Music Matters: In Search of 90’s CCM that Doesn’t Suck

Each Tuesday in Music Matters, Matthew Linder explores the intersections of music, culture and faith.

A search for Contemporary Christian Music from the 1990′s that is aesthetically pleasing and theologically rich.

Flavorwire recently provided their list of “In Search of Christian Music that Doesn’t Suck” which includes U2, Sufjan Stevens, Pedro the Lion and Faith + 1 (that’s right, a fake band from an episode of South Park). Not to be outdone, I completed my own search but specifically of 90’s Christian Music. I know what you might be thinking. Wasn’t this an era of super cheesy and theologically shallow music from Christians? Matthew, what is wrong with you? Your own bio states that you “could live without 90′s Christian music” and you have been critical of this era elsewhere. Also, 90’s CCM produced “Baby Why Not Me?”, so how can you say that any of it was good?

It’s true. I am not a fan of 90’s CCM or any music of the 90’s (except for 90’s hip-hop, love that). To me the Clinton years, in general, were a musical wasteland but with many recent articles critical of 90’s Christian music, I wondered, “It couldn’t be all bad, could it?” With this in mind, I present a non-exhaustive list of nine songs (in no particular order) which overturn our assumptions about this much derided decade of Christian music.

“This Is Your Time”/Michael W. Smith - Michael W. Smith who brought us schlocky synthesized and overproduced 80′s pop tracks created this little gem in 1999. This song is based on the story of Cassie Bernall, at first believed to have been martyred in the Columbine shootings for her faith in God but later, the report turned out to be false. Though Smith wrote the song on the initial report and comes up with a sincere reaction to the death of a fellow sister in Christ. For a mainstream CCM song the music is well-suited to the topic and ends with a delightful Celtic-inspired drum and bagpipe funeral march of hope.

“Crush”/The Violet Burning – This is some of the best grunge music of any band from the 90’s and I say that as someone who was/is not a fan of grunge. The fuzzy, chunky guitar, laid-back vocals and continual build are an invitation to headbang to this track. Furthermore, the imagery of crushing when God’s love is set upon us is a vivid metaphor with the dual meaning of crushing away our sins and overwhelming us with his love. The one oddity is when uses the term “baby”, which is as awkward the John Mark McMillan lyric, “So heaven meats earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”

We are find where we want to go
We are trying to regain control
Let the streams of light pour down on me
Let the love that heals me set me free

Come on, crush me
Let it crush me
Crush me, you crush me baby
Crush me

“All Else Failed”/Zao – Metalcore at its finest. The song begins timidly, then the full weight of the detuned guitars, double bass drum and growling come in forcefully as the vocalist opens with a question, “Why?” The final word answering the question is the typical Sunday school answer, “Jesus”, but the lyrical and musical journey to get there is filled with the struggles of life yet forward looking towards the gospel. After eight minutes of incredible metal, there are five minutes of the sounds of rain, the forest, a man yelling and finally laughter. One wonders the meaning of these final moments, are these the sounds of new creation, of Jesus’ resurrection or maybe a reference to the flood? Whatever the sounds may be, it is well worth your time to read through all of the lyrics of the song.

Why? For what do we strive that will bring us closer.
No human deed will show us approved.
For two thousand years we’ve choked on our efforts.
Only to lay down and die.

Things change, and things stay the same.
Through all these trials

I cannot compose myself.
Till there is a time no heaviness fills my heart.
I cannot compose myself.
So in all this, there must arise a plan.
A strategy to subdue the schemes.
For generation upon generation God retained a silence that shattered the hearts of men.
And for a season, all else failed.
There is no other name, given
Among men whereby they might be saved.
In all these years when men crawled the earth choking on his tears,
No composure, nor completion reigned.
No self righteous cleansing.
Leaning on the strength of self or another man…
No human effort can bring holiness or even the strength to stand.
There is no explanation for this reasoning.
The only thing in life that is constant is Jesus.

“Reborn Empowered”/Living Sacrifice – Rhythmically whimsical drums on a bed of white noise distortion precede a killer drum fill leading us into the sandpaper coarseness of the vocalist’s screaming. You literally feel the power of the band with these bold, incisive guitar lines as they underscore lyrics which celebrate Jesus’ resurrection in power:

Reborn empowered
All strongholds broken
Old ways have died,
Given new life
Boldness engulfs my every word,
Strength empowered by God
Jesus
The strength in Christ’s name
Power, all knees must bow
Same spirit that dwells in us,
Raised Him from the dead
This gift freely given,
You will believe
Evil, it’s plan to deceive,
Manipulation, deception we bind
Rebirth, confession,
That He is God, almighty
Reborn empowered
All strong holds
Broken old ways have died,
Given new life
Rebirth, confess, our Lord

“Nobody’s Fault but Mine”/The 77s – This band hails from my hometown—Sacramento, CA. They produced some of the best straight ahead bluesy rock of the decade and were not afraid to speak boldly about their faith and their shortcomings. This song epitomizes their recognition of the latter and has some complex and intersting drum beats in the middle section of the song.

