Finding Christ’s Joy in a Secular Rap Record

Finding Christ’s Joy in a Secular Rap Record

Some of my favorite music over the last ten years or so has been Christian rap. A lot of the artists that fall under that umbrella might quibble with that term, but it’s the most recognizable way to term artists as diverse as Lecrae, Andy Mineo, Shai Linne, and Customary- to name a few. It’s been nice to see the Christian music scene embrace a genre that was generally rejected by the dominant Christian culture (which, as far as the Christian media would have had you believe, was super-duper-white) for the majority of its existence.

Clean lyrics and a wholesome message are nice, but Christian rap has blossomed into much more than an acceptable alternative to secular rap. Artists are tackling all sorts of subjects, from the expected (racial reconciliation, sexual sin) to the unexpected but necessary (abortion, public education’s woes). They continue to approach their songs with Jesus as their king, and yet they haven’t confined their subject matter or lyrics to simply quoting Bible verses or to preaching at their audiences.

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Don’t get me wrong; there’s a place for that in Christian music- I point you to Shai Linne’s wonderful Lyrical Doxology series, which conveys catechistic theories without sacrificing the appeal of a good beat. But the gospel of salvation through Christ alone speaks to everything under the sun. It takes songs from a wide variety of perspectives, and about a wide variety of topics, to effectively communicate the vast expanse of the gospel’s power. Over the last decade, Christian rap has become the premier place in Christian culture for this kind of gospel extrapolation. And after Lecrae’s last album, Anomaly, debuted at No. 1 on the rap charts, its clear the Christian culture isn’t the only one paying attention.

Chance the Rapper is a, well, a rapper. He’s from Chicago, and he’s risen to prominence over the last few years with a well-loved solo mixtape, Acid Rap, and a well-loved album from his musical collective The Social Experiment, Surf, headlined by his good friend Donnie Trumpet. He became the first artist without a label to perform on Saturday Night Live last December, which speaks both to his meteoric rise and to the general direction of music (see: album sales, labels going under, rich people in charge losing their shit).

Coloring Book is Chance’s new album, released exclusively through Apple Music. This may be recency bias, but it’s mind-blowing how easily this album has dominated the conversation around music. The only record to inspire the same kind of rapturous think-pieces this year has been Lemonade, and that’s in a year that has seen releases from Kendrick, Kanye, Drake, Radiohead (!), Rihanna, country music savior Sturgill Simpson, and the blogosphere’s own James Blake. At this point, Chance is a phenomenon, and that might be an understatement.

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Not only is Coloring Book one of the biggest releases of the year, it’s also one of the most joy-filled albums of the year. And by joy I don’t mean happiness, though it is a very happy record in a lot of spots. I’m referring to the kind of joy from Philippians 3:1, where Paul tells the church in Philippi to “rejoice in the Lord”; from Isaiah 58:14, where God tells his people that resting in Him on the Sabbath results in “delight”; from John 10:10, where Jesus tells the crowd that the life he gives is meant to be lived “abundantly”. And it’s not just the music that’s joy-filling- it’s a conscience, lyrical effort on Chance’s part to communicate that God is about joy.

There’s a moment on Coloring Book, following several songs where Chance not only refers to ignoring the devil and listening to sermons but devotes an entire song to how his devotion to God goes beyond the things of this world, when a gospel choir singing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God” kicks in. I thought the song would transition to Chance’s rapping after the chorus, but the song goes on for two whole minutes. And then there’s a short excerpt from a sermon, saying “God is better than the world’s best thing.” And then Chance raps, expounding on the idea of freedom, and correlating his freedom from a label to his freedom in God. It’s a breathtaking example of the marriage of Chance’s lyrical virtuosity and his exuberance about Jesus.

Coloring Book is a record by Chance the Rapper, by the way. Did I already tell you that? Well, Coloring Book is a record by “Chance the m——–king rapper”, which is how he introduces himself on “Mixtape”, a song that features noted rapper-nihilist, Young Thug. This is the Chance the Rapper who openly admits to doing acid during the making of his last mixtape, which, if nothing else, was appropriate, since it was called Acid Rap. This is also the Chance the Rapper who on other points on Coloring Book raps about how he and his girl don’t have time to enjoy smoking weed anymore, about how he and a girl have grown apart because they do different drugs now, and about how he got his girlfriend pregnant.

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If you’re having trouble reconciling the Chance the Rapper who got his girlfriend pregnant with the Chance who wants everyone who listens to Coloring Book to know how great God is, that’s understandable. On one hand we have secular rap, which is unabashed about the realities its purveyors came up in: drugs, sex, greed. On the other hand, we have Christian rap, which, for a time, was almost comically scrubbed clean of profanity or references to struggling with the realities of sin.

