BROW BEAT (1993)
Every once in a while a “marketing guy’s” money grab idea turns out to be a stroke of genius!
There are only a handful of “Various Artists” releases to make this list as “compilations, like “Best Of” albums are just not original works worthy of consideration. But in those few rare exceptions when a concept creates a project of primarily new and original music, those album are worthy for inclusion
One of the finest and most unique of those type albums is Brow Beat: Unplugged Alternative. A collection of “acoustic” (unplugged) music by the leading voices of christian alternative music at the time. More than just taking a popular tune from each artists catalog the artists recorded brand new music that, in some cases, would end up later on their own projects.
Everyone included is an artist of note and the departure for some int he world of acoustic music made this exercise incredibly compelling. Most notable is Mortals “Bleeder.” A band noted for hard industrial music paring down to acoustic instruments and more stark and human sounding vocals was a revelation.
Some artist found the transition an easy fit as their music translates easily into the genre. The Choir, Michael Knott, The Lost Dogs and Terry Scott Taylor all had shown an adept ability to create incredible acoustic music.
Others made the transition with much more effort and the effort paid off beautifully. Undercover, Adam Again and even Dig Hay Zoose created memorable, unique and compelling acoustic music.
There was a follow up that made the mistake of trying to move into a more “Acoustic Alternative Worship” sound and did not have this albums original, creative passion.
Given the season and the initial decision not to include Christmas or seasonal albums among those listed in the Top 500, I thought it worthy to stop and list those under consideration initially. One of these releases does not fit the CCM category, but is included here because of the overwhelming use of the album by Christians and Christian radio stations.
10. Over the Hills and Everywhere – Seabird
The wonderful, but tragically too short Christmas album from one of the great unheralded bands in Christian Music is an utterly brilliant album. The traditional songs have been, for the most part, rearranged, to fit the acoustic/alternative rock style of the band. One highlight is “Joy to the World,” which was a version used on the popular television program, Grey’s Anatomy.
9. Timeless Christmas – Denver & The Mile High Orchestra
Denver & the Mile High Orchestra is one of those artists in CCM that deserved a wider hearing. The big band, Michael Buble tinged Denver has released several wonderful albums that somehow could never garner proper decent distribution and, as a result, remain mostly unknown. That is truly a shame on this fun, rollicking and bopping album of Christmas favorites arranged in all their spectacular big band glory.
8. A Christmas Song – Russ Taff
Borrowing from relatively same era as Denver & the Mile orchestra but in a decidedly different style, Russ Taff walks through Christmas favorites in a gloriously sexy style of the Rat Pack crooner. Mellow, smooth and jazz filled favorites. This is fireside and candlelight Christmas music. Add Taff’s impeccably perfect voice and you have…uh… brilliance!
7. Christmas – Mannheim Steamroller
6. Dawn of Grace – Sixpence None the Richer
Leigh Nash singing Christmas favorites. Really? What else does anyone need? How about some wonderful arrangements, stunning production and a more unique and creative collection of Christmas carols and hymns than one will find nearly anywhere else. “Last Christmas” is just stunningly beautiful.
5. A Christmas album – Amy Grant
I don’t think I am going out on a limb here to assume that this album is the best selling Christmas album in CCM history. Fortunately it is also a wonderful collection that is headed by the original “Tennessee Christmas” that has become a long time standard. The album also hinted a more acoustic and country tinged artists that would develope as the years passed. And Amy Grant album for those who are not fans of amy Grant.
4. Christmas – Various Sparrow Artists
There have been countless collection Christmas album foisted upon the CCM buying public, but not many this good. Not a concept album featuring various artists like others on this list, this is simply a money grab by the label. But that notwithstanding the collection of songs, arrangements and artists make this a real treasure. each artists was allowed to perform within their own genre (roughly) and the BeBe & CeCe Winan version of “Silent Night” is awesome! And Steve Taylor’s mariachi version of Winter Wonderland is a wonderful mistake!
3. December – George Winston
George Winston’s most popular and possibly best album is a collection of “winter” favorites that are haunting, dark, brooding, joyful and celebratory. Over half would be considered “Christmas Carols” while other are more reflective of the season of winter. the opening track, “Thanksgiving,” is possibly Winston’s finest composition and never grows old. That song alone is worth owning the album.
