The reality is that everyone will hate this list (or at least be angry about some inclusion or omission), but the good news behind this arduous task of whittling down the preliminary list of 500+ that we developed down to a final 100 is that there is a lot of great Christian rock out there. The bad news, of course, is that a lot of these titles are out-of-print and probably a tad difficult to find. Maybe the attention this list brings will help resurrect a title or two. This would be an honor and a great reward for this tough exercise in rock criticism.
While the companion/parallel list we printed in our “sister” publication (Heaven’s Metal Fanzine’s “Top 100 Christian Metal Albums of All Time”) had a simpler and more narrow focus, defining exactly what “Rock” is was a tad more difficult. The ‘90s revitalized and catapulted an ambiguous genre called “indie rock,” which certainly threw a wrench into the far simpler “does it rock or not” litmus test. Lighter, ambient and sometimes atonal experiments in music found their way into the hearts of rockers everywhere and we’ve tried to reflect that in our list assembly, too.
Ultimately, there are five major factors that go into judging an album in this light. One is greatness. Did the album touch the skies, so to speak? Did it achieve greatness? This is both subjective and objective. This is where it’s good to meet and discuss with industry people with either a keen sense of history or a great awareness of current trends (both is even better). We had the help of friends and compatriots like Brian Quincy Newcomb, Chris Hauser, Dr. Tony Shore, as well as some smart and enthusiastic readers who chimed in on Facebook.
Beyond greatness is that personal, entirely subjective factor of “Do I love it? Do I sing along to it?” (or play air instruments). Basically, “Is it one of my favorites?” It would only make sense that your vote for “best” would be equal to or close to “favorite” as well. This criteria is usually what will put an album on the list, and the other four criteria are the kind of factors that will keep an album on this list.
One of the biggest factors is the “classic” factor, which I like to break down to the simple question of, “Will I be listening to this album five years from now? “In the case of some early Jesus Rock albums, like Only Visiting This Planet or So Long Ago The Garden, the lifespan has nearly surpassed 40 years. This is why I rarely give a “5” rating for albums in our Album Reviews section. To me, a “classic” is one of those albums that stands the test of time. It still sounds great long after its shelf-life (which is a pretty sore subject with me and the Christian music industry, who seems to have no appreciation for the classics**). It’s really hard to know in the present how something is going to fare when it falls into the deep past of just four or five years.
Another huge factor is the “historical impact” of an album. Did it put Christian heavy metal on the map? It could be argued, for example, that Stryper’s To Hell With The Devil did that with its multi-Platinum sales and mad success on MTV’s Dial MTV. Did it freak out the establishment big-time? This could be said for early pioneers, like Larry Norman, either of the two Randy’s (Matthews or Stonehill) or Petra. Did it evolve a scene or take it to another level? The Human Sacrifice album by Vengeance Rising was certainly a historical event.
And finally, which (like the others) could stand on its own as possibly the most important factor (though I’d argue it’s not) is popularity. Did it sell over a million copies? How many times? Did crowds flock to see the artist on this particular album’s tour or shortly thereafter? Ideally, the Top Christian Rock Albums of All Time would score at the top in each of these five categories. Conversely, if they failed miserably in any one of these categories, it’d be hard to consider it the best.
So, without further ado, we press on with the list to end all lists. Or – more accurately – the list that started World War III in our scene.
In working on this list, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The task is enormous. A couple of exercises I’ve taken with my own list, which was hybrid-ized and conjoined with the lists of other industry folks, is to listen to some classic radio. If these albums are going to be called “the best,” then they better stand the test of time. So, to get some perspective, I thought it wise to listen to an Eagles song here, a Tom Petty song there. It’s probably too high of a standard to live up to, but even listening to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones give a good benchmark on what is great and what is not.
