Happy New Year! Now, for my final thoughts on 2013 in music we turn our attention to worship. I don’t make this a separate category because I in any way believe that worship is a style of music. It’s not. I believe any style of music can be used to worship the Creator, and music that is designed for worship has as much responsibility to be creative, original and skilfully played as any other music.
Rather, I put it as a separate category because this music serves a different function. Worship music, I believe, is designed to help me connect to God. It is meant to set my gaze off of myself and help me to engage with the presence of the Spirit, to direct my thoughts and emotions and experiences into Christ. To me, theologically complex hymns and ridiculously simple worship choruses can both achieve or hinder this, and in reality almost as much depends on the singer/listener as the songwriters and performers themselves. That is, you can take a badly written worship song and still glorify God with it if your heart is right.
That being said, I find it easier to worship when the music is original, skilled and creative. And since worship music is about bringing me to God instead of just providing relaxation or whatever, it’s hard to judge music as the best or worst of the year. This, then, is merely my year of worship music experiences!
Favourite Song: Oceans, from Hillsong United’s Zion album. The imagery and melody in this song are both beautiful, and the central idea–that of being led by God into deep oceans, like Peter, where we cannot stand or see on our own–hit me where I live this year. Listened to it over and over this summer.
And the best version? The acoustic one, hands down.
An honourable mention should be given to Worship Central’s Dry Bones. I don’t really connect with much of Worship Central’s style, but this song has got that killer hook, and the cry of that bridge (“These dry bones will live again/We’re nothing without You, nothing without You”) is one that resonates deep for me.
Another honourable mention would have to go to Ghost Ship’s Where Were You, a worship song inspired by Job’s questioning and God’s response at the end of the book of Job. I listened to this when in desperate places this past summer.
Favourite Worship Album: Campfire by Rend Collective. You’d think this wouldn’t work. Coming out merely a year after their previous release, Campfire is a live album combining songs from both of their first two albums. Why put out a live album of stuff that was still pretty new? If I hadn’t seen and met these guys, I probably would have suspected a money grab. But Campfire is not that. Capturing the communal live experience that is so central to the band’s values, this collection of songs, recorded on a beach around a Campfire, hews much more closely to the intentions and heart of the band than the still-excellent studio versions of the same songs. With the exception of the opening :30 version of Kumbaya, the whole thing is amazing beginning to end, with a lot of the songs getting reworked or finding new energy in the group vocals. Add to that the best version of 10000 Reasons I’ve heard, and this is a must-buy. Musically unique and spiritually alive, this is early January 2013 release was my favourite worship album of the year.
Favourite New Thing: So, Mars Hill church has a record label now, and they have several bands, who I believe all lead worship in some way or another at their church, on their roster. This year saw four releases: an EP from the Dustin Kensrue (of Thrice)-led Modern Post, full albums from Citizens and Ghost Ship, and a solo album by the aforementioned Kensrue. This is worship music, but it’s more bass heavy, edgier, more masculine or aggressive in its approach. It sounds nothing like any of the more popular worship bands of the day. The Modern Post record largely covers hymns. The Citizens album has some excellent fist-pumping-to-heaven numbers. But the best of all is Ghost Ship. I’ve already mentioned their song Where Were You?, but the whole album is excellent. One could complain that it’s hard to nail down who Ghost Ship are, as their style changes song to song–one song sounding Mumford-ish, the next a straight up rocker, and the next a hymn seemingly played by Fleet Foxes. But somehow, it all works. Great album. Great label. Go Mars Hill!
Favourite Hymns–So, it seems to be a trend that most worship bands have to put at least one cover of an old hymn per record. If the cover is good, I love this trend, but it isn’t always good, and there are some bad hymn covers out there. But Page CXVI put an entire series of hymn-based EPs. And they are excellent. I even came to love this odd version of I’ve Got the Joy. The first time I heard it, I busted out laughing. But when hard times came this summer, this version made a lot of sense to me:
Favourite Comeback–Martin Smith, God’s Great Dance Floor 02. I know Martin Smith never really left, but I was unimpressed with most of God’s Great Dance Floor 01. There are some pretty good songs, and the video for “Back to the Start” is pretty cool once all the dancers come in, but nothing resonated with me in any deep way. So it was a pleasant surprise at how strong part 2 is, released just half a year later. You get the full version of God’s Great Dance Floor, plus powerful songs like Great Is Your Faithfulness, Song of Solomon and Emmanuel.
Random: Some other random things. The great Bobby McFerrin put out an album of spirituals this year, and the tracks 25:15 (a verse from the Psalms he’s been doing improvs on since at least 1997) and Rest/Yes Indeed are both nice if you’re wanting something different to worship to. Chasing You from Bethel Music’s Tides record is a fantastic song. And Kim Walker-Smith’s record with her husband Skyler, called Home, was largely overlooked and is really, really good. The song Relentless Pursuit is a great place to start, especially if you already like what Kim usually does. But the whole album is great.
And that’s that. Thanks for taking the time to skim. I’d love to hear your thoughts from the year as well, and let’s hope 2014 is an even better one.