So here we are, at the very tip-top of a list of albums that either had a profound impact on me during the most formative decade of my life, or that I got to belatedly and only wished I could have appreciated back in those days. I’ve already covered the entirety of my personal history from that decade, so what’s left?
Well, I’d be remiss to not discuss how the very ways we consume music have changed in the 20+ years since the turn of the millennium. With renegade file-sharing services leading to thorny legal battles and the eventual rise of music streaming services as a compromise, it’s become a whole lot easier to have almost the entire library of all popular music made in this era at my fingertips. A project of this magnitude simply wouldn’t be feasible without a subscription to Spotify, or an equivalent service. That’s what makes the music available, but I’ve only used it since 2013, and I only sometimes pay attention to its recommendations for newer music its algorithm thinks I might stand a chance of liking, so it’s not directly responsible for the vast majority of my belated classic 90s album discoveries.
For that, I largely have friends to thank – many of whom are people I’ve never met in person. If you’d told me back in the 90s that some of the people who would have the strongest impact on my musical tastes later in my life would be folks I primarily knew as screen names and avatars, I’d have thought you were crazy. But the rise of message boards and later social media made it incredibly easy to find groups of like-minded people (some in Christian music forums in the early 2000s, some just fellow music geeks from vastly different walks of life later on), with whom I could debate my likes and dislikes and the reasons behind them, and who would often challenge my preconceived notions when it came to artists or bands I’d gotten unfair first impressions of and thought were simply “not for me”. Writing for the now-defunct consumer review site Epinions.com also led to my meeting a lot of these folks and honing my observational skills when it came to really digging into the details of an album and articulating what I thought were its pros and cons. I miss that community sometimes, and this WordPress blog was started as an alternative outlet when the site went kaput.
And of course, I can’t go without mentioning my wife, who was a complete stranger to me in the 90s, but who quickly became the closest friend and companion I’d ever have after we met online in 2002 and married in 2005. We actually had a lot in common in terms of musical tastes when we met, along with the feeling that they were often misunderstood or maligned by our peers back when we were both in school, and it’s been fun to revisit those years and bond over our similar experiences with some of the music from back then at various points throughout our relationship. A lot of the stuff on the mushier, more sentimental side of the equation that I enjoyed back then, felt like it was helping me to describe dreams and life goals that would later be achieved as our two stories intertwined.
And now, the moment I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for (or at least, that I’m excited to finally get published after an entire year of working on this insane project)… the Top 20, the absolute best of the best, my all-time, can’t-talk-me-out-of-’em, never-gonna-grow-tired-of-’em favorites from the 1990s. Enjoy!
20. Newsboys – Take Me to Your Leader (1996)
First Listen: 1996
This was a landmark album for a Christian rock band still riding the first big wave of their fame after racking up a lot of hits from the albums Not Ashamed and Going Public. By that point, their drum loop-heavy take on highly danceable alternative rock was starting to show its age, so they went more raw and organic with their sound this time around, still keeping most of the material upbeat and insanely catchy, but ditching most of the programmed stuff in favor of live drums and keyboards, getting more aggressive on a few of the rockers, and showing that they still had a lot of clever songwriting tricks up their collective sleeves. This was both the first album that they recorded with bassist Phil Joel (who co-wrote on a few tracks and snagged a few lead vocal spots here and there), and the last album with original frontman John James (who had always shared the spotlight with drummer Peter Furler, with their gravelly Aussie voices often being indistinguishable to casual listeners). With producer Steve Taylor once again contributing his punny and witty wordplay to eight of these eleven tracks, the band was absolutely on fire here, with a somewhat short but highly engaging record that was entertaining and thought-provoking from beginning to end. The hard-hitting “God Is Not a Secret” opened it up with a rebuke of pressure from the mainstream market to dumb down the God talk – this wasn’t a band that was content to speak only in metaphors, and they made it abundantly clear how much they hated the notion of having to disguise their faith in a song that still had plenty of room for clever quips instead of just phoning in a Sunday school lesson like a lot of Christian bands were tempted to do. The title track, with its cute, alien-sounding guitar licks, might have had the highest pun-per-minute ratio of any Newsboys song ever, with the lyrics requiring a few run-throughs to fully catch all the double meanings in James’s rapid-fire delivery – sure, this was basically goading listeners into being on the lookout for opportunities to proselytize to their neighbors, but given that, it was more brilliantly written than the vast majority of CCM songs on the subject. “Reality”, with its disco-inspired beat and its humorous lyrics about a prodigal son who had run away to join the circus, was one of many runaway Christian radio hits; “It’s All Who You Know” was a lesser-known track with a similarly danceable groove in the album’s back half (and like dang near every track from this album, it too saw success as a radio single). In his first songwriting contributions to the band, Phil Joel helped to shape the blisteringly loud “Cup o’ Tea”, which opened with an iconic bass riff and some motor-mouthed witticisms from Peter Furler, and also “Breathe”, which appeared in two drastically different versions – first as an angry, cathartic rocker that followed the title track with an admission that some days even big-name Christian celebrities who get paid to spread the good news to adoring audiences can end up hating having to be constant extroverts and just needing a few moments to catch their breath and reconnect with God, and later in its “Benediction” form at the end of the album, a weary acoustic ballad that reused the very same chorus of “Breathe on me, breathe, O breath of God” as a mellow closing prayer to wrap things up on an honest but graceful note. That track followed what is quite possibly the most intense and unnerving song in the Newsboys canon – the Furler-penned “Lost the Plot”, which was stripped down to just a distorted guitar and his angry, dejected voice for its opening verses, finding a man at the point of complete exhaustion and frustration over not getting what he wanted from God, ultimately getting smacked in the face by the realization that God being good doesn’t mean that God is Santa Claus, and God’s plan doesn’t involve giving everyone who prays what they want at all times. It’s a complete 180 from the usual tone of a Newsboys song, and it’s my all-time favorite of theirs due to how well the musical tension and Furler’s honest confessions build up to a claustrophobic breakdown in its climax, leading to an unresolved cliffhanger of an ending. Probably the most talked about song here was “Breakfast”, now the #2 most classic Newsboys song that still must be played at every single one of their concerts after “Shine”, with its silly puns on just about every type of cereal and breakfast food the band could think of, serving as an awkward but amusing metaphor for a Christian’s readiness for death and the assurance that their loved ones should be able to celebrate with certainty even while they mourn the person’s loss. Its assertion that “They don’t serve breakfast in hell” seems unnecessarily blunt to me nowadays, but I still can’t deny that the bouncy rhythm, the band’s offbeat sense of humor, and the whistled bridge make it impossible to resist. The ‘boys would never make another album like this, though I honestly don’t blame that on James’s departure – he was one of those lead vocalists who focused on just that one thing and let the rest of the band handle the songwriting and instrumental duties. They went on to make some fun stuff (and a few rather tedious worship albums) with Furler as their frontman until he stepped down in 2009, and since then they’ve inexplicably had dc Talk member Michael Tait on lead vocal duties – he’s a fantastic singer, but he just doesn’t have the sort of witty and wacky personality needed to provide that old Newsboys charm. If you’ve heard any modern-day Newsboys songs and don’t think they’re for you, just keep in mind that the classic lineup was essentially a completely different band – and I believe that Take Me to Your Leader was that band’s finest hour.
19. U2 – Achtung Baby (1991)
First Listen: 2001
U2 in the 90s made a conscious choice to deconstruct the familiar tropes established by U2 in the 80s. At one point they even described Achtung Baby as “The sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree“, which must have been alarming for fans who loved that classic album, but perhaps it was cathartic to a band who now found it to be an albatross, an impossible act to follow. A retreat to Berlin right around the time of German reunification, and some tense discord over what to do next that very nearly broke up the band, resulted in an almost complete reinvention of their sound. Now there were electronic noises and programmed drums and experimental guitar tones and all sorts of musical ideas U2 had never toyed around with before, replacing the familiar, delay-heavy guitar melodies, the speedy and militant drumming, and the straight-laced spiritual earnestness of their most beloved material up to that point. I wasn’t there at the time to react to this; I’m imagining it must have been controversial. But getting to know Achtung Baby in the early 2000s, after being only familiar with a few of their classic hits and working my way backwards from their then-newest album All that You Can’t Leave Behind, was a fun process. I pretty quickly overcame my skepticism and my tendency to wince at some of its goofier lyrics, and I appreciated Bono’s willingness to kind of take a sidelong glance at his own pompous tendencies, whether that meant writing an uplifting rock anthem that could have doubled for a product jingle (“Even Better than the Real Thing”, which knew exactly what it was doing when it referenced the Coca-Cola slogan), writing about the betrayal of Jesus from the perspective of Judas (“Until the End of the World”), taking on the persona of a cynical, washed-out demon of a rock star to corrupt the creative process of a younger and more hopeful artist in the making (“The Fly”, or at least that’s what I think all of Bono’s whispering and hissing might be about in that song), drawing ambiguous lines between sensuality and spirituality (the bouncy single “Mysterious Ways”, which might be about a lover who gives a man a heavenly experience, or might be about the Holy Spirit), and leaving listeners with zero comfort by ending the record on a total downer of a ballad that equates violent fanaticism with true love (“Love Is Blindness”, my favorite track on the album and definitely one my ultimate dark horse picks from the entire U2 catalogue). The Edge may not have sounded like his old self on a lot of these songs, but he certainly sounded edgy and alien on several of them, whether he was imitating the sound of a train door closing (the opening track “Zoo Station”), the sound of a sad, torrential downpour with lightning striking the earth as a jilted lover lamented the woman who left him (“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”), or just sounding like a total badass in general (“The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways” once again, as well as “Acrobat”, just to name a few). Larry Mullen, Jr. may have sounded like he was banging on strange metallic objects and having those sounds played back in a loop, rather than relying on his familiar snares and toms, but there’s a unique charm to the percussion on this record that U2 would never quite duplicate, not even on later records where they took a more electronic approach. The closest thing to a “traditional” U2 ballad, with a soaring chorus and a generally uplifting resolution to the dramatic conflict laid out in its verses, was “One”, now rightfully known as one of U2’s all-time biggest hits but even that had some weirdly bluesy guitar licks and a ton of lyrical ambiguity that made it malleable to a number of situations listeners might be going through when they felt rejected by the people who should have been showing them unconditional love. Bono’s lyrics were still quite Jesus-obsessed on a number of these songs, but they also questioned religious social constructs and authorities in a way that probably made a lot of believers uncomfortable, and I’d argue they needed to be made uncomfortable. This would only be the beginning of a decade that U2 spent largely courting controversy, but for all of its weird sounds and its lyrical cynicism and alienation, Achtung Baby still stands proud 30 years later as a bold, career-invigorating reboot of a band that had very nearly squandered its shot at a second chance.
