Reading Rarities: 100 Greatest Songs In Christian Music

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At one time, contemporary Christian music was the fastest growing subgenre in the industry, and the years between 1969 and the year 2000 seem to be its golden period. Artists covered all genres and appealed to all age groups, making the secular side of the music business sit up and take notice. 2006’s 100 Greatest Songs In Christian Music, written by Tori Taff and various staff writers at CCM Magazine, is an enjoyable and thoughtful look at this unique style of music.

For me personally, even though I’ve been in the Church my entire life, contemporary Christian music didn’t really become part of my life until I was eleven and my brother let me borrow some of his tapes. It only took one listen of Holy Rollin’ to get me hooked.

Final print edition, April 2008. (CCM Magazine)

Obviously, Tori Taff and the CCM writers are no stranger to CCM. Taff is married to powerhouse Russ Taff, and she and her co-authors approach this “Greatest” concept realistically. As in, there’s no way to quantify all of it because there are so many variables to what makes something great. The authors combed through album sales, chart histories, overall popularity, and a lot of CCM Magazine back issues, coming up with a fine mix of songs that give a good all-around history. And what doesn’t place can very often be found in one of the fun little sidebars all over the book.

So what did make the Top 100 list? Well, there’s no way to go over all of it, but here’s a small sampling. As you’ll be able to tell, I went for variety here. Strap in, folks, because this just might be your playlist for the day…

81: When God Ran (Benny Hester, 1985)

This song puts the artist in the place of the Prodigal Son and has been a favorite from the beginning. It starts out delicate and tender, but then Benny punches it up and it’s a great feeling.

“When God Ran” was one of three simultaneous chart-toppers for Benny Hester in the mid-eighties and one of his most influential songs of all time. Amy Grant remembered the song as a surprise hit from a time when she and Hester were just writing songs and getting them out to the public, not knowing what would make an impression. “Boy, that one did,” she said.

78: Dive (Steven Curtis Chapman, 1999)

Steven Curtis Chapman is one of the most decorated artists in Christian music history, and he’s all over Greatest. “Dive” is the first track on the Grammy-winning album, Speechless.

The song was inspired by a fly fishing trip his pastor, Scotty Smith took with a friend. The two of them found a really prime spot that was the envy of their fellow anglers, who they saw watching them from the shore. “I knew I wanted to write that, somehow,” says Chapman. “I wanted to capture the emotions of finding the courage to dive in deep and lose yourself in the flow of living water.”

70: To Hell With the Devil (Stryper, 1986)

Stryper is legendary, not just for the shock value of songs like “To Hell With the Devil,” but for their stereotype-shattering. Their songs were very strongly based in the Bible and they could bring it with the hair band stuff. Instead of throwing beer bottles into the audience like other similar bands of the time, they would throw Bibles. And their name stands for Salvation Through Redemption Yielding Peace, Encouragement, and Righteousness.

“To Hell With the Devil” graced Billboards Top 200 Albums for a whopping 40 weeks and is still a rager. Put it this way: Jon Bon Jovi probably wishes he could hit notes like these guys.

60: Lead Me On (Amy Grant, 1988)

I think Lead Me On is my favorite Amy Grant album (although Unguarded and Straight Ahead aren’t too shabby, either). Its emotion is very raw and real, not having all the answers as is often expected in Christian music, but pointing towards the hope found in Christ.

Amy Grant has been recording since she was a teenager, but by the time she made Lead Me On she was a mature adult who’d had a miscarriage and feared for her marriage. This album was cathartic, and the public ate it up, keeping it at the top spot on the sales charts for five weeks. Lead Me On went on to win a Grammy (Grant’s fifth) and was voted the #1 Christian Album of All Time.

50: Dare You To Move (Switchfoot, 2000)

Anyone who’s seen A Walk To Remember will remember this song because it’s heavily featured, plus Switchfoot’s lead singer Jonathan Foreman wrote a lot of the songs for the film. “Dare You To Move” was a solid hit, and the album it came from, The Beautiful Letdown, sold over a million copies in both the Christian and secular market.

Foreman wrote the song out of his own desire to bridge the gap between what is and what should be, whether it’s himself or the world. “I’ve heard that we only use a small part of our brain,” he said. “Maybe our soul is the same way. And maybe we’re half asleep most of our lives, simply reacting to the stimulus our brain receives. Action, true action, is rare indeed.”

40: Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful (Keith Green, 1980)

“Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” is a much-loved standard, having been sung countless times in churches all over the world and covered by such artists as Kim Boyce and Rebecca St. James. It’s a very personal, very direct song that never fails to hit home.

Artist Keith Green included the piece in his album, So You Wanna Go Back To Egypt, which he either gave away for free or allowed fans to pay any amount they wanted, whether it was a dollar or several. It didn’t matter how many copies got out there, but that people would hear the Gospel. Sadly, two years after the album released, Green and his two oldest children were killed in a plane crash.

23: Testify To Love (Avalon, 1997)

“Testify To Love” was one of the songs my group sang when I toured with the Continentals, and to say it’s had a big time is putting it mildly. The song not only stayed at Number One for six weeks, but Wynonna Judd covered it on the one hundredth episode of Touched By An Angel and Avalon fans have to hear it at every show. It’s that important.

The song came to the group from a custom album by a Danish artist, and at first Avalon wasn’t too enthused about it. In the end, though, they figured, “What the heck? Let’s just do it.”

