Day 15: John, Mark, Michael, and Wayne's Top 20 albums of the 1990's
Every decade goes through an awkward stage of trying to find itself by separating from what was popular with the styles and trends. The 1990s were just that and so many adjustments had taken place. The big hair bands were on their way out with the replacement of a new era. What was once a land of artists with spandex and feminine make-up playing arena hard rock turned into a world of plaid and grunge music filled with distorted guitars, recalling days from the late 60's to early 70's. Techno Alternative arists were enjoying new success with bands like Code of Ethics, Painted Orange, DBA, Joy Electric, and Technokraci. Some of the most memorable albums came from Forefront during this decade, with releases from Rebecca St. James, Skillet, dc Talk, Audio Adrenaline, and Bleach.
Multiple Christian artists were receiving more acceptance from the mainstream media. Amy Grant's Heart in Motion began the decade as a multi-Platinum success, with songs like "Baby, Baby" and "Every Heartbeat." Steven Curtis Chapman brought many Gold and Platinum releases like The Great Adventure and Speechless. Michael W. Smith provided many songs that received mainstream airplay ("Place in this World", "I Will be here for You") and also had a song, "In My Arms Again", that he hoped would be used in James Cameron's Titanic. Jars of Clay's multi-Platinum self-titled release seemed like it was never going to slow down with the
endless rotation of "Flood", the song everyone fell in love with at the time. Little did we know that this band would continue to create some of the best albums we'd ever hear. dc Talk began as a prominent rap band, along with other rappers like P.I.D (Preachers In Disguise -not be confused with P.O.D.) in the late 80s/early 90s, however, their real journey began with Jesus Freak and Supernatural with the infusion of rock and alternative overtones. As well as being an outstanding artist and releasing what many proclaim his best release (Squint), Steve Taylor was able to work in partnership with some the best releases from Newsboys
(Going Public, Take Me to Your Leader), Guardian (Buzz, Bottle Rocket), and Sixpence None the Richer's self-titled album.
Compact Discs were becoming the preferred format as Cassette Tapes were on their way out. Unlike today, due to the fragile nature and lack of portability, no one wanted anything to do with vinyl records- stores were doing anything and everything to get rid of them; selling them for as low as $1.00! The 90's were a time when you had to take a chance on buying albums as they didn't provide previews such as YouTube and Spotify. Frontline Records (also Intense Records), a once prominent label that generated alternative and metal music, had come to a tragic end. The decade then gave birth to Tooth and Nail Records, hailed by many as the defining moment, as revealed in our previous Top 20 lists.
Welcome to the 1990's, a time where music evolved into a new phase of metal, techno, alternative, grunge, ska, punk, pop, and hip hop.
Jars of Clay - Jars of Clay (1995)
Jars of Clay's epic certified double Platinum self-titled album did more than just make a personal impact on my life… it was one of those few CCM releases that made a big impact on the mainstream market at the same time as the Christian market. While no other songs on the record matched the mainstream-friendliness that "Flood" offered as a single, the whole album was full of catchy yet deep songs with spiritual themes that made a big impression on myself as a teenager in the 90s. It's a truly classic album that still sounds really good today (if not mostly for all of the history contained in its memorable songs).
Eric Champion - Transformation (1996)
I remember first purchasing this album. It was about four or five years ago, and I made the decision based entirely on John DiBiase's glowing review (which he wrote in 2006), with Eric Champion's name being totally unfamiliar. The first time I listened to it, I was awestruck and hooked (which is rare for me for the first time hearing an album). Transformation was very electronics-heavy, but it felt like a true rock album. It had several amazing hooks ("Dress Me Up" might have my favorite hook of all time), and it was lyrically dense. The problem with this album is that when if first came out, no one really knew what to do with it, because it sounded so different from any other pop, rock, or electronic album anyone had ever heard in the CCM. So it was more or less ignored, and
Champion only made one more album before quietly fading into the background. But it wasn't long afterwards that albums similar to Transformation became becoming increasingly popular, and nowadays electro-rock or electro-pop albums are everywhere. But even now, Transformation sounds better than the vast majority of them. It was truly ahead of its time.
