The Top 100 Christian Albums of the 1990s: 60-51

Greetings once again, brothers and sisters.

We're getting closer to the midpoint of this little excursion, and things are starting to heat up. There will be some surprises in this installment, like why in the world THAT band had an album THIS FAR DOWN on the list. Well, that's because it's my list. When I first put this list together, I would often wonder how arbitrary my choices were. As I analyzed my choices, I found that the albums that sounded the most timeless deserved a higher spot, and the ones that were very much a product of the time, and therefore not as easily removable from the 1990s, found themselves at lower points. It's not that they weren't great when they were released, they absolutely were. But hindsight is always 20/20. I mean, even Roger Ebert called "Weird Al" Yankovic the Antichrist upon the release of UHF. But who's laughing now, eh?

Sorry, I forgot Ebert was dead for a minute. My bad.

Let's get on with it.

60. VOID - Under Midnight
Nobody could have thought that one of the more reasoned, carefully crafted concept albums of the 1990s would be from an industrial artist. Or that lobsters would factor in, but there they were . . . on the album art. Symbolism, yo. Anyway, I picked up Void solely on the album art; it looked dark, techy, and brooding. I was further drawn in by the song titles: "Welcome to Dystopia", "Phreak", "Artificial Light". Inside was a soul-searching vignette about someone who came into the world as a man-made being, struggling with the question of whether or not he could have a soul, and if anyone would really care if he was gone. Less metal than their debut, Under Midnight deftly tackled these issues with the ferocity that only industrial music can. Let me put it this way . . .

I'm an avid board gamer. In board gaming, there are two main elements: the mechanism, and the theme. In the popular game The Settlers of Catan, where you gain and trade resources to build a settlement, the main mechanism is card management; the theme is settling land to earn victory points. The way the game is designed, you could use a completely different mechanic with the same theme, and the game would only change slightly. But a game like Scoville, where the main mechanic is area control and set collecting, melds quite well with the idea of planting and harvesting peppers. It's tough to extract that mechanic from that theme without significantly changing the gameplay. Under Midnight's Void is like a well-designed board game, in that the theme (cyberpunk, dystopian future, finding humanity in technology) explicitly requires its mechanic (industrial rock) in order to fully express its ideas. This album might not be a masterpiece, but it works so very well. It works so well, in fact, that I wondered if the Wachowski Brothers had listened to this album before writing The Matrix.

59. NO DOUBT - Petra
After the breakdown of Wake-Up Call (which turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the band . . . see what I did there?), Petra went back into the studio with John and Dino Elefante to create their next great record, No Doubt. The guys got a lot of flak for this album, as it included programmed percussion [EDIT - as a supplement to the live drums] on some of their tracks. All that aside, the band was sitting right on the CCM shelf, and these songs fit up there right alongside it with absolutely no effort. We'd heard all these themes before -- "Two are Better Than One," "Enter In," "Think On These Things" -- but that didn't detract from the power these songs had to grab you. With significant songwriting help from keyboardist Jim Cooper and bassist Ronny Cates, this album cemented Petra's place in mid-'90s rock n' roll, even if it was a CCM version of rock n' roll. Even today, if you pull this CD out and listen, it still retains a freshness to it that can't be quantified. "Think Twice" is a pounding faux-metal charge, "Think Twice" is a rock anthem that never gets old, and the title track is one of the most memorable ballads from 1990s CCM radio. It's not an everyday album, but it's nice to dust off once in a while.

58. THE ONE AND ONLY - Plankeye
It's right here that Plankeye feels like they finally hit their stride. A mostly upbeat rock record, The One and Only took them further than their previous three albums, including a large nationwide tour with opening act The Insyderz. A massively tight sounding production with Gene Eugene (Adam Again) at the helm, this was the sharpest, brightest, and most fun we would possibly witness from the band, eclipsed only by the absence of frontman Scott Silletta and drummer Adam Ferry a year after its release. Still, tracks like "Playground", "Compromise", and "How Much I Don't Know" showed an unparalleled level of professionalism compared to their previous works. The emotional "One or the Other", though, put their status as rock stars and youth group darlings in sharp perspective, and this one grounding song gave a weight of emotion to an otherwise very buoyant record. In my opinion, this album is worth the price for just that track alone. And it's not even the best song the band has recorded.

