Where were you on September 11th, 2001?

As for me, I was nine hours ahead of my family and friends in Seattle as I was finishing a day of work.  Sitting in my office in the Divinity faculty at the University of Glasgow, I received a phone call from Diana saying that “something was happening in New York” and that I should log onto the computer.  An hour later I was in my flat watching the unfolding of this decade’s most defining few hours.  Nine years later and the aftershocks of 9/11 are still with us.  Few events have globally shifted culture in the last hundred years like this and popular music has certainly been re-framed by it.  As one could expect, pop music took up the events and aftershocks of 9/11 and painted both with the broad strokes of a Monet and the pointillism of a Pollock by pouring energy and space for contemplation into the violence, the patriotism, the wars and rumors of wars.  Perhaps even more so than other art forms seeking to make sense of this apocalyptic moment where what we understand the world to be was shattered before the eyes of millions, pop music in all its immediacy, its primacy of emotion, its desire to communicate quickly and resolutely in a matter of minutes, and its disposable nature and willingness to be discarded for the next 4 minutes vocal exclamation and pounding beat was THE form that has framed what 9/11 was and is for a generation.  Sure, the scholarly monographs are being written with its the critical analysis giving arguments for the why and how of such an event and this too will have some effect on how generations will seek to understand those events.  But it was the pop song that showed up first and they are the artifacts that show we people were not only thinking… but feeling.

To this end, compiling a list of top albums for this first decade of the new millennium is impossible without seeing pop music through the dust clouds, death, and wreckage of those events on September 11th.  Everything that followed those days has some symbiotic relationship to the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pursuit, capture, and execution of Saddam Hussein, and the reality that all of this is far from being ‘over’.

One last thing to mention is Columbine. On April 20th, 1999 Columbine High School was assailed not by terrorists from another country but from ‘within’ as two teenage American boys entered a public high school in Colorado with semi-automatic weapons injuring 21 people, killing 12 students and 1 teacher.  America entered the decade haunted by the reality that all was indeed not well in our land and the fear and anxiety of losing our children in a place that is supposed to be safe – a school of all places – meant that nowhere was safe.  Layering this on top of 9/11 made the decade one marked as fearful both within our borders and from without.

So in picking ten albums for the past decade that have marked out a path for pop music and pop culture, it is with the ever-present reality of Columbine and 9/11 that I listened to these albums and think they offer a representative taste of the decade in its anxiety, its disappointments, as well as its hopes and glory.  I haven’t listed them in any hierarchal order in part because I honestly can’t put one over the other (with the exception of my top album which is the last entry at the bottom… by the way… spoiler alert… it isn’t Kayne, Arcade Fire, or Taylor Swift… so don’t hold your breath for one of those) so I offer the list as a whole as they have become in my remembrances  – they are a ‘shuffle’ play of the decade that saw so much pain, such loss, and many surprises and new beginnings that showed that life isn’t done with us yet.

Once – Music to the Motion Picture Soundtrack

Small things change the world in more ways than we realize.  My decade began with starting my first faculty post, Diana starting her PhD program, and my first daughter being born.  To say that so-called little things don’t have big impact hasn’t held a newborn infant and realized that the world just shifted under the weight of it all.  The indie film “Once” was a small thing that brought big changes as well.  Here was a small film set in Dublin where the primary characters were fairly depressed, sad people and nothing sizable happens in comparison to the global turmoil that surrounded its release in 2007 as the war in Iraq continued on.  Yet here was a simple little story – Glen Hansard (lead singer of the Frames) played a lost soul busking on the streets of Dublin amidst the heartbreak of lost love and meets Marketa Irglova, another lost soul selling roses in the street who is in a difficult marriage yet yearns for something more for herself and her young daughter.  In releasing the film, the trailer pushes you to believe that this is a love story between these two and yet the true story (like love itself) is so much bigger and courageous than that.  The song “Falling Slowly” won the Best Song Oscar and the scene in the movie of the two sitting in a music store working on the song is heart warming in ways only a Wesleyan conversion experience can describe.   What the album achieves is a simple, deep collection of songs about love lost and found, about a desire to love in a world so damaged that it doesn’t know where to begin, and about the power of creating art as a way through the madness of a world at war with itself.

Radiohead – In Rainbows

We all thought that the tipping point for music distribution was going to come with MySpace – the idea that the grand democracy of the web would allow artists to break free from the record labels and get to the audience directly thereby cutting out the middle man and making music affordable again.  It never happened.  But what did happen in the past decade was a band offering up one of the best albums of their amazing career for… well… whatever you wanted to pay for it.  On October 10th, 2007 amidst a number of email blasts, a simple website offered Radiohead’s latest album – not a single or three song EP mind you, but a complete album – for whatever you could (or were willing to) pay for it.  But this wasn’t the surprising thing.  What was most surprising was that In Rainbows wasn’t some cast-off collection of B-sides thrown together for a publicity stunt – this was (and is) a stunningly great album.  The record industry was knocked silent for a bit waiting to see what would happen next – would Radiohead lose money? Would fans demand this model?  Well, Radiohead moved a lot of copies… and eventually sold a lot of physical CDs as well and the fans embraced Radiohead even tighter.  Whether people will hold up In Rainbows as a great album on it own remains to be seen, but coupled with the breakthrough of showing that great music can get out to people, can make a profit, and doesn’t have to be stolen (read: burning someone else’s copy or using Bitorrent)


Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

There was a world before 9/11 and in many ways Ryan Adams’ debut solo album is the bridge from that world and the world we have now inherited.  At the turn of the millennium Ryan Adams was quite possibily one of the truly coolest guys in music. Only 26 years old at the time, he was the voice and primary songwriting talent behind the alt-country band Whiskeytown which along with seminal alt-country bands such as Uncle Tupelo and Wilco help to usher in a revival of the Gram Parsons legacy of the ‘cosmic cowboy’ vibe for a new generation.  Overly confident, musically gifted, charisma to burn as he blended punk and country and Hollywood stardom into a New Yorker ‘look at me, I’m the center of the earth’ presona – Ryan Adams was simply something to behold in concert.  The album begins with an argument between himself and David Rawlings (partner of Gillian Welch – see the discussion of Time (The Revelator) below) about Morrissey’s song ‘Suedehead’ and then leads into the barn burner opener “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)”.  This crash of genres – moving deftly from Morrissey to this alt-country hard core twang opener speaks to the mash up of genres that feel so at home for Ryan Adams such as the story that he named the album while in the studio and saw a poster of Mariah Carey who was wearing a T-Shirt that had the word “Heartbreaker” on it.  Yet with all this arrogance and swagger, Heartbreaker is exactly what it’s title states – a real album of heartbreak.  Songs like “(Oh My) Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up” are simply stunning in their lyricism and depth with the latter song being one of the best break up songs written… ever.  To hear some of these songs is to be astounded that they came out of this swaggering, mouthy 26 year old punk who just liked being a rock star.  In many ways I don’t know how he pulled it off as the subsequent albums over the decade just haven’t touched what this album did.  But at least lightening struck this boy when it did.  A great album for long haul driving and watching the sun set in the horizon.  Pitchfork put “Come Pick Me Up” as one of its top 500 songs and it certainly deserves to be on that list.

Tom Waits – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards

Perhaps it isn’t fair to put a collection of B-sides, unreleased tracks, and music for soundtracks and consider it a worth album for this list.  Perhaps.  But this is Tom Waits and Tom Waits’ garage is freakin’ gold.  Released as a 3 CD set thematically organized around the themes of ‘brawlers’, ‘bawlers’, and ‘bastards’, it is a testimony to Tom Waits’ gift as a songwriter and performer that all these supposed throwaway tracks are stunning in their own right.  As a song that embodies the zeitgeist of the decade, go buy ‘Road to Peace’ and put it on constant rotation.

