By BRUCE DENNILL
Sia: Everyday Is Christmas 7
Various Artists: The World’s Favourite Praise & Worship Songs 7
Planetshakers: Outback Worship 6
Phil Wickham: Children Of God 6
Passion: 3CD Compilation 8
From the beginning of Everyday Is Christmas, it’s necessary to take on the quirky vocal and phrasing stylings that Sia brings to all her work, sometimes sounding like she’s gone a bit cod-Jamaican or willfully pitching in a slightly nasal way when it’s patently clear that she can – if she wants to – project perfectly clearly and with impressive strength. What’s never in doubt is her songwriting ability, and these 10 original Christmas songs are a welcome addition to a sometimes clichéd canon. Opening duo Santa’s Coming For Us and Candy Cane Lane are top-notch pop singles that happen to have festive lyrical themes. Snowman and Snowflake, also paired together, are more introspective, assigning both of those icy items rather melancholic emotional properties. Ho Ho Ho cheerfully tackles further adult themes like lonely and drinking to forget feeling that way, and features the album’s best interlude, a horn-led lick that sounds like it should be the backing for a group of cartoon elephants dancing. Puppies Are Forever is the catchiest paen to responsible pet ownership you’ll ever hear, before Sia again addresses the more complex emotional aspects of the seasons in the sensitive but swinging Sunshine. Underneath The Mistletoe takes one of the cheesiest of Christmas themes and makes it romantic and heartfelt, though through a slightly unconventional lens. She does that again – the subversion of an over-used idea by replacing predictable sentiment with intelligence and soul – in Everyday Is Christmas before closing with unreplicatable phrasing and repetition (and yet it somehow works) in Underneath The Christmas Lights. Sia has managed the sort of triumph here that she’s achieved with each of her albums – challenging people with her inventiveness and then beguiling them with her talent.
Despite its none-more-generic title and cover art, The World’s Favourite Praise & Worship Songs is one step above many of its competitors in that it slightly broadens the scope of the playlist from which the songs were chosen, including some chestnuts (Graham Kendrick’s Shine Jesus Shine; Delirious’ I Could Sing Of Your Love Forever), but also acknowledging more recent songs and styles from All Sons & Daughters’s magnificent Great Are You Lord via LIFE Worship’s distillation of the Nicene Creed in We Believe to the club pop of Martin Smith’s God Great Dance Floor. There are 50 songs here, with many of the great modern songwriters represented. Two bizarre omissions are Michael W Smith and Chris Tomlin, with the former being one of the most consistent performers in this scene for the last three decades and the latter arguably the most influential writer of the last year or two. That probably has to do with licensing issues rather than anything more sinister, but it further undermines the universal title of the collection.
When Planetshakers arrived on the scene a few years ago they exhibited, like many evangelistic youth-focused “movements”, a breathless enthusiasm that made their offering superficially attractive but often short on real depth. This will have something to do with the simple passing of time and the maturity that comes with that, but there are also a number of songwriting collaborations that help to expand the established Planetshakers palette into territory that might be (ironically) either more exiting or more comfortable – both positive steps – for listeners who required some convincing that this outfit are in the same league, musically speaking, as their fellow Australians Hillsong United. Outback Worship drops the average beats per minute ratio relative to previous releases, encouraging introspection to a greater degree. Opener Like A Fire has an agreeable pop sound that contrasts well with more traditional congregational tunes. Spirit Of God and My Soul Longs For Jesus, written in part and in whole respectively by Nashville-based CCM super-producer Ed Cash, show off two sides – the relatively generic contemporary sound and the more classic modern hymn approach – of the popular Christian music mainstream. Planetshaker singer-songwriter Joth Hunt’s Nothing Is Impossible is perhaps the congregational highlight of the collection, with a chorus that’s easy to sing – particularly if you agree with the sentiment. Later, Father helps to fill an important niche – worship songs that highlight God’s loving father heart in a world where the men filling that role are often, politely put, not up to the job. There are no unique perspectives presented here, but Outback Worship has some powerful moments.
Phil Wickham is an interesting artist in the context of the mainstream Christian contemporary music market in that he’s part of the A-list and plays regularly with that circuit’s stars but is otherwise largely a separate entity, not co-writing with the usual suspects and having a different, more electric sound to most of his peers. He begins this Children Of God safely enough with Doxology//Amen. Your Love Awakens Me is more forceful – chart-friendly power-pop that has a strong, obvious Christian message. A duet with Madison Cunningham, The Secret Place, is good but somewhat tainted by what sounds like unnecessary autotune on the vocals in the chorus, while Wide Awake lives up to its name, its spiky keyboard riff taking listeners to a club dancefloor. Starmaker, at nearly seven minutes long, seems set up to be epic, and the flow and swell of the arrangement confirms that as the likely intent, but it’s solid rather than spectacular. The title track features another intro likely to inspire mass bouncing in the front rows at concerts, before Stand In Awe positions itself as one of the more likely tracks from the album to become a church worship set staple (though likely with a less synthesiser-driven feel). In contrast to all that energy the closing two tracks, As It Is In Heaven and Spirit Of God allow an opportunity for introspection, though in sequencing terms, it does feel – if you’re listening to the whole album in a sitting – as though you’ve been pumped up, only to plateau as things end, rather than ending with your blood pumping. The collection feels uneven at a first listen, and takes time to settle.
Passion is an evangelical church movement based in Atlanta, aimed mostly at college students. It’s become immensely popular over the years, its reputation built largely upon the musical component of the set-up there. Chris Tomlin has earned superstar based on his work there and the songs he’s written and made famous during his tenure. Christy Nockels and Kristian Stanfill are not far behind in terms of their profile, and established stars like Matt Redman, David Crowder and Kari Jobe have been or still are involved with the movement. What with the breadth of this prodigious talent and the collaborations between thes and other artists besides, it’s not surprising that the catalogue of music that Passion has built up is remarkable – and influential. There are towering songs on this collection of three of the albums – White Flag, Let The Future Begin and Take It All – produced by outfit. From Tomlin, there is White Flag, Yahweh, Whom Shall I Fear (God Of Angel Armies), and At The Cross, Love Ran Red. Nockels fronts You Came To My rescue and a range of others, while Stanfill sings One Thing Remains, Come To The Water and In Christ Alone. Crowder’s Come As You Are soars and Redman’s Mercy and, particularly, 10 000 Reasons (Bless The Lord) are about as good as it gets in worship terms. Whatever happens from here on, Passion’s legacy is secure.