Monday, January 07, 2008

Guilty Pleasures: Amy Grant

I almost always rail against the concept of a guilty pleasure. After all, I like what I like, and if I do like it that's cause I think it has merit and is good. If somebody asks me what I like I answer honestly. I'm not ashamed of my tastes. Nevertheless, even I fall prey to the guilty pleasure siren sometimes. There are some things that are just so far that even I feel guilty for liking them. In this new (possibly) ongoing feature, I will explore the things that make even me, an avowed lover of teen pop and romantic comedies guilty for liking. This feature has 2 main purposes:

1) Admitting what I love so that I can get the big secret off my chest.
2) Trying to convince other people to like them, so I don't have to feel guilty about them.

Up first is AMY GRANT.

Amy Grant is one of my favorite singers of all time. I've liked Amy Grant so much and for so long that I've almost forgotten that I'm supposed to feel guilty about it. Nevertheless, I would never admit to somebody in real life that I like her, and I don't really feel comfortable stating it on this blog. But it's all coming out right now.

Back in high school when I used to listen to a lot of Christian music Amy Grant was one of my favorites, and she's one of the only artists who I feel has held up well today. Even though it's her pop music phase that would probably have the most cred among pop fans today, actually it's still her religious music that I like the most. Her first three albums consisted of kind of incredibly cheesy Nashville type production, and overwrought lyrics and vocals. They are truly horrible. A typical example is "My Father's Eyes", which is today known (by me) to be the worst song ever put to record.

Just listen to the incredible cheesiness to this, the horrible pop-country backing, etc. This is the type of song that I believe people think of when they think about Amy Grant and contemporary Christian music in general, and it's so unfair! Even though it's not like the rest of her career is a bastion of non-cheesy music, she has many other better songs than this.
Her career turned around, from a quality standpoint, starting with 1982's Age to Age, her most successful and best album she had released to date (the fact that it was released on the year of my birth is probably a coincidence). For example, listen to this song from the album, "I Have Decided", which manages to incorporate country elements and be explictly religious in a much less cheesy way than "My Father's Eyes". The key is, the lyrics here focus on her religious beliefs themselves, rather than her and others' reactions to those beliefs. By a huge margin, I prefer that variety of Christian song. And vocally, she just cuts loose and does the song well.

But not just that song, there are several other all time classics on this album, which remains one of my favorites of the 1980's. "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" incorporates classical and hymn elements to make a raucously catchy praise songs. "Thy Word" has very cheesy production but it has lyrics that are earnest in a good way and Amy knocks the vocals right out of the park. She's one of the all time great pop singers and I think this one demonstrates why. She's got a great tone to her voice and she shows good restraint for somebody with her abilities. I just love the way the song charges along. (Correction: "Thy Word" is on Straight Ahead not Age to Age. I should have broken out the albums before I wrote this!) But the album's real classic, is "El Shaddai". It's just so pretty, with the strings and the melody and what not!

I mean, the fact that the lyrics to all these songs are explictly Christian doesn't even really register with me at all. I just love the fact that they have classically great melodies and that Amy is a great singer who really sells what she's singing because she believes it. Whether I also believe it or not is basically immaterial, as far as I am concerned.

Even though Age to Age is my favorite Amy Grant album, by no means does it represent all of her good work. 1988's Lead Me On is frequently praised as her best album. It's a very good album that features great songs throughout and is great for having in the background while working and whatnot and great for listening to and relaxing. It just doesn't have much to compare to the hits that Age to Age. What it does have is "Saved By Love", arguably her best song, with its very catchy layered melody on the chorus and increasingly more countryish production. The title song also soars, in a way many pop songs attempt but few succeed at, though the electric guitars are so 80's. It's not hard to tell, though, that this is much more of a pop crossover album than Age to Age was. It's more of just a general pop album which happens to have Christian lyrics, and it lacks much of the originality and great variety of Age to Age. I think it sacrifices a lot of what I love about her for a slicker pop sound, and it loses something for that, though it is a great pop album on its own merits.

