Way, way back in 1994, I went to see the band PFR in concert, and their opening act was a little band that was just starting out. Honestly one of the best concerts I've seen, Jars of Clay had yet to release their first album and was passing out their demo tapes at the merch booth. (I still have the tape Frail in a box somewhere... Very rare.)
Eventually their first (self-titled) album came out (with the help of King Crimson's Adrian Belew, oddly enough) and was quite possibly the first Christian rock album to make it in the mainstream market. The main single "Flood" actually got some play on the national (once famous, now defunct) rock station Z-Rock, as well as normal rotation on MTV (back when it played music).
As I recall, the mainstream success caused quite a controversy in some more legalistic (see: stuffy) religious circles, but in the end no one could deny that the band had some merit.
The second album Much Afraid, while being far less popular, is my personal favourite and is what earned the band its place on my list. Veering away from the Gaelic rock sound of the first album, the sophomore album contained less religious reference and was far more melancholy than before.
The entire album explores personal relationships and feelings of loss, sorrow, and loneliness. Without being too much of a downer, the lyrics still remain uplifting enough to express a promise of hope.
"Five Candles (You Were There)"
My personal love of this album is from its purely human outlook on the band's own religious and spiritual beliefs. While most Christian artists do their best to essentially hide the fact that they have any real world problems (along the lines of "everything is just fine and dandy if you believe in God"), Much Afraid embraces the fact that, no matter what we believe, we're all just human beings... and we all have struggles and trials in life that don't just go away with faith.
The message is simply that it's where you turn when life weighs down on you. In an odd move for a Christian band, God or "Jesus" isn't even mentioned until the last two songs (aside from an earlier line "no god can pull me out" which I don't think counts...) on an otherwise rather heavy and accessible album.
From their third album If I Left The Zoo and onward, the band became much more radio-friendly and contemporary rock. While I'm still not thrilled with the shift in style, there are still plenty of good songs despite being standard catchy songs.
The fourth album The Eleventh Hour starts a trend of albums filled with a mixture of radio rock songs and random old-fashioned folk "gospel" style songs
Nothing really sticks out between then and now, aside from two albums. One is a split live/studio album with re-recordings of older songs, and the other is a bluegrassy collection of traditional hymns and spirituals called Redemption Songs.
"On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand"
Other than that, the rest is pretty much mediocre yet still worth a listen. What I give props to Jars of Clay for is that none of the music or lyrics ever feel forced or contrived. That's one thing I look for in any band, no matter what their purpose... and the biggest problem I have with most Christian music is that it usually comes across as forced and unnatural. Jars of Clay, however, has always been honest to themselves as singers and songwriters first, simply expressing themselves and what they feel.
That's the way it should be, and why as long as they continue to just "be", I will continue to love this band.