8th February 2016
My apologies for the lateness in this post, I originally wrote it before Christmas but my Macbook had some issues so I lost the document. Thank you to those who have read part 1 ! Also are my links to 2014’s album reviews, as well as 2013’s (part 1 & part 2):
July was a good month for album releases, as a good offering from Worship Central Director Tim Hughes was released, entitled ‘Pocketful of Faith.’ The album is based around Hughes’ move to Birmingham (see more here). The title track is particularly good, and there are other nice moments from tracks such as ‘Hope and Glory’ and ‘Symphony’. ‘The Way’ and The Cross Stands’ also feature as “singles” from Worship Central’s previous albums and sound pretty decent in the studio. Hughes has used a Nashville band for this, and the familiar Nathan Nockels produces.
I’ll pause here and make a slight critique at some of the “big” mainstream albums released over the past few years: Nockels produces a lot of them. Who do I mean by “big-named artists”: Passion, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin etc. And his sound is distinctive. He knows how to get the “big” worship sound and could well be record label’s producer of choice. It’s just unfortunate that apart from the vocals, its getting harder and harder to tell apart these “big” artists. And it’s also unfortunate that many songs sound so “big”. What do I mean by a “big sound”? Big drums, heavy synths, multiple electric guitars, other layered instruments and samples – it means that that smaller Churches will not be able to play them in their Churches. When did Church worship music only become about creating stadium anthems only truly accessible for the American megachurch? Have we lost our way in this? According to Jared C. Wilson (see his book The Prodigal Church), American megachurches, whilst big, make up a very small percentage of all Churches and Churchgoers. Most of my listening is the mainstream stuff, but to be honest, aside from Bethel Music and a few others, I’m starting to turn to more indie artists these days such as Kings Kaleidoscope and Housefires. My hope is that record labels step out a bit more, perhaps risk their safety net of credibility and marketing into more creative avenues rather than playing it so safe. Anyway, back to point – decent album overall, solid as usual from Tim Hughes – 3/5.
Kristene DiMarco from Jesus Culture also released a decent album – although nothing really stands out as being that great – many of the songs are quite long and approx the same tempo. I really wish she had a different backing band rather than the Jesus Culture guys, but I guess that’s whats needed to break into the mainstream. There are some lovely moments, however and she is a good songwriter – ‘It Is Well’ is great and so is ‘Carry Me’ and ‘Lily’s Song.’ 3/5.
This month also saw the release of the ‘3 CD Collections’ and 20th Century Masters’ from Capitol CMG – featuring Passion, TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Switchfoot, CeCe Winans and Thousand Foot Crutch.
Israel & New Breed released their latest album ‘Covered: Alive In Asia’ and what a terrific album it is. I’ve always been a big fan of Israel Houghton and loved ‘Jesus At The Centre’, released in 2012. Always pushing the envelope musically (great keys playing, gospel chops and solid drum grooves, horn section and synth/electronic sounds), from the 8-mins epic ‘Thank You Lord’, continuing with ‘Risen’ and concluding with the awesome and choir-filled ‘How Awesome is Our God’, this album is one of the year’s best. 4.5/5.
Also in July saw the release of Bethel Music’s ‘Without Words, Vol. 2. Their first edition was one of my favourite albums in recent years, with the creative and eclectic use of traditional (and some not-so) instrumentation throughout. So I was keen to buy their next volume – and I wasn’t disappointed. Great mix of Bethel’s songs (plus Oceans) revamped – invest and enjoy this album. Stand out tracks: ‘Oceans’ ‘For The Cross’ ‘Ever Be’ ‘This Is Amazing Grace’ ‘Seas of Crimson’ – actually its all pretty great! 4.5/5.
In August, the 3 CD Collection was released by Jeremy Camp and Smokie Norful. Ghost Ship released their newest album ‘Costly.’ This months big mainstream album was Rend Collective’s ‘As Family We Go.’ I have their last few records and enjoyed ‘The Art of Celebration.’ And I listened to this and felt let down somewhat. First off, hear me out. I think sometimes as Christians we can switch off a critical ear to Christian worship music. It’s a very comfortable album this. It’s very easy for us as Christians to not critically analyse it properly because a) it’s so well produced and b) Rend are very popular so we might as well go with the flow. For me personally though, on first listen I didn’t really want to pick it back up again. A few months later I listened again and enjoyed it a bit more. When I say it’s a “comfortable album” what I mean is that Rend rarely step out of their musical comfort zone – aside from a few electric guitars (why don’t I just listen to the new Mumford album?) and adding electronic elements (David Crowder Band a la 2004?). They have disregarded their distinctive Irish sound from earlier albums. Why not use a different producer? This one is produced by their band leader Gareth Gilkeson, as well as CWM mainstay Ed Cash.