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind

U2 released three strong albums this past decade, but they started the decade in 2000 with one of their most integrative efforts to date.  All That You Can’t Leave Behind hit the streets in October of 2000 and launched what Bono said in a number of interviews as their “campaign to reapply for the title of ‘best band of the world'”. The album took the best of the bands’ twenty  year history and distilled it down into a series of songs that are both classic and yet move the band confidently into the 21st century.  The political power of “Walk On”, the idealism of “Beautiful Day”, the stadium punch of “Elevation” and others blend into a truly potent album and still sounds fresh.  What is astounding is that although these tracks were written prior to the events of 9/11, they were the very songs that many people found solace and hope within during the chaos and discouragement of the next few years. Is it a stretch to say that U2 is prophetic?  Not for this fan.  Just seeing their 9/11 tribute performance where they blend “Peace On Earth” with “Walk On” as if they wrote it for that night is a wonder to behold.

The National – High Violet

For those of you who followed my top ten of 2010, you will recognize The National and their amazing 2010 release as my top pick of the year. As such, it bears repeating that The National really came into their own in the latter part of the decade and while some would place their earlier release – The Boxer – higher, I will stand with High Violet.   As I mentioned in my previous post, Matt Berninger who is the lead singer of The National, has a voice and writes songs that get compared to a lot of other artists –  Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits to name a few. What I have yet to hear is the comparison to artists found on John Hughes movie soundtracks.  Take just about every cut on the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack could be covered by The National and I would venture to guess that Berninger spent a good portion of his adolescence with many of the misfits that populate the Hughes teen film canon.  As demonstrated in their last release The Boxer and this years High Violet, The National is a band concerned with coming-of-age

On High Violet, you could also argue that the effect of Tim LeHay’s Left Behind series and millennial fever is part of the back story given the apocalyptic images of floods, bee swarms, and even brain-eating zombies.  In this way the album is truly a product of this 9/11 haunted decade.   Most of what this conjures up for the listener though is the strange effect loving something more than yourself means in a world that is falling apart at every turn.  Given that Matt Berninger became a father during the recording of High Violet speaks to this anxiety of now having to provide and protect a life other than your own.  to express the fear of a man who now must put a wife and young child ahead of himself.  “Afraid Of Everyone” is what encapsulates this anxiety to perfection.  As Berninger sings of being afraid ‘of everyone’ you honestly believe him.  And yet the movement of the album doesn’t live in the paranoia of Radiohead nor the burn-the- world-down-and-start-again anthem that is found in Nine Inch Nails.  No, with songs like “England” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” The National sing of being fearful for others and the love that breaks their heart over and over and over again.  In short, it is just a stunning album filled with complexity, brooding, wonder and at times quick wit and one of the lasting releases that I can imagine playing again and again.


The White Stripes –  Elephant

Here is a serious question: where would popular music be right now without Jack White?  I am glad I don’t have to answer that question for a number of reasons, but three readily come to mind: (1) resurrecting the career of country singer Loretta Lynn by producing her album Van Lear Rose which simply buries most country albums and puts some serious post-punk energy into her already storied and passionate gifts as the Queen of Country Music, (2) proving that there were other things going on in Detroit other than Motown, and (3) giving the world the challenge to rip open the studied, boring, factory slickness of the studio album and bring it back to its rawness and immediacy – if it ain’t fresh… don’t bother listening.  Like a freakish mutation of The Carpenters from the sweet innocent 70’s, Jack and Meg White took the weird, creepy ‘brother/sister’ act to a whole new level.  Take The White Stripes’ album Elephant and the now ubiquitous sounding “Seven Nation Army”.  While there are haters and imitators alike, the needed push that The White Stripes offered the decade was a gift.  In the end, throw the sound board in the pickin’ river and rip up the stage with your guitar and a drum kit.  Elephant sounds like something that Robert Plant only dreamed of but isn’t capable of imagining himself into these days (granted, I like the whole T-Bone/ Alison Krauss move… ) It is both a nightmare and dream but one that we are still not ready to wake up from.  Where Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up” is my vote for the ultimate break-up song for the decade, Elephant gets my vote for the album that gets played once you are fed up and ready to pound your fists against the wall.  I don’t know if that is a category… but it worked for me many, many times.

Over the Rhine – Drunkard’s Prayer

Marriage is not an easy thing and anybody who tells you different has watched too many Disney films.  Having a marriage survive beyond the first few years these days is something of a miracle and being able to put a song together (let alone an entire album) that gets the pathos and joy of this wild, strange endeavor of intimacy is truly rare.  Karin Berquist and Linford Detweiler – the songwriting duo and core of Over The Rhine – have put out some astounding albums over the twenty years that they have been a band, but the angels and demons that they wrestled to the ground in the midst of a marriage that teetered on the brink of oblivion is a wonder and is a gift for the ages.  Drunkard’s Prayer is a love letter written in blood, sweat and tears of real love put to the test and facing the darkness before any hope of a dawn.  It is a simple, painful, truly drunken romp through a love gone dead and lifeless and two lovers being asked to identify the corpse that was their life.  It is an album I want to give to couples on their 10th anniversary, and their 20th, and for every decade after.  Like the good wine that was drunk in times of joy and sorrow… it is an album that truly gets better with age.

Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator)

In a decade that seemed to have lost all its innocence, there was certainly a turning back the clock with the move of alt.country acts like Old Crow Medicine Show, Whiskeytown, Jeff Tweedy, and Wilco to name a few who rose in stature during this decade.  Probably nothing launched this movement though quite like The Coen Brothers brilliant film O Brother Where Art Thou released in 2000 but gained a strong cult following once it was released in DVD following the 9/11 attacks.  The soundtrack was a bluegrass tour de force produced by T-Bone Burnett to great acclaim and introducing the world to Gillian Welch.  Gillian Welch, an orphan born in New York City and moved to Los Angeles at the age of three with her adopted parents, isn’t the person most people would pick as the legacy bearer for bluegrass.  But like a pastoral vocation, one doesn’t choose their calling… its chooses them.  Having bummed around University of California, Santa Cruz as a bass player in punk bands, it was when she heard bluegrass and Patsy Cline era country that all the lights went on.  Her albums take time seriously and if you are not patient, then she is not someone you will enjoy because akin to public transit to can’t rush it and it will come to you when it is good and ready.  But Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings (my vote for the best guitarist of the decade next to Mark Knopfler) create a space that is deep yet won’t drown you.  Every time I have seen them live (four times now) I have come away feeling like I wanted to be a better person… few musicians do that.  Her last album – Soul Journey – came out in 2003 and she is way overdue for another release so lets pray that we get sometime to start the new decade with.  But of her releases this past decade, it is Time (the Revelator) that truly stands as a masterwork.  Joyous and cautious at the same time, it is an album that takes stock of what is precious and worth loving and holds it before with gentleness and grace.  While her previous releases dealt with the internal canvas of a person struggling with being an orphan and the poverty that infects our past both spiritual and economically, Time paints a much larger picture by taking on what it means to be an American in a world that after 9/11 seems so strange.  Drawing on such diverse themes as the sinking of the Titantic, Elvis, Abraham Lincoln and the endlessness of time itself, Time is truly the central character in this album and the one figure for Welch that has the perspective to render our momentary frustrations and longings in a context worthy of souls created by God.  The ending track “I Dream A Highway” is a universe in miniture: a 15 minute testimony to the movement of time and the grace that will carry us through this life and beyond.  This song alone makes Time (The Revelator) worthy of this spot in a top ten list, but the album is strong as steel and worth a listen.  

