The original cassette version of this mix ended up being the very last thing played in the tape deck of my old Neon in 2005, while I was driving it down to the Toyota dealership to trade it in for a Corolla. The tape was made the same year that the Neon was – in the summer of 1998. This was a very uncertain time, when I was on the verge of making an important decision that would profoundly influence the next few years of my life. That summer, I was living in an apartment in Boyle Heights with some InterVarsity friends and leaders in an experiment called “La Vida Juntos” – basically an unofficial urban mission where we simply learned to live in a poorer community, to influence and be influenced by the people there. At least, that was the idea. Personally, I spent most of my time avoiding the neighbors due to my inherent distrust of strangers, being holed up in my room with music and my journal, or chatting over Telnet with a “special someone”. It wasn’t an easy summer – four guys and four girls sharing two apartments got to feel a little crowded after a while, especially one weekend when I found out we would have no power until Monday. I wasn’t the most cooperative or helpful person to live with, and I was kind of in my own little world, mostly consumed with the task of figuring out how I truly felt about Sharon. Had I known that I would get myself into a relationship that would end in heartbreak three years later, I probably would have passed on it, but you know what, God taught me a lot as I learned to open my heart up in that way for the first time. Sometimes it’s the beauty of a transition into the unknown that really makes me look back and realize how alive a certain period of my life felt. I just never realized it at the time.
In with the New:
Out with the Old:
Listen on Spotify:
This is Collis Ave. in the El Sereno neighborhood, a street which served as a “shortcut” when riding my bike (or walking, which I tried once and it took forever) from our apartment in Boyle Heights to my job at the Wherehouse in Eagle Rock. I was able to spend time with people more that summer than the previous summer, when I was mostly isolated, living with my Mom in Pasadena. And I explored more of L.A. (at least the eastern part of it) on my bike than I otherwise would have, so now whenever I pass through a neighborhood in that area, I think of the summer of ’98.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Truce”, Jars of Clay (Much Afraid, 1997)
Nearly a year later, and my obsession with Much Afraid had only grown stronger. This oddly danceable song took me quite some time to unravel, but at some point that year I grew attached to its cryptic message about the distance between where we are and where we should be, and the way that God meets us well before halfway across that gap.
2) “In the Sky (Ohio Mix)”, Zilch (Platinum, 1997)
Gundy, who was my roommate that summer, could be a veritable cornucopia of pop culture references. Especially if it was an oft-quoted line from a popular song, and even more so if it was an oft-ridiculed one, he’d be certain to quote it and chuckle at it during a conversation. This song, which makes sly references to Joan Osborne’s “(What If God Was) One of Us” and Dishwalla’s “Counting Blue Cars” reminds me of him due to that – it kind of mocks the implications of those songs just for grins, while concluding “My God’s not in the sky, He’s here with you and I.” The song’s kind of obnoxious in that way, but amusing. (Gundy was just amusing.)
3) “Romans”, Jennifer Knapp (Kansas, 1997)
Tim lent me his copy of the first Jennifer Knapp album that summer, and I was totally hooked. This song in particular, with its bouncy guitar playing and its fiery violin interludes, was my favorite – such a simple message about no longer being a slave to one’s own sin, but something I really needed to hear during a time when I was face-to-face with my own selfishness and unwillingness to participate in true community with some of my housemates.
4) “The Grace Flood”, Supertones (Supertones Strike Back, 1997)
Another song about grace. I’m sensing an unintentional pattern here. That question of “Why do You even love me, why do You even care?” was on my mind a lot that summer, and no better way to contemplate it than with a bouncy ska-pop song, right?
5) “One Week”, Barenaked Ladies (Stunt, 1998)
I first heard this rapid-fire song while working at Wherehouse. It was just another link in the chain of events that would lead to my eventual BNL fandom, but I loved this song long before becoming a wholesale fan of the group. Most amusing to me at the time was the line “Hot like wasabi when I bust rhymes, big like Leann Rimes”, because I had previously made a crack to one of the assistant managers, who was a big rap fan, about whether Busta Rhymes and Leann Rimes were related. I guess the Ladies read my mind.
