Few bands in Christian music have had the impact MercyMe has had in the past 20 years. It seems like a song of theirs is always floating around in the Top 15 on various Christian music charts. In fact, a biopic of their breakout hit, "I Can Only Imagine" was released in 2018. The film, appropriately named I Can Only Imagine, became one of the highest-grossing Christian films ever.
After several independent albums over the span of a decade, the band released their label debut album, Almost There, in 2001. Now, twenty years later, we look back at the release that kickstarted the career of one of Christian music's most iconic bands.
Some debut albums are legendary for their collection of hit songs. Such examples would be Jars of Clay's double-platinum self-titled debut album, which spawned multiple hits across various radio formats. But, MercyMe's label debut notoriety--and three-times platinum certification by the Recording Industry Association of America--is because of one particular very successful song. If you know anything of Christian music in the past 20 years, you know this song and you know it well.
"I Can Only Imagine" is a rare "once in a generation" type of song. Only one or two songs since then can even be considered challengers to it for the most influential Christian song of the past two decades. With a simple, yet instantly recognizable, piano hook, the ballad became a soaring meditation on eternity.
Part worship song, part comfort to those facing death either in themselves or of a loved one, "I Can Only Imagine" is a slow-building anthem that captured the hearts of listeners in both Christian and mainstream audiences. At the time, it was a rare crossover song that directly spoke to Jesus by name and not some more broadly applied positive theme.
The song's success was somewhat slow building as well. Initially released as a single in 2001, its crossover happened two years later in 2003. It charted again after the song's biopic movie of the same name dropped in 2018.
When one song dominates so much, sometimes other good songs get overshadowed. Such is the case with several other cuts on Almost There.
Believe it or not, "I Can Only Imagine" was not the lead single from this album. That honor goes to "Bless Me Indeed (Song of Jabaz)." An accessible worship/pop/rock number, this song would've made a fine single at any point in the band's career. But given their later successes, it's likely not counted among the band's many classics. Indeed, as a single, it wasn't all that commercially successful either. I suspect many who heard it wouldn't have predicted the breakout success awaiting the band just one single later. Other notable cuts include "How Great Is Your Love" and "Here Am I." The band dropped a video for the latter song.
Digital music hadn't yet come into popularity and vinyl or cassette singles had fallen out of style. So, 2001 was a perfect storm to have an album sell millions of copies on the strength of one powerful single. Still, the rest of this album is still a strong journey of worship not to be missed in its signature song's shadow.
The Long Haul
MercyMe is inarguably one of the most successful acts in Christian music history. Almost all of their follow-up albums since their debut, with very few exceptions, have been certified gold. Their prolific catalog of hits seems to touch almost every year of Christian music. Whether it's the tongue-in-cheek pop/rock of "So Long Self," the goofy bombast of "Shake," the raw honesty of "Even If," or the eternity longing "Homesick," MercyMe has spanned the gamut of topical and sonic offerings and have been blessed with an impressive career that few of their contemporaries can rival.
This past year saw the release of their newest album, Inhale (Exhale). Sure enough, hits like "Almost Home" and "Say I Won't" have promised to become new classics to join their ever-growing list.
The 2018 film I Can Only Imagine explored the band's beginnings, the story behind this album's breakout hit song, and lead singer Bart Millard's strained relationship with his father. The film was a huge box office success and fueled demand for further films themed around Christian music. A huge part of that film's success can be tied to the iconic status of its namesake.
One could argue that MercyMe's talent would've eventually had them catch fire with or without the momentum of "I Can Only Imagine." That would be a legitimate view. Still, it's also easy to imagine how many doors wouldn't have opened had "I Can Only Imagine" not been the roaring success that it was.
As this label debut turns 20 this year, take a chance to revisit the first chapter of a Christian music legend, and maybe discover some parts of it that got overshadowed before.
J.J. Francesco is a long-time contributor to the NRT Staff. He's published the novel 'Because of Austin' and regularly seeks new ways to engage faith, life, and community. He is currently working on releasing a brand new novel.
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