The video below is from an amazing performance in 2004 that Welch and Rawlings performed as part of a BBC in-studio.  In this great venue of a church, you get a nice taste of this magical duo and especially Rawlings amazing guitar work:


Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (Come on feel the)

I have to admit feeling like a hipster wannabee putting Sufjan Stevens at the top of my decade list and I went an entire day trying to figure out a way to take him off the list entirely.  There is now such a backlash against the Sufjan cult that I just want to run way from all the skinny jeans, blogging, emo, self-reflective indie cool of it.  But standing in the rain scrolling through my iPod I kept coming back to Illnois and the wonder of it all.  Spin magazine had anointed Sufjan with the appropriate title of “Elliott Smith after ten years of Sunday school” and perhaps this is the best way to think of him – a mash up of Smith and sanctification peppered with pathos yet dripping with the sublime.   His vision of art has been something of seeking beyond the art itself and Illinois captures this madness at its true blinding reality.  In an interview in the Grand Rapids Press, Stevens spoke of art in this way:

“Art is … a reflection of a greater divine creation. There really is no separation…There’s a fullness of being in the world that takes into consideration the supernatural and the natural, and everything we do and say is evoking and expressing eternal things without even knowing it.”

One of the things I have loved about the career of Sufjan Stevens has been his unwillingness to be pulled into the CCM orbit nor to seek so far into despair as to abandon the very thing that gives life to his art – namely his appreciatation for wonder and mystery in the face of God.  As he notes in an interview in Pitchfork around the time of the release of Seven Swans:

“I do have to reckon with the material I’m singing about. And I want to be responsible for what I’m singing about. But I can’t be responsible for an entire culture, or an entire church. I can’t be responsible for Christendom. I think that when people react reflexively to material that is religious, they’re reacting to the culture of religion. And I think an enlightened person is capable, on some level, of making the distinction between the institution of the culture and the culture itself.”

Sufjan Stevens inhabits a strange sub-genre of “good musician artists” who happen to be Christians: (David ‘curse those branches for dropping me” Bazan, Danielson, Rosie Thomas, Ester Drang, and Half Handed Cloud among others) – as opposed to so-called “Christian artists” found only in Christian bookstores. They are different because they are subversive Christian musicians. They do not directly evangelize and they barely even mention the name Jesus. They are not under pressure to convert any souls through their music, only pressure to make good art.

Sufjan signed with Asthmatic Kitty, a small label in Holland, Michigan near Hope College where he attended.  After releasing Michigan he went headfirst into his Anglicanism with Seven Swans which began his journey of flexing his “I’m brooding, I’m happy, I’m brooding, I’m happy” style that flew Icarus-like towards the Holy of Holies in one instant and then fell into the arms of a lover the next – melted wings and all.

Seven Swans is a quiet, intimate work, wholly concerned with Stevens’ relationship with God. The ‘Seven Swans’ of the title represent the gifts of the Seven Sacraments of the Holy Spirit, willing to persist in the face of the mystery of God and fully engaged with the world through art and liturgy. Stevens writes as a believer not willing to accept the easy answers, as one who knows the failures of sin, the silence of God and the complications of belief. The work often has the tone of a Lamentation or a Psalm.

Oh the glory that the lord has made /And the complications you could do without /When I kissed you on the mouth/

Tuesday night at the bible study /We lift our hands and pray over your body /But nothing ever happens/Oh the glory that the lord has made /And the complications when I see his face /In the morning in the window /Oh the glory when he took our place /But he took my shoulders and he shook my face /And he takes and he takes and he takes

—“Casimir Pulaski Day”

And in my best behavior /I am really just like him /Look beneath the floorboards /For the secrets I have hid

—“John Wayne Gacy, Jr. ”

“In the Tower above the earth there is a view that reaches far/Where we cede the universe/I see the fire, I see the end/Seven miles above the earth, there is Emmanuel of Mothers/With His sword, with His robe, He comes dividing man from brothers.”—from the Revelation themed “The Seer’s Tower”

As an Episcopalian who is a bit embarrassed by the institutionalization and commodification of most church culture, Stevens stands in line with artists like Dorothy Sayers and Flannery O’Conner, who considered excellence at their craft the primary discipline of a Christian. One gets the impression that Stevens doesn’t want to be a mouthpiece or a preacher, but rather that he wants to be someone who lives and looks for God in the doubts, the stories and the musical movements of the Spirit.

I have mentioned to some that I have not taken to The Age of Adz yet – his latest release that frankly confuses me more than anything.  Being a hater of a Sufjan Stevens project is a dangerous game in some circles (those skinny jeans folks will bludgeon you with their messenger bags, chuck copies of The Believer at you, dump a cold Americano on your laptop and cut off your wifi just to add insult to injury) but I am risking vulnerability and ignorance in hopes of finding something redemptive in it since I think that of the artists this decade, Sufjan Stevens provides one of the clearest blueprints for what true artists should be engaged in – art that matters and transcends the rubble of this age and hopefully leaving us with a smile that is only joy when shared with others and we seek for justice and reconciliation.

So… that’s it for the list.  So many that should be here and are not.

What do you think?

Where did I hit and where did I miss for you?


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  So wrote Charles Dickens in the opening line to The Tale of Two Cities.  And yet this is only the beginning.  As the rest of the sentence continues:

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.

Written in 1859, Dickens’ novel is set in the midst of the French Revolution as it is breaking out and the story chronicles the hopes and fears of a generation watching this seismic shift occur in Europe from both London and Paris.  Many people recognize his infamous opening words – it is a wonderful, paradoxical summary of the human condition and many of us can state without blinking that our lives are summed up as ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’  Yet as the sentence continues beyond what we have become so familiar with. To be sure there is a lot more going on than merely ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’  What makes this age – let alone any epoch of human history – the challenging age that it is and that it is an intermingling of belief, foolishness, wisdom, incredulity, despair and hope as well as the best and worst of times.  In the end, we live in and amidst change that is occurring so fast and so furious that we just can’t keep up with it.  This is one of the many reasons we turn to music – to give us the sonic height, breadth, depth and simple space to stop, reflect and acknowledge what it means to be human amidst an ever-changing culture.

2010 was a year like many years in pop music – some great releases (the best of times) and some recordings so vile (the worst of times) that the fact that they were actually recorded, some producer gave a thumbs up from the sound booth, and now exists in perpetuity on a server somewhere is a haunting reminder that this is truly a fallen world.  But there were albums that rose to the top – ones that offered a way of listening to a world spinning fast and furious with a renewed sense of place and purpose.  Also, it is important to note these are ‘top’ albums and not necessarily the ‘best’ albums of the year.  Like the tide hitting the shore after a massive storm, not everything that rises to the top is necessarily the best – what hits the shore is just that… ‘hits’.  These ‘hits’ are in some respects the flotsam and jetsam of the year.  Some of the albums I choose this year reminded me of where I came from and others showed me – perhaps with both horror and wonder – where we are headed.  Some were deeply nostalgic and others knocked me off my feet and still have me feeling like the first time I saw a platypus… like some weird alien life-form appearing without being announced.  Some of the albums were confessional and others prophetic.  Some were just simply great albums to listen to when driving on a warm summer day on Highway 20 near Winthrop and others fit well with the feeling of my favorite coffee shop as twilight falls on a rain night on Capitol Hill in Seattle.  So try as you might to find some common thread between them akin to Pandora trying to create some perfect radio station for me, there simply isn’t one.  In the words of that great music critic Donald Rumsfeld… it is what it is.

In compiling my top ten albums for the year, I am following the pattern I have had for the past decade on this blog of limiting my number of choices to the year into the decade – top 8 for 2008, top 9 last year for 2009, and this year I get to round out the number with a top ten.

Yes, I feel like David Letterman this year (although I don’t have the pull to get U2 to do the Top Ten list for me like Dave can do).

