A Little Local Music with Patty Griffin

pgconcert1“This is depressing,” my mom whispered to me.

“That’s what happens when you go to a folk concert, Mom,” I responded.

We were at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton, TX, a place I had never been and a place my mom probably never wanted to go. But Vicky, my wife, couldn’t make it to this concert, so my mom was kind enough to join me. Dan’s wasn’t particularly seedy, but it wasn’t a concert hall either. It was the kind of venue you’d expect to find near the square of a music town like Denton: brightly colored walls filled with images of dead or old musicians, dimly lit in all the right places (i.e. the stage, the bar, along the wall where the bathrooms were- this last one was CRUCIAL). The only thing missing was the smell of pot.

The woman that was playing when my mom made that comment about the music’s gloominess level wasn’t Patty Griffin; it was a short chanteuse named Anaïs Mitchell. I’d only heard one of her albums, Young Man in America, highly recommended by yours truly. Her music was admittedly depressing, but it lived up to that album. Her voice was beautiful, with an otherworldly quality I was used to from the album but wasn’t sure would translate to the live experience. It did, and watching her live provided me the opportunity to hear her lyrics better and enjoy the meticulous nature of the stories she tells in her songs. Mitchell played the great “Young Man in America”, and she introduced me to a few songs from her folk-rock opera Hadestown and the gorgeous “Orion”, a lament for a musician she knew in Austin who died too young. In a time when artists are coming around to folk-sounding music as a viable option because it’s a viable option, it was refreshing to hear a musician who had been around before the Americana boom and is still creating personal music in the genre.

pgconcert2After Mitchell, Patty Griffin came out on the stage in a dress that resembled a disco ball; she looked like a jazz star from long ago- or at least what I imagine they looked like. Griffin came of age performing in Boston coffee houses, so a small venue like Dan’s was somewhat of a return to her roots. She probably could have filled the seats in a much bigger room, but we were all content to stand in a tiny, crowded area to hear her sing. Recordings don’t do the great ones justice, but I never could have expected this live experience to be as moving as it was.

The first thing I noticed was her sense of humor. Listening to her records, that aspect of Griffin never comes out. She writes serious (depressing) music, but as she cracked jokes about a vasectomy doctor in Austin named Richard Chop or told us stories of her grandparents’ paradoxical personalities, she exuded a joy you hear only hints of through headphones. “Get Ready Marie” is the obviously funny track about her grandfather’s preconceived notions about his wedding night, but hearing “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” live enabled me to hear the laugh in Griffin’s voice as she voiced her father’s desire to not waste the end of his life.

pgconcert3The set wasn’t long enough. She didn’t play three of my favorite songs: “Heavenly Day”, “Long Ride Home”, and “Rain”. But that didn’t keep it from being a perfect concert. Among the many beautiful, more ordinary moments were two transcendent, extraordinary ones. One came when she played perhaps her most famous song, “Top of the World”, covered by the Dixie Chicks on their hit album Home. When the Chicks sing it, it’s poignant enough, but when Patty Griffin sings it, it takes you to its title. Griffin has a knack for reaching into souls and reminding us what we have in common with each other; in this case, she reminded me that everyone has dreams and regrets, even people who are cruel to others. The other transcendent moment was during recent album cut “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, written for Griffin’s father, who recently passed away. It’s a celebration of heaven, where he won’t “ever have to go to war no more”, or “pay the bills”, or “break a sweat or walk a worried floor”. She makes heaven sound perfect, like the rest I pray all my late loved ones are receiving.

Patty Griffin is from Maine, and Anaïs Mitchell is from Vermont, and I drove from Norman, Oklahoma to watch them both play in Denton, Texas. It struck me how weird that was, though it’s normal now; but it’s weird that it’s normal. Local music used to signify something about the area’s identity, but it doesn’t hold the same import anymore; now we import our music from all over the world. Griffin played a song from her newest album written by Lefty Frizzell, a classic country artist from the north Texas area, maybe to endear herself to the local crowd, but she didn’t have to. The way the music was moving the crowd, it all felt like local music. It felt like our music.

