Look, I don’t want to get it into it.
I know that the fact that there is a category of music labeled “Christian” is somewhat egregious. I know music can’t be saved from sin, and I know that this is the only label given to music based on its content and not on its style.
I also know that the most of the music labeled “Christian” tends to be over (or under) produced, syrupy, derivative, and often without depth.
So I guess I have gotten into it. I feel like it’s okay to say “Christian music” because that’s the way it is, and it takes too long to say “Rock (or punk or rap) music that is made by someone who considers themselves a Christian.” But that is what I mean by it, and that definition broadens both the number of bands (Thrice, anyone?) and the possible subject matter, as it cancels out illegitimate requirements like “they have to say Jesus six times for it to be a Christian song.”
There are those of us out there who both love quality, original music and appreciate music addressing the worldview we think is capital T True. We love passion and edge in our music, but we loathe the content of most popular music, with its unrelenting focus on sex, romantic love as the answer to all things, boastfulness, and, in other genres, depression and hopelessness.
And those of us who fit that description see signs of life in the music world–we know that there are excellent musicians out there, producing some really great stuff, who also call Jesus Lord. They tend to shy away from the “Christian music world.” Sometimes they operate in it, sometimes they don’t. We are encouraged by the presences of Sufjan Stevens, mewithoutYou, Mute Math, Pigeon John, P.O.D. (sometimes), Jon Foreman and Switchfoot, and numerous others who are shattering the imaginary barrier people have set up as “Christian” and “secular” music.
What many of us may not realize, though, is that there have been groundbreaking and talented bands since the beginning of “Christian” music (I will relentlessly use quotes here) in the late 60s/early 70s. You just had to look harder for them. They got less attention, and were less successful.
My car has only a tape deck. For awhile we had an iPod adapter in the car and I could play my latest downloads of Lecrae, Radiohead, or Bon Iver. But it broke. And we decided not to buy a new one. So guess what? I’ve been listening through my cassette collection. And guess what? Some of the old albums stand the test of time.
I present to you some of the relatively unsung classics of the 90s underground Christian music world. If you’re in the mood for something new, get something slightly old! Many of these albums are hard to find or out of print, but some are still available. Here we go, in no particular order.
Scaterd Few–Sin Disease (1990)–This is the first CD I ever owned. Scaterd Few was punk band from Los Angeles. The lead singer, Allan Aguirre (who went by the name Omar Romkus), was friends with HR of a somewhat similar band, Bad Brains. But Scaterd Few brings their own style and sound to the punk genre–think of this as punk with hints of reggae and complex musical arrangements. Think of this as punk with talent. And Sin Disease is an amazing, blistering record. 16 tracks, many of them under two minutes long, fly by with no skip tracks (except maybe the bizarre seven minute finale.) Allan sounds like Peter Murphy with a greater range, and he covers topics ranging from drug use and gang violence (Glass God, Lights Out) to the theology of sin (Kill the Sarx) with weird poetics. There’s a reggae track and one or two haunting acoustic moments, but for the most part this album flies by with a fierce intensity and a sound all its own. The band would never top this record. Stand-Outs: “Kill the Sarx” “Self” “Lights Out”
The 77s–Sticks & Stones: The 77s, fronted by guitar impresario Mike Roe, have existed in one form or another since the late 70s, and are still putting out albums today. At one point, they were labelmates with U2, and The 77s debut album on Island Records had the unfortunate luck to be released at the same time as The Joshua Tree, whose success distracted the label from promoting The 77s at all.
The 77s talent is broad. They can do aggressive blues rock (including a cover of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” that I believe tops Led Zeppelin’s version), moody and mournful alternative, and gospel jams.
For a long time, their drummer was the legendary Aaron Smith, who recorded with Ray Charles and was the drummer for the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” A pair of his drumsticks are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame right next to Ringo Starr’s.
