In the spirit of our first annual Readers' Choice Awards, we decided to weigh in on the best artists of the year. So rounding out our year-end coverage are four more short lists. Best Female and Male Vocalist are awarded for specific talent, based on an artist's album and/or concert performance in the year 2003. Best Solo Artist is given to any one person who exemplified any combination of songwriting, performance, conduct, and impact. Best Band or Group similarly looks at the whole package for any artist consisting of two or more members.
Best Female Vocalist
Listen to this versatile young woman sing (or speak for that matter) and try to remember that she's still in her late teens. One track she's bopping like a tween pop idol, the next she's croon-rocking like Gwen Stefani. Her real strength, however, is heard during the soulful R&B songs. And she's not just preaching to the choir; Orrico also had tremendous success in the mainstream market in '03.
Unquestionably one of our day's finest vocalists. She nails it again with a live recording that's electrifying and soul stirring from beginning to end—exactly what you'd hope for from such a talent on such an album. There's nothing studio manipulated in this performance, and yes, Mullen's "Redeemer" is still as moving as it ever was.
Out of the Grey's more vocal half has long been considered one of the finest voices in Christian pop. In 2003, Denté gave one of her most tender performances yet with her solo debut, Becoming. Unfortunately, it's going mostly ignored. Trust us—this is good adult contemporary from a gifted singer/songwriter.
4. Amy Grant
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. It may not have recaptured her glory days, but after listening to Simple Things, thousands of fans still found themselves waxing nostalgic over Grant's soft and familiar voice. The world seems righter now that this legendary Christian artist is back where she belongs, singing pop again.
An oft underrated vocalist, the enduringly faithful and popular music minister filled out the year with even more seemingly tireless touring while turning in a fine theatrical debut in !Hero: The Rock Opera. The fact that St. James made the list without releasing an original album in 2003 speaks well of her gifts.
Best Male Vocalist
Surprised? I think we were too, but man, can this guy sing. More powerful than the usual whiny rock singer. More controlled than a warbling Kevin Max. Able to leap giant Bono-like vocal ranges in a single bound. "Look! Up in the sky! …" Eh, just buy one of downhere's albums and hear Martel for yourself.
There was a time when most considered Foreman a mediocre alternative rock vocalist at best. Go back over Switchfoot's discography and listen to how this guy's developed since. For that matter, watch him deliver in concert and try to come away unaffected. Foreman told us it all stems from his passion for the band's message. We believe him.
We're all familiar with dc Talk's smooth and velvety third, and he continues to shape his voice in his new band, ranging from rock to pop standard—his Nat King Cole-styled croon for "The Christmas Song" is near perfect. But his biggest accomplishment for 2003 is his impressive turn in the lead role of !Hero: The Rock Opera. (So, Michael, have you thought of doing more theater?)
4. Derek Webb
Everyone knew this guy could sing from his days with Caedmon's Call. Now that he's solo, we get to hear him that much more. An album of songs that lovingly criticize the church is a delicate balance, not just in songwriting but also in performance. Webb's delivery is neither angry nor spineless—he sells his message here with strength and confidence.
5. Jeremy Camp
Some would say that his gravelly, neo-grunge Scott Stapp impersonation is nothing that hasn't been imitated by many others. To use it to convincingly sing about unwavering faith in light of loss, however, is truly something special. It was a big year for Camp; expect 2004 to be even bigger for him with two more albums on the way.
Best Band or Group
No surprise here. A terrific live band and a solid album with The Beautiful Letdown. Nearly a year after its release, it's finally gaining momentum with considerable airplay on radio and television, and a Top 50 spot on Billboard's album charts. It's all well deserved, with a fairly open spiritual message to boot. Switchfoot, welcome to the Roaring Lamb ranks!
2. Jars of Clay
These guys are always stretching artistically, both in their songwriting and in keeping their live show fresh. Lead singer Dan Haseltine told us recently that it felt like the band had "come home" in its return to rootsy, folksy, bluesy music. Apparently so, since Jars has probably never sounded as sure of themselves as they have on the aptly titled Who We Are Instead. Now we know—this is a great rock band, but also a strong folk group.
One can't help but get excited listening to these guys. And yes, they are this good live—expect a gospel/blues/rocking good time if you see them. The band is tight from every angle, but Randolph shines the most. He's to the pedal steel as Hendrix/Keaggy are to the electric, or Parkening/Segovia to the acoustic. In other words, a master of his craft.
Our contributors are in agreement that Payable on Death is not this band's best work. That certainly doesn't make it a bad album. P.O.D. remains a powerful live act, continuing to serve as one of Christianity's greatest musical ambassadors (despite the ban of their new album from most Christian bookstores). Also, we suspect they've only scratched the surface of potential with the addition of guitarist Jason Truby.
5. Sleeping at Last
About everyone we've personally shared this band with has been impressed after hearing Ghosts. Anthemic rock, inspired melodies, soaring vocals, powerful guitars, delicate strings, spiritually inspired poetry … what's not to like? Whether or not it's this year, it'll only be a matter of time before Sleeping at Last catches on.
Best Solo Artist
It's been a very good year for Stacie Orrico. Those expecting just another teen album were pleasantly surprised with her sophomore effort—as was the mainstream, gauging by the tremendous response. Displaying talent, maturity, and grace, it again goes to show that one can successfully cross over while still keeping the Christian faith intact.
2. Derek Webb
As much as we love Caedmon's Call, Derek managed to outshine his old band's most recent project with She Must and Shall Go Free. It's missing Caedmon's trademark eclecticism, but the songwriting and musicianship are as brilliant as ever. Though it'd be nice to see Webb rejoin his friends someday, here's hoping the solo career is just getting started.
It's no secret that Paquette is a favorite among our staff, but we have to honor her one last time for 2003. Best Solo Artist is awarded to those who offer the best all-around package. This newcomer has the voice, musicianship, and songwriting to back that up. Perhaps the most impressive new songwriter since Sara Groves.
Here's a paradox: as Andrew continues to improve as a songwriter, he seems to gather less attention. The folk pop sound hasn't changed much since Carried Along, and he's got the same warm everyman vocal. If anything, his insight and lyricism have only become more brilliant with Love & Thunder, turning a phrase as well as anyone we know.
5. Amy Grant
A welcome "comeback" of sorts for the popular artist, and we hope the wait won't be so long in the future. After a few years out of the limelight dealing with personal issues, Grant bounces back with openness, honesty, and vulnerability on Simple Things—a true example of what grace and forgiveness is all about.
All lists compiled by Russ Breimeier, Mark Moring, Michael Herman, and Andy Argyrakis.