Although the gospel albums that sold the most in 1996 came from Andy Griffith and Jars of Clay, the ones that held up best under repeated listenings belonged to a cast of characters who, for the most part, received little or no attention.
Bruce V. Allen and Allen T.D. Wiggins--the pianist and saxophonist known as Allen and Allen--released the excellent Come Sunday, an album that began as an homage of sorts to Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts trilogy and ended up as a comprehensive and masterly presentation of modern black-gospel styles. No style gets short shrift: the duo brings as much crispness and enthusiasm to their formal medley of "Holy, Holy, Holy" and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" as they do to their contemporary-R&B arrangement of "Trouble Don't Last Always." But the best performance belongs to the legendary gospel singer Albertina Walker, whose jazzy rendition of "You Don't Know What the Lord Has Done for Me" transforms Allen and Allen's big-band charts into genuinely moving swing.
Likewise, Johnny Cash's second album for the American Recordings label, Unchained, with veteran rockers Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in a supporting role, is a genuinely moving exploration of America's folk-musical roots. That the album's biggest root is gospel seems to have gone unremarked upon by the same journalists who still haven't given the gospel music of Mr. Cash's friend Bob Dylan serious attention. But gospel predominates, both overt ("Spiritual," "Kneeling Drunkard's Plea," "Meet Me in Heaven") and subtle (the title song and "Rusty Cage"). Songs originally made famous by Jimmie Rodgers, Don Gibson, Hank Snow, Dean Martin, and the alternative rockers Beck and Soundgarden, are unified by Cash's gospel sensibility, elevating Unchained to the level of art.
The Scottish singer-songwriter Paul Buchanan--who along with assorted collaborators records under the name Blue Nile--released Peace at Last, an album of spare, lyrical songs that capture the fragile joy of a freshly reborn soul. "Now that I've found peace at last," he sings in "Happiness," "tell me, Jesus, will it last?" And the sadly majestic day-before-Christmas "Family Life," in which Mr. Buchanan implores Jesus for "no more shouts" and "no more fights" at the family's holiday gathering, evokes the depths beneath even the most mundane suffering and was one of the most moving songs of the year.
Coming at similar topics but with a country and bluegrass directness was Ricky Skaggs, whose album Solid Ground contained 10 songs so overt in their expression of faith-and-family-related themes that they might have constituted a new genre: "Promise Keeper's music." For the first nine songs, his impeccable taste in supporting players and his ability to deliver freshly familiar sentiments like "With his love in our hearts, baby, we're on solid ground" made the album seem too good to be true, which in fact it turned out to be. By concluding it with Harry Chapin's mawkish "Cat's in the Cradle," Mr. Skaggs all but guaranteed that listeners would learn the manual skills necessary to program their CD players to play only the first nine songs and thereby preserve the illusion of a perfect album.