They have many strong moments, but for me, nothing tops Sticks and Stones. This is an album that shouldn’t work. It is basically a collection of tracks that never got finished, got thrown off of albums, B-sides, and that sort of thing. And it is brilliant. You hear the band’s whole range, from straight soulful rock songs like “MT” to Jerry Lee Lewis-tinged blues (“Perfect Blues”) to experimental alternative songs like “God Sends Quail” (which opens with a 2 1/2 minute guitar solo that is my favorite guitar solo of all time). Lyrically the album is strong, covering themes of loss, failure, redemption, and love. In fact, the only misstep is an instrumental called “The Loop” that never really hooked me. Overall, this is a great collection of songs from a great band. Stand-Outs: “This is The Way Love Is,” “God Sends Quail.” For Further Listening: Try their 1992 album, which they were forced the self-title but is really called “Pray Naked.” There is an even broader range of style here; the album is a bit bleaker than Stick and Stones.
Adam Again–Dig (1992): Fronted by the late Gene Eugene, a child actor whose credits included Bewitched, Adam Again was one of those bands that seemed to change styles from album to album. Some consider their last album, Perfecta, to be their best, but I find it boring with the exception of two songs, one being the opener, “Stone,” which might be the best song the band ever recorded.
No, I consider Dig to be their masterpiece. Imagine, if you will, REM’s Michael Stipe fronting a guitar-driven jam band that sings only esoteric Dylan-esque lyrics with an edge of sarcasm, and that’s what you get here. The songs flow, and the lyrics demand attention and thought. They also must have been a pain to memorize, as they are complicated, full of strange imagery, and vital to the rhythms of the songs.
You may have heard at least one of these songs. Jars of Clay covered the title track on its “Furthermore” record. But there are 10 tracks here, ranging in theme from broken relationships (which makes for a slightly awkward concert experience, as the backup singer is Gene Eugene’s ex-wife) to desparation to…a bunch of songs I don’t fully understand. But there is much to chew on, and as you do, you’ll want to sing along. Stand-Outs: “Hopeless, Etc., ” “Worldwide,” “River on Fire,” “Deep,” “So Long.” Okay, that’s half the album.
The Violet Burning–Strength (1992) The Violet Burning is a California band that still puts out albums today. They’ve gone through several line-up changes, but really the Violet Burning is mostly the work of Michael Pritzl, a brilliant musician and songwriter. The band has gone through several phases, some dark, some light, some worshipful, some moody, and mostly all of those combined.
Strength was the last thing Pritzl did as part of the Vineyard Church and their music label. I know they had a falling out at some point, and that may be one of the reasons why this disc is no longer available, though you can order a disc through the band’s website of the current band playing through it live. The original album runs about $50 on CD.
And it would be worth it. This is basically a musically original, emotionally thick worship album. Don’t misunderstand that–this does not sound like “worship music”–it sounds like alternative music, whatever that means. It is intense, soulful worship, with lyrics that are somehow both introspective and completely upward focused. Pritzl’s voice is an original, sounding a bit like some holy union of Robert Smith and Thom Yorke.
It starts with “There is No One Like You,” and doesn’t let up. Towards the end, “Song of the Harlot” uses the story of the woman who anoints Christ’s feet as a metaphor for the human condition. The singer confesses how “many times I’ve loved the world, so many times I’ve been the whore.” The song climaxes with the line, “And if I could be anyone at all, then let me be the whore at Your feet.”
The band on this record is my favorite incarnation of TVB, and includes Shawn Tubbs, a secret treasure in the guitar world whose solos are some of the best things on the record. The only misstep is a cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” that feels a little out of place.
I’m not sure how to talk you into buying this record. Hunt it down. You will not be disappointed. Stand-Outs: “There is No One Like You,” “Stay With Me,” “As I Am,” “Song of the Harlot”…and everything else.