** A note about out-of-print albums and how they get there: The notion that the Christian music industry is to blame for this lack of appreciation for history is incomplete. You can’t blame the guys in the suits at the record companies when you and I as an audience are equally at fault. We don’t buy old albums in numbers. Part of that short attention span is the radio and television programming that’s out there. If no one introduces us or educates us on the classics, how are we to know? Not everyone has that friend who takes the time to inform you of Christian rock’s rich history. Magazines and other mediums are guilty, too.
At HM we try to keep a balance of history and current. We know that current is what people want, but we also realize that history is the foundation of what’s current. Our old managing editor, Jason Dodd, stole the quote from somewhere (I think): “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” As rock critics we can satisfy our hunger for greatness at the same time we dish out current trends if we have a little of both.
The formula for when an album becomes “out of print” goes something like this: when the amount or cost of warehousing the music (think boxes and boxes of CDs on a shelf somewhere) exceeds the income from sales, it’s marked out-of-print and flushed out of the system. Retailers may get a chance at one final order with big discounts and then it’s off to the “junk dealers,” that buy these items in bulk at pennies on the dollar. “I used to get really bummed out when one of our albums went out of print,” admits T&N’s Brandon Ebel, “but there is an upside to digital” (and that’s keeping these albums alive).
#1 U2 – The Joshua Tree|Island|1987
“This CD was the turning point for me with U2. This album was so inspiring to the world. It was a universal cry of spirituality and common sense of human feelings. On Joshua Tree Bono continued to inspire me to write honest lyrics, like he did when they first came out in 1980. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” helped bring me out of my religious insanity. It was a perfect album in my opinion. The biggest thing I noticed about this CD was after 4 awesome records there was a new maturity in songwriting. God bless Bono and U2.” —Doug Pinnick (King’s X)
“The Joshua Tree is not only one of the greatest rock albums of all time, but look at how its sound has directly influenced modern worship. The impact of U2’s style on the church of today is unquantifiable!” —Paul Q-Pek (One Bad Pig)
“Joshua Tree is one of my favorite albums of all time.” —Sonny Sandoval (P.O.D.)
It’s only fitting that the top album on this list is also a great candidate (and a good argument) for the top rock album of all time, period – sacred or secular. Given that rock’s roots go straight into the church in the first place, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that an artist of faith would make some of the best music around, but it’s still a cool thing.
This album took the band from huge to mind-blowing in terms of prominence and historical impact. It starts off with an unforgettable song that both creates tension and brings emotional fulfillment. Like any great blues song, it laments our current conditions as it longs for heaven, where people will not get beat down for living in a certain neighborhood. “Where the Streets Have No Name” has probably the greatest crescendo in rock in what could be the greatest song in rock and roll. It builds with a spiraling tension that just explodes with color – like the transition from black and white to vibrant stage lighting that the band employed for that performance scene in their movie, Rattle and Hum. I think the band learned about the power of a hypnotic, building vibe with the previous album’s showstopper – “Bad.” —Doug Van Pelt
“The prayer was that God would use (this album) to get it in front of gazillions of kids. He honored the prayers of the saints.” —Noah Bernardo, Sr. (Founder, Rescue Records; father of drummer, Wuv)
“Satellite changed my life.” —Sonny Sandoval
With an album that came out on 9/11, along with a song that soon became a healing balm for a generation (“Alive”), this album had perfect timing … and monster jams. “Boom,” “Set It Off” and “Anything Right” roared with power, while “Youth of the Nation” was chilling and “Thinking About Forever” was just chill.—DV
“One of the most eye-opening albums of my childhood! Changed the entire music rulebook as we knew it!” —Brad Noah
“One terrific album – great sound, great riffs, solos, hooks – everything a memorable metal album that stands the test of time should be.” —Ted Kirkpatrick
When this album broke, it went multi-platinum, forever raising the ceiling of what heavy Christian music could do. While the ballad “Honestly” might’ve broadened the band’s appeal, the band perfected its pop metal sound with sharp-edged songs like “Calling on You,” “Free” and “Rockin’ The World.” They were giants in those days and their message on “More Than A Man,” the title track and “The Way” were as clear as any Sunday morning preacher. For some odd reason, however, the decision was made that the painting of four angels casting an evil dude into the fire was “objectionable” and a “safer” version was sold into Christian bookstores.—DV
