Cutting Edge (Curious?/Sparrow)
For those already familiar with the band in the UK, this was merely a two-disc collection of the previously released worship EPs. But for those in America, Cutting Edge was the first introduction to Delirious, a U2-styled precursor of modern worship with an already sizable repertoire of enduring classics including “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble,” “Lord You Have My Heart,” and “Shout to the North.” The quality of the material would eventually pale next to the group’s subsequent artistic moves, but something about the rawness, intimacy, and simplicity of the performances shaped the way State-side worshippers viewed their own approach to praise music. Cutting Edge challenged them to not only sing to the Lord a new song, but to also write rallying cries for the church and a generation ready to lift up the name of Jesus with a voice of its own.
The lone studio release from the original members of Sonicflood took worshippers across the nation by storm. Never had a rock band taken tried-and-true praise choruses and turned them into thundering anthems with more bite and boom than the originals. The Jeff Deyo-fronted foursome delivered terrific reinterpretations of songs parishioners had heard before, like Andy Park’s “I Want to Know You (In the Secret),” Scott Underwood’s “Holiness,” and even Bill Gaither’s “There’s Something About That Name,” but made them all their own thanks to an aggressive alternative style that’s rare in even the most skilled worship cover band. Sonicflood’s own original material was quite moving, too: “My Refuge” is likely the most rocking modern worship anthem in the history of the genre.
The mother of all worship compilation discs, Exodus was groundbreaking for the way it brought alternative and pop sensibilities together with worshipful sentiments under one roof for an artful batch of songs featuring one of the most atypical “special event” lineups in Christian music. On one end, the hottest bands in Christian rock at the time: dc Talk, Jars of Clay, Sixpence None the Richer, and Third Day. On the other end, beloved pop singers like Crystal Lewis, Cindy Morgan, Chris Rice, and Michael W. Smith. It’s an oddly appealing synergy, helped all the more by Smith’s discreet production—at once organic and synth-based, depending on who’s doing the singing. In time, Exodus would go on to pave the way for scores of similar multi-artist projects that followed, including City on a Hill, Next Door Savior, The Message: Psalms, and Glory Revealed, among numerous others.
The Heart of Worship (Worship Together)
The second major worship leader to emerge from worship music’s British invasion was Matt Redman, the worship veteran behind the poignant “The Heart of Worship.” Redman wrote the song for his own church, but in a way it became a prophetic apology for what modern worship would become after the turn of the millennium, where focus on showmanship would become more prevalent than the condition of the heart—the real measure of one’s true worship. Aside from the title track and “Let Everything That Has Breath,” not many of the songs on The Heart of Worship became standards for the average congregation. But it was the album that truly captured the attention of a new generation of worshippers with a song that became the rallying cry for a new movement, while setting the stage for other singer/songwriters to transform their own quiet-time meditations into heartfelt songs of praise.
Hungry (Vineyard UK)
The best-selling Vineyard album of all time is also the very best this trailblazer of modern worship ever released. From the unforgettable rhythmic intro of the title track to the last lingering note of Kathryn Scott’s second-to-none rendition of “Breathe,” Hungry was the sequel to 1998’s excellent Come Now Is the Time, only bolder and more alternative than anything on the Vineyard oeuvre at the time—and, at its most tender, it was utterly disarming. The live disc was the crowning jewel of songwriter/producer Brian Doerksen’s tenure at the church-planting label, a remarkable achievement of spirit and song that also highlighted the young, unbridled talent of tunesmiths and worship leaders such as Scott, Brenton Brown, Vicky Beeching, and Wendy O’Connell. It’s hard to pick favorites here, so let’s just say Hungry as a whole should be an indispensable part of every modern worshipper’s collection.
Better Is One Day (Star Song)
Still in its infancy when Better Is One Day released, the Passion movement set the mold for live albums to come from its fold with this classic, a lively concert offering that introduced or reintroduced definitive renditions of modern worship staples like David Ruis’ “You’re Worthy of My Praise,” Billy J. Foote’s “You Are My King (Amazing Love),” and Matt Redman‘s “Better Is One Day.” The fact that most of the songs here were covers was not an issue: collegiate audiences were still warming up to modern worship as the disc released in 2000, so the set list felt fresh even though Passion hadn’t yet hit its artistic stride. Though Charlie Hall was one of the gatherings’ primary leaders at the time, he and the rest of the team are almost invisible here on an album focused solely on worship before formally introducing superstars Chris Tomlin and David Crowder Band.
