Following the September 11 tragedy, 2002 was a year first marked by poignant tributes from every corner of the culture, Christian music included. dc Talk reunited for the Let's Roll project's title cut, Kirk Franklin centered his new set around the observant "911" track, and almost every name imaginable joined the Voices of Hope choir for "In God We Trust", a memorial single found on the Dove Hits compilation.

Those important historical contributions aside, the year's finest traditional offerings came from a multi-genre mix of artists so clearly comfortable in their own creative skin; industry leaders, up-and-comers, introspective poets, and outgoing pop acts that came through with consistent style and substance.

So, before the slate is cleaned again, ushering in a barrage of 2003 studio releases from Steven Curtis Chapman, Audio Adrenaline, Michael W. Smith, Third Day, Newsboys, and Amy Grant, plus best-of breathers from Avalon and Rebecca St. James, let's take a fond look back at the best of 2002 (listed in no particular order).

Worship Again – Michael W. Smith
Sequel rarely means equal, but Michael W. Smith deftly maintained the integrity of his platinum Worship release on this well played follow-up.  Another concert album with three extra studio recordings, it again explores his love for modern church songs by young talents like Chris Tomlin and Tim Hughes and the late Rich Mullins.   Refreshing the formula, Michael pens a dramatic instrumental ("The Sacred Romance") and brings his wife and daughter in to co-write the Celtic flavored "You Are the Lord" and hauntingly melodic "I Can Hear Your Voice."  Best is the double-take cover of "Lord Have Mercy," a confessional duet sung live with Sarah McIntosh and reprised in the studio with Amy Grant.  Ultimately, consider Worship Again a more meditative and choral companion to the original.

Divine Discontent - Sixpence None the Richer
Their crossover success a hotly debated topic among Christian music purists in recent years, the members of Sixpence None the Richer returned unaffected by the opinions swirling around them with this confident, obviously faith-influenced pop work.  The breeziness of "Kiss Me" matured into more elaborate hooks on the dreamy "Breathe Your Name" and sparkling "Down and Out of Time," while a version of the 1986 Crowded House classic "Don't Dream It's Over" perpetuated the band's reputation for inherent good taste.  A close listen to Divine Discontent suggests the combination of Leigh Nash's angel voice and Matt Slocum's literate guitar-led writing is among the best one-two artistic punches on any chart today.

The Eleventh Hour -Jars of Clay
The band that "Flood"-ed the scene back in 1995 really did gather strengths from its first three efforts for The Eleventh Hour.  Self-assured and self-produced like the self-titled debut, tender and tuneful as Much Afraid, messily soulful and electric as If I Left The Zoo, these sepia-toned songs kept Jars of Clay on a fresh, steadily rising musical road.  Natural born alternative artists, the quartet approached praise from left field on "I Need You" and found an unlikely pop hit in the pain-to-peace hospital setting of "Fly."  Moving ever closer to the artistic league of R.E.M. or Counting Crows, this intriguing act is always worth investigation.

The Art of Translation - GRITS
People get so excited about the community concept behind worship projects like City On A Hill that mix and match musicians for invigorating creative results, and it works just as well in the hip-hop world.  Just look at the fourth release from GRITS, wherein emcees Bonafide and Coffee unite with the likes of tobyMac ("Ooh-Aah") and Jennifer Knapp ("Believe") to great effect.  Likewise, they score without guests on the million-words-a-minute "Here We Go" and sporty "Tennessee Bwoys" (sic).  In 2002, the duo just kept moving ahead, taking its intelligent, Christ-focused rhymes deeper into the urban mainstream through MTV Jams, BET, etc.  Unprecedented.