Lent is a season of justice – it is a season of deep reconciliation, of bare bones truth-telling, a redirecting of hungers and longings that have gone astray, but it is essentially a season of justice.  As I will tell students as we enter Ash Wednesday that they are called to remember along with Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 that they too will “return to the ground from which they are taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Yet going back to the beginning of things – our dustiness – also means that we can allow new things to take root, to grow into full bloom, and perhaps bear fruit in ways we never would have expected.  As an exercise of justice, I challenge students to remember that Lent is a call to justice in three vectors:

– justice within ourselves,

– justice in relation to our neighbor,

– and justice with God.

Much of the focus in contemporary Lenten practice revolves around the first turn of justice as a move within ourselves and challenging the priority of the hungers/distractions that have taken us away from our true nature.  This is the call to fasting – be it from food, coffee, alcohol, Facebook, television, what-have-you – that people will take on board as a way to refocus on who we truly are before God and others without these things.  It is a good practice and an important spiritual discipline to be sure.  However, without the call of justice to and with our neighbor (found in renewed acts of generosity, service and hospitality) and in relation to God (found in renewed commitments to deep reading of Scripture, prayer, community worship and fellowship) then merely fasting from caffeine or American Idol doesn’t really amount to much.

One area that I have challenged myself with during Lent has been to scroll through my CCM back catalog and see where God might show up in ways I just don’t expect.  For those who know some of my journey, I have had a strange relationship with CCM – the genre known as Contemporary Christian Music – and have come to the point of closing off my imagination to the possibility that God even speaks (let alone stutters) in anything found in the racks of Christian bookstores.  I make a point of ‘heresy hunting’ in CCM lyrics as I sit in worship services and struggling constantly with the poor theology found in much of what passes as ‘praise music’.  But this year I was confronted by the reality that perhaps my heart, akin to the Grinch, was three sizes too small and when I hear the Whos down in Whoville singing to Chris Tomlin, Stuart Townsend, Matt Redman, TobyMac, David Crowder or whomever, I need to explore what is behind this joy rather than steal all the Hillsong CDs from under the trees in the dead of night.

So I have gone back to my CCM tunes in the dusty recesses of my iPod (filed under ‘Gospel and Religious’ or ‘Religious’ or ‘Inspirational’ genres) and started to listen a bit each day as a form of penance, of desert wandering, and a form of reconciliation.  True, some of the music I am finding is fairly cringe worthy in both form and content – the 80’s electronic strings that soar in the third verse is an example – and yet there is still something going on that I have to admit is striving after God in ways I have dismissed.  Perhaps is it a sign of my age, but I actually am finding that some of the old Jesus Music stuff from the mid 1970s (Larry Norman, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill) and the Gospel numbers from the early 1980s (Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mavis Staples, Shirley Caesar, Fairfield Four, Blind Boys of Alabama) hold up and frankly musically bury a lot of what is being sold today.

One gem that I had completely forgot about was Larry Norman’s “The Great American Novel” from his 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet. On the song, Norman plays the role of the 60s flower child wandering through 20th century history and watching as history turns a blind eye to justice in favor of the complacent and the powerful:

And when I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics,
And you learned to make a lie sound just like truth;
But I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks,
And you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth.

You kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter,
Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water;
And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on,
At every meal you say a prayer; you don’t believe but still you keep on.

And your money says in God we trust,
But it’s against the law to pray in school;
You say we beat the Russians to the moon,
And I say you starved your children to do it.

The song pulls no punches and has a ferocious, all-consuming commitment to seeking real justice and reconciliation in the realm of lived politics – things that effect real people in real life.

As I scroll through CCM recorded in the 80s and 90s let alone the first decade of the 2000s, I will admit being struck with how… dare I say it… bland… the music seems to be.

Where is the strong, clear, pointed concern for the poor and marginalized?

Where is the longing for justice and the seeing of Christ in the face of the downcast?

Lent is indeed a season of justice.  It is a season of reconciliation.  It is a season of going back to beginnings and finding what might have been overlooked and needs to be attended to. Sometimes, it means finding in CCM… of all places… a calling to justice and seeing the world anew.

“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…

One of the most difficult things about being a pastor is death.  No… strike that.

One of realities of being human is death.

No… strike that as well.

Here, let me try this:  one of the hardest things about being ANY human is knowing what to say and think about death.

