Songs 4 Ever
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2007 1 Oct
Christian music has never seen a box set quite like Time Life's Songs 4 Ever. Sure, there have been series like WoW Hits and Time Life's own best-selling Songs 4 Worship. But none have been quite this comprehensive, chronicling over 30 years of CCM history into a beautifully packaged 10-disc set. With 150 songs and a booklet containing all the lyrics, it's no wonder this juggernaut is labeled "The Ultimate Christian Music Collection"—yours for $119.95.
Just don't confuse ultimate with perfect. True, the set does successfully reach back to the early days of Christian pop. Remember Petra's "The Coloring Song," Phil Keaggy's "Your Love Broke Through," and Degarmo & Key's "Ready or Not"? How about near forgotten oldies from 2nd Chapter of Acts ("Easter Song"), Dallas Holm ("Rise Again"), and Don Francisco ("He's Alive")? And, yes, who can forget classics by Keith Green ("Oh Lord, You're Beautiful"), Larry Norman ("I Wish We'd All Been Ready"), and Rich Mullins ("Awesome God")?
Songs 4 Ever also includes many of the hits you'd expect from Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, 4Him, Point of Grace, Jars of Clay, and other contemporary heavyweights, not to mention worship standards by the likes of Hillsong, Vineyard, Passion, and Delirious. It's the newer selections that seem more of a stretch. By all means, include Casting Crowns, MercyMe, Chris Tomlin, Jeremy Camp, and tobyMac. But Kutless' "Strong Tower" and The Afters' "Beautiful Love" seem more questionable inclusions in the annals of Christian pop. Also, with Smitty featured on nearly every disc here, penning plenty of his own classics over the last 25 years, is his cover of the worship song "Draw Me Close" really necessary?? Newsboys are likewise appropriately represented by four songs in this collection, but should their cover of "You Are My King (Amazing Love)" be one of them? And seriously, two tracks from Brian Littrell?
Which brings up the matter of alternate versions. Granted, Littrell scored a hit a couple of years back with his rendition of "In Christ Alone," but past controversies notwithstanding, doesn't a historical collection like this warrant the inclusion of Michael English's original version? Wouldn't it have similarly been nice to spread the history and recognition by including Charlie Peacock's "In the Light," rather than the dc Talk cover always featured on best-of's? And Tim Hughes has already proven himself as one of the new generation's greatest worship writers, yet he's nowhere to be found in the collection; so-so covers by Sonicflood ("Here I Am to Worship") and By the Tree ("Beautiful One") are offered instead.
There's a nice range of styles represented on Songs 4 Ever, but it tends to skew toward AC pop. Sure, there's some rock to be found with Audio Adrenaline's "Big House," Rebecca St. James' "God," and several of the aforementioned artists. Yet how do you chronicle the best in Christian music and leave out bestsellers like P.O.D. and Switchfoot, or legends like Whiteheart and Steve Taylor? Copyright permissions must play a part, but there's still a clear-cut bias towards pop and inspirational here.
We could quibble song selection all year, but the songs represented on Songs 4 Ever are mostly very good. Where this box set ultimately falls short is presentation—not the glossy packaging but the counterintuitive organization of its content. The predictable (but effective) solution for collections like this is to go chronological by year or general timeframe. It could have also worked if the songs were grouped by style or mood. Songs 4 Ever is (very) loosely grouped by theme, using simple titles for each disc. Now Power Ballads and Worship are pretty self-explanatory, and Alive largely sticks to subjects of Easter and new life. But Believe, Forever, and even Love seem considerably more vague when you glance their track listings.
Suppose you wanted to listen to Smitty's perennial favorite "Friends." Would you think to look for it on Shout alongside Grant's "Baby Baby," Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses," and the worship standards "Shout to the Lord" and "Come Now Is the Time to Worship"? MercyMe's biggest hit is right at home on Imagine, but how exactly do "El Shaddai," "Flood," and "Dive" fit with it? And near as I can tell, the only thing Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me" has in common with Nicole C. Mullen's "Redeemer," Randy Travis' "Three Wooden Crosses," Jaci Velasquez's "On My Knees," and others on the Hope disc is that they're all part of Word Entertainment—in an oddly anti-ecumenical move, Word seems to be the only label unwilling to intermingle their artists on the other nine discs.
The simple remedy for the technologically savvy that buy the collection is to rip it all to an mp3 player and organize at will. Because ultimately, this set comes down to the wealth of songs included here—what they say about our faith and how well pop music has reflected that faith over the years. It's a collection largely representing the brightest and best of CCM over multiple generations—even though most CCM fans probably own much of this already. And though it would have been nice to include more old songs, let's face it—the biggest hits came as Christian music gained prominence. ?Songs 4 Ever is by no means a perfect box set, but it's a reasonable overview of its history nonetheless.