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Music Bummys 2013: Best Albums of 2012

[It’s okay to mourn- 2012 was a long time ago, and we’re well into 2013, which is not the year that 2012 was.  Indeed, 2012 was the best year for pop culture in a long time- at least since 2009.  There wasn’t a runaway favorite in the music scene like Adele’s 21 in 2011,  but that’s because there were so many great offerings from 2012.  There wasn’t a clear favorite in Hollywood like…well, there wasn’t a clear favorite in 2011 either, was there?  But that was for lack of quality, whereas in 2012 we were inundated with quality movies the entire year.  Ah, the good old days.  Excuse me while I take out my teeth and reach for my prune juice.

2012 was a banner year, and what better time to look back at it than 9 months later?  No, seriously.  You don’t think so?  That’s okay.  Honestly, if I could, I’d do these Bummys lists right at the beginning of the year, but when January rolls around, I still have so many movies to watch and so much music to listen to, I can’t make a year-end list.  So I have to settle for what in our culture of immediacy amounts to a retrospective, akin to those montages at the Oscars for the celebrities that passed away that year.  We look back in fondness on the historic year of 2012; may the entire cast of Cloud Atlas rest in peace.]

Interestingly, I’ve already done a Top 10 Albums of 2012 list, at the end of the year, in conjunction with my friend’s blog.  Also interesting: four albums that made an appearance on that list don’t show up on this one.  I guess my perspective changed a little bit.  Two folk albums, the Vespers’ The Fourth Wall and Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Leaving Eden, were replaced by a rap album and a Christian electronic album, something I definitely didn’t expect.  Trip Lee fell to the “Fifteen More” category.  And Alabama Shakes, my beloved Alabama Shakes, were replaced by a brother duo from Texas that no one’s heard of.  I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I’m sure of one thing: this is the right list.

Top Albums of 2012

kendricklamar10. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city: A lot of albums profess to be concept albums, LPs with a plot and characters, but the majority end up having the vague outline of a story rather than the concrete and significant details that add weight to a narrative (see: American Idiot and The Black Parade, both great albums, but not great concept albums).  Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city might be the most fully fleshed-out concept album I’ve ever heard.  It helps that Lamar’s focus on his concept album is more specific than most; good kid is a chronicle of one evening in Lamar’s life out on the streets with his friends while they cruise around in his parents’ van.  From this one evening comes a treasure trove of insight about his lack of pleasure in his hedonistic but monotonous lifestyle (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), his neverending search for escape (“B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”), and his dependence on his rapping for fulfillment (“Poetic Justice”).  But the overall takeaways from good kid are Lamar’s incredible self-awareness as he quotes Scripture and prayers in the midst of his own sinfulness, as well as the cyclical culture of the streets, mirrored in the way the record ends right where it began, implying that the sin and tragedy Kendrick places before us is only going to keep going.

benjamindunn9. Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable: If you had given up on Christian music before 2012 (and who could blame you, really…), you picked a terrible time to do it.  Independent Christian music is on the rise, with the help of Derek Webb’s NoiseTrade website, which coincidentally just released an offer for Benjamin Dunn’s discography for free (the offer’s over, btw- it was only a week; sorry, you snooze, you lose).  Benjamin Dunn synthesizes rock and electronic music into a wildly satisfying blend of happiness.  The music would induce rapture on its own, but Dunn has paired it with a libretto that draws inspiration from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books both in its characters and in its themes.  Characters like Eustace and Caspian show up to demonstrate our dependence on grace and God’s sovereignty, and “When We Were Young”, the best song on the album (and one of the best of the year), is an ecstatic ode to the glories of being young, something Lewis would have appreciated.  Put Fable on when the news in the world is getting you down, and you’ll be instantly reminded why you were originally captivated by God’s grace.

