Several months ago the brain trust of Rambling Ever On decided to tackle a monumental task. We thought it would be fun to come up with a list of the top 100 Christian rock albums of all time. We figured that this was the perfect use of our time and energy during a global pandemic. After thinking about it some we felt it best to narrow the focus of our list to the last 40 years. The age of our voters made it difficult to properly judge albums released in the 1960s and 1970s.
Once our date range was established we set out to find contributors to this list. We did not want one person’s opinion to carry too much weight on the final list. Six of our regular REO contributors submitted their personal top albums list. Everyone ranked at least 20 albums although some of us ranked many more. We also went outside the REO family and recruited 4 additional friends of ours to submit their favorite albums lists. We wanted people who were and are fans of Christian rock music and whose tastes went a little deeper and a little broader than what is currently being played on Christian radio. When it was all said and done hundreds of albums were nominated for the final list.
With our 10 person panel in place ranging in age from their late 20s to late 40s and including both men and women we felt we had a pretty good cross section of Christian rock and roll fans who took this task seriously.
We are very proud of our final list. It reflects the collective views of 10 long-time fans of Christian music. No one opinion, personal bias, or musical genre dominated our list. Every era is represented, and we are pleased to reveal it to the world over the next few weeks in a series of articles.
We hope this serves, along with our Forgotten History of Christian Rock series, as a conversation starter. If you are as big of a Christian rock fan as our voters, working your way through these albums should be a joy, perhaps reintroducing you to some classics you might have forgotten. Or, it might serve as an introduction to a few under-the-radar gems you might have missed. And, if you never really spent a lot of time listening to Christian rock, this list will give a chance to see all the incredible music you have missed.
A few rules and disclaimers before we get into the list.
First, defining “Christian rock” can be tricky. We decided to not include artists who are Christians but have operated exclusively outside of the Christian music world. We realize this is not an exact science. An example we would give here is U2. All four band members are professing Christians. Three of the four band members have been professing Christians for almost the entire 40+ year existence of the band, and their lyrics touch on topics of faith and spirituality often. Despite this, we did not include them because as a band they have always operated in the secular music industry. There were quite a few other artists we enjoy who were excluded from our list for similar reasons.
Another gray area in defining Christian rock music is deciding what qualifies as “rock”. We felt artists like Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith fit more in the pop genre. A couple of our favorites, Andrew Peterson and Rich Mullins, were not included because they fall more into the folk/singer songwriter mold.
We realize these rules are somewhat arbitrary and the lines can get a bit blurry, but in the end it helped narrow our focus in making the best list that we could make.
Beyond that our rules are pretty straightforward:
- All albums had to be released between 1980 and 2019.
- No live albums or greatest hits albums were eligible.
- A maximum of three albums for any one artist were allowed on the final list.
We invite you to stick around for all our articles to see if your favorite band made it on the list. We realize that like every list of this variety there will be plenty of disagreement. To be honest, many of us disagreed with each other’s choices. We also recognize our blind spots. There are a number of well-known and widely hailed artists or bands that don’t appear on our list. So, while our list is comprehensive and very strong, we acknowledge that it will not completely satisfy anyone. And we are ok with that. In the end, we feel like the best of the best rose to the top. Let us know what we missed. We welcome the feedback.