Newsboys - Take Me To Your Leader (1995)
1995-1997 were three of the absolute biggest years in Christian music history. Right in the middle of that timeline was the Newsboys' Take Me to Your Leader. At this point I was just getting into rock music and really liked "Shine," but did't not know much else about the Australian band. This album changed all of that. Really, every song on this album is a hit. You have a lot of quirkiness involved, but musically and lyrically everything is so good. Big rockers like "God is Not a Secret" and "Cup O' Tea" give the album a lot of energy, while the more comedic, yet serious, "Take Me to Your Leader," "Reality," and, fan favorite, "Breakfast" lighten the mood immensely. Perhaps the album hits strongest with it's final two tracks though. "Lost the Plot" is the best Newsboys
song ever written for my money. The apathy of so many involved in the Church is caught so perfectly. Following that is the extremely insightful worship "Breathe (Benediction)" comes across in a more powerful manner than the original. This is the best Newsboys album compiled in my personal opinion and definitely a highlight from 90's Christian music.
All Star United - All Star United (1997)
Lead singer Ian Eskelin was already an established solo artist at the time (and has been collaborating with many recent artists like Francesca Battistelli, Veridia and About A Mile). Many feel this album made a great impact with pop music in its day, with hits like "Beautiful Thing" and "Angels." From the beginning of the album, the listener knows they are in for quite a journey with the opening lyrics: "The question isn't whether it's true / The question, "Is it working for you?" / Marshmallow skies and custardy pies / And nothing's too hard to do". Do yourself a favor, if you listen to just a few albums from the 90's, this should be a mandatory choice.
Skillet - Skillet (1996)
If most current panheads were to listen to Skillet's self-titled debut, they would probably never guess it was Skillet (unless maybe they recognize John Cooper's voice). The mid-90's were a time when every (hyperbole) new rock band wanted to emulate Nirvana and grunge was everywhere, and Skillet's debut would undoubtedly fit in with that trend. But in spite of that fact, what Skillet achieved on their debut was remarkable. The dirty, underproduced, almost garageband-esque sound fits so well with Cooper's vocals that it is easy to forget than any other other bands have ever done this style. And this album can also probably lay claim to having some of the most memorable lyrics in Skillet's entire history (just try not singing along to the chorus of "Saturn" or "Gasoline"). The trio made
the most of all ten tracks, and there really isn't a weak one in the bunch.
Audio Adrenaline - Underdog (1999)
Anyone who's followed JFH since the 90's will remember that Audio Adrenaline has long since been my favorite band. While the band as I knew and loved it disbanded permanently in 2007, I had been a solid fan since hearing their album Don't Censor Me back in 1994 (and then they were my first real concert later that year). But as I grew older and Some Kind of Zombie wasn't quite the follow-up to Bloom that that album deserved, my devotion to the band began to wane a bit. However, in 1999, while I was in college, the pop rock sounds of Underdog struck a resounding chord with me. I'd always felt like an underdog myself, and I loved just about everything that this album had going for it. It also recaptured some of the magic from Don't Censor Me and Bloom but displayed growth in the band as well. It's still a fun record today, and one of the band's best.
Rebecca St. James - God (1996)
Rebecca (sister of the Smallbone brothers that comprise For King & Country) released a much edgier follow-up release to her self-titled album. Back in the 90's, before we had bands like Flyleaf or Fireflight, they didn't have too many female rock artists, other than Dakota Motor Co., Plumb or Sixpence None the Richer. It seemed the youth instantly fell in love with this artist's talent, and songs such as "God" and "That's What Matters." The album dealt with relevant issues, such as having courage ("You're the Voice") and patiently understanding God ("Speak to Me"). This project could actually be considered original praise and worship due to its lyrical content, and that's hardly a bad thing when it sounds this good.
dc Talk - Jesus Freak (1995)
This is the album that started it all. A small Angel Fire website and a revolution in Christian music. Borrowing from Nirvana (at least for the title track), dc Talk proved that Christian music can be cool. And good. If you read my blog about Jesus Freak's 20th anniversary last year, you already know how I feel about this album. It's inspired me, and countless others in so many different ways. For me, it instilled a love of music I had never known previously and has only grown since. For our own John DiBiase it inspired the force that is Jesusfreakhideout.com. Not many media websites like this, especially in the Christian industry, can say they've stuck it out for 20 straight years. This album will always hold a special place in Christian music history and in the lives of people who were touched by it. Song like "What if I Stumble," "So Help Me God," "Day By Day," and Charlie Peacock's "In the Light" highlight this wonderful album. I could honestly talk about how much I love this album for awhile. I'll simply leave it with this: Jesus Freak is one of the most influential albums in Christian music history and is certainly one of, the best albums of the 90's.
