The Top 100 Christian Albums of the 1990s: 40-31

When the clock finally strikes midnight on this list, my hope is that those who read this series will be inspired to check out some of the albums listed here, and thus find out more about the goodness of God. Yeah, the music is an example of great, quality musicianship and stellar production, but there are truths about the nature of God inherent in the very music itself. If nothing else, we have an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Father with our eyes completely shut.

So, here we go. Continuing the count with #40.

40. WORLDS AWAY - Crumbacher-Duke
I saw a print ad for this album in CCM Magazine, and I liked the fashions that Stephen Crumbacher and Christopher Duke were wearing. Back when many Christian bookstores were doing the "Buy 4 Get 1 Free" sticker promotions, I used the stickers I'd saved to get this cassette for free, and I'm glad I did. It would be several years later when I realized who the "Crumbacher" was in the duo, but I was very glad to have picked this album up.

Stephen Crumbacher always had a penchant for using mediocre-to-bad cliches in his songwriting in the early part of his career, but that seemed to (mostly) fall away by the time this album was released. Instead, the focus was more on the craft of the song, and there was a great melodic aggressiveness to many of the album's cuts. Even the two obligatory AC radio ready ballads had their moments of pomposity. Sure, the mix could have been tweaked, and the production values a little more crisp, but these songs still stand the test of time. Outside of the arrangements on the album, they're still viable, and their messages still ring true. A couple of them might only pertain to Christian circles ("Heavy Rhythm", "Rock in the Heart Place"), but overall, this is a very balanced collection of songs. The closest thing I've seen to ELO in the Christian arena.

39. HIGHLANDS - WhiteHeart
I've always loved WhiteHeart. There was just something about them that was hard to peg. They weren't arena rock like Petra, and they would never be mistaken for overproduced pop-rock like Mylon & Broken Heart. They were rock n' roll, but with an attitude and a drive that seemed to be focused on the craft of the songs, the execution of the songs, and then getting those songs into the ears of the listener. They didn't seem to cower to the typical demands of the Christian record labels (and if they did, it's not like you would notice). These songs came from a Biblical perspective, but they seemed very genuine. Freedom would have made this list if it had been released in 1990, and would likely have been in the top 10 of this list, because that's where the explosion began.

On Highlands, the boys found their sweet spot. Infusing three-part harmonies as often as they could, and to great effect, the idea of perspective was cast all over this record. From the lead single "Change The Way", to the AC ballad "Once and For All", and to the expansive powerhouse "Heaven of My Heart", WhiteHeart created a manifesto for those lost in their own evangelistic devices to open their eyes to the world around them. Sonically, this is their most dense and realized album, with a few throwback allusions to '70s rock, yet still firmly planted inside the '90s technology and production. An amazing rock record, and one that critics lauded with much-deserved praise.

I saw the Newsboys open the Agape music festival in 1990. They had just released Read All About It, their hugely unforgettable debut, but the main reason they were well loved is that their energy on the stage was hyperkinetic, and they stayed in their merch tent most of the day after their set just hanging out with the people. On the album that turned out to be frontman John James' swan song, they hit their stride. Leader straddles the line between Aussie rock band and pop powerhouse, with a couple of wonderful alternative songs thrown in for good measure.

Whatever you needed music to be on this album, you had it in a couple different forms. "God is Not a Secret" is wholly different in feel from the title track, and "Cup O' Tea" sounds nothing like "Reality". Yet each song shakes itself into the groove the band created, almost specifically just for each genre the album represents. However, one of the greatest alternative songs to come from a Christian band in the '90s, "Lost the Plot", is the real winner here, a bitter treatise on the lament of where we've fallen as the church, and how we've resigned ourselves to our failures. Just as stark and soul-baring today as it was 20+ years ago, the song is still performed by the Peter Furler Band on occasion. That song alone is enough to put this album in the place where it belongs, but the other mish-mash of included songs round out an interesting, if disjointed, album . . . and that can't hurt. 

37. GOING PUBLIC - Newsboys
One of the best things Newsboys ever did was fall in love with Steve Taylor. Not Ashamed was the beginning of their work with him, and Going Public almost felt like the official coming out party. This album had a somewhat darker tone and production quality, though, and the album succeeded because of it as alternative music was still a viable commodity on the music scene. Starting with a percussive groove beat of "Real Good Thing", we can tell that the band wasn't really breaking a whole lot of lyrical new ground, but it definitely sounded better than what came before. The synth-driven ballads and songs of worship fit right along with the rockers, and the haunting closer "Elle G.", which recounts the aftermath of a friend's suicide, stays with you long after you've heard it.