6) “Scarred But Smarter”, Model Engine (The Lean Years Tradition, 1997)
Model Engine was definitely a band for the smarter crowd. Their approach was a little bit more harsh and weary than your usual CCM rock band, and their lyrics a lot more enigmatic. I recall detailing my interpretations of each of their songs in a letter to Drew that summer, who was into the band before I was. (Yeah, people actually still wrote letters back in those days.) I remember this one coming through loud and clear – a no-holds-barred tale of regret after the breakup of an eight-year relationship. While I had yet to know that level of disappointment, I knew what it was like to be frustrated over girls who appeared to not be able to make up their minds about me after I had declared my intentions. (In truth, they made their minds up pretty quick, but often just didn’t want to hurt my feelings.) So this song is significant in that way. Drew also quoted its title to me once after pulling a stunt where he tried to ride on the outside of a moving car, fell off, and got a bit scraped up. He was now “scarred but smarter”.
7) “Wavy Gravy”, Mayfair Laundry (Scrub, 1997)
I wasn’t yet ready to admit I liked No Doubt enough to buy an album, but that summer, I got into a rather entertaining knockoff version of No Doubt. This fun little song about wants vs. needs especially caught my attention with its off-kilter 5/4 rhythm and its zany lyrics about all kinds of sweet snacks.
8) “Hey You, I Love Your Soul”, Skillet (Hey You, I Love Your Soul, 1998)
Man, I thought Skillet was a “hard” band back then. Hey You was probably the first “hard” album that I bought (though Model Engine was actually rougher, now that I think about it, and I had some older stuff by metal bands like Tamplin), and I totally wore it out this summer. I would always get excited when, during the two or three hours that our Christian radio station got to let loose and play edgy rock stuff, this song would come on with its little THX-style intro. I remember the Friday when I bought this album – that was the day I found out the power had gone out in our apartment, and after my shift ended at work, I proceeded to walk in the dark from Wherehouse to the InterVarsity House on Armadale, borrow their phone, and call my Mom and disappear to her house for the weekend. Screw community – if we didn’t have light in our own apartment, then I was out. Pretty selfish of me, I know.
9) “Sea of Forgetfulness”, Seven Day Jesus (Seven Day Jesus, 1997)
Again with the grace theme. This song nearly reduced me to tears many times that year – I loved its gently simmering approach that later grew into a prototypical late 90’s alternative CCM crescendo.
10) “Chevette”, Audio Adrenaline (Some Kind of Zombie, 1997)
I was still in the process of learning to drive that summer. My Mom, being the sacrificial person that she is, often drove all the way down from Pasadena to our apartment to pick me up and take me on driving lessons where I’d gallivant all over the San Gabriel Valley and explore different roads. Of course, I was especially attuned to songs about driving since this was still a new world for me, so this one about being a “rich poor man” with a barely functioning family car kind of caught my attention. Plus, I’ll always remember Tim and Krista holding hands and jumping up and down to this song in concert.
11) “WooHoo”, Newsboys (Step Up to the Microphone, 1998)
Back in those days, pre-releases were an extremely special thing. Step Up to the Microphone marked the first time that I got to hear an album before its release date, and since those were the days before I had any clue how to download anything (I don’t believe Napster existed in 1998 anyway), I actually ended up with this one through different means. Our receiving clerk at Wherehouse Music in those days was this a big fan Marilyn Manson, which was readily evident from the way she dressed. Every now and then, we’d get demo copies of soon-to-release CD’s that we could play in the store, and she’d always find ’em first since she got to open all of the boxes. Naturally, she wanted nothing to do with this puny “Christian music” stuff, and she was kind enough to ask me if I wanted it. Woohoo!
12) “Love Me Good”, Michael W. Smith (Live the Life, 1998)
I thought this was the dumbest song in the world when I first heard it, but you know, it grew on me. Once it did, I quickly went about the business of learning how to sing along. (I might add that later, during the summer of 1999, I actually knew a couple working out on Catalina Island who really did live in a yurt. A fellow staff member suggested that it would be really awesome to take a picture of them standing by it, eating Mongolian Barbecue.)
13) “God So Loved”, Jaci Velasquez (Jaci Velasquez, 1998)
Another dreamy Jaci V. song to remind me why I had developed an infatuation with her music a few years back. Nothing terribly profound, but it was music my Mom and I could agree on, so this one got a lot of airplay (both the English and Spanish versions) during my driving practice that summer.
14) “Standing Up for Nothing”, Caedmon’s Call (Caedmon’s Call, 1997)
There’s so much cleverness in this underrated early example of Derek Webb’s songwriting that I’m not even sure where to begin. Most striking to me was the unsettling, rising chord sequence during the bridge where he talked about how the “Lack of interest leads to knowledge leads to lack of concern…” and so on and so forth. That was me in those days – if it didn’t stand the chance of directly profiting me with a near-term payoff of happiness, then I wasn’t interested.