The devil he taught me to roll
How to roll that invisible line
Well, it’s nobody’s fault but mine
I’ve got a bible in my house
If I don’t read it, my soul dies
Well, it’s nobody’s fault but mine

“Satellite Sky”/Mark Heard – Always working as an outsider and frequent critic of the CCM community in Nashville, Mark Heard created a litany of songs dealing with doubt. This folk-driven, guitar twanging song is reminiscent of late 80’s rock and comes from one of Heard’s final albums by the same name. As a parent I have asked myself this question many times, in regards to my daughter as I worry what the future may hold for her in “these times”. Honesty was Heard’s trademark in an era of superficial CCM and I for one am thankful for the musical legacy he left inspiring future Christian musicians.

Why, Why, Why, I say Why, Mama, Why?
Why can’t I sleep in peace tonight underneath the satellite sky

I want to stand out in the middle of the street and listen to the stars
I want to hear their sweet voices
I want to feel a big bang rattle my bones
I want to laugh for my children
I want the spark to ignite
before they find out what it means to be born
into these times

“Fifty-Eight”/The Prayer Chain – A lamentation loosely derived from Psalm 58 set against an angst-ridden and brooding musical landscape. You can feel the singer distraught as the band backs out for a moment and he sings alone screaming outTake my fist/ And hold it in your hand/ Take my rage/ And bury my pain.”

“Insult Like The Truth”/Charlie Peacock– Perhaps most well-known for DC Talk’s cover of his song “In the Light”, Peacock has had a long career in the music industry. Peacock began his career as a jazz pianist and attended my alma mater, California State University, Sacramento. Over time he worked his way into the Christian music business and has worked with performers as varied as Switchfoot to Amy Grant. But he has always remained a performer at heart and released some really amazing songs in the 90’s. “Insult Like the Truth” contains many of the trappings of 90’s music such as middle eastern sounding strings, noise-gated drums a la Phil Collins via a thumping bass drum and a heavily reverbed guitar but it is so infectious that it is hard not to like it. Even more so when it contains lyrics like these:

I’ve run my ship aground on the rocks of the soul,
There’s no lie like independence, there’s no demon like control,
And I’ve fanned the burning embers ’til my house was on fire,
There’s no parody like power, there’s no fever like desire,
And I’ve drained the wine of darkness to the dregs of deceit,
There’s no drug as strong as pride, there’s no blindness like conceit,
Well, I railed against a mountain with a pickaxe and a file,
There’s no minefield like presumption, no death wish like denial.

There’s no gunshot like conviction,
There’s no conscience bulletproof,
There’s no strength like our own weakness,
There’s no insult like the truth… There’s no cure like crucifixion

“Drunk on the Tears”/Vigilantes of Love – These Athens, Georgia musicians are one of the few Christian artists who had their album banned from Christian bookstores. Not because they lacked gospel-centrality in their music but because they occasional swore and one song in particular was a bit too sexually explicit in describing Bill Mallonee’s relationship with his wife. “Drunk on the Tears” is not only incredible folk music but a scathing attack on TV evangelists and a graphic description of the glorious cross which saves us.

I been eating the fare of the wicked men under the guise of sophistication
It’s poisoned my senses, and my sight needs correction
It’s bad for my bowels and my general complexion

It’s been my staple for so many years
It’s hard to taste the wine when you’re drunk on the tears

Hey, we got new ways to treat the soul that succumbs
Electroshock and Valium
The 20th century, you don’t need salvation
We got chemists dedicated to your recreation

Nicole works the streets for 12 hours a day
She don’t charge much for what she’ll trade away
In a few short years, her business will fade
That’s what happens with the tools of the trade

Jim and Tammy and Reverend Swaggart
They don’t look like Jesus, and they’re a whole lot fatter
Don’t miss the truth for a stupid sideshow
Don’t confuse the cup with the contents it holds

God, I need a drink, and I need one fast
Make it a strong one
One that’ll last
Have You got anything that’s been selling brisk
For a soul diagnosed at a terminal risk?