“Making that record was a turning point for us. I had just opened the studio and we were becoming more confident about our music. The record company thought we were doing demo’s for them, but we decided we were going to make the record without their input. We felt we were on to something special. That record is still one of my favorites.”—Derri Daugherty
This band helped define how great “alternative” Christian rock could be. This album flows from one track to another with refrains from one (“Clouds”) re-appearing in another and referencing a previous album (“The Rifleman”), making the album seem like a warm, yet melancholy journey. “Sad Face” was probably the first great mountain peak the band scaled, which they’d repeat with killer songs like “To Cover You” and “Sentimental Song” on subsequent albums.—DV
“You Found Me” could be the greatest punk rock love song to God ever written. In true biblical/evangelical fashion, the song turns to the audience and declares, “Let Jesus find you like He found me!”—DV
“A timeless alternative rock classic. Outdoing not just all Christian rock releases, but equal to or better than their secular counterparts The Clash, Bruce Spingsteen & John Cougar Mellencamp. Still on rotation in my music listening regulars. A strong Christian message played & presented with unprecedented passion and arranged with ageless appeal.—Steve Rowe (Mortification)
This one remains strongly ensconced on my personal top-ten list. Every song is a gem, every moment just about perfect. So what that the rest of the world missed the boat on this one, the band hit a home run. Intelligent, gutsy, brutally honest and undeniably hopeful, I still listen to it regularly and sing along with every word.—John J. Thompson
“I can’t think of many other records in my collection that are this solid from top to bottom. It also carries a twinge of sadness for me. The songs are melancholy, and there’s also the memory of this project getting far less attention and success than it deserved.”—Chris Hauser (freelance radio promotions)
Mike Roe has told us that the staff at Island was going to push this album hard into the mainstream, but another one of their albums broke big beforehand and this push never happened. That other album? The Joshua Tree (sigh).—DV
You’ve heard the term “art rock?” Well, this was art metal, and it was perfect.—DV
“There was some good stuff on that CD, it was our biggest selling album. But it’s like looking at a yearbook for me, I’m just too close to make an evaluation. But I still think ‘I’ll Never Get Tired Of You’ is a great song.”—Doug Pinnick Although they’ve never allowed themselves to be described as a “Christian rock band,” fans on the hard music side of ccm have universally embraced the progressive power trio that is King’s X, especially the two previous efforts and this early 1990 commercial breakthrough. The disc exhibits the band’s musical dexterity and muscular mastery, mixing funk, soul, hard rock riffs and rich harmonic vocals in a wildly entertaining prog-rock stew, that also managed to garner a “pop” single/MTV hit in “It’s Love.” Later records would never sound as polished as this Sam Taylor produced effort, but it’s winning songs like “We Are Finding Who We Are,” “Moan Jam” and the title track that kick started King’s X into the mainstream. – BQN
“Mark Salomon is probably one of three if not the top lyricist in Tooth & Nail history. An amazing voice and artist. He’s done everything from hip-hop to metal, hardcore and rock. One of the most talented guys I’ve worked with. That’s an amazing record, as well. Some people even think the pinnacle for Stavesacre.—Brandon Ebel (CEO, Tooth & Nail)
“There’s another top three lyricist on the label as well, with Aaron. mewithoutYou was a surprise. We sign some bands that have remained extremely small on the label and that was a band, where you didn’t necessarily know where they would go. They basically became a band that has a complete cult following. They got pretty big and are definitely one of the highlights for us as a label in my career putting out their records. Definitely a band with a lot of integrity and vision.—Brandon Ebel
You should have seen the Star Song sales reps pre-selling this album at the CBA Int’l convention before this one hit in ‘89. They were giddy yet clueless at the revolutionary prospect. Nothing has really come out before or since this album hit the scene. Awesome riffs played at breakneck speed, but just gnarly, groove-heavy riffs on their own. Tunes like “White Throne” and the title track are without question high water marks of the Christian metal scene. Has only one blemish (probably the worst audio engineering glitch of all time) – a bad vocal edit, which comes in at 2:02 during the song “Burn.”—DV