Better… we will go with that and move on.

Today I officiated a memorial service for a 30 year women who died of a drug overdose.  Her life was difficult in numerous ways but as testified to by family and friends, she always wanted to become more than her circumstances.   She had two children – a 16 year old and a 4 year old.  Her parents were divorced and remarried.  Her husband speaks very little English.  All of this came pouring into the meeting room at the church as we planned for this memorial service.  They had been recommended to our church through a series of connections.  As we sat and discussed the service, her father pushed a stack of CDs over to me with track numbers.  “These are songs that she liked – ones that remind us of her and that she loved to sit and listen to,” he said.  I looked them over:  Sarah McLachlan, Mariah Carey, and… Metallica.  “Have you heard of them?” he asked.  One of the tracks he choose was “Nothing Else Matters” from Metallica’s 1981 “Black” album.  “These are going to be great,” I said “these will be… awesome.”

“Nothing Else Matters” is a slow burner to be sure.  Written as a goth ballad, Metallica’s lead singer James Hetfield wrote this song with only one hand strumming an Em chord while he was on the phone with his girlfriend. Since he held the phone with one hand (remember, this is 1991 and no bluetooth and cell phones were still the size of minivans but at least down from the monster trucks of the 80’s), he plucked the four open strings of a standard Em chord with the other, which eventually made up the first two bars of the song.  It is a song of separation and a deep desire to get closer written with one hand holding onto the connection to what keeps him alive in this life and using the other to grasp at whatever will turn our longing, our hope, our love into an anthem large enough to fill stadiums.  It is a song written so as to not forget what it means to be alive, and to give that gift of life to others through love and faith.  The song is about longing for something more and seemed to fit perfectly for this memorial service.  As the family and friends came into the fairly standard church sanctuary, more than a couple or eyebrows were raised as the Metallica tune filled the pews and spilled across floor under the alter and to the foot of the cross that hung on the wall.  Tears started to flow as “Nothing Else Matters” became more than a metal ballad but a song of anger, promise and release wound up in chords and bars and rhythm.  The open casket with this young women’s body lay there as the song continued on:

Never opened myself this way

Life is ours, we live it our way

All these words I don’t just say

and nothing else matters


Trust I seek and I find in you

Every day for us, something new

Open mind for a different view

and nothing else matters


never cared for what they say

never cared for games they play

never cared for what they do

never cared for what they know

and I know

So close, no matter how far

Couldn’t be much more from the heart

Forever trusting who we are

No, nothing else matters

As the song ran its course, arms covered with more ink than a stack of comic books were rubbing their eyes and waiting for something beyond James Hetfiled’s simple tune as we looked toward the cross that hung over that casket.  “Nothing else matters” opened the way for “something else” must matter amidst all this sorrow.

When people ask me what pop music has to do theology, it is in moments like these I wish I could bottle up and hand to the cynics.  People get married, celebrate graduations, drive across the country and bury their family members to simple pop songs.  People continue to seek after something that surrounds and empowers their lvies and for this reason I don’t believe in the post-Christian jargon some are used to evoking – I have yet to see that era truly in full bloom.  However, the notion of the ‘after-Church’ world is certainly true. Granted, the ‘after-Church’ folks could truly benefit from the deep traditions and meaning found in the ancient church made new in their midst.  But when death comes screaming into your world people will act like a proverbial drowning man at sea and will grab the most stable and recognizable thing found floating by.

For millions of folks it won’t necessarily be the hymnal in church pews but the song on their iPod that reminds them of hope, faith and love.  These crazy songs make sense out of the chaos of life in ways so many other things shoveled at people never does.

I have a picture in my mind of this young women listening to “Nothing Else Matters” as we gathered there and perhaps wishing that as her family and friends gathered in this place they would write one more verse of that song with their very lives – that verse being lives lived in remembering her laughter, her love of the sunshine, her passion for music, and what it means to live out this love with others and in the presense of God who lives with us now.

As the service continued I read aloud of Psalm 23 and Romans 6: 3-9 and spoke of Paul’s promise that death dies and life will truly live at the end of all things and do hope that these words of promise got a grip on folks as they sat there.  But I can bet that an old 1991 metal ballad is finding new life tonight for folks and hopefully there is a new verse being written in the lives of this family in deep mourning.  That “something else” does matter, that we can reach out not with one hand restrained but embrace each other with both hands fully and experience an even stronger embrace of God’s grace and mercy.

