The Phantom Tollbooth

WOW: The 90’s
Artist: Various
Label: Word/Epic
Tracks/Time: 15 tracks/69:23 (disc one), 15 tracks/69:44 (disc two)

Nobody ever expects surprises from a WOW compilation. Every year, the deal is the same: fifteen pop and fifteen rock songs that everyone has already heard on the radio. Some of the stuff is good; some of it is almost shockingly bad.

Now, the WOW folks (who are they, anyway? An organization? A marketing team?) are having their say about the past decade. WOW: The 90’s bears the subtitle “30 Top Christian Songs of the Decade,” but saying that begs the question: How so? How are these the 30 top songs of the 90’s?

Are they the 30 best songs? Hardly! No one buys a WOW compilation expecting the best songs. That distinction remains here. The most interesting, most groundbreaking work of the last ten years is absent here. You won’t find the Prayer Chain, SFC, or anything from Tooth and Nail Records. In fact, you won’t even find the best songs by the artists included in the collection. The Newsboys are represented by “Shine” instead of “Take Me to Your Leader” or “Entertaining Angels.”  The two Michael W. Smith selections, “Place in This World” and “I Will Be Here for You,” are basically the same song. The obligatory Jars of Clay tune is “Liquid.” Where is “Flood”?

These obviously aren’t even the most popular songs of the decade. Sure, dc Talk’s “Jesus Freak” is here, as well as Steven Curtis Chapman’s “The Great Adventure,” but Carman must have had several hits bigger than “Serve the Lord.” “Sometimes by Step” is a fine enough choice for Rich Mullins, but “Awesome God,” easily his most popular song, was released in 1989 and therefore should not even be here.

What, then, are we left with? The “30 Top Songs the WOW People Got Permission to Use”? The songs are not all the best, or the most popular; they’re just…there. The majority of these tracks start off the same way: a soft, keyboard intro with a syrupy melody that hints at the bombast to come. The singer tries unsuccessfully to be understated, but totally overdoes things when the bridge comes along. The tempos are slow, and the lyrics are a primer in Christianese. This entire collection is like a strange parallel universe where creativity does not exist.

The idea of nonexistence brings me to another point. Aside from Anointed, Jaci Velasquez, and Michael Tait of dc Talk, all of the artists on this compilation are white. Why is that? Where is Kirk Franklin? Fernando Ortega? Take 6? There isn’t even a single Winans! In the past, there has been a separate WOW Gospel album, but why can’t they slip in a few gospel hits here? These are, after all, “30 Top Christian Songs of the Decade.”

There are other, more deserving popular acts missing, such as Delirious? and Sixpence None the Richer. Nevertheless, the biggest problem with WOW: The 90’s runs deeper than seemingly random song selection. In the last ten years, contemporary Christian radio has grown a spine, daring to play more rock music and less drivel. There are still plenty of imperfections, but what I hear now is much more interesting than what I heard in the 80’s. With this double-CD of nonessential fluff, a decade of artistic growth is thrown out the window.

Tommy Jolly 9/4/99