I enjoy Christian music (a bold thing to say for a Christian, I know). Like many of us, however, I don’t like things because of their labels but because of their intrinsic merit (and/or potentially their symbolic merit, given the situation). While I freely admit I don’t listen to many of the popular Christian artists today, my daughter does, and most of her Christmas List 2020 consists of contemporary Christian music albums. (My son is still satisfied with Veggie Tales and Psalty right now.)
You may be wondering what the point is. The point is I have arrived at that stage of life in which I am quite content with the music of my youth, allowing the next generation to delight in what is current and fresh (do the kids still call things “fresh”?) Fortunately for me, and the rest of my generation, we came to maturity around at what may well have been the high-water mark of Christian music: 1995.
In addition to the beloved Michael W. Smith album I’ll Lead You Home, 1995 was the year that gave us perhaps the two most important and best Christian albums in the modern musical era: Jars of Clay’s self-titled debut and dc Talk’s self-reinvention Jesus Freak. Though they were both released late in the year and didn’t start amassing their widespread worthy acclaim until essentially 1996 (the summer we heard those albums nonstop), 1995 was the year the modern era of Christian music began.
True, Sandi, Amy, the Steves, Keith, and Michael W. (and Carman and Petra) had been doing fine work in the ’70s and ’80s, but their work had rarely travelled beyond the boundaries of in-house Christian listening circles. Not to say that non-Christian listening audience acceptability is a requisite for good Christian music (often that is a sign of the opposite), but these two landmark albums in question here are an obvious demarcation point in the quality and direction of contemporary Christian music. When I say “quality” I am not saying what came after these albums were necessarily better, I am saying they became the new standard to which all that has since come has been and should be judged.
Jars of Clay
Most of us can likely agree had Jars of Clay been a one-hit wonder and not released another thing after this album, they would still have cemented their status as “mandatory listening.” Upon first listening to this album, opening with “Liquid,” one is immediately struck with the unique Jars of Clay sound. What Emily Dickinson did for poetry, Jars of Clay did for music — no one can copy it because it is truly unique. Musically the album travels a diversity of tonalities and moods, yet somehow they are all recognizable as Jars of Clay. It’s not that they do anything really “groundbreaking” technically. I’m not saying they invented backtracking, overdubbing, or things like that. I’m saying it’s a great album with a distinct, unmatchable sound.
If you are of a certain age, you probably remember the experiences and feelings of where you were when you first encountered Jars of Clay. As mentioned already, the opening sounds are arresting: part synth, part medieval chant, part deceptively pop … but somehow it’s just Jars of Clay. The lyrics of “Liquid” are likewise deceptively simple: repetitive, yes, but true. “Sinking” continues the mood and appreciation: we are finally listening to something fresh, something true, and something better than just “contemporary Christian music.” Obviously “Love Song for a Savior” is a top ten (or so) greatest Christian song of the 20th century. Three songs into the album, three distinct sounds, three remarkable demonstrations of musical skill and devotional precision — this is what Christian music is supposed to be.
“Like a Child” is likewise an enjoyable and encouraging and challenging song. No one is going to stop the album when this comes on. Same for “Art in Me.” By the time we get to “He,” we think we have the “Jars of Clay sound” down, and though the song doesn’t do anything to change our growing impression of who they are, it expands our awareness of their range of topics. They had an ability to sing about topical things as well as transcendental things in a way that made it all important and worth listening to, even if the subject is one we would normally dismiss in anyone but our favorite artists. The extended outro is a gripping yet comforting reminder of who God is.
“Boy on a String” is a great reminder of two important things: 1) Jars of Clay is a musically diverse band, and, more importantly, 2) they are here to worship God more than entertain us — that they worship God in a way that also entertains (and challenges and motivates) us is a nice bonus, really.
“Flood” may have been most people’s first experience of Jars of Clay, and that’s just fine. Hearing it on what the kids call “secular radio stations” was a bizarre experience, but I don’t think (if memory serves, which it may not do in this instance) I heard it over the Dubuque airwaves before I heard it toward the end of the album in the kitchen of Lake Geneva Youth Camp. “Worlds Apart” is possibly the finest aesthetic experience of the album, which is saying a great deal, all considered. It asks questions we often ask.
