1995: The middle of a decade….The year I graduated high school and started college…20 years ago. Seems like as good a year as any to look back on. Actually…maybe a better than many to look back on. Or at least a really good and significant year for Christian music.
The idea that Christian music was as much as 5 years behind mainstream ‘secular’ music was a common claim, but by the early-mid 1990’s, it seemed that Christian music wasn’t really so behind the secular. There were plenty of Christian artists that were right up to date and even breaking new creative, artistic ground. The main problem seemed to be more that those innovative Christian artists were simply more obscure and ‘underground’ than those that were accused of being behind the curve.
Of course, the ‘secular’ music world was turned upside down in 1992 when the alternative, grunge record Nevermind, by the formerly underground band Nirvana, replaced pop legend Michael Jackson at number one on Billboard’s album chart. At the time, it might have seemed like Christian music was still trying to catch up with rap and metal when alternative music exploded into the mainstream…at least on the surface. But with some digging, it became apparent that there had been a strong alternative current flowing under the radar of Christian music for years.
Christian underground acts like Daniel Amos and the 77’s had been providing an alternative to CCM’s mainstream pop and adult contemporary since the late 70’s and early 80’s. Even as Christian Rock acts like Petra and Stryper became staples in the CCM world, alternative artists like Michael Knott/Lifesavers/LSU and Adam Again were trudging along in the Christian music netherworld. By the early 90’s a number of ‘independent’ record labels, like Brainstorm Artists International and Blonde Vinyl, were beginning to gain traction and decent distribution in the CCM market. Magazines like Harvest Rock Syndicate and True Tunes News were gradually, but increasingly spreading the word about these cutting-edge Christian alternative artists.
Although this alternative scene had taken over the larger, ‘secular’ rock music market, and was growing stronger within Christian music, it still seemed that the majority of the CCM industry wasn’t recognizing the importance, relevance, and innovation that these lesser-known alternative artists were good for. So far, only one major Christian record label, Reunion, was willing to take a chance on this new genre/niche with the band The Prayer Chain. While that band and Alarma Records’ Poor Old Lu were breaking through to fans of alternative and grunge music, readers of CCM magazine still seemed to think that pop rock acts like The Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline were the top of what Christian alternative music had to offer.
But 1995 really seemed to change all of that. Looking back, that year seemed like such a pivotal point for Christian Music’s greatest decade. (Some reflection on that decade here) While the decade started out with Amy, Smitty, and Carman dominating CCM, it ended with acts like P.O.D., Switchfoot, and Chevelle breaking out of the Christian ‘ghetto’ and into the bigger secular marketplace. Until ’95, the evolution seemed almost unnoticeable. The pop and adult contemporary of the early 90’s slowly gave way to pop rock and some harder rock, and eventually metal and dabblings in what could be considered alternative rock. Slowly, the alternative artists emerged from the underground, and even the pop rock started to turn an alternative shade. And was it really true that the members of one of the most popular Christian rap groups were actually fans of U2?
In 1993, another small independent record label was formed, and in ’95, Tooth and Nail was really beginning to pick up speed. 1994 had seen the label release a few debut album by young punk, grunge, and hardcore bands. The following year saw a number of those bands maturing significantly with sophomore albums that rivaled anything the ‘secular’ market was putting out in those genres. In fact, by the end of the decade, many of the artists on Tooth and Nail’s roster were breaking out of the Christian scene and even getting signed by larger ‘secular’ labels like A&M. To this day, the record label remains as of the few remnants of that great 90’s Christian rock scene. While the label’s earliest releases were meager, amateur attempts at bringing the underground scene to the forefront of the CCM market, the second wave of releases saw much stronger efforts by acts like Plankeye, Starflyer 59, Morella’s Forest, Joy Electric…and it began the rise of punk bands like MxPx that would start a whole new wave of punk rock that would invade the secular scene and outlast the CCM scene, well into the new millennium. In 1995, T&N would also begin releasing video compilations and put out the two volume Art Core sampler, which included Christian music’s first introduction to what would become the phenomenon of Third Wave Ska, which would become a significant factor as the CCM market closed out the decade.