Some would say that Metallica came to church today.  But I think the gathered were ‘churched’ by James Hetfield and the band in ways we have yet to see the fruit of.

Few things scream pop culture like “Glee” – the Fox television show that just finished its second season.  Set in a fictional Ohio high school, the show is essentially a mash up of Le Boheme,  High School Musical, Fame, Grease, Happy Days, Saved By The Bell, Flashdance and Bring it On set to a K-Tel greatest hits 8 Track.  The story is as old as Tristen and Isolde and its Elizabethan redux Romeo and Juliet:  outcasts driven by a passion for the arts are marginalized by society and this exclusion fusions a collective that will not only conquer the culture, but will become culture itself.  Add to this a never ending search for meaning, love, and a good dance number and you have the makings of some pretty demographically hot TV property.  From a monetary standpoint, Glee has become the poster child for mass market penetration: rebooting pop songs with new voices (cover songs always work) and virtually tapping into the immediacy of this ‘new song’ by making the song available immediately on iTunes, the show has found a way to sell at multiple angles and thereby ensuring a media presence absolutely unparalleled in current television (as I write this 3 Glee collections sit in the top 10 albums on iTunes).  Yet to dismiss the series as merely a money making scheme conjured up to feed the nostalgia needs of 40-somethings (most of the music trends toward the Gen X era… guess someone figured out we still have purchasing power and weren’t slackers after all…) is to miss a more profound hunger that Glee is meeting, albeit in a pop mode which means that it is never complete and always needing to be recast.

It is the hunger for anthems and ballads.

Rock music and its cousin pop music primarily fall into two distinct categories: the Anthem and the Ballad.  Anthems are the rallying cry of the 75, 000 person stadium concert pumping fists in the air while standing close enough to the speakers so that our ears bleed like stigmata.  This is usually the lead single for the album and its track listing is often second or third – this is the “are you with us or against us?” track.  This is the “We Will Rock You”, “We are the Champions“, “Born in the USA“, “We’re Not Going to Take it Anymore”, “Baba O’Riley” [fill in the blank].  It is the music that grabs us by the shirt and shakes us like a dog tearing into a T-Bone steak after not eating for days.  This is the soundtrack to the commuter on the highway fist pumping the roof of their Prius, the iPod jogger speeding up the hill, the base thumping of the Honda at the stoplight.  Anthems speak about movement, of getting out of here, ending the nonsense job and taking a risk for a change.  In short, Anthems are bigger than we will ever be and we want to be part of something that big.  Ballads on the other hand are essentially the song of the heartbreak and remind us just how fragile we really are: this is the simple Casio tone keyboard of Yaz’s “Only You“, the pining piano and synth of Howard Jones’ “No One is to Blame“, the Sinead O’Connor cover of Prince’s “No One Compares to You” or Michael Stipe’s ode to agnosticism in REM’s “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts.”  Somewhere between the Anthem and the Ballad is where many of us find ourselves – reaching for the confident booming volume and backbeat of the Anthem and the painful quiet of the Ballad.  Yet while this is true for millions (see what the top singles are from week to week and the sales figures don’t lie) is not often acknowledged openly.  In places of work, in our homes, in (yes) our churches – life is to be lived in control, measured, under wraps, and it is to be very, very predictable.  Basically, while we secretly listen to Anthems and Ballads in our cars, our iPods, and on our computers like the one you are reading this blog at this very moment… life is lived from moment of Muzak to another.  Devoid of passion, not risking surprises or unbridled emotions, millions fain a life in front of others that is merely a whisper of the Anthems and Ballads that are the soundtrack of the true, original story.

But Glee gets it and turns it up so we can’t avoid it…

Lesson from all this?

“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey is more than an old recycled pop song for the Gleeks… it is actually truth in ways Steve Perry probably had NO idea it would be.  To admit not only liking but loving that song and its Glee version is tantamount to cultural suicide in some erudite circles (try suggesting a Journey sing-a-long at a university faculty meeting… see how THAT goes!)  But the hunger for more than this plain life of Muzak continues on… and so will shows like Glee.

