The Top 100 Christian Albums of the 1990s: 30-21

It won't be long before we're finally at the top 10 of this list, and I'm a little interested to find out what the general consensus/reaction will be from everyone that's been following this blog while I've been making a run at this list. This has been enlightening in that I'm seeing the world differently now at 41 than I did at 14, or 21, or even 28. My changing tastes have allowed for more nuanced expressions of art, even if I enjoy a good metal album now and again, or if I feel the need to drop the needle on some old school rap. So for me, this journey hasn't been so much of a reminiscing, but a close examination of the changes I've undertaken over the last couple decades. I'm okay with how different things are. How about you?

Let's get on with it.

30. EXTRA*ORDINARY - johnny Q. public
In 1996, the landscape of music was starting to shift again, and bands like jQp needed to come out of hiding and represent the post-grunge aesthetic. In the Christian arena, 1996 was the beginning of the next big explosion, and johnny Q. public was on the leading edge. Their single and video "Body Be" was picked up for rotation by MTV, and they toured on the strength of their debut for about 3 years while putting together their follow-up. By all accounts, their formula should have worked past the scant time they had, but personnel changes before the 2nd album threw a few things for a loop, and by the time Welcome to Earth was released, their momentum had pretty much ceased.

But for the time they were with us, they rocked us pretty hard. I will occasionally pull this out and listen to choice tracks every now and again, marveling at the simplicity and ferocity with which they were able to pull off their feats. Their cover of Larry Norman's "Reader's Digest" was a bit over the top for my liking, and I wasn't a fan of their cover of the Bob Dylan tune "Serve Somebody". But where the album works, where the angst and longing shines through, it works very well. The opening scorcher "Preacher's Kid" sticks into the heart and twists the knife, as the songs paints a picture of a kid who's been overlooked by his father in favor of the congregation he serves; it's an unnerving feeling to rock so hard to an alienating sentiment such as this, but vocalist Dan Fritz's performance brings out the humanity of the subject's point of view. At 13 tracks, this album was ambitious, and they had plenty of competition. It's unfortunate, then, that their career as a band ended shortly after their second album. This is one of those rare albums that deserves a tribute recorded for it.

29. VERTICAL REALITY - Eric Champion
Who'd have thought Eric Champion, of all people, would have the guts to record something of a concept album? Granted, Vertical Reality isn't wholly a concept album, but the ideas run throughout some of the songs. Unfortunately, those songs are some of the weaker fare, save for the opener "N2 The Next Dimension". What makes this album work is the expert production by Tommy Sims, and performances by guest musicians including Fleming McWilliams of Fleming & John. Here's where Champion got a little bit like Prince, getting the funk out on tracks "Verticality" and "Dancing in the Fire", and creates pop perfection on "My Life is In Your Hands", "Journey", and "More About You". This album has an other-worldly quality to it, as if we actually were transported into another dimension, and not many albums in the CCM world have sounded like it before or since.

Topping everything off was the amazing gospel-pop cut "Touch", which people often mistook as "Reach Out". The only song from this album I remember hearing on the radio, this track is one of the more perfect songs ever produced by a Christian artist. Champion came as close to perfection on this album as he was ever going to get. With his next album Transformation making a hard left turn in a different musical direction, Vertical Reality was Champion's swan song to pop music, and what a sweet song it is.

I've heard rock bands create worship albums before, but this was something else entirely.  Album oriented rock with a heavy late-'90s vibe, and one of the most genuine worship projects I've ever heard, Starlight Wishlist carved itself a niche that few bands outside of The Violet Burning could have filled. The dense guitars, the layered vocals, the asymmetric song arrangements all filled the listener's ear with something solid. This was rock that didn't care what you had for breakfast, because it was going to take you for a ride. Ethereal one minute and pounding the next, songs like "Mothership", "Choose Me", and "Endless Inch" all called out to the saviour for redemption and freedom. Lyrics were expertly chosen to match the crescendos and peaks of the songs; lines like "and I don't want this ever to end" would not have worked if sung in the lower register or in the middle of the 2nd verse.

"Abandon All" was my favorite track. A realization that God has called us to take up our cross and follow Jesus, even to the point of leaving our loved ones behind, was matched with loud, anthemic guitars and exploded out of the speakers with a fury I could not have anticipated. There was a rapture to the soundscape given on this song, and its declaration settled into a gentle coda. Following the song with the low-keyed "Rejoice" was possibly the only choice the producers could have made, and it was definitely a magical 1-2 punch that helped put this recording at number 28 on my list.