theolivetree8. The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways: It’s no secret I’m a fan of folk music, but Our Desert Ways is really the only folk album on this list (with the possible exception of Andrew Peterson, sure, maybe, whatever), and it’s about as simple as folk music comes.  It’s basically two brothers, their acoustic guitars, and the occasional percussion.  And that’s all you need for great music when you’re a great songwriter; Our Desert Ways makes the case that The Olive Tree has two great songwriters on their hands.  My wife compared them to Caedmon’s Call, which she meant in a derogatory manner (she hates Caedmon’s Call, for some demonic reason…), though I’ll emphatically steal her comparison and use it for good.  Caedmon’s Call has always had folk leanings, but their consistent quality is Gospel-centered lyrics buoyed by stable melodies, the perfect description for The Olive Tree as well.  This can give CC and The Olive Tree a hokey feel sometimes, but Our Desert Ways’s commitment to storytelling and the Gospel have made this into a record that will endure.

fionaapple7. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do: I can’t stand the stylings of metal or hardcore, and noise-rock tends to make me shudder, but I can’t get enough of the dissonance and strange chord changes of Fiona Apple.  Even the most listenable songs on The Idler Wheel… (“Every Single Night”, “Anything We Want”) are minor in key and unapologetically complicated in their construction.  They match their maker without a doubt; the most memorable lyric on the album, “nothin’ wrong when a song ends in the minor key” applies to both Apple’s music and, ostensibly, her life’s situations.  She never sounds comfortable, but if she’s comfortable with anything, it’s the fact that she’s a screwed-up person and her life is equally as screwed up.  On “Jonathan”, she begs to be kissed while her mind is racing.  On “Left Alone”, she talks about her tears calcifying in her stomach, so that she can’t cry when she’s sad.  And on the standout “Werewolf”, she claims complicity in the dissolution of a relationship, comparing her significant other to a shark and her faults to “waving around a bleeding open wound”.  I hope this album provided her some catharsis, because the songs portray a person with complex issues that needed to be dealt with- in other words, a human being.

brucespringsteen6. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball: I wonder if Bruce Springsteen is the kind of artist I’m supposed to grow out of: earnest dad rock made by a man whose biggest hits were before I was born.  There’s no nostalgia holding me to Bruce, since I didn’t listen to him until college, and he’s hardly a defining artist of my generation.  Regardless, I can’t let go; he keeps putting out albums, and I keep loving them.  Wrecking Ball continues his trend of politically leaning albums mixing rock with folk begun in the 2000s with The Rising and continued with Magic and Working on a Dream.  We all know where Springsteen falls on the political spectrum (if you don’t, search Google for “Bruce Springsteen” and “campaign song”), but what often gets lost is the universality of Bruce’s lyrics and music.  If you remove Bruce the person from the songs, it’s hard to argue with words like “Let a man work, is that so wrong?” or “The road of good intentions has gone as dry as a bone”.  On an album where Bruce Springsteen swerves into hip-hop for the first time, I resist the idea that I could ever grow out of Bruce Springteen.  Instead, I’m seeing more and more than he’s one of the best artists of any time.

davidcrowderband5. David Crowder*Band, Give Us Rest; or, A Requiem Mass in C (The Happiest of All Keys): You know, David Crowder*Band had nothing left to prove.  They had already made at least three great records without releasing a bad one, on top of putting together a rollicking live show that mixed their standards with others’ worship songs and bluegrass hymns.  When they announced they’d be releasing their last album and embarking on their final tour, their legacy was intact.  They were the premier Christian pioneers of creative music-making, bringing innovation and excitement to a genre that was (and is) severely lacking in both.  Give Us Rest didn’t have to be their best album ever, and on its release, a lot of critics dismissed it as too long, too indulgent, too boring.  And they’re entitled to their opinions; they’re just wrong.  Give Us Rest is a joyous eruption of desperate praise.  It’s 100 minutes long, which is daunting at first, but there’s not a down spot on the album; even the instrumentals glow with vitality.  I’m not sure that, if I step back and think on it, I would say Give Us Rest is David Crowder*Band’s best album.  But while I listen to it, I certainly feel like it is.

