Like most people I both love and detest “best of” lists – I often gawk at what people choose (I mean, do the Oscars EVER get it right?) but at the same time can’t keep myself from pouring over them. With that, I culled through my downloads and streaming for the year and akin to past Theology Kung Fu lists, have let the year set the number. So here are my nine recordings to consider for download and streaming (you will see why I make this designation as you look at the list) before singing Auld Lang Syne at your New Years party:
9. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse with David Lynch, Dark Night of the Soul
One of the marks of this decade was the move of artists to (in the words of the Flobots) ‘fight with tools’ such as Garage Band, Facebook and MySpace to subvert the industrial strangehold on music distribution to varying degrees of success. In the vain of Radiohead releasing ‘In Rainbows’ for ‘donation only’ via the web, Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse teamed up with a bevy of artists to record an amazing album true to its Carmelite title – a homage to St. John of the Cross’ passive purgation into the ‘dark night of the soul.’ Filmmaker and auteur David Lynch (he of Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead fame) joined in to create filmic versions of the project as well as producing a photo journal. The entire project was slated to be released with EMI this Fall but the project was pulled. But if the move to the ‘computing cloud’ has taught us anything it is that no power on heaven or earth can stop the world wide web. The album can be heard in its entirety via NPR’s First Listen site here.
My favorite track: Suzanne Vega on “The Man who would play God” and Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals on “Just War”
8. Fanfarlo, Reservoir
Lovers of Hey Marseilles, Arcade Fire, Beirut will find a home with Fanfarlo’s bookishly twee graduate student aesthetics. Similar to the Decemberist’s Victorian revisionism, the London sextet took their name from, of all places, from a book by the 19th century French critic Charles Baudelaire. As lead singer Simon Balthazar said in an interview on NPR “I was reading French symbolists at the time, and I sort of just reached out on the table and there was this book [by Baudelaire].” Keeping with Baudelaire’s romantic sensibilities, Fanfarlo blend cello, violin, trumpet and mandolin into literate reflective flow that feels both at home at the circus and the critical theory post grad seminar.
7. The Flaming Lips/Stardust – “Borderline” off the Covered: A Revolution in Sound compilation
It probably isn’t fair to put just one song… let alone a cover song… let alone a cover of a Madonna hit from the 1980’s… in a list of “best of” releases at the end of the 21st century, but what can I say? Wayne Cody, frontman for The Flaming Lips teamed up with Stardeath and White Dwarfs (which is fronted by his nephew Dennis Cody) to record this freaking AMAZING revisioning of this Madonna chestnut of yore. Like Madonna – while the songs made for great fun on the dance floor, it was the visuals with the dawn of MTV that grafted music to image for all time and this isn’t missed by the Lips. As with all things Flaming Lips, there is the tinge of spaceman irony in their aesthetic – to hear them is to see them as it were with the big bunny suits and huge plastic beachballs. As the Lips toured this year they threw this cover into the mix to roaring acclaim and you can see why in the video of the song. As the song builds, watch Wayne Cody in the background with his Emo puffy coat banging the large gong while his nephew in the argyle vest throws his hair around like Kurt Cobain at prep school and think “I bet Thanksgiving is a riot at their place…”
(btw – the Covered compilation that has this track also has a cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” by… wait for it… Adam Sandler. Yes… THAT Adam Sandler. He sings it straight up and it isnt that bad…)
6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
When Fox Confessor Brings the Flood came out, the days of Neko Case being the secret crush of KEXP and NPR listeners was over. With that CD, the sometime-singer in The New Pornographers whose pure voice channeling Patsy Cline, swirling lyricism of a bookworm, and non-sequitur arrangements forged by someone who spent too much time on craigslist (she bought up 100 pianos on craigslist and stored them in her barn… go figure) came to roost. While the 2009 release of Middle Cyclone wasn’t quite the level of genius that was Fox Confessor, it still stood head and shoulders over many of the releases this past year. Her cover of “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Nature” stands in the middle of the playlist as a tent pole for the eco-centric themes running throughout – whether it is the fact that Killer Whales get their name for a reason in “People Got a Lot of Nerve” to the 30 minute plus (yes… 30 minute plus) ending track “Marais la nuit” which is just the sounds of her backyard at twilight (I wonder how many people just download that single…) it is really a tour d’force.
5. The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come
I first came across the Mountain Goats (the band fronted by John Darnielle) with their release “The Sunset Trees” a few years back and especially the single “This Year” which is a rousing singalong that I usually play every year now on my birthday and love the “maybe this year in Jerusalem!”
There is a level of irony that so-called Christian bands will try to reach their audience by making their songs as abstracted and removed from biblical references as possible with not so much as a fish symbol on their CD cover art, yet a deeply ‘secular’ band like the Mountain Goats will release an album of songs whose titles are all direct biblical citations. To read the linear notes and track listing in “The Life of the World to Come” is to get more engagement with the Bible than a year of Sundays in half the rock band churches popping up in warehouses everywhere.
Yet rather than either dismiss the project as the work of a cynic or disregard the songs as having no hermeneutic relation to the texts cited in the title, take a moment and just listen to the stories that Darnielle spins forth in each track with a Bible in your lap.
“Matthew 25:21” takes the parable of the Sheep and the Goats into the room of Darnielle’s mother-in-law as she is dying of cancer. When you think of his chosen text as a rendering of promise for the “good and faithful servant to go into the joy of the Lord” it puts irony out in the hallway. For U2 fans, Psalm 40 is considered almost untouchable since the definitive version anchored their “War” LP in 1983. That said, the Mountain Goats take in “Psalms 40:2” is a kicker with a pulsing bass line fronted with Darnielle’s charistmatically frantic voice proclaiming “He has fixed his sign in the sky / He has raised me from the pit and set me high” that he is seeming to dare God to save him. In “Genesis 30:3,” Darnielle sits at an old beaten piano singing about a kind of love few songwriters have the courage to reflect on let alone sing aloud. Here Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, offers her maidservant Bilhah to her husband so that they can bear a child: “I will do what you ask me to do / Because of how I feel about you” sings Darnielle with a weight to his voice that speaks of love, understanding and pain in ways that much of what is called CCM could learn from.
I will upload my top 4 downloads tomorrow… any guesses what will make the number 1 spot? :-)