2. An Evening in December – First Call (and Guests)
An a capella treat that remains a mainstay more then two decades later. Featuring (and actually introducing) First Call, the album has Marty and crew supporting many of Daywind records host of artists like Cynthia Clawson and Wayne Watson, the album is a wonderful collection of original and traditional carols sung in the best possibly way. The vocal arrangements are flawless, the production pristine and the performances spot on.
1. Noel – Various Artists
If you do not own this album, you are truly missing out on not only one of the great Christmas albums of all time (Christian or secular) but on one of the great albums. This album was initially listed in the Top 100 before the decision to remove the seasonal albums. Years before “City of a Hill,” short lived Via Records released this brilliant acoustic collection of original and classical holiday favorites. Artists include Derri Daugherty (The Choir), Michael Pritzl (The Violet Burning), Jerry Chamberlain (DA), Kevin Smith (DC Talk), Jenny Gullen (Hoi Polloi), Brent Bourgeois, Riki Michelle (Adam Again), Julie Miller and more. Simply brilliant from first to last and years ahead of the time.
Along with Newsboys, DC Talk and Skillet, Audio Adrenaline was one of the most popular “Youth Group” bands in Christian music. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The band continued to release very popular and above average albums for over a decade and headlined or co-headlined countless tours around the world with phenomenal success. Not as “hip” as DC talk or “show biz” as Newsboys, AA carved a niche as a strong pop rock band with strong messages and exceptional live performances.
Nearly every AA album had at least 3 or 4 very strong songs, many of which became “classics” in the genre like the live and radio favorite “Big House.” Underdog, though, was the most consistently strong album of the bands career and went even beyond by creating a great album by any standards. In fact if Big House and Ocean were on this album it could work as a Greatest Hits project.
There are no weak songs on the entire project and the musical diversity remains the most compelling of the bands career. The funky “Get Down” explores the work of God in the lives of those struggling while the power ballad styled “Hands and Feet” is a call to take the message of the actions of the Gospel throughout the world and down the street. Has anyone else ever noticed the Zeppelin like vocals at the end of this song?
The album also contains a great rendition of the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul” with help from then label-mate Jennifer Knapp.
What shouldn’t be missed, though, is that the album is clearly a legitimate “summer” album released in the Fall. It just sounds like the album someone would play on the boom box at the beach in the late 90’s. Think Kid Rock or Sugar Ray.Everyone needs one of those albums in their collection and when done well, they are a real treasure. Underdog is just that.
House of Heroes
House of Heroes has been that has been on periphery of my musical listening. Until this year. easily the best album released this year and possibly the best rock/pop/alternative album released in the first decade of the 2000’s. Original, strong, familiar and completely brilliant.
There is something eerily similar of HoH to artists like Arcade Fire, The Verve and The New radicals that has nothing to do with the musical experience. all three of those acts (and others unnamed) had this uncanny ability to make the initial introduction to their music sound like something you have heard before and “must have just missed” a few years before. The first time I heard The New Radicals I thought they were a 70’s band that I just had never heard before and was sorry that I had missed them.
The same rings true for this HoH release. I could have sworn I had heard this album before despite the fact it is not derivative by any means. It may just be the bands ability to create a musical soundscape that borrows brilliantly from other musical genres and eras while firmly placing the music in today’s world.
Their initial releases showed amazing promise and the Beatles cover album was brilliant, but nothing prepared the listener for this amazing project. I am full convinced in 10 years this album would croack the Top 100 and maybe the Top 50. I am also convinced the CCM audience will miss out on it!
Other bands that serve as contemporaries to HoH try to sound legit and original, while HoH makes it sound so completely natural. Not sure how many bands can draw allusions to The Darkness and the Beatles on the same album, or even the same song but HoH does it at the same time.That’s all part of the familiarity and originality paradox. Progressive rock, The Knack’s pop sensibilities, the sheer exuberance of The Darkness, the musical precision and creativity of Queen and the brilliant and stunning melodies of Arcade fire.
There is not enough time to discuss individual songs but i would like to point out that no song released this year comes close to matching “God save the Foolish Kings.” It is freakin’ brilliant!!!
There is no musical blueprint here. There is no “if you like this band, you’ll love HoH.” If you like great music, expertly played, passionately delivered and stunningly presented then you will like HoH.
