20 Albums 20 Years Later

Before Taylor Swift, LeAnn Rimes Proved A Young Country Artist Could Crossover And That Talent Knows No Genre Boundaries

LeAnn Rimes’ “You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs” turns 20 this year.

20 Albums 20 Years Later remembers and explores the music that touched us back then and still resonates today. Join A Plus as we take another listen to albums released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions not only to the charts but to our lives.

LeAnn Rimes was just bursting onto the scene in 1997, still riding high on the release of her debut album Blue, which — along with the album's title track, a Bill Mack original — was released the year prior. That's when she did something nobody was probably expecting: Rimes put the country music thing on hold and opted to tackle adult contemporary with You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs. This became the first of many musical flip-flops for this genre-defying artist.

Why was this such a surprise to many? Well, the teen — who was just 13 upon Blue's release and 15 at the release of its follow-up offering — was just honored by the Academy of Country Music with two awards, Top New Female Vocalist and Single of the Year for "Blue," in 1996, and with one, Favorite New Artist in 1997. Not to mention that Rimes had also been named Best New Artist at the Grammys in 1997 — becoming the youngest solo winner ever — as well as picked up Best Female Country Vocal Performance for "Blue," too.

Courtesy: Curb Records
Courtesy: Curb Records

So, while many would continue to do what helped them shoot to fame, Rimes deciding to go a completely different direction — one similar to that of releasing the compilation album Unchained Melody: The Early Years after Blue's success. Having already released it was an interesting move for someone so fresh in the music business and for someone so young to venture away from the genre welcoming them with open arms. After all, Taylor Swift waited until having four country albums before making the official switch to pop. Rimes, on the other hand, cemented herself as a crossover singer almost right out of the gate and at such an early age.

As for You Light Up My Life: Inspiration Songs, it did amazingly well. The album was a certified four times multiplatinum by the RIAA barely five months after its release and is the only album in history to debut at No. 1 on three separate Billboard charts (doing so on the Billboard 200, the Billboard Top Country Albums, and the Billboard Contemporary Christian charts). That said, critics weren't in love with it. A review from Entertainment Weekly back in 1997 is particularly harsh — giving it a C- overall — by saying Rimes comes off "like an eager-to-please Star Search finalist" with the covers, and that the rest of the album is "one of the most puzzling hodgepodges ever assembled by a superstar act."

Let's take a look at some of the biggest hits from the record and its overall themes:

“You Light Up My Life”

"You Light Up My Life," the song behind the album's title, is not a Rimes original. It was written by Joseph "Joe" Brooks and was originally recorded by Kasey Cisyk for the 1977 film of the same name. Beside Rimes' rendition, the most popular cover of this song is by Debby Boone — daughter of singer Pat Boone — also released in 1977. Rimes' version did very little to make the song her own and some critics said she honored the original too closely. EW argues that big names covering old songs was, at that time, a trend "now so out of hand, and so cynical, that it's becoming increasingly hard to distinguish an oldies station from a Top 40 outlet."

All that aside, it's hard to deny that Rimes' voice absolutely shines on the tune. The thing about this young woman is that her voice is, has been, and will hopefully forever be timeless — it's impossible to tell that this is a teenager singing this song as she has all of the grace and maturity as someone older. Even now, with the 34-year-old's latest offerings, it's as if Rimes' vocal cords have been preserved by time. "You Light Up My Life," and its corresponding music video, is certainly a throwback but a well-sung one at that.

“How Do I Live”

The story behind "How Do I Live" is a bumpy one, so buckle up. It was written by legendary songwriter Diane Warren for Rimes and was featured in the 1997 film Con Air — but with vocals by Trisha Yearwood (who also sang it at the Oscars as it was up for an Academy Award) — but didn't make it onto the movie's soundtrack. Both Rimes and Yearwood released the song, with the former taking a more pop route and the latter taking it in a more country direction, to great success.

While the song is synonymous with both artists, it was Rimes' version that dominated the charts. In fact, it sat on the Billboard Hot 100 charts — peaking at No. 2 — for a total of 69 weeks. Lasting for 69 weeks was a Billboard record Rimes held until Jason Mraz's 2008 hit "I'm Yours" set a new record — which has since been beaten — for 76 weeks. More impressively, Rimes and "How Do I Live" held another record on the Billboard charts, having stayed in the top 10 for 32 weeks, a feat not beaten until this year, 2017, with The Chainsmokers and their song "Closer" (the version without Halsey) overtaking it. Rimes even offered the guys congratulations when they matched her nearly 20-year record.

The version of "How Do I Live" that ended up on Rimes' You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs was an extended take on the original. Rimes shines on this song, of course, and it stands out on the album as a true gem — and not because it was one of the only original songs on the whole thing, but because of how great it truly is.

Themes of Religion and Patriotism

Nearly every other song beyond "You Light Up My Life" and "How Do I Live" fall into one of two categories: having overt themes of either religion or patriotism. The songs about the latter are easier to spot and there are only two of them: "God Bless America" and the national anthem. The rest of the bunch are why the album did well on the Christian music charts, with songs such as "I Believe," "Ten Thousand Angels Cried," Clinging to a Saving Hand," "On the Side of Angels" (another original), "I Know Who Holds Tomorrow," and, of course, "Amazing Grace." Putting religion and nationalism aside, it's interesting to hear these songs from 1997 — with most of them having lives before then — and comparing them to 2017. Given the current political and social atmosphere in the country, there's no way someone from 1997 and 2017 would hear them the same way.

Notable Covers

The final two songs not discussed yet include "The Rose" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water." These two are quite recognizable in pop culture, the first having been made famous by Bette Midler who recorded it for the 1979 film of the same name, and the latter for being a famous Simon & Garfunkel tune. As major as Midler and "The Rose" is, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been recorded by so many greats including, but not limited to, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, and a slew of singers as a charity single benefitting victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.

In the end, You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs isn't a bad album because Rimes' talent — we're talking about her incredible vocals — could make anything sound good. While it isn't filled with hits, can't boast about much beyond record sells, and doesn't offer much new material, it does one thing: solidifies Rimes as an artist capable of crossing over to whichever genre she prefers, and who can belt it out with the best of them.

You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs is available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and Spotify.

Cover image: Curb Records

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