The latest part of the ongoing series chronicling, in no particular order, the greatest 1001 recordings made by Christian artists
Continued from page 3
14. RUSS TAFF - I STILL BELIEVE, 1988. From the album 'Russ
That surge of joy when you put your stereo up to full throttle and let that wall of rhythms that is great rock music envelop you in an adrenalin-pumping charge, is still one of the great mysteries of the creative experience. Judging from the large numbers of potbellied oldsters leaping around their living rooms to Led Zep, Dire Straits or U2 it has little to do with age. If this had been a single, and had got past the BBC selection panel, this stunning revival of the song originally recorded by those mainstream rockers The Call would have charted. As it is it's the choice cut on a classic album, which was to prove to be the pivotal recording for Russ, who has now returned to his Southern gospel roots. Over a reverb-boosted drum kit thunderous enough to shift the wax from any eardrum, power chords thunder and keyboards propel an anthemic mid tempo song, which surged forward in a relentless gallop. The inspired arrangement fits the words perfectly..."through the pain...and the heat...I still believe". The lyrics have the unmistakable ring of authenticity while Russ' strangled, soul-edged voice has never whooped and wheezed to better effect.
15. SPIRIT OF MEMPHIS QUARTET - THE DAY IS PASSED AND GONE,
1947. From the album 'The Spirit Of Memphis Quartet',
Black quartet music have produced few groups as brilliant as the seven-piece led by the mighty voiced Jethro Bledsoe. This team could 'upset' any black congregation, leaving the saints quaking and shaking under the sheer Spirit-wrought power of these much loved church-wreckers. This 78 from the Eisenhower era is one of the most spine-tingling otherworldly recordings ever put out for popular music consumption. Acappella, it consists of three awesome elements: lugubrious lead bluesily intoning a blunt declaration of faith with enough melisma and blue notes to make your average blues enthusiast go ga-ga; a rasped sermonette hoarsely exhorting Christians to keep going over "the rough side of the mountain"; and an eerie drone of precisely-harmonised 'oohs'. Call it superb folk art or anointed ministry it doesn't really matter though it would be good if Christians, black as well as white, could begin paying attention to the rich musical heritage of groups like Spirit Of Memphis. Incongruously, it's non-Christian, white, matrix-number collectors who are currently keeping the memory of classics like this 1949 recording alive.
16. TAKE 6 - A QUIET PLACE, 1987. From the album 'Take 6',
The '80s sound of acappella. This team won more awards and rich acclaim for their debut album than any of the thousands of storefront harmonizers could have dreamed of. It was all deserved too. Seldom have human voices been taken to such levels of musical complexity, harmony laid on harmony to build intricate, lightly swinging, jazz-gospel creations of dazzling virtuosity. But Take 6 were not just exercises in vocal technique. Their lyrical sound, which can at times sound rather like '50s middle of the roaders the Four Freshmen and at times like how a Temptations performance might come over if the band never showed, always keeps you listening and grooving with its jazz pizzazz.
17. DON FRANCISCO - TOO SMALL A PRICE, 1982. From the album
'Got To Tell Somebody', Newpax.
Nobody could tell biblical stories in song better than this country-tinged troubadour. Don managed to build a big following in Britain without any help from the usual Festival showcases thanks to his willingness to tour constantly and this utterly compelling re-telling of the pain, despair and final glorious moment of faith of the thief on the cross is, even today, a constant of his stage performances. Musically Don had his limitations but here a nicely abrasive rock guitar and some engagingly dated synth effects perfectly fit the doomy mood of the song. He continued the story (the thief's arrival in Heaven no less!) on another album but it's this vivid saga which bites the deepest.
18. KIM HILL - UNSPOKEN LOVE, 1988. From the album 'Kim Hill',
The simplest of productions, a piano, and a voice, a husky contralto which is surely one of the most characteristic in Christendom, was all that was needed when the song is of this quality. An achingly sad ballad which was the most poignant of warnings to every husband or wife not to miss the God given opportunities to express and demonstrate love; "Unspoken Love" was a gem.
19. AMY GRANT - LEAD ME ON, 1988. From the album 'Lead Me On',
I remember Stewart Henderson telling me how banal he though the video of 'Lead Me On' was. (I loved that too - Amy walking through canyons and standing under waterfalls might have been clichéd to his superior aesthetic perspective but for me it seemed perfectly to fit the mood and message of the song). Of the single though we both agreed, here was a perfect pop record, its glorious anthemic swirl sounding as good on Radio One (who almost made it into a hit) as it did in all its high tech state-of-the-art majesty when crashing from your stereo. Amy's captivating bittersweet voice whispered soft and intimate then soared strong and strident while a morse-code guitar figure and interlocking synths propel her forward. A timeless track.
20. LARRY NORMAN - I WISH WE'D ALL BEEN READY, 1969. From the
album 'Upon This Rock', Dove.
I've lost count of the renditions Larry's recorded of this song, not mentioning old Harry Webb's, but this is still the best. Larry's voice is high, fragile and almost breaking with world-weariness. A string quartet and piano produced an accompaniment as sonorous as a sigh and a lyric which left in the hands of your average white metaller would have come across as hectoring rant, in the hand of this laureate of Christian rock becomes a warning, more sad than chilling, of what will happen on the day of the Rapture. Who will ever forget Larry's imagery of disappearing husbands and dining-demon? Some believers may have a different Rapture theology but few can argue that this classic from the Jesus music days still hits home with prophetic power.