JUST LIKE REAL LIFE (1985)
Throughout this exploration of the greatest music in Christian Music history, much has been said about the shame that it is one of CCM’s great realities: great bands don’t sell and disappear much too quickly. The greatest (worst?) example of this axiom if the band Prodigal. The great crime of CCM is that this amazing band only made three unbelievably impressive albums and then…
Their swan song was the impressive “Just Like real Life,” an album filled with so much great music and original concepts that any description will really not do it any justice. Ranging from hard “new wave” to American rock and roll there are ten fantastic tracks here. Production quality is through the roof fantastic for what was, I am sure, a minuscule budget.
The vocals are as diverse as the music as three different lead vocalist shared the duties. the most notable is Loyd Boldman and his HUGE voice. Boldman always seemed to tackle the big rock numbers and so is often recognized as the lead vocalist though that is really not the case. It should be noted that quite often his songs are the most memorable. This is the case here.
Future Now starts with a musical introduction that always reminds me of the soundtrack to movie St. Elmo’s Fire, especially the primary song, “Man in Motion.” “Safety in Numbers” starts off with a great guitar lick the harkens to Daniel Amos’ “I Love You #19.” Throughout the entire record great riffs and monster walls of sound permeate every song.
What is truly impressive about the band, though, is their lyrical content. Not content to recite the normal CCM diatribes, Prodigal placed themselves directly into the songs and transparently admit their failings along with those around them. A constant theme is the alienation of the modern world and need for honest and actual relationships. Both with God and with one another.
These themes were best explored on their previous album which will be discussed at a later time.
It has been 17 years since Squint, the last of Steve Taylor’s recordings, was released. I, for one, say “It’s time for a follow up already!”
Very few artists on Christian music that have been silent for two decades are ever able to maintain the loyal fan base that Taylor has preserved. His timely and timeless music seems to transcend time and generations despite the rather dated musical expressions.
Squint, though, stands out as possibly the record that sounds the least tied to a musical date. It’s the one album with no musical expiration date. Perhaps because it didn’t sound like anything during any time so no one can really pigeon hole into a time frame. More musically experimental, more musically “alternative” rock and more “musical” in general, Squint seems to also glean form the musical heritage of his former band, Chagall Guevara.
Highlights from the album include…well…the whole album. Though every song is not the masterpiece that others may be, there are no “fast forward” tunes in the bunch. Even the utterly unique and oddly bizarrely wonderful “Cash Cow” does not spoil with time.
Where Taylor does excel on this album more than on previous releases is on the more straight ahead rock anthem songs. The Lament of Desmond RG Underwood-Frederick IV, Bannerman, Smug and Curses do not suffer from the “novelty” label that previous songs have. That should be seen as stating that the album lacks the normal taylor humor, but rather, far from it. The humor is more pointed, not as broad and, in many ways, more effective.
But a real highlight and one for the ages is “Jesus Is For Losers.” Taylor’s most interesting melody, aura and strongest vocal in his solo career make the song a classic. I was speaking to a friend in the music back in 1993 about this album and he (an artist himself) mentioned that “Jesus is for Losers” is the type of song every artists strives to write. I would agree.
This is not the first nor the last release from Taylor to make this list. If I slow down, maybe there may be time to add a new one it.
SHATTER THE DARKNESS (1979)
vastly superior to the previous years debut release and not quite a rock driven as the following album, Shatter the Darkness ends up being the very best of the Fireworks releases. Creative, original and distinctly more unique than nearly all of its contemporaries.
It is really difficult to find accurate comparisons for the band though at times there are touches of Supertramp and others something akin to Toto, but neither are really accurate. perhaps that is a good sign for an industry of copycats. Also lyrically the band had separated itself from much of CCM for the day.
“Beautiful Woman” retells the story of the woman caught in adultery in a rather dark and brooding musical backdrop. Change My Heart is the band at its core finest. Not too heavy, but a driving keyboard and big vocal sound. There is always a sense of almost bordering on artistic and progressive rock but they never quite pass the line. The closest would be “rock Band,” one of the more intelligent apologetic for the use of rock music in Christian circles.
At other times, like on “After the Rain,” there is more of 2nd Chapter of Acts classical sound. This is due in a part to a very heavy piano driven sound noted in 2nd Chapter of Acts and Keith Green. “I Know Power” again bring the band to its strongest footing with the piano driven rock style similar to Supertramp.
Ultimately, though, it’s all about Marty McCall’s impressive vocal range and emotive balance. Very few artists in CCM were blessed such an original and powerful voice. The diversity of the band and his later projects pay tribute to that fact.