18. Steve Taylor – Squint (1993)
First Listen: 1995
If there had been an award for “Best Satirical Christian Rocker” in the 90s, Steve Taylor would have won it handily, and during his acceptance speech, I’m sure he would have remembered to thank the other ZERO nominees. OK, I’m probably exaggerating – it’s not like no one else ever thought to leverage the insular subculture of evangelical Christianity to poke fun at the haughtiest, most high-and-mighty hypocrites among us (a category which, if you’re a savvy listener, you can’t say with certainty excludes you). They just hadn’t pulled it off with the aplomb that Taylor did. He pretty much hit the ground running when the alternative rock revolution came along, first forming the short-lived band Chagall Guevara in the early 90s, then bringing some of the grit and grunge back to his solo work for Squint in ’93. This record is merciless at times – and it gets away with it by being pretty funny, too – but there’s also a strong dose of sincerity in a handful of these songs, just to make it clear that he didn’t just write songs to sneer at people he didn’t like. “Smug”, which has one hell of an addictive drum groove, is probably the heaviest hitter on this record in terms of skewering Church culture, basically offering us a recipe for what religious elites should look and sound like if they’re going to pull off the pompous piety needed to run a punishingly exclusive club. Here he likens the petty infighting between Christians in a contest for holy bragging rights to the fiddlers happily playing away as Rome burned. “The Moshing Floor” tackles criticisms of rock & roll and the culture surrounding it, daring to suggest that the parents pointing their fingers at the scary teen trend of the week might share in the culpability if they expect to tune out while using pop culture as a babysitter. “Easy Listening”, while the sound of it is anything but (Taylor’s gravelly voice doesn’t lend itself well to constipated reggae-rock, and I’m sure that’s exactly the point) is an amusing little communique from the year 2044, a point at which the Christian radio gatekeepers have grown tired of anything adventurous or challenging, and are just trying their best to keep lulling an audience into submission. (He was off by about 40 years, but hey.) And “Cash Cow”, the bizarre rock opera that closes the album, is a rock opera with a truly surreal and demented narrative that skewers our worship of capitalism so thoroughly that there won’t be much of anything edible left to pick off of the hibachi. Taylor also satirizes the extremes of self-centered self-actualization on the laboriously titled opener, “The Lament of Desmond R.G. Underwood-Frederick IV”, which is a fun rocker sung from the point of view of a man who’s just been given his expiration date by the doctor, who now realizes a lot of the time he spent ditching out on his family, his community, and his responsibilities just to “find himself” was utterly wasted now that he’s about to meet his Maker. And deadbeat dads get a hearty thumbs down on the dark, droning “Curses”. The provocatively “Jesus Is for Losers” turns the lens inward on any of us who are nodding our heads in agreement with all Taylor’s critiques of the silly things other people do, noting that we’re all a bunch of blind beggars stumbling in the dark, and anyone who pretends otherwise really doesn’t get what this whole Jesus thing is supposed to be about. The drum loop-heavy and mildly psychedelic “Sock Heaven”, featuring the formidable pipes of Ashley Cleveland, ponders the long-term viability of Taylor’s career in an industry where he often feels like the mismatched sock that nobody wants any more. “The Finish Line” is a twisty, turny, angsty ballad at the end of Side One, which follows a believer through the stages of faith from being newly converted, to hitting a challenging wall that makes keeping the faith seem impossible (and all the scorn he gets from his fellow Christians for seemingly washing out at that point), to finally picking himself up and dusting himself off and realizing that there’s no such thing as being so far gone that you don’t get another try. The genuine joy that wins out over cynicism at the end of that one is one of the most inspiring moments in all of 90s Christian rock. And just to show that Taylor isn’t jaded about every single aspect of Christian culture, the single “Bannerman”, with its irresistibly silly vocal hook hitting you right smack on the head at the beginning, is a wholeheartedly unironic tribute to those dudes who hold up “John 3:16” banners at football games. Taylor’s got plenty of clever quips and unusual rhymes to make as he describes their unusual devotion to their craft – but there’s no critique here, he just thought it was actually pretty cool. Did I mention that all ten of these tracks, in their own weird way, absolutely rock? And that music videos (directed by Taylor himself, who was becoming known as one of the best in the biz at this point) were made for all of them? Yeah, Squint isn’t just an album, it’s an experience. It’s also the last thing Taylor did, at least as a solo act, before transitioning full-time to directing, producing, and (for a few years at least) running his own label that he named after this album. As far as I’m concerned, he was the singular best influence on Christian rock at a time when it was at a real crossroads.
17. U2 – Pop (1997)
First Listen: 2001
Achtung Baby might have been controversial when it was new to U2 fans, but Pop, which came six years and two albums later, seems to still be controversial. Tell a fellow U2 fan your favorite album of theirs is Achtung Baby, and even if they disagree (most likely because they prefer one of the band’s classic 80s albums), that will generally still be taken as an acceptable answer, because history has been quite kind to that one. Tell ’em you like Pop more than all the others, and they’ll probably look at you funny. Shoot, even the members of U2 seem to have distanced themselves from this one in a hurry, thanks to the rehabilitation of their “earnest rock band with spiritual overtones” image that started with All that You Can’t Leave Behind at the turn of the millennium. Pop will probably go down in the memory of most U2 fans as an experiment that didn’t work, a troubled production that was rushed because the band made the mistake of booking a massive tour before finishing the album it was supposed to be based on, and for some rather vocal listeners, an absolute betrayal of the image they’d spent the 80s cultivating. OK, so those are all the criticisms. Why do I like this weird mutant of an album so much? For starters, I’m a sucker for electronica-influenced dance/rock, and U2 delivers some absolute bangers in that department right at the top of the album. As bizarre as it was for a band that once sang with dead seriousness about wars and poverty and apartheid and religious genocide and such to suddenly put out a deliberately “bubblegum” single like “Discothèque” that seemed to be about nothing deeper than giving into the urge to dance to the “boom-cha!” beat, the single gave one hell of an impression, and I think it did so with a knowing wink and a nudge. The booty-shaking bass of “Do You Feel Love” and the incendiary synth samples and chewed-up drum loops of “Mofo” draw the listener even deeper into a maze of disorienting sounds, an approximation of 90s dance music trends in a “modern rock” context. These songs touched on dangerous and demented themes, with the first confusing abusive and violent treatment for actual love, and the second arguably skirting the line of good taste while Bono grappled with lingering mommy issues left over from the untimely death of his mother way back in his teenage years. You’re never quite sure if that song’s going to go to a vulgar place when he’s at the peak of his frustration, and the tension is part of what makes it such an engrossing listen. Once the album settles into its mellower midsection, it starts to become more clear that U2 is deliberately blurring the lines between religion and the trashier elements of pop culture, with the phrasing in songs like “If God Will Send His Angels” and “The Playboy Mansion” deliberately echoing the religious fervor of some of their old lyrics, even while the delivery is more dejected and cynical, as if to say that crass commercialism has replaced Bono’s once more idealistic view of God or Jesus, and this is basically the dark road you end up going down when you can’t tell the difference between the two. “Last Night on Earth”, which may or may not be about the apocalypse or the Second Coming of Christ, is the closest this album gets to a “traditional” rocker – you can tell that some of the seams are showing in terms of how the guitar riffs are spliced together with the drum programming and the more synthetic production choices, but it’s an interesting portrait of a woman who drives herself to the point of exhaustion, living it up in what she believes are going to be her final days. “Gone”, which opens the second half of the album with its siren-like, screeching synths, turns out to be both one of the most memorable tracks on the record and a rare moment of sincerity, with Bono turning the lens inward on his celebrity lifestyle and wondering how out-of-touch it’s made him with the things that ultimately matter. “Miami”, probably one of the lowest-hanging fruits on the tree in terms of U2 songs that people like to make fun of for being terrible, is actually a song that I enjoy quite a bit. Its trashy drum loop, off-key bass line, and one-chord riffing certainly won’t be for everyone, nor will its rather silly lyrics about partying with supermodels on a Florida beach, but the thing is, U2 has done such a good job of world-building with this album that I totally buy into the ludicrous narrative. If, as “The Playboy Mansion” implies, the most superficial and ephemeral elements of pop culture are the things we revere and construct ritual acts of worship around, then “Miami” is basically this religion’s Nirvana. The album ends on one hell of a somber note with the one-two punch of “Please”, which calls out fake piety on both sides of the ongoing Troubles in Ireland as Protestant and Catholic leaders try and fail to work out their problems diplomatically while a violent and bloody Gospel gets preached by their foot soldiers, and “Wake Up Dead Man”, an alarmingly dark ballad which basically calls God out for being asleep at the wheel. That last one was probably the bridge too far for a lot of religious U2 fans who had cheered the band on for weaving their faith into their music so articulately back in the 80s – the song’s use of the dreaded f-word along with its seeming abandonment of their faith didn’t sit well with a lot of folks who had probably already been watching them nervously throughout the Achtung Baby and Zooropa era. It is not a comforting ending, to be sure, but there’s actually something quite Psalm-like about it – go back and read some of the not-so-happy passages written by David or Solomon back in the day and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the sort of despair that turns out to be a logical conclusion, given this album’s obsession with exploring the consequences of idolizing pop culture. Was it a bit of a rushed and heavy-handed sermon on the topic? Yeah, kinda. But I find Pop utterly engrossing every time I go back to it, and while it’s definitely tempting to go with a safer choice like War, The Joshua Tree, or Achtung Baby, this record is still an incredibly strong contender whenever I stop to think about which U2 album I genuinely enjoy the most.
16. The Corrs – Forgiven, Not Forgotten (1995)
First Listen: 2000
I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a weakness for Celtic instrumentation. It’s not like I seek out a lot of traditional Celtic folk music or anything, but when bits of that instrumentation make their way into modern pop and rock music, I’m almost always thrilled with the results. I sorely regret missing out on The Corrs when they were in their heyday – by the time I got into the band, their Irish-ness was largely an afterthought and they were recording pure bubblegum pop/rock singles like “Breathless” which weren’t bad, but they also weren’t terribly distinctive. Going back to the mid-90s when they debuted, they were absolutely a pop band at that point too, but all four of the Corr siblings contributed instrumentation that grafted their heritage into their modern songwriting sensibilities in a believable way. Lead singer Andrea Corr also played the tin whistle, while her eldest sister Sharon played the violin, with these two instruments often leading the charge when a song needed the kind of instrumental break that would get the listener imagining young lovers eloping to some private getaway far across the endless, rolling green hills. Caroline, the middle sister and the band’s drummer, often played the bodhrán to give certain songs an extra cinematic flair, while their brother Jim primarily played guitar, and could switch on a dime from restrained acoustic folk to flashy arena rock when the situation called for it. Three of the four members could also play piano, which was a prominent instrument on several of the ballads. And the tight, sisterly vocal harmonies often reminded me of an Irish Wilson Phillips. Snippets of traditional Irish tunes were woven throughout, mostly acting as interludes between the band’s gorgeous love songs, with “Erin Shore” practically serving as the band’s theme music, briefly introducing the album before the title track kicked in, and then coming back around for a lengthy instrumental outro at the very end. And that title track was definitely the right sort of thing to kick off an adventure with, finding a young woman pining for a man she’d broken up with in a fit of rage, realizing she’d gotten over the hurt he caused her, but hadn’t yet gotten over the love she felt for him, with that feeling serving as the catalyst for a heroic voyage in the hopes of tracking him down. The instantaneous transition from that song to “Heaven Knows”, with its upbeat drums and Sharon’s frolicking violin parts, was pure genius, the song making my heart leap even as Andrea moped that “sadness fills my life” upon realizing her lover had chosen to leave her for another woman, and there would be no winning him back. “Someday” flipped that perspective on its head, finding her urging her partner that the passion was gone, it was time to call it quits and move on, and he’d understand this and forget all about her someday when he was happy with someone else. After all the angst of unrequited love, along comes “Runaway”, one of the band’s biggest singles and hands down one of the most decadent love songs ever written, thanks to the way Andrea’s vocals interweaved with Sharon’s violin and the romance novel-esque lyrics urging a lover she’d absconded with to enjoy their night of passion and solitude because their time together was too precious to waste. “The Right Time” was a bouncy single that really shouldn’t have worked, with reggae-esque keyboards mingling with the whistle and violin, merging unlikely influences to create one of their sunniest and gooiest pop songs. Then came a medley of two traditional Irish instrumentals – first a solemn rendition of “The Minstrel Boy” on violin, followed by a rousing, modern rock take on “Toss the Feathers”, which would go on to become one of the band’s live show highlights. If one had any doubts about this band merely being a bunch of pretty voices serving as figureheads for plastic manufactured pop music being filled in by session players, that little number should have shaken them loose. While the back half of this album has a few dodgy moments (I always thought “Love to Love You” and “Leave Me Alone” were a bit on the bland side, and “Secret Life”, while it’s a fun rocker, is a bit corny in its sudden desire to talk about how great the whole subject of religion and spirituality is when the rest of the album has absolutely nothing to do with it), you definitely don’t want to tune out before “Closer”, an arresting piano ballad with a tricky progression and possibly Andrea’s most gorgeous vocals on the entire record. The Corrs would go on to find even greater success with their 1997 album Talk on Corners (the general public’s obsession with all things Celtic in the wake of Titanic and Riverdance probably helped), but by then the magic was gone, at least for me – it had a designed-by-committee sort of feel that made the Irish instrumentation feel like more of a sideshow than the main draw, and I don’t think the band fully shook that off until they did a more low-key collection of traditional Irish songs for the album Home in 2005, after which they took an extended hiatus. The Corrs’ debut remains the one album they made where they were able to walk the tightrope between pop, rock, and traditional Irish music, and make it sound like exactly the thing they were born to do.