(Her other very successful song from this era is "Find a Way", which is a very cheesy and big pop song that doesn't hold up very well at all, though it's not a bad song I suppose.)

After Lead Me On, then, came Heart in Motion, which is her successful secular cross-over album that basically changed everything. I mean, it's not that "Baby Baby", "Every Heartbeat", and "Good For Me" are bad songs (I like all three, especially "Every Heartbeat"), it's just that there's nothing "Amy Grant" about them. They just sound like generic late 80's/early 90's pop hits and they could just as easily have been sung by Taylor Dayne. I mean, where's the country edge, the earnest lyrics, the fearless delivery? It's all gone, replaced by sheen and gloss and boringness. It's right back to the cheesy semi-religious dross of "My Father's Eyes", though dressed up by better songs. I don't want to sound too negative here, I mean Heart In Motion is one of the best if not THE actual best albums of its type. "Every Heartbeat" was on the 90's hits mix CD I made a couple months ago. It's just that it's not what I know she's capable of. (But, yes, it's better than Grace).

After all this, years later, she has now returned to both her country and her religious roots, by releasing a couple of albums of country arrangements of classic hymns. They are extremely beautiful and I highly recommend them. I even once won a Poptimists orga-fun contest with one of them ("Come Thou Font Of Every Blessing"), which is probably my best accomplishment on that group.

All of this is not even mentioning 1992's Home for Christmas, which is my favorite Christmas album of all time and which features "Breath of Heaven", possibly my favorite Christmas song of all time. I mean, one amazing original, and Amy's beautiful voice dressing up a surprisingly good selection of Christmas carols? Yes, please. It's also packed with some of the best production and arrangements of her career. It's far better than any of the stuff I reviewed last X-mas. In fact, in many ways this is the best Amy Grant album.

So, why Amy Grant? Why does she hold up so much better than other religious music? It's the earnestness, the smoothness of Amy's voice, the great pop melodies, and the light touches of country. And also, it's that she's singing about her beliefs and God directly rather than cheesy stuff about how happy she is and how much she loves God and etc., etc. It's just somebody stating their beliefs. I find the music relaxing and comforting and beautiful. But yet, I just can't admit that I like a contemporary Christian music artist.

List of Greg's 5 Favorite Amy Grant Songs:

1. "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" - This is one of my 100 favorite songs of all time, thanks to a killer piano hook and an extremely pretty melodies and a great vocal performance.
2. "Saved By Love" - One of her best pure melodies, and the arrangement for once isn't too cheesy. And the lyrics are really beautiful. Has been known to make me tear up. Just not as pretty as the above.
3. "El Shaddai" - Her biggest classic and like "Breath of Heaven" it's a really pretty song with a nice piano sound.
4. "I Have Decided" - A real stomper with a great pounding rhythm and tempo in the chorus.
5. "Every Hearbeat" - OK, I have a soft spot for it.
Bonus #6: "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" - Her catchiest song, but not as moving as her best work.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though I appreciate your favorite song choices, I was shocked and horrified to read some of your blog. Considering the time period that "My Father's Eyes" came out, that is one of the greatest songs in Contemporary Christian music of the late 70s. The lyrics use a great play on words and have such incredible meaning.

I agree that "Age to Age" was a turn around in her career. It was number one on the Christian charts for three years (only to be knocked down by "Straight Ahead"), but "Father's Eyes" made Amy Grant a household name...and not only in Christian households.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I appreciate "Father's Eyes" for what it is (a true landmark in Christian music), but the song sounds very dated to me today and I don't really care for it. It's a decent song, not really close to the worst of all time, I was just going for humorous exaggeration.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Favorite Amy Grant albums:
1) Lead Me On
2) Heart in Motion
3) Straight Ahead
4) Age to Age

Amy Grant had a good run from 1982 to 1992. After Heart in Motion she really went downhill IMO. It seems like her later work is so saccharine and schmultzy. Maybe her latest "How Mercy Looks From Here" will be better.

3:34 PM  

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