27. UNSEEN POWER - Petra
I wasn't sure about putting an album from Petra this high up on the list, but when comparing it with nearly all their other albums, Unseen Power is probably the most fully realized. Yeah, Beyond Belief garnered them their first Grammy, and it's a magnificent album, but in my book, Unseen Power is the standard by which this band should be measured. Bob Hartman was sporting a new Gretsch guitar, and they may have been a few too many keyboards in the mix (it was, after all, the early '90s, and the Elefante brothers were producing), but this was a step up for the boys in Petra. The gospel-rock of "Who's On the Lord's Side" was a refreshing change, while the solid guitar work on "Ready, Willing and Able" proved they were still the same Petra of old.

Hartman and the Elefante brothers deliberately chose to make decisions they normally wouldn't when it came to producing this album, and the results were phenomenal. Debuting at #1 on the Billboard Christian charts and staying in the top 10 for seven months, Unseen Power granted Petra their second Grammy award. If the ballad "Hand on My Heart" hadn't been included, the album would be near perfect. This was Petra at their peak, and they never sounded better than they did here. 

I love punk rock. And yes, I even loved the snotty third-wave punk that reared its head in the late 1990s. Teenage Politics, MxPx's second album, was such a fresh change of pace from what I had been used to hearing that I nearly broke down the door of my local music store when Life in General was released. Better songwriting, better vocal performances from Mike Herrera, and better production all the way around made this a step up from the DIY feel of the previous record, and there was no shortage of songs (another reason I like punk music is that you can fit a whole lot of variety into one album). Changing tempos, sharp guitar leads, and great sing-along choruses pepper this release, including "Middlename", "New York to Nowhere", and the concert staple "Chick Magnet". Lyrically, this album took a different direction than Politics, dropping a lot of the scripture references found in their previous work, but losing absolutely none of the attitude. These are songs about growing older, working through relationships, and life on the road. There's a joy in what you hear, but also pain, frustration, and uncertainty of what the next day or week will bring. So in that regard, Life in General is a pretty accurate title.

25. DELICATE FADE - Common Children
The release of Common Children's second outing was delayed for months, but the wait was worth it. Marc Byrd and company took their time to keep the intensity intact while quieting things down a bit (a trait that would continue through to Byrd's current project, Hammock), and the results are spectacular. An epic sprawl that straddles the line between alternative and pop, but keeps the guitars firmly in place, Delicate Fade has that feeling of delicacy to it. Don't get me wrong, you'll hate it if you don't like jangly guitars and raspy vocals, but you can't deny the intricate sense of sound permeating throughout this release. From the radio-ready, easy melody of "Eyes of God", to the frenetic fire of "Pulse", to the epic ride of "Blue Raft", there's really no room to breathe on this record, even though breath is heard throughout each song. It's almost as if these songs are an extension of the life that each player emanates, as if their very breath helped create this album. What gives Delicate Fade staying power 20 years after its release is that it feels very much like an immediate record, as if a statement of "We are here, and this is what we intend to leave behind." One listen to the opener, "Stains of Time", and you'll understand the sentiment.

24. EIGHTY EIGHT - The 77's
I hate putting live albums on best-of lists, but this one absolutely deserves its placement. Recorded in 1988 after the Sevens got unceremoniously dumped by Island Records (thanks a LOT, U2), this is Mike Roe and the boys at their best -- performing in front of a very live crowd. Having seen the 77's perform live myself, I can attest to the type of monster Mike Roe becomes behind the microphone, and this recording is a magnificent example of the energy and vibe that made The 77's a powerhouse in the 1980s. Opening with the (at the time) unreleased "Perfect Blues" and thundering through a well-crafted set of older and newer stuff, the band never lets the energy drop. Whether it's the dance vibe of "Wild Blue", the old-timey blues of "Mary and the Baby Elvis", or the epic three-shot of 11-minute-plus songs at the end of the album, it's clear that whenever The 77's play, they leave behind a trail of scorched earth. Their standard "The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes, and the Pride of Life" makes an appearance, but it seems somewhat out of place when compared with all the other great songs on this recording, including a cover of The Yardbirds' "Over Under Sideways Down". This is simply a great album capturing a great performance.

23. LEGEND PART II - Saviour Machine
Saying that Saviour Machine's Legend trilogy was ambitious is an understatement. It's a shame it's never been finished, and it probably never will be, but we fans of the band are so glad that the vision Eric Clayton had was as well realized as it was for what they were able to produce. This second installment clocks in at about 79:30, which is the absolute limit to what most CDs can hold. In fact, one song, "New World Order", had been produced for inclusion on the album, but since it was so long, it was released as a track on the single for "Behold a Pale Horse" so that it could at least be heard. 