15. Burlap to Cashmere – Anybody Out There? (1998)
First Listen: 1998
My surprise infatuation with Rusted Root (mentioned in an earlier installment of this list) makes a lot more sense when I remember that their fusion of folk/rock and worldbeat styles was probably an early influence on Burlap to Cashmere. Throw in some Greek influence on top of that, thanks to the heritage of lead singer Steven Delopoulos and guitarist Johnny Philippidis, as well as a Latin-influenced rhythm section, and you’ve got one heck of a fun cultural melting pot for this band to use as a starting point. While the most attention-grabbing songs tend to be the up-tempo and otherworldly ones with addictive rhythmic syncopation and Johnny’s lightning-fast acoustic runs, like the lead single “Basic Instructions”, the title track, and “Skin Is Burning”, this band also knew how to shine brightly on the ballads, thanks to the rich harmonies that would often back up Steven’s weathered, Cat Stevens-esque lead vocals, and his unique lyrical style, which hit enough of the familiar Biblical references for this band to get a ton of acclaim in Christian circles, but could just as easily be abstract and obscure, leaving it to the listener to piece together what a song was really about. Sometimes this led to smooth, soulful love songs like the single “Eileen’s Song”, which I think even got a bit of mainstream attention, or more adult-contemporary leaning compositions like the subtle but lovely “Treasures in Heaven”, but then sometimes you got a thorny maze of a lyric like “Chop Chop” that took some real effort to untangle. This band liked to play with polyrhythms and unusual time signatures too, which is one way that the Greek influence made itself known – they throw you right into the deep end with that on “Digee Dime”, which is a total party of a song that immediately whisks me away to a Greek villa on some Mediterranean island, and they get downright eerie with it on “Divorce”, a dramatic and cynical song that finds two people at a complete impasse and unwilling to trust each other, bitterly going their separate ways. “Scenes” is another creepy tune, with its stomping, syncopated rhythm and its sweeping acoustic melody running up and down the scale sounding like the score to an epic war film, complete with an unhinged rant and repeated cries of “We’re gonna take over the world!” at the end of the song to drive home the idea that these were the ramblings of a megalomaniacal warlord. (I’m pretty sure Squint label boss Steve Taylor had a cameo in that one. It seems right up his alley.) “Good Man” and “Ancient Man” even showed a slight bit of country influence, which Steven would explore a bit here and there on his generally more down-tempo solo material, while the closing track “Mansions” had a bit more of a soul/Gospel feel to it, thanks to the rousing chorus that came in at the end. This album was such a beautiful merging of intelligent artistry and formidable musical talent with accessible hooks and just enough of a faith-based message to garner acclaim in the CCM world without being bound to a lot of its usual constraints. It was hard to believe this was the band’s debut, since they arrived already sounding incredibly seasoned. The wait for album #2 would be incredibly frustrating, what with their label folding in the early 21st century, the band suffering a number of lineup changes and other personal mishaps, and Steven taking a detour for those aforementioned solo albums. It took thirteen years for that next album to arrive, but the band came back strong like they’d never even missed a beat. That makes Burlap to Cashmere the rare band to rank on my best-of lists for both the 1990s and the 2010s, despite being almost a complete non-entity during the 2000s (though Steven’s solo debut Me Died Blue admirably picked up the slack during that decade).
14. Five O’Clock People – The Nothing Venture (1999)
First Listen: 2000
This little-known folk/rock band from Oregon had gotten its name from a parable in the Bible – the “Five O’Clock People” were the ones who showed up to work the field at the tail end of the day, and yet still got the same payout as those who were there at the crack of dawn. Intriguing origin story, though I can actually credit my discover of the band to a bit of confusion with a completely different band. A friend who knew that I was a fan of Five Iron Frenzy had bought this CD online, thinking it was them, and she was in for quite a surprise, as this sure as heck wasn’t ska. It turned out to be a happy accident, though, as we were both spellbound by how much this band could do with an almost completely unplugged sound. I often credit Nickel Creek for being one of the primary bands that got me into a lot more folk music in the 2000s, but Five O’Clock People might have even paved the way for my appreciation of them. This band’s music was often delicate and down-tempo, centered around the lyrical work of Alex Walker and Drew Grow, who both played guitar (acoustic most of the time, though the electric got used for mood and texture on a few tracks), and who would trade off lead and backing vocals pretty much seamlessly. Violinist Patrick Tetreault was their secret weapon, weaving stunning melody lines and solos into several of these tracks, while drummer Andy Uppendahl gave even some of the band’s sparsest tracks a rhythmic grounding with his intriguing percussive techniques, and bassist Kris Doty was one of the first to really get me to appreciate the sound of the upright bass, which she used almost exclusively on this record. The result was a sound that somewhat resembled both the lushness and the angst of an unplugged Toad the Wet Sprocket, and if you were into the more folksy side of Christian rock bands like Jars of Clay and Caedmon’s Call, then this was basically more of an earthy, coffeehouse-friendly version of that. The band signaled early on that they weren’t into the “easy answers” brand of Christian rock with the sparse, uneasy, mandolin-infused “Lunar”, a confession that the process of maturing in faith often felt “darker and wetter” rather than “warmer and brighter”, yet God would often show up profoundly in some of those dark places. “Blame”, originally by LSU (the band, not the university), paid tribute to an earlier Christian rock act that wasn’t afraid to go to darker places. Tracks like the driving, harmonica-infused “So Far Gone”, the slow, creeping, ambient number “Glass” with its heavily distorted bass and guitar feedback overlaid on delicate acoustic finger-picking, and “Same Old Line” examined the effects of a mental health crisis on relationships, whether it was a suicidal young man needing to be talked down from the ledge after a difficult breakup, an abusive woman threatening to break a fragile man, or just a guy dodging well-meaning questions from concerned friends and family by constantly insisting he was fine. Alex Walker sometimes struck me as a rather reclusive frontman, both due to the introspective lyrics he tended to write, and his shy stage demeanor the one time my friend and I were fortunate enough to catch the band live. His anguished ballad “Sorry”, which read like an “It’s not you, it’s me” sort of confession from a man too tied up in his own doubts to feel like it was fair for him to string a woman along in a lukewarm relationship, is the crown jewel of this album, and I’ve often cited it as my favorite breakup song of all time. The fiddle solo in that one is an absolute jaw-dropper, and the way that the drums and Alex’s increasingly more tense and frustrated lyrics gradually start to boil over leading into its climax gives me the good chills every single time. It’s not all self-flagellation and glum moping around, though – “Remain” is a rousingly upbeat, bluegrass-leaning tune that kicks off the second half of the album in grand style, and “This Day”, with its confident lead in from Kris’s upright bass, is the closest that the band ever came to radio success, with its chorus proudly proclaiming “This day everything changes”. The accordion-heavy “Now I Sing” and Patrick Tetreault’s turn at lead vocals on the praise song he penned, “Living Water”, gave a much-needed touch of lightness and gratitude to an otherwise emotionally heavy record, and they rang true because they felt like a response to being lifted up out of the miry pit that the circumstances of the preceding songs had described. The concluding track, “Fall Silent”, was definitely the one that took me the longest to appreciate, with a rhythm so slow and spacious that it almost sounded like the band was ready to nod off to sleep at any moment – there’s some beautiful slide guitar work in that one, and it ends the record on a whispered note of redemption, its writer expressing relief that despite all of his stumbling around in the dark, God has always gently pointed him in the direction of grace. Sadly, this was the only true full-length studio LP for this short-lived band, as they’d only put out a handful of independent EPs before it, and they disappeared not long after a live album surfaced in the early 2000s, only briefly reforming in 2008 to give us a new eight-song set called Temper Temper. (And you will find precisely none of these releases on Spotify.) Past that, Five O’Clock People seem to have completely dropped off the face of the earth, and saying that I miss them dearly would be a huge understatement.
13. All Star United – All Star United (1997)
First Listen: 1997
Anyone remember Ian Eskelin? He did a couple albums of CCM dance-pop in the mid-90s; from what little I remember hearing, it was pretty corny. Apparently the “alternative revolution” that saw a lot of CCM pop acts adding a lot more “crunch” to their sound in the back half of the 90s inspired Ian to form a band, and they turned out to be one of the funnest bands of the decade. (And yes, I said “funnest” – this is the type of music that would appeal to people who don’t care that “funnest” is not a real world, because it’s fun to say regardless.) All Star United hit the ground running – no, strike that, full on sprinting – with this action-packed debut that threw a bunch of power pop, Britpop, and alternative rock influences into a blender and hit frappe, coming up with a recipe that was sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes sincere, and sometimes just plain silly, but in all cases it was a total blast to listen to. “La La Land”, one of the funniest satirical CCM songs of all time, kicked things off with a merciless skewering of self-centered Christian subculture – basically thinking God’s there to help you find good parking spaces and get you out of speeding tickets and so forth, while ignoring all the passages in the Bible that actually challenge your comfort zone. That and the petulant, stomping “Smash Hit”, which the band had the audacity to put out as their first radio single, were ASU (again, not a university!) at their most facetious, with the latter stepping on the toes of Christian commercialism and our habit of giving a pass to anything that seemed to cheerlead for Jesus and could reliably bring in cash for the people at the top of the corporate food chain, regardless of its actual quality. The other eight songs on this album didn’t have quite the same lyrical bite to them, but they managed to express interesting concepts – sometimes faith-based and sometimes more relational – in novel ways. “Bright Red Carpet” imagined a person’s arrival at the pearly gates as a flashy, paparazzi-flooded gala that put any earthly fashion show to shame. “Angels” ran a veritable obstacle course through some tricky chord changes and spot-on vocal harmonies, seemingly coming off as a cautionary tale about a lost young girl who had wandered outside the safety of the fold, but ultimately expressing assurance that those who wander are not lost, and there’s nowhere a person could go that is outside of God’s grace and God’s tendency to show up in odd places. “Saviour of My Universe” and “Tenderness” might have read as your typical “Jesus picks me up when I’m down and out” sort of songs, but the driving acoustic guitar leading into a rambunctious rock chorus (and a thrilling climax featuring Sixpence None the Richer’s Matt Slocum on the cello!) of the former, and the swingy bounce and Cars-like synth break of the latter, made the celebration jolly enough to make the lyrical message hit home. “Beautiful Thing” and the closing track “Lullaby” were also strong, boisterous rockers in the back half of an album where you’d expect most bands to slow down and get serious, with both tracks piling on some seriously infectious “Woo-ooh!”s. The most introspective these guys got was actually at the end of Side A, with the muscular, riff-heavy “Drive” acting as a sort of power ballad dedicated to two lovers in a troubled relationship taking the car out for a spin that would last as long as it needed to in order for them to finally work out their issues (absolutely love the sudden time signature shift and the squealing guitar outro on that one), and “Torn” leaning a bit more heavily on alt-rock angst as a slow, navel-gazer of a tune gradually got more tense and unhinged as a young man lamented all the misgivings he had over getting into a relationship that might not be right for him, cursing himself for wasting time at her expense. (Let’s just say that I strongly related to that one in the summer of 1998, when I had my first serious shot at a long-term relationship and I inexplicably froze.) I could see Weezer fans getting into songs like that one. Every single track on this album packs a huge sonic wallop, and there are very few records from the 90s that get me beaming from ear to ear like I do when I put this bad boy on.