100. Anberlin – Never Take Friendship Personal (2005)
Never Take Friendship Personal was named in honor of Anberlin having to kick one of their guitarists out of the band. The title track does, indeed, address what it feels like to have to break up with a friend. The following track, “Paperthin Hymn” reflects on just how important a friend can be when times are tough. “The Feel Good Drag” is another standout track, which Anberlin would go on to re-record and release on New Surrender in 2008. I prefer the raw, less produced version on this album, which mirrors the pain Stephen Christian is feeling in this track. (Katy Fry)
Essential tracks: Never Take Friendship Personal, Paperthin Hymn, A Day Late, Audrey
99. Mastedon – Lofcaudio (1990)
John Elefante (of Kansas) and his brother Dino teamed up with Dave Amato (of REO Speedwagon) and a rotating cast of characters to form Mastedon. The result was more arena rock goodness than we know what to do with! There may not be anything groundbreaking here, but with 4 lead vocalists and a host of instrumentalists there was more variety from this musical collective than you normally expect to find in a record of this genre. (Michael Lytle)
Essential Tracks – Life on the Line, Holiest One, When it All Comes Down
98. Bloodgood (1986)
While Stryper was most people’s introduction to Christian hard rock/metal in the early/mid-‘80s, mine was Bloodgood, who I hunted down after seeing them in the Thank You list on a Queensryche album. Definitely heavier, more rough and ragged than the Yellow And Black Attack, David Zaffiro was a master of the fretboard, Les Carlsen’s voice (honed in musical theater) was emotive, urgent and dramatic. The band would hit their creative and theatrical stride with the following Detonation, but for me, the debut grabs the heart from the first call to arms of “Accept The Lamb”, flirts with speed metal in “Anguish & Pain” and “Black Snake”, and calls to the lost to make a choice (the choice) in “What’s Following The Grave?”. This album will imprint itself into your DNA. “He’ll receive all glory high upon High mighty throne, all nations bowing down in reverent praise.” (Randall Jones)
Essential Tracks: Accept The Lamb, What’s Following The Grave?, Killing The Beast, Black Snake
97. The Call – Reconciled (1986)
For my money, there wasn’t a more artistically creative band in the 1980s than The Call. They tied together disparate musical influences ranging from blues, jazz, pop, gospel, and even punk. Somehow, they made it all work. And as good as the band was, the element that brought it all together was the passionate writing and singing of Michael Been. Reconciled is a very good distillation of what made them so unique and is more than deserving of landing in our top 100. (Phill Lytle)
Essential Tracks: Everywhere I Go, I Still Believe (Great Design), Blood Red (America)
96. Dimestore Prophets – Fantastic Distraction (1997)
This is a classic “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” album from these bay area roots rockers. All the songs work well together. The lyrics are smart. The band showed a confidence that you would expect from music veterans, and Justin Stevens’ vocals are next level. They clearly knew exactly what they were going for on this record and they nailed it. (Michael Lytle)
Essential Tracks – Heavy as it Goes, All About You, Fantastic Distraction
95. Delirious? – King of Fools (1997)
Delirious? didn’t invent the popular worship music genre that dominates all Christian radio today, but they definitely kick started it. The band had carved an impressive identity and following in the UK, yet King of Fools was their first real introduction to American audiences. It was a bold and ambitious statement and the Christian music scene hasn’t looked the same since. This album stands head and shoulders above most of the worship music that followed it. (Phill Lytle)
Essential Tracks: King or Cripple, August 30th, Deeper
94. Sleeping Giant – Kingdom Days In An Evil Age (2012)
There was a time not long ago when I was much more into the hardcore scene than I am now, but a few bands still get regular play time when the mood hits just right. Sleeping Giant was an incredible group made up of committed Christians who were not ashamed of Jesus at all. If there is an album that, to me, represents the band at their best, Kingdom Days fits the bill. From the rumbling build into the all-out syncopated slam of “Dead Men Walking” to the unadulterated praise of “Tithemi” that ends in a freight train crescendo of vocalist Tom Green commanding everyone to “Kiss the ground, bow down!” before the name of Jesus, Sleeping Giant was able to bring audible fire with the truth of the holy. (Daniel Speer)
Essential Tracks: Dead Men Walking, Tithemi, The Unnamable Name
93. Whitecross – Triumphant Return (1989)