Christian rap has allowed its subject matter to more helpfully reflect the world we live in without sacrificing the value of good theology. And secular rap has always been influenced by the African-American church culture. But I’m hard-pressed to remember when we’ve seen the two side-by-side like this in such a bold fashion. This isn’t simply references to Jesus and vague assertions of a hard lifestyle. Chance is taking the openness that has become the trademark of our best rappers (Kendrick, Kanye, Drake- even the aforementioned Young Thug) and applying it twofold to his love for both heavenly and wordly things.

But if we’re expecting authenticity from our artists, we have to accept this- even embrace it. While salvation is a fixed event, the following process of sanctification is far more fluid. Listening to Coloring Book, I feel like I’m hearing a man discovering how much better the pleasures of God are than the pleasures of the world and working out how to cope with that. I appreciate the way that Christian rap has thus far been able to provide an example of what joy in Christ looks like. But I also have a new kind of appreciation for what Chance the Rapper is doing: providing an example of what it looks like to discover that joy.

Batman v Superman v Captain America v Iron Man v Me

Batman v Superman v Captain America v Iron Man v Me

Superhero vs. superhero is the oldest trick in the comic book. One superpowered being pitted against another because of a difference in their deeply rooted principles, wreaking havoc  in the wake of their battle, with ramifications that echo throughout the comic-book universe, usually ending with tragic consequences, leading to regret and remorse and a new reason to fight another day. It breaks up the monotony of hero vs. villain, allows for the heroes’ character development to take interesting turns, and it’s super-easy to market. Just look at the ready-made taglines: Unstoppable force meets immovable object. A clash of titans. Two enter the ring, only one leaves. There will be blood. This time…it’s personal. Whose side are you on? Who will win?

I dare you to tell me which ones are the real taglines for these movies. If you guessed the two questions, congratulations! You don’t win anything, but you do get to be right. “Whose side are you on?” was Civil War’s and “Who will win?” was Batman v Superman’s. Those taglines are, uh…uninspired, to say the least. Granted, it’s not like Disney or Warner Brothers needed a tagline to sell tickets to these movies, but they could’ve at least acted like they were trying. At least “This time it’s personal” is corny. The only adjective the real taglines make you think of is “boring”. Or, I suppose, “uninspired”.

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Of course, “boring” is also an appropriate descriptor for at least one of these movies, and it certainly applies to the thought process behind the bare-bones structure of both of them. Another way of saying “superhero vs. superhero is the oldest trick in the comic book” is to say “oh shit, we don’t have anymore ideas.” After the tepid response to Man of Steel  by both critics and audiences, and while Marvel continued to have cinematic success after cinematic success, Warner Brothers and DC needed their next movie to make a statement, both for their bottom line and in order to set up their own movie universe. So they chose to pit their two greatest heroes (read: commodities) against each other. And Marvel and Disney, who have received most of their criticism for the handling of their largely mediocre villains (Loki notwithstanding), decided to make a movie that essentially eschews the villains altogether.

It’s all more complicated than “oh shit, we don’t have anymore ideas”- there are too many steps in the moviemaking process for it not to be. But that doesn’t mean the general sentiment isn’t true. Batman v Superman, which is a mostly well-cast, glossy blockbuster, also happens to be a boring slog with a bad screenplay. Jesse Eisenberg is a disaster as Lex Luthor. Someone really should have told him he wasn’t playing the Joker. But everyone else is likeable and does well with what they’re given, specifically Ben Affleck, who brings a fiery stoicism to a one-note character, and Gal Gadot, who gives the movie its only signs of life in her brief but fun appearance.

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While WB got most of the cast right, they got almost everything else wrong. There are no memorable action sequences; even the big, titular clash is uninspiring. The other superpowered characters who will appear alongside the Big Three in the upcoming Justice League movie (the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman) are introduced in little segments that are shoehorned into the larger plot. And while director Zach Snyder deserves credit for his often ambitious imagery and themes, good intentions do not a good movie make.

Marvel’s decision to utilize the Civil War storyline for its next Captain America movie stank of hubris with a faint whiff of desperation. Making plans for your movies years in advance can be practical, but it also assumes the audience’s appetite will look the same as it does right now. Marvel was fresh off the success of Phase 1 and in the middle of a well-received Phase 2, so they planned a release date for a story that in the comics was too bulky for its own good. The Civil War storyline in the comics was at its best at the micro-level, considering the effects of the superhero schism on its characters’ relationships, and not at the macro-level, forcing ramifications on every corner of the company’s fictional universe.

