I came home to Kansas City for the long weekend, to visit my family and to attend a high school friend’s wedding. On the plane flight(s) to get here from L.A., I read an advanced reader copy of Sects, Love and Rock & Roll: A Memoir by Joel Heng Hartse, which is coming out soon and which I highly recommend. It’s a book all about Joel’s personal journey of musical discovery, as an evangelical kid who came of age in the 90s and loved Michael W. Smith, Five Iron Frenzy, Smashing Pumpkins and Starflyer 59, among many others. Reading the book felt like reading a chronology of my own musical past, and thus inspired me to think about which albums and musical experiences most shaped my own youth.
So last night, I rummaged through my stacks of old CDs in the room I grew up in–a room more or less preserved since I last occupied it about a decade ago. I pulled out 10 CDs that were either my most treasured or most listened-to recordings of the period from about 1995-2000 (more or less my high school years). They are the albums that comforted me most in the tumultuous adolescent years, the albums that taught me how to truly love music.
Radiohead, Kid A (2000): I’m sure I’m not the only person of my generation for which this is true, but Kid A really did change my life. My life pre-Kid A was great, but post-Kid A was a much bigger world. “Art” meant something deep, tangible, and exciting from that moment on. For all that followed, the bar was raised. I think Kid A was also the album that put one of the first real nails in the coffin of CCM, at least for me. Why listen to more Third Day albums if Radiohead could provide me with something even more holy and transcendent?
Sixpence None the Richer, Sixpence None the Richer (1998): I remember seeing this album on the shelves in our local mall’s Christian bookstore and buying it because a) the album cover was cool looking, and b) I listened to it on one of those in-store CD players to sample it, and liked it. Little did I know at that time how important this album would later become for me personally, as well as for CCM at large (“Kiss Me” crossover success!).
OC Supertones, Supertones Strike Back (1997): Like most evangelicals of a certain age, I was once a huge ska fan. For some reason, Christians latched on to this genre and really made it their own. Having adored No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, I was thrilled when I discovered a Christian Orange County-themed ska band. I loved this album. Almost every song. And man were they amazing live. I think the numerous Supertones concerts I went to offered the friendliest mosh pits I’ve ever experienced.
R.E.M. Up (1998): A cool kid in band at my high school (I think he played trombone but loved the band Drums & Tuba, go figure) told me to get this CD, so I did. Previously my only exposure to R.E.M. had been “Losing My Religion” on the radio, but this album forever endeared me to them. Something about this deeply atmospheric, subdued album (especially the song “Walk Unafraid”) really resonated with my 16-year-old self.
Audio Adrenaline, Bloom (1996): I discovered Audio Adrenaline from my 7th grade English teacher (public school) who made no apologies for leaving copies of CCM magazine conspicuously lying around the classroom. We bonded over Christian music. AA’s Bloom remains one of the first CCM rock albums I truly held dear.Though most of this band’s other work seems in retrospect either totally corny (“Big House”) or just subpar (the entire post-Underdog catalog), Bloom was a gem of 90s CCM. A great rock record.
Will Smith, Big Willie Style (1997): The first hip hop album I ever bought. I was secretely listening to Biggie, Puffy, Tupac and The Fugees (thank you Napster!) in junior high, but I wasn’t about to purchase an album with a parental advisory sticker (shudder the thought!) Thankfully the Fresh Prince was not a real rapper and was suitably “safe.” And oh did I unabashadly love this album. I once sang “Gettin Jiggy With It” at karaoke and knew all the words without even looking at the screen. I still know all the words.
DC Talk, Jesus Freak (1995): So many memories of this record–arguably the best Christian album of the CCM heyday. I remember a DJ putting on “Jesus Freak” at a school dance once, and feeling awesome about jumping around with my secular public school friends, rocking out to Jesus (my Muslim friends too!). Then there was the time I auditioned to sing in a band by performing “In the Light” (still my favorite song on the album). That album was the pinnacle of the better parts of the CCM juggernaut.
The Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse (1996): I remember the first time I heard “One Headlight.” We were in the family suburban, on a roadtrip to Lake Tahoe. I think we were somewhere outside of Reno and we had (for some reason) a music radio station on that was not Rush Limbaugh. The song was “One Headlight,” and the lyric about it being cold and feeling like Independence Day stuck with me. I bought the album when we got home and listened to it more than anything else my freshman year in high school.
Switchfoot, New Way to be Human (1999): Before A Walk to Remember made them huge stars, Switchfoot were just a humble, quality San Diego trio. This album was the best of their work–and a record that got me through many stressful nights in high school. The album’s strongest songs are its ballads–”Sooner or Later,” “Let That Be Enough,” “One Hope,” and “Amy’s Song.” These are songs I still go back to.
Jars of Clay, Much Afraid (1997): I remember how excited I was the day this album came out. There’s nothing like going to the record store to pick up the sophomore album of a band you love. Luckily, I was not disappointed. I remember lying down on my bed in high school listening to songs like “Frail” and “Hymn” in my headphones, being tremendously comforted by them. What a fantastic album. One of the few 90s CCM albums I still listen to regularly.