This month, NewReleaseToday is celebrating 20 years of covering what's new in Christian music (read our origin story here). Who knows how many albums, EPs, and singles have come across our radar in these past two decades, but I'd bet the number would approach five figures.
That's a lot of music and we've been honored to have had front row seats with you throughout this amazing ride.
During the beginning decade, I would take time at the end of each year and put together my Best Of list–ten albums that stood out and rose above the rest. In 2012, I stopped that practice with the launch of the We Love Christian Music Awards which quickly became our annual celebration of the best music from the previous year. Thankfully, our lead contributor and author of the long-running Behind the Song devotional series, Kevin Davis, carried on the tradition, and so we thought we would split up the task of highlighting our favorite album from each of the 20 years we've been around.
After you get done with this list, you can click here to read Kevin Davis' favorites from our second decade of covering Christian music.
Choosing favorites is always a tough choice, but returning to albums long forgotten and rediscovering them all over again was a practice that I enjoyed immensely. Hopefully, you'll get the same pleasure as we look at the best albums from the first decade of NRT's existence.
Best of 2001 - Kevin Max - Stereotype Be
Music was different twenty years ago and Christian music was still rapidly expanding from 1995's altering year when dc Talk blew all expectations of what a Christian music industry could be (read more about that year, here). Six years later, that defining group would go on an intermission (that remains to this day, minus a couple of reunion cruises) and the solo careers of TobyMac, Tait and Kevin Max–the latter of which would eclipse not only his bandmate's debut solo efforts, but also anything else coming out that year.
Kevin's debut album represents everything he has rejected in music for the past twenty years and knowing him, he'd probably cringe at it making a list like this. Kevin has never chased commercial success, in fact, he's run from it in all directions in his search of art over accessibility. While still producing music today on his own terms–he's released an astonishing sixteen albums since–none have come close to the success of Stereotype Be (not counting his very successful, but short-lived stint as Audio Adrenaline's replacement lead singer on 2016's Sound of the Saints). Listening two decades later, I'm reminded of what an incredible singer the artist is and how much I miss this "here and gone in a blink" era of his solo career.
Best of 2002: Jeremy Camp - Stay
Few debut albums have been able to stand the test of time quite as well as then twenty-four-year-old Jeremy Camp's Stay. It is filled with the kind of passion and maturity rarely found in today's music and launched a career that is still going strong today. Jeremy's story of losing his wife of six months to cancer has always been part of his testimony and even formed the foundation of the recent hit movie, I Still Believe. Stay, a collection of twelve songs that goes against everything that one would expect from someone who went through such personal loss just over a year earlier, is filled with hope, acceptance, peace, faith, and thankfulness and it includes numerous hits like "I Still Believe," "Walk By Faith," and "Take My Life."
What an incredible year in Christian music. Debut albums from modern-day mainstays Casting Crowns and Big Daddy Weave made huge impacts and the mainstream started to take notice by pouring money into faith-based albums from Evanescence, Stacie Orrico, Amy Grant, and one of the best albums of 2003, and arguably that decade. Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown received solid backing from Sony Music at just the right time. Lead singer Jonathan Foreman opens up with self-revelatory songs about hope, love, faith, and the desire to be more than what he's being sold. Jon connects with subtle emotional power, surveying a landscape of mediocrity in "More Than Fine," digging for painful truths in the title track, "Beautiful Letdown," and bridging the success of their previous album by including their smash hit, "Dare You to Move." On the lead single, "Meant To Live," (the second most-streamed track on Spotify of their storied career that continues to this day), Jon strives to survive in a world where love and hate breathe the same air. This is Switchfoot at their absolute best, hands down.
Rock seemed to come out of nowhere and take over this year. Kutless, Pillar, Day Of Fire, Thousand Foot Krutch, and even the more rock-edged Wire from Third Day all made my top 10 of 2004. But one album stood out from the louder releases and that was the debut album from Shawn McDonald. Stripped down to an acoustic guitar, piano and light percussion, the eleven tracks on Simply Nothing share the heart and passion of an artist who has something to say. From "Gravity," to "All I Need," and the title track, we hear a man wanting wholeness after a life of selfishness. Simply Nothing was a beautiful start from a gifted singer/songwriter that has been quiet since 2019's single, "Oregon."