WOW Worship: Blue (Integrity)
Before the WOW Worship franchise took a turn towards more artist-driven predictability, the first few editions of the popular compilation were all about the songs. WOW Worship: Blue, in particular, didn’t even list who sang what in the track listing—reminiscent of the early days of pioneering church label Hosanna! Music. But this apparent anonymity didn’t matter much: the two-disc compilation introduced many to a treasure trove of worship gems from the vaults of the original triple-threat of worship music: Integrity, Maranatha!, and Vineyard. More importantly, it was a one-stop source for all of the essentials of modern worship at the time, including “Come Now Is the Time,” “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “The Heart of Worship,” and tons more. For many in the church, this collection was their introduction and handbook to the modern worship movement.
Perhaps the best-selling worship album ever, Worship wasn’t significant to modern worship because it was recorded by Michael W. Smith. Instead, the disc proved instrumental in asserting once and for all that artist-led worship was a trend that was here to stay—even the choir was made up of an all-star cast. Smitty himself was no stranger to singing God’s praises when Worship released, having spearheaded the Exodus compilation and penned a handful of time-tested church classics, including “Great Is the Lord” and “Agnus Dei,” the latter of which is taken to new heights here. Released the day of the September 11 terrorist attacks, literally millions found comfort in the album while also being exposed for the first time to important modern worship anthems such as Chris Tomlin‘s “Forever,” Kelly Carpenter’s “Draw Me Close” (prominently featured on Exodus), and “Above All,” penned by worship veterans Paul Baloche and Lenny LeBlanc.
He had two albums under his belt prior to this album, but it was Arriving that catapulted Chris Tomlin from a worship leader with the Passion conferences to one of the biggest stars in Christian music. Radio airplay had a lot to do with this breakthrough, as stations embraced rapturously the three biggest singles off the album—”Indescribable,” “Holy Is the Lord,” and “How Great Is Our God.” But the beauty of these songs wasn’t just that they sounded great on the radio; they were also terrific corporate praise selections, captivating churches nationwide and the upper echelons of the CCLI chart. Tomlin’s subsequent albums were more calculated, but the organic, from-the-ground-up approach of Arriving confirmed that the best worship albums happen when you least expect it.
Look to You (Hillsong/Integrity)
The most electrifying thing to happen to youth-oriented modern worship, Hillsong United has been around since 1998, but it wasn’t until their 2005 release Look to You that they truly found their voice as a band. Before it, they were merely an amped-up version of the adult Hillsong team—their early hits “Everyday” and “One Way” proved that much. Look to You changed all of that. It saw them evolving into a live worship juggernaut in their own right, taking their church’s customary stadium-sized stylings and giving them a Brit-pop makeover, complete with breathtaking dynamics, keyboard layers, and tighter songcraft than before. Interestingly, Look to You is the first chapter of a rock-solid trifecta that continued with United We Stand and All of the Above, a three-disc saga that propelled United to the very forefront of youth worship worldwide.
Though not as influential in the life and times of modern worship, these recordings stand out for sheer artistry and the influence they’ve had on other worship albums.
A Greater Song (Integrity)
His strongest collection of all-new songs, A Greater Song proved Balochecould write an album’s worth of soon-to-be modern worship standards.
You Shine (Hosanna!)
With more than 25 albums to his name as a songwriter or producer, Doerksen stepped out as a titular artist with this elegant, near-liturgical capstone.
A Collision (sixsteps)David Crowder Band gets conceptual with this artistic masterwork—proof that modern worship does not necessarily have to be congregational to be worshipful.
Live from Another Level (Integrity)
Perhaps the most musically accomplished worship band in all of music, Israel & New Breed broke cultural and generational barriers with this now-classic of gospel praise.
City on a Hill (Essential)
“God of Wonders” is the only song churches sing from it today, but the album combined artistry and community for the purpose of worshiping our Creator.
Building on the precedent set by 2001’s You Are My World, this landmark saw the Aussie worshippers transitioning effectively from contemporary to modern worship.
Live to Worship (Vertical Music)
Yes, it displays the amazing guitar virtuosity of Brewster, but Live to Worship is just a prime example that modern worship covers can be creative and exciting.