12. dc Talk – Jesus Freak (1995)
First Listen: 1995
I know that nowadays, this probably comes off as a cliched youth group pick – after all, the title track was probably THE Christian rock anthem of the 90s, and if you got sick of hearing it, I can’t blame you. I’ve personally never tired of it – every time I go back to enjoy the jarringly noisy and dissonant guitars, the shouted rap verses, and the extreme yet somewhat humorous lyrics about people who didn’t mind their love of Jesus getting them labeled a weirdo, I can’t help but want to smile and headbang along with it. dc Talk was the first “rap” group I ever got into, with their 1992 album Free at Last being my introduction – but I put the term “rap” in quotes because it was always a weird fusion of pop and dance music with Toby MacKeehan’s love of golden age hip-hop – fun stuff for an audience that was largely unfamiliar with the genre, but who are we kidding, it was the suburban white kid version. Jesus Freak was a total shock to the system when its title track and lead single first debuted, because rap/rock still hadn’t quite reached its heyday in mainstream rock, and certainly nobody in the Christian music world was expecting it. It was pretty much the awesomest thing my 17-year-old self had ever heard. While some might find the genre-hopping on this album a bit disingenuous, especially when you consider that Toby Mac, Michael Tait, and Kevin Smith (later known Kevin Max, to differentiate himself from the director) were really just a trio of vocalists with someone else playing the backing tracks, and not a “rock band” in the traditional sense, I think it’s the first record where dc Talk started to function more as a group, and less as “Toby and his two golden-voiced hype men”. Michael, in particular, was more interested in rock than rap at this point, so he was a huge influence on this album’s more hard-driving direction, while Kevin, who always had more eclectic tastes and vocal influences was responsible for some of the more artsy and enigmatic changes of pace here. Those were blown away by the title track would easily fall in love with other grungy, hard-rocking numbers with indelible vocals hooks like the opener “So Help Me God”, their radically reimagined cover of the Godspell musical number “Day By Day”, and “Like it, Love It, Need It” (which had a bit of a Red Hot Chili Peppers flavor to its sudden funk/rock breakdown in the bridge), while those whose preferred more melodic pop/rock had a smorgasbord of tasty choices, from the anthemic “Colored People” (yeah, I know, problematic title, but its heart was in the right place where celebrating diversity was concerned), to “Between You and Me” (where Tait sounded so much like Seal that I’m sure some mainstream radio listeners got confused when it attained crossover success), to their iconic cover of Charlie Peacock’s “In the Light” (featuring Peacock himself in the ad-libbed vocal outro), to the upbeat closing celebration of “Mind’s Eye”. There weren’t a ton of slower songs here, but the ones that went more introspective hit hard. The more acoustic “What If I Stumble?” explored the side effects of Christian celebrities being put on a pedestal by fans when we’re all bound to screw up in front of the people who admire us eventually – we’d be peddling false religion if we told them otherwise. “What Have We Become?” mixed a slow R&B rhythm with fuzzy, grungy angst as the guys explored the underbelly of Christians who look pious in their outward appearance but who harbor dark secrets – the racist preacher who cuts his own brother out of the family due to an interracial relationship, the abusive parents who don’t realize they’re driving their own daughter to suicide. dc Talk wasn’t afraid to get real in several of these songs, and the range of both stylistic influences and weighty topics mixed in with the fun stuff here was truly impressive. The actual conclusion of the record – which as a cassette owner I didn’t know about for the better part of a year – was a spoken-word piece delivered by Kevin, the band’s resident poet, set to a mysterious ensemble of strings and acoustic guitar with a chunk programmed beat coming in later on – yet another surprising swerve for this unpredictable group just when we thought we had a handle on everything Jesus Freak had to throw at us. While I can acknowledge the shortcomings of a few of their lyrical choices, the unabashed pilfering of pretty much every mainstream pop, rock and rap influence they could think of, and the three core members perhaps being given too much credit for the hard work of their backing band (who – fun fact – would later go on to release their own album under the name Zilch before recruiting Jeff Deyo as their lead singer and morphing into SonicFlood), there’s still way too darn much to love about Jesus Freak to keep it from falling out of the upper ecehlons of my list. This is one of those records that makes a massive impression on a young listener, and sticks with them for life.
11. Dave Matthews Band – Crash (Best of 1996)
First Listen: 1996
With this pick, the DMB becomes one of a few bands to pull a hat trick and score three albums on my 90s countdown. I really do think it is their best work, an album they’ll likely never top. But it comes with a huge caveat regarding its title track, “Crash into Me”. I figure I might as well put a tranq dart in that elephant in the room before proceeding any further, so let’s just get it out of the way… yeah, I’ve never been a fan of the lyrics on that song. It’s written from the point of view of a peeping tom, Dave has confirmed as much, and it’s not the fact that the song is sexual in nature that bugs me (otherwise it would be difficult to listen to a lot of this band’s songs) – it’s the implication that it’s non-consensual. It’s a bummer, too, because musically, it’s such a beautifully performed song, with that tricky acoustic riff fooling you into thinking where the “1” is before the drums come in and force you to re-evaluate, and the graceful motion of it just sweeps me off my feet every time, and… dammit, I just wish it could about almost anything else. Alright, are we good now that we’ve dealt with that bit of business? Cool. There are 11 other tracks to contend with on Crash, many of which now strike me as masterpieces in their own weird, cluttered, hyperactive, hippy-dippy sort of way. “So Much to Say” kicks this record off with one of the all-time most iconic Dave performances, those percussive acoustic riffs running up and down the scale while his voice bounces around similarly, while the drums clatter and the sax blurts away, all leading up to that unforgettable outro: “O-PEN up MY head AND let me OU-OU-OUT! Little BAY-bay!” The segue from there into the long, dramatic slow fade that opens “Two Step” is one of my all-time favorite transitions on a record from any genre, and the song’s defiance of a cataclysmic downpour, insisting that we figure out a way to keep partying even as we board the lifeboat “two by two”, is emblematic of the band’s “seize the day” ethos. “Too Much” is a collision between jazzy pop and folksy hoedown, thanks to Boyd Tinsley and Leroi Moore’s twin attack on the sax and violin, a fun but also kind of dark look into the mind of a hedonist who has gone overboard into total gluttony. The incredibly smooth, and lyrically rather open-ended, “#41” follows next, a lengthy yet swiftly flowing instrumental showcase for the band, with some of Leroi’s best moments on both the sax and flute, with Boyd’s dreamy violin outro fading seamlessly into the tropical-sounding flute and drum intro of “Say Goodbye”, an exotic and sexy little number that somehow manages to make a compelling story out of a one-night stand, even though we know the woman’s already seeing another guy and the inevitable walk of shame the next morning is gonna be super awkward. This closes out a formidable first half of a record in which I’d consider wall-to-wall classics – maybe not all of those songs were hits, but I can almost guarantee you any of these would be received with massive applause at a DMB concert to this day. The back half of Crash is probably less familiar to most fans, though it opens up with the intense “Drive In Drive Out”, one of Dave’s more rambling songs about the tortured limbo of being in a love-hate relationship that finds them both constantly wanting to leave and then come right back again. I’ve made the case numerous times for Carter Beauford being one of the best drummers alive, and that song should be Exhibit A. His tumbling snares make “Lie in Our Graves” a fun listen, too – that’s yet another in the band’s long line of “carpe diem” songs, while the penultimate track, “Tripping Billies”, gives the band a chance to make fun of how outsiders see them even while they give us a genuine exhortation to “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. Not to be overlooked are a handful of mellower moments in the back half – first there’s “Let You Down”, a heartfelt (if somewhat surreal) apology leftover from the Under the Table and Dreaming sessions, completely with a bit of happy-go-lucky whistling to close it out, and later we get “Cry Freedom”, a somber, electric guitar-driven ballad that grapples with the effects of then then-recently ended policy of apartheid in South African, where Dave was born. “Proudest Monkey”, the closing track, sprawls out to over nine minutes (and compared to some live versions, that’s actually modest), building up from a simple, repeating riff into a joyous cacophony of sounds that even includes a slide whistle, of all things, celebrating the freedom of an individual finally escaping the confines of his limited worldview, using the analogy of a monkey finally climbing out of his tree and going to see what the heck cities are all about. Is this record silly and sophomoric at times? Are its faux-philosophical ramblings kind of ridiculous? Yeah, guilty as charged. But all five members of this band play their asses off here, in their finest studio performance, in some cases finally committing to tape songs that they’d already been workshopping on the road for several years. It’s the best balance between exploratory meandering and instant commercial appeal that they’ve ever attained, and even though it would take me a few years to realize it after living with a roommate who played it a ton back when it was new, I now recognize it as my favorite record of the entire year that it was released (which means DMB is the rare band to rank at the very tip-top for two separate years, also retroactively getting that distinction for 1994).
