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The Top 100 Christian Albums of the 1990s: 50-41

We have finally arrived at the top half of my list, and this is where things start to get weird. There were so many unique musical acts in the '90s, and so many of them left a significant mark, some unique to the decade. This segment of the list is full of established artists, breakout acts, innovators, excavators, and modulators. Some have been doing music longer than anyone, and some of them did it for a very short time, never to be heard from again. And for the first one in the top 50, we see one of the longest-laying musicians in CCM, and one of the greatest guitarists to ever live.


50. CRIMSON & BLUE - Phil Keaggy
WHAT A RECORD. Crimson & Blue unloaded on the world in a way they'd heard before, yet were unprepared for. Reuniting with Glass Harp drummer John Sferra, Keaggy packed a ton of guitar goodness into this album and its subsequent single/EP Revelator. Judging only this entry, we find Keaggy at some of his most relaxed and most creative. This was good old '60s-inspired rock in multiple forms, with a little modern technology thrown in to fill in the nooks and crannies. I can't tell you the adrenaline that coursed through my body when I heard the full rhythm section kick in at the beginning of "Shouts of Joy", the stillness of the waters while listening to his cover of Van Morrison's "When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God", and the sweet solitary devotion of the closer, "Nothing But the Blood". 

Much more than just a jam fest, this album is chock full of rock goodness, and could easily have been played on any rock station from coast to coast. I had a friend in high school that loved psychedelic rock of the '60s and '70s, and I brought the CD for him to listen to. The next day, he brought it back to me, and when I thanked him, his response was, "Oh, no, thank YOU." Keaggy's guitar prowess simply cannot be ignored or overstated, and he proves it on this record. He could have avoided a misstep with an alternate version of his own previously released single "I Will Be There"; aside from that, this is a glorious journey of rock.

And yes, his face is supposed to be upside-down on the cover.


49. ROBOT ROCK - Joy Electric
Joy Electric got minimal with this, their 3rd full-length album. Just as full but not as complex as its predecessor We Are the Music Makers, Robot Rock was cold, clinical, calculating, and a ton of fun. The lead single "Monosynth" could easily be translated into a huge punk/metal song if someone had the gumption, but stands firmly on its on merits. Much of the album revisits the land of candy, fruit, and all things sugary, but this time around, things got streamlined. Not only are the arrangements less complex, but the album is very short, clocking in at under 31 minutes. No matter -- when you're having this much electronic fun, it can be this short and still be an enjoyable ride. Robot Rock elevated Ronnie Martin's brainchild to iconic status and opened new doors to a wider array of fans, all while extolling the virtues of the analog synth.


48. FUN AND GAMES - The Huntingtons
Before they got lost, and before the kids went crazy for the high school rock, The Huntingtons brought in some Fun and Games. One of the few survivors of the Flying Tart Records fiasco, the brothers Huntington crafted some very fine, very bratty sounding punk rock music. Influence of the Ramones was evident from the beginning in the vocals, the arrangements, and the content. True to juvenile form, and to the album's title, songs like "Alison's the Bomb", "Lucy's About to Lose Her Mind", and "Goddess and the Geek" brought the listener into the world they lived in. An awesome, loud, youthful punch in the face that tastes great on the way down. 


47. JOHN WAYNE - Terry Scott Taylor
Terry Taylor's never had the best voice in the world, and that didn't matter all that much during the Daniel Amos days. But when it's you, front and center, putting it all out there with an imperfect voice, the content better be great. Thankfully, Taylor's John Wayne puts his best foot forward. "Writer's Block" could be the mission statement for the album as a whole, or even for Taylor's career. You listen -- nay, experience that song, and everything behind it feels like gravy. 

"You Told Them Exactly What I Didn't Say" covers the frustration of being misrepresented, "Too Many Angels" pokes fun at the seemingly ubiquitous presence of angel art in the mid-'90s, and "Ten Gallon Hat" explores our tendency to put on airs in the slickest way possible when our intentions are anything but divine. At this point in his life, Taylor's opus feels like a reunion of friends, something that's more familiar than groundbreaking, comfortable and recognizable. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.


46. JESUS FREAK - dcTalk
That's right, 46. One of the biggest juggernaut albums of Christian music in the 1990s lands at 46 on this list. How could this happen?? What did they do wrong? Has God become displeased with the Talk in recent years and their penchant for staging a reunion in the most expensive way possible? No, none of these things. It's just that  . . . well . . . you know how something comes along that's innovative and game-changing, and then you find out later that what you thought was so brand spanking new was exactly the same thing that other people outside your circle of influence were doing?

Okay, for everything that dcTalk did right on this album, there existed a plethora of other bands in the mainstream doing the same thing. But that doesn't mean they don't deserve credit for doing what they did, which was break down walls and barriers of what was considered "acceptable" among the Church. I absolutely hate that this was the album that finally got people to stand up and notice that styles were changing, because that notice should have been had 10 years prior. But enough of the sociological impact of it; let's talk about the tunes . . . well, THE tune, really.

The song that launched a thousand rockets had to be "Jesus Freak", released as a single before the album was available, and it deftly combined rock and rap with a punk(ish) edge. This had been done before, but not so seamlessly, and never with such a high degree of professionalism in CCM. For years, this album was a benchmark for high quality musicianship, and for good reason. Every song on this record stands on its own merits, even if the arrangements or instrumental sounds peg it as being right in the middle of the '90s. It's not a timeless record, but it's a great one, and the songs translate well out of their arrangements.