Jesus, lover of my soul
Let me to Thy bosom fly
I’m so weak, and I’m so cold
And the lambs in the West so speedily die

Alibis roll off my tongue
I’m looking for ruins to hide among
I got a soul piled high to excess
With the wonderfully useless and the frivolous

The praise due Your name evades my lips
There’s no helping hand on my fingertips
I used to be someone
Now I’m not worth a ****
I got a truckload of things I’m trying to forget

Since back in the garden on the first page
Something about the cradle to the grave
The promise is broken
More promises made
All in the image I’ve so defaced

Played out on the pages of history
Dripping in blood that flows from a tree
Where the Father and Son part company
Come back together for you and me

I don’t know why You did it
What was Your motivation?
Crucifixion’s not a cool sensation
You had something to say, and You started to speak
The cross is the place for Your coronation speech

About Matthew Linder

Matthew Linder is a music professor at National University, married and father of a 2-year-old daughter. He loves Jesus, the Church, biblical theology, and of course, music but despises ketchup. While he appreciates a wide variety of musical styles, he prefers hip-hop, metal, and classical but could live without 90s Christian music. Follow Matthew on Twitter @TheRetuned.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    What about the first Jars of Clay album?

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    @Kullervo: “non-exhaustive list.”

  • Jamison

    I hate to be that guy but that version of Zao’s All Else Failed came out in the mid-00′s. It’s a cover of the original that did come out in the 90′s. The band essentially had two incarnations that sounded dramatically different. About ten years into the bands life, the second incarnation decided to rerecord their debut album, some suspect that it was mostly to fulfill a contractual obligation. The original song is closer to straight hardcore, inspired by bands like Earth Crisis.

  • kate

    I also hate to be “that person,” as I usually love what I read from CaPC and agree with some of this list, but I want to say a couple of things.

    One, I’m not sure if the author knows this (I can’t tell from the article), but “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is a classic blues song that was made famous by Led Zeppelin. The 77’s do an awesome version of it, but it is not their song. I’m a huge fan of Mike Roe and the 77’s, though, so I’m glad they made the list anyway.

    Two, as someone who was involved in the Christian music scene in the 90’s in various ways, I have to say that it was actually a great period for certain elements of Christian music. While there was (and is) a lot of bad CCM, some of the rock and alt pop that came out then was amazing and still stands up against anything else from the time, Christian or not (editors at All Music Guide, eMusic, etc. champion some of the Christian bands of the 90’s actually). It was a unique time of real creativity and explosion in the Christian rock/alternative scene, especially among smaller bands and labels. The number of good artists (and great older bands still doing music) that had albums out in the 90’s through Tooth and Nail, 5 Minute Walk, Squint, Brainstorm, Alarma, Frontline, Tattoo, Blonde Vinyl, R.E.X., Gray Dot, re:think, Burnt Toast, Velvet Blue, etc. is too long to list here. Even a few bigger labels like Reunion (through Rodedog) and Sparrow were briefly supportive of truly great artists. Magazines of the time (True Tunes, Tidal Wave, 7ball, etc.) had no shortage of cool music to cover and are worth trying to find and read.

    There are so many “Chrindie” (the term people started using for Christian indie rock) bands worth attention, and it made me a bit sad to see the author make it sound like there’s very little to listen to from the 90’s. It’s one of the few periods of Christian music with a ton of artists who deserve serious credit. Good music is out there, you just have to go find it.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Havalina Rail Co and Starflyer 59 are my go-to bands from the era. I still listen to both.

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com D.L. Mayfield

    Seth, for the first time, I think we are in complete agreement about something :)

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Aw, I think we’ve been in full agreement on lots of things. It’s just all the other things that get in the way of us being the same person :)

    Also, high fives for liking HRC and SF59!

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    @Jamison I knew there were two versions of the song and I honestly thought I had picked the original one. But what you are telling me is that the shorter version is the one from the 90′s, right? :/ I want to give that version a listen and compare it to the latter version to see how it changed. That would be really interesting to me and thanks for pointing that out.

    @Kate One of other writers told me about The 77′s song and I had had no idea that it was a cover. I just thought it was a killer tune, though they do make some interesting lyrical modifications. Also your list of bands from the 90′s is exactly why I wanted to explore this decade of Christian music because I felt like I had been unfair in my assessment of the decade as a whole. I knew others had come to similar conclusions about the era too, so I wanted to highlight at least a few songs to whet people’s appetites so that they can search out other great CCM music from the 90′s. This whole journey really made me rethink my assumptions about the era and expanded my playlist to include some great music that I might have otherwise written off. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, I really appreciate it.

  • kate

    Matthew, you’re welcome, I’m glad that you are interested in the feedback you’ve gotten here. I hope you do take some time to discover more of the music from that time. The labels I mentioned had some great things to offer then, so check stuff out. Enjoy!

  • Jon

    The Choir’s album Chase the Kangaroo is a musical masterpiece (and lyrically intelligent too) that really stands the test of time. I still pull it out now and listen and it moves me just as much today as it did over 20 years ago.

