Our annual list of the year’s most impressive worship albums often reflects a trend in worship music over the months represented, and this year is no exception. In 2005, we saw renewed interest in hymns, emphasizing the importance of arrangements in giving fresh performances to old favorites. The 2006 list called attention to many of the best songwriters who are crafting music for the church today.
Between October 2006 and September 2007, our two worship leaders on staff with Christian Music Today kept a lookout for the albums offering the most to worshippers around the world. New albums with fresh accessible songs for the majority of churches were somewhat scarce in those twelve months. But 2007 proved a particularly strong year for alternative worship projects—albums that wouldn’t necessarily work as well in a corporate setting, but still very effective for personal listening, youth worship services, and informal settings. Read on for a mixed list of selections ranging from rock and pop to gospel and jazz.
One of the smoothest entries in our list comes from Jonathan Butler, a light jazz artist who’s already made a name for himself in gospel/worship through collaborations with Israel & New Breed, Juanita Bynum and Kirk Whalum. Brand New Day isn’t necessarily the type of album that blows people away, but it’s all so delicately handled, so inspirationally rendered, it has the potential to usher you into an intimate time of worship. All of this through Butler’s expressive voice, soulful arrangements, prayer-like sentiments, and the occasional moment of celebration. For proof: the Maranatha! classic “O Magnify the Lord,” which sizzles like no other.
I’m one of those people that wasn’t blown away initially, but the album really has grown on me for the reasons you’ve indicated. At times, I imagine it as the worship album Stevie Wonder could have made, it’s so smooth and joyous. I only wish that some of the songs were less repetitive (“I Love to Worship” gets monotonous in its simplicity). Yet Butler makes up for it with the bouncy title track, the driving “Gonna Lift You Up,” and the sweetly acoustic ballads “Mercy” and “You Are My Everything.” Brand New Day is a perfect combination of stellar musicianship with accessible melodies, engaging the worshipper in both heart and mind.
Some have expressed disappointment that David Crowder Band‘s follow-up to A Collision isn’t as inventive. But without the right creative inspiration, any attempt would have sounded like a forced imitation. So instead, Crowder and band didn’t try to top it. Offering ten songs inspired by God’s comforting presence, Remedy can be interpreted as a response to the death of their friend and pastor Kyle Lake, or as its own worship service, complete with introit, praise, prayer, and message. A simpler album, yes, but taken on its own merits, Remedy remains a well-crafted effort that sparks worship out of its musical excellence.
Not just that, but I think the less is more approach really works in the band’s favor. Collision was so grand in every sense, it was best enjoyed as a whole, rather than in parts—certainly not an iPod-friendly album. Remedy is the opposite: taut, concise, and to the point, without silly interludes or Sufjan-Stevens-styled song titles. Everything is in its right place. Simpler, sure, but in a way it feels like the group is coming full-circle, creating an album that’s the closest to the identifiable Passion sound, yet with a voice of its own to unmistakably recognize it as a David Crowder Band creation.
Let me preface this one by saying Holy God is not Brian Doerksen’s best album. It’s occasionally a little pokey, the new songs aren’t as strong as his best-known classics (though he’s got a killer new arrangement of “Light the Fire Again” here), and as his first studio recording, the album generally lacks the energy of his other live recordings. That said, it’s still much better than most in the worship genre, testament to Doerksen’s musical inventiveness. He’s vastly underrated as a songwriter/arranger for the church, very intentional in keeping worship music artful.
Artful, but also biblical. Doerksen’s exploration of God’s holiness is noteworthy in songs like “Holy God,” “Be Unto Your Name,” and “Triune God”—all huge anthems that place divinity and humanity into the correct context. I would’ve loved if the album was entirely about God’s otherness. Instead, Doerksen chooses to dedicate the disc’s second half to our relationship with God, stressing the point that while God is in another league in relation to us, he’s still approachable, intimate, and caring. The songs follow suit—lyrically simpler and not nearly as grand, making the point that through Christ, sanctity and closeness can coexist.
I was bummed when Something Like Silas broke up, mainly because their only album, Divine Revelation, became one of my favorite worship albums of all time. I got happy again really quick when I learned that some members of the group reformed as Future of Forestry, taking the best of Silas’ alt-rock passion and taking it to the next level. Granted, the new aggregate’s debut is darker, moodier, and fiercer than its previous incarnation, but the urgent, euphoric sense of unbridled adoration hasn’t gone anywhere. This is certainly the most alternative pick on our list.
Arguably so—we’ve got some others vying for that title this year! I actually like this a little better than Something Like Silas for it’s moodier tone and the more poetic lyrics, making it more passionate yet subtle in its worshipful expressions. “All I Want” and “Gazing” are both knockout cries of the heart reminiscent of Delirious, and “Stay Beside Me” is a stirring, prayerful finale. There’s even some Latin liturgy used in “Sanctitatis,” showing how multi-dimensional this worshipful rock album is. Unfortunately, I fear for the future of Future of Forestry too upon news that guitarist Nick Maybury and bassist Luke Floeter have moved on. Hopefully the other two members will keep Future of Forestry aloft, because I believe they’re on to something here.
