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by Dan Gover
If it happens in America, you can bet that, sooner or later, it will happen here, too. For years, the US chart system has included an admirable selection of Christian records and, indeed, its own Christian chart. Here, across the water, there's an occasional burst of commercial Christian music. But that's all it ever was, and was mainly due to the likes of Whitney Houston or Eternal. However, things seem to be taking a turn in the UK, with artists springing up who not only dedicate a song to God, but their whole careers.
The first sign came towards the end of the year 1999. He may not have been the most likely of people, but Cliff Richard, against all odds, took the No. 1 spot, outselling hotly-tipped acts such as Ronan Keating and was Westlife's main contender for the Christmas No. 1 placing.
Okay, so Cliff's not new to the charts, and he's had plenty of secular records, too, but few expected the "Millennium Prayer", such an in your face Christian record, to have such huge commercial success here. But, then again, we were about to enter the new millennium - two thousand years, approximately, since the birth of Jesus Christ - so perhaps it wasn't so unexpected after all.
Just months later, two soulful sisters from the US notched up a top 10 hit with their debut single, "Shackles (Praise You)". They were Erica and Tina Atkins, more commonly known as Mary Mary, and their writing skills and fantastic vocals made them an instant hit among mainstream music lovers.
Their second single, "I Sings", athough didn't prove to be as popular as the first, still entered the official Top 40 singles in the UK, making them no one-hit wonders. And, with an album featuring the likes of US super-group Destiny's Child, as well as some of the best R&B at the moment, it looks as though they'll be around for a long while to come.
But that's not all. After a number of albums, all successful in the Christian music field, Delirious? recently released their first commercial album, titled "Glo". From it, the band notched up top 20 singles in the UK, and were also successful in other countries, including the US. The single, "God You Are My God", was one of the most popular. This, at least, is a story of a British Christian group who have had mainstream commercial success in the UK.
You probably already knew about these acts anyway. They've already had commercial success in the UK, afterall. But what about the rest? Surely, there are more than just these few! Well, you'd be right. And, what's more, there's something for almost every taste thinkable. "But," I hear you cry, "what's it got to do with me?" You may be quite content with your helping of chart music, so why bother tapping into a whole new well of it? Well, that, my friend, you are just about to find out.
Milton Keynes-based ShineMK are no strangers to music. Their blend of hard-edged pop, reminiscent of the likes of Britney Spears, has proved an instant success among listeners of their music. They first burst onto the scene in 1999 and their debut album, "Do It Right", has been selling by the lorry load since then.
The group is comprised of sisters Natasha and Loretta, who have recorded backing vocals for the likes of Diana Ross, 911 and Gary Barlow, and have appeared on Top of the Pops. Also in the group are Barnsley girl Nicola, and Norwegian Hanne. One listen of their music proves their potential.
Sister group V*enna, of the same management and producer as Shine, display the same qualities. Compared with the likes of S Club 7, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, it's not surprising that the music of this Anglo-American duo has been such an instant success among music lovers. Their debut album, entitled, "Where I Wanna Be", consists of infectious dance beats, cool production and a few downbeat numbers, too. What makes it different from the secular pop kings and queens, though, is that, through all the fun, Bristol-born Lucy Britten and American Sharnessa Shelton display a clear Christian message in their lyrics.
Towards the other end of the pop spectrum lives solo artist Rebecca St James. Now aged 23, she's been providing us songs since the age of 16. Her latest album, "Transform", was recorded over the summer of 2000, and boasts a good deal of infectious tunes. It marks a huge change in her music, with some dance orientated tracks and, very effectively, such combinations as the London Symphony Orchestra alongside a rock guitar and drums. Her music, by her own admission, is not just confined to the realms of Christian audiances, though, and is designed to suit the ordinary listener, as well.
Other stand-out pop acts include girl group Zoegirl and new pop sister trio Aurora. Girl quartet Point Of Grace also stand out, recently having released their remix album after four original LPs. Female solo artist Crystal Lewis is also an extremely established singer. Her latest album, "Fearless", includes production by top producers Rhett Lawrence and Kirk Franklin.
Of course, there's not just girl groups galore. If it's the Baskstreet Boys equivalent you're looking for, then search no more. All male quintet Plus One are who you want, their song "Written On My Heart" being a definite stand-out track from their album, "The Promise". The production is brilliant and, from the same record company as The Corrs, it's only the Christian message here that distinguishes them from the various chart toppers we've come to know and love.
Male trio DC Talk are the other end of male pop groups. Their latest music has been described as rock/pop, though their first albums focussed on rap instead. Their fifth original album, "Supernatural", was released in 1998, featuring the song "Red Letters", whlie one of their previous albums, "Jesus Freak", went double platinum. This year, they also released their greatest hits album, "Intermission". The CD shows an amazing diversity in genre, going from pop to rock and everything in between. As a side note, I'm informed that "Between You And Me" bears a strange resemblance to U2's "Walk On".