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Thankfully, what could have been a disastrous failure has turned into a resounding success. Captain America: Civil War, while teeming with nearly every hero in Marvel’s movie quiver and adding a couple more (the wonderful Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and the promising Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther), manages to be a relatively small-scale story. There’s no threat to the world, no unstoppable alien force to shoot out of the sky, no artificial-intelligence entity to unplug. This is ultimately a human-level story that cares just as much about the tensions between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers as it does about the action between Iron Man and Captain America.

And what awesome action! Unlike Zack Snyder, the Russo brothers seem to understand that movie fights can have intense stakes while also being fun. Civil War’s marketing sure didn’t make it seem like it would be as fun as it ended up being. The trailers for Civil War made it seem like it would be just as dour and lifeless as Batman v Superman. In fact, Civil War is far more nuanced than its “This time…it’s personal” marketing implied. And, for what it’s worth, “This time…it’s personal” would have been way too nuanced a tagline for Batman v Superman.

Civil War, though its marketing was markedly similar to BvS‘s, has grossed more worldwide in 2 weeks than BvS did in its entire run. There are other factors, to be sure, but it’s also sure that audiences responded better to Civil War living up to its hype than to BvS being nothing but hype. Both DC and Marvel went to an old trick to breathe some life into their franchises, but only one of them realized tricks only work if there’s a payoff.

Does Country Music Need Sturgill Simpson to Save It?

Does Country Music Need Sturgill Simpson to Save It?

Five years ago, if anyone were to ask me what kind of music I liked, I would have said, “Everything except country.” And a lot of my friends would have said the same thing. To be honest, I don’t remember my exact feelings on country music. I can’t say now whether I thought country music was too pop or if I thought it was too inauthentic or if I simply didn’t enjoy it. But I do know that there was a stigma against country music as it was five years ago among my friends who liked music.

Fast forward to 2015, and I love country music. Now, I’m not a Luke Bryan fan or a Keith Urban fan- when I say “country music”, I’m including everyone from Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe to Drive-By Truckers and Pistol Annies. You could call it “alt-country”, but I’m more inclined to call the genre establishment “country pop” and give my preferred artists the “country” label. But those are just labels, convenient signifiers for description. It’s all country music.

Sturgill Simpson is country music, and he’s my kind of country music. His last album, 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, got Simpson a lot of attention for its references to LSD and other psychotropic drugs, though he really only went psychedelic on one song, “Turtles All the Way Down”. The rest of the songs had references to Simpson hearing voices and smoking weed, but by and large he covers a lot of standard country topics: God, love, sin. It was a great record, but not as trippy or weird as people seemed to think.

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A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is another story entirely. The album essentially functions as a love letter to the singer-songwriter’s son, but that description alone hardly gives you an idea of what to expect. Opener “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” could be the opening number of a Broadway musical, with its theatrical arrangement and soaring verses. But halfway through the song, the Dap-Kings (old-school soul pros) kick it into high gear and give us a taste of the R&B sound that will pepper the entire album, from the rollicking “Keep It Between the Lines” to lead single “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”.

The titles of those two songs give you a hint of the lyrical content on A Sailor’s Guide. Simpson spends a lot of the record spinning poetic advice for his son, advising him at one point to “just stay in school / stay off the drugs” and then at another to “make sure you live a little / before you go to the great unknown in the sky.” But A Sailor’s Guide is more than a list of tips. Closer “Call to Arms” rails against the hypocrisy of the government and the media’s smokescreen coverage, and on “All Around You” Simpson delves into the mystic bonds that he believes tie us together. There’s even a cover of Nirvana: “In Bloom”, which takes on a whole new meaning as a country song. This album is country music, but it’s not just country music. It makes you wish more country artists had bigger aspirations.

Since the release of A Sailor’s Guide, there have been several pieces wondering if Simpson is country music’s savior. This thought assumes, of course, that country music needs saving, as if country music is any different than any other genre; all genres have their establishments, and their independent artists always struggle to break through. Just like pop or rap or even jazz, the popular stuff is often less adventurous and authentic. But there’s still good popular country (Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley), and, every so often, independent artists get their time in the limelight.

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Last August, Jason Isbell’s new album Something More Than Free reached No. 1 on the country charts, and Todd Snider declared “the war is over”. He meant that an artist who didn’t use the established system, who didn’t have a single pushed onto the radio disc jockeys, who went around the Music Row machine- an artist proved to the establishment that independent artists can reach the people too. Since then, Chris Stapleton, a long-time Nashville songwriter who finally got a major-label deal for the much-loved Traveller, has spent 20 weeks (20 weeks!) at No. 1 on the charts. In fact, only two other artists in 2016 have unseated Chris Stapleton at the top of the charts: Christian bluegrass group Joey + Rory and- you guessed it- Sturgill Simpson.

