10. J. Moss: V3…Just James (Verity/GospoCentric)
Talk about a hard fought victory. J. Moss battled a firestorm of criticism in 2009 as shocking news surfaced of an extramarital affair that produced a son, nearly destroyed his marriage, and almost drove him to take his own life. Bravely sidestepping those who would shout him down, he forged Just James. The vulnerable and earnest 10-track collection is singular in its mission to draw a line in the sand separating old ways from a new man. Ballads like “Restored” were performed constantly and held up like a shield of faith. A testament to God’s grace and the power of redemption, Just James is a success story that everyone needs to hear.
9. Kierra Sheard: Bold Right Life (EMI Gospel)
Okay, before you purists cry foul: I know Kierra’s BRL was released late last year. Release date not withstanding, Kierra’s album only came into its own in 2009. Songs like “Love Like Crazy” took off this year, and the album was also helped by Kierra’s appearance with Mary Mary on their chart dominating single “God In Me.” Finally, the album has earned the young powerhouse gospel music heiress a Grammy nomination this year for Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album.
8. Sheri Jones-Moffett: Renewed (EMI Gospel)
Sheri Jones-Moffett has come a long way from her humble beginning as a member in Voices of Binghampton Choir nearly two decades ago. After two well-received albums as half of the duo Ted & Sheri, little Mrs. Moffett has stepped into the forefront. The fruit of her star turn has been sweet. The solo debut’s title track reached back to her Memphis roots, borrowed some Stax soul, and used it to arrest the attention of critics everywhere. It’s no surprise that Renewed is among the crop of releases being considered for a Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album.
7. Coko: The Winner In Me (Light)
Cheryl “Coko” Clemons, one-time member of Hezekiah Walker’s Love Fellowship Tabernacle Choir, rose to fame in the 1990s as lead singer of seminal 90’s R&B female trio SWV. Having come full circle, she can more often be found singing God’s praise. Her artistic growth and maturity has never been more apparent than on her sophomore gospel album The Winner In Me. Without forsaking the contemporary R&B fan base that helped propel her debut, she wisely adds more worshipful and reverent elements to her musical palette for Winner. The combination of street savvy with her burnished wisdom as a mother and wife position her as a great minister of the gospel, and make for one of the most exciting albums of the year.
6. Whitney Houston: I Look To You (Arista)
Unless I miss my guess, you’re either rolling your eyes, pursing your lips, or reaching for the “close window” button right now. But hear me out. First you have to consider Whitney’s story of the hardened layers of addiction and bondage that she had to chip away to let her gift shine again. Couple that with the fact that in every interview she has constantly acknowledged her devotion and gratitude to God for saving her life. She’s been more or less like the woman in Luke 7:45 who would not stop kissing Jesus’ feet. It’s difficult to deny that “I Look To You” and “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” point to and illustrate a true-to-life example of the saving power of Jesus Christ. Whitney and her weathered voice may have been snubbed at the Grammy awards this year, but I recognize a testimony set to music when I hear one.
5. Melinda Watts: People Get Ready (Razor & Tie)
Now, I realize that the larger of two Gospel-themed singing competitions is BET’s Sunday Best. Yet no amount of production or promotion can manufacture the talent that Gospel Music Channel’s Gospel Dream competition found in Melinda Watts. I have no preference for one channel or television show over the other, but when the hype settles down, the pudding should taste like proof. The first listen to Melinda Watts’ debut album is absolutely enrapturing. People Get Ready glows with flawless production on a set of celebratory songs. Watts may have an angelic face, but her bright, commanding voice can set hell to flight. Place all of these elements together and this winner has no choice but to take all.
4. Kim Burrell: No Ways Tired (Shanachie)
After years of expired promises and fruitless record label deals, the seemingly impossible happened: Kim Burrell released… an album. No more guest appearances and endless YouTube videos to tide over her rabid fans’ fancies. Simply twelve songs with Kim at the forefront (mostly reworked hymns), which is all her supporters ever asked for. The sole impact of her 1998 debut Everlasting Life clinched her importance in gospel music and inspired a decade-long throng of devotees and imitators. So needless to say when the originator finally returned, ’twas not an event to be missed. Some may have been upset that No Ways wasn’t the typical follow-up to such a groundshaking debut, Burrell’s inimitable voice was present and in fine form. Not a single thing otherwise was needed to make this a highlight of 2009.
3. BeBe & CeCe Winans: Still (B&C/Malaco)
See, that’s the way you make an entrance. The beloved sibling duo who parted ways for solo careers back in the mid-90’s reappeared with fanfare this year. Their smash single “Close To You” was ubiquitous on both gospel and R&B radio. The contemporary flourishes in the single remind us of the ground that BeBe & CeCe first broke and limits they continue to push. The album provides more of the same verve. BeBe is as amazing a writer and singer as ever, and CeCe’s pristine voice remains untarnished. This is likely why hardly a challenger has been able to pry them from their spot on top of the Billboard Gospel charts.
2. Mali Music: The 2econd Coming (Soundwalk Music Group)
There were a lot of great musical statements in 2009, but the freshest voice I’ve heard so far belongs to Jamaal Pollard, better known as Mali Music. His engaging, gritty tenor is one part Bilal, one part Tye Tribbett, and more than a little informed by Kim Burrell herself. Though neo-soul is pronounced throughout the album, traditional gospel, electronica, and distorted rock run along side to prove that The 2econd Coming is the work of no one trick pony. One listen to the lead single “I Hate You” can make anyone a die hard fan. Mali Music may have appeared to come out of nowhere, but you can be pretty sure he’s gonna be here for quite awhile.
1. Israel Houghton: The Power of One (Columbia/Integrity)
Based on the imageless album cover of Israel’s solo debut, I had no idea what to expect. At worst I thought it would sound like a New Breed album without New Breed. It instead leapfrogged my expectations to become the most impressive album of the year. Its greatest feat is that it has been one of the best executed balances of gospel music and CCM I have ever heard. “Just Wanna Say” and “Every Prayer” are hallmarks of boundary smashing feel-good Jesus music. With the help of masterminds like Aaron Lindsey and Tommy Sims, there was little doubt that the album would sonically please. Stellar guests like redeemed reggae queen Chevelle Franklyn, Mary Mary, and Martin Smith of the Christian rock outfit Deliriou5? lent some impressive weight to any marketing the album would carry, but who could have foretold such a success? Power of One also garnered a well-earned Grammy nomination for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album. Perching perfectly on the wall between two worlds and poised to tear it down, no entry deserves the honor more.
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