All Together Separate,All Together Separate (Ardent)

My pick for new Christian group of the year, this California foursome blends funk, jazz, blues and rock with reflective lyrical depth for a mature and original debut. You'll spot traces of Seal, Bob Marley, Phish and Average White Band, but these guys own a groove all their own. Album highlights include "Eternal Lifestyle," a hot little number worth the price of admission, and "Something Electric," the musical equivalent of chocolate mousse. Guitarist Andrew Shirley has something electric when he catches fire on that song and "Truth about God"—the solo is back, ladies and gentlemen. Twentysomethings all, the boys of ATS have a head-turning first effort and a promising future.

Carolyn Arends,This Much I Understand (Reunion)

If you're not opposed to happy, hooky songs that occasionally get a little sappy or a bit sentimental, you'll dig Carolyn Arends' latest. The Canadian singer/songwriter has an uncanny ability to take on the weight of the world with a smile—and in today's bleaker-the-better pop music scene, that's nothing to sneeze at. In fact, the first song on This Much I Understand is titled "Happy." "The Day Will Never Come" affirms Arends' commitment to her husband without sidestepping the real world ("I may get selfish/I might get sad/I will forget sometimes just what I've had" she sings). "Life is Long" has a serious block party vibe going, a la Sheryl Crow. A thoroughly uplifting record from start to finish, This Much stands far above most "inspirational" music.

Jonatha Brooke, Live (Bad Dog)

Jonatha Brooke is among the finest contemporary folk artists around. You'll see how fine on Live (uh, that's "live" as in "live performance"), a composite of some of her best-loved songs and a few brand-new ones. Brooke has an exquisite ability to move her listeners into the bittersweet expanses of their own memories—and who can resist taking that trip? "Annie," a cut off Brooke's Ten Cent Wings (MCA), has an absolutely haunting melody, and "In the Gloaming" spreads an aching sense of loss. Live is perfect for those rainy afternoons when melancholy is the mood of choice.

Kenny Chesney, Everywhere We Go (BNA)

If you've been anywhere near country music lately, you're sure to have heard Kenny Chesney: "How Forever Feels," a cut off Everywhere We Go, gets played, oh, about every other song, and then sometimes twice in a row. With an ever-present cowboy hat and a good-natured grin, Chesney looks like the boy-next-door (the one you're slightly worried might take a shine to your daughter). Looks aside, Chesney has a great album on his hands. While every song could be a hit single, "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy," cowritten by ersatz Christian country artist Paul Overstreet, and "Baptism," a duet with Randy Travis, are knockouts.

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Bruce Cockburn,Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (Rykodisc)

The ever mystical and prolific Bruce Cockburn has been drifting along the edges of Christian music for years now, never quite Christian enough to be acknowledged in CCM (his best-known line: "Everything is bulls__t but the open hand"), but often profoundly Christian nonetheless. Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu visits Cockburn's usual subjects—women, exotic locales, "aha" moments—but with a world music flavor; his songs drift in and out like scents from an open-air market. Especially appetizing are Cockburn's three instrumental pieces and his meandering song intros, but most everything on Breakfast will leave you craving more.

Lyle Lovett, Live in Texas (MCA)

Lyle Lovett, most widely known for his brief marriage to Julia Roberts and his distinctive jaw line, is an extraordinarily gifted singer, songwriter (and indie actor) who most often mines hard luck, tough love, and Lutheran roots for subject matter. Unlike 1998's subdued Step Inside This House (MCA/Curb), a graceful tribute to Texas musicians, Live in Texas is energetic, brassy and more carefree. Lovett's got a stage full of talent in his "large band," performing greatest hits like "Penguins" and my personal favorite, "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)"—"But Texas wants you anyway." Texan or not, you'll have a hard time disliking Live.

P.O.D. (Payable on Death),The Fundamental Elements of Southtown (Atlantic)

After slinking around the Christian underworld for a few years and building a loyal following, P.O.D. finds its stride with a major-label release on Atlantic records. And with the rapcore revolution in full swing, this hard-hitting group is likely to share in the success of artists like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit. But get this: While Bizkit frontman Fred Durst rants about sex, P.O.D. is all God. Rapper/screamer Sonny leads the charge—"Jah people ride on!"—and it's never been so convincing. With a blazing remake of U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky" and the crowd-pleaser "Rock the Party (off the Hook)," Fundamental's the Spirit-filled way to thrash.

Switchfoot, New Way to Be Human (re:think)

Introspective lyrics and Christian history references aren't what you'd expect from three surfing buddies. But that's what you get with Switchfoot. Brothers Jon and Tim Foreman and pal Chad Butler first revealed their distinctive brand of modern rock a couple of years ago with their debut, enigmatically named The Legend of Chin (re:think). On New Way, they put away the silly titles (though good friend Willis Chin still gets mentioned in the thank yous) and bring up serious subject matter. Try "Sooner or Later," a song about Søren Kierkegaard's so-called "leap of faith." Or "Something More," a quickie bio of St. Augustine. Pretty weighty, but Switchfoot packages it all into a record that's a heck of a lot of fun.

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Various Artists, Streams (Word)

The best compilation of 1999 also happens to be the most ambitious: take some of the top artists in Christian music, add Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers), Jon Anderson (Yes) and the Irish Film Orchestra, throw in a classic Peter Gabriel tune and a host of songs written by producer Brent Bourgeois, Michelle Tumes and others—still with me?—and plug it as "A Soundtrack of Hope" for dried-up, broken-down and disappointed people. Somehow, Bourgeois and friends pull off a work that's astonishingly beautiful and truly cathartic. There is a healing water that courses through Streams, as real as the cracked lives it's meant to refresh.

Tom Waits,Mule Variations (Epitaph)

Tom Waits has been around long enough to become an institution, but oddly enough, nothing about the man suggests status quo. For starters, Waits is on a label full of street-level punk bands (his style isn't remotely punk). The songs on Mule Variations are offbeat, with percussion Waits might have found lying around the garage. The spoken poem "What's He Building?" is a spooky and side-splitting take on reclusive neighbors. "Chocolate Jesus" pokes fun at pop Christianity, and "Big in Japan" should have been dedicated to Richard Carpenter. Waits has a crass, gnarled voice, so you'll either love him or hate him, but Mule Variations is worth the chance.

The Worst of 1999:

Romans Downey and Phil Coulter, Healing Angel

This album wouldn't be bad—it's meditative Celtic music, featuring some outstanding vocalists—if Romans Downey didn't keep interrupting. TV's Touched by an Angel star talks over each and every song (even the ancient hymn "Be Thou My Vision"), delivering mostly pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo in that patented Irish accent. Granted, she has a pleasant, even mellifluous voice; but who can stomach an album full of lines like this: "Be aware before embarking on your heart's voyage of discovery that there will be stormy seas and troubled waters before you reach the island paradise of your dreams" ("Loving")? Yeah, whatever. All I know is, I never want to take a voyage through Healing Angel again.Martin Cockroft is Assistant Editor for Campus Life magazine.

Related Elsewhere

For a second opinion, read today's other article on the top recordings of 1999, by Dwight Ozard.