Last year, major and independent labels released more than 100 gospel albums, and I had the enviable challenge of trying to keep up with them all. And not just the sheer volume, but a growing stylistic diversity. Choosing the year's best was no small task.

In making my picks, I carefully considered two questions: What precisely makes a good gospel album? And if a friend were to borrow, then lose a CD from my 2004 collection, for which ones would I be willing to lay aside my belief in nonviolent conflict resolution to backhand said friend?

Some of my choices may surprise you. While several of these are record-setting albums by high-visibility artists, others are from artists with a quieter presence in the industry. There's very little overlap with the recent Stellar Awards, and a couple of these are also on our Favorite Worship Albums of 2004.

Listed in alphabetical order by artist's last name:

Natalie Grant

Worship with Natalie Grant & Friends (Integrity)

One of the best things about the praise-and-worship movement is that it's got people who might not attend each others' churches singing each others' music. This has happened occasionally before—think the late Rich Mullins' "Awesome God" or the genre-jumping music of Andrae Crouch. But albums like this, which feature praise-and-worship songs like "Agnus Dei" and "Shout to the Lord" restyled with gospel flair, reframe the term "movement music." This time around, the movement pushes God's people beyond the work of legal and social justice to the "heart work" of reconciliation, free of bland platitudes about colorblindness. And this album, which includes friends like Vandross-voiced Darwin Hobbs and John Elefante, is an excellent soundtrack.

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