japandroids4. Japandroids, Celebration Rock: There was a time in the distant, shrouded past when rock and roll was pure and unadulterated, forged in the fires of youthful passion and glorious naïveté, free from corporate greed and machinated studio contracts.  And even though none of that is true, Japandroids will make you believe it is.  Celebration Rock is exactly that: a celebration of the excesses of the music that is rock.  The titles of the songs (“Fire’s Highway”, “Adrenaline Nightshift”, “Continuous Thunder”) gesture toward the great expectations Japandroids has for their music’s effectiveness.  Japandroids is just two people, but they play with more force than most groups of any number, to the point where they’re in your heart before you even realize that everyone likes them so you’re not supposed to.

frankocean3. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE: One of my friends has called Frank Ocean the “black Bon Iver”, which he meant as an insult, but it’s actually a pretty apt comparison.  Both artists make supremely melancholy music that transcends whatever genre they get pigeonholed in; both artists have seen success in the mainstream but truly belong somewhere outside of the radio box;  and both have unlikely partnerships with Kanye West that helped stretch his music beyond his soul-sampling comfort zone.  But with all due respect to Bon Iver, Frank Ocean is the reigning king of disillusionment.  The characters in his songs either live on the fringes of the world or they live the high life; there’s not really a middle ground for him (unless you count the average Joe in “Forrest Gump”, but he’s obsessed with the titular athlete, so he’ll end up on the fringes somehow, some way).  But all the perspectives he adopts share a sense of melancholy that can’t be duplicated.  The result is a boom in alt-R&B acts that are striving (some more successfully than others) to do just that; but channel ORANGE is that rare album that stands and will stand as a marker of its time, the first of its kind.

lecrae2. Lecrae, Gravity: A couple weeks ago, the rapper Evangel released a track online called “Hey Mr. Gravity” directed at Lecrae and the new direction he’s gone with his music.  Evangel took it down soon after, acknowledging that releasing a song that came off as a diss track probably wasn’t the best way to call out a brother.  It’s a shame, because Evangel’s song provided the perfect sounding board with which to test Lecrae’s methodology, so that we don’t just take Gravity  at face value.  I understand where Evangel was coming from- Lecrae is walking a fine line as he tries to rap from the perspective of those without Jesus, occasionally veering towards vilifying the church, God’s bride, and excusing sin.  But it’s a line on which Lecrae ultimately comes down on the right side, pointing to Jesus’s power and not man’s as the solution to our ills.  In fact, the more I listen to Gravity, the more I think Evangel must have forgotten to listen to it himself.  This is Lecrae’s best record yet, and his first to sound like he doesn’t care if it has a hit or not.  He moves away from the club-banger style that dominated Rehab and Overdose and branches out, embracing trap (“Lord Have Mercy”), Drake-style rap&B (“Confe$$ions”), and Afro-rap (“Violence”).  But the majority of the disc features the southern rap style that is dominating Reach Records’ recent releases, and you hear it here at its rollicking best.  Lecrae receives plenty of help from Trip Lee, Sho Baraka, Tedashii, Andy Mineo, and the rest of the usuals (along with a surprise appearance from Big K.R.I.T. on standout “Mayday”), but by the end of the record it’s clear that none of them are the star.  Finishing the album with “Tell the World” and “Lucky Ones”, songs that drive home our need to tell others the Gospel, Lecrae places Gravity firmly in Christ’s hands where it belongs.

