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  Ten - Celebrating a Decade of Wonder
Artist: Various Artists
Label: Essential Records (2002)
Length: 12 Tracks (48:35 minutes)

Ask most fans of Christian rock and pop to identify the birthplace of the music they love, and they'll direct you, without hesitation, to Nashville, Tennessee.  But, long before Music City perennials such as Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith had even finished grade school, pastors like Chuck Smith of Costa Mesa's Calvary Chapel were busy reaching out to the hordes of "hippies" that dotted the Southern Californian landscape with a message of Biblically-based acceptance.  These long-haired youth returned the favor by setting off a whirlwind of musical inventiveness during the late '60s and early '70s.  Crafting simple, unpretentious songs around Scripture passages and setting them to simple, mostly folk-tinged, melodies, these children of the "Jesus Movement" laid the foundation for what would eventually become known as Contemporary Christian Music.

Given its "ground zero" status during the earliest stages of the Jesus Movement, it hardly seems surprising that Southern California continued to teem with Christian talent in the decades that followed.  Formed in Costa Mesa in 1992 by Uthanda lead singer Robert Beeson, Essential Records' early roster was filled mostly with West Coast artists.  But, as the Decade of Wonder project shows, Beeson's move to Nashville in 1993 was the beginning of the label's rise to prominence.  Third Day's countrified "I've Always Loved You" and Jars of Clay's now-familiar "Flood" are both stirring entries from bands boasting a combined 32 Number 1 hits and 5 million albums sold.  Likewise, FFH's "One of These Days" is an eminently catchy slice of acoustic pop from the quartet that has vaulted nearly every one of its singles over the past five years into the Top 10.

Equally important to underscoring Beeson's knack for recognizing and cultivating commercially viable performers, the Wonder album highlights the diversity of the Essential Records roster.  The driving trip-hop of Silage's "Billboards" displays the band's quirky demeanor and simultaneously cavalier and convicting lyrical approach.  Likewise, the swaggering, garage funk of "Revolution" shows why Houston quintet Imagine This became one of the mid-'90s most popular Christian hard rock acts.  On the softer side of the coin, Bebo Norman's gripping "The Hammer Holds" sounds a commendable echo to the soft folk-rock textures of Cat Stevens, while Andrew Peterson's "The Chasing Song" holds a similarly impressive mirror to Rich Mullins' image-rich, semi-storytelling pop.  And Plumb's "God-Shaped Hole" displays the luminous results of the group's metamorphosis from the psychedelic hard rock of their debut to the shimmering, melody-driven alterna-pop of late.

As a whole, the Decade of Wonder collection sports a remarkably strong songlist, even for a multi-artist compilation, with hardly a weak entry among the lot.  That said, compositions from some of the label's lesser-known artists, such as Magdalen or Honey, might have worked as an enticement for diehard collectors who have very likely already heard most of Wonder's tracks.  Likewise, with only two of the album's 12 songs coming from the label's first four years of operation, contributions from early signees such as Lanny Cordola or, indeed, Beeson's own Uthanda, would arguably have made for a more compelling collection, historywise.  All in all, though, while Decade of Wonder admittedly falls short of offering an exhaustive chronological account of the Essential Records saga, it still hits the highlights fairly well, offering a succinct and solid primer to the flourishing label's first ten years.

Bert Gangl 8/5/2002



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