Again, as for the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of these choices, like most things in life you can try to distill it down to a number of competing factors but as I have written elsewhere I am more of the belief that music finds us and grabs a hold of us more than we reason and force a feeling for.  I have had a lot of music recommended to me – some of it sticks and a lot of it doesn’t.  In my younger more idealistic years I would to try and embrace the hipster choices, rush to the hottest indie acts, grab the least hot track from iTunes.   Perhaps it is due to age, crankiness, staring down the barrel of 50, or plain old stubbornness but I have found that if it doesn’t connect in the first few listens… then the song and I need to part ways and I need to free up space on the iPod.  So what follows are a series of first dates that just kept going – albums that I fell into and keep falling into this year.  I don’t think all the tracks are stellar on the albums I chose, but there is enough of a consistent thread joining the project together to consider it a winner.  Lastly, I realize that we are increasingly living into an age of the digital single (or ‘dingal’ if you will) where albums really are a thing of the past.  I am still a strong believer that artists can do profound work in miniature as well as large canvas.  I have a number of singles/dingles that populate playlists and mix tapes that stand apart from albums and that is a great thing, but the album is a special event.  As the name recognizes, it is a movement of images akin to a photo album that while offering a collection of distinct images that are distinct can come together in the hands of a musician and be a tapestry showing a story that situates each single/dingle in a context or family.  Sometimes only 30 minutes and sometimes over an hour but the album does something that the single/dingle will never do – it gives us a community of meaning-making that both enlarges the single/dingle and humbles it at the same time.  Like life, we make sense more as a part of an album rather than as one-hit wonders.

So… onto my 2010 top ten albums:

10 – Glee Cast / Journey to Regionals

Before you go screaming into the comments box, hear me out: no television show has done more for pop music in the last five years than Glee.  Seriously.  Taking past pop staples and doing mash ups with current acts seemed like a one trip pony at first, but as the show has continued, the way in which Glee is situating the context of teen coming-of-age in the midst of a continuous musical number has more truth than fiction.  Most every teenager is essentially a walking soundtrack: rhythms and beats punching through their Mp3 players in the hallways, at the bus stops, walking in the mall or waiting for their girlfriend afterschool, music is identity.  Whether it is Fame, Grease, Footloose or Glee, the truth is that we may roll our eyes at such a shameless money machine as this Fox comedy (each single/dingle they sing goes to the top of iTunes sales for the week – the royalty checks for the members of Journey alone much be making for a happy Christmas this year) but the fact remains… the musical numbers are actually really good.  Whether the show holds it together beyond this second season remains to be seen (after the ‘Grilled Cheeses’ episode it seems to be losing its luster a bit IMHO) but their first run to regionals and the season finale was as good as it gets.  The release “Journey to Regionals” is just an amazing, fist- pumping anthem to idealistic teendom.  Yes, these are impossible dance numbers to imagine for a public high school in Ohio.  Yes, there is no way these kids could have all appeared in the same school and been called ‘losers’.  Yes, Journey songs get a bit tiring and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was done better in the ‘Wayne’s World’ movie.  But as an album of optimism that literally (here it comes) twinkles with possibilities… it doesn’t get much better than this:

9 – Kayne West/ My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

What is there to say about Kanye West that over the past couple of years hasn’t already been said?  Few people hold the place in pop culture that Kanye does – whether he was the most hated man in America for usurping Taylor Swift’s MTV acceptance speech or now the source of George W. Bush’s *only* disappointment in his entire presidency as noted in his recent interview with Matt Lauer on NBC and in his memoir Decision Points – the man certainly galvanizes opinions.  When his latest album was released I had some low expectations but this is a release that is one of the best hip-hop CDs in years.  Taking all the celebrity and power issues that were beginning to show up in his 2004 release The College Dropout (some would argue still Kayne’s best album to date) Kanye has pulled together an anthem for the new millennium.  Going back to the R&B and Soul sampling that made him the go-to guy for Jay Z, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy lives up to its title by sounding otherworldly and timeless yet so fresh at the same time.  With Hip Hop royalty like Rhianna and Jay Z on board as well as serious indie cred by sampling Bon Iver, Kanye West is proving what many critics have argued and record sales show: Hip Hop is the last truly innovative pop music genre alive today. As a genre that can sample the past with dignity (rather than either parody or shameful disrespect as in many current slouching so-called indie bands), bridge every musical genre effortlessly, and move between racial and economic classes yet still remain distinct, it is the last musical superpower on the planet.  True, Kanye West is a middle class kid from Chicago and doesn’t have the gansta narrative of Tupac, but he knows his limits and draws into his records the talent and depth of the future as well as the past.  As a art performance piece, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is really a wonder.  True, he drops the F-bomb like rain in Glasgow in November, but he pulls together pop culture and high culture deftly as seen in his promo video for the single “Power”:


Many people will be putting My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as their number one release for the year for good reason and as a hip hop release is stands toe-to-toe with the best of them.

8 – Florence + The Machine/ Lungs

I only listen to two radio stations with any regularity anymore: KEXP 90.3 and KPLU 88.5.  When I lived in Scotland I would stream them to my office computer in Number 4, The Square at the University of Glasgow and get my fill of great jazz and NPR (KPLU) and some of the best indie playlists on the planet (KEXP).  I say this to note that radio stations are going the way of the dodo bird and it is getting harder to get exposure to new music from good sources.  One example is Florence + the Machine which is a band I haven’t heard too many people talk about but thanks to both an NPR spotlight and hearing a couple tracks on KEXP encouraged me to check them out.  Lead singer and songwriter Florence Welch is the daughter of a professor of Renaissance Art at University of London and this influence shows throughout the album.  At once blending heavy drums, harpsichord, hand clap loops, Irish Harp, and choirs with at times a jazz time signature and at others a straight 4/4 pop riff, Florence + the Machine really brought a unique sound in their release Lungs that is both instantly singable (try not joining in on “Dog Days are Over” while driving in your car), rhythmically full and pushes us toward triumphant love (“Cosmic Love” has already appeared in numerous TV shows at critical ‘first kiss’ moments for humans falling for aliens (“V”), vampires (“The Vampire Dairies”), or superheroes (“Smallville”).  At times the band swerves into Tom Waits territory (which is a good thing BTW) and at others just a simple pop ballad.  Overall a really fun album that I doubt will make many top ten lists this year but deserves some respect.  This video of “Cosmic Love” is fairly goofy, so I recommend just turning off your monitor and just listen to the track… sometimes (as the Buggles told us so many years ago) video really does kill the radio star…

7 –  Bruce Springsteen/ The Promise

OK, OK… the songs were recorded in 1978 and only remastered and released in 2010, but give me a freakin’ break… this is the Boss!  To be honest I didn’t take to his last studio release in 2009 “Working on a Dream” all that much (with the exception of ‘The Wrestler” which is classic Boss) and hearing that he was releasing some ‘lost tracks’ that were recorded around the time of Darkness on the Edge of Town was intriguing yet seemed like a Hail Mary throw to get some quick cash at Christmas.  But as a hard core Boss fan I caved and picked up The Promise and was simply blown away at two things: (1) that songs he essentially gave away to other artists (“Fire”, “Because the Night”) just sound amazing and fresh now that the Boss has taken them back, and (2) the songs that he wrote during the Darkness on the Edge of Town season of his career were in some ways more mature than he was and that time and they need to marinade these past decades so that the Boss was ready to sing them.  Granted, the songs he ‘gave away’ like ‘Fire’ and ‘Because the Night’ are fairly standard, but listening to the title track – ‘The Promise’ – is to be immersed into a world that is haunting and current in 2010: unemployment and underemployment crush the life out of youth and their ideals, hopes for lasting relationships seem to disappear and only the hope of escape is left.  Sure, writing a song in your twenties can fill the song with power and anger, but with the Boss now in his 60’s there is now a wisdom and hopefulness in his voice and performance amidst the doubt and despair that is something few grown-ups today seem to offer the next generation.  Having the Boss share these gems thirty years after they were first penned is to be introduced to long time friends who can at once remember the pain of youth and yet have lived through it into a sobriety and solidity that comes from weathering life’s storms well.