The very first time I heard Whitecross I remember thinking, “Who is this vocalist?” The album was Triumphant Return, and I was amazed. The album begins with the song “Attention Please”, an in your face message about Christ calling out into the world for our attention. Scott Wenzel’s voice! How does he do that? And Rex Carroll has to be one of the best guitarist of all time. Whitecross is one of those bands that you’re going to identify the moment you hear the first word or hear the very first lead guitar. An unapologetic message to Christians and to the world to wake up. Whitecross released some solid records before this and they went on to make several more amazing albums, but Triumphant Return is definitely my favorite. (Mark Inscoe)
Essential Tracks: Attention Please, Heaven’s Calling Tonight, Simple Man
92. WhiteHeart – Highlands (1993)
If you were a fan of WhiteHeart, Highlands was likely an instant favorite. It had all their classic trademarks: Soaring vocals, three part harmonies, exquisite musicianship, strong songwriting that leaned more towards concepts and ideas instead of preaching. It was also their most musically expansive album, with no attempt at subtlety or restraint. As a teenager, it blew my mind. It still does, to be honest. It’s a clear example of a band at the peak of their creative abilities doing exactly what they want to do. And frankly, the musicianship on display would put most modern CCM albums to shame, which is a shame indeed. (Phill Lytle)
Essential Tracks: Nothing But the Best, Heaven of My Heart, The Flame Passes On
91. The Violet Burning (1996)
Their first two albums showed flashes of brilliance, but it was their third record released in 1996 where the sound came together fully for these indie rock pioneers. After dealing with both personal and professional issues lead singer and songwriter Michael Pritzl was experiencing a crisis of faith when he wrote these songs. This is obvious when you read the lyrics, but even the song titles themselves provide a glimpse into where he was at the time. Songs like “Blind”, “Low”, “Underwater”, and “Crush” make it clear that life is not all sunshine and roses. Sometimes the best art is made during the most difficult times and this record is no exception. The music somehow captures the 90s alternative rock sound while maintaining a timeless feel. Andy Prickett (The Prayer Chain, Cush) and Jeff Schroeder (The Smashing Pumpkins, The Lassie Foundation) share guitar duties here and the results are dazzling. This album set the course for everything the band would accomplish moving forward. (Michael Lytle)
Essential Tracks – Underwater, Goldmine, Low, Silver
90. John Mark McMillan – Mercury and Lightning (2017)
This is a difficult album to sum up in a few sentences. Its rich and dense in meaning and layered sounds. Mercury and Lightning is mostly lighter rock with thought provoking lyrics. You should listen to this album carefully all the way through. There are some songs that are more easily accessible than others but this is really the kind of music you need to hear with headphones on when you have some time. (Brandon Atwood)
Essential Tracks – No Country, Death in Reverse, and Enemy, love
89. Bride – Show No Mercy (1986)
Also known as “What do you get when a couple Methodist church kids from a small town in Kentucky get signed to Pure Metal Records, despite not having heard heavy metal before?”. The brothers Thompson had a rock band called Matrix, and had put out a few cassette-only albums under that name, but even today Dale and Troy will admit Show No Mercy was them doing heavy metal with no idea what it was “supposed” to sound like. And thank God they didn’t, because what resulted is one of the most unintentionally original metal albums, faith-driven or not, that I’ve ever come across. Middle Eastern guitar work in “Now He Is Gone”, blatant evangelism in “Fly Away”, and the rallying rock ‘n’ roll battle cry of “Thunder In The City” seal the deal. Still got my original Show No Mercy t-shirt. Still fits. Awww yeah! “Has love taken you high, or has pride taken you low? The elements are coming apart, the atoms letting go.” (Randall Jones)
Essential Tracks: Evil That Men Do, Now He Is Gone, I Will Be With You, Thunder In The City
88. Demon Hunter – War (2019)
I’ve been a huge fan of Christian rock/metal since I was a kid. For the most part I’ve kind of stayed with the bands I grew up with like Petra and Stryper. I know that there are many newer bands out there but not many of them ever got my attention. That was until about two years ago. I had heard about Demon Hunter but had not listened to them. One day while on YouTube I came across “Jesus Wept” from their album Outlive. I was blown away. Shortly after they released their double album Peace and War. The album War has become one of my all time favorite Christian albums. From the raspy intro “Cut to Fit” to the pounding beautiful bass on “The Negative” and “Lesser Gods”. Demon Hunter surpassed all my expectations with this hard hitting, melodic and growling record. My favorite song has to be “On My Side” with its thundering double bass and message about how death holds no victory over those who are in Christ. I also got to see them in concert last September where they solidified their place as one of my favorite bands of any era. (Mark Inscoe)