Doubting Thomas?  Feel like you can just be the cynic and deploy all your well phrased post-structuralist firepower on all this and remain unscathed?

Enjoy the Journey-themed finale then and let me know what you think – click here, turn up the volume, and get ready to hope beyond Muzak

There are just some things that when you encounter them, you go “Oh…yeah… that is just so weird that it must be divinely inspired.”  For me, those things include the Smokey Bacon Maple Bar at Frost Donuts in Mill Creek, genre defying movies such as Repo Man, The Big Lewbowski and The Princess Bride to name but a few, and anytime either a banjo or ukulele gets some serious truck in a song.   To the latter point, Amanda Palmer’s recent announcement in Paste magazine that she is slated to release an EP of Radiohead covers played on… wait for it… the ukulele (!)  just warms the heart of this 60’s boy from Honolulu to no end.  On her blog post for February 22nd she put it rather missionally:

“A Radiohead ukulele cover album might just have to be what I do to Shed The Past and Find God… Some people ACTUALLY find god and record christian albums. I just find Radiohead.”

(For a sample, here is Amanda Palmer covering “Fake Plastic Trees” during an in-store performance via YouTube.)

To all you CCM refugees… I hope you are listening…

Johnny Cash’s career is one for the ages – a story with the resonance of Moses: his grandparents immigrated from the Glasgow shipyards and he was born into poverty in the land of promise as the son of a share cropper yet gifted with a voice that could sing into the poverty in all of us as well as beyond that poverty into something more.  He was a mentor to Elvis and a bad boy before thugs got record contracts.  His early career was truly the all-american success story – he was more than famous – he defined fame itself in early days.  He crossed genres and mediums – scoring hits on the pop charts as well as country chards, had a long running television show and did film work.  Then in the 70’s as disco took hold and moved us into the 1980’s, Cash’s currency began to wane.  It was through the revisionism of Rick Rubin – the wunderkind producer par excellence – and his American Recordings series in the 1990’s that brought Johnny Cash back to us with a holy vengeance.   Like a junkyard dog who refused to die without sinking his teeth into you one last time, Rubin turned Cash loose on tracks by artists as diverse as Nine Inch Nails, Neil Diamond, Sheryl Crow, Soundgarden and Tom Petty to rip the songs part with his sharecropper growl and claim them for himself.  Of all the haunting covers he recorded with Rubin over the next decade, none captures Cash’s gift like Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat and Trent Reznor’s Hurt (which won Cash a Grammy for the song and video).  The Mercy Seat sounds like a lost track from the At Folsom Prison sessions – a stark, raw final exclamation of a man on death row in a electric chair.  Hurt is one of the most ‘human’ songs to be recorded in popular music and is one of the few examples of the video medium serving the song as opposed to distracting or covering up a bad song with dance numbers or CGI (Click through to the video and take a moment to see what I am talking about).

The release this week of Ain’t No Grave marks what is being said to be the final installment of Rubin’s American Recording series.  Ain’t No Grave is the sixth installment and is a welcome close to this incredible series.  Granted, the tracks are obviously a culling together of reminders from recording sessions past (the five CD American Recordings Box Set that was released a few years ago is an example of how much surplus material Rubin still had just laying around the studio).

Thematic CDs are nothing new for Cash – Columbia released a 3 part series (Love, God, Murder) a few years back to ride Rubin’s American Recording success.  That Rubin culled this collection to identify Cash’s thoughts on death, loss, and life after the grave is poignant to say the least.  The only original tune on the collection is “1Corinthians 15:55” which holds that iconic verse “oh death, where is thy sting?”  Cash sings from this space as someone in the throws of the end and resting in the promise of death as opposed to denying it.  It is truly haunting to hear these songs knowing that Cash is no longer singing this mediation upon death – these songs are the preamble to his embrace and a call to confidence in death for a generation that is terrified by it.  Having lost his wife – June Carter Cash – just years prior to these recordings and knowing that the end was coming, Rubin reflects in the February 17th Rolling Stone that these tracks were born from confidence and not fear: “He didn’t really have fear and he already was dealing with pain,” Rubin said. “I think he had acceptance. When he knew he was going to die, he was calm and matter of fact about it, and … that was it.”

It really is a wonderful, honest, clear reflection on life and the gift of death that reminds us to take stock of what we have and the God that awaits us both in this life and the life that is yet to come.

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?