In recent years, our annual picks for the year’s most impressive worship albums have touched on reworked hymns, promising new talent, and cutting edge projects that redefine offering praise through song. But between October 2005 and September 2006—our “fiscal year” for making these picks—we’ve seen a welcome return by many of the influential veterans of worship music from over the last twenty years, recapturing many of the same songwriting qualities that first allowed their work to ignite the hearts of churches around the world.
As always, this particular list remains unranked to avoid favoring one worship style over another, keeping the focus on the diversity with which we can glorify God through music. Our selections—made by Russ Breimeier and Andree Farias, both worship leaders in their own churches—are based on creativity and practicality, favoring projects that balance artful expression with accessible songwriting that can be easily embraced by congregations or inspire personal quiet time.
Paul Baloche (Integrity)
Breimeier: Though he’s made several major contributions to church music libraries over the last twenty years, including “Open the Eyes of My Heart” and “Above All,” Baloche has labored to create a fully satisfying worship collection … until now. This is a strong and consistent mix of traditional, contemporary, and modern styles, with writing assistance from Matt Redman, Don Moen, and Brenton Brown to name a few, plus vocal support from Sara Groves and Kathryn Scott. A Greater Song is a greater album from one of the greatest worship writers around.
Farias: His modern worship standards notwithstanding, I for the longest time pegged Baloche into the inspirational/contemporary side of worship music, alongside colleagues Moen and Lenny LeBlanc. This is his long overdue induction into the ranks of modern worship, and in the transition, his gift of corporate penmanship remains intact. So much so, you’d be hard-pressed to find a song here that can’t be incorporated into your own church’s worship repertoire. A Greater album, indeed.
Brenton Brown (Sparrow/EMI)
Farias: Brenton Brown’s songs have consistently charted on the CCLI alongside colleagues like Paul Baloche and Brian Doerksen for nearly ten years. It’s taken that long to release his solo debut, and based on the strength of the original expressions of praise found here, you can’t help but wonder what took him so long. With creative production and an ear for strong melodic hooks, this is the type of album that’s sure to appeal to fans of Passion and tailor-made for the collegiate set.
Breimeier: Probably an even broader demographic than that. Brown combines the skillful writing of Doerksen with the melodic strength of Chris Tomlin, the thick pop production of Michael W. Smith, and a pleasantly warm, nasal vocal reminiscent of Brent Bourgeois. “Lord Reign in Me” and “Hallelujah (Your Love Is Amazing)” remain his most accessible and popular tunes, but they’re sure to be joined by more. This album has a lot to love for worship and pop/rock enthusiasts alike.
Farias: This UK band may have pioneered modern worship in the early ’90s, but over time they’ve struggled to craft an album that balances their stadium-sized rock dynamics with their heart for worship, usually favoring one over the other. The Mission Bell finally reaches some equilibrium and is one of the band’s better releases for it. Add to that themes of evangelism and urgency, and you’ve got one of the most purposeful rock/worship records of late.
Breimeier: It really is that strong, though I fear most are responding to the songs more as rock than worship. Their forthcoming recording Now Is the Time: Live at Willow Creek will hopefully demonstrate to people how effective some of these modern anthems are once congregations become acquainted with them (“Our God Reigns” and “Solid Rock” in particular). Delirious continues to demonstrate that music intended to directly glorify God need not—and should not—be hackneyed and uninspired, but rather original and passionate.
Brian Doerksen (Integrity)
Breimeier: Some might be tempted to shrug off Live in Europe as a collection of Brian Doerksen’s best songs in a concert setting, but this worship leader is simply too good to offer such disposable product. Drawing on a mix of old and new from his strong catalog, Doerksen once again strikes an impressive balance between creativity and practicality in the context of praise. You’ve simply never heard “Come Now Is the Time to Worship” performed this well.
Farias: Not only that, but the fact that it was a tour recording gives the disc a rawer “rock-show” feel than his more reverential concept albums. Still, Doerksen’s sense of flow and liturgy haven’t gone anywhere—the project is seamless from start to finish, and you can’t help but be overtaken by the sense of awe and wonder that some of these songs evoke. Leave it to Doerksen to insert an oboe performance of a Bach composition in the middle of his set, and still make it sound like it belongs.
Charlie Hall (sixsteps/EMI)
Farias: Despite being the original lead worshipper at the Passion conferences, Charlie Hall has long remained the underdog of the movement behind the more popular David Crowder Band and Chris Tomlin. His approach to worship has always seemed more reserved and alternative, which might explain why his songs haven’t been as widely embraced. Flying Into Daybreak proves he still is all of those things, but with more accessibility and tighter song-craft than ever before. This is easily Hall’s best album yet.
Breimeier: It really is. The songs are experimental like Crowder, melodic like Tomlin, and then elevated by Hall’s uniquely passionate delivery. “Micah 6:8” is a perfect example, adapting prayerful Scripture to Tomlin’s anthemic style with a little more edge, and “Song of the Redeemed” is equally practical in praise expression, yet also ultra cool to listen to. I’d be a little surprised if this album doesn’t break Hall’s songs into more modern worship repertoires.
Hillsong Australia (Hillsong/Integrity)
Breimeier: We’ve been rather critical of the live albums from Hillsong Australia in recent years, but it seems justified in light of Mighty to Save. After a string of formulaic projects, the pioneering worship team offers their best work since 2002’s Blessed. The overall pacing is more dynamic, the song styles more varied, the ballads more restrained in their length, and at long last, the mix sounds much cleaner. Time will tell if there’s anything as influential as “Shout to the Lord” on it, but there are definitely some strong ones that I wouldn’t mind seeing my church adding to the repertoire.
