I'm a fan, that's who. And I'm not alone.
Many moons ago, I became a member of a group on Facebook that's dedicated to reminiscing about the Contemporary Christian Music industry, specifically in the 1990s. That decade saw a HUGE swipe of emerging artists, differing styles, and a lot of mainstream exposure for Christian artists. Labels like Metro One, Grey Dot, and Tooth and Nail and were launched and brought alternative music by Christians to a wider audience, distributing their stuff into mainstream stores. You no longer had to go to a local Christian bookstore to find the type of music you wanted to hear from a Christian perspective, and non-CCM radio genres were the perfect foray for these new labels and the bands that appeared on them.
In 2016, people began posting their lists of the top 100 albums by Christian artists in the 1990s. It took me a while, but I finally threw my picks out in November 2016. Over the next few entries, I'll expound on my choices. But first, I'll share with you my criteria for selection.
1. It had to be a Christian artist, or an artist with strong ties to the Christian music industry. There was one or two exceptions to this rule.
2. I tried to limit myself to two albums per artist.
3. I had to either own the album on the list, or at least be very familiar with it. This is why certain metal bands who put out truly stellar work in the 1990s aren't on this list.
A bombastic album in play time, but not in track number, Passafist was a strong punch right in the teeth. Lynn Nichols and Dave Perkins, who had worked with Steve Taylor in Chagall Guevara, formed Passafist under the names Waco and Reno Caruso, along with help from John Elliott and Michael Saleem. Their neo-60s rock inspired industrial hybrid was a welcome breath of toxic air to an industry that often failed to tackle hard, but realistic subjects. The propagation of lust-marketing, pop psychology, and resorting to violence as a means of self-protection. Ahead of its time, Passafist was a wild ride that still remains a collector's item today.
John Cougar Mellencamp has a lot of explaining to do. As many came to know, Rick Elias became one of those artists who crafted great songs, and became a mainstay in songwriters' circles. I personally lump him in with Rich Mullins as one of those guys who wrote better than they sang, but there was a fire beneath the performance on this debut. Not the most groundbreaking, but singer-songwriter heartland rock wasn't a huge commodity in 1990. If you can find a copy, it's definitely worth picking up, although it might not have aged as well as you'd hope.
Jyro Xhan is one of those elusive artists from the '90s. From techno/electronica to industrial to alternative Xhan and his collaborator Jerome Fontamillas (now of Switchfoot) were prolific enough to put out plenty of material in a short period of time. The Myx Records imprint, championed by DJ Scott Blackwell, featured Xhan and Fontamillas as Jyradelix, playing club-heavy rave/electronic music that sounds VERY dated now. But at the time, it was powerful, it was fast, it was fun, and it was exciting. Even today, when a beat stops, I almost always want to hear a distorted voice yelling out, "TAAAKE MYYYYY LIIIIIIIIFFFE!!" Chills.
One thing I absolutely hate is when Christian artists try to cash in on a trend catching on in the mainstream. At first glance, Kosmos Express sounds like an Oasis rip-off band, and the similarities are undeniable. But there's a sincerity in KE's music, even though this album obviously isn't going to win any awards. But the band blows through the songs with fun, enthusiasm, and a passion for making what they believe to be honest rock. It just happens to sound like another band out there. Unfortunately, a second album fell completely flat, and it didn't help that Sublime Records, the imprint they were signed to, pretty much faded into obscurity merely 2 years into its existence. Still, listening to this today revives that sense of hope and optimism so present in great Brit-pop music.
Most people know Masaki as the producer and engineer of most of Five Iron Frenzy's records, but he could play. Oh, could he play. The self-titled R&V album was a beautiful pawn shop find for me, and the amazing thing about the album was that there were absolutely no keyboards used -- EVERYTHING was played on guitar, which blew my mind. It very much sounded like a keyboard-driven record. Many a night I would put this record on to calm my nerves, help me sleep, or help me meditate on God's word. A wonderful instrumental album that should be in any collection of 90s Christian music.