But it just feels so overly-polished, generic and predictable, like they had a deadline to meet for the record label. Hear me out, I have no issue with the band’s success. I have enjoyed some of their previous work. But this is a step further away from their roots and into the territory of sounding like every other mainstream group. Are they now that much different (apart from a Northern Irish accent)? The song quality on this album I think personally is a real let down. Yes, they have released a lot of albums in a short space of time – but it seems you can barely distinguish one song from the next. Having said that, some of the more enjoyable tracks I think are ‘Joy Of The Lord’ and ‘Every Giant Will Fall.’ One last thing – listen to the intro of ‘Free As A Bird
‘ and compare to Matt Redman’s ‘King of My Soul.’
Very similar indeed. 2.5/5.
September saw Planetshakers release ‘#LETSGO’ and Leigh Nash release ‘The State I’m In’. The City Harmonic also released ‘We Are’ and Kari Jobe released ‘Majestic: Revisited.’ Also this month was the brilliant album ‘Brave New World’ from Amanda Cook. Another artist from the Bethel Music collective, this album wasn’t actually produced in-house, but by Jason Ingram and Paul Mabury (also the drummer – formerly of Hillsong and now a prolific producer). I was initially slightly disappointed it didn’t have the distinctive ‘Bethel sound’, but my disappointment disappeared as I listened. Many beautiful moments appear musically and lyrically throughout. ‘Shepherd’, ‘Mercy’ and ‘Pieces’ particularly good. 4/5.
Onto October, where the Christmas albums started coming out (and as said in the previous post – I’m going to pass them over), with Chris Tomlin, Paul Baloche, Rend Collective & Mercy Me all contributing. Also released this month was John Mark McMillan’s ‘Live At The Knight’, Crowder’s ‘Neon Porch Extravaganza EP’ as well as releases from Laura Story, Jars of Clay and Gateway Worship. Andrew Peterson released ‘The Burning Edge of Dawn’ which I’ve yet to catch but I always enjoy his well thought out lyrics.
Hillsong Worship also released ‘Open Heaven/River Wild’. This year’s album from Hillsong Worship continues to see the envelope pushed from the multi-campus Church with global acclaim, celebrity appeal and a large team of worship leaders and songwriters. Now, this album still has the definite ‘Hillsong’ sound, but how can I really critique that when it has almost become a genre in itself? They have so influenced CWM (Contemporary Worship Music) – just listen to Parachute Band, Gateway Worship, Elevation Worship….the list goes on. Yes, I will admit that the period between 2009-12 I did not enjoy Hillsong’s albums as I thought they were bland, but since 2013’s ‘Glorious Ruins’ I personally feel they have pushed the boundaries both musically and lyrically, adding synths and sonic layers, singing about different themes, adding more mid-tempo and contemplative songs as well as new worship leaders. This is another solid offering with plenty of songs that will no doubt be sung in Churches around the world, starting with ‘O Praise The Name (Anastasis)’. There are plenty of other good songs and new worship leaders featured, worth a listen this album, although if you’re not a huge Hillsong listener, then you will probably find it quite similar to their others. 3.5/5.
In November, Sara Groves released ‘Floodplain’ and that’s about it really. Onto December and Bethel Music Kids came out as well as an album from former Delirious? guitarist Stu G (also a prolific session player nowadays).
I really hope you have enjoyed reading these reviews. I realise that some of the time I may have come across as “taking a dig” at the mainstream market. I would just like to clarify at this point that is not my intention or heart – most of my listening is in that area. You may have noticed that the bulk of the reviews are the “big” artists. But I am merely writing from the heart and posing some thoughts and questions to the big artists, labels, and us as listeners. I want to honour the well-known artists for their faithfulness and great worship music they have given, but also ponder and ask: has it become stale and predictable? Maybe for some time too? May the Lord be our guide and inspiration to write and play excellently for His Name and Glory! I sincerely hope I have not come across as arrogant or a “know-it-all” – but rather, an independent blogger who likes music!
See you in December 2016!