Farias: A good place to start would be “For Who You Are,” “You Alone Are God,” “At the Cross” … the entire front half is so solid, it’s hard to go wrong with any of them. “Found” could even make for an offbeat, prayerful special music selection. What’s admirable is that Darlene Zschech & Co. seems to realize now that less is more, and that conciseness indeed goes a long way on a worship album.
Darwin Hobbs (EMI Gospel)
Breimeier: Though they may seem to be one and the same, the fusion of modern worship with gospel music is a relatively new phenomenon. Following in the footsteps of Israel Houghton (who co-produced), Darwin Hobbs offers up a sumptuous, densely instrumented praise ‘n’ gospel bombast with Worshipper. If the arrangements seem too intricate and complex, that’s half the charm with stunning interpretations of Matt Redman’s “Better Is One Day” and Chris Tomlin’s “Forever.” It goes to show that imaginative arrangements and powerhouse performances go a long way toward bringing art back into worship.
Farias: It’s hard to not make mention of Houghton when talking about Worshipper. This is clearly Hobbs’ career album, but Houghton and partner Aaron Lindsey were instrumental in nailing that praise ‘n’ gospel sound you talk about. Everything here is on-point—Hobbs’ towering voice, his energetic backup singers, excellent originals (“Grace,” “I Give You Praise”), and even some studio R&B jams at the end. Truly a Worshipper‘s delight.
Israel & New Breed (Integrity Gospel)
Breimeier: For sheer praise verve and instrumental proficiency, it’s hard to top Israel Houghton and his New Breed musical troupe. The team’s fusion of worship, gospel, funk, and soul is plenty reason to recommend them, but they sweeten the deal here with a double album’s worth of songs that also occasionally dabble with African styles and rhythms. It’s even more powerful when you consider that many in the worshipping audience had never experienced God’s presence so powerfully until this live event.
Farias: In addition to its cultural significance, Alive in South Africa continues to trace the musical progression of Israel & New Breed. These guys have been nasty instrumentalists since their New Season debut, but here they up the ante—for proof, check out their jaw-dropping medley of hits at the end of disc two. Even the new material, while not as immediate, offers enough to chew on for churches seeking worship music with a rhythmic, multi-ethnic flair.
Jason Morant (Vertical/Integrity)
Farias: I was such a big fan of Jason Morant‘s 2004 debut Abandon that this follow-up somewhat took me by surprise. While the former was a study on how to creatively handle modern worship without sacrificing melodic or congregational value, Open is less accessible. There are a few instances of corporate adoration, but it’s generally a songwriter’s worship album—an introspective affair fashioned in response to the Katrina catastrophe that hit the worshipper’s hometown.
Breimeier: I wouldn’t call Open a radical departure from Abandon, but admittedly, these songs aren’t going to become congregational standards. Think of it rather as an album for personal quiet time and reflection, creatively blending modern conventions with liturgical elements and beautiful alt-pop sensibilities. It’s compelling because of the broader instrumental palette and an epic scope somewhat reminiscent of David Crowder Band’s A Collision. We’ve generally defined our favorite worship albums as those that best encourage the listener into God’s presence. Mission accomplished here.
Parachute Band (Hosanna!/Integrity)
Breimeier: This disc finally confirms what Kiwis and worship enthusiasts from around the world have known for the last decade—the Parachute Band is capable of a lively and inspiring worship event. Previous albums from the New Zealand worship team were marred by so-so production values, but in this context the songs take on new energy that’s almost reminiscent of their Hillsong neighbors down under. I was forced to reconsider their talents after the strength of the opening title track.
Farias: And while it’s not marketed as much, we’d be remiss to not mention that All the Earth is essentially a greatest-hits anthology from the Parachute Band—the album to get if you’re late to the Parachute party. The fact that it’s a live Hosanna! album also means there’s a wide array of ancillary resources available to replicate the music in a local setting—from songbooks and orchestrations to backing tracks and CD-ROM aids.
Chris Tomlin (sixsteps/EMI)
Farias: After the runaway success of his 2004 breakthrough Arriving, Chris Tomlin could’ve easily thrown us a curveball by taking any artistic direction he wanted. With this, easily the most anticipated worship release of 2006, he chose not to fix what wasn’t broken, making a familiar album and one that continues to cement Tomlin as one of the most functional worship songwriters the church has today. You might think of it as Arriving Part Two, but See the Morning still delivers.
Breimeier: Yes, at the very least, this is a sequel in almost every way—and that’s generally a good thing when you have comparable quality in writing, performance, and production. Memorable songs like “How Can I Keep From Singing?” and “Glory in the Highest” are sure to be embraced by modern worship services worldwide. So if the goal was to write more contemporary songs that most people would enjoy singing to their Creator, then Tomlin has succeeded again.
Various Artists (Maranatha!/Vineyard UK)
Farias: The only selection on our list that doesn’t represent the work of worship’s best-known heavy hitters, The King of All of Me is still historic in a sense, representing the pinnacle of a recent partnership forged between two vital names in worship music: Maranatha! Music and Vineyard UK. The collection brings together an effective batch of practical songs of praise for the church. At risk of sounding too superlative, I can say this is the most cohesive and serviceable collection of tunes since either label’s heyday.
Breimeier: Quite probably so. Looking for an easy-to-learn modern day hymn similar to “Here I Am to Worship”? Try Kevin MacDougall’s title track. Want a beautifully meditative chorus to sing during Communion? Saddleback’s “Thirst” should do the trick. Fast or slow, simple or stanza-ed, praise or penitence, chances are you’ll find something here to introduce to your own congregation. I’m hoping this is only the first collaborative sampler from the two labels.