As published in CR3, 1st September 1990
21. HARMONISING FOUR - WHEN TEARS ARE FALLING, 1962.
From the various artists album 'Jesus Is The Answer',
The Harmonising Four clocked up 40 years of recording with only one personnel change, so when I tell you these guys' harmonies were tight it's clear I ain't jivin' junior. The oiliest most lugubrious sound ever to ooze from an hi-fi loudspeaker it was the inspiration for a thousand doowop group though, as usual, black gospel's pioneers never saw the paydirt. This cut for Vee Jay Records stems from 1962 and is a classic for every delicate flight of lead singer Thomas Johnson (listen to the way wiley ol' Tom stays just behind then just in front of the death march beat) and that oohing, aahing chorus which rises and falls in uncanny effect. No wonder black gospel's tiny but vociferous band of matrix-number collecting devotees are prepared to swop vital organs for a mint Harmonising Pour on Decca (circa.1943). Art as timeless as that produced by these veterans has no price.
22. REZ - LOVE COME DOWN, 1986. From the album 'Between Heaven
And Hell', Sparrow.
Heavy rock started with blues riffs and when you've got a singer as competent with gravel-voiced blues hollering as Rez's Glenn Kaiser all it needs is the right riff for the sparks to fly. Rez have never had a meatier axe riff than this, a series of explosive surges of grated distortion in between which Glenn can rasp staccato interjections. Pumped up to nosebleed volume it's got to be one of the most energising rock tracks ever and though the storyline of the accompanying video left me baffled this is still blues rock, tough and heavy enough to appeal to all but the most lobotomised heavy head.
23. CYNTHIA CLAWSON - I'LL BE HOME, 1981. From the album
'Finest Hour', Triangle.
There's no mileage in toting middle of the road music. Your colleagues think it's tangible evidence of creeping senility, your youth group will laugh at you and every cliché about elevator music and saccharine coatings will come up if you admit to enjoying a Sandi Patti or a (perish the thought) Dave Pope track. But really music is less about genres and markets, than singers and songs. When you've got such a technically superb vocalist as Ms Clawson (one of a bevy of Nashville-based lasses whose squeaky clean and very American image makes her a difficult singer to market UK despite US popularity) and a song as fine as this, I find myself having to bite the bullet and saying this is a brilliant track. A ballad (what else?), with a delicately acoustic guitar giving it a slight country-cum-folk feel. The three things which push it to the top of the stack are a liltingly beautiful melody, some poignantly understated vocalising from Cynth (not for her the hand-wringing melodrama which can make Ms Patti so unlistenable) and a lyric which speaks of eternity hope with stark, poetic simplicity. Whoever you are David Henson (words and music man for "I'll Be Home") you sure know how to craft a song.
24. TRAMAINE - FALL DOWN (SPIRIT OF LOVE), 1985. Extended
Vocal Version, 12" single, A&M.
A single further from the controlled sweetness of Cynthia Clawson than Tramaine Hawkins would be hard to find. Here's a singer who subscribes to the hallowed black gospel belief that the only way to sing a song is to shriek it into shreds and proceeds to savage Robert Wright's exhortation for the Spirit to descend. As if Tramaine's screams, gasps and gargles weren't electrifying enough, the track, a full-tilt piece of dance funk, is something else. Synth bass and percussion positively crunch the bones, though to get the full effect you need to search out this 12-inch (the mix on "The Search Is Over' just isn't as hard). No wonder this was a US dance monster in '85. Gospel funk rules.
25. D-BOY - WHEN I STRUT, 1989. From the album 'Plantin' A
It took a "secular" producer in Robert Wright to pump up the bass on Tramaine's mighty dance jam and for the next five years nothing has been quite as heavy again in Christendom. But this comes close. A mighty, mighty bass line which trundles like an unstoppable train, a drum sound which sounds like hammer hitting anvil and a slyly witty rap from D-Boy Rodriguez. "My lyrics are my music," he exhorts and after this hip-hop monster who'd argue.
26. SHIRLEY NOVAK - THE LIAR, 1987. From the album 'Beyond
Your Eyes', Pulse.
A great example of how poor, impoverished Brit gospel artists can sometimes compete even when their recording budgets would be pushed to cover of the costs of one Amy Grant song demo. Shirley is a mighty talent, a singer/songwriter with a compelling original singing style who sounds not a lot like anyone else around. And here she performs one of the most chilling songs ever committed to tape, an awesome eerie ballad about the Devil which is helped in part by some of the most effective digital delay ever to emerge from a recording engineers box of tricks, sears itself into the mind. Not a comfortable listen but a quite brilliant cut.
27. STAPLES - GOD CAN, 1983. From the album 'The Staples',
After their move to soul music most gospel buffs wrote the Staple Singers but this wondrously soulful gospel ballad turned up on a decidedly ordinary pop soul album track in the early '80s. What makes it is a lovely harmonised hook and a sermonette from Pops where he compares the operation of God with a boy flying a kite far in the clouds "you can't see it but sometimes you can feel it trembling on the string..." A wonderful throwback to those Chicago gospel roots.