Essential Tracks – On My Side, The Negative, Lesser Gods, Cut to Fit
87. Emery – In Shallow Seas We Sail (2009)
Emery’s path with Christianity has taken a weird turn in recent years, but this album is still a bright light in their discography. In Shallow Seas We Sail is the perfect harmony between hardcore/screamo and melodic emo. On the surface, the album is about getting through betrayal and a breakup, but looking deeper, this album is also a critique of cultural Christianity (“Inside Our Skin,” “The Poor and the Prevalent,” “Closed Eyes, Open Hands”). The screamed vocals featured on most tracks might not be for everyone, but the message certainly still is. (Katy Fry)
Essential tracks: Inside Our Skin, Butcher’s Mouth, In Shallow Seas We Sail. The Smile, The Face
86. Switchfoot – Oh! Gravity. (2006)
Many Switchfoot fans would list this as their least favorite Switchfoot album. It’s one of my favorites, because it’s the album that got me into Switchfoot. I even named my first blog after a lyric from “Head Over Heels.” Gravity is a hard yet upbeat album; a critical yet hopeful look at American culture. “American Dream” is the thesis statement of the album: an peppy manifesto against materialism. “This ain’t my American dream / I want to live and die for bigger things.” “Dirty Second Hands” embraces a twinge of southern rock and begs us to consider those beyond ourselves. Oh! Gravity. is an album I would beg Switchfoot fans to revisit. Sure, it’s a deviation from their other work, but it packs a powerful punch. And it’s relevant now more than ever. (Katy Fry)
Essential Tracks: Awakening, Dirty Second Hands, Faust, Midas, and Myself, Head Over Heels (In This Life)
85. Stryper – Soldiers Under Command (1985)
Around 10 or so years ago, I remember talking to a good friend of mine about how the Bible, specifically Revelation, presents such epic themes, and how easily heavy music could draw from them for inspiration. Neither of us at the time knew of Stryper at all. Later on, a friend invited me to one of their concerts in Nashville, and I realized that there were aspects of the Christian music world that I had no knowledge of whatsoever. Stryper is a little bit of fun, a little bit of epic, a lot of hair, and…well let’s be honest, a little bit of spandex. Soldiers Under Command is easily their second best album in my book, with the title track being one of their best individual songs. This is the album that also debuted the Stryper battle van, a model of which can still yet be easily purchased on their website. Sweet’s vocals are hands down some of the best out there, and this album is a great introduction to a band that was firing on all cylinders at the time. (Daniel Speer)
Essential tracks: Soldiers Under Command, Makes Me Want To Sing, The Rock That Makes Me Roll, Reach Out
84. Nouveaux – And This is How I Feel (1996)
Meaningful and powerful lyrics with beautiful music. The songwriting is deeply felt and deeply personal. The music pairs perfectly with the lyrics, creating a poignant listening experience. Nouveaux wasn’t a band that had many hits, but this entire album was played on repeat for some of us. Or maybe just me and my sister! (Stephanie McVay)
Essential Tracks: If Only…, Through Heaven’s Field, Maybe Tomorrow, You Breathe
83. Caedmon’s Call (1997)
If I made a list of my favorite modern Christian songs, I’d have to have one list for Caedmon’s Call and another for everyone else. In the early 2000s I’d drive crazy distances just to see them in concert. There was no one like them lyrically. Their theology was deep and complex and their presentation was real and at times quite raw. They weren’t a ‘Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus’ band and nothing was pithy or cliche. This album is proof of that, notably “Center Aisle” (which I’ve used in sermons to show Christians what lamenting looks like) and “Standing Up For Nothing”. I have often thought of sharing quotes from the latter to Facebook, but unless you know the whole song, and the Bible from Cain to Peter, it wouldn’t make sense. It may be the only song I’ve ever listened to that helped me understand my depravity better. And in other tracks you find gold like “This World Has Nothing For Me/And This World Has Everything/All That I Could Want/And Nothing That I Need”. Just a phenomenal early effort from an inimitable band. (Gowdy Cannon)
Essential Tracks: Standing Up For Nothing, This World, Center Aisle, Lead of Love
(Editor’s note: Gowdy Cannon did not vote on this list, but we appreciate his input regarding Caedmon’s Call.)