An excerpt from HM#99 said this album was “perfectly titled … and I’m not talking about the words ‘the’ or ‘beautiful.’…” I guess HM was wrong on that one, huh?—DV
As inventive as Faith No More was to mainstream metal was this progressive release to the Christian metal scene. Mix Living Colour with Metallica and Cher on lead vocals. “Say what?” Exactly!—DV
Let your history search start here with the grandaddy of Christian rock. The first of a killer trilogy, this album features excellent, witty, sharp and poignant lyrics. He’s bold, blunt and street level (see “Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus”).—DV
Cutting edge and even somewhat controversial, this is a landmark release and it simply blew people away with a fresh sound and world class songwriting. This album is so good it sounds like a major UK release.—Dr. Tony Shore
For their sophomore effort, Gene Eugene took his band to the next level, mixing soul & funk with his edgy alternative rock leanings to come up with a record that is sophisticated and moving.—Brian Quincy Newcomb For their sophomore effort, Gene Eugene took his band to the next level, mixing soul & funk with his edgy alternative rock leanings to come up with a record that is sophisticated and moving. Greg Lawless’s guitars deliver the raw rock energy that would dominate later records, but it’s the songwriting that excels. “Treehouse” boldly asks that none be excluded, “Who Can Hold Us” reminds us that God never turns away, while the back to back punch of “Eyes Wide Open” and “Every Word I Say” call for a life and faith lived authentically in the real world. My favorite version ever of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” – BQN
One of the best records to ever come out of the ‘punk’ scene. —Caleb Olsen (Boot To Head Records)
Everything about it – the friendships forged thru trials, the song cycle borne of artistic despair, the covert recording sessions, the extraordinary musicianship, the subsequent birth of Squint, and the album’s eventual worldwide success – still seems like a miracle.—Steve Taylor
It’s hard to pick between Pathogenic Ocular Dissonance or this one for this list, so we just flipped a medical thesaurus and it opened to Psycho…—DV
I’d spent a couple years stretching my church friends (and radio listeners in Syracuse) with earlier DA, Mark Heard and Rez Band. When Doppleganger hit my desk, I was the one who got stretched.—Chris Hauser
I think we were all into Jane’s Addiction when we wrote that album. I thought we were really ahead of our time when we finished it, but listening back to it, you can defiantly hear the Seattle influence. —Tim Taber
Infectious, original, awesome and very musical. “Middlename,” “Chick Magnet,” “Cristalena” and “Move To Bremerton” are all still staples in a great live show.—DV
Zao has had an amazing, prolific and brutal career thus far (both musically and personnel-wise), but this one really kicked into that heavy gear that helped define “metal-core.”—DV
Quite an original metal sound. Unforgettable tracks include the back-to-back “Crucify” and “Messiah,” but evangelistic fervor meets metal in “Self-Destruction” and the ballad “Alone in Suicide.”—DV
Crucified frontman Mark Salomon tries his hand at old school punk here and knocks one out of the park. Every track rules. “Manifesto” is a rally ‘round the microphone punk anthem.—DV
Lotsa people hate on Creed, but they perfected that classic rock formula of quieter verses exploding into huge power choruses better than most bands. I still like these songs. —David Bach (Guardian)
I loved this album. I remember them rehearsing these songs for a demo before they got signed to Geffen. They were such naturals at harmonizing. And with brutal metal underneath. —Doug Pinnick
This monumental 1988 release from Michael Knott and LSU puts the lie to the idea that Christian music has to be positive. Angry, confused, hurting and worn to a thin hot line, this punk record was about telling the cold hard truth about existence, while we “cling to the faith” (“Tether to Tassel”) that “there is More to Life” than what we see. – BQN
As great as Chris Carrabba was with FSF, his leaving to go solo was an awesome decision. Hearing these bleeding-heart songs sung back to him from 1,000 voices in the audience in concert on this tour was a flat-out phenomenon. —DV
Listen to this album. It’ll blow your mind. It’s simplistic ‘80s metal to a fault (think Ratt with Jesus-first lyrics), but the shredding lead guitar by Rex Carroll in every fill, nook and cranny is primo.—DV
Why this album didn’t change the world is a crime. Fleming McWilliams’ operatic vocal range and hubby John’s adroit songwriting was an eclectic groove alt-rock match made in heaven.—DV
“If You Will” into “The Call” is almost as good as metal gets.”—DV This record would forever change and impact me and the Christian metal music scene as we knew it! —Bill Bafford (Roxx Prod.)