So is Sturgill Simpson country music’s savior? Well, if you think saving country music means country becoming more creative and free to try new things (so if you think country should be more like alt-country) then it seems as if Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton already saved country. Country music’s establishment has gone all of 2016 without a No. 1 album. Surely that means something!

Or maybe you’re a cynic and you think Stapleton, Isbell, and Simpson are blips in country music’s long track record of doing the same thing over and over again, and they’ll just keep trending towards pop country and ignoring the lessons of alt-country’s recent popularity. I’m a cynic, so that’s what I think is going to happen. But I also think country music never needed saving. No, country music was always just fine. Just because you had to look on its fringes, that didn’t mean it needed saving. If country music tries to do things resembling the creative freedom of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, then great. If country music decides to keep being mostly dull, then that makes the weirdness, the originality, the scope of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth that much more precious.

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Songs

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Songs

We’ve covered Dylan’s Top 12 Albums, so let’s move on to Dylan’s songs. I have to be honest though- the record companies have done a good job of fully cataloging Dylan’s career by releasing countless live albums and collections of all the different versions of even the deep cuts on his albums. So I’m sure there’s plenty I haven’t listened to, and even if I have listened to something, I may not have been able to give it a fair shake. So basically, if I leave something off, it’s not my fault, it’s Dylan’s for creating too much music.

The Top 25 Bob Dylan Songs

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25. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): Dylan was already known for his protest songs, but “It’s Alright, Ma”, recorded in one take, was different, replacing his previous tempered optimism with utter disillusionment.

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24. “Just Like a Woman” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): I’ve often struggled with the apparent misogyny of the lyrics (though whether or not Dylan was using sexist overtones to strike back at sexism itself is an arguable explanation), but the creativity of the lyrics and Dylan’s obvious fascination with this one woman pull me in regardless.

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23. “Not Dark Yet” (1997, Time out of Mind): On Dylan’s big ‘90s comeback album, “Not Dark Yet” stood out both for its ambient beauty and for its unrelenting optimism.

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22. “Maggie’s Farm” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): There seems to be confusion about whether the uproar over Dylan’s performance of “Maggie’s Farm” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was about opposition to his new musical direction toward electric guitars or about poor sound mixing, but the song remains a powerful statement of independence no matter what.

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21. “With God on Our Side” (1964, The Times They Are A-Changin’): It starts in a way that may convince you Dylan is showing a patriotic side, but as the lyrics progress this highlight from Dylan’s third album becomes a clear diatribe against the kind of political religiosity that still plays a role in America’s governmental goings-on.

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20. “Visions of Johanna” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): This is sort of the go-to song to demonstrate how inscrutable Dylan’s lyrics can be sometimes, and yet as you parse through the bars, “Visions” reveals itself as a lovely meditation on the space between desire and resentment.

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19. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): Running 7 minutes long, “Hard Rain” is Dylan’s first protest epic, a desperate screed that eschews any sort of call to action for a simple prophecy of impending doom.

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18. “Tears of Rage” (1975, The Basement Tapes): “Tears” originally appeared on The Band’s debut album in 1968, but it didn’t come into its own until this original, collaborative recording was released 7 years later with a more collective anguish.

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17. “Simple Twist of Fate” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): On Dylan’s most heartbreaking album, this might be his most heartbreaking song.

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16. “Someday Baby” (2008, Tell Tale Signs): “Someday Baby” was a great single on 2006’s Modern Times, but this version on 2008’s Bootleg Series volume is lighter, more hopeful.

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15. “Hurricane” (1976, Desire): While lyrically it’s a simple exposé of America’s broken, racist justice system, “Hurricane” is one of Dylan’s most ambitious musical arrangements, using the fiddle to great effect, building on its themes from verse to verse, and ultimately contributing to a swell of support for boxer Ruben Carter’s eventual release from prison.

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14. “Girl from the North Country (feat. Johnny Cash)” (1969, Nashville Skyline): Nashville Skyline Dylan is the Dylan with the most interesting vocal performances, and none were better than this plaintive duet with the Man in Black himself.

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13. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (1973, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid): With a 2:29 run-time, “Knockin’” feels like one of Dylan’s more minor songs, and yet the simple melody of the chorus has had a major impact, and the song has gone on to become one of his most covered.