57. SPEAKEASY - Stavesacre
"Hey, guys, did you realize we're emo now?"

I doubt anyone in Stavesacre would have uttered those words after completing the recording of Speakeasy, but it's a mighty true statement. Hardcore had its place, and the guys in Stavesacre were wise enough to leave it behind. This post-punk/post-hardcore effort had a massive sound, with a tightened and focused aggression not often seen anymore from modern bands. "Minuteman" storms through your ear drums without giving you a moment to breathe, and it just sounds wonderful. Throughout the journey, the elements of hardcore are there, as nobody can completely ignore their roots, but the empahsis on this record was the songcraft, not the brutatlity. I ordered this directly from Tooth & Nail records after having heard both "Disquiet" and "Gold and Silver" on 2 different sampler CDs, and I was so impressed that I actually called up the record company to commend them for not putting the best songs on the album on those samplers, like so many other record companies did. If you like it loud, substantial, and brainy, you really can't go wrong with Speakeasy. Flight glasses sold separately.

56. WALK ON WATER - Walk On Water 
This is a great pop album. Not a great Christian pop album, a great -- with a capital GREAT -- pop album. In my youth, I had read the review for the Swedish import in Harvest Rock Syndicate and purchased the album based on that, and I enjoyed the musicianship and quirkiness of a European take on pop music in something other than the musicians' native tongue. My problem at the time was that it wasn't as aggressive as I wanted it to be. Sure, there was a guitarist, but why wasn't the guitar distorted all the time? I was a product of arena rock, punk, and metal, and I worried over whether this music would wussify my musical tastes. But I also was a fan of Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Charlie Peacock, Chris Eaton . . . so liking pop music and finely crafted pop melodies was in my blood.

I listened to this album again for the first time in years just a week before writing this, and was totally blown away by how foolish my younger self was. This is an AMAZING album! Professional musicianship, great production, and -- broken English aside -- wonderfully crafted lyrics that match fluently with the music. It never mattered that it was a pop record, because it was phenomenal music. My adult ear can hear and appreciate nuances I just didn't seem to care about in my teens, and I am much wiser for it now. Plus, I have to give them kudos for their song "Someone", which is one of the few great songs written in 5/4 time (although "Fifty-Eight" by The Prayer Chain probably has them beat . . . but more on that in a future episode).

55. SPECKLED BIRD - The Choir
"You take a shovel to my head . . . hey, I appreciate that sound."
Violent lyrics and Christian musicians almost belong together, and The Choir's most violent record to date is also one of their fan favorites. Speckled Bird arrived one year after the Kissers and Killers EP, and all the tracks on that release, save one, are featured here, plus a few extras to make 12 in total on this release. This is most definitely a '90s-era alternative rock sound, and it simply cannot be otherwise.

My introduction to The Choir was 1990's Circle Slide, and hearing the band show a little angst was nice, but especially since the aggression was almost completely wrapped up in songs about relationships. "Yellow Skies" reflects arguments in motion, and the way people act before realizing what they're doing. "Gripped" provides yet one more way to express the feeling one gets upon seeing their love do certain things. But the album isn't without its bright spots -- "Amazing", "Never More True", and "Spring" shine the light on the harshness without losing any of the intensity. But sometimes the best songs are the ones that NEED to be longer, but aren't, and "Kissers and Killers' fills the bill. The band has never been able to replicate the sound of this song live in concert, which is disappointing. But the song is about as perfect as it can be, tackling the ever-harsh duality-of-man concept, something they would revisit to great effect in 2015's "What You Think I Am".

I've got to stop writing now so I can go and listen to this CD.

Okay, I'm back.

