There is an old phrase which states “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Yet this is no mere cliche when it comes to hymns. Over the past few years worship music has taken the Christian music world by storm. Artist after artist, band after band fed the craze by releasing albums of praise music, some filled with original songs and some with songs that had been previously-recorded. But with such a finite number of songs available, and with so many of them sounding just about the same, this got old quickly. At one point I compiled fully sixteen different versions of “Shout to the Lord.” It is a fine song, but it can only be recorded so many times before it begins to lose its lustre.
As soon as I saw that the worship craze was in full force I predicted that artists would soon return to the hymns. Slowly I began to notice hymns appearing among the worship songs as artists chose to record their favorite “old-timey” songs. But I believe it was the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou that brought hymns and gospel songs back into people’s consciousness. And perhaps more significantly, it made the record companies realize that people would purchase these albums! The soundtrack to the movie sold in great numbers as people fed their hunger for great recordings of songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Down to the River.” And suddenly the bands that once released praise and worship are recording albums of hymns. And it’s a good thing! I have listened to many of these albums and thought I would provide mini-reviews of some of them for you.
I will provide a bit of information about each, including some of the best songs on each album, the amount of interpretation used by the artists (which is to say how much they change or add to the hymns) and the style of music.
Passion, a collection of some of the most popular young worship leaders (including Chris Tomlin, Charlie Hall, Matt Redman and David Crowder) released Hymns Ancient & Modern in 2004. There is some interpretation of the hymns, and a couple have a chorus added to them, but on the whole the artists stay quite close to the traditional tunes. To “O Worship The King,” for example, Chris Tomlin adds the chorus, “You alone are the matchless King / To you alone be all majesty / Your glories and wonders, what tongues can recite? / You breathe in the air, You shine in the light.” Some of the standouts on this album are “The Solid Rock,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “All Creatures of Our God and King.” The liner notes include a brief description of each of the songs along with information about the author. It is quite a good album if you enjoy the “Passion” sound and are able to enjoy hymns with a bit of a worship music feel to them.
Amy Grant has released two albums of hymns. Legacy…Hymns & Faith was released in 2002 and it was followed earlier this year by Rock of Ages…Hymns & Faith. Both of these albums are excellent in song choice, musicianship and quality. Grant, because of her marriage to Vince Gill, has access to many of the finest musicians in Nashville, and she takes full advantage. I have not listened to the first album in quite some time so am unable to recall which are the best songs. Highlights of the second album include “Sweet Will of God,” “Abide With Me,” to which she adds a chorus, and “Anywhere with Jesus.” “I Surrender All,” while not a traditional hymn, is another great track. The songs are Nashville-influenced, which is to say that they have a Country and Western sound to them. Grant generally sticks quite closely to the original songs both in lyrics and tune. One notable exception is “Abide With Me.” Usually I would not condone making any changes to this hymn (one of my favorites) but Grant does not take away from its beauty and power with the addition of a chorus and a slightly modified tune.
Jars of Clay has long been known as one of the most talented Christian bands. While their greatest hit was also their first, and they have since lost most of their mainstream following, they have continued to flourish in the Christian market. Their latest offering, Redemption Songs, finds them bringing an end to any hope of recovering their mainstream popularity. Among the highlights of this album, which includes both hymns and gospel songs are “God Be Merciful To Me,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Our Lord Is Crucified,” and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.” Truthfully, though, most of the songs are extremely well-done and there are none that seem out-of-place. There is some interpretation, but not a large amount. There are several guest artists contributing to this album including such notables as The Blind Boys of Alabama and Martin Smith of Delirious. Redemption Songs is an excellent album, and in my opinion, Jars of Clay’s best so far.
Scott Wesley Brown has recently released Old Hymns Made New. He records such favorites as “Praise To The Lord The Almighty,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” and “Immortal, Invisible.” He does a fair bit of interpretation and adds a chorus to nearly every song. The song has a mixed Pop and Adult Contemporary feel to it. The changes Brown makes to the hymns generally contribute to the songs rather than taking away from them. For example, to the song “Come Christians Join to Sing” he adds the following chorus: “Amen to the Lord / Amen to his grace / Amen to the one who is worthy of praise.” Highlights of the album include “Jesus Shall Reign,” “Praise To The Lord The Almighty,” and “Thy God Reigneth.” It is quite a good album, though it does not display the musicianship of some of the other albums listed here.
Bart Millard is best known as the lead singer for MercyMe and the man who penned “I Can Only Imagine.” He recently released his first solo album, Hymned. It is a Southern-inspired collection of hymns, many of which are from the early twentieth century. There is some range in the styles of music, with gospel, blues and country all getting fair representation. Millard adds to the album one original song he wrote in tribute to his grandmother who taught him to love hymns. Some of the best tracks include “The Old Rugged Cross,” Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” and “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” The song choice is strong and the artistry is evident throughout.
Blast From the Past
Here are a couple of albums of hymns from days past:
Our Hymns was a compilation album released through Word in 1989. It featured many of the biggest names in Christian music including Michael W. Smith, who song “Holy, Holy, Holy;” Amy Grant, who sang “‘Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus;” Wayne Watson who sang “It Is Well With My Soul;” and Petra, who contributed “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Phil Keaggy added a unique song which began with an instrumental prelude of “Bach’s Bourree” which transitioned into “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Listening to the album now is a little bit comical, hearing the influence of the late 80’s and early 90’s in the hymns.
Rock Power Praise was an album including many of the Christian metal bands of the early 90’s and is not to be confused with Petra’s compilation The Power of Praise. It makes for good comedy these days!
Hymns Triumphant is a two-part series of hymns recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Most of the hymns are recorded only in part, with very few being presented in more than one or two verses. The combination of the choir and orchestra is stunning in its beauty. The albums, which are now sold together for approximately $20, could only be better if they included the full hymns.
In the Company of Angels by Caedmon’s Call is a worship album that includes several hymns. While many of the other songs are newly-written, the album has a traditional feel to it and is quite well-produced, even if it cannot break out of the Caedmon’s Call mold.