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12. “Shelter from the Storm” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): Dylan is known for his croaky voice, his acerbic wit, and his protest music, but “Shelter” is an example of something he should get more credit for: being able to write a beautiful love song.

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11. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): It might be going too far to claim Dylan was the protogenitor of rap, but “Subterranean” finds Dylan right at his sweet spot for using rhythm and rhyme to get across a certain dissatisfaction.

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10. “Lay Lady Lay” (1969, Nashville Skyline): Dylan gets his closest to a typical vocal delivery on Nashville Skyline, and “Lay Lady Lay” just may be his most beautiful song. I remember hearing it on The Essential Bob Dylan when I was first discovering his music and thinking it was a completely different artist. Every so often, Dylan succumbs to his romantic side, and “Lay Lady Lay” is the purest version of it.

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9. “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (1966, Blonde on Blonde): Speaking of romance, here’s an 11-minute song about Dylan’s then-new wife! Remember that thing I said about “Lay Lady Lay” being the purest version of Dylan’s romantic side? Well, “Sad-Eyed Lady”, which closes the brilliant Blonde on Blonde, is Dylan’s romantic side at its most utterly Dylanesque, from its epic run-time to its absurd imagery.

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8. “Mississippi” (2008, Tell Tale Signs): The Bootleg Series collections of the vast troves of Dylan’s unreleased material recorded both live and in-studio, are invaluable and fascinating. But the best is Vol. 8 and its three versions of “Love and Theft”’s “Mississippi”, which is a remarkable song all on its own. But what’s more remarkable is how each version is great in its own way, though I prefer the one that appears first on Tell Tale Signs for the thoughtful way it rolls along to its understated conclusion.

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7. “Desolation Row” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited): In the 2010s we know all about the extended length of Dylan’s songs, but when Highway 61 Revisited was released with an 11-minute folk epic at its end, it was new ground for Dylan. While some of Dylan’s longer songs can become tiresome, “Desolation Row” never gets old, perhaps because it was his first. The surreal world Dylan builds over the song’s run-time is as vivid now as the first time I heard it, like a recurring dream .

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6. “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965, Bringing It All Back Home): I made the decision beforehand that Dylan songs with superior cover versions wouldn’t make it on the list, which is why “All Along the Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “It Ain’t Me, Babe” (June Carter and Johnny Cash), and “I Shall Be Released” (The Band) didn’t make the cut. The Byrds recorded a sublime version of “Tambourine”, and I do like it better than Dylan’s, but Dylan’s remains iconic. Where “Desolation Row” would paint a surreal picture of chaos later that year, “Mr. Tambourine Man” painted a surreal picture of peace, and it’s a peace that has never stopped resonating with me.

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5. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): There aren’t too many surprises from here on out- maybe #1, but the next 4 at least are all-timers, the songs a Dylan layperson could pick out of a lineup. “Don’t Think Twice” was the B-side to Dylan’s breakout single, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. On the A-side, listeners got their first taste of Dylan’s protest chops, and on the flip side was one of Dylan’s most personal songs ever, a quiet dismissal of a lover’s selfishness.

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4. “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan): I think it’s easy now to dismiss “Blowin’ in the Wind”. As Dylan’s breakout single, it’s been around longer than any of his other songs, and he would go on to write far more complex songs and to craft an entire persona beyond the simple protest folk artist he started as. But the separation between the artist Dylan was and the artist he became actually contribute to the purity of “Blowin’” in retrospect, making it not only one of his best songs but a timeless one.

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3. “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965, Highway 61 Revisited): This was Rolling Stone’s top song of all time, which is a fine choice, even if they were undoubtedly a little biased. The amount of hype “Rolling Stone” has gotten throughout music history should have outstripped its quality by now. But the lead track on Highway 61 Revisited is such an impeccably structured masterpiece with so much vitriol baked into its bars that its quality will always remain undeniable.

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2. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1964, The Times They Are A-Changin’): Like “Blowin’ in the Wind”, “Times” has become overshadowed by the vast catalog that followed it. But “Times” is Dylan adopting the stance of a prophet unwelcome in his hometown, and the message he’s proclaiming has the distinction of defining not only its own era but every era since. The times indeed are changing, and we just can’t keep up.

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1. “Tangled Up in Blue” (1975, Blood on the Tracks): The best Dylan song is also the saddest, the loneliest, the realest. The lyrics take some surreal turns, but by and large they concern the end of a relationship. Finding specific meanings in Dylan songs is often a fruitless exercise. He deals more in vignettes and moods than in lessons or themes, and “Tangled Up in Blue” is a myriad of vignettes all in one mood: longing. I first found “Tangled Up in Blue” while I was happy in a relationship, but I didn’t fall in love with it until I experienced some heartbreak. You can appreciate the song while you’re happy, but it won’t be until you’re broken that “Tangled” truly inhabits you.