“Blind” is a good album closer, despite being musically unlike most of the album (and especially if you skip over the 20 minutes of … whatever that is toward the end). Again we are treated to the diversity and skill of Jars of Clay’s musicality. It is a calming, mellowing conclusion (before the secret bonus conclusion). “Four Seven” is a good bonus, a more up-tempo “by the way, this is who we are and why” secret ending to a top-notch album, all the more remarkable for being a debut album.
You put this in and you think … wait, is this dc Talk? You check the jewel case and realize yes, yes it is. The new and improved dc Talk. If you need to think of it in these terms, it was the band that made tobyMac happen (does that help?). Hopefully you have a good working memory of this album and have only slightly forgotten it, so little needs be said about it here.
“So Help Me God” is arguably not the best song on the album, but it does give us a good dose of the new sounds and attitude of the band — despite all the times we listened to Free at Last, Jesus Freak was, frankly, a welcome relief and definitely a step toward full maturity for the band (perhaps realized on Supernatural). “Colored People” was another good song, far more musical and intelligent than a lot of their previous album. It wasn’t my favorite song on the album, but listening to it again now, the musicality of it is refreshing.
“Jesus Freak” was probably my least favorite song at the time, perhaps because it seemed to be trying too hard musically to be hip. It was too much like Free at Last for my taste — and I enjoyed Free at Last. The guitar solo also was not pleasant to listen to. Part of my disfavor was the term “freak,” most likely. It was part of that whole “the term ‘Christian’ is blasé, now — we need to be fresh and hip for a new generation” movement that may have done more harm than good for the church. So for me this is the low point of the album (not counting “Mrs. Morgan” and the “reprise” later).
Unquestionably, though, one of the real treats of the album is the fourth song, “What If I Stumble?” That is a great song from beginning to end, even if the beginning makes you think your CD player has skipped to a Seals and Crofts album (the kids still use CD players today, don’t they?). The sentiment is still powerful, even today. dc Talk next takes a once-popular song, “Day By Day,” from the lackluster musical Godspell and makes it interesting and enjoyable.
“Between You and Me” continues the atmosphere of greatness. Repentance begins with a simple act of realization and confession of one’s wrongdoings — often with a simple declaration as repeated here. “Like It Love It Need It” is a better song than is usually accredited — give it another listen and hopefully you will agree. Even though it says rock-and-roll won’t save you in a rock-and-roll song, it’s not really ironic, since none should be expecting rock-and-roll to save them. Part of the success of the song is its critique of self-righteous Christianity … and we all know there’s enough of that around.
If I say to you “In the Light,” would that be enough to cause you to dig out your old Jesus Freak album and listen to it again? I know it would for me. Don’t feel bad for listening to this song an average of five times an hour for the rest of your life. It is clearly the apex of the album and evokes genuine emotion every time you hear it. I, too, am still a man in need of a Savior.
“What Have We Become?” is a not-so-subtle critique of contemporary Christianity, and it likely is more important to hearken to today than it was twenty-five years ago. It is strong but not harsh, penetrating but not pejorative. Musically, it is one of the better selections on the album, showing off again the great decision of the group to do real music this time around, singing well and not just rapidly speaking lyrics at us with electronical backbeats. “Mind’s Eye” is another solid song, blending musical skill and intelligent lyrics. “Alas, My Love” ends the diverse album with another new sound: a proem of sorts, finishing up with a solid musical outro both eerie and energizing. Give it all another go.
That was a Year
After that came Bloom by Audio Adrenaline and Newsboys’ Take Me to Your Leader in ’96 (though some would say their Going Public in ’94 was better — let’s not argue). ’96 also saw the official debut of Third Day. MercyMe was just starting out and certainly owes a great deal of their success to the albums of ’95. The more recent bands the kids seem to like also owe a great deal to these albums: your Casting Crowns, your Switchfoot, your … well, frankly, I would just further embarrass myself to guess what the kids are listening to these days. Let’s just say the entire CCM scene owes a great deal to Jars of Clay and Jesus Freak.
1995: now that was a year. Go dig these albums out of your garage or wherever you keep your ’90s memory-bilia and remember and re-enjoy a couple of foundational forgotten gems. I think you’ll find they have stood the test of time quite well.