One of my fav albums. Two vocalists dancing over sideways, rhythmic and very electronic beats was a fresh and highwater mark in 1984 for a few ex-members of Kansas that wanted to pen intelligent Christian lyrics to thinking man’s prog rock.—DV
Sonic brilliance, great hooks and killer riffs made “Alive and Awake,” “Rift,” Godspeed” and “Nepulsultra” stick in your head long after the tracks ended. Could be the most accessible industrial style music ever made by believers. —DV
A dynamic mix of the right amount of chaotic riffage, doomy low-end vocals, and singable choruses got this world-class album noticed in the mainstream. —DV
Possibly the musical success story of 2009. Adam Young somehow crafted a dozen electronic songs in his parents’ Minnesota basement that just ooze infectious joy. —DV
Here’s a terrific, inventive and dynamic metal album that was miraculously given time to build an audience and take off over the course of 3-4 years. One listen and you’ll never doubt again if girls can do metal. —DV
Perhaps this is what U2 might’ve sounded like if they had formed in a post-hardcore Orange County. A creative masterpiece and high mark that the band keeps threatening to top. Scary. —DV
Maybe we should just blame the marketing and radio promotions departments at Elektra for failing to make the song “Jesus” as memorable as a Nirvana hit. How could they have failed with material this good? —DV
I would’ve never started playing drums, which led to me being in NIV & then to starting a label, if it wasn’t for Pillars…—Jason Dunn The Crucified is one of the reasons why I joined and started P.O.D.. Pillars of Humanity was the first “Christian” album I’d ever heard.”—Sonny Sandoval
The Alarm were one of my favorite bands back in the early ‘80s. I was so blown away by them using Marshall amps with acoustic guitars! They were so spiritual, but not preachy at all. They were an inspiration to me. —Doug Pinnick
What a change from Embrace the Eternal to this album … and what a killer song in “One Less Addiction.” It was like a new band – an awesome, passionate and emotional new band.—DV
When Christians make art that blows people away with its creativity, skill and excellence … well, isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be when people are in relation to the Creator? Sanity Obscure – case in point. —DV
I (originally) signed ‘em, because I loved their heart. The way they connected with the kids was phenomenal. They made kids feel welcome all the time and they were pranksters. I loved that about them. —Noah Bernardo, Sr.
I knew this was going to be a special record on hearing the demos. It brings back many fond memories of a great time in my life and marks the peak of my career at T&N. Without a doubt, this was a defining moment for Underoath. —Chad Johnson (Come&Live)
This record best captured the apex of their live energy and great songwriting. —David Bach A turning point for the legitimacy of true hard rock in the Christian market (as opposed to overly premeditated/watered-down youth group filler). Snakes… was to Bride what Appetite… was to G ‘n R.—Dez Dickerson
On paper the idea sounds crazy: a hardcore frontman singing lyrics about Ma Barker over a Southern Rock/metal hybrid … but it’s a marvelous thing. The ballad “Just Wanted to Make Mother Proud” could be today’s “Free Bird.”—DV