15) “Back of Yer Head”, The Electrics (The Electrics, 1997)
This feisty little Irish ditty about fairweather friends was definitely something I could relate to in college. I know a lot of people now who stuck by me through those years, but at the same time, I got too easily attached to some folks who just kind of looked at me strangely and slowly backed away whenever I expressed that I had drama in my life. I remember being a bit bummed that Tim wasn’t at all impressed with this band’s mix of Irish music and punk rock, but I have to say it was funny when he heard this song’s bagpipes fading in as I played this mix tape in his car, and he was like, “Nooooo!!!”
Perhaps the biggest development in my life in 1998 was the budding romance between me and Sharon. I ended up realizing toward the end of the school year that I actually did reciprocate her feelings for me, and we spent a lot of the summer chatting over Telnet via our mail accounts at Oxy (this was before the heyday of Yahoo! and all those other chat programs, or at least before we knew how they worked). I had planned to visit her in Fresno over the summer since before anything potentially romantic had even developed between us, so that July, I took Amtrak up north and we spent a weekend in her hometown. This is a picture of First Armenian Presbyterian Church, where her family attended even though none of them are Armenian. (There are a lot of Armenians in Fresno, probably second only to Glendale and Armenia itself, so I guess it was just the neighborhood church that happened to be closest to where her family lived.) I visited this church that Sunday, and while it was a bit too traditional for my tastes, I was flattered by the people she introduced me to and the good things they’d apparently been told about me. Since we weren’t yet officially boyfriend and girlfriend, her youth pastor referred to me as her “friend-boy”.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Wait and See”, Mayfair Laundry (Scrub, 1997)
“Reduce, recycle, reuse, come back a holy cow.” Alright, so this band really had a way with words. I was having a lot of conversations with different people that year about the subject of organized religion, and how they didn’t want to get involved, but rather felt that being a “good person” should be enough to win them an entrance to the afterlife. I resented how prevalent that sort of thinking was, so songs like this that mocked that worldview really appealed to me.
2) “Who I Am”, Seven Day Jesus (Seven Day Jesus, 1997)
I got perhaps the strangest comparison of a CCM artist to a mainstream artist that summer when I played the Seven Day Jesus album for Sharon during my trip to see her up in Fresno. She said that the screaming and the repeated “to you, to you, to you” remind her of Alanis Morissette. WTF?
3) “Hang You Upside Down”, Model Engine (The Lean Years Tradition, 1997)
Nothing like a fist-pumping rock song about matryrdom! This one of those that I remember Drew quoting to me, and looking back, it was a message that I kind of flinched away from during my college years. Life as a Christian is going to be tough – possibly even harder than going with the flow and just doing what you want and seeking to please everyone. I didn’t want to believe that. I wanted to believe that if I behaved as God wanted me to, God would simply reward me with all sorts of good stuff. Ultimately, yes, there will be rewards, but they might not come in this lifetime.
4) “I Will Not Go Quietly”, Steven Curtis Chapman (The Apostle Soundtrack, 1998)
Right at the end of the school year, on the last day that Sharon and I would spend together before I went off to Catalina for a week and she went home for the summer, we went to see the movie The Apostle, which was an intriguing tale of redemption starring Robert Duvall. Later that evening, she had actually offered to let me crash in her room for the night, since as a student who was not a senior and who was done with finals and not helping in any official way with graduation ceremonies, I had been asked to vacate my own room during that final “dead week” before the seniors graduated. It was totally innocent, but I still couldn’t sleep that night, since I finally admitted to myself later in the evening that I was starting to become attracted to her. I actually admitted that to her in the middle of the night at one point. It took us until October to work out for sure whether we should just go ahead and consider ourselves “boyfriend and girlfriend”, but that night was a significant event, since it was the first time I had ever confessed feelings for a girl who was as interested in me as I was in her. That made parting the next day all the more difficult, but it helped to have the summer apart to really think things through.
5) “Trinity”, Jennifer Knapp (Kansas, 1997)
I originally thought this song was boring due to its sparseness and simplicity, but in the context of Kansas, I grew to really love it. Not many CCM songs really addressed the concept of the Holy Spirit in a way that I could relate to, and even Jennifer was still learning about that concept when she wrote this song. But I really liked the idea of the Spirit praying for us, interpreting our “groanings” as expressions of desperate need to God. I think I did a lot of “groaning” that summer – wanting to pray, but not even knowing where the heck to begin, and just kind of blurting out nonsense.