54. LOFCAUDIO - Mastedon
I like supergroups, and I hate supergroups. Therefore, I like Mastedon, and I hate Mastedon. But I love Lofcaudio. If you've ever wanted a great example of John Elefante as a frontman, you need look no further. Forget "Dust in the Wind", because Lofcaudio contained not only some of the most expertly-crafted music the Elefantes would ever make, but John sings lead on several cuts on the album, and his voice is so stinking good. If you wanted high quality arena rock, you needed look no further. The entire album wasn't a winner, but certain songs on this album were asbolutely indelible -- "Holiest One", "It Is Done", and "Run to the Water" remain fan favorites. And my personal favorite track, "Life On the Line", contained brilliant harmonies that I often found myself rewinding (cassettes . . . it was a different time) over and over again just to hear the blend of voices harmonizing six, seven times over.

I missed their much lauded set at Cornerstone '91, but there are some video clips of the set on the interwebs if you look for them. As much as it took to make Mastedon work, it really worked. Collaboration is truly where some of the best art comes from, and to prove that point, this isn't the last supergroup to be featured in this Top 100 list. More on that in future entries . . . 

53. LIVE AT THE STRAND - Various Artists
The state of Georgia became a hotbed of talented artists during the later part of the '90s, and The Strand in Atlanta became a haven for all sorts of magnificent performances from some of the best (and many unkown) artists performing in the circuit. Mortal's only acoustic show was performed there, Third Day called it home for a spell before their major label debut, and unique performances from Michael Knott and LSU, The Prayer Chain, Dear Ephesus, and many others graced their stage. Even some of the bands on the album that belonged to the label that released the record had some great performances, most notably "Flavor of the Month" by My Friend Stephanie. The only bad thing about this record is having to imagine the amazing shows that I missed simply because I didn't live in Atlanta.


52. FREE AT LAST - dcTalk
So, for much of the '90s, dcTalk owned the CCM youth market. And let's be honest, the biggest reason they were as popular as they were was because they deftly combined rap with rock and soul music. That, and 2 of the guys were white (for some reason, white rappers were okay in many Christian households, but other rap groups with no white members weren't as righteous . . . go figure). I'm not joking, either. I heard actual conversations from people about how they absolutely hated rap music, but really like dcTalk. It frustrated me to no end. It frustrated me even more when the boys released Free At Last, which was likely the biggest explosion the Christian music scene had witnessed since Amy Grant's scandalous Unguarded album. To be fair, the explosion was controlled, but very justified.

DCT was one of the only acts in CCM that utilized dancers as part of their live shows, which were absolutely sizzling-electric-eel-slippery-with-kinetic-energy, crazy good, and cemented the band's reputation as a force to be reckoned with. They didn't exactly tackle hard-hitting subject, even though they were one of the only bands that actually took a musical stand against sex before marriage, something that was still somewhat taboo in the church, even though everyone in the world was talking about it. But regardless of the lack of theological depth, their songs encompassed all manner of spiritual truth in the basic aspects of life -- love equaling action, expressing love for each other, the urgency of acting in the now, and straight up praise to God. And you have to admit, they did it so well that they couldn't be ignored. The sound, though, is decidedly dated and firmly set in the early '90s. One thing they couldn't do is make the explosion timeless.

51. SATELLITE SKY - Mark Heard
The final album Heard would release before his death is a sprawling epic as big as the desert it sounds like, and as wide as the sky it was written under. Satellite Sky paints brilliant pictures of the American southwest, of life and decay on the edge, and of our fallen, broken human nature. "Why can't I sleep in peace tonight," indeed. Some may have found the constant ringing of Heard's mandolin jarring, but it worked very well with the scope of the album's content -- not all of it was pleasing to the ear, but it was undeniable when you heard it. Perhaps the best description of the album, even of Heard's career, could be encapsulated in his open "Orphans of God":
But they have captured our siblings and rendered them mute
They've disputed our lineage and poisoned our roots
We have bought from the brokers who have broken their oaths
And we're out on the streets with a lump in our throats

We are soot-covered urchins running wild and unshod
We will always be remembered as the orphans of God
They will dig up our ruins and make flutes of our bones
And blow a hymn to the memory of the orphans of God

You left us far too soon, Mark. This album proves it.

I'm gonna go cry for a while. The next installment will come . . . sometime.

There Is No Box.