Thursday, February 7, 2019

100 Albums Supplemental: Christian Rock

10 posts down. 90 to go. Whew!

So, in the last post, I talked about how I'd listened to a lot of Christian music as a kid and how--since I'm not really religious anymore--it doesn't resonate with me in the same way and can in fact be uncomfortable for me to listen to. But the late 90s was an interesting time for Christian music and I think it's worth talking about even though most of the albums aren't in any danger of making my top 100 (caveat: there are two more Christian rock acts that did make the top 100, so if something seems missing here, there's a reason for that).

So without further ado, some albums I used to love and really can't bring myself to listen to anymore.

dc Talk - Jesus Freak

Originally a rap trio whose closest sonic contemporary was probably Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, dc Talk's best known song up this point was Jesus Is Still Alright which heavily sampled The Doobie Brothers. They had drifted from euro-dance rap into the more sample-driven East Coast style but always with a bright pop family-friendly sheen over it. And then they went and recorded an alternative record and I'll be damned (literally, I suppose) if it wasn't the best thing any of us had ever heard. As a marketing strategy, they'd sent out CD singles with CD-ROM content to youth groups. And it really changed the game because it was first and foremost good, interesting music and it spearheaded something of a revitalization movement within Christian Contemporary Music. Part of what made is so compelling was the way it hybridized of alt-rock and hip-hop sensibilities to make something new. It used rock music structures, but the singers traded off vocals within a song and backed/hyped each other up like the Beastie Boys. The record, meanwhile, was structured more like a 90s rap record with skits and interludes. And it was just fun music. There was the juggernaut of a title track of course, but other favorites included Day By Day and In The Light.

How does it hold up? For me, not very well. There was in-fighting within the Christian Contemporary Music community (no, really) about whether a band could really call itself Christian if most of their songs weren't about Jesus, and dc Talk definitely fit into the message-heavy camp. In fact, they had a few songs that criticized other artists (without directly naming them, of course) for being message-light. This was something I loved about it as a kid and part of what makes it harder to listen to now. As I mentioned in the Sixpence None The Richer post, I'm 100% fine with Christianity as a perspective, but I don't enjoy being thumped over the head with messages I don't agree with. And it doesn't help that the lyrics were a little... blah. Not bad, but... "spiritual baby-food" was a phrase that got thrown around a bit. Some of the mellower tracks that had a bit more maturity actually hold up pretty well as far as I'm concerned, thinking specifically of Between You And Me and Mind's Eye. They're still preachy, but at least they feel like they have something to say.

Jars Of Clay - Jars Of Clay

This was band that inspired the term "alternacoustic" after a crossover mainstream hit with the song Flood. It stood out because of the peculiar arrangement of the songs: acoustic guitars over machine drums with a thick slather of orchestration. The album felt like it hadn't been written and performed so much as frankensteined together from parts of a dozen different recording sessions and demos (this is not a dig, by the way, there are some great franken-records out there). Flood was the breakout hit, but unfortunately it didn't sound like anything else on the record, so a lot of people picked it up and felt cheated. The rest of us slowly fell in love with it, though, mellow broodishness and all. As the band continued to put out albums, they got more and more, well... boring. Much Afraid was pretty decent, but you could already hear them moving away from the acoustic-guitars-plus model into a more contemporary rock-band sound, and the drums got better-but-not-quite-good, so they no longer sounded stylized, just fake. I'm convinced that their self-titled debut was a happy accident of sorts.

How does it hold up? Okay-ish. Worlds Apart is still pretty excellent. Flood mostly feels very dated, and I think enough time has passed for us to admit that it was never quite as good as we thought it was. I still like Art In Me, but previous favorites like Love Song For A Savior and Like A Child don't sit well. Also, the last track is almost thirty minutes long because it's weighed down with hidden-track nonsense that's just part of the recording session from Blind and is not interesting AT ALL.

Audio Adrenaline - Don't Censor Me

College rock with some virtuoso guitar and bass work. A youth minister once told me that in college it was what they would have called "fag rock", so make of that what you will. The breakout song was Big House, but We're A Band was a great late-album jam and I adored Scum Sweetheart, which was a strange and kind of bluesy closer. I saw them in concert supporting this, and they played a rock version of If You're Happy And You Know It that was just as much silly fun as you can imagine.

How does it hold up? Poorly. Mostly because the lyrics are awful. They were never great, but I think Audio A got graded on a curve because they were message-forward. These days I find it almost unlistenable, and the "don't censor me" mantra of the title track honestly feels toxic in the modern culture-war context.

Newsboys - Going Public

Finally some decent lyricists. They got a little silly on their follow-up Take Me To Your Leader, which was I think their most popular album, but I always thought Going Public was the better record. It's a bit more raw and less self-deprecating, feels more like a rock record, before they were writing silly (if clever) songs about breakfast cereal.

How does it hold up? It was always a little rough around the edges, so I never turned against it so much as I just sort of forgot about it. The standout song, Shine, hasn't aged well at all, and not just because its hook sounds like it was stolen from Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing. There's a line in there about making "a vegetarian barbecue hamster" that was really funny when I was young WASP but it less so now that I have a diversified friend group.

Michael W. Smith - i 2 (EYE)

I... um... Look, it came out when I was eight years old. When I was, I dunno, eleven or twelve my youth choir went on "tour" with a show that was mostly stuff from Go West Young Man but included Secret Ambition from this album, and it's an awesome song if you're twelve and in a youth group in the early 90s. I also really dug Hand Of Providence and All You're Missing Is A Heartache, which had an earnestness to it that I found compelling. It was the first Michael W. Smith album to go platinum and had a bit more of a "serious artist" vibe than previous records, like his second album Michael W. Smith 2 whose cover was a picture of him climbing on the argyle pattern of his sweater. Throughout his early career he seemed to have been styled as a Christian George Michael, which feels terribly, terribly wrong-headed now.

How does it hold up? About as well as anything that came out in 1988.

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