Essential Christian Rock Albums of the 1990s
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It’s rare for a group who so boldly wear their faith on their sleeves to break into the mainstream. Yet 24 years ago, pop-rock-rap trio dc Talk did just that, with their genre-crushing Jesus Freak. To this day, its defining title track has been the rallying cry for young Christians, and it introduced many grunge and alternative fans to spiritual verse.
Alongside this threesome, bands like Jars of Clay and Creed soldered Babylonian riffs with words of praise—all while earning mainstream airplay. Here are 10 notable Christian rock albums of the 1990s.
dc Talk – “Jesus Freak”
Prior to dc Talk’s emergence as Christian rock heavyweights, the genre had a hard time impressing secular radio stations. It was dismissed as wimpy and subdued, so this Virginia troupe decided to push the envelope. The video for the lead single was directed by Simon Maxwell, known for his work with Nine Inch Nails. DCT was defiant in superimposing imagery of doves with dictator Adolf Hitler, earning blowback from conservatives and progressives alike. However, the song itself went gold and the album was crowned Best Rock Gospel Album by the Grammys in 1997.
Jars of Clay – “Jars of Clay”
“(T)hey don’t write songs about faith, but because of their faith,” Jars of Clay’s Facebook profile proclaims. Singer Dan Haseltine expands that idea by saying, “If people connect with our humanity, that’s what matters to me.” And people did in 1995 when the alternative folk song “Flood” cascaded onto MTV and the airwaves. The verses referenced ark-builder Noah and Jesus Christ’s 40 days of wandering in the wilderness, yet the words could apply to anyone up against incredible obstacles. From the head-nodding “Sinking” to the Celtic-country “Boy on a String,” Jars of Clay was right at home with Dave Matthews Band, Sister Hazel, and other acoustic rock bands of the era.
The O.C. Supertones – “Supertones Strike Back”
Gospel often encourages a raucous vibe, with hands clapping and vocalists shouting in praise. Ska group the OC Supertones took that energy to the mosh pit with their 1997 album. If the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Sublime focused on their god-fearing sides, they’d sound a lot like this Southern California collective. Effervescent tracks like “The Grace Flood” skanked away Satan’s lure with brassiness and distortion.
P.O.D. – “The Fundamental Elements of Southtown”
Currently, Payable on Death’s claim to fame is that they gave Katy Perry an early platform to showcase her pipes. But back in 1999 and throughout the aughts, the San Diego nu-metal men took listeners to “Southtown.” The single paid homage to their neighborhood and to their lord, with eclectic guitar interplay between Marcos Curiel and Traa Daniels. Fundamental also included an aggressive, teeth-gnashing cover of U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
Starflyer 59 – “Americana”
Being a young man of faith, Jason Martin vivisected adolescent love with God’s love in his lyrics. Blanketing his words in dreamy reverb – somewhere between Weezer and My Bloody Valentine–his Starflyer 59 fluidly crossed over from the Christian realm. Their third full length, 1997’s Americana, left behind teenage lust for a religious awakening. “The theme of Americana is basically how unimportant music is, and it should not be your lord—Jesus Christ is,” Martin told the Blue Star Journal.
Creed – “Human Clay”
This 1999 album was the tipping point for Christian rock’s popularity. The charismatic frontman Scott Stapp, incendiary guitarist Mark Tremonti, bodacious bassist Brian Marshall and drumming showman Scott Phillips took grunge by the hand and made it kneel. Where 1997’s My Own Prison explored Stapp’s personal journey–fraught with drug and alcohol abuse, and a since-diagnosed bipolar disorder–Human Clay was universal in its messages. On the strength of singles “Higher” and “With Arms Wide Open,” the record became one of the biggest sellers of the 1990s.
Pedro the Lion – “It’s Hard to Find a Friend”
Christian rock and emo share a longing to transcend the everyday. David Bazan’s Pedro the Lion embraced both worlds with his contemplative songs, which in turn earned him indie darling status. This 1998 debut album eschewed the perils of modern life (“Of Up and Coming Monarchs”) and found spiritual solace in even the darkest situations (“Promise”). Bazan has publicly wrestled with his religiosity, though he told Relevant in 2011 he now considers himself a “non-practicing evangelist” and a “practitioner of songwriting.”
Newsboys – “Going Public”
It took five albums for these Aussies to “Shine,” but with 1994’s Going Public, Newsboys ascended to glory. Britpop was big at the time, so the Boys’ playful, pedal-driven tunes were in vogue. “Spirit Thing” took listeners to a sort of Madchester church, and “When You Called My Name” assured that the light was there for anyone who sought it. These days, dc Talk’s Michael Tait serves as the Newsboys’ singer.
Third Day – “Conspiracy No. 5”
With members citing U2 and Guns N’ Roses as influences, Third Day created Christian rock with an edge. Conspiracy No. 5 wailed, with Brad Avery commanding his guitar like a snake handler. Mac Powell growled and crooned on a scale somewhere between Scott Weiland and Darius Rucker, but the sermons were saintly. And yet, Conspiracy No. 5 also read like an X-File, with allusions toward the slayings of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Audio Adrenaline – “Don’t Censor Me”
It’s a sin to have written as catchy a melody as that of “Big House,” the 1993 romp that made Audio Adrenaline stars of the scene. Cheery vocalist Mark Stuart welcomed listeners to a biblical sanctuary, with plenty of food and football. Perhaps the happy-go-lucky lyrics aimed to prove that Christians knew how to have fun, too, and that rock ‘n’ roll didn’t have to be all sex and drugs. The track and the overall success of Don’t Censor Me found AA opening for dc Talk and Newsboys.