Beginning as a book review, this thread on religion-inspired music was one of the Dish's most popular this summer. To recap: Sufjan Stevens, The Hold Steady, Belle & Sebastian, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Mountain Goats, Starflyer 59, Nick Cave, Black Sabbath, The Velvet Underground, mewithoutYou, Mogwai, Matisyahu, Derek Webb, and The Innocence Mission. Further discussion and music here, here, here, and here. Below are a half dozen more emails. Thanks to everyone who contributed, posted or not. A reader writes:
Low is a Minnesotan group led by a Mormon husband and wife. Their song "Murderer" wrestles with the darker side of God seen in the Old Testament (at least, that's what I get out of it). The Danielson Famile also involves a husband and wife, as well as siblings. And Sufjan Stevens used to play with them. Their song "Did I Step on your Trumpet?" has a cute video. Additionally, when the lead singer of the Danielson Famile performs solo, he uses the name Brother Danielson. And as wikipedia says, he wears "a nine-foot tall, hand-made nine-fruit tree to 'bear the good fruit'" Whether or not this passes the sniff test perhaps depends on what exactly you're sniffing.
I know you're sorting through lots of recommendations, but I had to email you about two of my favorite Christian bands of all time: Poor Old Lu and The Prayer Chain.
Besides producing some damn good music, Poor Old Lu was friends with the lead singer of Sunny Day Real Estate - he joined them on one of their songs, "Straight Six". And they had pretty cool video with dancing chefs, "Sit And Stare". Like every good Christian band (see Sixpence None the Richer), they pulled their name from a CS Lewis Book (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). And like every good Christian band, they never got any recognition.
Besides having members that went on to play with Starflyer 59, The Prayer Chain really is a perfect example of the 90's Christian underground. They were successful enough to have an album, Mercury, released on a secular label, though I don't think anyone ever paid any attention (here's "Bendy Line.") In my mind, their music will always be tied to one song, "Never Enough."
In your search for good Christian music, you may want to look to those who have associated with Sufjan. For example, check out Anathallo. YouTube is blocked for me at work or I'd direct you to a video, but you should be able to find "Italo" or, if memory serves, one of the Mr. Hasankajiji songs, subtitled "A Great Wind, More Ash". Ooh, or "Bells", which is another great track. I also have some great memories of growing up listening to Christian ska (yes, yes, I know, but no judgments, please), especially Five Iron Frenzy.
You've been identifying most artists I'd contribute (glad I just saw The Innocence Mission), but here are several more. First, Over the Rhine, primarily a husband and wife duo, is a sure thing. I discovered them while I was a student at an evangelical Christian college. Read a brief introduction to the band here. The following two youtube videos give you a little taste: "Poughkeepsie" and "Drunkard's Prayer."
The second artist I'll mention is Jeremy Enigk. His Christian spirituality comes through deeply if obliquely. A review I found before he released my favorite album, World Waits, is here. He was the lead singer of Sunny Day Real Estate and their music is very much worth checking out. Here he performs two songs off the World Waits album: "River to Sea" and "Canons".
Patty Griffin is a famous artist whom you've likely heard of. She's a Christian and her songs are quite spiritual. I recommend "Forgiveness", "Nobody's Crying", Mother of God, and All Creatures of Our God and King.
Some artists with lyrics generally more overtly religious and with closer roots to evangelicalism that I still return to are Michael Card, Rich Mullins (deceased), Keith Green (deceased), The Violet Burning, and Michael Knott (formerly of Life Savers Underground). Michael Card feels like he's grown the closest to liturgical forms of Christianity over the years. I found a pretty good version of my favorite "God's Own Fool". Rich Mullins' music feels so sincere and devout. Check out two videos of my favorite songs: "Hold Me Jesus" and "If I Stand".
Keith Green may be a bit too evangelical and charismatic for you, but he's revered by those who know of him. I couldn't find a good live version of the "Prodigal Son Suite", but "Make My Life A Prayer To You" gives you an idea (though you might want to skip the mini-sermon at the end). I couldn't find any good videos of "The Violet Burning". Lastly, Michael Knott is a true iconoclast. I found a peculiar version of "Christ Saves".
Forgive me my music snobbery but when I hear the word "hip", the soft-rock sound of David Bazan isn't exactly the first artist to spring to mind. I lean more towards the disjointed, surrealist Hip-Hop of the California indie rap/folk act Soul Junk. Talk about hip--I can't think of another contemporary Christian act who would dare to sound as "now" as they do in the song "Prophecies". I find their stance inside the Christian rock genre braver than most because, let's face it, these deconstructed rap tunes can't really be played on acoustic guitars during Youth Services! The wordplay is dense and difficult to decipher (and let's not even get into the curious song titles such as "Ungst Func Slag Collision".
But I find their talent that much more rewarding because one really has to sift through the layers of noise and distortion to reach their messages of faith. Ironically, this makes them almost impossible to market: too harsh for the general Christian audience and too versed in the Gospel for the tattooed hipster crowd. It's their loss; when Soul Junk is at the top of their game, I find them to be one of the best Hip Hop acts around.
As a self-described music snob (I have tattoos and skinny jeans... fine, call me a hipster), you listed some of my long-time favorite artists (Sufjan Stevens, The Mountain Goats, etc.). But I also discovered, or re-evaluated, some of the artists you've mentioned, and listened to their music in a new light. I'm a convinced atheist, but when art I can identify with and emotionally connect to is inspired by faith, or by doubt regarding the same, it intrigues me, and forces me to see the music in a new light. Your thread certainly accomplished that.
(Video: Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt" is hard to beat.)