10. Caedmon’s Call – Caedmon’s Call (1997)
First Listen: 1997
There was something extra special about Caedmon’s Call’s major label debut that was never quite replicated on any of the other records they made, even the handful that I raved about. This band got a ton of hype before the record even dropped, largely thanks to the Christian radio success of “Lead of Love”, a song which somehow manages to pack in literate, thought-provoking, and encouraging lyrics about the ups and downs of the Christian walk while showcasing this band’s three vocalists and pretty much every instrumentalist in the best possible light. The two songs that followed it quickly gave the listener a sense of this band’s range, with Danielle Glenn (who was dating but not yet married to frontman Cliff Young at that point) taking the lead vocal for the refreshing “Close of Autumn”, which was stacked to overflowing with rich acoustic guitar melodies and driving percussion, and Derek Webb turning in one of his most intense, rocking songs (which in hindsight was rather unusual for this band) on “Not the Land”. If you were short on time and needed to know all the things this band did best, spending roughly fifteen minutes on those three songs would have been the perfect introduction to their creative talents. “This World”, one of the band’s all-time classics, followed next – another great example of this band deploying all three of their vocalists to great effect and weaving them together in a spell-binding climax, despite it being more of a mid-tempo acoustic track – the strings and percussion whipped it up into a beautifully flowing arrangement, as the band lamented living in a world that seemed to paradoxically give them everything they wanted and nothing they needed at the same time. Webb got to unleash his weird side on “Bus Driver”, a whimsical tune that very prominently featured a saloon piano as he took on the persona of a lowly mass transit operator pondering his place in the grand scheme of the universe, and what it would look like if he wasn’t there to do his mundane job everyday. “Stupid Kid”, which heavily featured Randy Holsapple’s organ, was probably the album’s goofiest track, but it had some worthwhile things to say about spiritual laziness and an unwillingness to be pushed outside of one’s comfort zone, seen through the lens of a lackadaisical teenager not wanting to go outside on a Saturday. Webb’s serious side came out on the enigmatic “Standing Up for Nothing”, the low-key breakup ballad “I Just Don’t Want Coffee”, and the stark and absolutely gutting ballad “Center Aisle”, which found him in the uncomfortable position of having to give a eulogy at the funeral of a friend who had committed suicide. The band didn’t shy away from difficult topics on this record, and it’s a credit to the primary songwriters, Derek Webb, and Aaron Tate, that they balanced the angsty, challenging stuff, with the more theological, food-for-the-soul type stuff so well – “Coming Home” would not be half the rousing celebration that it is at the end of the album without “Center Aisle” preceding it. Hearing Cliff and Derek trade off vocals in a track like the upbeat toe-tapper “Not Enough”, which builds exquisitely off of the two of them exchanging lyrical ideas, makes me wonder why they didn’t pursue that dynamic further on a lot of the band’s later records. And the band’s timing could not possibly have been better when they chose to cover Rich Mullins’ “Hope to Carry On” right smack in the center of the album, and even bring Mullins himself in to shoot the video with them, literally months before he died that September. There simply isn’t a misstep to be found among this album’s twelve tracks, and honestly the only mistake the band made here was singing to a label (Warner/Alliance) that would be defunct in a few years time (with Essential picking them up for 40 Acres and several more records in the early-to-mid 2000s). I assume that’s the reason you won’t find this album on Spotify, yet another maddening gap in my list of favorite 90s albums on that streaming service. You’ll find re-recorded and live versions of several of its best known songs from a few years later, but to hear the genuine article (which has uniquely lush production values to it that I think their other albums backed off from a bit), you’ll have to piece it together on YouTube, I guess.
9. dc Talk – Supernatural (Best of 1998)
First Listen: 1998
Rushing out to buy highly anticipated albums on their release dates was a ritual of mine for quite a while there, starting during my college years when I actually had a part-time job and a meager amount of disposable income. But the ritual got taken to its extreme on the morning of September 22, 1998 when Supernatural dropped. That morning, I piled into the car with my girlfriend, my roommate, and his girlfriend, and we made a run to two different Wherehouses (so I could cash in on my employee discount twice) and our local Christian bookstore (where I think we used a coupon for the other two) so that we could each pick up a copy. We were that obsessed, and I still vividly remember some of our reactions to the stylistic twists and turns this album took as we drove around together that day – the unlisted intro track suddenly colliding with the acoustic intro to the hard-rocking “It’s Killing Me”, which itself bled into the electropop-leaning “Dive”, the smooth acoustic rock-meets-R&B feel of the ballad “Consume Me” reminding us strongly of Jesus Freak‘s breakout hit “Between You and Me”, the sappy but melodically gorgeous love song “Godspeed” that we knew both couples were probably going to end up considering one of “our songs”, the disco-funk workout of “Wanna Be Loved”, the pop-punk/surf rock energy of “Since I Met You” with its , soulful, down-tempo intro and bridge from Kevin Max and its bonkers outro suddenly cutting off and leading into the single “Into Jesus”, etc. It hadn’t been too long before that when “Into Jesus” premiered on Christian radio, and I can also remember my roommate’s excited reaction to that one even though it was one of dc Talk’s mellower songs, due to how well all three vocalists were intertwined and the extended outro that took the song for a victory lap just when we thought it was winding down. Following that was the blast of dark, mysterious energy that was the title track, actually our first taste of the album when the group had opened a show with it at the Los Angeles county fair earlier that month. The brooding bassline and the slamming guitar chords leading into the chorus were another great example of Tait’s desire to take dc Talk in more of a rock direction, and while the song was quite different in character from “Jesus Freak”, it had a similar spellbinding energy – for me, it’s actually eclipsed that one as my favorite dc Talk song (though I’m sure my roommate and I had some arguments about how the two songs, and albums, stacked up against each other – and I’m probably in for another round when he reads this!) What was most surprising about Supernatural was how a band once known as the premiere act in Christian hip-hop (not that there were a ton of well-known contenders in those days, at least not that Christian radio would acknowledge) veered completely away from rap on this release, with Toby Mac full integrated into the vocal trade-offs with his bandmates, and only the occasional shouts of “Yeah!” or a short spoken word aside giving us a clue as to the group’s origins. I was fine with that. This was the final step in dc Talk’s evolution to a more democratic process where all three members were involved in the writing of every song, and each of their disparate influences came floating to the surface as they tromped gleefully through one genre shift after another. This album was also less grungy than Supernatural – still able to blow the listener away with heavy guitar chords when the mood of a song called for it, but more focused on songwriting that took interesting melodic twists and turns, with the band’s vocalists all richly layered on top of one another, all three sharing the spotlight pretty much equally. As with Jesus Freak, the group members didn’t play their own instruments, so it fell to Toby Mac and frequent co-writer Mark Heimermann in their role as producers to bring in the right players for the job, most notably guitarist Pete Stewart, who had just finished a stint as the lead singer of the Christian alt-rock/grunge band Grammatrain, and who would later go on to collaborate with Michael Tait on his 1999 solo album and become a full-fledged member of Tait’s band after everyone in dc Talk went their separate ways in the early 2000s. That’s the bittersweet aspect of Supernatural that hits me every time I go back to listen to it – such a great record, but also one that heralded the group’s inevitable split, because the creative process behind it seemed like one that was so laborious and unwieldy, in its attempt to fairly represent the interests of three individuals on increasingly diverging paths, that the guys knew it would be hard to make another album like this without putting their friendships with one another at risk. As the final power ballad, “Red Letters”, which is a strong showcase for Kevin Max, feeling like something out of a musical, fades into Max’s closing poem, “There is a Treason at Sea”, I have to acknowledge all the years I spent in denial, believing that dc Talk’s statement that they were “not breaking up, but taking a break” was actually true. The group even poked fun at rumors that they might split up, or that someone might see the allure of mainstream fame and ditch the group in pursuit of it, on the single “My Friend (So Long)”, which got a humorous video treatment with the narrative constantly shifting to feature a different member of the band being rushed into the E.R. in critical condition. I’m glad that dc Talk was savvy enough to acknowledge the ridiculously high expectations after Jesus Freak, as well as the notion that it could all come crashing down around them if they didn’t proceed with extreme caution. The group continued to tour together for a little while after all three members put out their respective solo debuts in 2001, and more recently they even reunited for a cruise and some one-off gigs. But don’t be fooled into thinking that they’re teasing a new album. I strongly believe that Supernatural is their finest work, a bolt of lightning that will never strike in the same place again, and they’re probably better off leaving it as their lasting legacy.
8. Jars of Clay – Jars of Clay (1995)
First Listen: 1995
This is one of those albums I’ve written about so many times that it’s genuinely tricky to come up with anything new to say about it. Even people with only tangential knowledge of 90s Christian rock probably know about this one, thanks to the unlikely mainstream success of its big single “Flood”. While the driving acoustic chords and tight vocal harmonies of that song rightfully pulled in a lot of bystanders who might have otherwise not given this then little-known band a try, that actually wasn’t the song that got me hooked, and arguably it’s an outlier on an album that you could say was really more “acoustic alternative pop” than rock. The electric guitar hardly even made an appearance on this album, after all. “Liquid”, the album’s opening track, was my first taste of my now-favorite band when I first heard it on a sampler cassette way back in May 1995. If Toad the Wet Sprocket had been listening to Enigma, that might have been the sort of song that resulted from it, with its impressionistic lyrics about the crucifixion, and the Gregorian chant samples sprinkled into an attention-grabbing arrangement of stirring strings and slamming programmed beats. Nearly every song here featured some combination of strings and a drum loop, often throwing in woodwind instruments for good measure, such as the recorder that chimes in on the mushy but thought-provoking “Love Song for a Savior”, the Celtic hoedown of “Like a Child” (still my favorite Jars of Clay song to this day), or the utterly breathtaking baroque ensemble heard on the fan favorite confessional ballad “Worlds Apart” (which I now realize owes a bit of a debt to R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming”) and the elliptical closing number “Blind”. A lot of this band’s early songwriting was concerned with how humans related to God, either wanting to puncture the veil of religious routine and find something more organic and intimate, or rationalizing reasons to hang on to skepticism and insist we were better off left to our own devices. “Sinking” was written from the point of view of an addict convinced he didn’t need help from no one, even as the chorus admitted that they knew God could see right through their lies and was simply trying to offer a hand to lift them out of it, instead of harsh judgment. “He”, which I think was the only song to actually incorporate electric guitars (in a rather soft and textured manner), empathized with a victim of child abuse trying to sort out whether God could provide the love his parents didn’t. The fiddle playing on “Boy on a String” was downright manic – the song’s Pinocchio metaphor could probably be interpreted a lot of different ways, but now that I look back, I can see how there might have been some early frustration about the nature of the music industry getting vented there, with the artist simply being used as a figurehead for someone pulling the strings behind the scenes, hoping to turn a profit off of the show and dance. “Art in Me” came from a similarly melancholy viewpoint, its grim yet poetic turns of phrase finding an artist beginning to be understood instead of casually dismissed by critics merely looking for superficial entertainment. This was the work of a young band that hadn’t yet grown into their sound, and that in some ways was still more reliant on auxiliary instrumentation than they were confident in their own instrumental skills to be the driving force behind their songs, which led to some awkwardness and disappointment from a lot of fans when future releases sounded almost nothing like this. Personally, I was happy to watch the band grow and change over the years, and not be shackled to the demands that they keep repeating the formula that so unexpectedly made them a runaway hit. Still, this was an absolutely stunning and unique debut record, the kind that most young bands hoping for a shot at success could only dream of, and while I wish their later work had gotten even half this much attention and acclaim, I’ve made peace with the fact that a lot of folks are uniquely drawn to this album who might not otherwise have given a band from this subgenre a shot.
