The Top 100 Christian Rock Albums (1980-2019): Part Four

Welcome back to the top 100 list! In this installment we will focus on albums 25-11. Be sure to check out parts 1-3 if you haven’t already done so to see the albums we have covered so far. As we mentioned in the intro to the first article this was a collaborative effort of 10 voters who each submitted their personal top albums list. We then assigned points to each album based on how high they were ranked on each individual list and then added everything up to come to the final ranking for each album. For those interested here are a few details regarding the list:

  • Exactly 300 unique albums were nominated by our voters. The total number of nominations was nearly 600, but that included repeats.
  • 86 of our top 100 albums on this list received multiple votes.
  • Eight different albums were selected as number 1 by our 10 voters, which means that two albums had 2 number 1 votes each.
  • Only one album received votes from 7 of our 10 voters. That was the record. Several other albums received votes from 6 voters.
  • Eight artists had 3 albums make the final top 100 list.   

Thanks again for taking this journey with us and for all the feedback you have shared. Now, let’s get to the list!


25. Whiteheart – Tales of Wonder (1992)

In the classic SNL “More Cowbell” sketch, The Bruce Dickinson encourages the band to “really explore the studio space”. I feel like the members of Whiteheart took that message to heart when they made this record. The sound dynamics are simply beautiful. The instruments, vocals, and layering on each of the tracks are sublime. Keyboard player Mark Gershmel shared more of the lead vocal duties with singer Rick Florian than he had on any of their previous albums and their contrast in vocal style really pays off. The songs themselves are all strong. This record holds the distinction of being the first Christian album where each song was a top 10 Christian radio hit. Five of the songs went to number 1 on the charts. Like the rest of us, the guys in Whiteheart put their pants on one leg at a time, but when they do they make great records! (Michael Lytle)

Essential Tracks: Say the Word, Light a Candle, Unchain, Gabriella, Raging of the Moon


24. Josh Garrels – Love & War & the Sea in Between (2011)

I wasn’t prepared for this album. Prior to reading a glowing review of it, I hadn’t even heard of Garrels. After reading that review, I immediately found the album online and started listening. To say I was blown away would be an understatement. Garrels crafts a genuine masterpiece by combining elements of acoustic driven singer/songwriter folk with hip hop, jazz, and rock. The individual elements used to create the sound are unique and amazing, yet the sum of all those parts is so much more. Add to that, one of the biggest draws of the record is Garrels’ voice as it flows between beautiful falsettos and effortless rap cadence. This is an album in which I will be finding new things to appreciate for the rest of my life. (Phill Lytle)

Essential Tracks:  Farther Along, The Resistance, Ulysses, Bread and Wine


23. Fleming and John – Delusions of Grandeur (1996)

Haunting and soaring vocals, and indescribable rock instrumentals, Fleming and John’s debut album is the epitome of mid-90’s alternative/folk rock. Made up of husband and wife, Fleming McWilliams and John Mark Painter, the band has only released 2 albums. Painter plays a wide variety of instruments, and Fleming’s vocals are unparalleled and one of a kind. There is nothing cookie cutter about F&J—they are original in every way. Ben Folds described Fleming and John as “the Carpenters of the 1990s with Led Zeppelin’s rhythm section,” which is spot-on. Just go read the Amazon album reviews to get an idea of how other-worldly this album is. It must be experienced to be believed. And by the way, I’ve met them a few times, and they are just as nice and kind and down-to-earth as they could possibly be! (Stephanie McVay)

Essential Tracks: A Place Called Love, I’m Not Afraid, Rain All Day


22. Plankeye – Relocation (1999)

Relocation is an album of change, which the title clearly indicates. Long-time lead singer, Scott Silleta, and drummer, Adam Ferry, departed prior to the recording of this album which left the band in a state of uncertainty and transition. Remaining members, Eric Balmer and Luis Garcia decided to carry on, and in the process delivered one of the band’s most rewarding albums. Gone, though not entirely, is the punk influence of their first few albums. Instead, Balmer and Garcia find new melodies and new inspirations with haunting ballads, mid-tempo rockers, and a few well-placed throwbacks. Vocally, the two take turns singing lead and the album really shines when they harmonize, their voices perfectly complementing each other. 

Plankeye never got their due, being unfairly lumped in with the nondescript mass of punk rock bands from that era of Tooth and Nail records. Relocation proved beyond a doubt they were more than just a few notes and a lot of energy like so many of their contemporaries. (Phill Lytle)

Essential Tracks: I Can’t Complain, Goodbye, Indivisible, Break My Fall, Honey and Oil


21. The Prayer Chain – Shawl (1993)

The Prayer Chain’s Shawl was to Christian rock what Nirvana’s Nevermind was to mainstream rock music. This is not to say that it sounded like a Nirvana album. The bands had uniquely different sounds. From the pounding of tribal drums in the first track “Crawl,” the album embraces the raw aggressive energy that would come to dominate the rock and roll of the 90s. To this point Christian rock was defined by the Def Leppard-like sound of producers John and Dino Elefante or the “alternative” vibes of the Choir’s Steve Hindalong. Although produced by Hindalong, Shawl gave us something markedly different. It changed Christian rock and helped usher in a new scene that flourished in the 90s.

