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City on a Hill: Sing Alleluia

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Feb
City on a Hill: Sing Alleluia
Sounds like … a sophisticated blend of modern pop with traditional worship, reflecting the unique sounds of all the talented artists involvedAt a Glance … this is a fabulous worship album highlighted by smart artist pairings — it's very creative and yet accessible to all listeners' tastes.

When it comes to movies, a lot of us love sequels because we know exactly what we're getting, and we can usually expect more of the things that endeared the first film to us. But at the same time, we also know sequels are rarely creative and artistic — they're usually little more than a rehashing of the original formula. When it comes to music, sequels are even more suspect because you typically get an album that tries to imitate the first, resulting in a stale and inferior project. Sometimes, however, you get a music series such as MTV's Unplugged, which maintains creativity over several albums. A musical series like that works because it forces the artists to conform to a certain set of guidelines while still adding their own musical imprint to the series. It also succeeds in creating a sense of artistic community among the artists — everyone from Eric Clapton and Mariah Carey to Maxwell and Kiss has appeared on Unplugged. This successful notion of collaboration and community seems to be working for City on a Hill: Sing Alleluia, an album so good it actually improves upon the original. If you've heard the first, you know this is no small feat.

Like the first disc, Sing Alleluiais a blend of modern pop/folk. In some ways it's edgier and grittier sounding than the first, yet it's also more traditional in its sound. If you recall, the first disc closes with church bells playing "All Creatures of Our God and King." The new album picks up where the first left off with a choral version of the hymn, sung by the women on the album and backed by a church organ. Sing Alleluia features nearly everyone that made the first disc such a success: producers Steve Hindalong and Marc Byrd, Jars of Clay, Caedmon's Call, and FFH. Both Mac Powell of Third Day and Derri Daugherty of The Choir return without their bandmates. Sixpence None the Richer, Peter Furler, and Sonicflood sit out for this album, but new to the project are Jennifer Knapp, Fernando Ortega, Nichole Nordeman, Sandra McCracken, Bebo Norman, and Phil Keaggy. It's the diverse range of artists and the smart collaboration between them that makes City on a Hill so memorable.

The title track and current single features Jennifer Knapp and Mac Powell (with Nichole Nordeman on backing vocals) on this album's equivalent to the first disc's smash hit, "God of Wonders." Not surprisingly, Jennifer and Mac's earthy vocals make a good pairing, no doubt enhanced by their time touring together. Likewise, it's no surprise that Derek Webb of Caedmon's Call sounds terrific singing with his wife, independent artist Sandra McCracken, on an expanded version of "Marvelous Light" from the first album. Then there's "Holy Is Your Name," featuring Bebo Norman with Cliff and Danielle Young of Caedmon's Call. They, too, have sung together on tour, but Bebo's vocals sound different here than on his own albums, and the blend between the three of them is terrific. Nichole Nordeman sings "Shine Your Light" with FFH backing her up, and Phil Keaggy teams with Cliff and Danielle for "Communion." But hands down, the best and most unlikely pairing on the album is Mac Powell with Fernando Ortega, with their duet "Our Great God." You'd think Fernando's soft and understated inspirational-folk style wouldn't mix well with Mac's roots-rock vocalizing, but somehow the two meet in the middle and come up with a song that's both traditional and modern in style. I predict this one to be the breakout single for the album, and it's even better than the solo version on Fernando's recent album.

Additionally, there are songs performed individually by Nichole Nordeman ("You Are Holy"), Jars of Clay ("The Comforter Has Come"), FFH ("Hide Me in Your Heart"), and Jennifer Knapp ("Hallowed"). The songs are all focused on God's goodness and grace, a basic subject for worship to be sure, but it never resorts to standard worship rhetoric. The songs instead come off as poetic and reverent, especially the last one-third of the album, which is very liturgical. Starting with Jennifer Knapp's gorgeous interpretation of The Lord's Prayer on "Hallowed" (with Phil Keaggy accompanying on guitar), Sing Alleluiaenters a time of Holy Communion, with Derri Daugherty singing the responsive song "Lift Your Hearts (Sursum Corda)" with the other artists. This leads into the aforementioned "Communion," followed by Phil singing a brief benediction, and all the artists joining together for "All Creatures of Our God and King" once again. Once it concludes, the producers make effective use of chirping birds and chiming church bells to create the atmosphere of leaving church on a sunny Sunday morning.

This isn't simply a worship album, but a worship album that creates a sense of community. Seldom has an album so effectively bridged the gap between denominations and worship styles. Whether you're more comfortable with traditional hymns and liturgy or modern praise choruses, Sing Alleluiasuccessfully blends the two for most all to enjoy (unless you're looking for hard rock or gospel). The album's consistent sound can be attributed to producers Steve Hindalong and Marc Byrd, who wrote nearly every song. If I had to offer any complaints about Sing Alleluia, I'd point to the missed opportunity for these artists to write their own music together as a community. The only true collaborative creations between artists and producers are "Our Great God," "Shine Your Light," and "Hide Me In Your Heart." All the other songs are written by the producers, with the exception that Jars of Clay and Jennifer Knapp wrote their own songs. On the other hand, I think it's the album's continuity that makes it an improvement on the original. The artists may not write together for the most part, but they do perform together — and if there was ever an excuse for artistic collaboration on a Christian project, it's worship. City on a Hill: Sing Alleluia is a remarkable worship experience, filled with songs I want to try in my own church. This is almost certainly one of the year's best albums, and I think we can expect similar greatness from future albums in this series.