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Jill Paquette

Jill Paquette (Reunion)

If Steven Delopoulos is this year's thinking man's songwriter, Jill Paquette is the female equivalent—indeed, she's the only woman on this year's list. She doesn't reinvent the folk-pop genre, but she deftly crafts her music with refreshing honesty and intelligence, whether she's wrestling with doubt or letting her faith shine. Paquette is also a talented musician, both on acoustic guitar and piano. There's no shallow programmed pop here (á la Jewel's 0304). Though Paquette, a 24-year-old Canadian, is respected by peers and those who've discovered her music, she's largely unknown to Christian radio listeners—for now, anyway. As long as Reunion supports this gifted artist, it seems only a matter of time before she earns widespread attention.
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Stereo Motion

Stereo Motion (Flicker)

If at first you don't succeed … reinvent yourself! That's what the band formerly known as Phat Chance did anyway—and it worked. Stereo Motion displays a more mature sound heavily influenced by classic rock (The Who, Rolling Stones), yet still contemporary (All American Rejects, The Strokes, The Elms). Many neo-classic rock bands rely on regurgitated garage rock conventions, but Stereo Motion offers solid musicianship, most prominently in the solid guitar solos. Most essential to this band's success is the improved songwriting, featuring catchy rock hooks along with fresh lyrical perspectives that express faith in interesting ways. Definitely worth recommending to classic rock fans. (Sorry, it's not available in 8-track.)
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Dakona

Perfect Change (Maverick/Warner)

We respectfully disagree with those who consider Dakona another flavor-of-the-day rock band, á la post-grunge bandwagon acts like The Calling. This Canadian quartet sounds more like an odd blend of U2 and Lifehouse without completely sounding like either. Lead vocalist Ryan McAllister even switches between Jason Wade's grungy growl and Bono's soaring wails. The production is top-notch, propelling their first single "Good (I've Got a Lot to Learn)" to mainstream airplay. They've opened for Michelle Branch and Third Eye Blind—not a bad way to start! But most importantly, Dakona has come up with some of the year's more thoughtfully worded Christian rock anthems, evidenced by "Trampoline," "In God's Name," and the title track. Flavor-of-the-day or one of the strongest rock debuts of the year? You decide.
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Sleeping at Last

Ghosts (Interscope)

This Chicago-based trio generated considerable buzz over the last two years, partly due to their friendship with Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan. Ghosts has yet to live up to all the anticipation in sales or airplay—but it will. This CD would be an extraordinary effort for a veteran band, let alone a national debut by young twenty-somethings. Relying as much on string sections as electric guitars, the album evokes Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Coldplay, and U2, with a dazzling orchestrated modern rock sound all its own. What's more, Ghosts offers some truly subtle and beautiful poetic expressions of faith, coupled with haunting melodies that will follow you long after the last notes fade away. Response has been strong after touring with Switchfoot and Bleu, but Sleeping at Last's best days are still to come.
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Click here to view our first annual Reader's Choice Awards, and see what the masses picked as their favorite new artists.Interested in seeing other Best New Christian Artist alumni? View our picks from 2002, 2001, and 2000.


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