I must confess, Andree, your review of this album led me to believe it would be more of the same—the typically energetic youth worship team, only with more missional lyrics. But then I finally listened, and the lyrical scope is still corporate-friendly, at least enough for youth worship. Also, considering how by the book so many of Hillsong’s albums have been in recent years, United’s first studio effort is surprisingly varied and dynamic. A solid rock effort with moments as worshipful as they would be live in concert—perhaps more so thanks to the reflective tone created in the studio.
Yes, a lot of people were thrown off by my review. My main point was simply that the album is not as congregational. Matter of fact, by their own admission, the band only plays three or four songs off this album during concerts. Nevertheless, some of these tracks, like the stunning “Hosanna” or the majestic “Savior King,” are among the group’s best, confirming that their heart for church-based worship hasn’t gone anywhere. More commendable still is the rest of the album (particularly “Point of Difference” and “Desperate People”), which exemplifies that worship isn’t only meant to be sung corporately, but also to be relished devotionally and lived out tangibly.
For his first five years and two albums, Tim Hughes was primarily recognized for writing a couple world-renowned worship standards: “Here I Am to Worship” and “Beautiful One.” Now with Holding Nothing Back, he’s come up with a terrific modern worship album that’s consistent from start to finish. Fun to listen to and congregational friendly, this one’s got everything going for it: thoughtful hymn-like lyrics, strong melodies, well-matched production, aggressive musicianship, and a catchy Brit rock sound. This is the best album Deliriousdidn’t make in 2007, and at least as good as the album Hughes’ mentor Matt Redman released this year (which also made our list).
Not quite Delirious, but no question that Hughes has considerably stepped up the energy level here. There are so many songs that are easy to get behind on Holding Nothing Back, like the contagious “Happy Day,” the rousing “The Highest and the Greatest,” and “Clinging to the Cross,” Hughes’ killer duet with Hillsong alumna Brooke Fraser. The centerpiece, though, is “Everything,” an emotive anthem with haunting, liturgical verses and a simple modern chorus, brought home further with a biblical bridge of ascending dynamics. In all, this is Hughes’ most evocative collection yet. It’s a wonder this album hasn’t drawn more attention.
Despite consistent acclaim, Israel & New Breed faces a dilemma with every amazing album they release: worship vs. artistry. Their musicianship is virtually unparalleled in the Christian music sector. While that virtuosity is admirable, it can make some of their material harder to adapt for the average church—believe me, my own worship team has been challenged! So although A Deeper Level is not the best album from Israel Houghton and company, it’s still commendable as an album that’s perhaps more accessible to in general. It’s one of today’s best worship bands attempting to build bridges within the Christian church.
As a self-proclaimed Israel Houghton expert, I must say this is indeed his most accessible album yet. As you pointed out, Russ, a lot of these songs aren’t as daunting to replicate locally—”Say So,” “I Will Search,” “Deeper,” “We Have Overcome,” and “If Not For You Grace” are all fine congregational selections. Longtime fans will perhaps be disappointed that A Deeper Level is “less gospel,” but consider the tradeoff—a multicultural worship celebration like no other, with diverse guests (Chris Tomlin, Darlene Zschech, Jonny Lang, T-Bone) and styles (gospel, pop, rock, funk, jazz, hip-hop, etc.) that paint a beautiful picture of kingdom worship. I could’ve done without some of the preaching and the charismatic sentiments, but Iz is a passionate guy—he wears his worship on his sleeve.
Though it went by virtually unnoticed, Michael Gungor’s 2003 debut was truly stunning all around. The four years since then has changed him quite a bit: he’s got his own band, he’s less obviously influenced by John Mayer, and he still knows how to make worship music artful. A couple of songs on this disc are a bit youthful, perhaps due to Gungor’s involvement with the Acquire the Fire conferences. Overall, though, the album is still a terrific example of alternative worship—one that sort of reminds me of another guitar-playing worship leader with a “band” after his name.
Actually, both David Crowder Band and Robbie Seay Band come to my mind. This album recalls the work of both, with some Lincoln Brewster thrown in—Gungor’s certainly as talented a guitar guru. Songs like “Be Praised” and “Giving It All” certainly draw comparisons to Tim Hughes and Matt Redman, but the acoustic “Grace For Me” reveals an even more sophisticated side. And those looking for something progressive, “Fly” will blow you away when it mutates from Mayer-styled acoustic pop into something more befitting Queen or Trans-Siberian Orchestra. People already know him for co-writing “Friend of God,” but I’d like to believe 2008 will be the year Gungor finally earns recognition as a breakthrough talent who brings new meaning to the words “worship artist.”
I’m amazed what the New Life Church folks went through with the release of this album, which released just weeks after news of the scandal involving their former pastor Ted Haggard. It’s testament to the beliefs underlying these songs, all anthems of victory, reassurance, and reliance on the sovereignty of God. My Savior Lives is the strongest batch of tunes yet from New Life—be it Desperation Band, pastor Ross Parsley, or otherwise—an easy-to-sing-to worship event with the right mix of energetic rockers, heartfelt ballads, and overall worship flow. To borrow one of your phrases, Russ, My Savior Lives is the best Hillsong-styled album made by a non-Hillsong church this year.
