1. HYMNS - Beth Nielsen Chapman
Style: Mostly a cappella, mostly Latin pre-Vatican II Catholic hymns.
Worldview: "These are the songs of my childhood and spiritual roots. They center me, even as I believe faith to be something beyond the boundaries of any one religion" (from the notes).
Overall quality: The haunting simplicity of the vocals goes a long way toward overcoming not only the music's cultural and religious insularity but also Ms. Chapman's frustrating syncretism.
2. REQUEST - Pat Flynn
Style: Singer-songwriterly folk with bluegrass roots.
Worldview: "And the Word was full of power, / and its sound created all the universe. / And the Word was grace and glory come down to live and walk upon the earth" ("The Word").
Overall quality: Appealingly blends the sacred (several of Mr. Flynn's originals) and the secular (covers of the Band and Peter, Paul and Mary) to toe-tapping tempos and easy-going acoustic virtuosity.
3. STARS IN THE SAND - Jeffrey Foskett
Style: Classic Beach Boys-style pop, with tips of the hat to Marshall Crenshaw, Chicago, and Phil Spector.
Worldview: "The whole of man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy" (C.S. Lewis liner quote).
Overall quality: The sincerest form of flattery that a former Beach Boy touring-band member and current Brian Wilson musical director can lay at the feet of the aural endless summer that is the California sound.
4. STILLHOUSE ROAD - Julie Lee
Style: Subtly quirky singer-songwriterly folk, with echoes of Appalachia and the Roches.
Worldview: "Jesus, He's my man. / Though it's black as coal down here, / it's as light to Him" ("He's My Man"); "Now I'm like the grave at Resurrection, / after the stone was rolled way, / and . . . I'll never be the same" ("Your Love").
Overall quality: So high that one barely notices Alison Krauss on her two cameos.
5. DEAR LIFE, - Bill Mallonee
Style: Verbally intricate acoustic folk.
Worldview: "Jesus never makes mistakes. / He has never given up / on anything that He has made. / He will chase you like a lover / right through heaven's gate" ("I Will Never Be Normal [after This]").
Overall quality: The latest installment in Mr. Mallonee's often rewarding quest to twist confessional verse into vernacular metaphysical poetry.
In the spotlight
For years, Christian pop-music expression took two main forms: Contemporary Christian Music or "stealth" CCM on secular labels. Now, however, perhaps resulting from a greater understanding among Christian musicians of the relationship between faith and art, the breakdown of traditional pop categories, and the increasing complexity of contemporary life, creative "God music" pops up in unexpected places. And often, because those places lie off the beaten path, their soil tends to prove surprisingly fruitful.
Although none of the five albums described above packs the esthetic or spiritual wallop of Gavin Bryars's 1994 out-of-left-field minimalist masterpiece Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, each defies categorization with a nonchalance suggestive of the peace that passes understanding. Taken together, they also demonstrate the compatibility of serious Christian expression (or at least serious Christian underpinnings) with more genres than used to be dreamt of in the typical Christian musician's philosophy. As such, they're valuable both as models and as vessels of the gospel.