MOURNING INTO DANCING (1985)
When discussing the Southern California New wave/Punk scene of the 1980’s it is easy to refer to Undercover, the Lifesavors, Altar Boys and the Lifters, but 441 should not be forgotten. After recording only two albums (a later release featured two band members), the band disappeared.
The eponymous debut made an immediate impact as I continued my pestering of the program director of KYMS to try new bands. I was often rebuffed because of the too rocky and edgy music, but with 441 there was an instant appreciation. More soulful new wave/new romantic styles like that of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet on the softer side, the band was more polished, pop and accessible. As a result the bands singles charted heavily on the station and their popularity grew.
But there second album was significantly better, both musically and lyrically as stronger production at the hands of John and Dino Elefante. The band also stood out because they were not afraid to write about the darker, more serious struggles young Christian faced including doubt, purity and self-steem issues. They would wonderfully mask these topics in unforgettable pop.
Lead vocalist John McNamara had a cool swing and swagger that worked with the sound. The album cover should been seriously reconsidered. It was so “demo” and “rock’ looking that it should be considered false advertising. This was clearly before the days of image consultants.
441 was band for their time. Caught squarely in the 1980’s new wave sound, the record sound dated, or better yet, nostalgic. The reason is because they were authentic for the time. They were not behind of ahead of the times, they were squarely rooted in the day. And within that framework they created some wonderful music and one very fine record.
MANSION BUILDER (1978)
2nd Chapter of Acts
There is a lot of discussion about just who the most influential artists in Christian Music/Jesus Music history were. Larry Norman, Love Song, Barry McGuire and Randy Stonehill always seem to take center stage of those discussions. We would be remiss not to mention the vital importance of three siblings from Southern California, especially their songwriting leader, sister Annie (Ward) Herring.
No artist moved from Jesus Music pioneer to CCM juggernaut quite as gracefully and successfully as 2nd Chapter of Acts. Their progression as artist and importance as ministers and musicians cannot be understated. Billy Ray Hearn of Myrrh Records left the label to start his own record company in 1976. The first artists signed to this start up were Keith Green, Annie Herring and 2nd Chapter of Acts.
Green was the first national release only because 2nd Chapter of Acts was on hiatus for a year or so while Annie worked on and released her first solo project (already listed here). After three successful projects on Myrrh the group left with Hearn and eventually released the classic “Mansion Builder.”
Filled with some of the most majestic and worshipful contemporary music of the 1970’s the album remains a favorite over 30 years later. The title track is a true classic and would be amongst those songs listed in a top 100 songs in CCM history.
The musical acuteness is accentuated by a wonderful supporting cast that included members of their traveling band, a band called David. Peter York, Richard Souther, Michael Omartian, Bill Maxwell and Abraham Laborial all had a hand in this project and their stellar musicianship shows.
The ABBA influence is still here but is coupled with Herring’s more classical and traditional Church music influences. Well before there was a Contemporary Worship scene and “Maranatha Praise” albums there was the 2nd Chapter of Acts. They created worship music in a very contemporary setting and this allowed them into many settings other Christian artists could not enter. They continued to be “safe” and “relevant” at the same time. That was no small order.
Two more albums will find there way onto the list, but it must be noted that their success, and the success of their friends Phil Keaggy and Keith Green helped launch Sparrow and make it what it has become.
CRIMSON AND BLUE / BLUE (1993)
Born out of the same studio sessions and featuring many of the same songs and all of the same musicians I am including the separately released albums “Crimson and Blue” and “Blue” as one title. The former was created for and released to the Christian market while the latter was released into the mainstream market with a different lyrical focus, despite sharing several songs from its counterpart.
After releasing one of the most beautiful acoustic/instrumental albums in his career (Beyond Nature), Keaggy followed with what is probably heaviest rock release outside of his work with Glass Harp. It’s notable that Glass Harp drummer John Sferra reunites with Keaggy on the album and many believe served as the impetus for the return to a more rock edged project. No matter the reason, it was a Godsend!
Recorded virtually live in the studio with live guitar solos played with the band the album is filled with memorable rock and Keaggy best and most subdued rock vocals. Less Paul McCartney here than on many other releases. The album also contains Keaggy’s best rock guitar work since “Time” in the reworking of the traditional blues number, “John the Revelator.” If this song was the only worthy tune it would still allow this album to be included. It’s that good!
But fortunately the whole project is impressive. Much can be attributed to the who’s who list of supporters including Phil Madeira, Lynn Nichols, Jimmy A., Ashley Cleveland, Charlie Peacock, John Mark Painter, Wade Jaynes (Chagall Guevara) and an uncredited Steve Taylor. The live energy in the studio clearly paid off on this raw and passionate project.
