Heritage and Harmony Unite to Celebrate Black Music Month
It’s no secret that “black music” in America is firmly rooted in gospel. From Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston to Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson, many successful mainstream singers owe their musical heritage to the church.
Fortunately, we need not simply pay homage this June to gospel as if it’s a long-lost art form. Gospel music continues to be a thriving genre with new releases each week, from both long-established artists and those launching out for the first time. Below is just a sampling of some must-have gospel albums hitting stores this month. Support the music and celebrate the heritage!
Marvin Winans, The Praise & Worship Experience
The name “Winans” is virtually synonymous with contemporary gospel music. One indisputable central figure in the musical family dynasty is Marvin Winans, whose work as a songwriter and singer (both as a member of the brother group, The Winans, and as a solo artist) has become a thread in the fabric of gospel music.
With his first album in five years, Pastor Winans releases the self-produced The Praise & Worship Experience, the 14-track culmination of a live recording at Perfecting Church in Detroit, which Winans formed in 1989 and continues to pastor today.
The purpose of the album is plain and simple – it’s music for the church. And that truth serves as the bottom line of each song.
The album opens with Pastor Winans leading the worshipful single “Draw Me Close/Thy Will Be Done.” A re-working of the classic worship tune made popular by Michael W. Smith, the song builds from a bare vocal with piano before the choir joins to sing a Winans-penned tag.
The project seamlessly transitions to the upbeat “Glory to God,” featuring worship music pioneer Don Moen, “If My People,” a heartfelt call to return to God, and “Eyes On You,” an upbeat tune punctuated by horns and a playful, bouncy lead vocal. “For I Have Heard Your Cry” is a beautifully moving tribute to just one of many promises from God, while the waltzing praise declaration heard in “My Hiding Place” is an easy-to-sing congregational chant.
Other standouts on the album include “Faithful,” on which Marvin Winans absolutely owns the vamp, “Reach Out and Touch,” a duet between long-time friends Bishop Paul Morton and Winans and “Just Another Day,” which features Delores “Mom” Winans and Pastor Donnie McClurkin performing their own rendition of the traditional church devotional tune.
Also, don’t miss the track that’s sure to be a favorite, “That’s the Love of God,” which showcases nostalgic-styled lead vocals from super-duo Mary Mary that simply scream “throwback contemporary choir.”
On The Praise & Worship Experience, each song is supported by a well-trained church choir and carried along by lead vocalists – excellent in every case, whether sung by one of gospel’s greatest recording artists, or a faithful member of the Perfecting Church Choir. And constant throughout each song is the signature style of Marvin Winans – the musical anchor of it all, both as a songwriter and occasional lead vocalist. It just feels right. The Praise & Worship Experience offers a delightful blend of music for the church. It’s a must-have collection of congregational music. And for the die-hard fans of Marvin Winans alone, the album is solid enough to tide us over well until he releases another solo album.
BeBe Winans, America, America
BeBe Winans returns to the marketplace with a patriotic collection of songs, America, America. Produced by Daniel Weatherspoon (VaShawn Mitchell, Donald Lawrence), the album features 10 tracks, the majority of which are re-worked songs about our nation that lie in the public domain.
Guaranteeing widespread appeal, America, America has a varied musical style. “We’re The United States of America” features a declaration of patriotism, full of pomp and circumstance, while “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is performed completely a cappella and, aside from the full harmonies of a vibrant choir and a rolling snare drum, Winans’ voice stands alone.
But then there are tasteful and creative treatments, like in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which features a soulful piano, laced with just enough jazz to pay homage to the song’s gospel roots.
One of the most moving songs on the album is “God Bless America,” on which BeBe Winans simply soars with a heartfelt vocal over tastefully grand instrumentation. And don’t miss the album closer, “Ultimate Sacrifice,” an inspiring and moving song of gratitude to our heroes in service.
Because of the thematic nature of the album, it may not be played throughout the year, but it’s a solid collection of tunes featuring one of the richest and most spot-on voices in all of gospel music. You wouldn’t want it done any other way.
Regina Belle, Higher
In 2008, when Regina Belle delivered her debut gospel album, Love Forever Shines, a few purists voiced their skepticism. After decades of a successful, GRAMMY-winning career in R&B music, would she genuinely deliver good, heartfelt gospel music? An unfazed Regina Belle not only lived out her faith in music, but she delivered on the goods in a big way – her debut single, “God Is Good,” ripped through radio airwaves and topped national airplay for weeks.
Sidelined by a life threatening illness while preparing for her sophomore release, Belle took more time off than she had hoped. But now, with a clean bill of health, and an unshakeable testimony to boot, Regina Belle returns to the gospel marketplace with her newest project, Higher.
Higher is a cohesive 13 track project that highlights the hallmarks of Regina Belle’s artistry. She delivers passionate vocals on ballads like “Make An Example Out of Me,” while offering her soulful style on more R&B-tinged grooves like “Coming Back” and “That’s How God Does.” And don’t miss the traditional, but modern, “Been So Good to Me,” which features a duet with the legendary Shirley Caesar.
Regina Belle’s Higher is aptly titled – she showcases her signature vocals with tried-and-true gospel roots, while raising the bar just enough for us to want more.
Byron Cage, Memoirs of a Worshipper
Byron Cage, often referred to as gospel music’s “prince of praise,” has found his niche in live recordings. With a keen ability to lead audiences in energetic praise and worship, Cage is back with his newest album.
This 11-track collection of songs was well-introduced to consumers by its lead radio single, “Great & Mighty.” The song fits into the modern Sunday morning worship experience, but it also has Byron Cage’s signature passionate lead vocals backed by the solid blend of a hand-picked background ensemble.
Other standouts include “Victory,” a declaratory duet with gospel legend Fred Hammond, the traditional and churchy “Good Anyhow,” and the hand-clapping, foot-stomping “My Refuge/My Strength.”
If Memoirs of a Worshipper falls short for anyone, it will be because it doesn’t deliver many surprises – it’s pretty even flow for what we’ve come to expect from Byron Cage. But that’s not a bad thing. The album offers music that is consistent with who Byron Cage is and has always been, a vocalist who is passionate about leading people in praise and worship. As some might say, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”
Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago, The Best of Both Worlds
From the first note of the debut album from Charles Jenkins & Fellowship Chicago, you know it’s going to be one of “those” albums – a high-energy project propelled by great songwriting, astounding lead vocalists and, at its very core, a powerful choir that makes you want to visit the church time and time again.
Pastor Charles Jenkins’ solid presentation of Chicago’s Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church dynamic choir shouldn’t go unappreciated. Considering that his pastoral predecessor, the legendary Reverend Clay Evans, released 25 albums with acclaimed hits over the course of his tenure, his accomplishment in maintaining some of Sunday morning’s finest music was no small feat.
Nearly every song on this album could stand to be replayed back-to-back a few times, but you may want to pay close attention to these tracks – the unstoppable radio single, “Awesome,” the beautifully simple “Close to You” and the heartfelt song of gratitude, “Giving Honor to God,” featuring Bishop Paul Morton. Also, don’t miss Karen Clark Sheard’s guest appearance on “Release Your Faith.” It’s the stuff that gospel music is made of.
Perhaps the best feature of The Best of Both Worlds is that, while familiar and relatable to the church, the project has got just enough edge and innovation to demand your attention. It’s the type of album that you might offer to someone who asks, “What exactly does church music sound like?” And, with that, we are reminded that gospel music – the music of the church – is still alive and quite well.