82. Relient K – Mmhmm (2004)
This album might be old enough to drive now, but I can still belt every single word to every single song. This was the soundtrack to my teenage years. Matt Thiessen is the master of meaningful wit. No one does wordplay and metaphor quite like he does. This album has it all–poppy guitar riffs, piano-driven ballads, a hardcore breakdown or two. Mmhmm remains relevant years later because of its honesty. “If the burden seems too much to bear / remember, the end will justify the pain it took to get us there.” (Katy Fry)
Essential Tracks: I so Hate Consequences, Which to Bury; Us or the Hatchet?, Let It All Out, Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been
81. Vigilantes of Love – Blister Soul (1995)
Hailing from Athens, GA this folk/alt country/americana band released several great records during the 1990s and early 2000s. Blister Soul is among their finest and it includes their all-time classic song, “Skin”. Bill Mallonee laid his soul bare over and over again with lyrics that read like pages of someone’s journal. “Now look, if you’re gonna come around here and say those sort of things, you gotta take a few on the chin, Yeah you’re talking about sin and redemption, well you better wear your thickest skin.” (Michael Lytle)
Essential Tracks – Skin, Bolt Action, Certain Slant of Light, Blister Soul
80. Grammatrain – Flying (1997)
This album was for fans of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. It was a slightly more polished version of the 90s Seattle grunge sound. Flying may not be the most original album ever recorded but it rocks hard! Most songs are fast and furious. Grammatrain didn’t last long and weren’t very well known. Thankfully, they left us this gem to remember them by. (Brandon Atwood)
Essentials – Jonah, Less of Me, and Pain
79. The Brave – Battle Cries (1992)
John and Dino Elefante produced a number of albums in the 80s and 90s that ended up on this list. They developed a distinct sound and style fitting nicely in what is called melodic AOR and most of the bands they produced fell somewhere along that defined spectrum. The Brave was no exception. They were hard rock with plenty of amazing hooks and melodies, combining in your face instrumentation, great vocals, and searing guitars. But in a genre hampered at times by lack of originality, The Brave took the best of that late 80s, early 90s sound and perfected it. If you were into this style, this album was the peak expression. And James Salters took a backseat to no vocalist of that era. (Phill Lytle)
Essential Tracks: All Together Now, Tears of a Broken Heart, The Waiting
78. Smalltown Poets (1997)
Creative lyrics, confident musicianship, and enough variety to make it stick. Smalltown Poets have made a number of memorable albums, but for our voters, their debut best captures their sound and importance. They didn’t reinvent the wheel but that doesn’t make the ride any less enjoyable. And quite frankly, not many songs from the late 90s were as well-written or performed as Prophet, Priest and King. That song alone gets them a spot on our list. (Phill Lytle)
Essential Tracks: Prophet, Priest and King, If You’ll Let Me Love You, Anymore
77. Five Iron Frenzy – Upbeats and Beatdowns (1997)
Debut album from rock/ska band Five Iron Frenzy. This album is SO MUCH FUN! The lyrics range from hilarious to deep to thought-provoking to nostalgic. This band obviously has a blast when they get together for recording or performing. There is an incredible variety of songs on this album. There’s even one with the band making animal sounds, to a hilarious outcome. The lyrics to “Beautiful America” smacked me in the face as a privileged white middle-class teenager, and really caused me to pause and consider life. (Stephanie McVay)
Essential Tracks: I Feel Lucky, Beautiful America, Everywhere I Go (yes, this is a remake of the Amy Grant song!), A Flowery Song
76. Steve Taylor – I Predict 1990 (1987)
What can be said about Steve Taylor that hasn’t already been said? Literally. Where I’d normally say an album was “released”, I Predict 1990 was thrust, heaved, forced upon a “Christian Music industry” ripe for the picking. Gone was the low-hanging fruit of “We Don’t Need No Colour Code”, the New Wave pulse of “On The Fritz”. This was Steve, teeth bared and ready. Only he wasn’t. Turns out Christians, by and large, aren’t big on satire, causing yet another of my Top 30 albums to be pulled from the shelves at your local Zondervan’s Bookstore. Stories about disenfranchised ice cream truck drivers blowing up abortion clinics? Check! Papa John Creach’s acid fiddle in a guest spot? Got that! Our Mr. Taylor on the hunt for the Lizard King? Yowza! The song ‘Harder To Believe Than Not To’ has been a source of comfort in times when I didn’t feel deserving of the Holy Spirit’s care. “Don’t you know by now why the chosen are few?” (Randall Jones)
Essential Tracks: I Blew Up The Clinic Real Good, Babylon, Jim Morrison’s Grave, Harder To Believe Than Not To
Be on the lookout for parts 2-5 of this series. Coming to an internet near you in the next few weeks.
(A special shout out to Aidan Lytle for his wonderful artwork for this series.)
- The Top 100 Christian Rock Albums (1980-2019): Part Five - December 30, 2020
- The Top 100 Christian Rock Albums (1980-2019): Part Four - December 16, 2020
- The Top 100 Christian Rock Albums (1980-2019): Part Three - December 9, 2020