Steve Taylor - Squint (1993)
After a 6-year absence as a solo artist, it was no surprise that he still had his committed listeners awaiting Squint, as well as bringing a new fanbase. He was well prepared to blend into the new scene, complete with plaid clothing accompanied with new hairstyle. A Steve Taylor album usually requires multiple listening sessions, as he provide very thought-provoking songs with satire, humour, and hidden meanings. "Smug" deals with the arrogance that some people display towards others, without giving a second thought. "Curses," which is perhaps my favorite tune, in the words of Steve Taylor - "It was basically inspired by the experience with the band. Although our situations don't compare to some people's struggles, there were times when it was pretty tight, especially for the guys with kids.
That Psalm (38) was one that we came back to often in our prayers. I think it says 'I was young but now I am old and I've never seen the righteous forsaken, or their children out begging for bread.'" You will even hear Steve cover many of the big figures that were present in much of the media at this time, like Robert Tilton and Rush Limbaugh. Even though some of the songs deal with political or biblical issues, Steve Taylor even provides a song that displays the very experience that he had with the music industry, with the surprisingly light-toned "Sock Heaven". Squint is easily one his best albums next to Meltdown and I Predict 1990.
johnny Q. public - extra*ordinary (1995)
exra*ordinary, opens with "Preacher's Kid," which is quite an emotional song about a child crying out for help and asking for answers. JQP came out of nowhere with this phenomenal album on Gotee Records (founded by TobyMac). This band took a risk, because very little of the material was commercial friendly; although they had some fame with their song "Body Be," which received a lot of airplay and video play on MTV. "As I Pray" could have just as easily blended in quite well with songs from the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden. Probably the best album from a band few knew about and every time I listen to extra*ordinary, I can't grasp why this band didn't gain more recognition as the talent is there and it's one of the few albums that can be played in its
entirety without any songs that need a pass.
PFR - Them (1996)
Ah, PFR's Them... when the trio first announced that they were done and that they'd be recording one final record, it was unfortunate news. Them was the band's stellar swan song that didn't just phone it in for one last hoorah either. From the band's hardest rocker to date, "Pour Me Out," to the bittersweet ballad and album finale, "Garden" (which seemed sadder than it really was just because it was their final -- song at the time), it was a strong album that, sadly, we knew we'd never hear live. Thankfully, the band offered 3 more new songs on a hits album the following year and then made a reunion album a few years after that (and a live album
just a couple years ago), but Them remains one of the best album's in the band's discography… and that's saying something.
PFR - Great Lengths (1994)
PFR essentially started as a worship band in a small Bible camp in Minnesota in 1989 (in full disclosure, I worked at that same camp, Camp Shamineau, though decades later), but it didn't take long for the trio gather significant attention and a Grammy nomination. 1994 was the year they released their third album, and arguably their best, with Great Lengths. Opening with the plucking of a harpsichord, Great Lengths is probably one of the finest examples of any album in the 90's of sounding totally unique, yet somehow traditional. It was obvious the band was experimenting, as equally as it was obvious that they knew what their audience liked to hear (and yet incorporate a lot of theological depth in spite of that). "The Love I Know" proved to be the band's greatest hit, but
Greath Lengths was populated by a number of other great songs like "Wonder Why," "Blind Man Deaf Boy," Merry Go Round," and of course, the harpsichord-laden opener "Great Lengths."
Poor Old Lu - Sin (1994)
Poor Old Lu is a band that seems to get overlooked when talk about Christian music in the 90's, but the fact is, they were super good. Two of their albums were up for debate for this list, A Picture of the Eighth Wonder barely missed out. As with several bands in the era I first discovered Poor Old Lu through the Seltzer compilation album. In fact, "Where Were All of You" is still my favorite Poor Old Lu song. The guitar in the intro gets you hooked, the "ooh ooh's" in the chorus are infectious, and the acoustic guitar ending is fabulous. The great news is that the entirety of Sin is on that level. It may not resonate with a new listener near as much, but that 90's alternative rock sound was personified with Poor Old Lu. For an old school fan like me, however,
this one stands the test of time. I'm so glad to see Poor Old Lu getting some love on this list.
Audio Adrenaline - Bloom (1996)
I originally heard "Big House" at a youth camp, but did not know it was Audio Adrenaline at the time. My first exposure to this band was with Bloom. To be honest, I didn't really like "Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus" when I first heard it and it sort of turned me off to the band some. However, when I saw them play live with the Supertones my attitude changed. I began to listen to the album more intently and began to love it greatly. Even my parents loved it! I'm sure that has to do without a lot of the 70's influence that comes out on the record. That may very well be the same reason that I love the album even more today. Audio Adrenaline released a ridiculous string of albums in the 90's and this was probably the crown jewel of them all -- although Underdog is
REALLY good. "Secret," "I'm Not the King," and "Bag Lady" highlight this album. For me, this one will always stand the test of time.
