The Top 100 Christian Albums of the 1990s: 20-11

Witty and thoughtful introduction. 
Okay, let's get to it.

20. OUR NEWEST ALBUM EVER! - Five Iron Frenzy
Five Iron Frenzy's frantic, humor-laced ska-core blasted its way onto the scene with Upbeats and Beatdowns, their full-length debut. It turned a lot of heads, and created a fanbase stronger than what you would expect to find with most bands. Then, they had to up the ante.

our newest album ever! brings a sharper production to the fold, and the guys (and girl) in FIF had lost none of their intensity or energy. "Handbook for the Sellout" opens up the album with a comedown on haters who find it hard to like a band after they've blown up big, completely with big, meaty hooks and the pointed lyric, "Do you remember where we all came from?" FIF had a knack for cutting right past the BS and lofty spiritual thinking to address concrete, down-to-earth issues from the same Christian perspective, which is why this song and many others in their catalog appealed to their young listeners. How much you paid for one of their t-shirts mattered to these guys, because they knew it mattered to their fans. "O Canada", "Superpowers", and "Blue Comb '78" all became much-beloved concert staples, and the song "Every New Day" became the standard by which FIF was known.

Over the years, the dynamic of the band shifted, but they never lost that energy, that humor, or that insight that gave them their identity, and this album was the first solid picture of the band as they came to be known and loved.

19. FOLD ZANDURA - Fold Zandura
Morphing from one musical identity to another isn't that hard if you've been leading up to it over 3 albums. Mortal's industrial beginnings floated over the alternative by the time their third album Wake had been released, and eventually, they shed their skin to emerge as Fold Zandura. Not only was the sound somewhat different, the direction of the music had changed, and even their songwriting process underwent a tweak. For this album, they began writing songs on piano rather than guitar. What resulted was a beautiful, haunting flood of guitars and keys that would lay the groundwork for some of Jyro & Jerome's best work as a team. It's a shame that they tried to pop things up for their followup UltraForever, because this brooding piece of artistry creates space where none exists. I can imagine playing this while flying through the stars

18. KING OF FOOLS - Deliriou5?
I blame Martin Smith and Deliriou5? for much of the crap modern worship we see today that disguises as CCM. That blame aside, King of Fools is SUCH a great album. Worship, energy, devotion, gratitude, all trademarks of what makes for a great album from a Christian artist is all found on this disc. Those Brits did us a favor in releasing a collection of songs able to rival any worship album up to that point, even though it's not a straight worship album. Our neighbors across the pond know how to make emotional, huge-sounding anthems. "Sanctify", "White Ribbon Day", and "History Maker" all shake with purpose. Ballads "August 30th" and "What a Friend I've Found" explore the tender, vulnerable side of worship, and the longing of "King or Cripple" extols the one who can transform us from lowly paupers to sons of the Most High. A must-have for any worship leader.

17. SO MUCH 2 SAY - Take 6
A capella music may not be the most respected form of contemporary music, but it oughta be respected much more than it is. Creating melody, harmony, rhythm and percussion using nothing but the mouth and vocal chords is much harder than it appears. With 6 voices, however, you can cover a lot of ground. Take 6 not only covered that ground, they paved a highway, did the landscaping, painted the fences . . . the whole thing. This album simply leaves the listener in awe from the very first track, the manic "So Much 2 Say". I was in high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band when I got this album, and I played it for our lead trumpet player, who was a virtuoso himself. Once the tune was over, he exhaled hard, wide-eyed, and shook his head in disbelief. He'd never heard anything like it before. 

Neither had the CCM world. Still going strong, this sextet held together bold jazzy harmonies, tight rhythmic percussion, and amazingly smooth gospel music sounds. "I L-O-V-E U" was a perfect pop creation, "Something Within Me" is a sweet swinging tune that makes what they do sound easy, and their cover of Carman's "Sunday's On the Way" maintains -- and improves upon -- the humor found in the original. It's not for everyone, but if you like jazz, gospel, R&B, or even AC/pop, you seriously need to listen to this album at least once in your lifetime. A definite winner.

I debated for a long time whether to put Crimson and Blue higher than this one, but after a lot of deliberation, I had to put this Keaggy effort higher on the list. Find Me in These Fields is a misleading title for the album, as it matches the title of the most calming song on the record. Everything else pretty much rocked out without any hesitation, even the untitled jam sessions in between several of the tracks. "Strong Tower", the opener, sets the tone for this raucous celebration of God through rock.

Phil Keaggy always reminded me of Paul McCartney in part because of his voice, and the style of music he leaned toward was reminiscent of The Beatles and other rock from the '60s and '70s. This album sits comfortably in that groove without sounding so dated as to be off-putting to younger listeners. "This Side of Heaven" and "Final Day" hearken back to those earlier influences, while "Gentle and Strong", "Calling You", and "Carry On" feel very much in the moment. The closer, "Be in My Heart", is one of the most heartfelt worship songs that doesn't sound like a worship song, and one I would love to hear played or sung more often by literally anybody. What a joyous collection of songs.

