The Phantom Tollbooth
Ten: The Birthday Album
Artist: Various Artists
Label: ForeFront Records
Time: 2 CDs - 14 tracks/46:37 (enhanced) and 18 tracks/74:35

"Forefront" means "the foremost part or place of an action or movement." If the "movement" this label has been going for is youth group kids, then they definitely fit their name. This is a nice collection of hits and new tracks from the CCM pop/rock acts who've filled ForeFront's roster during the past ten years (almost all in the '90s). The hooks and big production are here in force, with absolutely no difference in quality from a typical big city rock/alternative radio station's playlist.

The first disc is hands down the most interesting, with the bands doing covers of each other's songs plus some new cuts. The covers are Kevin Max doing the Beatles' "Birthday" to start things off, followed by Seven Day Jesus covering Audio Adrenaline's "Big House," Bleach taking on DC Talk's "Heavenbound," Eli with DeGarmo & Key's "I'm Accepted," Considering Lily doing Geoff Moore & the Distance's "Listen to our Hearts," and Grammatrain grunging up Rebecca St. James' "God." New tracks from Rebecca St. James, Geoff Moore & the Distance, Raze, and the Normals (new Matchbox 20/Seven Mary Three imitator) appear, but the real treat is "Uphill Battle," a full-on rocker of a collaboration between DCTalk's Michael Tait and Grammatrain's Pete Stewart.

The second disc is just a greatest hits and more project, with songs from the pre-teen powerhouse days of DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline, Rebecca St. James, regular ole rock from Geoff Moore and the Distance and DeGarmo & Key, edgier alternative rock from Grammatrain, Bleach, and Seven Day Jesus, and samplings of lesser-knowns like Eli, Considering Lily, and Raze. Progressive/new age group Iona stands oddly alone on the label as the only band of real artistic merit.
Along with the music tracks, you also get one of those most worthless of modern gimmick technologies...the enhanced CD. Pop it in your computer's CD-ROM and browse the label's entire catalog or watch a tiny seven and a half-minute video. The video is basically a big pat on their own back, including all the artists celebrating and wishing ForeFront well, interview bits with the bands about their experiences and how great it is to be on the label which is "on the edge of the youth culture" as it "presents the gospel in a relevant way." It shows a very strong sincerity on the part of the label, even if they seem naively unaware of their solidly mainstream status.

All in all, the first disc of covers and new tracks makes this worth a listen for fans of the bands, and the whole thing would be a good package for that normal kid you know who either loves Jesus or needs to. Just don't try to pass it off to anybody who's really on the musical edge, unless you want to enforce their already low opinion of Christian music.

By Josh Spencer (8/14/98)