Five Iron Frenzy - Our Newest Album Ever (1997)
Oh man, oh man! I love this album so stinking much. I'm a big Five Iron Frenzy fan and honestly find enjoyment in all of their albums, but this is still my go to Five Iron listen after 19 years. Reese Roper has the unique ability to be insightful, funny, sarcastic, and dead serious with his writing. Often times he is able to pull off a few of those at the same time. Five Iron was still a real ska band back in 1997 (as opposed to the "rock with horns" they've been for quite some time) and this album checked all the boxes for what I was looking for in my ska music. They even pulled me away from the Supertones as my favorite ska band back then. I personally believe that Our Newest Album Ever could be put up against an ska album of this era and hold it's own.
"Handbook For the Sellout," "Suckerpunch," and "Oh, Canada" clearly capture the fun that was, and still is, Five Iron, but "Every New Day" captured the heart of the band -- what they were truly about. Some things have changed in the Five Iron camp over the years, but Our Newest Album Ever will always be a 90's favorite for me.
Steven Curtis Chapman - Speechless (1999)
Already one of the most successful musicians in Christian music, Chapman hit a turning point with Speechless. With it, Chapman threw his hat into the ring of pop-rock after he had been known for 12 years as a straight-up Adult Contemporary musician. The result was the best-sounding, and I say most memorable, album in Chapman's career. There were thirteen songs on Speechless, and all of them were memorable, spearheaded by the incredible lead single "Dive." To this day, Speechless remains Chapman's best-selling album ever, and my personal most favorite album of all time.
Stavesacre - Absolutes (1997)
What is it about sophomore releases that make us like an artist even more (ex. Anberlin's Never Take Friendship Personal and Classic Crime's The Silver Cord? Stavesacre's Absolutes was an album that simply could not be put down after listening to one song, as it served as one complete work of genius. Not only did Mark's vocals improve on this release, but the drumming from Sam West ("Inclusive") is astonishment to the ears, as well as containing formidable lyrics: "Time is complete, all that you can know / Will praise his name as you will / Little finite minds, masters of their finite lives / But always seem to come up empty". This is one the many Tooth &
Nail albums that has held up quite well almost 20 years later.
Dakota Motor Co. - Into The Son (1993)
Have you ever listened to a song or watched a music video for a song and just didn't get it, but then one day it just clicks and you're a fan? This is what happened to me with Dakoda Motor Company's song "Grey Clouds." But this album is a great example of how Christian music can be about the Christian lifestyle and point you to the cross without being specifically a worship album. It's got everything I love about Christian music in it. Also, it's just great music. It's raw, it's fun and it's meaningful. I still love this record.
Common Children - Skywire (1996)
While this album caused Common Children to get an unfair comparison to Nirvana, Skywire was a deep, meaty release with serious themes about sin, shame, and forgiveness. It's also as beautifully melodic at times as it is edgy and aggressive. The poetic lyrics from Marc Byrd (co-writer of the hit worship song "God of Wonders" and member acts like GlassByrd, The Choir and Hammock) also just seal the deal. It may possess a significant 90's grunge sound at times, but songs like the title track and "Wishing Well" still sound magnificent 20 years later.
Rich Mullins - A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band (1993)
Rich Mullins has to go down in history as one of the most extraordinary musicians Christian music has ever seen, and A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band is his most remarkable achievement. Growing up, I heard copious amounts of Mullin's music thanks to my brother's admiration of him, and it helps shape my faith in ways I can probably never fathom. Thanks to Mullins, by the time I was seven, I had the Apostle's Creed memorized, even though I wouldn't even learn what the Apostle's Creed was until I turned seventeen! But I digress. Essentially, A Liturgy is a two-part concept album, first a tribute to our sacred heritage as a church ("A Litugy") and then a tribute to the heritage of Christian living ("A Legacy"). The "liturgy" half follows a traditional liturgical
procedure (the invitation, reading of scripture, call to worship, call to confession, proclamation, communion, and dismissal), and may just contain the finest thematic six-song stretch in the whole decade of the 90's. The second half is a tad less memorable, but it includes the joy and struggles, growth and disappointments that go hand-in-hand with life in Christ.