  • Brad Williams

    Hmm…so maybe it wasn’t that the Christian bands were so terrible in the 90′s. Maybe it was Christian radio that didn’t play any of these bands? Because I don’t think I heard of any of these bands.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    @Jon I almost included The Choir on this list but then I ran out of time… :( I will have to listen to that album. Thanks for the tip.

    @Kate I was in the Christian rock scene in the early 2000s with my band Silent Horizon so I was very aware of the other bands during that time period but woefully ignorant of all the indie stuff of the previous decade. I only knew of mainstream CCM like DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline and the like and thus probably my dislike for CCM of the 90′s. Though, I do have a soft spot for “Shine” from Newsboys. I am not sure why as the song is super cheesy on every level but it is my guilty pleasure. :)

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    @Brad I think Christian radio is the same way now unfortunately. When Lecrae’s album “Gravity” was at the top of the Billboard 200 last fall, I expected to hear at least one of his songs on Christian radio but nope I never heard a single one. Made me shed a tear…

  • Rebecca W

    Thanks for this. … Just one small correction. :) Wes King wrote “This Is Your Time” not Michael W. Smith.

  • Krispin

    Hey, come to think of it, All Else Failed was a remake (or cover, depending on how you look at it) of a song that was written in the 90′s (by the original Zao).

    But anyway, speaking of “Baby, Why Not Me?” was anybody else a little taken aback by the recent show “Saturdays with Mark & Tony” (as in, Lowry & Campolo)?

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    @Rebecca W. It was co-written with Wes King but the inspiration was all Michael W. Smith.

    According to him, “I went to Littleton (Colorado) to sing Friends at the Columbine Memorial Service and it was a day that impacted me greatly. It was so over-whelming emotionally, that I just had to find a way to cope with it and to digest it all, so I found myself at the keyboard writing music. Meeting Cassie Bernall’s family inspired me the most. Cassie claimed she believed in God and lost her life for it. I have written a song called This Is Your Time which is a challenge for us all to recognize through Cassie’s life, that now is our time to stand up and live life unabashedly for God.” – source: http://www.michaelwsmith.net/biography.html

  • Jamison

    @Matthew

    The biggest difference is the guys voice. Shawn Jonas (Zao’s original vocalist) was always more of a yeller, where as Dan Weyandt has a growl similar to bands like Cannibal Corpse. Also, the second incarnation of Zao had some incredible releases in the 90′s too. If you’re interested, you should check out their 1998 album Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest. It’s generally considered their best as well as one of the best metalcore albums of all time.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2012/11/the-naked-racism-of-an-obama-america/ Alan

    No Petra = No good.

  • Dianne Schenk

    I know it’s not an exhaustive list, but I can’t believe Rich Mullins didn’t make it onto this list.

  • http://www.joelhenghartse.com Joel

    This seems as good a place as any to remind people that I wrote a book about this stuff.

    I think you should buy it. You should probably buy it.

    (https://wipfandstock.com/store/Sects_Love_and_Rock_and_Roll_My_Life_on_Record)

  • http://southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com yankeegospelgirl

    I take credit for recommending “This is Your Time” to Matt. Matt, you should have included some Rich Mullins on this list, instead of all this other stuff I don’t recognize. And speaking of Wes King, he had some good stuff in this decade too. :)

  • http://southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com yankeegospelgirl

    Whoops, looks like Diane beat me to it. Sorry Matt, we honestly thought of it at the same time. :) Also, didn’t Fernando Ortega and Michael Card make some music in this decade?

  • http://southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com yankeegospelgirl

    Also, regarding the Cassie Bernall case… I know that the one girl did come forward and claim that the story wasn’t true, but Cassie’s parents testified that her story had changed from what it was before. So I’m not sure it’s entirely clear. It’s still possible that it really did happen.

  • Ricky H

    Wow, no mention of:

    “Sin Disease” by Scaterd Few
    “Galactic Cowboys” by Galactic Cowboys
    “All the Flowers Growing in Your Mother’s Eyes” by The Throes
    “Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance” by Tourniquet
    Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus
    Atomic Opera
    Believer

    And established artists with very noteworthy ’90s releases:

    “Red Moon” and “To Heaven and Back” by The Call
    “Motorcycle” and “Songs of the Heart: The Story of Bud and Irma Akendorf” by Daniel Amos
    “Lament” by Resurrection Band
    “The Last Temptation” by Alice Cooper
    “Faith, Hope, Love” by King’s X

    Just to name a few.

  • Pingback: Music Matters: In Search of 90's CCM that Doesn't Suck – Patheos | Christian Music Jukebox

  • Daniel Phelps

    I know one person mentioned it, but as far as quality musicianship and deep theological lyrics, Tourniquet was the band to beat. Years later I still love their music.


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