The Choir–Circle Slide (1990)–For a long while, the Choir was my favorite band of all time, largely because of this disc. It is rare for Christian musicians to be ahead of their time, but there wasn’t anything happening in 1990 that sounded quite like this, with Derri Daughtery’s heavenly voice, Steve Hindalong’s amazing lyrics and even better drumming, and Dan Michael’s spacy lyricon and saxophone talents. Even today, this album sounds, at least to me, new. The Choir has other strong albums, and even their most recent, 2006’s “Oh How the Mighty Have Fallen,” is a good effort. But some of the records sound dated, and others aren’t as cutting edge or original as Circle Slide.
The album is full of Hindalong’s poetic imagery that typically runs on three basic themes: a. his love for his wife (“Sentimental Song,” “Tear for Tear”), b. his love for his family/kids (“If I Had a Yard,” “Laugh Loop”) c. his desperate need for God, a God he’s not always sure is there (“Blue Skies,” “Restore My Soul.”)
To me, the Choir’s biggest strength has always been melody, and they give it to you in droves here. The title track opens the album, and while it’s good and sets the tone for the album, it’s not my favorite. Starting with track 3, though, the record is perfect. From the sparse “Blue Skies,” mostly made up of drums and vocals, to the jamming closer “Restore My Soul,” the album does not let up. Stand-Outs: “Sentimental Song” “Blue Skies” “Restore My Soul” For Further Listening: “Speckled Bird” “Free-Flying Soul” and “Wide-Eyed Wonder”
Squint–Steve Taylor (1994)–Steve Taylor has been referred to as the clown prince of Christian music, and rightfully so, but more than that he is just a ridiculously talented guy. This was his last record of new material, with most of his albums coming out in the 80s, (and, as classic as they are, sounding like they came from the 80s). He is now focused on directing, currently working on a film version of Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz (yeah, I don’t know how that will work either.) His previous directorial effort, The Second Chance, though not perfect, puts many other so-called Christian movies to shame in that Taylor seems to have a director’s eye, trying out different shots and angles and ways of communicating what he wants. The direction seemed anything but rote. Plus, I’ll never be able to hear “Come Now is the Time to Worship” in quite the same way. (Before that, Taylor directed a ridiculously silly film for the Newsboys.)
But to me, the best thing he’s ever done artistically is 1994’s Squint. I’ve said this before, but again, this album does not sound dated–it’s a modern rock spectacle with ten strong tracks…and the occasional prog-rock and reggae influences. But what makes Taylor a cut above is his lyrics, at once satirical and confessional. “Bannerman” takes a tongue-in-cheek look at the guy with the John 3:16 sign at football games. “Smug” points the finger at celebrities both in Hollywood and in the church. “Cash Cow”, called a rock opera in three parts, is a satire of the materialistic hunger prevalent in American culture. (But to Taylor’s credit, he is always as quick to include himself in the things he is criticizing, confessing that he falls victim to that greedy spirit “every time I utter those three little words, ‘I deserve better’!”)
To fully understand all the lyrics, one needs to know a bit of Taylor history. His previous project had been the band Chagall Guevera, whose eponymous record had been released by a major label and gotten strong reviews in Rolling Stone magazine only to get no advertising push and fall apart almost before it began. This left Taylor reeling, and wondering if he had gone for major label success for the right reasons. Knowing this brings clarity and poignancy to “Jesus is For Losers” and “Sock Heaven.”
But the stand-out cut is far and away “The Finish Line.” The song is basically tells the story of a modern-day prodigal son using the metaphor of a marathon runner. It is musically complicated, going through multiple key changes and many, many chords, lyrically evocative, and probably one of my 10 favorite songs of all time by any artist. (If you don’t believe me when I say this song is amazing, ask Chris Mann.)
Stand-Outs: “The Lament of Desmond R.G. Underwood Frederick IV,” “Jesus is For Losers,” “The Finish Line,” “Cash Cow”.
Well, that’s it for this entry. I’m sure there are other records from the first half of the 1990s that belong on this list. In fact, I’ll give an honorable mention to “The Grape Prophet” by LSU. Make suggestions! Maybe I’ll do a part 2. But for now, hunt down any of these CDs. You won’t be disappointed.