Blue would remove a few songs and add three including a cover of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” One notable song of inclusion is “All Our Wishes.” The song recounts the loss of a child and was written musically back when Keaggy was in the 9th grade.
Many fans of Keaggy have complained over the years that he never “shows off” his ridiculous skills on his albums like his live performances are noted for, but here that is not the case. It kind of feels like there record company let Phil make a “Keaggy” album. we, the listeners, are the beneficiaries.
Hmm, maybe this should have been listed higher!
It is way too easy to run out of superlatives when discussing Neal Morse. This album, the second of three that will appear on this list, is no exception and repeating one self when discussing this artists can be too easy. Amazing. Original. Fascinating. Electric. Dynamic. Epic.
One of the few Neal Morse releases that cannot be considered a “concept” album, Lifeline is filled with banner epics while keeping a melodic and thematic story arch. There are few artists that can make one or two songs that extend beyond 5 minutes worthy of repeated listens, but making an album that only has two songs under five minutes (albeit one of them falls just 5 seconds short) is unheard of. Oh yeah, and one song last nearly 30 minutes!
On Lifeline (like most of his projects) Morse calls on the support of friends to accentuate his own guitar and keyboard work. Most notable is one of the worlds great drummers in Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater fame. Portnoy continues to be one of the most respected and creative drummers on the planet and it his work that truly drives Morse’s diverse and creative compositions.
Prog rock is admittedly a sub-genre within rock that many have ignored or avoided for its excesses and lengthy compositions. Many within the genre forget melody and hooks, but Morse is not one of those. He writers prog rock with a sense of great melody like Kerry Livgren while extending beyond Livgren’s musical interest to include jazz, fusion and world music influences along with the common classical and classic rock.
Lyrically the album is Psalm like in its praise, adoration and humility before an almighty and Sovereign Lord. Only Leviathan, with both its musical and lyrical oddities, strays from the Psalm like approach. The title track is incredibly memorable, especially for a 14 minute song, but it is “So Many Road” that is the centerpiece of the album. Nearly 30 minutes in length the song is divided into six distinctly different songs with similar melodic strains unifying the piece.
Even if one does not love prog rock, it is worth the time to discover Morse and appreciate the genius it takes to create such lasting and moving musical compositions.
LOVE LIBERTY DISCO (1990)
The Newsboys ended the 1990’s with a pseudo-concept album whose conception was more musical than lyrical or thematic. It also finds its way on to many Newsboys fans “most hated” list a well as most beloved. I fall in the latter category, but that is also coming from someone who is not a very big Newsboys fan.
relying heavily on 70’s influences and, yes, disco, to educate the musical palette, the album still sounds like Newsboys, but with more groove and fun. Musically some of the most consistent quality writing and execution, the album followed the hit machine, Step Up to the Microphone and I applaud the band for taking this artistic leap at a time the SUTTM Part 2 could have been an epic best-seller.
LLD is the anti-SUTTM in that it is nor filled with radio radio hits like its predecessor, but rather a collection of 70’s influenced musical delights. But there is also a sense that the band is taking it all very seriously and respectfully. There is an Oasis-like feel of other-worldly musical experiments that make the “hit makers” appear more like a band than on many other recordings.
There is more Cheap Trick here than Bee Gee’s, and the world is better for it. Beautiful Sound is a great song no matter what band or album. Love Liberty Disco is the most obvious nod to the disco era with the great funky string arrangement and contains some of Furler’s better and more subdued vocals.
The band would follow with a significantly more straight ahead rock effort with “Thrive,” and many fans were happy for that fact. But LLD stands out for its originality and fearless presence. It’s one of the few albums from that era that deserve repeated listening.
Many readers may find this post an odd addition to the present countdown and be concerned it is out of place on this blog. The more regular and attuned readers will see its significance and hopefully understand its placement.
For those who have consistently read this and my other blog on Christian music will most likely recall the several mentions of my brother-in-law, Curt. Curt Kisner played a vital role both in my life (as well as countless others), especially in the area of which this blog (and the other) specializes in.
My biological brother left the house to join the Air Force when I was pretty young. We shared a room for the first 12 or so years of my life, but the six years that separate us meant we were never living through the same “life experiences” at the same time. By the time I was old enough to begin sharing some similar experiences he was either in the Air Force or married, living over 3,000 miles away. I love my brother like a brother and always will.
But it was at that time my sister brought home a young man named Curt she had met at Church. He had long hair and liked rock and roll. He played guitar and would be a part of a few “bands” during his high school and college years with many other friends from the youth group, including my sister.
My father was a police officer and my brother and I always had very short hair and rock music (even of the Christian variety) was limited in the house. Then along came Curt. He eventually won over my parents with his unending humor, joy of life and his immense love and dedication to my sister. He was the only man in her life…EVER!