The Jungle Book, or Cynicism Defanged

The Jungle Book, or Cynicism Defanged

If you’re cynical about the new live-action remake of Disney’s classic animated movie The Jungle Book from 1967, that’s okay. Remakes are largely cynical affairs, cash-grabs, easy money. Disney is good at this. Look no further than their new strategy for the Star Wars universe. Heck, look no further than Walt Disney World.

The Jungle Book is the latest in a recent bid to mine the Disney vault for familiar intellectual property guaranteed to make a buck, following the box-office success of the critically panned Alice in Wonderland (2010), the mixed-bag Maleficent (2014), and last year’s actually-pretty-good Cinderella. The difference between The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau and starring newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli, and those other movies is that The Jungle Book might just be a great movie, proving that sometimes financial intentions and artistic intentions can work together.

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The bare bones of the new movie’s plot are the same as the original animated classic: Mowgli, raised by wolves, goes on a journey to leave the jungle to stay safe from a murderous tiger, Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Mowgli doesn’t want to leave, but Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley), with both Mowgli’s good and the good of the jungle in mind, works hard to convince Mowgli that it’s best for him if he goes to a Man-Village. On their way out of the jungle, they encounter many of the same characters as the animated movie: Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), King Louie the orangutan (Christopher Walken), Kaa the python (Scarlett Johannsson).

Not all of it works, but what does work leaves a big impression. Disney and Favreau have kept in some of the original’s songs. Because this iteration of the story doesn’t really play as a musical, the songs fit in sort of awkwardly. Christopher Walken’s rendition of “I Wan’na Be Like You” feels pretty shoehorned in, though Murray and Sethi singing “The Bare Necessities” is nothing but charming. If they had kept only “The Bare Necessities”, perhaps it wouldn’t feel like such an attempt to call back to the original.

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What the movie does get right is pretty much everything else. The voiceover work is spot-on. Murray is a delight as the indolent Baloo, Kingsley is appropriately noble as Bagheera, and Elba is terrifying as Shere Khan. The movie’s jungle is beautiful from start to finish. Ostensibly fashioned entirely out of CGI, I could’ve sworn they were shooting everything on location. And the story, while a known commodity, highlights a value for community that was missing from the original.

This is far darker than the 1967 version. It deals more directly with death and with the inherent ugliness of the world. While kids might find more to be scared of in this movie, it’s just as funny and fun as the original, and it offers more for both kids and adults to chew on. I knew the whole time that what I was watching was essentially a greed-driven, sophisticated cartoon, and yet I was moved. Maybe cynicism isn’t all there is to this movie business thing.

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Albums

Career Best: Bob Dylan’s Best Albums

I didn’t grow up listening to Bob Dylan. My house was a Beatles house. I knew most of the Beatles choruses by heart. But Dylan? I couldn’t have told you any of the names of his songs until my senior year of high school. By that time, I had begun listening to a lot of the pop classics. When I got to Dylan, I was so confused. How did a guy with this voice get to be considered the Voice of a Generation?

If Dylan’s unorthodox voice threw me off at first, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with his originality. As strange as his voice is, there’s no arguing Dylan’s ability to craft a tune or write a lyric. Pretty soon, that one-of-a-kind, reedy voice came to hold a special kind of beauty to me. After some time exploring his catalog of albums, he became one of my favorite artists.

Listening to any artist’s entire discography can be exhausting and tedious, but Dylan had so many different phases and personalities over the years that each new wave felt like discovering a new artist. From all of his 36 studio albums, I picked the top 12. Why 12? I don’t know. It’s a third of 36. Seemed good.

The Top 12 Bob Dylan Albums

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12. Down in the Groove (1988): The common refrain is that the ‘80s were a lost decade for Dylan. He got caught up in a born-again Christian fever and his creativity dipped- or so they say. There’s no question that the genius of his ‘60s and ‘70s albums didn’t surface in the ‘80s, but in retrospect it seems like Dylan’s initial spate of faith-focused albums turned critics off and they largely ignored the rest of the decade’s output. Only Infidels (1983) and Empire Burlesque (1985) get any love, and it’s muted love at that. But I prefer two other albums: Shot of Love (1981, see below) and this one, a 10-track diamond in the rough that has perhaps the purest, least-dated music of Dylan’s 1980s. Groove also has two of his best songs of the decade, the punchy “Silvio” and the soulful “Shenandoah”.

