Sometimes you heard a band’s or artist’s debut album and think, “I’ll keep an eye on them.” Sometimes you hear it and think, “I’m hooked.” There are some artists who take two or three albums to really hit their stride while others make their mark right out of the gate. I was a big fan of PFR back in their day, but if they had only ever released their debut they would soon have been forgotten; it wasn’t until Great Lengths that they really established themselves. I continue to love Switchfoot and still enjoy The Legend of Chin, but they needed The Beautiful Letdown just like Needtobreathe needed The Outsiders, dc Talk needed Nu Thang, and The O.C. Supertones needed Supertones Strike Back.
I recently began thinking of bands and artists within Christian Contemporary Music whose debut album was so good that it immediately established them as exceptional. Here are the ones I came up with.
Caedmon’s Call. Does anyone else remember when this band suddenly showed up? It was an era of over-production where the same few songwriters, producers, and studio musicians seemed to have their fingerprints on every album. Then suddenly this coffee house band gave notice that music could be a little bit less polished and have a whole lot more heart. “Lead of Love,” “Hope to Carry On,” and other tracks are unforgettable. One reviewer said, “the album does suffer a little from a lack of under-production (the band produced it themselves and could have used a little help from someone like Charlie Peacock or John and Dino Elefante.).” But he’s wrong; their absence was exactly what made it so great.
Jars of Clay. The album and the band was all about “Flood” wasn’t it? Suddenly it was on every radio station (Christian and mainstream) and even showing up in movies. That one song, along with “Love Song for a Savior,” perhaps, put Jars of Clay on the map. They’ve created many albums since then, but I don’t think they’ve ever quite recaptured the sound, the feel, and the magic of their debut.
Jennifer Knapp. Her debut album Kansas was and is an incredible work of art. It began with a vocal prelude that showcased Knapp’s unique voice, then only got better from there. “Undo Me,” “Martyrs and Thieves,” and several of the other tracks hold their own 20 years later. They vary between full-out acoustic and light rockers, and not a single track is out of place. Some of her follow-up albums were good, but none was quite as good. And then she disappeared, eventually to return as a “gay Christian artist.”
Third Day. It was this album that introduced us to Mac Powell’s vocals and Third Day’s brand of Southern Rock. Against the squeaky-clean, Nashville, CCM brand of Christian rock, this stuff had soul. The original Gray Dot cassette version of this album is, in my mind, superior to the official label re-release that followed a year later. Third Day had much more money to put into production after this, and Conspiracy No. 5 was a worthy follow-up, but I don’t know that they’ve ever matched the album that started it all.
Derek Webb. Webb was well-known, of course, through his work with Caedmon’s Call. But his solo debut was almost too good to be true. It was much deeper theologically than much of what we had seen from Caedmon’s and also had an edge to it. Who could forget hearing, “I am a whore, I do confess / I put you on just like a wedding dress / and run down the aisle.” His disgust toward big-box Christianity may have since morphed into a wider disgust with Christianity, but his first album remains one of the best I’ve ever heard.
Relient K. I guess the Christian world was ready for a band that played their own safe brand of punk while taking a light-hearted approach to life and artistry. Hiding behind silly songs like “Hello McFly” and “My Girlfriend” were big hooks, solid artistry, and tongue-in-cheek humor. There is little doubt they’ve created better albums since Relient K, but if they hadn’t, I think we’d still remember this one fondly.
Delirious?. I didn’t ever get into Delirious? the way some did, but their impact on Christian rock and modern worship is undeniable. In 1998 their four independent EPs were compiled into their major label debut, Cutting Edge. At this time, Christian bands wanted to go mainstream and were prone to minimize explicitly Christian content. But these songs were unapologetically worshipful and showed that Christian kids would gladly sing along to Christian music. By 2000 just about every band was recording their own worship album and inserting a collection of worship songs into their live shows. Most haven’t looked back (yet). We owe much of this emphasis to Delirious?.
Sonicflood. First they were dc Talk’s touring band, then they were Zilch (who would also fit the criteria for this article), and then, finally, Sonicflood. Then, after just two albums, the entire band was replaced. Buried beneath the strange and ridiculous saga that is Sonicflood is a debut album that did as much as any album to establish modern worship music as a major genre within CCM (save Delirious?, of course). It was released in 2000, the year when every band was trying their hand at a worship album, but it was the one that dominated the charts. Combining a few originals with lots of covers, they made worship loud, modern, and fun.
Those are my picks. What are yours? Make sure they meet the criteria: An especially strong debut album for their first major-label album.