I loved Curt immediately. Not just for the rock and roll hair and cool guitar, but for so many other reasons that naming them here would be impossible.
I loved watching sitcoms with Curt in my family’s living room. He laughed at everything! I mean everything! He made the shows funnier as I learned to see the lighter side of life through his twinkling eyes (even the lazy one) and loud laugh. He loved to laugh. He loved to laugh more than anyone I can recall. He loved to make others laugh as well.
I loved the fact that he allowed some snot nosed kid, six years his junior to “hang out” him, his girlfriend and all their other friends and band members. I am friends with many of his peers because he allowed me to be a part of his group, despite the age difference.
One day, when I was about 12 or so, I had clearly gotten on my sister’s nerves and was “seriously hanging around too much” and she made it clear I was not invited to stick around. Being an immature little kid and not getting the hints it was time to take off, I was told, in no uncertain terms, I wasn’t welcomed. Like a little child I took off on my bike, upset and crying. It was Curt, I later found out, that lead the search party for me, making sure I knew it was OK to be a part and convincing my sister to let me stay around. Since that day, I have admired and loved my sister and her husband for their never-ending attitude of inclusion.
Curt never met anyone that wasn’t his best friend. He was always reaching out to me, my friends and people at Church like very few people his age. I watched from a distance and saw his actions. I only wished it would have rubbed off a little more on me.
My sister and Curt started a band called “The Lighter Side Band,” a Christian rock band that I always hoped would “make it.” They never did, but I always thought they were the greatest band ever. I “sort of” ran sound and would hang out at the band rehearsals at some Baptist Church in downtown Anaheim. The band even went to Magic Mountain together for a fun day and Curt brought me along.
The day he was going to propose to my sister he told me about it and sent me on an errand to “Mini Mart.” Mini Mart was a little market/liquor store two houses down from the house I grew up in. Everyone on the east side of Anaheim knew “Mini Mart.” My sister and Curt would regularly sit and watch TV while eating powdered donuts and drinking chocolate milk. He would ALWAYS give me enough money to get some for myself as well. ALWAYS!
That was the way of Curt.
Curt handed me a few bucks and sent me down to Mini Mart to pick up these delights. I did as requested and then sat on the store’s stoop and ate the donuts and drank the chocolate milk myself, giving Curt the time he needed to propose. I came back to a teary-eyed and smiling sister and a proud and joyful set of parents.
Before all that, though, Curt did something that would change my life forever. He took me to Disneyland for one of their regular “Night of Joy” events. The only thing I remember before going was that Barry McGuire was going to be there, and Barry McGuire was one of the few contemporary Christian artists whose music was in our house. What I didn’t know was that Barry McGuire was sharing the stage with this new band called the Resurrection Band!
Nothing would ever be the same.
My love and obsession for Christian music, especially Christian rock flourished. It lead me to work in a Christian bookstore, work in Christian radio and work for a Christian music label or two. The music that has completely consumed my life and filled the multiple pages of this blog was birthed and later built up by my brother-in-law, Curt.
Curt would be for me my first two Christian albums: “MrGuire” by the group McGuire and “This Time Thru” by DeGarmo and Key. The latter would become a staple in my catalog and remain a favorite to this day.
He took me to see DeGarmo & Key at Knott’s Berry Farm a week before their classic “Straight On” was released. He took my to my first Calvary Chapel Saturday Night Concert to see this guy named Darrell Mansfield, that used to be in this Christian country-rock band, Gentle Faith. Mr. Mansfield wasn’t “country” anymore.
But the most memorable night was when he bought an extra ticket for me to the Universal Amphitheater for my very first “real” rock show. The band was KANSAS. It was the Vinyl Confessions tour and I was in awe. I was already familiar with the band and loved everything the band or Kerry Livgren had done, but seeing it all live was beyond what I could have imagined.
The love and passion I have for the music that has populated this blog is directly related to my brother-in-law Curt. Curt and my sister later got into Country music, which I have never understood, but change is sometimes inevitable.
Curt also introduced me to my great love in high school; cross country and track. Curt could run. His build is that of a runner. Long, lanky and muscular legs and really cool long hair that blew behind him as he ran. My sister ran as well. I followed several years later and had a very good career. I ran both cross country and track and Curt was there all the time for my matches and competitions. He would coach at local High Schools and may be the most beloved coach in the sport. Just ask his athletes!
I also learned about humility and grace from watching him and my sister. I learned about patience and devotion from their example as well. Curt loved my sister with a deep, unconditional and unending love. You could see. In fact, it would be impossible to miss. There was a grace and graciousness about him that could never be missed.