This album is an investment. Not just in time, but in thought, in sound, and in purpose. The second part of the Legend story centers around the Antichrist taking power, instilling a one-world order, and creating the mark of the beast that all people must wear in order to buy or sell goods or services. The brutality is wrapped in songs of epic scope and sound, including "The Whore of Babylon", "Antichrist II: The Balance of Power", and the the bombastic "The Promise". But then, we see the glory of God revealed in several tracks that tell of the rapture of the church, and the promise of salvation from the horrors that will follow for those who give their lives over to God. Eschatologists can argue all day about whether the rapture will happen before or after the Antichrist takes power, but in pacing out the events in the recording, it makes sense here. What cannot be denied is that Saviour Machine was a powerhouse that was, unfortunately, misunderstood and misrepresented by many in the music industry. Ask anyone who saw their live performances, and they'll tell you that you don't just listen to Saviour Machine, you experience them. Quite frankly, Legend Part II is one of the best concept albums of all time.

22. SHAWL - The Prayer Chain
That opening chant. Shine is dead. That opening freaking chant. If you weren't a fan of The Prayer Chain within the first 20 seconds of the opener "Crawl", you just didn't like fun, and that's all there was to that. The Prayer Chain blazed a major trail in the alternative scene in CCM, and this album is largely to thank for it. Partially a product of their time and partially ahead of their time, TPC unleashed this album upon an unsuspecting public. Tim Taber had a voice that rock musicians wished they could emulate, and the musical prowess of Andrew Prickett proved that in the right hands, one guitar is all you need to make your band sound freaking huge.

"Shine is dead" were the lyrics the band chose to tell everyone that they had moved on from their EP material (although they would occasionally play part of a cut from Whirlpool in soundcheck), and that decision could not have been better timed. Jars of Clay was about to drop their debut album within 12 months of this release, but The Prayer Chain was all, "First!" And they had the attitude to back it up. Sorry, acousticrats, this was some mighty fine alternative music we were hearing. Big, sprawling songs like "Grin", "Dig Dug", and "Psycho Flange" demonstrated their ability to fill the room, and shorter cuts like "Worm", "Like I Was", and "Wrounde" kept the listener begging for more. But the centerpiece that held everything together, and was likely the band's biggest song throughout their lifespan, was "Never Enough". With its highly singable melody and explosive eruption into the 2nd verse, this song is quintessential '90s alternative, and deserves to have a place established for it in the Smithsonian.

21. FATHOM - Mortal
Attack all rhythmic vibrations.
Oh, Jerome and Jyro, you brilliant little music makers. You went and did it. Then, after Lusis established you as commanders of the industrial brigade, you threw the switch from "Industrial" to "Hypersoul" and gave us Fathom. You knew, didn't you, that we would be blown away, yes? You knew that we would not be able to neither run nor hide from this immense monstrosity of artistry.

Hyperbole aside, this was an amazing record. Each copy should have come with a dictionary, first of all, but once you understood the lyrics, you could dive into the music and get lost inside it. Whether it was manic declarations of "Alive and Awake" or "Above & Beyond", or pensive brain food like "Jil Sent Me" and "Bright Wings", Mortal touched on every experience. Whether the most personal or the most grandiose, their ability to display the beauty in everyday life was a refreshing addition to an otherwise stale industry. Producer Terry Taylor gave the band a lot of room to grow and achieve what they wanted, and Fathom was the result. 

It's hard to say what influenced Jyro and Jerome to switch things up and away from the straight industrial track of their previous album, but the change felt warranted. There are still plenty of rhythmic, chugging guitars, but textures were added that opened up allowed the band to be more alternative than before. We also found out that without distortion, Jyro had a great voice, and the harmonies the two could come up with were beautiful. "Rift" is one of the more intense explorations of sin separating us from God (the subsequent music video would parallel that message with the topic of child abuse), "Rainlight" briefly brings to reminiscence childhood memories, and "Electrify" gave us a taste of what might be in store for future recordings by the band. Without Fathom, Wake would not have surfaced, and what eventually evolved into Fold Zandura would probably never have happened. Mortal cracked open a door to another way of expression that desperately needed to be opened.

That's all for today, kids. 2 more installments, plus one of Honorable Mentions, and we'll be finished with the list. But don't worry, I've got another daily challenge to work on after I'm done with this list. As always, leave whatever comments you like. And of course, remember that this list is subjective disguised as an objective lesson. I didn't hear every great album that was released in the '90s, so there are titles missing from this list that probably would have been on yours. It's just fun to relive some of these moments.

Until next time.

There Is No Box