And to be clear, I certainly don’t mean that as a slight against either congregation, but rather an indicator of New Life’s overall worship style. My only wish is for the worship team to further develop their sound further in such a way where it sounds unmistakably New Life. They certainly come close at times. The title track and “Promises” are fun, upbeat tunes any contemporary praise team can adapt for their own church, while “Your Name” and “Hiding Place” a memorable ballads for the sweet, reflective spots of the worship service, and “Here in Your Presence” is truly epic in scope. That these songs take on additional meaning during New Life’s time of healing is an indicator of how meaningful they can be for fellow believers around the world.
This one took me by surprise with its interesting premise—a group of like-minded, unknown independent artists and worship leaders performing several top songs in modern worship … to the sounds of indie pop and electronica? Most all the songs here are the usual CCLI suspects, yet the sound is anything but usual. Masterminded by Chad Howat of Postal Service, it isn’t really Duran Duran styled dance-pop, favoring indie minimalism over slick techno bombast, all the way down to the comparatively thin vocals. The album is just plain cool to listen to—familiar enough to hum along with, yet sufficiently unassuming to fade into the background for quiet times of worship.
I really don’t know what I was expecting with this one. For sure, there have been plenty of bad electronica-styled worship albums, but this one has a unique sense of style. Some tracks work much better than others—Delirious‘ “Rain Down” is cut and dry, but Sanctus Real‘s “Everything About You” is genuinely stunning in its transformation. A truly alternative worship experience, Oceans Above won’t appeal to everyone, and I find it works best in small doses—definitely an iPod-friendly album. Above all, it’s a reminder that the power of arrangement is just as important as songwriting when adapting worship to the specific needs of your church. In that way, Oceans Above is doubly inspiring—spiritually and creatively.
Matt Redman is a modern worship pioneer, penning some of the most recognizable church anthems for more than ten years now. Yet somehow his albums often tended to fall a little short. The “hits” were always there, but they were typically surrounded by lesser material with meandering melodies and uninteresting instrumentation. This time around, I’m not sure if it’s the fact that he worked with two pop producers or some other factor, but Beautiful News is the most stirring album Matt Redman has recorded so far. I’m not sure if there’s a “Heart of Worship” to be found here, but as an actual collection of new material, this is Redman’s very best.
I’m still partial to The Heart of Worship and The Father’s Song, and as you note, even this disc’s best songs (“You Never Let Go,” “All Over the World”) probably won’t be remembered alongside “Better Is One Day” and “Blessed Be Your Name.” But it’s definitely right up there with Redman’s finest—his best album of new material in seven years—and many of the songs still deserve a place in modern worship repertoires. Beyond the excellent Brit-pop production values, I love the way this album offers a hopeful and joyful response to a fallen world; it stays on message without becoming clichéd or repetitive. Redman is indeed a pioneer, and this album is a reminder that he’ll be making worship music for years to come.
I’d love it if our annual list focused exclusively on the distinctive worship of individual churches throughout the world. Most albums of that nature, however, aren’t particularly distinctive, but here’s an exception. What’s particularly striking about For You I Live is its compatible diversity. Ken Reynolds is a Kirk Franklin in the making, and you already know Michael Gungor from earlier in the list (this album was created towards the end of Gungor’s ministry with the Michigan-based congregation). Together they offer an irresistible blend of gospel and pop: praise band backed with horns, choir, and strings. It’s another example of blended worship done right.
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve heard a blended-worship album this striking since 2005’s Alive Forever by Travis Cottrell. It’s a joy to hear all the sounds and influences on display here, from Gungor’s alternative and guitar-based leanings in “Say So” to Reynolds’ gospel-pop in the irresistible “Another Chance.” And then there’s the church choir, a worship leader in its own right in songs like the stirring “Holy” and the singable opener “Our Purpose.” If that weren’t enough, there’s instrumental hymnody (“Amazing Grace”), choral pop (“We Are One”), and Latin praise (“Hallelujah”), all handled with remarkable attention to detail. For You I Live is a worship feast of the highest order.
We felt it worth noting three more impressive worship projects from the last year—collections that properly summarize the work and ministry of the creative worship leaders involved. The Best of Passion [So Far] is a double-disc set chronicling the first decade of music associated with the increasingly popular worship movement, from the early days of American modern worship to the rise of leaders like Chris Tomlin and David Crowder Band. It’s testament to Passion’s success with consistently introducing new songs to the church, as is Top 25 Vineyard UK Praise & Worship Songs, another two-disc set compiling the amazing songs that Brian Doerksen, Brenton Brown, Vicky Beeching, and others introduced across the pond over the last ten years with benchmark albums like Hungry and Come Now Is the Time. Lastly, Let the Praises Ring honors the energetic contributions of worship leader and über-guitarist Lincoln Brewster since his 1999 debut. All are tremendous resources for those looking for the definitive versions of the most well known songs in modern worship today.
Check out our “Best-Of” Archives to see other lists from previous years.