The cover art set the tone of the album. It features a man washing his face in mud. It lets us know that there is not going to be anything clean about this album. The Prayer Chain did not sound like Nirvana, but they had something of the same ethos. They were tired of music sounding manicured and polished. They were tired of lyrics that made the Christian faith seem like a one-prayer solution to all of life’s problems.

This album jumps into the mess of life–the pains and struggles–feet first. The lyrics are often so deeply personal that it’s unclear exactly what a particular song is about. This obfuscation creates a sense that the listener is looking in on something to which he is only receiving part of the story. The struggles against sin (“Never Enough”), lack of faith (“Dig Dug”),  the frustration of unrequited love (“Fifty-Eight”) are a few of the topics addressed beneath this veil of obscurity. Unlike so much of Christian music before Shawl, there is no message behind these songs. Behind these songs are broken men making music that reflects their own faith and failures. In these songs, both the listener and the band sees “through a glass darkly.” Nearly thirty years later, there is something refreshing about its honesty. (David Lytle)

Essential Tracks: Crawl, Fifty-Eight, Never Enough, Pure


20. Adam Again – Dig (1992)

I honestly don’t know what the best album in Christian rock history is. When I made my list Adam Again’s Dig was my number one. Depending on the day, my pick may have been different. Regardless, I chose Dig because I never get tired of this album. I don’t exactly know how to describe the band’s sound. Southern California alternative-funk-grunge is about the best I can do. Some songs make you want to dance (“Walk Between the Raindrops”), some make you want to throw things (“Helpless, Etc.”), but the band was at its best when it made you weep (“Dig” and “River on Fire”)

The beautifully sad songs make this album so great. In fact, they make this band and their music transcend their time and weep beside us. “River on Fire” laments an estranged marriage and the seeming impossibility of mutual happiness with lines like “I could be happy and you could be miserable.” While I hate that Gene Eugene (singer, songwriter) and Riki Michele seemed to be unable to re-write their broken story, the fact that she sings background vocals on the song makes it all the more painful and all the more beautiful.

I have never come across a song writer (inside or outside of Christian music) that was as honest and emotionally vulnerable as Gene Eugene. I once heard Jack White say that his songs are fiction. He writes from another person’s perspective because to write from his own would be too difficult emotionally. Eugene did exactly the opposite of that. He gave us himself in and through these songs. As much as the music of Adam Again was a band effort, the songs were always a window into the soul of one man–Gene Eugene. This honesty made for great music.

Although I have focused on the deeply personal aspects of this album, it needs to be noted that these intensely personal tracts are also intensely Christian. Reflecting on the pervasiveness of sin and sadness in the world and all its people in “Worldwide,” Eugene declares: “God’s spirit weeps for all of us.” In the opening track “Deep,” Eugene introduces the theme of digging for God’s buried treasure: “forgotten are the cross, and the naked and the lost and the lover of the tired and cold.”  In the band’s greatest song “Dig,” the author seeks this  treasure crawling on his knees to the sea. The song builds to the line: “Water covers sand, blood covers doubt.”  For both its deeply Christian ideas and painfully beautiful songs, Dig is a one-of-a kind album. (David Lytle)

Essential Tracks: Worldwide, Deep, Dig, River on Fire


19. Chagall Guevara (1991)

Christian music legend Steve Taylor came out of his brief “retirement” from music to front this all-star band of veteran musicians for the one and only album of their career. Critics loved it, Rolling Stone magazine even compared the band favorably to The Clash. The music brought a punk rock energy that was rare in Christian music at the time. The lyrics did not disappoint either touching on themes like absentee fathers in “The Rub of Love,” an old friend’s descent into crippling self-centeredness in “Violent Blue,” and the death of modernism and rise of postmodernism in “Murder in the Big House.”* The band only gave us one album, but thankfully they reunited this year and are working on another album of brand new or previously unreleased material. There may even be a live show coming in 2021. We can’t wait! (Michael Lytle) 

Essential tracks – Violent Blue, Murder in the Big House, Escher’s World, The Rub of Love, When it All Comes True

*Technically, I don’t know that “Murder in the Big House” is about modernism/postmodernism, but I don’t know that it is NOT about that either and it seems plausible so we are going with it.