7. Iona – Journey into the Morn (1995)
First Listen: 1996
While I was first introduced to this monstrously talented Celtic Christian prog rock band by hearing a few tracks from their previous album Beyond These Shores on the radio, this was the first album of theirs I ever listened to from front to back, and also the first time I’d really tried to wrap my head around anything that could be classified as “progressive rock”. I bought it as a gift to myself for completing finals week my freshman year of college, and as a result I was still digesting it during a turbulent week of saying goodbyes to friends as we all went away for the summer, and packing up my things and shipping out to Catalina Island to work at a summer camp for the next three months. So I listened to this one a lot during my downtime on the island, and I can still picture the scenery from some of my hikes along the beach and up into the hilly terrain as I listen to the majestic peaks and valleys that the compositions on this record go through. While it’s a concept album, with the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” (performed in Gaelic as “Bi-Se I Mo Shúil”, and heard at the beginning and near the end of the album in radically different versions) serving as the inspiration for many of its songs, it’s pretty darn accessible as prog records go, dishing out the anthemic singles “Irish Day” and “Wisdom” right upfront, before diving into the more somber ballad “Everything Changes” (which features a guest vocal from Moya Brennan, who coached lead singer Joanne Hogg on her Gaelic pronunciation for the aforementioned hymn), and the absolutely stunning guitar wizardry of “Inside My Heart”, a glorious poem of intimacy and surrender with its verses deftly finger-picked in 5/8 time, while its chorus shifts to 6/8, leading into a glorious instrumental breakdown in the coda, during which guitarist Dave Bainbridge is just on fire. “Encircling”, one of Iona’s longest tracks at just over 11 minutes, almost feels like its three movements are individual songs with a few overlapping musical and lyrical ideas – this one runs the gamut from tribal mysticism to edgy rock to a soothing flute solo in its final section, giving the listener a sense of peace and protection after its instrumental rendition of a tense spiritual battle, which leads nicely into the short, hymn-like refrain of the title track. The back half features the bounding anthem “Lindisfarne”, a beautiful anthem about a journey the band took the Scottish island neighboring the isle of Iona for which the band was named, while “No Heart Beats” continues in a celebratory upbeat mood, quoting the song of Solomon while pairing its guitar melody with some delicious Uilleann pipe playing from multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley. Only two instrumentals are present on this record (which is really a case of this band restraining itself!) – the short, mournful flute composition “The Search”, and the blindingly beautiful, percussion-heavy, melodic breakdown of “Heaven’s Bright Sun”, one of the first songs to stand out as a favorite to me personally despite having no lyrics whatsoever. In between is the acoustic ballad “Divine Presence”, a reminder of how lovely this band could be even when stripped down to fairly simple acoustic chords and Joanne’s longing voice, with a hint of ethereal keyboard ambiance on top of it. The second part of the aforementioned “Bi-Se I Mo Shúil” has an unbelievably fun breakdown at the end of it, which I believe is in 11/8 time – one of the first of a numerous examples of me falling in love with a song largely because of its bizarre time signature. And finally the record closes out gracefully on the band’s reverent, unhurried arrangement of the hymn “When I Survey” – the words will be familiar to many churchgoers, though the melody is a completely different one. I was surprised to be reminded that this album is 78 minutes long – back in the days when I had everything on cassette, I only had a rough sense of how long albums were, and I knew this one had a lot more content to it than most, but I never quite stopped to appreciate how well this band kept my attention while filling almost all of the available space on a CD. Iona made a couple albums that I enjoy even more than this one, but for someone who only knows a few of their songs and is looking to get into the band, I honestly couldn’t recommend a more ideal place to start.
6. Out of the Grey – Out of the Grey (Best of 1991)
First Listen: 1994
Out of the Grey’s debut was the first pop album that I can ever remember sitting down and intently listening to from front to back. It was one of the first cassettes I borrowed from my youth pastor (along with dc Talk’s Free at Last), and it had its fair share of late 80s/early 90s production tricks, a veritable wall of sound, and plenty of (say it with me now) EARLY! 90s! REVERB! Still, even in their more eccentric early days, this CCM duo knew how to have fun without being overly gimmicky. Christine Denté immediately wowed me with her breathy, shimmering vocals and the sweeping, romantic tone of her lyrics. I had yet to learn how to recognize good guitar playing, but Scott Denté masterfully weaved his mostly acoustic and slightly funky riffs and melodic runs in and out between all of the glossy keyboards, insistent percussion, and the many ambient sounds and layered backing vocals added by producer Charlie Peacock (c’mon, you knew he was gonna come up at least one more time before this countdown was over). With this being the first time I really got to hear a Christian artist simply singing about the ups and downs of life and not just simple praise songs, I was pleasantly surprised at how naturally Christine was able to weave important aspects of her relationship with Scott into the songwriting, such as her memories of the time they met in college and were unsure about how to proceed with her being a Christian and him not being one (their most famous song, “Wishes” – and obviously, he came around). “The Dance”, along with its playful, distorted backing vocals from Scott, was a similarly upbeat tune about the ups and downs of dating and marriage, learning how to instinctually respond to the other person’s moves as though it were a complicated series of steps that had to be practiced one by one. “Remember This”, another of their best-loved classics, is a ballad that I’ve appreciated looking back on at various points in my life – when I first heard it, I was still looking forward to experiencing a lot of those youthful firsts Christine sang about, like finding true love or discovering a song that perfectly summed up how you felt about them, and I couldn’t even comprehend the notion that those intense feelings I longed to feel wouldn’t always burn as bright as they did at the outset. Now, decades later, the advice “Don’t forget it when the passion fades” rings true, because falling in love is easy compared to the work it takes to stay in love, and even as a relatively young couple when they started out, they had the wisdom to look ahead and see those sorts of challenges coming. “Write My Life” appealed to me as an avid journaler back in my high school days, constantly overanalyzing every small interaction and experience that I thought could be of some significance, and having a hard time handing the pencil over and letting God tell the story due to my control freak nature. Christine’s resonating voice, drenched in echo effects at the climax of that song, completely bowled me over. “He Is Not Silent” had more of a tense, driving rhythm to it – you could say the song was borderline “rock” even though it didn’t have heavy guitars, depicting a group of people lost and desperate for water in a barren desert, wondering if God had abandoned them even though God had been pointing the way for them to go the entire time and they’d been ignoring the signs. That one still challenges me in times when it’s tempting to lose heart and wonder how anything good could come out of whatever dire circumstances I think I’ve found myself in. “Better Way to Fall”, in addition to being a fun little romp with some killer drum rolls, has a lot of clever lyrics about people experiencing what the Bible calls “the pride that goes before the fall”, basically pointing out that falling on your knees can be voluntary and freeing for the soul, or you can end up involuntarily stumbling in a more awkward and ungraceful way. “Time Will Tell” was another upbeat tune that further expounded on Christine’s perfectionist nature and the difficulty of learning how to let go instead of constantly putting an impossible amount of pressure on herself. “Perfect Circle”, quite appropriately, became one of those songs that looped around forever and ever in my head, thanks to its tribal-sounding drum beat and Scott’s transcendent, percussive style that moved seamlessly back and forth between bold, strummed chords and intricate finger-picking. “The Only Moment” was the flipside of “Remember This” – a reminder to not get so caught up in worries about the future or nostalgia for the past that you forgot to live in the now. And “The Deep” – another fondly remembered fan favorite – closed out the record with Christine singing from the point of view of wave tossed about at sea, constantly being pulled back in toward the depths of God’s love for her, with a simple chord sequence from Scott, beautifully performed and embellished upon (especially in later live versions when it veered off into an extended solo) while always returning to that comforting melodic refrain. So many of my expectations of what good, singer/songwriter-driven pop music with smart production should sound like had their genesis in my first impressions of this record. To this day, I still regard it as one of the few “perfect pop albums” in my collection.
5. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
First Listen: 2001
Imagine me as a confused Radiohead noob back in the Kid A/Amnesiac era, having struggled mightily to get those two albums down, and then going back to their highly acclaimed modern rock opus OK Computer, thinking that because this album was more guitar-based than their newer more, experimental stuff, that it was going to RAWK from beginning to end. NOPE! While there are some intense moments on this album, like the rhythmically lopsided solo sections of the gargantuan single “Paranoid Android”, and the absolutely unhinged, yet perversely bouncy “Electioneering”, where Johnny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien absolutely tear it up, for the most part this is an album that lets its depressing tone sink in gradually, only occasionally erupting into fits of seething rage. It’s a mostly mid-tempo record, capable of conjuring up chilling emotions with seemingly minor details like the eerie background ambiance heard on slower tracks like “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Climbing Up the Walls”. Phil Selway’s drumming often sets a gloomy, robotic tone, befitting the protagonists of several of these songs, who might not be literal androids, but who often seem to go about their lives in a listless, checked-out manner, afraid of what might happen if they fall out of line with the strict conformity demanded of them. And of course, Thom Yorke’s ghostly sneer of a voice really helps to sell the dystopian lyrics he’s peddling, which have led many to surmise that OK Computer is a concept album about the threat of technology completely consuming human society, or living in a authoritarian regime where differences are frowned upon, or something like that. Of course my overactive imagination has dreamed up a complex (and not exactly airtight) narrative that attempts to tie all 12 of these songs together. “Airbag” starts the story in medias res, with our main character waking up in the aftermath of a horrific accident, not knowing how he got there, but being grateful for the modern technology that saved his life. “Paranoid Android” finds him struggling with violent mood swings as he starts to grapple with questions of his identity, as memories of his life before the accident start to seep through and sow seeds of doubt about what really happened to him. “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, with its swirling, otherworldly guitar tones and its titular nod to a classic Bob Dylan song, looks at aspects of human life that he should consider normal, but that he finds increasingly alienating, as though he had been transplanted to a completely foreign society. “Exit Music (For a Film)” is admittedly a little harder to fit into the overall equation, what with it initially being written for the 1996 Romeo & Juliet remake, but its slow, sad acoustic chords and the unnerving distorted bass and guitar that come in later quite nicely subvert the initial setup of it being a love song in which a young couple tries to escape from the oppressive demands of their families, who will not allow them to be together. Perhaps our main character has fallen in love, and there’s an underlying reason why her friends and family are suspicious of him not being the person he claims, which leads to their prejudice against him? “Let Down” and especially “Karma Police” are important bits of worldbuilding – no matter how much this character tries to fit in, his hopes will always be dashed and his dreams squashed like a bug on the ground, and he’ll always live under the constant threat of people turning him into the authorities if he lets even a single subversive thought slip out of his mouth. “Fitter Happier”, a spoken-word piece recited by an Apple computer-generated “robot voice”, finds him spiraling further into depression due to the constant barrage of mental conditioning he’s been fed from the authorities. And then “Electioneering” is where the levee finally breaks and the floodwaters gush forth – he’s so pissed off at the people who run the world and the slimy tricks they pull to stay in power that he can only think of one way to make things right. “Climbing Up the Walls”, easily one of the creepiest songs Radiohead has ever put to tape, seems to describe an assassination attempt, where the authority figures who run this oppressive government are made to feel the paranoia they’re used to instilling in others, as they’re slowly picked off one by one with terrifying precision. Then suddenly we get the gentle, chiming melody of the ballad “No Surprises”, with its false sense of reassurance as our protagonist tries to tell himself he’s really happy, living a double life where he puts on a façade of conformity but is secretly executing his plan to “bring down the government”. This all comes crashing down in “Lucky”, which slowly spirals into grief and sadness as the authorities discover his true nature and hunt him down to exact revenge, and his escape attempt leads to a horrific crash. Then the slow, languid closing track “The Tourist” depicts the accident from the point of view of a bystander who wonders why the idiot won’t just slow down and obey the rules like all other good citizens do. And then our android killer wakes up again after the crash, unaware of everything that transpired before, and the whole damn cycle starts over again. This is all fools’ gold, of course – the band has actually stated that this is not a concept album. So the joke’s on me for going to all that narrative effort for nothing! And I don’t mind laughing at myself to disguise the fact that I’m crying on the inside, because Radiohead has crafted a record with such a pervasive mood and setting that it haunts me in the best possible way.