andrewpeterson1. Andrew Peterson, Light for the Lost Boy: My wonderful wife bought us tickets to Andrew Peterson’s show in Linden, TX this weekend for my birthday.  When I tell people this, it’s with a certain amount of childish excitement that must come across on my face or in my voice or something, because they ask in a frightened way, “Who is he?”  I tell them he’s a Christian folk artist, and we all go on our merry way, but I fear I’m underselling him.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Christian folk, and it’s a designation that certainly would have been true for his first seven or eight albums (give or take his classic Christmas album); but frankly, Light for the Lost Boy fails to qualify as folk.  From his last album (the excellent Counting Stars) to Light, Andrew Peterson significantly expanded his palette.  Much like 2011’s best album, Gungor’s Ghosts upon the Earth, Light for the Lost Boys doesn’t abandon what made its predecessor great; after all, there are still Americana stylings hanging around.  But there’s so much more to enjoy, from the almost grunge guitars mixing with U2 reverb on “The Cornerstone” to the indie-pop of “The Voice of Jesus” and “Shine Your Light on Me” and on to the swirling, 10-minute epic “Don’t You Want to Think Someone”.  Peterson’s sound is fuller on this album, more ambitious and more realized at the same time.  This jump in musicality befits a similar jump in themes.  Counting Stars was simpler, focused on family and devoted love.  Light for the Lost Boy focuses on those as well, but adds the passage of time, purpose, the grandeur of God in nature, and theological quandaries to the mix.  It’s both the biggest album on this list and the smallest, and it’s time you listened to it.

Fifteen More (in alphabetic order)
Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
Amadou & Mariam: Folila
Anaïs Mitchell: Young Man in America
Beautiful Eulogy: Satellite Kite
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Leaving Eden
Christopher Paul Stelling: Songs of Praise and Scorn
Flatfoot 56: Toil
Grizzly Bear: Shields
Jack White: Blunderbuss
John Fullbright: From the Ground Up
Matt Mays: Coyote
Passion Pit: Gossamer
Propaganda: Excellent
Trip Lee: The Good Life
The Vespers: The Fourth Wall

Top Albums of 2013 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

Jason Isbell, Southeastern: Probably my favorite album of the year (so far).  Isbell has released other good records since leaving Drive-By Truckers, but Southeastern is by far his most personal and forceful as he chronicles his recovery from alcoholism.

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience: Corporate it may be, but there’s no denying that JT has once again made an album of songs that change our ideas of what pop should sound like today.  This time he does so using funk and R&B sounds of the past.

KaiL Baxley, HeatStroke / The Wind and the War: This is the record that never fell on your radar this year.  And if it weren’t for me, this diverse collection of funk and folk would have stayed off your grid.  You’re welcome.

Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle: I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to past artists for Laura Marling (much like Jake Bugg), but they’re useless.  Marling is a singular voice in a conformist world.  Her spare arrangements and vocals beg for creative descriptions and not lazy comparisons.

Patty Griffin, American Kid: Time after time, Patty Griffin turns out great alternative country albums.  Her newest is a tribute to her late father, and the intimacy is apparent in both the personal lyrics and the immediate music.

Most Anticipated Albums of 2013 (The Rest of the Year, in alphabetic order)

Drake, Nothing Was the Same: There aren’t many artists for whom I would willingly dive into depression and self-degradingly hedonistic behavior in order to hopefully better myself, but Drizzy is one of them.

Gungor, I Am Mountain: The title could either be awesome or laughable, I haven’t decided yet.  But I know on which side of that line the actual music will fall.  Their last album, Ghosts upon the Earth was my favorite album of 2011.  Some dropoff would be expected, but Gungor has always been a unique and surprising band, so all bets are off.

Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady: Her The ArchAndroid was one of the best albums of 2010, though it failed to catch on with the mainstream.  I’m a little disconcerted that she’s trying to appeal more to that demographic with this album, but early singles “Dance Apocalyptic” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” don’t sound like anything on the radio, so good riddance to that idea!