This performance of ‘Because the Night’ was taped during Bruce’s appearance on the Jimmy Fallon Show last month and he is backed by the Roots who, for my money, take the song to another level:

6 – The Black Keys/ Brothers

Whether you are a fan of Quentin Tarantino as a director and auteur, he certainly gave pop culture a reminder that 70’s soul and funk deserves to be canonized – if radio stations have forgotten about it, then his soundtracks were going to raise the funk from the grave.  One of the things you feel very quickly with The Black Keys is both the homage to 70’s funk acts and the seamless sense of immediacy in the tracks – like this is a first take and the raw energy is front and center – that only Jack White has seems to pull off.  Dan Auerbach (on guitar and vocals) and Patrick Carney (on drums) who make up The Black Keys had a strong outing with their Danger Mouse produced 2008 release Attack and Release.  In the Pitchfork review of Brothers earlier this year, they noted that while Danger Mouse only produced one track on the album, his fingerprints are still all over Brothers –  the quasi-dirge vibes riffing a deep scratchy Delta blues sound blended with Parliament-era falsetto funk vocals from Auerbach and then brought to a froth with some funky, quirky blended bass lines and rhythm grooves from Carney is just amazing.  You so want to be in a nice venue when these guys crank it up and the album captures some of that lightening.

5 – Gil Scott-Heron/I’m New Here; Roky Erickson/True Love Cast Out All Evil

I suppose I am cheating a bit by putting two albums under one as tied, but part of my indecision is the similarity in their relative authoritative distinctiveness [translation: you just can’t say “No” to either of these guys]. Of all the albums that came out this year that spoke of redemption and rebirth just by virtue of coming into existence, these two releases – Roky Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil and Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here – both have equal claim. Both Roky Erickson and Gil Scott – Heron are legends whose careers have influenced generations yet careened off the road after falling headlong into LSD, Heroin, Booze and everything in-between.  Erickson is credited with coining the phrase “psychedelic rock” during his time with the 13th Floor Elevators; Scott – Heron was a formative spoken word performer in the 1970’s that many consider to be the Godfather of Rap and cited alongside Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson as one of the most important figures in modern R & B and Hip-Hop.  Both essentially disappeared from recording for the past two decades with only the occasional release or track sample but this year saw both not only returning with a full length treatment of their work, but releasing one of the best records of either of their career.  In the case of Roky Erickson, his producer Will Sheff worked through over 60 songs that Erickson had written in the past 20 years and boiled down the tracks into a 14 song compilation of southern gothic and folk rock that, while under 60 minutes, is truly gripping.  The proper artist designation should have Erickson coupled with Okkervil River on the record label since they are the backing band on every track and give all the songs control and depth.  But Roky Erickson is the preacher of the day in these songs and when he sings “God is Everywhere” you believe him.  Gil Scott – Heron’s I’m Not Here is a similar testimonial to endurance and coming through the ravages of prison and drug abuse without any fanfare or triumphalism but with a voice that is a cracked, smoky baritone with tread marks and battle scars, he sings with a conviction and humility that breaks your heart even while you are grooving to the beats.  Lonliness and anxiety fill songs like “Where Did the Night Go” where sleeplessness only adds insult to injury with the fact that, as a poet, he can no longer verbalize his love in a way his lover can understand.  It is as if he has awoken like Rip Van Winkle into a world that no longer speaks his language nor understands what it is to be human.  This is brilliantly done on the amazing track “New York Is Killing Me” where he laments that he lives in a city of “eight million people, and I didn’t have a single friend.”  Of the stunning tracks on I’m New Here, his electronica-addled cover of blues pioneer Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” is the stuff of Grammys.  This is a song of wrestling with the demons that haunt so many but few have the courage to face let alone acknowledge as companions in this journey through life.  Gil Scott-Heron’s cover speaks with the authority of one who not only looks the Devil in the eye, but also holds his head high and swears by a God that is larger and more profound than simple answers and easy redemption – the ending spoken word response at the end of his cover of “Me and the Devil” is chilling and hopeful at the same time.  If more churches preached the way Gil Scott- Heron or Roky Erickson embrace their shadows for the sake of the light… then perhaps they wouldn’t be so empty.

4 – Neil Young/ Le Noise

Neil Young + X + Daniel Lanois + a lone Gibson guitar = ? It is like a math problem where the X factor could lead you into despair, angst or greatness depending on what divine intervention moves into play.  Rather than go back to either his Crazy Horse days, Grunge grandfather or folky balladeer stance, Lanois introduced Neil Young to his inner Jack White and stripped him down to a fuzzed out Gibson guitar and wailing voice left alone in a noir-era LA mansion.  The result could have been a car crash… but the X factor tilted toward the sublime and Le Noise is a force to be reckoned with.  With the polished anger of a wild man who has wandered the labyrinth of his mind for a bit too long, Le Noise comes off as John the Baptist kicking over his amp and declaring ‘Behold, here comes the music that will take away the sins of the world!’  Lanois is a genius producer – his work with Bob Dylan, U2 and others gives a sense of his ability to work with huge egos and bring out the best in them.  Le Noise is a short outing at just under 40 minutes but that is also its strength – it doesn’t overstay its welcome and leaves you restless for more.

3 – The Hold Steady/ Heaven Is Whenever

As Craig Finn stated in relation to the band’s 2005 album Separation Sunday, much of their music is about real people finding real redemption. In a world where religion promises a life to be found beyond this one and humanitarians and politicians alike can spend a lot of time and energy blaming everyone for the ills of society yet never get beyond the rhetoric, Finn believes that rock and roll may be the last chance for kids today to find not only a reason to live, but the force to do it.  In an NPR ‘All Things Considered’interview, Finn called many of his songs “a prodigal-daughter story… it is about a girl who grew up in a religious background and goes off to try to find something bigger, better, or something she’s missing. And [she] has a lot of experiences and ends up coming back, not only to her family and to her town, but to her church.”  Heaven is Whenever continues this narrative and picks up many of the battered and bruised characters Finn has acquainted us with in the past Hold Steady releases.  True, Heaven is Whenever is a bit more polished in comparison to their last album Stay Positive or Boys and Girls in America, but make no mistake… the Hold Steady are still the best bar band you are going to encounter.  With all the swagger of a honky tonk and the guilt of Catholic school gone bad, The Hold Steady play simple tunes with sing along choruses that play well for the working guy ordering domestic beer and nachos yet draws characters, images and metaphors from such deep wells as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, the Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire and most of the Torah and Pastoral Epistles.  Craig Finn looks like just another CPA, but he sings with the wisdom of disappointment that never stops looking for light in the darkness and the literacy of a Don DeLillo/George Eliot mash up.  Heaven is Whenever is not their best album, but is still buries a lot of what was released this past year.  Take the single ‘The Weekenders’ for a spin and see what I am mean:


2 – Mumford and Sons/ Sigh No More

When your parents are John and Ele Mumford, the leaders of the UK Vineyard Church, you would think that such a child would either end up as a drug addict, some raging atheist given over to free market capitalism, or a safe church leader following in a parents footsteps. What doesn’t often come to mind is the vocation of “It Guy” in the alt-folk-rock scene and moving millions of units with a debut album that name checks not only God but Shakespeare and Steinbeck as well.  Marcus Mumford has certainly defied labels and the band’s debut album is a wonder.  Sure, he is in line with Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, and other neo-folkies and as such Mumford and Sons can be seen as merely riffing on an already fading trend.  But just listen to Sigh No More and you will quickly realize that this is something more.  The lyrical depth is truly amazing, the arrangements are both quaint and surprising, and Marcus’ voice offers the dust bowl scrap and grind of Grapes of Wrath with the whimsy of an public school head boy sneaking out for fish and chips and seeing the dirty streets at 3am for the first time.