4. Iona – Beyond These Shores (Best of 1993)
First Listen: 1997
A chance meeting with a friend who was a fellow music geek and a superfan of Iona during my junior year of college gave me the chance to peruse the band’s back catalogue after first getting into them with the aforementioned Journey into the Morn. The band’s self-titled debut and The Book of Kells were both challenging for me at the time, being heavier on the instrumentals than I was used to, but I think that helped me to hone to skill of picturing what a composition might be about in my mind’s eye, having only the title, perhaps a description in the liner notes, and the mood conveyed by the instruments to go on. Their third album, Beyond These Shores, balanced the vocal and instrumental tracks in a way that was more my speed. it was arguably the mellowest of their albums up to that point, but it had the advantage of featuring the singles “Treasure” and “Today” that I knew from Christian radio and from their then-recent live album Heaven’s Bright Sun, both of them strongly Celtic-influenced pop/rock numbers that communicated a deep gratitude for the gift of life. I’d still consider those to be some of Iona’s signature songs. The rest was entirely new to me, but I was quickly drawn in by the overarching narrative concept following the apocryphal story of Saint Brendan, who supposedly journeyed from Ireland to the Americas in the pre-Columbian era. Not every song on the album strictly follows that narrative, but several songs touch on the idea of being called by God to travel far from home, and the myriad of emotional and spiritual experiences that might result from such a journey. “Brendan’s Voyage (Navigato)” and “Brendan’s Return” are the two obvious tentposts in this narrative, both of them opening with a similar instrumental refrain, but with the former segueing into a few verses in which singer Joanna Hogg imagines the thoughts and prayers of this saint as he prepares to depart from his homeland, and the latter leading into a triumphant, electric guitar-driven reprise of a melodic motif heard in various forms throughout the record, as far back as the solemn flute piece “Prayer on the Mountain” on track one. The slow, smooth-jazzy “Edge of the World” is one of Iona’s most beautiful and underrated compositions, with its 4/4 verse sliding effortlessly into a 5/4 chorus and outro, continuing on the theme of emotionally preparing for that long journey but already feeling a significant amount of heartache for the people and the gorgeous Irish landscapes being left behind – this one really resonated with me at the end of my senior year when I decided to spent one last summer on Catalina Island, cut off from my friends and my life on the mainland by all practical means, which of course wasn’t nearly as long or far of a journey as Brendan’s, but the song gave me courage that this time of personal retreat would be a soul-refreshing one despite everything I would miss about the normal rhythm of my life. “Bird of Heaven” was Iona at their most “proggy”, with awe-inspiring solos from Dave Bainbridge on both the acoustic and electric guitar (this caught the ear of a metalhead walking down the hall of my dorm, who was duly impressed even though it wasn’t “heavy” by any stretch of the imagination), a number of tricky time signature shifts, and reverent, poetic lyrics from Joanne about the mysterious nature of God, a being that cannot be captured, forced into a box, or made to do our bidding. “Murlough Bay” and “Beachy Head” were both very personal, intimate songs named for placed in the British Isles that Joanne considered sacred. The former refers to a place in Northern Ireland that served as a scenic retreat for her and her husband, and the peaceful meditative lyrics declaring “Here at last, I’m on my own with you” worked incredibly well regardless of whether you interpreted the song as romantic or spiritual. (It’s the song that inspired my screen name “murlough23”, and that my wife and I I chose for the first dance on our wedding day.) The latter is named for a place in the south of England with high chalk cliffs overlooking the sea, unfortunately a common spot for suicides, which are lamented in the song as Joanne pleads for the well-being of the souls driven to so much despair that they would consider plunging over the edge to be a welcome respite – a surprising subject for such an elegant song, but one that explains its dramatic climax and sudden ending. “Healing”, another track that I vaguely recognized from Christian radio, is one of the few upbeat numbers in the back half, though it actually finds our protagonist returning from his journey with nothing tangible to show for it (likely a reference for the mythical island Brendan supposedly discovered that there’s no physical evidence of, which some have speculated could be part of the North American continent). The songs finds solace in the notion that there’s a greater plan behind this seemingly failed endeavor, and that our hero will learn and grow from the experience. Terl Bryant’s drumming and another fantastic guitar solo from Bainbridge bring that one to a stunning conclusion. Several of the smaller pieces sprinkled throughout the record are very gentle instrumental tracks, such as “View of the Islands”, which pairs Mike Haughton’s flute solo with a delicious acoustic arpeggio, and “Machrie Moor”, which features Fiona Davidson on the harp and the band’s future full-time drummer Frank Van Essen on violin. That, and the consistent presence of Haughton’s sax on tracks like the elegant “Burning Like Fire” and the intro to the aforementioned “Bird of Heaven”, can give some listeners the impression that this is easy listening/elevator-type music, though I think that’s an unfair characterization given the complexity of some of the rhythms and the arrangements, and the emotional and spiritual depth expressed throughout. I’ll admit that even I found the title track, which closes the album, to be a bit lackluster at first, with its sparse piano melody seeming to hang out in empty space, looking for a resolution it never finds. It definitely ends the album on a mysterious note, as if to suggest that the traveler will keep embarking on new journeys, looking for mythical hidden lands, until one day he loses himself to the depths of the vast ocean he’s come to call home. But there’s also a sense of calm to it, as if he’s being enveloped in God’s presence and nothing about those harrowing journeys can scare him any more. I definitely think that the orchestra-backed arrangement they came up with that one for their Woven Cord live album in 1999 is the superior version, since it showcases Frank Van Essen’s achingly beautiful violin solo. This is definitely an album that will need to marinate before its full beauty is revealed to you – maybe put it on during a quiet morning when you have nothing on your calendar and a good, long book to read, or take it on a leisurely walk along an uncrowded nature trail. Or heck, do like I did and take it with you across at least a few miles of the ocean, to a beautiful island where you can rest and unplug from society for a little while. I promise it’ll be worth the effort.
3. No Doubt – Tragic Kingdom (Best of 1995)
First Listen: 1999
No Doubt pulled a bit of an upset victory with this one! I’ve loved this album ever since my senior year of college, but it was only recently that I realized I had even more affection for it than my other long-standing favorites that were released in the year 1995 – most of which had a headstart because I got into them when they were still relatively new. If you’d told me in ’95 or ’96 that I’d develop such a long-lasting fondness for Tragic Kingdom, I would have reacted with a confused, blank stare, because all I knew of them at the time were snippets of the singles that had been played incessantly on Top 40 radio, and that often got blasted up and down the halls of the dorms I lived in during my freshman and sophomore years. Some of the guys I lived with were utterly obsessed with No Doubt – and in particular Gwen Stefani – to the point where it kind of put me off of them for several years. If I heard that guitar riff from the beginning of “Just a Girl” or those steel drums and horns from the opening of “Spiderwebs” one more time, I was gonna have to go strangle somebody. At the time, even I had to admit that there was something uniquely compelling about the sad melodic turns taken in their runaway breakup ballad “Don’t Speak”, but it would take until the overexposure died down during the long lull between Tragic Kingdom and their 2000 release Return of Saturn for me to really discover what a deep bench of hard-hitting and insanely catchy songs this record had, with the singles (all of which I eventually came around to loving) only being the tip of the iceberg. No Doubt’s style in this album was, nominally at least, ska, as it had been from the beginning. When they debuted with their self-titled record in 1992, no one was sure what to do with their rather poppy and hyperactive take on the genre, and it kind of got lost in the shuffle during the heyday of grunge. Disputes with their record label leading to their second record, The Beacon Street Collection, being released independently, mere months before they hade a huge splash with Tragic Kingdom. Going back to those earlier albums for the first time, I was surprised to hear that they were pretty consistent with the personality I knew from Tragic Kingdom, maybe rougher around the edges in some places, but their sudden turn toward pop success wasn’t at all a sellout move, as they had always been tinkering with different genres influences and finding ways to keep it fun and energetic even when the lyrics were kind of mopey and woe-is-me. With Gwen’s brother Eric Stefani being the band’s primary songwriter up until this album, when he gradually broke away from the group and handed the reins over to his sister, who handled the lion’s share of the songwriting here, the major change being made was that we were now hearing her genuine perspective on matters that Eric had previously written about with her voice in mind. And when you stop to consider that a lot of the angsty relationship songs on Tragic Kingdom were written in the aftermath of her breakup with bassist Tony Kanal, in addition to Eric distancing himself and the drama they went through with their label, it’s a wonder that this record got made at all, to say nothing of the band becoming an overnight sensation. Gwen’s lyrics were sharp, witty, and sometimes downright ruthless, whether she was addressing stalkers that wouldn’t leave her alone (“Spiderwebs”), one-sided relationships in which the guys made themselves infuriatingly unavailable (“Excuse Me Mr.”), unfair expectations and restrictions being imposed on women by chauvinistic men (“Just a Girl”) or on a younger generation by out-of-touch adults (“Sixteen”), or the toxic myths surrounding marriage as a “happy-ever-after” cure-all for the woes of a single person (“Hey You”). The band was even audacious enough to name the record after a disparaging name for Disneyland, which was basically right there in the band’s backyard since they hailed from Orange County, California, and amusingly enough, I first had its title track explained to me by my then-girlfriend during a late night drive home after a day we had spent together at the theme park. That track is one hell of an ending to a rollercoaster ride of a record, with its conspiracy theory-laced lyrics about what Walt Disney might have really been up to and its vertigo-inducing rhythmic shifts back and forth, culminating in an intense instrumental freakout that has to be heard to be believed – it would have never been played on the radio in a million years, but it must have been one hell of a show-stopper when played live. Lest you think it was all Gwen who was responsible for this album’s greatness, let me disabuse you of that notion by pointing out that the band backing her up was amazingly tight on this record, pummeling their way through nearly every song with Tom Dumont’s manic guitar playing, Tony Kanal’s meaty bass lines, and Adrian Young’s over-driven drum cadences. Even though Eric Stefani was on his way out when this record was being made, he still contributed whimsical keyboard melodies to several of these tracks – check out the ragtime bridge of “Excuse Me Mr.” or the synthesizer imitating a melody from the Main Street Electrical Parade on “Hey You”. And even though none of the full-time band members played a horn instrument themselves (admittedly an odd distinction for a ska band), the many players who contributed horn parts in the studio helped to shape the mood of most of these songs, whether it was the more reggae-inflected bounce of “Spiderwebs”, “Different People”, and “World Go Round”, the energetic ska-punk-gone-pop of tracks like “Happy Now?” and “Sunday Morning”, or the surprise disco rave-up that the band served up on “You Can Do It”, the inspirational deep cut that served as an antidote following the teary-eyed tragedy of “Don’t Speak”. Most bands would be lucky to have four or five cuts with this much charisma on a single record… and honestly all fourteen of these tracks are friggin’ amazing. For me, the pinnacle of the album was the epic-length Side A closer “The Climb”, which played somewhat like a power ballad in 3/4 time with a bit of a circus-y feel to it, like it was the soundtrack to a daring high-wire act. It’s one of those motivational songs that keeps going and going, with a generously long coda that nicely shows off this band’s adventurous instrumental side. That one gave me the gusto to keep pushing my way up a steep hill during several solo hikes during the summer of ’99 when I lived on Catalina Island, and I wish more No Doubt fans talked about that one – but again, the whole format of it was wrong for radio, and I’m glad that on even such a consumer-friendly Top 40 grand slam of a record, there was room for oddities like that song and the title track (interestingly, both of those were among the last No Doubt songs to be written solely by Eric). To me, this album stands out as a stellar example of how the 90s were so unpredictable that trends in mainstream rock could turn on a dime, suddenly making room for something as colorful and off-kilter as this with almost no warning whatsoever. I miss the days when an album like Tragic Kingdom might have actually had a shot at being such a massive hit.