There were plenty of great albums that were released in 2005, but as I revisit the list of my favorites from 16 years ago, few have aged well. Solid albums from Switchfoot, Rebecca St. James, Third Day and even T-Bone (way before CHH was even a "thing") just don't hold up. However, as I listened through Casting Crowns' sophomore release, Lifesong, I found myself realizing that after an 18-year career in music, many of their biggest hits came from this album. "Praise You In This Storm" has such lasting power and Natalie Grant just covered it on her latest album. Many of the tracks on this album do what Casting Crowns has done best: merge honest and challenging storytelling within approachable music and compelling harmonies. Heart doesn't fade after decades, and this album is just as approachable as their music today explaining why they remain one of the most in-demand artists in Christian music.
Best of 2006: Family Force 5 - Business Up Front, Party in the Back
2006 was an incredible year for Christian music. Rock dominated the landscape with over 40 rock albums from the major labels releasing and those records making up 50% of my list of best albums from the year. Choosing that Top 10 was a tough task with a list of 25 strong contenders. And now I have to choose the best from the top 10? This was a tough task. 14 years ago, I crowned Newsboys' Go with that title, and while I've always loved the Peter Furler era of the band, it wasn't as strong a decade and a half later. There was one album that remains engraved in my memory as an absolute "game-changer" and that's Family Force's 5's debut album. I remember the faces of everyone in the room hearing this record pitched for retail sales for the first time. There were lots of eyebrows raised, and mouths hung wide open. These guys were coming to not only smash onto the scene but to absolutely obliterate all the rules in Christian music. After all these years, it's more than apparent their sound was way ahead of their time making a 14-year album still an absolute blast to listen through. The band has morphed over the years and after changing their name to FF5 in 2018, they still reach over 225,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. That's what we call "staying power" here in the biz.
There were some huge, career songs released in 2007. Steven Curtis Chapman's "Cinderella," Casting Crowns' "East To West," TobyMac's "Made To Love" and Reliant K's "Must Have Done Something Right." All great songs, from solid albums. But a Best of the Decade requires a stellar selection, and I've got to admit, I didn't appreciate this album enough until years later. NEEDTOBREATHE's sophomore album appeared early in their career, and while you can certainly hear the progression of their overall sound today, you quickly realize what a gifted singer Bear Rinehart has always been. There are strong harmonies throughout, the vocals have subtle effects that add uniqueness and depth and the music is a continuous drive that results in a fully flowing set of songs. The Heat is simply a great rock album that was released in an overall forgettable year, and I'm fine with leaving it there.
Best of 2008: Francesca Battistelli - My Paper Heart
I have a soft spot for great debut albums that have launched some of the biggest artists on today's scene. Maybe it goes back to my childhood days of having to collect rookie cards and No. 1 issues of comic books. There's just something about a great start and foundation that remains strong after much time has passed. So is the case of Francesca's debut. 2008 was a great year for debut albums from female artists including Superchick, Fireflight, BarlowGirl, Brooke Barrettsmith, Joy Whitlock, and Worth Dying For. None impressed me more than newcomer Francesca Battistelli. Bypassing the typical teen-angst that fills so many releases from younger artists, Francesca filled her debut with bright colors, joyful messages, and positive outlooks. You can still feel the smiles come across in songs like "Beautiful, Beautiful," "I'm Letting Go" and "Free to Be Me."
2009 remains one of my favorite years in Christian music. The number of quality albums was just...overwhelming. Career albums from Thousand Foot Krutch, Skillet, Israel Houghton competed for the top spot on this list, but in the end, my favorite album of 2009 remains solid and unwavering. Phil Wickham's Heaven & Earth remains vastly undiscovered considering the number of people listening to Phil's music today. More than 70% of the album has less than 500,000 streams on Spotify, far less than the tens of millions his later music has been streamed. But that's ok. Commercial success does not always mirror "the best" and if you have yet to discover this album, go back now. There has yet to be a collection of songs releases that make me long for the coming of Christ the way this album continues to do. This album puts a pain in my heart, makes every day seem downright trivial and I almost feel that the skies are opening as the album continues on. Listening is an experience of one man's true connection with his eternal future, and you instantly want to be there with him, soaking in the pure radiance of our Creator, worshiping at the throne of the Almighty King. What a day that STILL will be!
It's telling that after 11 years, I had to choose between TobyMac's Tonight and Newsboys' first album after welcoming Michael Tait as frontman, Born Again. The harsh reality is that while Tonight was one of Toby's most fun albums to date, it feels incredibly dated and quickly shows how far Toby has come in his solo career. Born Again, however, remains one of the best Tait error Newsboys records to date and includes hit after hit. Tait is a vocalist I will always gravitate towards. He brings a passion unmatched and when combined with great songwriting on Born Again, is undeniably at the top of his game.