This version of “Awake My Soul” was recorded live on tour and is a fitting celtic-tinged affirmation of the need for a soul to be wide awake in the world of wonder:

1 – The National/ High Violet

Matt Berninger, lead singer of The National, has a voice and writes songs that get compared to a lot of other artists –  Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits to name a few. What I have yet to hear is the comparison to artists found on John Hughes movie soundtracks.  Take just about every cut on the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack could be covered by The National and I would venture to guess that Berninger spent a good portion of his adolescence with many of the misfits that populate the Hughes teen film canon.  As demonstrated in their last release The Boxer and this years High Violet, The National is a band concerned with coming-of-age

On High Violet, you could also argue that the effect of Tim LeHay’s Left Behind series and millennial fever is part of the back story given the apocalyptic images of floods, bee swarms, and even brain-eating zombies.  Most of what this conjures up for the listener though is the strange effect loving something more than yourself means in a world that is falling apart at every turn.  Given that Matt Berninger became a father during the recording of High Violet speaks to this anxiety of now having to provide and protect a life other than your own.  to express the fear of a man who now must put a wife and young child ahead of himself.  “Afraid Of Everyone” is what encapsulates this anxiety to perfection.  As Berninger sings of being afraid ‘of everyone’ you honestly believe him.  And yet the movement of the album doesn’t live in the paranoia of Radiohead nor the burn-the- world-down-and-start-again anthem that is found in Nine Inch Nails.  No, with songs like “England” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” The National sing of being fearful for others and the love that breaks their heart over and over and over again.  In short, it is just a stunning album filled with complexity, brooding, wonder and at times quick wit and one of the lasting releases that I can imagine playing again and again.

So… that is my list for 2010.  In case you are wondering, I do realize that Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire and many, many other favs are not on the list.  I am certain that they will find space on other lists and I doubt their lack of mention here will hurt their fan base or their year end sales.  As I said in the beginning, these are ‘top’ by virtue of floating up on my shoreline… and I am so glad they did.

I would love your thoughts and comments and even hear your top albums of the year.

Let me know!

Ever have that experience when you are listening to the radio or watching a television show and you know you are in the midst of a serious ‘water cooler’ moment?  Back in the 90’s, episodes of “ER” and “Friends” evoked such ‘water cooler’ moments: entertainment that was sold as pop entertainment yet hit some nerve in the collective zeitgeist that once you got to work the next day everyone was buzzing about it at the proverbial water cooler (or coffee pot, copy machine, to whatever collective gathering place you have in your cube farm).  For those of us working with teens and looking at the question of how teenagers are making meaning , this week’s episode of Glee entitled “Grilled Cheesus” was a water cooler moment .

[If you haven’t seen the episode – click here to watch it on Hulu.com ]

I have blogged about Glee here in the past to the way the show is lifting up the importance of anthems and ballads as theological forms for a new generation.  Already the blogosphere is a-buzz about this episode and some great discussions are occurring as to how the various teens discuss what faith is for them and showing that teens represent a large spectrum – from Christian fundamentalism to cultist wish-fulfillment  vis-a-vis a grilled cheese sandwich as an iconic cipher for the Divine to reformed and orthodox Judaism (who would have thought that Chaim Potok’s The Chosen would find a 21st century revival in the Glee characters of Rachel and Puck?) to atheism and all points in-between.   Dr. Kenda Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of the great new book Almost Christian has posted a wonderful reflection on the “Grilled Cheesus” episode with some useful questions to reflect on with teens and parents – click through here for her reflections and helpful points of dialog with the show.

One of the points in the show that I found a bit disconcerting was the perpetuation of a view that public schools have somehow banned discussion of religion of any type and that teachers are being told to (in the words of Glee’s cheerio coach Sue Sylvester) “keep the separation of church and state sacred.”  This is a view that is continuing to threaten how public schools are viewed by people from religious communities and a point that needs to be challenged.

For starters, there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between (unconstitutional) indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion on the one hand and, on the other, (constitutional) teaching about religion, which is objective, non-sectarian, neutral, balanced and fair.  In the episode, the New Directions glee club is told by the Principal that they cannot sing anything that is religious and to do so will be in violation of the law separating church and state.

Unfortunately, the writers for Glee didn’t look at the law at all…

For example, looking at the Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington Township v. Schempp decision which continues to be upheld  in which the Court affirms the constitutionality of teaching about religion in public schools when done “objectively as part of a secular program of education” means that Sue Sylvester doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on – whether in a track suit or not – if teens are singing songs found on the radio and part of our culture whether in the Gospel tradition or CCM.  True, what it means to be “objective” is not uncontroversial as many would argue that there is no such thing as true objectivity and every curricular item has some bias to it.  Fair enough.  That said, what *is* clear from Schempp is that the Court’s places a high value on neutrality…. not silence. Teachers and texts in our schools must be neutral in dealing with religion which is to say that they must be neutral among religions, and they must be neutral between religion and nonreligion.

So yes, Mr. Schuester, you can have the kids sing Joan Osborne’s “(What if God were) One of Us” if they want to and the Supreme Court is there in the audience swaying along.  (By the way – I will admit an emotional tie to that song in that Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” was sung in my ordination service along with U2’s “40” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” so there *is* bias on my part as well 🙂 )

On the other hand, one of the things the “Grilled Cheesus” episode did that was spot on is showing that in order for this neutrality to occur, we must cultivate a spirit of diversity and hospitality for all voices to be heard.   To be educated about religion and morality is to understand something of religions in its diversity. It is not open to public school educators  to include only one religious tradition in the discussion to silence the reality of others and this is something that the Glee writers could have teased out a bit more but was thankful for what they did. One of my grand laments in youth ministry education is that most programs – both undergraduate and graduate programs – offer no room for students to take course in World Religions nor alternate worldview courses unless these course are with a missionary bent.   If there is to be an honest assessment of faith, then all faiths must be discussed on their own terms and not as a strawman argument filled with stereotypes and ill-informed bias to be shot down without honest, deep assessment.  One of the points the teens in Glee make over and over is that part of what helps them understand their own identity is taking seriously the identity of others.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the episode, Mercedes confronts Kurt about his ‘arrogance’ at refusing to discuss faith with her given that she is his best friend at school.  She accepts that he is choosing to be an atheist and has listened to his reasons for not believing in a God, but as she confronts him and challenges him to at least come to a worship service at her church, she reminds him that to really be friends, they have to honor each other and not merely dismiss each other.  Great reminder to us all…

Time to make a grilled cheese sandwich and see what comes of it…

This weekend I am rounding out my first rough (read: ROUGH) draft of my book project on theology and popular music entitled Your Neighbor’s Hymnal: What Pop Music can teach Christians about Faith, Hope and Love. The book is under contract with Cascade Books and I hope to have it ready for press by June 2010.  If you are familiar with Nick Hornby’s 31 Songs, then you will be familiar with the way the book will flow – I am tracing the themes of faith, hope and love through 52 pop songs (a song a week) and seeing the way the artists and the culture have framed these three Christian virtues.  If you have songs that you feel need to be in here, post your suggestion and what you feel this song/artist has to teach us about faith, hope and/or love.  You might get your song in the book and name checked!

Recently, George Clooney took a rather retro stab at the Haiti crisis by bring back what many considered a dead medium: the telethon.  Jerry Lewis is perhaps the best known celebrities associated with the telethon model: taking over the broadcast space for a focused period of live entertainment.  Part of what always made the ‘telethon’ such winning event was the strange alchemy of star power mixed with ‘live TV’ coupled with kitsch-y low fi-ness within the context of a cause beyond anyones ability to solve on their own.  Growing up in the 1970s amidst the golden age of the Variety Show – that granddaddy relative to American Idol (remember the Donny and Marie Osmond Show, the John Denver Show, the Johnny Cash Show, or (shudder…)the  Brady Bunch Hour?), the Telethon was the logical extension of the Variety show: putting stars in live broadcast where  “whatever happens, happens” creates a sense of excitement, uncertainty and anxiety that offers something of the transcendent (well… that and the polyester jumpsuits…)

The Hope for Haiti telethon and subsequent benefit CD revived this model quite well and it was astounding how many people viewed this as a ‘new thing’.  The hot lights of a live set framed the stars is a harshness that couldn’t be airbrushed.  Given the short time frame to plan and execute the event, the celebs involved we obviously reading text off the teleprompter without any prep – it was true live television in ways that so-called reality TV could never approach.