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11. Modern Times (2006): As the third album of Dylan’s late-career renaissance, following Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft (2001, see below), it was understandable to expect a dip in quality. After all, Dylan had silenced his critics with two works that seemed to erase the bad will he built up in the 1980s. Most artists don’t even have one good record after 30 years making music, let alone two. Was three too much to expect? Turns out it wasn’t, as Modern Times sees Dylan at the top of his (admittedly old) game, turning out 10 great folk songs that were interestingly focused on the future. Dylan is almost defiant in his hope for a better life, a life without romantic worries in “Someday Baby”, a life free of the wickedness of others in “Ain’t Talkin’”.

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10. Tempest (2012): Dylan’s last great album, and the one on which it sounds like the Bard’s vocal larynx has finally sprung a leak. If you weren’t turned off by Dylan’s voice before Tempest, this won’t be the one to convince you his songwriting is worth getting past the scratchiness (which makes it all the more humorous that he’s releasing a second Frank Sinatra covers album this year). But after the bland Together Through Life (2009), Tempest was a return to the strong songwriting of Modern Times. This time Dylan doubled down on a blues-rock groove that belied an even more light-hearted take on the world, climaxing with the whimsical last track, “Roll On John”.

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9. Shot of Love (1981): This is the best of Dylan’s post-conversion albums. You can see why critics continued to lump this in with the uninspired Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980). There are some unabashed attempts to proselytize through song, like “Property of Jesus” and “Every Grain of Sand”. And Shot was a further commitment to move away from the introspective folk of Dylan’s early-to-mid-‘70s. In fact, Shot is Dylan’s album with the most soul, from the opening title track’s gospel-inspired backup singers to the old-fashioned spiritual style of “Watered-Down Love”.

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8. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964): While not as well-remembered as Dylan’s breakthrough, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963, see below), Times was arguably crafted to make more of an impact. Freewheelin’ had “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”, but nearly every song on Times was meant to be a protest song, starting with the opening title track that became an anthem for the ‘60s, all the way through “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, about the murder of a hotel worker by a rich white man. The songs are less witty than on Freewheelin’ and their styles are more one-note, but Times solidified Dylan’s reputation as the Voice of a Generation.

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7. “Love and Theft” (2001): Dylan had already had his big critical comeback in 1997 with Time Out of Mind. But I prefer 2001’s “Love and Theft”. Time was Dylan’s first album of original material in 7 years, and as such was his most personal album in a long time. But “Love and Theft” is a more ambitious album full of story songs, weaving tales of the South and its racial tensions. Album high point “High Water (For Charley Patton)” is a tribute to the esteemed blues pioneer in the guise of a story about the 1927 Mississippi River flood in Louisiana. The closer “Sugar Baby” talks about looking for fulfillment in the era of Prohibition. And “Mississippi”, on an album full of concepts, is one of Dylan’s most personal songs, facing romantic consequences that can’t help but feel inevitable.

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6. The Basement Tapes (1975): After Dylan survived a traumatic motorcycle accident in 1967, the backing band on his last tour, the Hawks (who would later become The Band), joined him for one of the most famous collaborations in Americana history. In fact, The Basement Tapes, which weren’t released until seven years had passed, is credited with birthing modern Americana, though that’s a specious claim, since it seems there hasn’t been a decade before or since in which Americana didn’t have a big influence on the current music. Regardless, the combination of Dylan with fellow musical geniuses Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel produced some of the most beautiful and fun music of Dylan’s career, including album standouts “Tears of Rage” and “Crash on the Levee”.

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5. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963): “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Freewheelin’s opener became the most famous protest song of all time, so it’s easy to forget that it’s a very simple song. All the songs on Freewheelin’ are simple, so much simpler than the brand of folk-rock Dylan became famous for later on in the ‘60s. But the lack of lyrical complexity doesn’t mean a lack of lyrical creativity. “Talkin’ World War III Blues” is one of Dylan’s funniest songs, and “Blowin’” has some of his strongest imagery. And the lack of musical complexity doesn’t mean a lack of musical beauty. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” finds its home in a mournful yodel, and the way the chorus builds to its resigned conclusion in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is one of Dylan’s better compositions.

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4. Highway 61 Revisited (1965): It’s tempting to put Highway 61 Revisited higher on this list on the strength of “Like a Rolling Stone” alone, but the albums ahead of it are there for a reason. This was the album where Dylan “went electric”. To our modern ears, there might not be much of a difference between Highway and its predecessor, Bringing It All Back Home (1965, see below), but so much of Highway is treading new ground. The whistles and slide guitar on the title track are just the most obvious wrinkles Dylan threw into the album’s mix. “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Desolation Row” are perhaps the most indicative of Dylan’s new direction, the former for its heavy dependence on the organ (foreshadowing Dylan’s collaboration with The Band) and the latter for its 11-minute stream-of-consciousness poetry.

