Trusting his instincts and leaning into his faith spurred this veteran artist to make the most personal album of his career with The Elements. “I let go of worrying about the charts and if I’m good enough – things that come along with the business of artistry,” TobyMac says of his new approach. “The most important thing to me now is when I walk into a studio to record a song ‘does it make you feel something?’ And, is there a reason for it to exist in this world?”
Processing life as an artist, husband and father of five has continually fueled his work and made TobyMac one of the most successful innovators in any genre of music with 7 GRAMMY® Awards, 6 Gold Records from his solo career, an American Music award, twice named Artist of the year at the Dove awards, BMI songwriter of the year and numerous other accolades to his credit. “I just need U.,” the lead single from The Elements, spent 12 weeks at the top of the charts making it the fastest charting single of his career. “I knew it was something fresh for me from a lyrical standpoint,” he says. “I knew it was intriguing and said exactly what I wanted to say. There’s depth and maturity to it. At some point, you have to look up and say, ‘If I’m not offering people some wisdom from the journey that I’ve been on, then I might as well hang up the cleats.’ It’s my responsibility to offer people wisdom from the road I’ve traveled. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I have to depth to offer right now.”
TobyMac admits that in the past he’s been “the king of the features,” as he usually includes multiple special guests on his albums, but The Elements is different. “I do truly love collaboration,” he says, “but these songs are so personal, it was hard for me to imagine someone else singing the lyrics.”
Among the most personal songs on the record, and one of TobyMac’s very favorites, is “Scars.” “I love ‘Scars.’ It is a different melody for me. It was kind of cool to keep it real low key,” he says. “It’s the closest song to me on the record. I had a few people in mind when I wrote it, but subconsciously I started focusing on my first-born son. For the first time in my life I found myself sending ships of out the harbor–up to now our family and home have been the harbor. The people I love the most are going out there facing all the pain, struggle and temptation this crazy world brings. It can be so hard to watch. I’m very aware of the scars that come with life’s journey but sometimes we insulate those from our children—so to see them go out and there and do this real world is painful. I wanted to let him know that I’m here for him and even bigger than that, God is there for him. You are not alone—so lift your head up my son—to where your help comes from.”
“Starts with Me” is one of those very personal offerings, and yet he knew it would be even stronger with another voice. He invited Aaron Cole to join in and each man shares their unique perspective on race and family legacy. “I think that coming from both perspectives is important,” he notes. “We say some bold things about how we’re all reared, and about the households we were raised in. The type of things that were passed down to us from generation to generation. We weren’t shy about saying exactly what we both experienced, but at the end of the day we agreed on the importance of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. And it has to start with me. I really believe that individual change leads to societal change–relationships with people who are not like us is where the change begins. These relationships are not the sole answer, but they will lead us to the answers. That is how we will change the culture.”
For everyone out there in the world braving the elements, TobyMac has served up a musical invitation to stand firm and let go of the worry that can beat a soul down. To find strength in faith and love in family. “I want to write songs that move people toward each other, out of isolation and into dialog, I want to encourage people to rise up against the elements.”
Alternative CCM rockers Skillet formed in Memphis, Tennessee, around the nucleus of lead singer and bassist John Cooper, guitarist Ken Steorts, and drummer Trey McClurkin. Debuting in 1996 with a self-titled LP, the trio returned two years later with Hey You, I Love Your Soul. Invincible followed in early 2000, and the group contributed three tracks to the Ardent Worship: Skillet Live compilation that same year. With a new lineup of Cooper on bass and lead vocals, his wife Korey Cooper on guitar and keyboards, Ben Kasica on guitar, and Lori Peters on drums, Skillet released Alien Youth on Ardent Records in 2001, followed by Collide, also on Ardent, in 2003. The latter album was then picked up by Lava/Atlantic and reissued the following year with a bonus track. Collide went on to be the band’s best-selling album to date (even earning a Grammy nomination), and Skillet supported the record on tours with bands like Saliva and Shinedown. Skillet’s next effort for the label, Comatose, appeared in fall 2006, followed by Awake in 2009 and Rise in 2013. A compilation album, Vital Signs, was released in 2014 to introduce the band to European audiences. Skillet’s ninth album, Unleashed, followed in 2016 and was bolstered by a deluxe version, Unleashed Beyond, which arrived in late 2017 and featured five new songs, including “Breaking Free” with Lacey Sturm. ~ Jason Ankeny & Steve Leggett, Rovi
One of Christian rock’s most enduring bands, Australia’s Newsboys first rose to popularity in the 1990s, becoming perennial chart-toppers with a global audience who followed them through three distinctive eras all led by different frontmen. After building their foundation with singer John James, they enjoyed a second decade of mainstream pop success in the 2000s behind Peter Furler, who was himself succeeded by another Christian legend in dc Talk’s Michael Tait in 2010. Along the way they experimented with various facets of rock, pop, and more straightforward worship music, notching various Grammy nominations, gold records, and over 30 number one singles. An expanded lineup eventually coalesced after Furler’s return, resulting in the Furler/Tait-fronted supergroup Newsboys United who issued a studio album in 2019.
