The years from 1990-1999 saw Christian rock music overflowing its original Calvary Chapel banks, blossoming into a fully-fledged youth phenomenon with production values, sales, and critical appeal all mounting. Over the next ten issues of CM, we’ll be looking at each year in the 1990s in order. Over sixty members of the Facebook community “90’s Christian Music Recovery Group” submitted lists of their 100 favorite Christian albums of that time period. Group members favor rock over pop, so this composite list reflects mainly rock albums that have stood the test of time for twenty years, rather than top-selling pop favorites like Steven Curtis Chapman or Point of Grace.
The musical landscape of 27 years ago seems like a foreign land today: No Google, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, Soundcloud, NoiseTrade, or Amazon in sight. Even Apple and Microsoft had not penetrated most homes. New music could be sampled in the listening booth at a Christian bookstore, but Christian rock radio was available in few places. Many churches had come to tolerate some contemporary music, but widespread youth group fandom was still a few years off. Publications like CCM Magazine, Heaven’s Metal, and Harvest Rock Syndicate were among the few places you could learn about new acts and read interviews and reviews about your favorites. In short, listening to Christian rock was not condemned, but also not cool. As might be expected, the best artists of the day tended to be heavy hitters of the 80’s who were still at the top of their game in 1990.
What do you do when you put out your best album ever, and then half the band leaves? Billy Smiley, Rick Florian, and Mark Gershmehl regrouped, recruited, and resumed the same high-intensity Toto/Survivor AOR sound that had worked so effectively on the Freedom album. From rocker “Independence Day” (recently covered by Smiley’s new band Union of Sinners and Saints) to lovely ballad “Desert Rose,” the magic was far from gone.
After a stint under the alt-pop moniker Ideola, Heard generated a trio of terrific alt-country albums prior to his untimely death from heart attack. The first of the set, Bones, blended flavors from zydeco to jangle-pop in support of his ever-thoughtful lyrics about life, love, and faith. “House of Broken Dreams” featured Sam (formerly Leslie) Phillips in a tale of longing; “Mercy of the Flame” celebrated marriage. Heard’s wry, articulate style recalls Loudon Wainwright III or a more tuneful Bob Dylan.
Roger and Randy Rose tossed aside their Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears duds in favor of even faster fashions, adopting a fierce Billy Idol growl and an alt-rock guitar attack for songs warning against the perils of substance abuse and rage. The title track appeared in both electric and acoustic versions, equally memorable in their own ways.
Joey “Ojo” Taylor and his crew gave Christian audiences a taste of how soundscape-driven rock of the 90’s was soon to replace the hair metal which had dominated the late 80’s rock scene. Sim Wilson’s impassioned vocals and loopy guitar work by Gym Nicholson marked this album off from its peers on challenging tracks like “Via Dolorosa Way” and “Land of Luxury.”
Petra had its roots in the mid 1970’s, and through constant touring and recording had earned its status as the most recognizable Christian rock band with two different lead singers throughout the 1980’s. On the eve of the grunge revolution, their arena rock attack was still a force with which to be reckoned, earning them their first Grammy Award. The title track boasts one of Bob Hartman’s most tasteful guitar solos, while their passion for Bible teaching came through in tracks like “Creed” and “Prayer.”
Gene Eugene and company mixed their 70’s soul/funk approach with a heavier degree of rock this time around. The plight of the urban poor figured strongly on songs like the title track, “Bad News on the Radio,” and a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Behind the scenes, Eugene became the guiding hand for dozens of West Coast bands operating out of his Green Room studio, shaping the face of Christian music for years to come.
Punk doesn’t have to be repetitive or trite; the men of Few showed a level of instrumental prowess not always associated with their “short songs played loud and fast” genre, reflecting their appreciation for seminal punk/metal outfit Bad Brains. Omar Domkus’ funky, jazz-inflected bass work deserves special mention. Lyrics dealt with the struggle against sin, substance abuse, and self.
This power trio resisted identification as a “Christian band,” but its biblically informed lyrics still won it substantial attention from church kids, from the title song’s 1 Corinthians 13 theme to anti-abortion ballad “Legal Kill” to harmony-drenched radio hit “It’s Love.” A group of “musician’s musicians,” the band remains revered by their mainstream peers for their peerless blend of metal and progressive rock. A zillion hack nu-metal bands were using Drop D tuning ten years later, but King’s X did it first and best. Doug Pinnick’s vocals drew on funk and R&B influences from Little Richard to George Clinton, while Ty Tabor’s tuneful guitar work and layered harmonies brought Beatlesque pop sensibilities into the mix.
How incredible was the self-titled 1987 pop/rock album from The 77s? It was so awesome that its “leftovers” compilation (Sticks) found wide acclaim as one of the finest albums of the nineties from the moment it hit shelves, and it’s never budged from that critical position since. Every track stakes out different sonic territory, from distorted jams to summery jangle pop. “Don’t, This Way” features one of the most perfect guitar solos ever crafted, making the song’s seven minutes blaze by, while “MT” turns the band for a moment into improbable kings of electronic dance pop.
This album was the survey’s top ranked album not only of 1990, but amazingly also of the whole decade, blowing away all competition by a wide margin. And for good reason; not many bands can boast of melodies this beautiful, lyrics so brilliant, and such innovative production all at the same time. Dan Michael’s contributions are a master class in how to play rock saxophone without sounding like the E Street Band. Slide was the final word (for a while) in Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong’s early, echoing sound and a crucial benchmark in the story of quality Christian rock.