The Forgotten History of Christian Rock: Part Three

Part Three: The Underground Groundbreakers

by Phill Lytle

The early 80s through the early 90s

There were no platinum records. There were no arenas filled to capacity. And unless your local Christian station was unusually “out of the box”, you rarely heard this music played on the radio. Yet to many, if you were to pinpoint an era of music that justifies the existence of Christian rock, this would be it. Throughout the 80s and into the early 90s, a group of singers, poets, storytellers, and artists reshaped how we experienced “Christian” music. They turned it on its head and opened up a new world to believers, music lovers, and spiritual seekers. It was the time of the underground groundbreakers.

In part two we examined the bands that had major success and popularity during the 80’s and early 90s. Bands like Petra, Whiteheart, and DeGarmo and Key. While those bands were playing in front of arenas full of youth groups, churches, and believers, there was another movement happening just outside of the Christian mainstream. Out there, bands like The Call, Daniel Amos, The Prayer Chain, and many others were singing about broken relationships, marriage problems, politics, and doubts. Out there, their songs were in turn angry and frustrated, joyous and hopeful, pointed and prophetic. The music was enigmatic – less definable. It was passionate, messy, and full-to-bursting with life. They avoided the pop rock sounds of their more accepted contemporaries, choosing instead to blaze their trails with styles and sounds all their own.

This era of music produced some of the most critically acclaimed music in the history of Christian rock. Many of the albums that released during this time frame are still considered some of the best Christian releases of all time. Circle Slide by The Choir. Sticks and Stones by the 77’s. Reconciled by The Call. These and more pushed boundaries and expanded what was believed possible for “Christian” music at that time.

Their music was never easy. Whether it was Steve Taylor singing satirically about a deranged ice-cream delivery man blowing up an abortion clinic to preserve his livelihood, or The Choir wrestling with the grief of a miscarriage, these bands made their fans grapple with big ideas and complicated emotional reactions. In some ways, they courted controversy, not to get the spotlight as much as to shock their listeners out of their comfort and stagnation.

At every turn, it seemed like these bands could not catch their big break. In a perfect world, many of them would be household names – their music was that good. That is not to suggest that these bands did not have any influence on future generations of musicians and creators. Members of these bands went on to form successful record companies that gave Christian music one of its biggest bands in Jars of Clay. They went on to produce albums for much more successful bands like Sixpence None the Richer and The Newsboys. They eventually wrote and created songs that are sung in worship services all over the world like God of Wonders. No doubt, their musical legacy inspired many bands that are being played on the radio today. While few of them ever achieved the kind of success and recognition they deserved at the time, our musical heritage would be much poorer without their contributions.

As stated before, the playlist below is merely a selection of some of the best music in this era. It is meant to capture the sound and the spirit of this pivotal time in Christian music. Please, take some time to listen and appreciate the music that laid the groundwork and played such a monumental role in our history.

Follow me
Latest posts by Phill Lytle (see all)
Latest posts by Michael Lytle (see all)
Series Navigation<< The Forgotten History of Christian Rock: Part TwoThe Forgotten History of Christian Rock: Part Four >>

Phill Lytle

I love: Jesus, my wife, my kids, my family, my friends, my church, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, 80s rock, the Tennessee Titans, Brandon Sanderson books, Band of Brothers, Thai food, music, books, movies, TV, writing, pizza, vacation, etc...

11 thoughts on “The Forgotten History of Christian Rock: Part Three

  • February 5, 2018 at 12:45 pm


  • February 5, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    All the playlists for this series were fun, but this was my favorite to dream up and put together. So much good stuff.

    • February 7, 2018 at 4:54 pm

      I’ve loved all the playlists but this one might be my favorite. So much good music from these bands! The Call, in particular, is severely underrated and overlooked. I could listen to “I Don’t Wanna” on repeat for the rest of this week and never get tired of it.

  • February 5, 2018 at 5:31 pm

    Thanks for sharing a part of history I’m not as familiar with. I have long felt that The Choir’s arrangement of “Beautiful, Scandalous Night” is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.

    • February 6, 2018 at 9:53 am

      I agree. It’s a beautiful song.

  • Pingback: The Forgotten History of Christian Rock: Part Four – Rambling Ever On

  • February 25, 2018 at 1:39 pm

    I think there need to be stations that are willing to play these kinds of songs. Maybe groups that even use a few bad words for the sake of reaching out to folks that otherwise won’t listen. And we need groups that continue to write the [raise songs the church needs to keep itself close to her bridegroom. One or the other is never going to be enough.

  • Pingback: The Forgotten History of Christian Rock: Part One – Rambling Ever On

  • Pingback: The Forgotten History of Christian Rock: Part Two – Rambling Ever On

  • August 7, 2018 at 9:05 am

    It was pretty great getting to watch The Prayer Chain, The Choir, and Dakoda Motor Co. in concert a few nights ago in Nashville. Those three bands were well-represented on this playlist.

  • April 3, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    Rick Elias, singer, songwriter, musician, Ragamuffin, died yesterday. Sad news. One of his songs made this playlist. He will be missed.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: