Music, like most everything else, doesn’t always hold up.
It’s no fault of the musicians. Most of them are busy creating songs that speak to their time and place, and that what’s they should be doing. However, occasionally—by accident or design—someone creates a song that stands the test of time, and is every bit as worth listening to in 2013 as it was in 1995. There could be a pretty long list of these kind of songs, but we’ve decided to limit ourselves to the rollicking world of ’90s CCM bands. What songs from this era are still worth listening to? Read on …
“Only Hope” – Switchfoot
Before they filled arenas, they were a scrappy rock trio who got famous for tossed off, confessional, punk-influenced surf rock jams. Though “Only Hope” is probably remembered best for its appearance in the weepy Mandy Moore drama A Walk to Remember, it was one of the first Switchfoot songs to hint at their potential for greatness. From the 1999 album New Way to Be Human, the song is an understated ballad that offers a somber transition to a mostly poppy record. Years before Lifehouse would create a hit album with droning strings and carefully building guitars, Switchfoot produced a radio-worthy song that laid the groundwork for the mainstream success that was to come.
“Luv is a Verb”—dcTalk
Before Jesus Freak, there was Free at Last, and although it wasn’t as commercially viable as dcTalk’s breakout album, it was and remains a rarity in CCM. They eventually became the brooding bad boys of Christian music, but their creative zenith was their early, goofy stage as a hip-hop act.
Unlike a lot of the self-serious, Bryan Adams-like crooners the genre had become famous for, dcTalk was fun. They covered the Doobie Brothers and sang about sex (or, more accurately, not having sex.) “Luv Is a Verb” is the best example. Just listen to that swanky brass section, or the ’60s-era Batman-esque chorus of “Boom! Biff! Pow!” that punctuate the track. This song not only holds up. It actually sounds more modern now than it did when it was released.
“Love Song”—Third Day
The ties between religion and southern rock have been around since the genre’s invention, but it took Third Day to really blend them in a way so that the faith came across as more forceful than forced. They’re like Skynyrd without the self-indulgent guitar solos, and they pre-dated Kings of Leon’s southern rock revival by nearly a decade. The band got famous for noisy anthems like “Consuming Fire” the genuinely profound Hosea meditation, “Gomer’s Theme.” However, it the band was also clearly influenced by Rich Mullins, and had an ear for quieter ballads. Indeed, they’re at their best when they’re willing to turn down the guitars a little, and they were never better than the plaintive “Love Song.”
“Dandelions” – Five Iron Frenzy
Has there ever been a band a fan base as devoted as Five Iron Frenzy’s? The sheer, unadulterated love that flowed at any FIF concert in the ’90s would leave most bands weeping in jealousy. From the quirky, rock opera-containing 1998 EP Quantity Is Job 1, “Dandelions” was somewhat of a departure for the Denver-based ska band, who had gotten famous off of goofy, joke-y songs with the occasional spiritual anthem like “Every New Day” and “World Without End.”
This moving jewel gets overlooked, but it shouldn’t. With its mellow verses and deep sincerity, the tune lacked the humorous bite of some of FIF’s other popular songs, but “Dandelions” narrative lyrics provide a picture of spiritual simplicity that is still moving, catchy and even edifying.
At the height of their career, Newsboys were unrivaled in CCM. They were musically proficient, lyrically profound and, best of all, very weird. Like many Christian bands of the era, they borrowed heavily from U2, but Newsboys had the good sense to make things quirky. They’d keep their legions of fans guessing with bizarre breakfast songs and disco albums, but ensured that same legion would stick around by way of inflatable arenas, floating drum solos and really good songs. There were tracks like “Believe,” which had honest thoughts on doubt before Blue Like Jazz made such musing acceptable. And their “Entertaining Angels” captures them with all their best elements firing simultaneously.
“Estevan” – Ghoti Hook
The pop-punk outfit Ghoti Hook never took themselves too seriously, but on “Estevan,” the second track off of 1997’s Banana Man, they showed they could hang with other bands on the skate-rock scene.
Though the gutter pop punk genre may not still enjoy the same popularity and notoriety as it did in its late ‘90s heyday, the energy of Ghoti Hook’s sophomore album is still pretty infectious. It gave Christians kids whose parents wouldn’t let them listen to Green Day something they could hold their heads high about. When pop punk makes its comeback (as it most surely will, for better or worse) Ghoti Hook will be remembered as one of the genre’s early visionaries.
“I Will Not Forget You” – Waterdeep and 100 Portraits
Waterdeep’s stripped down, deeply honest songs were a welcomed departure from the decade’s produced & polished style. They had a style all to their own, and were never shy about writing bracingly—even uncomfortably—honest lyrics.
Their independently-recorded album with the duo 100 Portraits, Enter the Worship Circle, became an unexpected hit with its roots-influenced, laid-back sound. The breezy “I Will Not Forget You” is a soulful, spiritual prayer set to music that still sounds as unique as when it was first released 14 years ago. That’s why while other choruses of the time have moved on, you’re still likely to hear this one in thousands of churches all over the world, every Sunday.
“Art In Me”—Jars of Clay
While CCM had mostly scraped along by keeping up with the mainstream culture, Jars of Clay were (and often still are) a step ahead of it. They took quite a few cues from low-fi groups like the Rembrandts, but the Gregorian chant samples and confessional, heart-on-sleeve lyrics were all Jars. Highlights on their debut abound. Although the power of “Flood” and “Love Song for a Savior” have been a bit diminished by their ubiquity, you don’t have to be a music critic to hear them and know something special is going on. But best of all may just be the aching melodies on “Art In Me” and the way the words “sculpting every move, you compose a symphony” land so delicately. It’s one of the great musical achievements of the ’90s.
Quietly one of the better CCM bands of the ’90s, Plumb never reached the heights of dcTalk or Audio Adrenaline, but they carved out a nice niche as a sort of Christian answer to Sinead O’Connor. Exquisite songwriting and Tiffany Arbuckle’s frontwoman prowess were often overshadowed by the band’s troubled relationship with their label. That’s a real shame, because there’s not a bad track on their sophomore effort, candycoatedwaterdrops. From the industrial, vaguely Manson-esque aggression of “The Late Great Planet Earth” to the gloomy, country shuffle of the title track. And then there’s the breezy stand-out, “Stranded”— a lovely, sad slice of alt-pop perfection.
“This World”—Caedmon’s Call
Perhaps no CCM band was as prepared for the ’90s as Caedmon’s Call, whose acoustic jam sessions were tailor-made for coffee shops, campus Bible studies and the burgeoning worship music scene. But Caedmon’s real strength lay in their lyrics. While CCM had a reputation for being fearful of boat rockers, these guys seemed determined to flip the whole ship over. “There’s tarnish on the Golden Rule” is how they opened “This World,” which sounds less “positive” and “encouraging” and more honest and desperate.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's executive editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.