15. THE SECRET OF TIME - Charlie Peacock
This was the first pop album that I genuinely liked because it didn't completely sound like pop, yet it didn't completely sound like alternative music. The Secret of Time was my introduction to Charlie Peacock, and it probably couldn't have been a better introduction to the man and his music. A near masterpiece, Time gives us an overwhelmingly beautiful picture of God's grace, as evidenced by the transformation alluded to in the kinetic opener, "Big Man's Hat".

This album brews in a steeped combination of soul, jazz, and expertly crafted pop melodies, while maintaining the highest musicianship available at the time. These songs talk of life and struggle over time, mistakes we make, truths we search for, and immutable wisdom.  The openness of a lyric like "I want to live like Heaven is a real place" is balanced with the wisdom of "We can only possess what we experience; truth, to be understood, must be lived." This album is the evidence of a life lived before this record even existed, and its richness can't be understated. One fine pop album, indeed.

14. JACOB'S TROUBLE - Jacob's Trouble
JT finally dropped the '60s schtick and went with what ultimately suited them best -- forward-thinking alternative rock and roll. With Keith Johnston on sole guitar duties after co-founder Mark Blackburn left the band, it allowed him to come into his own as a songwriter and player, and this album is much better for it. Sure, it's a Christian album with Christian songs written to Christians and performed by a bunch of Christians . . . but set that aside for a moment and consider the weight of each song, both lyrically and musically.

I personally had a growing experience with this album, having come out when I was 16, and listening to it a lot when I was going through a particularly bad breakup (which, at 16, isn't actually all that bad, but . . . well, you know). I found hope and encouragement in several of the songs, as well as admonition and reminders of God's grace and power. "Best Part of Me" and 
"Better Days" both sing like wonderful modern psalms, "Way of the Cross" is a fire-fueled rock number that revisits what the power of God can do, and "Lovin' Kindness" is a fun rock stomper that you can't help but dance to. This is what it sounds like when musicians have some freedom to do what they want.

13. MIRACLE MILE - Guardian
WALL OF SOUND -- that's what comes to mind whenever I recall Miracle Mile. It was the end of the hair metal days, but 1993 still saw guys like Guardian making great hard rock with an edge. We'd heard stuff like this before, but not exactly like this. The spark behind the machine was firing hot and fast, because Miracle Mile blew the doors off. This was professionalism at the highest caliber with brilliant melodies, screaming guitar solos, and heartfelt emotion spread evenly throughout.

It wasn't hard to like a metal album in an alternative world when it sounded like this. Tony Palacios' impressive guitar work makes this a total joy to listen to, whether swinging through "Shoeshine Johnny" or running through the effervescent "You & I", the power rock of "Let It Roll" or the swagger of "Sister Wisdom". These guys set the bar high -- HIGH -- for metalheads, and it's a good thing this became their last dyed-in-the-wool metal effort. Their following albums went acoustic, then embraced modern rock, and none of them quite captured the spark of this one.

(NOTE: I realized as I was putting together this blog series that I broke some of my rules of compiling the list a few times, which is why there are 3 Guardian albums on the list. This was an inadvertent error, but one of the other rule breaks was very deliberate . . . and that will be revealed in the top 10.)

12. WATERMELON - Driver Eight
Growing up in the music programs of my high school and college, there was an old adage that if you were singing with a chorus or ensemble and you didn't know the words, just substitute the word "watermelon" for any syllables you're not sure of, and it'll still fit. That was the basis for the title track of this amazing alternative record, the idea that we often speak, but our words have no lasting meaning. Take a bite, wipe your mouth, walk away.

Alternative met pop in this amazing record, full of layers of guitars that didn't overpower each other. On the strength of the title track and the lead single "Strange", Drive Eight made a splash in 1996 and was looked up to as an example of great modern rock, and Tooth & Nail Records benefited from having them on their roster. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived, as the band broke up about a year after the release of their lone record. But what a great record it is. "Getting This Thing to Go" and "Sunbitter" were great straight-ahead anthemic rockers, while the alternative side really shone on "Cheers", "Carrousel", and "Polish". If you're longing for rock of the '90s that couldn't have existed at any other time and place, Watermelon is a great time capsule to open.

11. BLOOM - Audio Adrenaline
The guys in Audio A finally got serious. John Hampton (Spin Doctors) produced this, the band's 3rd offering, and it still shines like the day it came off the factory floor. Rock, rock, and more rock replaced the electronic experiments of Don't Censor Me and the ill-advised rap of their eponymous debut, and the band never looked back. 3rd time really was the charm.

With a newly-honed direction and a package of songs on their back, Audio A charged through a stack of radio-friendly songs, rock anthems, and a couple of oddities. Their cover of "Free Ride" keeps the vibe of the original intact while making it sound modern. "See Through" and "I'm Not the King" scorch the speakers with high energy and impassioned vocals. "Bag Lady" lays on the modern edge in a thoughtful power ballad. Sprinkles of humanity while living under God's sun are found throughout many of the songs, and Mark Stuart's vocal performance is confident and tempered. This is a solid rock record that was the band's first to be certified gold by the RIAA, and is essential listening for any rock n' roll fan.

We. Are. Almost. There.
Hang in there, folks.

There Is No Box.