18. Uthanda – Believe (1992)

In 1992 I was still very much in love with the late 80s sounds: hair metal, glam rock, arena rock, and all the rest. None of that mattered in the least when I heard Believe. This album punched me in the face and opened up a whole new world for me, musically speaking. While many of Uthanda’s fans prefer the hippie, 60s and 70s inspired sounds of their debut album Groove, I gravitate to the darker, edgier tunes found on Believe. There is a raw and unvarnished quality to the album, which helps showcase the talent of the band, yet they balance that with intricate and inspired arrangements. Robert Beeson was an amazing lead singer, with all the personality and strut you could ever ask for from a front man. The album straddles the line between a number of styles, yet easily creates something unique and memorable. In a perfect world, this album would have been a trendsetter, ushering in a more complex approach to Christian rock. Sadly, this album flew under the radar for most rock fans. (Phill Lytle)

Essential Tracks: Love Child, Did You, My Addiction, Sunrise


17. Reflescent Tide – Spring Catalog (1997)

I was not overly impressed with Reflescent Tide’s debut album. It had a couple good songs and a grunge sound that was popular in the mid 90s but nothing about it could have prepared me for the leap they would take when they released their sophomore album Spring Catalog in 1997. To be perfectly honest though, when Spring Catalog came out I ignored it. Part of it was due to my impression of their first record, part of it was due to the terrible album cover, but mostly it was the folly of youth. Thankfully my brother and another friend of ours started listening to it our friend’s car when they drove around. Once it made it in to the car CD player it did not come out for months. They were raving about it and eventually I paid attention. I am so glad I did! Yes, the grunge sound was still there in certain songs, but there were also melodic, mid temp rockers, as well as a ballad or two. The lyrics challenged the listener to hold on to faith even in times of doubt and to recognize God’s grace in difficult times. These Wisconsin natives never received the attention they deserved so we are glad to recognize them on our top 100 list. (Michael Lytle)   

Essential Tracks: Callous, Do You Really Care?, Basking in the Glow, Butterfly Wings, Leaving


16. John Mark McMillan – Borderland (2014)

JMM invents a new genre with this album. Post-Copy Cat-CCM Worship. Fine, that’s not really a genre. Also, it’s a little cynical. Seriously though, the creative wonders of Borderland still amaze. It actually is possible to write original lyrics and music as a Christian indie rock artist in the 21st century. A handful of the tracks are sincere worship singalongs disguised in a Springsteen revival style. Borderland is a bridge in a way. On one side is modern worship music and on the other is rock. McMillan successfully brings the two together. Although, as he himself sings, “I’ve got no place to call my country.”  Borderland didn’t get much air time.  Its too worshippy for rock fans and to rock for worship fans. Its perfect for JMM fans. As always we get that low, gravely, signature voice.  This album might not be the most well known, but after listening to this you can’t say there isn’t creative and artistic Christian music being written. (Brandon Atwood) 

Essential Tracks: Love at the End, Future/Past, Borderland, Counting On


15. Stryper – To Hell with the Devil (1986)

In 1987 my parents brought me back to the United States so I could finish my last year of high school. I remember going into a department store and seeing the poster of Stryper’s To Hell with the Devil. I was already familiar with Stryper so I was very intrigued. The poster left me in such awe that I ran to the Christian bookstore and picked up the cassette. Needless to say, I was blown away. The intro “Abyss” followed by “To Hell with the Devil” left me speechless. This was the first Christian rock album to go platinum and with good reason! The guitars, vocals, and lyrics are both fun and profound. I remember driving around seminary listening to “Calling on You” blasting on my car stereo. It did turn some heads! One of my favorite ballads of all time is on this record. The song “Honestly” is honestly beautiful. The guitars on the song “Free” are amazing while the lyrics touch on the theme of free will. Very cool!! This album will always be in my top 5 favorites of all time. (Mark Inscoe)

Essential Tracks: Calling on You, Honestly, To Hell with the Devil, Free


14. Dryve – Thrifty Mr. Kickstar (1997)

With a sound that was reminiscent of The Wallflowers, Counting Crows and R.E.M. San Diego band Dryve released their major label debut in 1997 to almost universal critical acclaim. This six piece band featured all the traditional rock instruments along with harmonica, accordion, and even a Hammond organ. Lead vocal duties were shared by Paul Donovan and Cory Verner. Each singer brought something different to the table. They appeared on the verge of a breakthrough with the lead single “Nervous” charting on both CCM and college radio, and just like that they were gone. Reportedly, in early 1998 singer Paul Donovan left to pursue a career in country music and the band called it quits. CCM magazine called them “the future of Christian music” when they reviewed the album. This is one prediction we wish would have come true. Around the time that Dryve disbanded the band Matchbox 20 started making waves with an inferior version of the Dryve sound. Matchbox rode this sound to international fame. I guess some things weren’t meant to be. (Michael Lytle)

