A look back at the worship albums that made us who we are...
You can learn a lot about a worship leader by looking at the music that inspired him or her in their youth. I came of age during two seismic cultural shifts when it came to music. As far as secular music goes, I was witness to the sea change caused by the alternative music scene. I wasn’t quite old enough to recognize what a massive change the “Seattle sound” had truly done to rock n’ roll, but I was certainly aware that music was exploding into the lives of me and my friends.
But that’s not the only thing I was hearing. The other transformation in front of me involved worship music. We were transitioning as a church culture and it wasn’t easy for a lot of my elders, but I loved it. I don’t that I would have said I wanted be a worship leader back then, but I did love worship music. I had a cheap guitar and I knew three chords (don’t know that many more now, btw) and there was nothing more fun than playing along with these new “rocking” church songs.
That’s why I thought it might be fun to revisit some of the worship albums that shaped me. A review-in-retrospect, you might say.
I was already a fan of Paul Baloche when First Love came out. But you have to remember that we didn’t know when records would release - especially worship albums, which were such a new concept at the time. Even if FIRST LOVE hadn’t been great (which it was and still is) the mere discovery of a new Baloche CD was a big deal regardless. I’ve been listening through this record today and still have such a fondness for this collection of songs.
Before the proliferation of the internet, we didn’t know when new worship records were coming out. This was before worship music would take over contemporary Christian music. There were no magazine articles about worship music, not playlists online with hot new worship tracks and no blogs from big famous worship leaders. In fact, there weren’t blogs about anything, come to think of it.
I was traveling through Tyler, Texas, when I heard the title rack from the CD. They played it on the local Christian radio station in the middle of the day, and I was floored. I had never heard this song. What was this? It was a worship song…on the radio! Imagine my surprise when the DJ said, “and that’s the brand new song from Paul Baloche.”
The newsflash in my head had multiple levels.
Paul Baloche has a new record…
And they play it on the radio here…
And it’s also really good…
The record is “churchy” in all the best ways. On my re-listens, I noticed how simple the electric guitar parts were. Maybe this was intentional, maybe it was just the nature of the musicians - but to release a worship album in the midst of the worship debate that stayed away from big, blazing rock n’ roll guitar solos is such a perfect move. I was four songs in when I realized that the church of my youth could have done any one of those songs and never tripped any sort of worship war alarm with the hymns-only crowd.
It’s also organized like a worship set, and not just dynamically. By grabbing a few popular Delirious songs, the whole album played like a song service and not a concert. The middle of the record is so brilliantly stacked with ballads just big enough to transition out of the opening numbers but also simple enough to drop into the quieter moments of worship.
Beyond that, First Love was filled with fantastic songwriting. Maybe it’s because we took longer in between albums in those days, but all the original stuff on the project is arranged and written so beautifully. This is before “worship hits” was a thing on the radio or in churches, but one could easily see the songs were original in concept but singable. This record introduced the world to “Open The Eyes Of My Heart,” which is probably considered the hit song of this record, but it’s just one of numerous fantastic songs.
But what really shines years later is the diversity of the album. It’s packed with choices that would eventually would become benchmarks of worship music - V chords for acoustic guitar, tom parts for drums and auxiliary percussion, a tasteful solution to the percussion explosion we were experiencing in worship music. Paul found a way to implement these instruments without making them the entire focus of the album. He and his musicians didn’t invent these musical approaches, but this record was definitely an innovator. Would the church-at-large have picked up on all this if the record hadn’t had “Open The Eyes…”? Who knows.
But there’s a good lesson here for those of us who care about album making. We never know where a project will end up. We have no way of planning for a song to break through and reach a massive audience. So, why not make the album you want to make, full of diverse styles and arrangements? If some song gets thousands of people to hear your record, that’s fantastic. But even if that doesn’t happen, you’ve still made an album you can be proud of.
What about you? Do you remember this record? Or better yet, what's a worship album that influenced you?