2. Chasing Furies – With Abandon (Best of 1999)
First Listen: 1999
If I ever made a list of my favorite “one-album wonders” – that is, artists or bands who only ever put out one full-length studio album and then disappeared – Chasing Furies would easily be a contender for the top spot at that list. With Abandon was a surprisingly forward-thinking release for something put out on a major CCM label in the late 90s, with the three Meeker siblings (Sarah, Joshua, and Rachel) offering a deliciously textured take on alternative art-rock that could be loud and extra-crunchy one minute, and soft and meditative the next, sometimes swinging wildly back and forth within a single song. You can catch a glimpse of this dynamic in the first few seconds of the opening track “Thicker”, with its rolling piano chords suddenly colliding with harsh, distorted guitar chords, only for them to disappear again before the first verse even begins. Now that is how you capture an audience’s attention! This band loved to play with all the different ways they could distort the guitars and wring menacing sounds out of them in otherwise very beautiful, even sometimes transcendent arrangements, and sometimes that habit extended to the drums, bass, and piano as well, giving certain songs a chewed-up drum loop to keep time even while there would be a clean acoustic guitar or piano accompanying it, or fuzzing up the bass to the point where the sound levels were in the red. Sarah’s lyrics were often vertical in nature, occasionally approaching a more conversational take on what I suppose could be loosely classified as “worship music”, but often using unique and sometimes surreal language to describe the back-and-forth process of being drawn to God, rebelling against God in her weaker moments, and yet being pulled back in lovingly, depicting the Divine as an unstoppable force at work that could never be persuaded to love her any less than 100% wholeheartedly. “Throw Me”, with its ambient, backmasked piano samples, was a beautiful example of the band exploring this topic, as was the dissonant “I Surrender”, which found its dark, slamming guitar intro almost immediately melting away as if the recording had been eaten by acid, for more of a spare, blues-rock sort of arrangement took its place for the first few verses and chorus, only bringing back that hard-rocking intro after a brief acapella break when it was least expected. “I Would Drown” and “Romance Me” both featured Joshua on lead vocals, and those were both slower but heavily distorted songs, with the former having an almost doom-y bass drone despite it being a really simple, melodic song of trust and surrender to God at its core, and the latter depicting the unwavering devotion of what sounded like a young couple with mere pennies to their name, determined to make romantic memories within the confines of the bare walls and floors of their modest home. I was continually fascinated at how the dark sounds and the ornate romantic imagery collided on several of these tracks – including some of the more conventionally pretty ones. The reverb-heavy, distant-sounding piano melody of “Fair Night’s Longing” sounded like something out of a half-remembered dream as Sarah pondered how God’s love had left its indelible mark on her even at times when she felt very far away from God, and the confident, off-kilter march of the single “Enchanted” (seriously, its main riff and part of its verse were in 7/8 and it was still the most radio-friendly track on the album) rang out with a joyous chorus about being so grateful to have been set free that there’s no way you could adequately express it. Upon the first few listens, I was admittedly distracted by the unusual pacing of the record, which didn’t pile up hook-driven singles the way I normally expected Christian rock bands to before diving into the mellower stuff, and consequently I think I tuned out a bit later in the record, after the noisy workout of “Writhe for Hearing”, one of the most fun and experimental rockers on the record, faded out, leaving the last three tracks to linger in a decidedly mellower vibe. Those are definitely worth sticking around for, with the vibey keyboards and soft drum loops of “Nothing”, accompanied by the humming of cicadas, making it a beautifully restrained meditation on what it truly means to realize you’d be nothing without God’s love, and the medieval-sounding finger-picked melody of “Whisper Softly”, in which Sarah flips the perspective and imagines God singing a poetic love song to her, is easily one of the most breathtakingly beautiful songs I’ve ever heard (and also one of the first that I went to the trouble of figuring out the tablature for when I started learning to play the guitar in 2001). When the record, which is nearly an hour long, wraps up on the slow, graceful, seven-minute ballad “Wait Forever”, with Sarah’s sweet cooing, Joshua’s spoken word vocals, and a slightly jazzy piano solo gently overlapping each other in the outro, it still feels like the celebration of faith, creativity, and redemption is over far too soon. This was the first album that I ever wrote a full-length review of when I first joined Epinions in 2000 (and the original text, for the most part, is preserved in the link above for posterity), and by that point I was already aware that they had broken up. No real reason was stated for it, but I figure it was a combination of the CCM audience not really knowing what to do with them, and people moving on in their personal lives and exploring other interests. There had been some backlash against the group because a few members sported tongue piercings. (I know, right? SCANDALOUS. Some stuffy religious folks just don’t like to let the rest of us have nice things.) Sarah had recently gotten married to Johnny Macintosh, who was then the guitarist for Luna Halo, and it’s possible they both decided that being on the road apart from each other with their respective bands wasn’t sustainable. She went on to a solo career as Sarah Macintosh, continuing to write similarly poetic and worshipful songs as a solo artist (just with a lot less alt-rock crunch), and appearing as a backup vocalist on some of Michael W. Smith’s worship records. Her 2012 album Current made my “Best of the 2010s” list a couple years ago – definitely check it out if you like this and want to hear more of her. I have no idea what Joshua and Rachel have been up to since the band split, but since they’re all related, I would assume they’re all in touch with each other. Still, I won’t hold out hope for a Chasing Furies reunion any time soon – this is one of those bands that burned brightly for a very short period of time and then fizzled out without warning, but they left behind a landmark recording that still sounds fresh and fascinating and life-altering to me over 20 years later.
1. Jars of Clay – Much Afraid (Best of 1997)
First Listen: 1997
It will probably surprise no one that Much Afraid, Jars of Clay’s melancholy swerve of a second album that followed their massively popular self-titled debut, has solidified its position as my #1 album of the 90s. I’ve gushed about this album at every possible excuse whenever the band comes up in conversation, and sometimes even when they have nothing do with the conversation and it’s about a more general topic, like follow-up albums that were deemed disappointing after a breakout hit or something of that nature. For a while there I just took it really, really personally when people didn’t seem to get this album (especially if they were the types to insist that the first album was the only noteworthy thing the band did and it was all downhill from there). I’ve lightened up on this stance since then, because there’s so much diversity in both musical styles and subject matter across this band’s discography that I think different albums are going to speak uniquely to different people. Much Afraid is a dark horse pick, and I feel a special kinship when I run across another fan who cites it as their favorite, and I wouldn’t feel that way if everyone loved it. But I wish more people who only ever gave the band’s first album a chance, as well as people who assume Jars of Clay was just a one-hit wonder that never did anything beyond “Flood”, would really sit down and give this one a listen. What they’d find is a band undergoing a huge growth spurt in terms of their artistic expression, while also ensuring that their musical style wouldn’t be forever typecast as “that Christian band with the cool beats and strings”. The arrangements on this record focus more strongly on the guitars, which are a mix of acoustic and electric this time around after a mostly acoustic debut; very rarely does this album “rock out” aside from the rather misleading single “Crazy Times” (which I enjoy, but on such an amazing record as this it actually turns out to be one of my least favorites), but the inventive chord progressions and unusual tunings give a ton of melodic depth to these songs. Strings are still present, but less as the primary ingredient of a song and more as a dramatic backdrop against which the drama can unfold. Lead singer Dan Haseltine, who later opened up about going through a depression at around the time this record was being made, improved greatly as a singer between albums, his voice now expressing a range of emotions, from timid to tender to curious to celebratory. A lot of his lyrics seemed to be borne out of dark nights spent wrestling with God, trying to figure out who he really was vs. who people wanted him to be as the focal point of this Christian rock band suddenly thrust into the spotlight. The brief but potent opening track “Overjoyed”, with its Beatle-esque chord progressions and its splashy cymbals, finds him trying to regain confidence in the name and the identity he’s been given, sure that he his loved and that God wants him to experience joy, but not quite knowing how to break through and actually feel those things again. “Portrait of an Apology” is perhaps the song that dug deepest into the disconnect between his feelings and actions, an exquisitely crafted, cinematic ballad that builds up to a confessional climax in which he admits that he’s been painting a false picture of himself to avoid disappointing others, and now he feels like he’s being made to apologize for letting his true colors show. That one hit me pretty hard, having only just started to come out a depression myself in the months leading up to this album’s release. “Tea and Sympathy”, which on the surface plays as a breakup song, turns out to be about more than just Defining The Relationship over a comforting warm beverage – the real plea being made there is for honesty, even if it hurts, rather than comforting lies told to save face. “Five Candles (You Were There)”, a mid-tempo pop/rock tune originally written for the Jim Carrey comedy Liar, Liar that actually turned out to be one of the more well-received singles from this album, finds a young boy lamenting his absentee father only being a satellite presence in his life, trying to reassure himself that “You were there when I needed you” but still grappling with a long chain of broken promises. “Weighed Down”, a song whose acoustic chord progression would sound naggingly familiar to those who stuck around for the hidden track “4:7” on their first album, took a familiar arrangement in a completely different direction as it pondered what worth love actually had when it went unexpressed. “Truce”, a weird, keyboard-driven, dance-rock tune that was an oddball by Jars of Clay’s standards at the time and still is, was one of the album’s rare up-tempo tunes – probably something a lot of listeners were thirsting for after the smorgasbord of catchy tunes on the first album, though I’m not sure it delivered that in the way any of us expected. Probably the song with the most conventional “old Jars of Clay” sound here was “Fade to Grey”, which was actually the first song the band ever wrote together, initially appearing on their demo Frail but not making the cut for the self-titled. What was once a maze of samples and drum loops matured like a fine wine into a kinetic rocker depicting a dizzying descent into moral ambiguity – it’s been one of their most enigmatic songs to puzzle out over the years, but definitely a hit with fans regardless, and that cold ending when everything but the vocals cuts out is so chillingly good, I cannot even begin to tell you how much I love it. The title cut from Frail also got reworked here – it was initially an instrumental built around a spellbinding finger-picked acoustic melody, now expanded out to a seven-minute epic with stirring strings, climactic percussion, all sorts of whispers and eerie background effects… and oh yeah, actual lyrics! That gave a composition that could have otherwise become a mere footnote in their history the wider exposure it deserved – you wouldn’t recognize it as one of their hits, but it’s definitely a fan favorite, and it reappeared in surprising configurations on different tours well after most of this album had disappeared from their setlists. The two closing tracks, which I’m sure must have been baffling to folks who already thought Much Afraid was a bit too slow and melancholy for its own good, took the band in a folksier direction akin to the one they’d later explore on Who We Are Instead and Redemption Songs. The title track, named for the lead character in the book Hind’s Feet on High Places, featured warm keyboards and accordion, slowly enveloping the listener in the assurance that, despite all the dark times and the doubt they’d been through, “Sweet Jesus, you never let me go.” “Hymn” closed the album out on another delicately finger-picked tune, its lyrics emulating the language of hymn-writers from centuries ago as it offered a unique, poetic spin on the gratitude a Christian feels for their salvation: “Yet in my brokenness, to cry spring worship unto Thee.” I can definitely think of albums from the 90s that racked up more hits, that had more cultural staying power, or that were more groundbreaking for their genre, and I can even think of albums that hit me a lot harder on first listen than this one did. Much Afraid took some work to fully appreciate, but it wriggled its way into my life little by little as I slowly unraveled what each of its songs might mean during a dynamically changing and emotionally unstable period of my own life. It’s the album that most accurately mirrored who I was in my college days, and what sorts of thoughts and emotions and creative expressions I wanted to share with people in the hopes that they would “get” me. And still, despite some unbelievably stiff competition, it stands out more than anything else as the record that defines the 90s for me personally.
And with that, my long, rambling, and unapologetically nostalgic trip through the 1990s has finally come to an end. I can’t tell you how happy I am to finally get to share this list of albums that in some cases have meant a lot to me since childhood, and in some cases I’ve only just gotten to know within the last year, with the hopes that you, dear reader, might discover something new, or be encouraged to revisit an old favorite of your own. I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief now that this all-consuming project is truly finished, and I’m already thinking about how I’m going to approach binging the 1980s, most of which is going to be completely uncharted territory for me. Will it even be doable within the span of a year? Judging from the overwhelming amount of interesting music that I had to explore in the 90s, despite having been actively interested in music for more than half of it, I can only imagine that this might be an even bigger project. It’ll take as long as it needs to take. But at some point in the future, I hope to report my findings, and to have as many fascinating albums to gush about as I did here.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in the future! I mean the past. Uh… you know what I mean.