This is the second in a series of ten articles walking through the best Christian rock albums of the 1990s, as voted on by members of the “90s Christian Music Recovery Group” on Facebook. This month covers albums from 1991, just before arena rock grudgingly started giving way to grungy “alternative” sounds. Michael Jackson (“Dangerous”) and Guns’n’Roses (“Use Your Illusion”) were major mainstream stars of the year, while debuts from Michael English and Susan Ashton made waves in the Christian music world. Due to the composition of the voting group, this “best of” list focuses mainly on the rock albums that have stood the test of 25 years, starting off with a stylistic exception:
The biggest album from the biggest fish in the Christian Music pond saw her blasting onto mainstream Top 40 radio with song after remarkable song that justified including a straight pop album on such a rock-dominated list as this. A slew of familiar names, including Charlie Peacock, Michael Omartian, Keith Thomas, and Dann Huff lent their talents, and saw everyone in America become familiar with candy-coated love songs like “Baby Baby” and “Every Heartbeat” and thoughtful slices of life like “How Can We See That Far?” and “Ask Me.” Twenty five years later, these are the Amy Grant songs still most likely to be heard on a mainstream station.
Like a bratty little brother to prog/metal power trio King’s X, the Cowboys were produced by Wild Silas and featured funky, heavy rock in dropped tunings with thick vocal harmonies as big as their Texas roots. But where King’x X injected R&B, the Cowboys brought whimsy to the table with titles like “Pump up the Space Suit,” “Kaptain Krude,” and “Ranch on Mars.” The Cowboys also differentiated themselves from KX with a mixture of thrash rhythms and lumbering rock epics, with six minute tracks the rule rather than the exception.
Soul, Motown, and techno influences collide on Peacock’s happiest, poppiest album: a themed collection about the ups and downs of married life that was a little too specific for the comfort of some vendors. Vince Ebo wins the MVP award for the belting vocals that wind around Peacock’s sweet tenor. A Ladysmith Black Mambazo-style version of “In the Light” provided the basic concept for a later acoustic cover by DC Talk, while the piano-driven worldbeat of the Peter Gabriel-esque “Another Woman in Tears” should get you thinking about, and talking to, your spouse.
Christian rock’s most restlessly inventive outfit was still breaking new ground for a new decade. After the experimental Darn Floor, Big Bite album and before the day-glo pop of Motor Cycle came this transitional record alternating noisy guitars and acoustic rock in turn, always with Terry Taylor’s satirical lyrics to make these songs to contemplate, not just enjoy. Album opener “Big Warm Sweet Interior Glowing” could be about a televangelist, a politician, or anybody else whose overconfidence attracts a cult of personality. The title track mocks spiritual bluffers. With no New Wave synths in sight, raunchy distortion and coil reverb make this album the gutsiest, most garage-y entry in DA’s extensive and storied discography.
Intense metal musicianship with shouted lyrics. Lots and lots of lyrics from Mark Salomon, overflowing with keen concern for the plight of poverty, the censorship of Christian voices, the futility of the rat race of earthly success, and above all the gospel of Jesus Christ as the solution to it all. How many thrash bands said things like, “In these remaining days, let us not be tangled in mankind’s celebration of itself; rather, let us live as children of God”? The album was also remixed for improved clarity in 2009 by Starflyer 59’s Jason Martin.
The buzzing guitar opening of “Miracle” sets the stage for this brooding set of tuneful alternative rock. The prodigiously productive Michael Knott blends elements of Lou Reed, 70s Bowie, and Stone Roses on the first of, well, a whole mess of albums that made the Top Ten lists of various years on our 1990s survey. Experimentation is the order of the day, with his sister Bridget supplying a shocking soprano opera vocal, set against minimalist rock backing, for “War” and “Hummingbird.” Other tracks speak against “Suicide” and casual use of the name of the One who “got crucified, died, and rose again to save you from the scoffer” (“Not a Cuss Word”). Not always easy listening, but fascinating all the same.
The middle of Heard’s final trio of masterwork albums is also the mellowest. The pensive “Nod Over Coffee” makes for a contemplative opening, with its dread of the drudgery of “Whatever has to be done again today.” As usual for Heard, the lyrics are the main attraction, here delivered in a folk/country style similar to the Stonehill album “Return to Paradise”, which he had recently produced. A comforting sense of melancholy drifts from songs whose titles set the mood: “Worry Too Much,” “Another Good Lie,” “I Just Want to Get Warm.” “She Don’t Have a Clue” is a touching tribute to the innocence of a child who “will stumble on something good to say/ in the darkest scene of your darkest day.” “Talking in Circles” shows why Heard deserves to sit with Cohen and Dylan on the top shelf of poet/singers of our day.
This album was, Bono said, “The sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” At the peak of their fame, on the heels of the massive tour chronicled in the film and album Rattle and Hum, the lads from Dublin abandoned country and R&B influences for German techno. Guitarist Edge dialed way back on his trademark delay pedal effects in favor of a dizzying array of new tones, with each song offering something completely different and yet completely appropriate for the whole. Bono’s multilayered lyrics continued to mesh the romantic and the spiritual seamlessly on songs about subways (“Zoo Station”), hypocrisy, (“The Fly” and “Acrobat”), and of course the quest for ever-elusive personal and global peace (“One,” still among the most revered songs in one of the most revered discographies in rock history). Few artists dare to cover these particular songs, but their sonic fingerprints show up everywhere in pop, and especially modern worship music.
Is it two words? Is it one? Either way, it’s a furious pot of molten metal overflowing with tempo changes, double kick drum, and hooky shredding. They know how to mix it up too, from rap guests P.I.D. (on “Spineless”) to a Spanish guitar break (on “Viento Borrascoso”). Medical topics predominate in songs by drummer Ted Kirkpatrick; the Psalm-like lament “Broken Chromosomes” dramatizes the struggles of a developmentally disabled man, while “Stereotaxic Atrocities” protests animal testing.
This self-titled and only album (1991) showcased a group of seasoned pros including Steve Taylor, Dave Perkins, and Lynn Nichols with a collection of Clash-influenced guitar rock tunes. The album represented a lateral move to mainstream label MCA in an attempt to sidestep the “glass ceiling” limitations of the Christian industry. Typically biting Taylor lyrics on tracks like “Escher’s World” and “The Rub of Love” depict the disasters of a sin-wracked world with fearsome energy and hooks that have their own hooks. Perkins takes the lead on the apocalyptic love song “If It All Comes True” and heartbreaking novelty groove track “The Wrong George.” This album scored fifth overall on our list of all Christian albums of the decade, illustrating its enduring power to provoke and inspire.