6) “Entertaining Angels”, Newsboys (Step Up to the Microphone, 1998)
This was the first single from the new Newsboys album, and it got a lot of radio play that summer, so here it is. I think Sharon liked it a lot more than I did at the time, actually, mostly due to Phil Joel’s cute accent. (Replace the vowels arbitrarily with other vowels, and that’s sort of how you do a New Zealand accent.) I grew to appreciate it more later, so it was added to the CD in retrospect.
7) “Original Species”, Audio Adrenaline (Some Kind of Zombie, 1997)
The plucked strings and dark bass in this song always gave me a visual image of a tiny embryo curled up in a dark womb. While some of it may have been a cheap shot at evolution, I did appreciate how it celebrated humanity as a unique, sentient species that God created to be markedly different from the other animals. It was a good song for listening late one one of those nights when I was alone in the apartment and no one else was around.
8) “Stormy Hill”, Fold Zandura (Ultraforever, 1997)
I experimented a lot with falling asleep to music that summer. Longer tapes and CD’s tended to get used most frequently to help me tune out my thoughts about the day and just relax. Fold Zandura, despite having some harder-edged songs, had a sort of ambiance on the generously long Ultraforever that I enjoyed having on in the background as I slept, and I’d recall bits and pieces of the songs as I heard them faintly while drifting in and out of sleep, and then go back and listen more carefully to pick up those memorable moments later. This song seemed like a natural fit, since it talks about falling awake, whatever that means.
9) “Torn”, All Star United (All Star United, 1997)
This song is really the crux of what I was dealing with that summer. Sharon and I had expressed some measure of feeling for each other before she went away for the summer, and now we were left to contemplate how we felt long-distance. Sometimes I missed her terribly and couldn’t wait for the school year to start. Sometimes I was afraid, not really sure if she was all that I wanted in a girlfriend, or if I knew how to treat her well as a boyfriend, and I just stalled for time. I knew I was keeping her waiting, and it wasn’t fair to her, but I had to ask myself what the implications were if we dated, knowing that her idea of Christian faith and mine didn’t exactly line up, and that could lead to some problems down the road.
10) “Much Afraid”, Jars of Clay (Much Afraid, 1997)
Thre was a lot of holy fear and trembling that summer as I tried to work out my feelings. On the one hand, I felt that I didn’t even deserve a girlfriend, so why should I even be considering with when I hadn’t cleaned up my own personal mess yet? On the other hand, I could see that God was possibly using this to stretch me and to mature me. Sharon and I had many conversations online that summer – just simple text messaging over a clunky Telnet interface at Oxy, with both of us logging in remotely. It was a strange combination – the giddiness of possibly falling in love, and the fear that I was getting myself into something I wouldn’t be able to get out of if I changed my mind. I was quite literally “much afraid” of where God was going to take me next, and I often let my personal demons convince me that I wasn’t good enough to really deserve this.
11) “Bird of Heaven”, Iona (Beyond These Shores, 1993)
I really started to get more into Beyond These Shores that summer, after having listened to all of Iona’s old stuff on and off throughout the year. This 9-minute epic about the foolish attempts of man to capture God in a box really captivated me. God was redefining, through everything that happened that summer, my understanding of what He would and would not do. AMAZING guitar solos in this one.
12) “Adonai”, Avalon (A Maze of Grace, 1997)
Another choice of artist that my Mom and I could agree on. She loved with this song, and it was definitely one of the better worship songs to come out that year. Its language of timidly approaching an infinitely big God really resonated with me back then.
13) “My Will”, dc Talk (Exodus, 1998)
Man, does anyone remember the days when it was actually a novel concept for a bunch of big-name CCM artists to get together and record a worship album? Exodus was ahead of its time, and I remember how excited Tim and I were to get our hands on it, marveling at how some of our favorite groups, like dc Talk and Jars of Clay, could blend in so well with the obvious production stamp of Michael W. Smith. This song, which really dug into the theme of surrender and how hard it was to win the battle with self, helped to tide us over until the release of the long-awaited Supernatural.
14) “Let Me Show You the Way”, Michael W. Smith (Live the Life, 1998)
Tim insisted that I was “cheating” (according to my own rules) by having two songs in a row that the same artist (MWS) played on – I remarked that they weren’t credited to the same artist, so therefore it was OK. Anyway, this song of encouragement to a friend seemed like a good note to end on – a symbol of someone being there to offer a hand and help me up out of the mire of my own personal low perception of myself.