The musical numbers that peppered through the event were evocative in two ways throughout the telethon that deserves some theological reflection – the role of nostalgia as secular lament and how the Gospel genre with the semiotics of the “gospel choir” in the background is secular culture’s bookmark for God.  First, the musicians all seemed to reach into their back catalogs quite far (at least those older than Taylor Swift) to the Beatles or for some or for others twenty years back into their 1980’s catalog.  What was fascinating about Madonna lifting out “Like A Prayer,” Stevie Wonder covering “Bridge over Troubled Waters” or Sting reframing “Driven to Tears” was the way that when we are devoid of methods for lament and loss, we replace it with nostalgia.  “Nostalgia” comes from the Greek roots νόστος nostos “returning home” and άλγος algos “pain”, to refer to the pain a subject feels because he wishes to return to his native land, and fears never to see it again.  Popular culture is framed by the perpetual state of nostalgia as the method to elevate suffering  – triggering instant occasions for longing and loss without sufficient means to satiate this longing.  For example, fandom culture surrounding everything from sports teams to popular culture conventions (i.e. Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) consist of attempts to reconstruct false memories as present realities through communal collusion.  Shared clothing, shared chants and songs, shared material artefacts that ground these memories are key and yet never fulfilling, hence the need to endless repeat the activities – another year, another convention or opportunity to see the team we support play the same game with the same rules.  These moments of nostalgia provide a secular culture a context within which to grieve in ways that are communal as well as distance ourselves from the true and abiding ache of loss: we can chuckle at Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock singing “Lean on Me” but in the same instant tear up and find our lower lip tremble a bit as we silently mouth the words along with them.  Another aspect of the telethon and the music choices in particular was how Gospel music as a genre has become the official secular mode of hyperlinking spirituality and transcendence into music.  In short, add a Gospel choir and Madonna moves from the dance floor to the sanctuary without missing a proverbial beat.  Whether is was Beyonce’s backup for “Halo” or Stevie Wonder’s mash up of “Time to Love/Bridge Over troubled Water” or Springsteen’s “We Shall Overcome” – the context of the transcendent was in the Gospel genre pushing these meager offerings by pop singers above their appointed station and into another realm.  Sure, we can be cynics and scoff at such attempts as merely sentimentality for a cause, but there was something more here.  In watching the Gospel singers – and here I am especially thinking of Madonna’s performance of “Like a Prayer” (here is the youtube.com clip of the performance) – there was a force born from a genre that came from a place and history so foreign and so beyond the reach and depth of the pablum that these pop songs (and their respective singers) had to offer that it was like watching a 20 foot wave crash on top of a sand castle.  Madonna’s performance was probably the clearest example of this – she is literally seems to be playing a game of “Frogger” with her backup choir and comes close a number of times to being an 80’s roadkill.  If CS Lewis’ line in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in regard to Aslan can be riffed on here, it is that Gospel music is good… but it certainly isn’t tame.  This is the amazing thing to watch as these stars want so much to evoke something beyond their grasp given the tragedy that they face, but to roll out a genre and think that it will only add some character to the mix is misguided. Sure, you can tune it down in the studio recording… but the space of the live broadcast is where the Church has always done its best work and certainly the place where God shows up.  This was certainly apparent throughout the night… there was a spark flashing always in the choirs that kept these polished performers looking over their shoulder quite a bit.

Lastly, perhaps the part that truly framed the event as a viewer was the stillness and quiet as the editor jumpcut from set piece (Madonna or Coldplay) to Anderson Cooper live in Haiti, to another actor reading stats like Morgan Freedman or Ben Stiller.  There was no sound bed, no montage clips – just a raw jumpcut from one event to the next.  It was this stillness and silence that evoked a deep spiritual ache – you could honestly say that given this tragedy there was nothing to say – no amount of words nor images that could ever fill the pit of loss and humility the event caused.  For two hours, some of the most beautiful, talented, gracious and even ego-bloated people fell silent… after they sang their song or said their bit, there really wasn’t anything to say.  Words would only stain the void left by so much chaos and uncertainty.  The fact that the show allowed us to feel the silence and lack of polish proves that their is hope after all.  That even with the ‘best laid plans’ of mice, men, and George Clooney… God can show up.

(BTW – as a matter of endorsement… say a prayer for our brothers and sisters in Haiti and buy a CD – it is really good.  And yes, as hard as it is to admit, Justin Timberlake and Charlie Sexton covering “Hallelujah” (that sacred song of all Cohen lovers everywhere)  is really pretty amazing.  No, it isn’t Leonard Cohen nor Jeff Buckley, but it is magical in all the ways you would hope.)

well… last week I started my top 9 list for 2009 spelling out the first five downloads and streamings for the year.   This week will round off the final four for 2009.  So… without further adieu…

4. Mark Knopfler, Get Lucky – As I have said in other postings, I have had the privilege of attending schools with great music alumni – Garfield High School (Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones) and University of Glasgow in Scotland (Eric Clapton went to the Glasgow School of Art for a spell).  Glasgow is a city of great musical heritage – whether being the port from which Johnny Cash’s grandparents set sail from for America or the emo arthouse stylings of Belle and Sebastian it is a rich place to be from.  Mark Knopfler is certainly no exception.  Born in Glasgow and later to be the lead singer/songwriter for Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler is simply one of THE great rock guitarists out there.    With the release of Get Lucky this year, Knopfler has now released equal amounts of music as a solo artist as well as the lead for Dire Straits which makes this release an important shift.  Many reviewers are luckwarm to brazenly thumbs down about the album, but I frankly find Knopfler’s storytelling only growing more grounded with every release.  From the opening strains of pennywhistle, brushes rapid fire on the snare and rabid fiddle playing wrapping around the opening line “Southern bound from Glasgow town, she’s shining in the sun/My Scotstoun lassie, on a border run…” on the lead track “Border Reiver” you know this is a supreme Celtic shout out through and through.  The album rounds off with “So far from the Clyde” and “Piper to the End” in the event that you didn’t pick up the post code of this release and is a strong CD all the way through.  As always, Knopfler’s guitar technique is front and center on a number of tracks, but it is the sage-like musings of the seasoned storyteller that takes you back in this CD. The lost soldiers on “Remembrance Day” recalls the bitterness of loss amidst war that “Brothers in Arms” did in the Reagan era, the track “Before Gas and TV” opens wide the storyline of “Money for Nothing” without the irony – a working class outside the stream of change and not included in the vision of upward mobility that continues to frame a consumer culture.  It is unfortunate that the reviewers didn’t catch the Glasgow vibe – many simply wishing for another “Sultans of Swing” or “Money for Nothing”.  But standing against the artists out there, Knopfler is a giant and the waters of the Clyde flow through words and finger picking…

3. mewithoutyou, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright – I mentioned this in an earlier posting on my facebook page, but I once again will admit to being very, very late to this party.  I had the privilege of working with a student on her honors project this past term and through her reflections she introduced me to mewithoutyou. Yes, there is a debt Aaron Weiss (singer, chief wordsmith and religious vagabond for the band) must pay to Sufjan Stevens, The Polyphonic Spree and the Handsome Family for kicking open the door for this “hey, let’s play crazy music with whatever we find laying around but make it so compelling that people will listen deeply rather than run away” genre.  But what separates mewithoutyou from the fray of Sufjan Stevens wannabes is the depth and integrity with which Aaron Weiss had been willing to go in his creativity and seeking after the muse regardless of what religious camp they may find themselves.  Having signed with Tooth and Nail a few years back, the band flew a distinctive alternative Christian band flag with the proper noun in their band title – mewithoutYOU.  These days, Weiss considers himself to be a theological freegan polyglot finding hybridized meaning in his readings equally of a Greek morality play rendered by a Sri Lankan teacher named M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen from a children’s book (click on this hyperlink to see the video to the song “The Fox, The Crow and the Cookie” which bears a striking resemblance to Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” aesthetic), Christian traditions as seen in the revisioning of King David in “The angel of death came to David’s room” to the turning to Sufism with his anthem that anchors the CD entitled “Allah, Allah, Allah”.  In this move toward seeking wisdom from such seemingly polarizing sources has left many scratching their heads – some calling Weiss a “backslider” and betrayer of the Christian faith to those who denounce this theological journey as merely a play for a wider audience.  It takes courage to journey into such waters and for fans of a certain stripe it will take more than courage… it will take faith.  And perhaps that is what mewithoutyou is offering their audience after all is said and done.

2. Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart – of all the releases this year, this has probably been met with more befuddlement mixed with rage and disappointment than any other.  This is of course due to His Royal Bobness ‘(HRB) rabid fan base  coupled with Dylan being the closest thing to a living legend that American popular music has still recording that existentially stems from the folk revolution of the late 1950s.  As a bearer of a legacy, Dylan’s every move is watched and turned over and over.  On a recent Kindlings Muse podcast we tackled the question of Dylan and his legacy through such artists as Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens.  During the Q and A portion of the show, one of the audience members asked bottom line question – “So, where is Bob Dylan going?” It seems that he has gone right to the heart of American chestnuts – the Christmas song – and played it straight up.  Some reviewers think that this project is nothing more than a joke – basically an ironic mockery of the Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, et. al.  industry of tree-trimming carols that assault shoppers in malls and become the stuff of disdain for children as their parents remember their past.  These are people – IMHO – who still think that irony and sarcasm are the twinned voices of the generation.  No, I listen to these gems and hear nothing by honor and a tapping into something so much deeper than irony.  To his credit, I think the home and hearth that HRB is crowing on about in these standards is a home that the man who sang “Like a Rolling Stone” would like to come to rest in.  Like George Bailey in the finale of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I think HRB is tired of singing alone and would love a singalong.  Mark my words all you naysayers… this is a recording that will be with us… and we will be better for it.  And of the nine downloads I have listened, this is as guilt free as it gets – all proceeds from the sales of the CD will provide 500,000 meals to school children in the developing world through the World Food Programme, 15,000 meals to homeless people in the United Kingdom through Crisis and more than 4 million meals to 1.4 million families in America through Feeding America.  Take that you cynics…

1. U2, No Line on the Horizon – Sure, they are the biggest band in the world and may be the biggest band in the short history of rock and roll (the jury is out) – so why can’t they have the biggest and best release of the year?  Yes, perhaps there is no surprise here for those who follow Theology Kung Fu (which one friend called a “U2 lovesite”), but when I heard the first single “Get On Your Boots” I honestly thought “so, this is it, isn’t it?  U2 are trying to re-capture some energy but this feels all wrong.”  But then the album was released and the digging into the album began and as I have written in many venues (my theological reflections on No Line on the Horizon were published as an article here)  this is yet another masterpiece of production, songcraft, and zeitgeist ready-at-handness hitting hard on questions of faith, war, poverty, racial discord, and what it means to be human.  The current 360 tour only seals it for me – this is U2’s year yet again and it is… wait for it… “magnificent” (click here to watch the boys perform “magnificent” during their weeklong stint on David Letterman… to see is to believe).

Well friends, that is the list.  Let the dogs of war loose – what did I miss?  where did I hit the nail on the head?  Where would you put these?

I am a bit late to the game in picking up Alex Ross’ Pulitzer Prize winning “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and can’t say enough good things about it.  Ross is the chief Music Critic and an Editor for the New Yorker magazine and has pulled together a seminal primer for ‘reading’ the evolution of culture in the 20th century through the music that formed our lives and times.  the rest is noise - book cover - alex rossRoss stakes a claim early in the introduction that “twentieth-century classical composition…sounds like noise to many…yet these sounds are hardly alien.  Atonal chords crop up in jazz, avant-grade sounds appear in Hollywood film scores; minimalism has marked rock, pop, and dance music from the Velvet Underground onward.  Sometimes the music resembles noise because it is noise, or near to it by design.  Sometimes, as with Berg’s Wozzeck, it mixes the familiar and the strange, consonance and dissonance.  Sometimes it is so singularly beautiful that people gasp in wonder when they hear it.”

I love this description and the way Ross is so spirited in his call for us to move from being passive listeners toward an engagement as full participants in the music that fills our iPods and cascades out of the windows and doorways of dorm rooms and bars, concert halls and the church sanctuary.  As I wrote in a recent theological review of U2’s recent album “No Line on the Horizon”, music is something that shapes and ultimately frames not merely marking the memories *of* experiences we partake in, but literally *are* the experiences themselves.  For many of us, music is as vital to what it means to be alive as anything else.  We return to the songs that give us hope, provide companionship in the midst of lament, carve out space for reflection and lay out a map for our journey both in recovering our past and forging into the hope of a redeemed future.  “We are born of sound” muses Bono in the song “Breathe” off “No Line on the Horizon” and I believe he is absolutely correct.  To read The Rest is Noise to realize just how profound the birth of the twentieth century is and the genius that is found in the music we have been midwifed by into the life we now hold so dear.

I am have been travelling quite a bit recently – a different city and a different conference for three weekends of the past four.  Venturing from the sublime (U2 academic conference in Durham, NC) to the ridiculous (was in a booth across from a disco dancing Yeti under a mirror ball blaring the Michael Jackson back catalog at the YS National Youth Workers Convention in LA) to the somber and informative (the AYME conference where I gave a paper on racial identity in teens in Louisville, KY), in the immortal words of Jerry Garcia – “oh what a long strange trip it’s been.”

I am pretty beat up after all this travelling and frankly marvel as frequent business travelers who keep up this pace.  It is utterly de-humanizing to be travelling those distances in that period of time.  I was bumped up to first class on one leg of a trip and got a taste of what happens to people who travel that much – people shoving their overhead luggage into you so they can secure a spot, barking at the stewardess for yet another drink, grunting at the elderly as they attempt to get off the plane with limited mobility.  I kept thinking “so THIS is what the boys in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” would have become if they had traveled by plane as opposed to ship…”

Being bone tired makes you realize your limits and on a spiritual level offers a space to consider what it is that makes us human.  Exhaustion is the end of the bell curve and I am beginning to see it as the polar opposite from imagination.  The lack of human intimacy, the frantic blur of locales and yet the utter banality of hotel rooms in drab sameness, the lack of distinctiveness in food all add up to a vacuum that provides no resources nor encouragement to even consider possibilities and a vision larger than just making it through another metal detector and TSA strip search.

Frankly, I am too tired to even know what to do with this… but at least I am home to think about it.

Bono introduced their song ‘One‘ during their concert in Milan this week as a call to activism for the audience with the G8 meeting in Italy this week.  Some challenging words – reminding the audience that while he is merely a ‘writer of songs’, there are those who are ‘writing history’ even as we speak:

‘It is well known that I have had some differences with your prime minister over promises that were made and not kept to the world’s poor. Italians have given so many gifts to the world… modern physics.. the renaissance.. the piano… the gift of song… from Puccini to Luciano Pavarotti to Jovanotti. In the next few days, at the G8, your leader will decide where he stands on the gift of life for people far beyond your shores. If you think he should do what he promised for the poorest and most vunerable in Africa, you need to let him know because he is not Increasing aid as he said he would. He is slashing it. Do you think he should do what he promised? He still can. Tomorrow. Thursday. Friday. We’ll be waiting to see if he does. I write songs… Berlusconi gets to write history… it’s not too late for his chapter to end with dignity… I want to dedicate this song for him… it’s called ONE.’

Shows that an old song can continue to breathe new life in every age…