45. STRANGELANGUAGE - Charlie Peacock
I swear, every review I read of this album when it came out felt like it had to make the distinction that the "strangelanguage" Peacock was referring to wasn't Christianese. It's kind of like the fluff piece, human interest stories that get reported in multiple cities often use the same vernacular and horrible puns . . . yeah, that extends to reviewers, kids. One listen to the album -- heck, even the opening title track -- and you know Peacock's sights are much higher than church bubble colloquialisms. 

Peacock has always had a love affair with jazz, and he gets downright funky on this one. A perfect meld of pop melodies with modern electronics and vintage sound, strangelanguage is accessible enough for even the least discerning ear, and meaty enough for the studied musician to lose themselves in. And he runs the gamut, from the tender ballad "Rocket", to the funk-filled piano groove of "Liquid Days", to the spacey instrumentation and vocals of "That's The Point". There's no lack of stylistic variety on this disc, and it feels like each song is slightly more fun than the last. Pulling from all the musical influences Peacock took in while growing up, listening to this album feels like a concert with 10 different performers who all have the same voice. Only a virtuoso can pull that off and make it sound so effortless.


44. A PICTURE OF THE EIGHTH WONDER - Poor Old Lu
In the early-to-mid '90s, I was looking for some Christian bands whose sound was similar to the grunge style that exploded out of the American Northwest. I had mostly been listening to hard rock and heavy metal, and many of the metal bands that I liked weren't making great music anymore. They were still cranking out albums, but the songs just weren't as good. It was like as the winds of musical change were shifting, they were taking all the good songwriting ideas away from the metal bands and planting them elsewhere. Poor Old Lu's Sin was one of the albums I sampled, and it just didn't trip my trigger. It was good for what it was, but I didn't feel a connection with anything.

In 1997, A Picture of the Eight Wonder appeared, and I finally heard what all the fuss was about.  This was a meaty album full of graceful imagery and well-crafted sonic textures. The opener "Rail" is a sprawling 7-minute epic that introduces you into their world, and it does sound like they've found another wonder of the world. The music is very mid-'90s indie rock, right on down to Scott Hunter's high, gravelly voice, so it's hard to imagine this coming out any other time. It's not one I could listen to very often, but there was a satisfaction to having listened to it all the way through that felt like you'd be listening to what would be placed inside a sonic time capsule. From positive thoughts and ideas on songs like "Hello Sunny Weather" and "Receive" to introspective numbers "Receive" and "The Weeds that row Around My Feet", this is an honest record above all, and for that reason alone, it should be heard.


43. @ - Fell Venus
"This is not what I needed."
An angry record. An exciting record. A schizophrenic record. An unhinged record. Controlled burns can sometimes flare out of control, and Fell Venus captured lightning in a disc. [Okay, I'll stop mixing metaphors.] I don't know where this came from, or what the inspiration was, but this is a manic ride through the psyche of someone dealing with opposition. I was unaware at the time I bought it, but some controversy erupted when the album was released, and several Christian bookstores wouldn't carry it. I honestly can't imagine why, except that the artwork featured Phil Venaas shirtless and with tattoos on his body, and one of the hidden tracks featured a barely-whispered poetic performance interrupted by the sound of a cigarette being lit. Honestly, those are the only things I can imagine causing a stir to small-minded business owners.

I stumbled upon this album at a Blockbuster Music (again *points at self* . . . old), and upon hearing it knew I had to own it. An interesting meld of pseudo-industrial programming with alternative rock, guitar noise, and screams, @ painted a picture of chaos and disorder. From the sickening shouts over the relatively quiet backdrop of "Pox" the driving drone of "Basket", to the freakout of "Let Me Go" and the unsettling whispered fury of the hidden track "Unnamed Demon", great care was taken to make sure this album was what it was. What a welcoming change to what was in danger of becoming a stale industry . . . and ultimately did. I firmly believe that this album needs to be re-released today, exactly as it was, and promoted as the next big worship album. I'd love to see what happens.


42. SCI-FI CANON BLUE(S) - Annie
I fell in love with Radiohead a couple years after OK Computer came out, and I couldn't figure out why I didn't likei it when it was first released. Maturity must do something to the senses, because I found it to be more beautiful than I could have imagined. The singular release from Annie feels the same way -- lush, full of different textures, ready to be consumed. I first heard of Annie when the demo of their song "Starstruck" appeared on the Toast and Olive compilation from Bulletproof/Grey Dot Music, and that song absolutely blew me away. How it was ever considered a demo, I'll never know.

This short album definitely didn't skimp on creativity, and when things got large, they got epic. "Censer Silence" is a wonderful trip into the realm of worship, "Means to an End" is a crawling reach of a song made out of longing, and "Big as Light" longs for connection with the saviour. A relatively short runtime doesn't in any way diminish the expert work done here in songwriting or production. Well worth your time.


41. GOOD DOG, BAD DOG - Over the Rhine
"There is a me you would not recognize, dear. Call it a shadow of myself."
One of the saddest songs ever heard, "Latter Days" punctuates the beginning of this wonderful album, bringing the listener to the verge of tears before taking you on a journey that covers Americana like no other artist can. Bergquist and Detweiler spent time recording this collection of songs in their home, and you can feel the massive amount of love emanating from every measure and every beat of this record. Karin Bergquist's voice isn't the most easily accessible, but she wields it with the grace of a samurai. This isn't the best album in their catalog, but it's the one that they absolutely needed to make. Each song tells a story, reveals or dissects an emotion, or reaches into the depths of the unknown to pull out a fundamental truth about being human. The freedom they had to write the lyrics and melodies they wanted were not squandered at all. If you buy no other album in Over the Rhine's catalog, buy the double disc Ohio. But the next one absolutely should be this one.


We're getting close, folks. Only a few more entries until we hit the top 10.
Patience.

There Is No Box.
Zach

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