Best New Artists of 2007
- Compiled by Andy Argyrakis and Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2007 1 Jan
It speaks well of the new artists that debuted this past year considering that we've never wrestled as much in selecting our favorites among them. Of course, that also speaks well of the future of Christian music when there are so many talented new artists emerging on the scene. So after much consideration, here are the twelve best new artists of 2007, listed alphabetically.
The Story and the Song (Bonded Records/EMI)
The Killers, Anberlin, Interpol, Mae, Franz Ferdinand … we could go on all day listing modern rock acts influenced by the '80s alternative sound of The Cure, The Smiths, and New Order. But Between the Trees impresses with their much buzzed about debut as a young band already on par with their contemporaries. In fact, the quintet from Orlando, Florida, goes one step further by relying on keyboards (not just retro synthesizers) as much as guitars. Melodic hooks help vary their sound from song to song—a rarity among similar styled bands today. All this could help explain why they've gained mainstream credibility through high profile tours like Bamboozle and Warped. Best of all, Between the Trees avoids overly oblique lyricism, maintaining a successful balance of real issues and faith. The trio of "The Way She Feels," "A Time for Yohe," and "You Cry a Tear to Start a River" provides an unflinching look at the issue of cutting, written with boldness and sensitivity. It's this kind of smartly uplifting songwriting that makes this band both relatable and authentic.
Salvation in Lights (INO Records)
Mike Farris is no rookie, having bounced around the music scene since the early '90s. After overcoming a longtime drug addiction, the rock veteran is now making a lasting impression with this uplifting offering of thanks to his Lord and Savior. As the music industry grows increasingly niche-driven, there's something special about the way Salvation in Lights spans genres. Both classic and contemporary in feel, the album is equal parts New Orleans and Memphis with a jubilant blend of gospel, blues, and soul reminiscent of Eric Clapton, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and Bob Dylan's gospel-blues period. And lest you get the impression that Salvation is nothing but cover songs, Farris contributes five tracks of his own; "Streets of Galilee," "The Lonely Road," and "Devil Don't Sleep" stack up admirably against standards like "Oh Mary Don't You Weep," "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," and "Take Me (I'll Take You There)." This guy has always been an impressive singer, but now that he's truly found his voice (stylistically speaking), we're hoping this disc represents the start of a long string of neo-gospel-blues projects.
The Glorious Revolution (Essential Records)
Pounding rhythms and electronic touches propel the Brit rock of Glorious, and thus the world was introduced to Grey Holiday. With an approachable and melodic pop/rock style reminiscent of Ruth (maybe too much so), the band sounds more confident and experienced than they really are—two of them never picked up an instrument before joining. There's some solid songwriting, too, based on the six cuts heard on this EP, a throwback to the energetic Christian rock bands that made their debut in the mid-to-late '90s. "Let Go" challenges us to yield control of our lives to the Lord, and "Where You Want Me" is a cry for us to accept life on God's terms. And thanks to Essential's marketing campaign, the disc is packed with bonus features that allow the listener to get to know the band better. The Glorious Revolution is not a perfect album, but it is a near-perfect introduction for a promising band that leaves us wanting more as they prepare their next release for 2008.
Group1Crew (Fervent Records/Word)
Chalk it up to healthy skepticism born from experience, but when a new group debuts with a number in its name, critics prepare for something cheesy, derivative, and second-rate. But Group1Crew proves to be one of the year's most pleasant surprises—an electric and eclectic urban pop trio that truly competes with The Fugees and Black-Eyed Peas. Strong production values and infectious pop hooks make this a fun party record that's also grounded in God's Word. Urban pop and hip-hop too often come across as hokey in Christian music, but this Crew somehow keeps it real without compromising their spiritual content, relating where they come from and what they're going through. "A Lot in Common," "No Plan B," and "I Have a Dream" all convey familiar themes without resorting to trite expressions. The threesome is remarkably self-assured for a new act, and there's energy galore in their live performance. All of which makes Group1Crew the heir apparent to the legacy of Souljahz, if not dc Talk.
True Beauty (Sparrow Records/EMI)
Anyone who watched American Idol back in 2006 couldn't help but recognize that Mandisa Hundley was an amazing vocalist. And her outspoken faith left little question that she'd be an instant success in Christian music—she's already dueting with everyone from tobyMac to Michael W. Smith. The only thing that could have held her back in our image-obsessed culture was her plus-size figure. But in facing that obstacle head-on—first on American Idol, and then her book Idoleyes—Mandisa quickly established herself as a fearfully and wonderfully made everywoman, not to mention the brightest pop-diva darling since Nicole C. Mullen. Recurring themes of building self-esteem and finding identity through God's love are also found in her music. Though the album lacks musical focus, it goes to show that Mandisa is capable of an assorted range of styles that will benefit from the right match of producers and songwriters. She nevertheless soars on the pop ballad "God Speaking," and her studio rendition of Mary Mary's "Shackles" is outstanding. Imagine how much better Mandisa will be once she settles into a musical identity and makes the transformation from singer to artist.
Indiana (Island Records/EMI)
Following in the footsteps of piano pop stars like Billy Joel and Elton John, Jon McLaughlin arrived on the scene in 2007 like a cleaner version of Ben Folds, somewhere between the AC-friendly pop of Mark Schultz and the broader themes of The Fray. People are taking notice, and not just the Christian market. Earning strong reviews in the mainstream, the 24-year-old singer/songwriter was featured on three film soundtracks this past year, including the Disney hit Enchanted. But McLaughlin remains grounded in the faith-based values of his Midwest upbringing. "Praying to the Wrong God" reminds us not to put faith in worldly things, while "Human" and "People" reflect humanity's desperate need for grace. Because McLaughlin's songs are relatable to teens and adults alike, and also seem to cross spiritual barriers, you can bet we'll be hearing more from this budding talent for years to come.