Let's clear this up now: it's pronounced "Ah-leek-ah", not "Ah-lex-eeah". Look at the way it's spelled. After hearing their cover of Stryper's "Makes Me Wanna Sing" on the Sweet Family Music Stryper tribute, I knew I'd have to find an entire album of this stuff. Think what would happen if the female vocalists from The B-52's formed an industrial band, but didn't sound awful, and that's what you'd wind up with here. Aggressive guitars and programming is melded with excellent vocals to create a pastiche unlike anything we'd heard before. Dark, brooding, moody, and gleefully decadent, Honey Lake left us hanging on for more.
People may wonder why this recording isn't higher on my list, and that should give you some idea of the other albums I thought were BETTER than this full-length debut from New York act Burlap to Cashmere. Rumor has it that during their New Artist Showcase performance at GMA week in Nashville, they received a standing ovation after their first song. I don't know if that's true, but I was told they could be referred to as "Jars of Clay with balls", and their live shows did not disappoint. Which was kind of the problem -- this album was fine to listen to until I saw them live. But after that, their studio recordings failed to capture the energy of their live performance. Yes, the material is strong, and still sounds good to this day. But the live spark is definitely missing.
Love for music from the 1960s can only go so far, and Jacob's Trouble had already milked it as much as they could have by the time this third album, produced by Mark Heard, came around. While some of the songs fit neatly into the psychedelic pop of '60s influence rock, many of the songs on the album feel disjointed, almost throwaways, as though they should have belonged on another artist's record. One of them is even called "Obligatory New Father Song". Why bother? Just put that one down on a tape and use it to embarrass your child each year on their birthday; we don't need to hear it. At all. For as many missteps as there are on this record, there are also great moments. "You Scare the Hell Outta Me" simply could not have been recorded by anyone else, "Just Like You" is as sincere as JT gets, and "Love Me Today" sounds as jubilant today as it ever will. Keith Johnston first made his presence known on this album, and their self-titled follow-up saw the band finally joining the 1990s and making greater strides as a band. Unfortunately, they had to slog this recording along. Maybe it was a necessary step, but it's one you could easily discount if you're not careful.
Oh, Plankeye. Because of you, so many people became familiar with Tooth & Nail Records. Plankeye became synonymous with post-grunge alternative, and they got better with each passing recording. Many consider Commonwealth to be their greatest record, but I'm not convinced. Sure, you've got some great moments that make for memorable songs, and "Push Me Down (Veiled)" was a great modern power ballad that hinted at the emotional weight the band would ultimately reach on Relocation. So as a building block, Commonwealth is an important milestone in the band's history, and is definitely worth a few spins before passing on to something else. Scott Silleta's vocals wouldn't mature until after he left Plankeye, which is a shame. Imagine what kind of quality vocals the music in this album could have had in front of it.
I remember getting a promotional cassette of bands that would be performing at Cornerstone 1991, and among the signed artists on that sampler was an industrial band called Donderflegen (a non-German word which means absolutely nothing). After seeing the album cover for Clean in the bookstore, I was compelled to purchase it, and I heard obvious parallels between Deitiphobia and Donderflegen, eventually realizing it was the same band. Clean has its problems, for sure, but the freshness of the techno/guitar combo was enough fuel to overcome the monotone melodies and repetitive rhythms. I can forgive their Nine Inch Nails ripoff in "Enraptured", but their failure to maintain consistency was a problem, even back on this recording. Eventually releasing an album under the name Massivivid, they won a Dove Award for Best Hard Music album, but that album barely sold. As much as it hurts to like this album because of what it could have been, it's still good to whip and listen to from time to time, hence its inclusion on this list.
That's all for now. The next entry in this series will have us exploring albums 90-81. Until then, this should give you something to do to occupy all that spare time you have white waiting for my next blog entry.
Until next time, folks.
There Is No Box.