Essential Tracks: She Ain’t Ready, Rain, Nervous, Whirly Wheel, Television    


13 DC TALK – Jesus Freak (1995)

Jesus Freak is one of the most popular and innovate albums of all time from a CCM artist. Before it was released in 1995 there was nothing else like it.  The title track made history by offering the first mix of rap and grunge on a CCM record. The band intentionally took time to recreate their sound. Jesus Freak is absolutely DC Talk’s best work. Not many predicted CCM radio would be playing a fusion of hip hop and rock in 1995! Yet looking back its difficult to imagine a world without Jesus Freak. The musical styles weren’t the only surprises. Lyrically, what the band was writing was fairly edgy for Christian radio. Songs dealing with race, failure, and suicide. DC Talk was on top of the world for a few years and this album was a major step in how they arrived there. (Brandon Atwood) 

Essential Tracks: Jesus Freak, What if I stumble, Colored People, In the Light, What Have We Become


12.  The Violet Burning – Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic (1998)

For my money The Violet Burning is the quintessential independent band in Christian rock history. They were an “indie rock” band before that was even a term people used. Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic is their career defining album. Singer Michael Pritzl has the most emotional voice that I have ever heard and somehow they are able to create music to match the emotion of his voice. Their style combines the sounds of 80s bands like The Smiths and The Cure with 90s artists like Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead. The themes of who we really are (elastic) versus what we present to the outside world (plastic) are contrasted throughout the record. Despite the limitations of technology at the time and only having a fraction of the budget of their mainstream counterparts they independently recorded an album that sounds amazing in every way. This record also boasts one of the all-time great songs in the history of music, “Gorgeous.” (Michael Lytle)

Essential Tracks – Gorgeous, Oceana, Seamonster, Berlin Kitty, She Says Electric


11. NEEDTOBREATHE – Rivers in the Wasteland (2014)

This was my first real introduction to NEEDTOBREATHE, and boy did it throw me for a loop. I’m not really sure what first got me to listen to them, but I consumed this album voraciously and non-stop. It was on repeat for months. For those familiar with NTB, you know that their lyrics just punch you right in the face, and you can almost feel like you are experiencing the songwriter’s emotions in that moment. The song “Multiplied” is one of my favorite songs of all time, as the lyrics soar with prayerful worship. The song “Brother” is encouraging during times when we might be in a valley. The idea of a brother coming along side you to pull you up is very comforting. This album was written during a valley for the band NEEDTOBREATHE and they were facing some huge struggles in their lives. You can feel the struggle play out in the lyrics and music as the album progresses. This one is perfect for times when we need encouragement and comfort. (Stephanie McVay)

Essential Tracks: Wasteland, Difference Maker, Multiplied, Brother, The Heart


That’s it for Part Four. We will take next week off to celebrate Christmas and spend time with our families but will have the Top Ten ready for you the following week. We hope you are enjoying this as much as we are. Thanks for reading.

Series Navigation<< The Top 100 Christian Rock Albums (1980-2019): Part ThreeThe Top 100 Christian Rock Albums (1980-2019): Part Five >>

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7 thoughts on “The Top 100 Christian Rock Albums (1980-2019): Part Four

  • December 16, 2020 at 1:44 pm
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    I am so happy Reflescent Tide and Dryve both made the list – and so high. Two very underrated and incredible albums.

    Reply
  • December 16, 2020 at 4:07 pm
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    I love Dryve! I had forgotten about that Whiteheart album, too. So exciting!! Loving this list and these posts so very much!!

    Reply
  • December 16, 2020 at 5:48 pm
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    Jesus Freak at #13??? WOW!!!!!

    Reply
    • December 16, 2020 at 6:23 pm
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      Jesus Freak was higher on the final list than I would rank it personally but it belongs. I’m sure some would have it in their top 5.

      Reply
  • December 17, 2020 at 2:56 pm
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    Some great albums here. But the top 10 isn’t big enough to hold all the historically important artists that seem to be slighted here, including some real heavyweights like Resurrection Band, Daniel Amos, Kerry Livgren/AD, MxPx, Undercover, Larry Norman, Neal Morse, Lecrae, and Michael Knott/L.S.U. among others.

    Reply
  • December 23, 2020 at 12:15 pm
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    Coming down to it and looking forward to what y’all cooked up for the top 10. Jesus Freak at 13 is too low in my opinion…it’s top 10 atleast, really top 5…gotta be due to its impact and influence.

    Reply
    • December 23, 2020 at 12:22 pm
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      I think Jesus Freak is an incredibly influential album – and if our list was about influence and impact, it would have landed higher. But, our list is entirely about the albums we love the most. We did not factor in sales, impact, or other things like that. It’s one approach and not necessarily the most valid, but it’s the one we chose. I appreciate your list as you had different criteria.

      Reply

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