Newsboys formed in the Queensland resort town of Mooloolaba in the late ’80s around a core membership of John James, Peter Furler, and Phil Joel. Though early in its career the band was panned for a perceived over-reliance on religious clichés in its lyrics, Newsboys later grasped secular music’s alternative revolution in the early ’90s for an image makeover, with good results. With James on lead vocals and a secure guitarist, Jody Davis, in place the group gained a string of number one singles on the Christian charts in the mid-’90s and received more coverage in secular media outlets than most CCM bands of their time. In 1998, after six albums withe band he helped found, James departed and Furler took over as frontman on Step Up to the Microphone, the group’s first album for major-label Virgin. The ’70s-inspired Love Liberty Disco appeared a year later. In celebration of the new millennium, Newsboys also observed their own career with the greatest-hits package Shine…The Hits, issued in fall 2000. Their most elaborate work to date, Thrive, was issued in spring 2002 and led to one of their biggest CCM hits ever, “It Is You.”
The band issued Adoration: The Worship Album in April 2003. The record included both originals and Newsboys versions of well-known worship songs. Guitarist Davis left Newsboys in late 2003 in order to care for his daughter, Bethany, and Bryan Olesen took his place for a little over a year. He left in 2004 to work on his own band, Casting Pearls, just after Newsboys released their second worship album, Devotion. Paul Coleman, an Aussie singer/songwriter, came aboard as the band’s new guitarist, and the next two years found the band touring the globe and working on the songs that would become its first pop album in four years, Go. That album, released in October 2006, was the first to be released on the band’s own Inpop Records and the last to feature founding member Joel, who left shortly afterward.
At the beginning of 2009, after a year of touring, Coleman left the band to go back to his solo career and Jody Davis returned. More shockingly perhaps, Furler announced soon afterwards that he was going to scale back his involvement in Newsboys, no longer touring with them but instead staying behind the scenes as a songwriter/vocalist. His replacement came from one of the other titans of Christian rock, namely Michael Tait of dc Talk. Before Tait took over entirely, the band released one last album with Furler as lead singer, In the Hands of God, in May of 2009. By September of that year Furler was gone and Tait took over vocals for the band’s next album, 2010’s Born Again, which debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200. The new-look Tait-led Newsboys returned in 2011 with the studio album God’s Not Dead, and in 2013 they issued the well-received Restart, their 16th studio LP. Another worship album, the hymn-centric Hallelujah for the Cross arrived in 2013, followed in 2016 by Love Riot, which saw Newsboys heading back in a pop-oriented direction. A year later, both Furler and Joel joined up with the group for the lengthy Newsboys United retrospective tour. Parlaying the tour’s success into a new studio release, this expanded version of the band — billed as Newsboys United — issued the United LP in the spring of 2019. ~ John Bush
One of the many groups affiliated with the Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, Hillsong Young & Free release worship music with a target audience of teens. Announced in 2012, the group issued the singles “Alive,” “Awake,” and the Spanish-language “Vivo Estás,” all in 2013. Filled with dance beats and teen pop anthems, their debut album, We Are Young & Free, arrived later in the year, featuring production from Hillsong veteran Michael-Guy Chislett. In early 2016 they released their sophomore album, Youth Revival, which peaked at number two on the Billboard U.S. Top Christian Albums chart and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album. A year later they returned with an acoustic rendering of the same album called Youth Revival Acoustic. The single “P E A C E” appeared in 2018. ~ David Jeffries
New York City-based rap and hip-hop artist Andy Mineo makes progressive, electronic-influenced hip-hop. Raised in Syracuse, Mineo began rapping and producing albums in his home studio while still in high school. Originally going by the stage name of C-Lite, Mineo was signed to Syracuse University’s Marshall Street Records and opened for such acts as the Roots and Common. While in college, he reconnected with his faith via a meeting with producer Alex Medina and the urban evangelism project T.R.U.C.E. He was soon touring with T.R.U.C.E., and in 2009 released his first mixtape, Sin Is Wack, Vol. 1. In 2011, Mineo signed with Reach Records and dropped the moniker C-Lite in favor of his actual name. That same year he released his second mixtape, Formerly Known. In 2013, Mineo returned with his proper full-length studio album, Heroes for Sale. In 2014 he released the EP Never Land, and 2015 saw the release of the hit single “Lay Up” along with the album Uncomfortable. Two years later, Mineo joined Wordsplayed for the collaborative mixtape Magic and Bird. Peaking inside the Top 50 of the Billboard 200, the effort featured the singles “Dunk Contest” and “Judo.” The next year, Mineo scored gold certification for the single “You Can’t Stop Me” with Messiah. The same month, he issued the EP I: The Arrow, which featured two songs with Weatherman, and included the single “I Ain’t Done.” ~ Matt Collar
Jordan Feliz is a Billboard-charting contemporary Christian pop singer and songwriter. His sound walks the line between classic rock, slick retro ’70s R&B, and modern pop. Feliz grew up in Clovis, California and began his formal musical career with faith-based hard rock/screamo band A Current Affair in 2006. The band’s debut EP, Life in an Hourglass, offered a seamless screamo sound. It was followed by the Josh Auer-produced The Real Devastation EP in 2009.
