A few weeks ago, I shared the ten most influential songs from the early years of Christian music. Those songs paved the way for Christian music to grow and develop in later decades.
In a lot of ways, the ‘90s were a heyday for the contemporary Christian music (CCM) industry. As the genre grew up, it began to spread its wings (and there weren’t as many “safe for the whole family” mega radio stations to clip those wings). The mainstream music industry took notice, and several songs crossed over to become hits.
Here are the ten best Christian albums of the ‘90s. I chose to rank albums instead of individual songs because I had a hard time separating specific songs from the albums they came from. Besides, the ‘90s was pretty much the last decade we considered albums as a whole – before the advent of iTunes and the ability to purchase any song on its own. Enjoy the list!
10. Along the Road, Susan Ashton, Margaret Becker, and Christine Dente (1994)
What happens when you gather three of the most distinct and expressive voices in Christian music and team them up with a masterful producer in Wayne Kirkpatrick? The result is greater than the sum of its parts.
Kirkpatrick managed to take Ashton’s sweet country tones, Becker’s rock-edged alto, and Dente’s sophisticated sound, find a dozen tunes that fit their voices, and arrange the songs for maximum beautiful harmonies.
When you listen to Along the Road, you’ll hear the three women wrapping their voices around gorgeous Eagles-style songs that are refreshing and uplifting. The album rarely strays from a framework of sound that is as timeless as anything the decade gave us. Along the Road is one of the most beautiful experiences in Christian music, hands down.
9. Audible Sigh, Vigilantes of Love (1999)
I’m cheating just a little bit with this entry on the list, because Vigilantes of Love never appeared on a Christian music label other than a mid-decade greatest hits collection that a label specifically put together to market the band to the faith community.
Bill Mallonee and the Vigilantes of Love were indie before indie was cool. (Full disclosure: Bill is a friend of mine, in addition to being one of my musical heroes.) The Athens, Georgia, music stalwarts released their masterpiece at the end of the decade. With alt-country icon Buddy Miller behind the boards and his wife Julie and Emmylou Harris making guest appearances, Audible Sigh was destined to be a great album from the start.
Don’t get me wrong – these weren’t Christian radio hits. But Bill’s faith informed every lyric, and believing listeners would especially understand that a deep Christian undercurrent ran through every track. There’s plenty of ache to go around on Audible Sigh, but the pain is never anything but temporary. Nearly 20 years after its release, Audible Sigh still sounds beautiful and powerful, and it has become an Americana classic.
8. Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1997)
Too many people only know Sixpence None the Richer for their massive crossover smash, “Kiss Me,” and that’s a shame, because folks who only know that one hit are missing out on some great music. Sixpence crafted a brand of sophisticated alternative pop that expressed Christian themes but didn’t shy away from the facts that life is messy and pat answers don’t always work.
At the beginning of their self-titled third album, Sixpence reflected an attitude of resignation and fatigue, but hope and joy are never far away. In the gorgeous trilogy of songs that open the album, lead singer Leigh Nash sings of sadness and frustration but notes that “everything will be fine.”
As the album progresses, you hear love songs – including the ubiquitous “Kiss Me” – and more expressions of faith and wisdom. Sixpence None the Richer is art-pop that is clever without being precious and intelligent without coming across as pretentious. It’s glorious and rewarding with every listen.
7. Different Lifestyles, BeBe & CeCe Winans (1991)
BeBe & CeCe Winans established themselves as one of the premier artists in CCM in the ‘80s, and they were ready to take their sound – and their career – to the next level at the dawn of the ‘90s.
Their fourth album, Different Lifestyles, took current trends in R&B and pop music and embedded powerful lyrics of faith in the tunes. Keith Thomas took the helm again, and he helped the siblings craft strong songs. Gospel legend Mavis Staples and MC Hammer made guest appearances as well. The result was a fully modern album that had crossover appeal.
The first single, “Addictive Love,” and the collaboration with Staples on her family’s classic,“I’ll Take You There,” topped the R&B charts, yet the duo never watered down their gospel message. Different Lifestyles became one of the most appealing albums of the decade.
6. Lesson of Love, Ashley Cleveland (1995)
In a perfect world, Ashley Cleveland would be a rock legend and a household name. Her soulful, gritty voice reflects both her eventful life and her years of honing her craft. Her breakthrough album on A&M Records, 1991’s Big Town, caught the attention of the Christian music industry when A&M dropped her thanks to her transparent faith, and she became a fixture in both the country scene as a backing vocalist and in the Christian music family as a singer-songwriter.
Her second album in the Christian marketplace, Lesson of Love, gives us some of Cleveland’s best stuff. From the opener and title track in which she reflects on the wisdom of realizing she’s still learning about life (and still manages to sound amazing with a terrible cold) to the closer “I Know Who I Am,” a soaring declaration of her identity in Christ, Cleveland rocks and takes it slow by turns. Her two hymn renditions – the honky-tonk drenched Southern rock of “Revive Us Again” and the acoustic soul of “Holy, Holy, Holy” — demonstrate both sides of her incredible talent.