And then . . . "Shine". One of the wordiest songs to ever crack open the charts and remain there for what seemed like forever was a smash that not many could have predicted. The chorus is in a low register, the melody is a little off center, and there are so. Many. Words. But one of the song's strengths is the scripture it's based on, which tells us to let our light shine before men so that they will give glory to God. It translated so well to the format of the song that it had no choice but to BE catchy. Taylor's lyrics on that song alone are a master class on word count, internal rhyme scheme, and creativity. "Shine" anchored the album and ensured that people were able to hear the other fine songs on the album, because they were worth being heard.

36. GOLD - Starflyer 59
I never understood the moniker "shoegaze" and why so many bands exist that seem to draw that label. Starflyer 59's 2nd album layered guitar upon guitar upon guitar juxtaposed by Jason Martin's airy, minimal vocals, and the result was a singular, yet spectacular, entry into the alternative cadre. This is an album I would put on whenever I was doing something rather calming, or looking to create a low-key vibe in my apartment or my car. Some of the songs had an aggressive nature to them, but it was usually short lived, as a calmer section usually came in and helped the song glide further. I never knew what Martin was singing, because I never took the time to look up the lyrics because atmosphere was the order of the day, but the sonic textures were so gorgeous, I found I didn't care. A few tracks stood out as tentpoles, such as "When You Feel Miserable", "Messed Up Over You", and the opening howler "A Housewife Love Song". 

35. THE SHAPE OF GRACE - Out of the Grey
Scott & Christine Dente carved out their own little section of CCM when Out of the Grey was introduced with their self-titled album in 1991. Pop, but not quite pop. Alternative, but not quite alternative. Acoustic, but not quite . . . oh, whatever it was called, it worked. And in the experimental age of the early 1990s, they fit right in. Christine's quirky yet angelic vocals painted exquisite pictures through melodies that were just left of center, and Scott's guitar work was creative enough to make him sound unlike his contemporary counterparts. Producer Charlie Peacock helped hone the duo's sound for this, their second album, into one that was wholly pop accessible, while not shedding their inventive nature. "Nothing's Gonna Keep Me From You" is a perfect example of what made these two so successful in their songwriting -- the layered vocals, the unexpected melodic hook of the chorus, and the sentiment expressed in the lyrics. More bouncy pop songs abound as well -- "Steady Me", "Feels Like Real Life" -- but the duo's strength was in their more tender work, and their next two albums would move to a more adult contemporary feel. Even though the instrumentation makes it sound dated, The Shape of Grace still is a pleasant listen.

34. NEW WAY TO BE HUMAN - Switchfoot
Before teaming up with Mandy Moore for a few of the band's songs to be featured on the soundtrack of the movie A Walk to Remember, Switchfoot made a splash just on their own merits. Their sophomore effort, New Way to Be Human, was a vast improvement over their debut, and the hype surrounding them was cemented as being justified. There's a lot of tension, humor, and pathos in this record, something that was rare to find with musicians in their early 20s. 

"Company Car" puts the tongue firmly in cheek regarding the acquisition of wealth and the emptiness of chasing after success, a theme they would successfully revisit many times in their career. In fact, the entire album centers around that underlying theme: we are not whole. We are pieces of ourselves, scattered about in the way we think we should be. Each song takes a look at a piece of the puzzle that makes us who we are, and points us to the only one that can helps us make sense of it all. The most personal and on-the-nose example is also probably the most perfect example of this understanding, the minimalist ballad "Let That Be Enough". Jon Foreman sings over a plucked acoustic line about how, as a young man, he knows enough to know that he doesn't know enough, and that the only thing he really needs to be content is encapsulated in the chorus:

Let me know that You hear me
Let me know Your touch
Let me know that You love me
Let that be enough

33. PHASE III - S.F.C.
dcTalk pretty much owned the rap market in CCM in the first part of the '90s, but the same year Free At Last was released, we also saw Phase III from S.F.C., who had established themselves as a perfect example of old school hip-hop. And it's a shame the former got all the attention; without Free At Last on the scene, Phase III would have been the best rap album of 1992.