20: How Beautiful (Twila Paris, 1991)

Twila Paris is kind of the Carole King of Christian music in terms of influence–she’s had so many songs become part of the lexicon, such as “He Is Exalted,” “The Warrior Is A Child,” and “Lamb of God.” “How Beautiful” was a song that wrote itself, based on years of Twila’s dad, who was a pastor, preaching about the familial love within the body of Christ.

By the time Twila grew up, she had taken that belief for herself, and she has never stopped being amazed at the way God influences her music.

15. Because He Lives (The Gaithers, 1972)

Former teachers Bill and Gloria Gaither are highly respected and loved in the CCM world, bringing today’s artists to grins and tears. I cut my teeth on their children’s records, which I listened to so much they practically turned white.

“Because He Lives” came out of a time in the world when everything seemed to be falling apart and the Gaithers, like everyone else, were looking for hope. The Vietnam War was at its height, there were riots and racial tensions, plus a shift in morality in America. One day, Bill’s dad, George. took Bill and Gloria out to a new parking lot, where everything seemed to be perfectly paved, and showed them a blade of grass poking through the concrete. “Life wins!” said Gloria.

13: I Wish We’d All Been Ready (Larry Norman, 1969)

Larry Norman is considered the father of contemporary Christian music, and among other classics, he recorded the cautionary tune, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” It was hugely influential on Christian artists who were kids and teenagers in the seventies, like Chris Rice, who remembered singing the song with his brothers but having to grow into its message.

The song was famously covered by dc Talk on their Free At Last tour, and from time to time they sang it with Norman himself (watch a clip here).

12. Redeemer (Nicole C. Mullen, 2000)

Nicole C. Mullen came into the CCM business from a different angle: She choreographed shows for Amy Grant, the Newsboys, and Michael W. Smith. By the turn of the twenty-first century, she moved on to songwriting and recording, releasing her self-titled debut album in 2000. This album garnered Mullen four Dove Awards, including Song of the Year, a first for an African American artist.

“Redeemer” isn’t Mullen’s only entry in Greatest, either: She co-wrote the Jaci Velasquez mega-hit, “On My Knees,” which placed at Number 14.

9: Shine (Newsboys, 1994)

“Shine” was one of my jams in high school and college. It still is, as a matter of fact. I like the message, I like the imagery, and I like the cool Frippertronic synth. What’s “Frippertronic,” you ask? Well, it was a sound named after British guitarist Peter Fripper and only found on the extremely rare Korg Wavestation keyboard, which drummer Peter Furler bought while the Newsboys were recording Going Public. He used overdubbing to achieve the layered intro, and Steve Taylor wrote the lyrics.

Amazingly enough, the song bombed the first time it was played in concert, but once it hit the radio waves it was an instant hit. Also amazingly enough, the Newsboys’ entire rig, including the Korg keyboard, were stolen a few years later and it took some doing to find a replacement.

3: Friends (Michael W. and Debby Smith, 1983)

Ah, “Friends.” Smitty has gotten so much mileage out of this song, as has everyone else. It’s been played at funerals, graduations, and pretty much any kind of sendoff. When Smith first recorded it he was touring with Amy Grant, and every night he would close the show with “Friends.”

The song was written for Bill Jackson, who is good friends with Smith and his wife, Debby. When Jackson was getting ready to move to Memphis to run an InterVarsity ministry. Michael and Debby wrote the song for him, playing it on his last night at their Bible study. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house after {Michael} sang the song,” Jackson remembered later.

2: Jesus Freak (dc Talk, 1995)

Right from the get-go, Jesus Freak was a game-changer, even for a group that always made it their mission to speak boldly for Christ, and it remains the highest-selling Christian album of all time. At the same time, though, people didn’t know what to make of it, because the phrase, “Jesus Freak” was historically an insult.

The song rebelled against this in more ways than one; I remember when the video for the title track came out, some Christian circles were shocked that it was directed by Simon Maxwell, who had also directed “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. However, the video was a huge hit, turning a formerly derogative phrase into a mark of honor.

1: Awesome God (Rich Mullins, 1983)

“Awesome God” is a staple of youth groups, Awana, church services, you name it, so it’s no surprise that it made the top spot, one of several Rich Mullins songs in Greatest. According to friend David Mullen, Rich wrote the song on the way to a concert, yelling the lyrics out the window of his car to try and stay awake, and right away it was his signature song.

Rich was never comfortable with people focusing on him, and he would probably not be too jazzed about being named number one in Greatest, but he always knew “Awesome God” was inspired. “{It} creates a magic moment,” Rich said. “It reminds you that the world is not your home.”

OK, so there you have it. I don’t disagree with the book’s choices, but I wish they had given more than a slight nod to Bryan Duncan, who is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated voices in Christian music. Seriously. He’s a five-octave phenom whose catalogue is a mixture of sincerity and humor. One song, “I Love You With My Life” charted at Number One three times.

Here’s a bit from his Sweet Comfort days back in the seventies (Bryan’s on keyboard):

But I digress, of course.

100 Greatest Songs is fun to peruse. One book may not be able to hold everything that’s great about CCM, but Greatest gives a pretty good snapshot.

An announcement is coming up on Saturday. Thanks for reading, all…

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Taff, Tori, and CCM Magazine editorial staff writers. 100 Greatest Songs In Christian Music. Brentwood, Tennessee: Integrity Publishers, 2006.

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