If R&B is your thing, then there is plenty for you to get your teeth into. CeCe Winans, who has recorded duets with the likes of Whitney Houston in the past, leads the way among soul divas. US teen Stacey Orrico is the equivalent of Samantha Mumba, her music a blend of R&B and pop with fantastic results. At the tender age of 12, Stacie won a competition and was offered a record deal by Forefront Records. Her debut album, "Genuine", only supports the decision, with tracks "Don't Look At Me" and "Genuine" leading the way. Stacie, who could easily have forged a career alongside the likes of Christina Aguilera and the likes, wants to entertain but just one listen to her music confirms something deeper, too.
With a similar appeal is US sister trio, Out Of Eden, who are on the forefront of R&B groups. Their blend of R&B and pop is not too dissimilar from the likes of the Honeyz, Fierce or Eternal, and their third album, entitled "No Turning Back", has proved extremely popular. On the other hand, there's London based quintet True Solace. Their music is more gospel orientated in genre, but with a strong coating of R&B. And let's not forget girl trio Trin-i-tee 5:7 whose second album, "Spiritual Love", has also been a big success.
Not too far behind is the brilliant Nicole C Mullen, whose self-titled album is a fantastic piece of work. A stand-out track is the brilliant single "Redeemer", and just one listen proves her singing talent, as well as her fantastic song-writing skills.
On the rap front, US duo The Grits lead the way with their album, "Grammatical Revolution". Another hip-hop genius, compared to the likes of Prince and Kirk Franklin, is the very talented Tonex.
And here they are! The monarchs of UK Christian music. The World Wide Message Tribe as they once were known, as are responsible for such tracks as "Jumpin' In The House Of God" and the fantastic "The Real Thing", as well as a whole host of other upbeat, catchy anthems. They're probably less well known for their slower numbers, but their latest compilation, named "Chilled", sets out to change that. Their last album, "Frantik", saw them as a seven-piece, but following the departure of four of the members, they have now been renamed The Tribe, and two new members from South African dance/pop group MIC have been added to the line-up.
A similar group, Raze, also falls into this category. They are currently on their third album, entitled "The Plan", after the success of their first two albums, "That's The Way", and 1999's "Power". Their latest offering is upbeat and dancey, like their previous CDs, but comes with a showering of R&B/pop. Their debut album remained in the Christian Top 100 albums in America for 33 weeks, and they have previously partnered with the World Wide Message Tribe for a sell out tour.
Unsurprisingly, there are also plenty of Christian bands around, varying in style. Skillet, pictured on the right, are just one example. They are described as a band which combines rock, pop and grunge, and they call classify themselves in the genre electro-industrial.
The band originally formed as a trio and released their debut album, entitled "Skillet", in 1996. In 1998, they released the follow-up, "Hey You, I Love Your Soul". Along the way, there's been plenty of member-changing and now only the lead from their original line-up is still a band member. Some describe them as being similar to the likes of Limp Bizkit in genre while others disagree.
Quite a bit softer is Scottish Celtic band Iona. Since 1996, they had been very quiet as a band until, in 2000, they released "Open Sky". If you don't know what to expect here imagine: pipes and whistles laying comfortably on top of rock guitar and drum foundations with a violin or two and then, on top of it all, some fantastic vocals thanks to lead singer Joanne Hogg. Okay, so it won't suit everyone, but if the Celtic sound's your thing, then Iona are for you.
Somewhere between these two lie many other bands. Jars Of Clay you may have heard of. They appeared on the Platinum Christmas album on 2000 with the likes of Britney Spears and Whitney Houston. Since their humble beginnings in 1995, they have released three albums ("Jars Of Clay", "Much Afraid", "If I Left The Zoo"), an extended play ("Drummer Boy", the proceeds of which benefited the Child Abuse Prevention Center of Middle Tennessee) and a limited edition studio rarities CD.
Their first album even went double platinum. As their website boasts, "they have also received extensive radio airplay on contemporary Christian, mainstream alternative rock and alternative pop stations resulting in 10 No. 1 singles." Who would have guessed that it all started out as a bit of fun?
Fairly similar are male band Bleach. They, too, released their third studio album during 1999, called "Bleach", after "Space" in 1996 and "Static" in 1998. They are described as a mixture of power pop and rock, and their latest offering shows this best. Finally, last but certainly not least, are Nashville-based quintet Newsboys. Since their debut in 1988, eight albums have been released to their name with a Greatest Hits album taking the tally to nine. And they're certainly up to their job - the first album they produced themselves, "Step Up To The Microphone", resulted in four radio No. 1 hits.
Of course, this isn't all. There are a whole host of other acts in the Christian music field. Annual compilation CD, "WOW", which has been around for five years now, is a great snapshot of the diverse scope in the market. It's about time more people knew about this, so far largely undiscovered, collection of often very talented musicians. Increasingly, Christians and non-Christians alike are discovering the talent on offer here. What's clear is that you don't have to be a Christian to enjoy the music so, as one of V*enna's songs tells us, "don't get left behind".