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3. Bringing It All Back Home (1965): Album opener “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (which some have said is the first rap song- some have said it, not me!) and “Maggie’s Farm”, while still conforming to Dylan’s established folk structure, are subtle hints at the direction Dylan was about to go. He was beginning to get bored of following the same patterns on song after song, and Bringing is the first step towards his more avant-garde hit albums Highway and Blonde on Blonde (1966, see below). Released the same year as Highway, I prefer Bringing, because though it’s longer, the songwriting is stronger across the board, including “Mr. Tambourine Man” and the underrated “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”.

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2. Blonde on Blonde (1966): The best of Dylan’s ‘60s albums is also the longest, which should work against it, but there are just so many great songs on this record. It starts off with his weirdest song to date, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, which riffs on the folk community’s overblown reaction to his new direction using a pot pun. Then there’s a 6-song run, starting with the effortlessly beautiful “Visions of Johanna” and ending with the spiteful “Just Like a Woman”, that is simply unparalleled in pop music. The final song is another 11-minute epic along the lines of “Desolation Row” called “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, but this one was a love song, an ode to Dylan’s new wife, and it’s Dylan at his most direct and most tender. Recorded in Nashville with session musicians, Blonde on Blonde finds the newly married Dylan at his peak, a point that he wouldn’t return to until that new marriage reached a point of turmoil 9 years later.

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1. Blood on the Tracks (1975): The breakup album is a well-worn trope in the pop music world, and we may have Dylan to thank for that. Though his relationship with his wife wasn’t ending, they were estranged during Blood’s recording. Dylan has claimed Blood wasn’t a personal album; bullshit. This is one of the most achingly painful albums of all time, at some points full of grief and at others full to bursting of anger. “Idiot Wind” is the best example of the latter, as the title refers to the air coming out of his lover’s mouth. The best example of the former is the opening track, “Tangled Up in Blue”. I’ll write more about this song next week, but it sets the tone for the whole album, communicating with precision the complex and inescapable grief that comes with an ending relationship. I was trying to remember if Blood on the Tracks helped me cope with any of my own dissolving relationships in the past. “Cope” isn’t the right word. I would say that Blood has helped me put my own sadness into words and pictures, and that was more valuable to me than any album that might make me feel better for a little bit.

Next week I’ll cover Dylan’s Top 25 Songs.

R.I.P. Prince

R.I.P. Prince

It wasn’t that long ago that I sat down to write a little something about an artist whose music changed my conception of what music can be, an artist with one song in particular that expressed perfectly my feelings about love, an artist we’d never hear from again. Posts like these should be few and far between. Four months later is too soon. But any amount of time would be too soon.

Much like my relationship with David Bowie, my relationship with Prince’s music is largely shallow. I could name some of his albums and recognize plenty of his songs, but my tightest connection to Prince is through Purple Rain. I remember trying to work through some of the most well-regarded classic rock albums in pop history near the end of high school. When I got to Purple Rain, I remember being unsure. Honestly, it had everything to do with Prince being black. Most of the rock music I had been exposed to thus far was from white guys. My experience with black music was sadly limited to Motown, or Michael Jackson, or rap, and that was all I naively expected from black artists. I clicked on “Let’s Go Crazy”, and heard something altogether different.

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It wasn’t pop music like Michael made; there was too much rock and roll in Prince’s delivery and the guitars were too heavy. It wasn’t just rock music though; some songs had such a reliance on synths and a syncopation I associated mainly with R&B. “When Doves Cry” sounded like it would be a rock song at first, then shifted to something between funk and R&B. And “Purple Rain”, which has soundtracked many of my relationships’ ascents and descents, floated out of my computer’s speakers like a gospel song. I wasn’t listening to the simple mixing of genres. No, this was Prince defying that your expectations should even exist.

Prince wasn’t the first artist to combine or even transcend genres. Elvis was mixing country and rock back at rock’s genesis. The Rolling Stones had been incorporating blues into their rock and roll from their start. Even some of Michael’s biggest hits could be considered rock songs. Sly Stone might be the closest thing to Prince’s genre defiance that pop music has, but Prince was the first artist I experienced for whom genre had no boundaries. He was the first one whose inability to be categorized upended my expectations and altered my perception of what music was for. Michael was the King of Pop, but Prince was the king of everything.