Say It (Sparrow Records/EMI)
In just two years time, ZOEgirl disbanded, Joy Williams retired, Stacie Orrico found herself in career limbo, and Rebecca St. James has slowed her musical output. Christian music is in need of a new pop princess, and Britt Nicole fits the role perfectly. A ministry-minded professional since her late teens, the 23-year-old was raised in her grandfather's church in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was there she gained experience through the congregation's daily television program. Normally, Christian artists like this sound manufactured, especially on their debuts, but Britt is more than a pretty face with a record deal.? She co-wrote all of the material on Say It (aided by the likes of Cindy Morgan and Jason Morgan) with a strong handle on sharing Christ with a new generation of younger music fans. Topping it all off is the stellar modern pop production from Tedd T. (St. James, Mute Math) and DoubleDutch (Mat Kearney, tobyMac). Admittedly, Britt Nicole seems like a formula on the surface, but in reality, you could say she was born and nurtured for the pop princess role. Say It marks a terrific debut from an artist who has everything it takes to become a recurring favorite in CCM.
Full Attention (Varietal Records)
There are worship leaders and there are Christian artists, but few are equally comfortable with the church as they are on the radio. Delirious, Matt Redman, and David Crowder Band are some of the exceptions, and Jeremy Riddle seems destined to join those ranks. He's had plenty of experience performing with rock bands in concert, but today his passion is worship music, and it shows in the heart cries of his songs. There's a relatable quality to the struggles conveyed on Full Attention that recall the Psalms, and there's enough depth in the verses to draw comparisons to Redman and Keith Getty. If anything, Riddle's songwriting style may be a little too pop/rock to work outside of Vineyard and youth-based congregations, although that's worked well enough for Crowder over the last five years. You know something's working right when the music itself draws you into a state of worship, allowing you to contemplate the lyrics with repeated listens.
Secondhand Dreaming (Tooth & Nail Records)
Somewhere between the anthemic modern sound of Switchfoot and the laid-back roots of Ryan Adams is a band named Ruth (named after lead singer Dustin Ruth, not a woman). And they couldn't have asked for a better opening slot than Switchfoot's Appetite for Construction Tour in late 2007 with Relient K. Ruth held their own with both mainstays, recalling a younger version of Switchfoot, except with even broader pop accessibility. If there are any doubts about that, listen to "Secondhand Dreaming," "Work It Out," and "Mr. Turner." The melodies are memorably soaring with musicianship that reveals a self-assuredness that only comes from experience. It's also rare for a Tooth & Nail band to be so lyrically forthright with their faith. True, the writing is at times simplistic, but the themes of yearning, hope, and love suitably compliment Ruth's melodic hooks. Given the musical foundations laid on Secondhand Dreaming, this band will no doubt grow with each future album—giving time for their lyricism to catch up with their enjoyable indie/roots rock blend.
It'd be oversimplifying to peg Jake Smith as just another "guy with a guitar." Granted, he's got some of Jason Mraz's scat-like wordplay, and there's a smoky jazz side to his music that resembles John Mayer. But Smith is actually a gumbo of musical influences, reflecting his eclectic hometown New Orleans—not simply coffeehouse folk, but a broad palette of styles that includes pop, jazz, and funk. That works well with Smith's conversational style of songwriting, which isn't always spiritually overt, but there's never a question where the artist is coming from. Though open about his faith, he's focused on making it relatable to all audiences—starting the conversation in order to lead to something deeper later. The talented 20-something is the latest to join the revered ranks of Rocketown Records, and the first in a long while that seems capable of living up to the label's songwriter legacy established by Chris Rice, Ginny Owens, and Shaun Groves.
The Blessing (Beach Street Records/Provident)
A year ago, Billboard named John Waller one of the new Christian artists to watch in 2007. Turns out it wasn't just hyperbole. He certainly does stand out from much of what we find in Christian adult contemporary, which has grown stale with so many vying to become the next MercyMe, Casting Crowns, and Chris Tomlin. This former lead singer of According to John arrives as a breath of fresh air, yet still sounding right at home with his contemporaries. There are certainly some songs on The Blessing that are worshipful sounding, but they're phrased uniquely enough to stand apart from others out there. And the pop ballads carry enough weight to hold interest as well—"Still Calls Me Son" may initially seem like another Prodigal Son anthem, but the well-crafted writing makes it sound more like a new classic than an old cliché . There's also something to be said for Waller's voice and style, infusing his music with a more credible rock feel than the country-pop that most Christian AC artists gravitate toward. Hopefully Waller is on the verge of "Something Big," not just for opening on tour with Casting Crowns, but for genuinely thoughtful, well-produced Christian pop.
Conquering the Fear of Flight (Flicker Records)
2007 saw the debut of many Christian rock bands, most of them easy to categorize into emo, metal, and such. Wavorly is one of the few with a broader range that's hard to typecast. Some of it is symphonic guitar rock, some of it elegant and synth-heavy, and some of it surprisingly teeters close to dance-pop—the outstanding "Forgive and Forget" seems to straddle at least a couple musical boundaries. The band even flirts with worship music for the ballad "Praise and Adore (Some Live Without It)," but even that's a different approach than the norm, using seeker-friendly language that even non-believers can grasp. Though it defies conventions, the exquisitely produced Conquering the Fear of Flight holds together as a cohesive pastiche of modern rock styles and cerebral lyrics. But what can we expect from this promising band? Will they be as expansive on their next album, or will they settle into a more focused approach? Have they established their sound already, or will they change with the times? One thing's for certain—Wavorly has piqued our curiosity for the years ahead.