My first daughter, Camille, was always afraid of men. Especially men with facial hair. Curt had a beard for as long as I could remember that made him look like Jesus. He was a shoe-in for the Easter Cantata role of Jesus and on more than one occasion was hung on a cross for that purpose. But Camille would have none of that. But once Camille grew to an age to understand and recognize Curt for who he was inside, her love for him knew no bounds. She adores her uncle.
My family and I would move around the country for most of the last 20 years, but would always be mindful of “Uncle Curt” and my sister. They would visit us in San Diego or Colorado, it wouldn’t matter. Curt was always the same. Content to rest leisurely on a reclining chair and watch TV…
This morning (1/13/11) I received a phone call from my mother at a very early hour. Early hour phone calls never bring glad tidings are explosions of joy. This call rang true to form. Some time during the night, the sweet Lord Jesus came and gently escorted this wonderful man to his eternal home, lovingly helping him escape from a cancer ravaged body that had furiously impacted his final days.
A few days ago, after being released from the hospital and arriving at his home for hospice care, he whispered to those around him, “I’m ready to go home.” Everyone knew what he meant. He was in his house, but was ready to go “home.” Several days ago I had written a poem for my sister to encourage her and give her a glimmer of hope in these trying days.
I Saw a Glimpse of Your Future
I saw a glimpse of your future
And it was better than it seems
I saw a glimpse of your future
Something greater than your dreams
The air was so much sweeter
As it filled your lungs like grace
The mountains so much steeper
A heart beating with the pace
I saw a glimpse of your future
With face glowing in the sun
A race not built to win or lose
But a race to simply run
Breath bursting out in pleasure
Legs finding strength again
In a future created for you
With no sorrow, loss or pain
I saw a glimpse of your future
A home where love and grace collides
Where a Saviors’ love holds warm and tight
The heart where faith resides
With arms reaching toward heaven
With no time to pass or tell
Brand new creature and creation
To whose soul cries “all is well”
Oddly enough last night while working at my Church I was listening to my Zune. I have aver 19,000 songs on my Zune and had it on shuffle. In the several years of owning an mp3 player and placing it on “shuffle,” I had never heard the same song play twice in a row. Until last night. Perhaps I accidentally hit the “back” button while walking along, but I cannot know for sure.
The song was Keith Green’s version of “The Victor.” Though an “Easter” tune and directly relating to the Resurrection of Christ I noticed a particular section that just literally floored me. It immediately reminded me of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul reassures his readers that the same Resurrection provided to Christ by the Father is guaranteed for those who are His as well.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
In the song Green sings:
The gates of hell
Crumbling from the inside out
He’s bursting through
The walls with laughter (Hah!)
Listen to the Angels shout
Bursting through the walls with laughter? God, that sounds just like Curt!
So I sit here, pausing countless times to wipe the tears that have blurred the screen in front of me, not knowing what to do next. Click save this draft and walk away? Click “publish” for the world (or at least my little world) to see? I do not know. I do know one thing:
Today I will be having Powdered Donuts and Chocolate Milk.
HUMAN CLAY (1999)
A few years before it was “cool” to rip on Creed, it was very cool to love Human Clay. I chuckle at all those who ridicule the band while at the same time owning an album that “everybody” owns. Selling over 15 million copies worldwide and placing itself in the Top 50 of albums sold ALL TIME, Human Clay is simply one of the most successful album to feature Biblical themes and imagery ever released.
It also kicks ass!
The second release from the band and the first major success, Human Clay debuted at number one on the Billboard sales chart after nearly going gold in its first week. The major success may have influenced the band to seek more commercial sounds in later releases, but that is not the case with his album. They still rocked and rocked hard. This is not the big power ballad anthem of later releases though two songs do fit that category, and quite possibly defined the category.
The album starts with the apropos titled “Are You Ready?” Simple and soft electric guitar intro explodes quickly into a plodding and grinding aural assault and passion and energy. No matter what ones opinion is of the eccentric and often troubled lead vocalist, Scott Stapp, for some time he was the strongest rock vocalist out there. His baritone lower register would often only set up the stronger and compelling higher register explosion that shook the rock world.
The Biblical imagery is unmistakable as Stapp’s upbringing as a “PK” would mold and influence his lyrical content despite his own self-admitted protestations. This inner turmoil is quite possibly one factor why the songs on this album especially are both so tormenting and inspirational.
The previously mentioned “power ballads” that appear back to back on the album made the band superstars, but should be placed in the proper context of the album as a whole. Though the band would later fall into the trap of trying to recreate “With Arms Wide Open” and “Higher,” it is because these two songs are son great that the attempts to to follow them up was so tempting.Sometimes the snotty rock critic needs to get off their superiority high horse and just admit that songs like these two are actually quite compelling and enjoyable.
Though over a decade old and stuck squarely into a particular musical expression, the album retains an authentic quality that transcends the late 90’s grunge scene and makes it more timeless sounding than many other releases from the same era.