From the streets of Los Angeles, Super C, Q.P. the Anointed Nubian, and DJ Dove wrapped up evangelistic hip-hop with a call to the young men of the inner cities, charging them to turn their lives over to Christ so that they can help their communities. As a white kid in the suburbs of St. Louis, I felt like I was given a pass into a world I really had no knowledge of. Compared to what these guys had to live through, my life was pretty tame, but I began to see the world through their eyes, to empathize with the poverty they were faced with, and the responsibility a young black man might have, growing up in that place and time, to the community he was from. Songs about "drive-by witnessing", the joys of praising the Lord, living in bondage, and taking a hard stand against the distractions of life are all included here. Two tracks stand high above the rest, though. One is a free-for-all DJ scratch-fest "DJ Dove (The Minister of Music)", in which the titular DJ lays down a very nice and tasty beat with various samples, followed by some impressive rapping both in English and Spanish. The second, "Kill the Spirit", begins with an opener taken from a recording of a sermon being preached in which the he refers to "the spirit of the nigger". With that, the beat kicks in, and the setting is established -- the ghetto is a harsh place where love is scarce but thugs and drugs are everywhere -- and the call is made to the men of the inner city. The call is simple: stop killing your neighbors, put away the weapons, better your mind and your community, and pull the race you belong to up out of poverty. It was a pointed, stark look the spirit of lack and poverty that has infiltrated the hearts and minds of thousands living in the inner cities. It's a hard track to hear, but one that needs to be heard.

32. BRIGHTBLUR - Massivivid
Deithiphobia was no more, or at least it appeared that way, when Massivivid dropped on the scene without so much as a how-do-you-do. I happened to see it in the local Christian bookstore, noticed it was on Tattoo Records (the imprint managed by Dan Michaels of The Choir), and decided to buy it. Many thousands of spins later, the disc is still on my shelf, and it's not likely to go anywhere else. There are songs with better melodies, with bigger hooks, and with more talented vocalists, but Massivivid's power was in taking what worked in the Deitiphobia arena and the pop/rock arena, and combining them into what the band called the "6th generation of rock and roll", according to their website. Wally Shaw and his wife Sheri Shaw teamed with Mark Nash (PFR) to create this conglomeration akin to industrial, metal, and electronic pop. It's a stark ride into the future of music, but it only gave us a glimpse of what might be possible.

"Unmade", and "Crop Circles" make use of great guitar riffs and walls of sound with swirling electronics interspersed throughout. Rhythmic pulses and off-beat rhythms help give heft to songs like "Gripped" and "...A Hand Brushed by Tired Eyes". The final three songs, however, open up by slowing the pace down and acknowledging the power of God. "Drop" is a vulnerable look at the sinful nature of addiction and fear. The closing title track hints at chaos before relenting and bringing the volume back down for the chorus, a declaration of love for the Almighty. And the uppercut punch of the album, "Forgiven" recognizes the fact that Jesus loves us so much despite our imperfections, that He would go to the cross again if we simply asked Him to. This song is the sonic equivalent to kicking down the door of an enemy boss monster in a dungeon and laying waste to everything in sight, all while reveling in the all-consuming forgiving power of the saviour. This song kick so much ass it's not even funny.

31. SWINE FLEW - One Bad Pig
I love it when musicians can weave humor into their work and make it sound fun, not corny. "Weird Al" Yankovic was a master of it, and many of his songs still retain their comedic value even decades later. One Bad Pig also had a great sense of humor (and judging from their newest record, Love You to Death, they still do), and when they were signed to Myrrh Records, the signing caused quite a stir. The Pig wasn't interested in subtlety in any fashion. Whether it was the throbbing lurch of thrash metal or the relentless headbanging goodness of punk, whether the jokes about the pain of labor or the pain of the guilt brought on by sin, everything was laid bare. The band used vintage guitars and amps to create a big, meaty sound in the studio, which helps give this album a near-timeless vibe. I remember playing their cover of "Judas' Kiss" for my sister and watching her face contort in confusion when the rhythm section kicked in. I was like, "Yeah, that's right."

Throughout the album was found the love for God this band possessed. This was music designed to remind the Christian to live a life according to the Word, and not to be as evangelistic as one would think. So in that regard, hits all the right notes. It's punk, it's metal, it's thrash, it's hyper, and it's loaded with screaming . . . the kind you can understand, though. When you combine all these elements, it's hard not to like this album. It was probably the most fun you could have being both convicted and inspired at the same time. It's really a shame that the Pig disbanded just a few years later, because their music had staying power in an ever-changing genre. Quite simply, there will never be another like One Bad Pig.

I kind of can't believe I'm getting close to the end. I've decided, though, that I'll be compiling a short list of Honorable Mentions before we get to the Top 10 on the list, because there were so many great choices, and it was very difficult to narrow down to 100 titles once I got past, like, 97. Getting those last few on the list kind of opened up the floodgates, and I found there were more than I could fit in the 100. So hold tight, because later this week, you'll see those Honorables!

Until then . . . 

There Is No Box.