As for that rap group that supposedly liked U2…well in 1995 they shocked the CCM world by departing from their rap roots and releasing a single that sounded more like Nirvana than Vanilla Ice. By the mid-90’s, rap music was certainly moving away from the ‘vanilla’ variety that had broke it into the mainstream in the 80’s. DC Talk had been smart to move towards a more progressive R&B and hip hop blend in their 3rd release, 1992’s Free At Last, focusing less on the rap novelty and more on smart melodies and strong singing. But while the 1995 single, Jesus Freak, still utilized a rapping pre-chorus, it moved beyond R&B or hip hop to feature grunge sounding guitars and a harder, alternative rock beat. By the end of the year, the band (now it felt okay to call them a rock band rather than a rap group) released the Jesus Freak album, which followed up on the single’s new direction with a full repertoire of alternative rock.
And that album seemed to make a major impact on the CCM market. All of a sudden, the Tooth and Nail bands were indeed brought to the forefront of the Christian Rock scene. And DC Talk’s record label, Forefront, seemed to change directions in its roster of artists. While the label’s early years focused mainly on pop and pop rock artists, the success of Jesus Freak seemed to allow a shift towards more alternative rock oriented releases. Shortly before the DC Talk album released, the label had released a full-on grunge, alternative rock album in Grammatrain’s Lonely House. The following year saw releases by formerly pop acts like Audio Adrenaline and Rebecca St James that took on a more alternative rock sound. In fact, St James’ God was criticized for blatantly copying the sound and angst of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, which had been a huge hit in 1995. Through the end of the decade, the label also took on new alternative acts like Bleach, Smalltown Poets, and Skillet. The Newsboys, who had been heralded as an alternative band by the readers of CCM magazine, also followed up 1995 by moving from their more pop-oriented sound to an edgier rock sound in early ’96 with Take Me To Your Leader.
1995 also saw the first releases from another independent record label, 5 Minute Walk. In its first year, the label put out albums like Dime Store Prophet’s Love Is Against the Grain, Black Eyed Sceva’s Way Before The Flood that met with critical acclaim and earned an audience of fans that remember both bands fondly, even years after they disbanded. While 5 Minute Walk didn’t make as big a mark as Tooth and Nail, it did have a significant part in the Christian rock scene of the late 90’s. Certainly, the success of these labels led to numerous other independent labels breaking out through the end of the decade, giving even more opportunity for underground Christian alternative bands to break into the CCM mainstream.
In some ways, 1995 seemed like a changing of the guard in Christian alternative music. As new alternative artists and labels were popping up in the Christian market, the year saw several veteran artists release some of their last records, at least for a few years. Daniel Amos released their story/concept record Songs of the Heart, and the 77’s released Tom Tom Blues…both bands wouldn’t release new records until the end of the decade. Adam Again released Perfecta, the band’s final record before leader Gene Eugene’s death in 2000. Also in 1995, The Prayer Chain released their final swan song, Mercury. This record certainly caught the band’s fans, and all of the Christian Rock scene off guard with its darker tone and experimental production. Looking back after 20 years, it’s obvious that record was ahead of its time, taking years to fully understand and appreciate. The year also saw Michael Knott release one of his last records, Strip Cycle, before leaving the CCM market to pursue his secular band Aunt Bettys. Between 1995 and 1996, it seemed like many of our favorite Christian alternative bands were breaking up, or at least leaving the Christian mainstream to become unsigned, indie artists again…many of them not releasing any more records until after the turn of the millennium.
Other notable releases of 1995 include Hoi Polloi’s final Happy Ever After, and debuts like Fleming and John’s Delusions of Grandeur, Luxury’s Amazing & Thank You, and Jars of Clay’s self-titled album. Of course, Jars of Clay’s record would see the secular/mainstream success of the single “Flood”, and Fleming and John would re-release Delusions of Grandeur on the secular/mainstream Universal Records label. Another group that would go on to significant secular/mainstream success, Sixpence None the Richer, released their sophomore This Beautiful Mess in 1995. The year also saw the independent, debut release by Fold Zandura…a fresh, more melodic and pop accessible start for a duo formerly known as Mortal, who had previously wowed the Christian market with their industrial sound. And another band that would soon end its run, Poor Old Lu, released their Straight Six EP in the middle of 1995.
It’s probably impossible to pinpoint a specific year as the absolute best year in Christian music. Certainly, the mid to late 1990’s were Christian Rock’s strongest period, and 1995 did seem to be a specifically strong year. One of the reasons I wanted to write this post, was to highlight this series of essays on some of the year’s strongest releases, including my contribution to the collection. I’ve included links to several of these pieces throughout this blog. I have also started a YouTube playlist, featuring some of my favorite tracks from the year, so that we can have something to listen to as we reminisce 20 years ago…