Lesson of Love won Cleveland the first of her three Grammys in the now-defunct Christian rock category. She was the only woman to win awards in that genre.
5. Jesus Freak, DC Talk (1995)
By 1995, Christian hip-hop trio DC Talk had released three albums that came across as silly and didn’t reflect much musical maturity. Their career trajectory changed with their fourth album, Jesus Freak.
This album was a markedly new direction for the group. They explored more rock-oriented textures and deeper spiritual material. Their songs were both weightier and more memorable. The soundscapes were more grown-up. The packaging reflected a greater emphasis on spiritual growth.
The edgy title cut became a youth group anthem, while their cover of Charlie Peacock’s “In the Light” captured Christian radio’s attention. The reconciliation song “Between You and Me” even crossed over to the Hot 100.
Jesus Freak set the tone for the rest of the trio’s time together, and it helped all three guys kick off their eclectic solo careers. It’s DC Talk’s high point by a long shot.
4. Third Day, Third Day (1996)
Until Third Day came around, you were far more likely to hear about Southern Gospel than Southern rock in Christian circles. Thanks to the guys from Marietta, Georgia (where I was born), Christian Southern rock took off into the stratosphere.
Third Day honed their craft in churches and small theaters around Atlanta, and their debut album got plenty of attention when it burst onto the scene. It was like no other Christian music I had heard before, and plenty of young Christian music listeners agreed. The first single, “Nothing At All,” managed to sneak onto rock and alternative radio in the South.
The band, featuring the soulful baritone and unbelievable showmanship of Mac Powell, ran the gamut of Southern rock on that first album, from story songs like “Mama” to tender acoustic ballads like “Love Song” to “Blackbird,” an ode to Chris Robinson of fellow Marietta band the Black Crowes. Third Day didn’t break into more conservative Christian radio until they honed off some of their musical edge, but their self-titled first album launched them into Christian rock stardom.
3. Jars of Clay, Jars of Clay (1995)
Christian alternative rock began to flourish in the ‘90s, and as the genre as a whole gained more followers, it was natural that some alt-rock bands would cross over to the mainstream. In stepped Jars of Clay with one big pop hit and a few other tunes that made the radio.
Jars of Clay had some production help on their self-titled debut from none other than rock stalwart Adrian Belew, who produced two of the tracks. One of those songs, “Flood,” captured the attention of alt-rock radio, and it crossed over onto the pop and rock charts.
The other song that Belew helmed, “Liquid,” received some airplay as well, and while Jars of Clay didn’t receive a ton of mainstream love, their debut album set them up for a sustained career in Christian music.
2. Heart in Motion, Amy Grant (1991)
By the dawn of the ‘90s, Amy Grant had already established herself as the queen of CCM. The success she had with the Unguarded album and her number one hit duet with Peter Cetera, “Next Time I Fall,” primed her for a mainstream breakthrough. And boy, did she get it with Heart in Motion.
Musically, Heart in Motion is as lightweight as it comes (not necessarily in a bad way), but it captures the musical tastes of the era perfectly. The number one hit, “Baby Baby,” put Grant directly in the spotlight, and she followed it with a number two hit in “Every Heartbeat” and two more top ten hits. In all, Grant mined six singles out of the album, and she racked up four Grammy nominations including Record of the Year and Album of the year.
Lest you think that Heart in Motion is nothing but vapid pop, Grant grounded the album in her lifelong faith, especially in songs like “Hope Set High,” where she declared that “if there’s anything good that happens in life, it’s from Jesus.” It’s not her best album overall, but it was the right album at the right time.
1. Into the Son, Dakoda Motor Co. (1993)
Christian surf rock sounds like the most specialized genre of music ever – and it pretty much was. But the one group that fits that musical description made it their own in the early ‘90s.
San Diego’s Dakoda Motor Co. emerged from Bible studies for surfers in La Jolla. Peter King (whom you may remember from MTV’s Sandblast) put together a band for worship at the Bible studies, and they gained a following in Southern California. Their first album, Into the Son, blended the disparate influences of surf rock – punk, garage rock, folk, and even country – into an appealing record.
The rockers are energetic, the ballads are lovely (especially the glorious “Grey Clouds”), and everything takes place through the lens of Christianity while still sounding good enough to capture the attention of nonbelievers. The band followed up with 1994’s Welcome Race Fans, and lead singer Davia Vallesillo left before 1996’s Railroad.
The original lineup has recently gotten back together and done some shows. Here’s hoping for some new music to go along with the concerts!
There’s my list! What albums do you think belong on this list? Let us know in the comments section below.