Feliz left the group and relocated to Nashville in 2012. After a series of part-time jobs working as, among other things, a handyman to a valet, he became a church worship leader. In 2014, he was invited to participate in an unsigned artists’ retreat hosted by Centricity Music, and was promptly signed by the label. He began recording his debut album in February with producers Colby Wedgeworth (Lincoln Brewster, the Main, Lydia) and Josh Silverberg (Newsboys, Plumb). They finished in July. His first single, “The River,” was issued the same month, and he also became a father that September.
“The River” claimed the top spot on the Christian AC Songs chart and remained there for ten weeks. His Beloved EP was released in October and entered the Heatseekers chart at number 12, eventually earning the top spot and remaining there for eight weeks. The follow-up single, “Never Too Far Gone,” was released in March, landing inside the Top 20. His debut full-length, The River, was issued in April 2016 along with third single “Best of Me.” The album entered the Christian Albums chart at number four and garnered a Dove nomination for Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year. The EP 1 Mic 1 Take, a live acoustic session recorded at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, arrived the following year. In 2018, Feliz returned with his sophomore full-length album, Future, featuring the single “Witness.” ~ Thom Jurek
Born Kevin Elijah Burgess, Florida rapper KB exploded on the Christian hip-hop scene in 2012, topping the U.S. Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart with his debut effort, Weight & Glory. A troubled teen in high school, KB was saved by a Christian rap CD a friend gave him, and after one listen, he was on his way to a career in hip-hop for the Lord. Unfamiliar with the Christian rap scene, KB recorded demos with no network to hear them, but throwing his tracks on video-sharing sites and other social media gained the rapper a loyal following. Superstar Lecrae caught wind, took KB on tour as an opening act, and five shows in, KB was offered a contract with Lecrae’s label, Reach. The mixtape Who Is KB? followed in 2011 with KB’s official debut, Weight & Glory, landing a year later. The EP 100 followed in 2014, featuring a guest appearance from Andy Mineo. In 2015, KB delivered his second studio album, Tomorrow We Live, featuring contributions from Lecrae, Mattie, and professional golfer Bubba Watson. Two years later, as if in response, KB delivered Today We Rebel, his third LP, which again featured Lecrae and Andy Mineo, as well as guest spots from Aha Gazelle, Casey J., and others. ~ David Jeffries
U.S.-based English vocalist/drummer Jennifer Carole Ledger secured a life-changing role as the drummer of Christian hard rock outfit Skillet when she was still a teenager. After a decade with the band, she took her first steps as a solo artist with her debut EP, Ledger. Born in Coventry, England in 1989, Ledger moved to Wisconsin at 16. In addition to her high school studies, she also drummed with the band at her local church, which is where she was discovered by Skillet’s husband-and-wife duo John and Korey Cooper. With the then-recent departure of their drummer Lori Peters, the Coopers encouraged Ledger to audition for the spot, which she got in 2008. From the church stage to arenas, Ledger’s first outing with Skillet was on their Comatose Tour. Over the following decade, Ledger and the band released and toured behind Awake (2009), Rise (2013), and Unleashed (2016). In addition to her work behind the drum kit, Ledger also contributed vocals to each album with increased frequency. Under the guidance of the Coopers, she began to form ideas for a solo project as early as 2012. That music wouldn’t be fully realized until 2018 with the release of her first effort, Ledger (Atlantic/Hear It Loud). Produced with Korey Cooper, the defiant set of pop-influenced rock anthems was elevated by Ledger’s vocals, a stirring blend similar to Lacey Sturm, Cassadee Pope, and Hayley Williams. The set debuted just outside Billboard’s Top 50, rising as high as number two on the Christian chart and number seven on the overall Rock ranking. To promote the EP, Ledger pulled double duty on the road, opening for (and later playing with) Skillet on their joy.UNLEASHED 2018 tour. ~ Neil Z. Yeung, Rovi
Born on October 19, 1991 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, singer/songwriter Colton Dixon first caught the public’s attention on season 11 of American Idol. The guitar-playing, golden-maned Dixon’s soaring vocals and upfront spirituality connected with audiences enough to secure a seventh-place finish, and it didn’t take long for the charismatic rocker to land a record deal. The resulting A Messenger, his debut for Sparrow Records, was released in 2013 and quickly rose to #15 on the Billboard Top 200 and #1 on the Christian Album chart. With newly raised stakes, he fared similarly well with his 2014 follow-up, Anchor which also topped the Christian chart and featured the hit single “More of You.” Tours with major artists like TobyMac, Third Day, and Casting Crowns helped increase his profile as a popular concert act. In 2015, Dixon released The Calm Before the Storm, an album which combined two previously released EP’s: the all-acoustic Calm and a set of remixes called Storm. Early in 2017, Dixon released the single “All That Matters,” a preface to his third full album Identity, which was released by Sparrow that March. ~ James Christopher Monger