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience Part 2: It’s hard to imagine this living up to the success of Part 1, and “Take Back the Night” isn’t necessarily a smash, but at this point, I’m not betting against JT.

M.I.A., Matangi: “Bad Girls” and “Come Walk with Me” are superb.  Here’s to hoping for a massive improvement on her terrible 2010 LP /\/\ /\ Y /\.

Previous Top Albums

2011

Gungor: Ghosts upon the Earth
Adele: 21
Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Drake: Take Care
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
Beyoncé: 4
Matt Papa: This Changes Everything

2010

Titus Andronicus: The Monitor
Andrew Peterson: Counting Stars
Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Gungor: Beautiful Things
Arcade Fire: The Suburbs
Surfer Blood: Astro Coast
The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt
Jars of Clay: The Shelter
Ben Rector: Into the Morning
Local Natives: Gorilla Manor

Music Bummys 2013: Best Songs of 2012

[It’s okay to mourn- 2012 was a long time ago, and we’re well into 2013, which is not the year that 2012 was.  Indeed, 2012 was the best year for pop culture in a long time- at least since 2009.  There wasn’t a runaway favorite in the music scene like Adele’s 21 in 2011,  but that’s because there were so many great offerings from 2012.  There wasn’t a clear favorite in Hollywood like…well, there wasn’t a clear favorite in 2011 either, was there?  But that was for lack of quality, whereas in 2012 we were inundated with quality movies the entire year.  Ah, the good old days.  Excuse me while I take out my teeth and reach for my prune juice.

2012 was a banner year, and what better time to look back at it than 9 months later?  No, seriously.  You don’t think so?  That’s okay.  Honestly, if I could, I’d do these Bummys lists right at the beginning of the year, but when January rolls around, I still have so many movies to watch and so much music to listen to, I can’t make a year-end list.  So I have to settle for what in our culture of immediacy amounts to a retrospective, akin to those montages at the Oscars for the celebrities that passed away that year.  We look back in fondness on the historic year of 2012; may the entire cast of Cloud Atlas rest in peace.]

As far as songs go, 2012 didn’t have one dominant song of the year, as far as popular music goes.  There was no “Someone Like You” or “Runaway” or even “My Girls” for the hipster crowd.  You may bring up “Call Me Maybe” or “Somebody That I Used to Know”, and while I thought for sure those would at least fall in my top 25, they didn’t make the cut.  I love those songs, but 2012 was a GREAT year for music, so, sorry, Canada and Australia.  As for Christian music, 2012 was an unusually big year; half of my top ten are Christian songs.

Top Songs of 2012

alabamashakes10. “Hold On” by Alabama Shakes: I suppose you could lump Alabama Shakes in with The White Stripes and The Black Keys as some have done, insofar as all three share a garage blues rock sensibility.  But to do that is almost to dismiss Alabama Shakes for being derivative, and then you’d miss out on what separates AS from their elder statesmen, and that’s youth.  But youth isn’t even the right word for it, since both Jack White and the Keys still make music with a distinctly virile feel.  The youth that is on display in the Shakes’ music (and most notably on “Hold On”, the perfect album opener on their thickfreak Boys & Girls) is unashamed of its feelings, unabashed in its embrace of adolescent dreaming.  When frontwoman Brittany Howard wails “I don’t wanna wait!” on the chorus, she’s channeling a kind of youthful desire that no one else today is tapping into.

christopherpaulstelling9. “Mourning Train to Memphis” by Christopher Paul Stelling: If “Hold On” is the young woman song, “Mourning Train to Memphis” is the old man song.  Where Alabama Shakes thrive on childlike exuberance, Stelling flourishes when he fully dives into existential lamentation.  I’ve been listening to this song for a year now, and it never fails to stir that pit in my stomach that only appears when I’m deeply, emotionally wounded.  What, that doesn’t make you want to listen to this song?  Well, I’m sure you will if I tell you that it’s about a beloved geriatric dying of cancer and being buried.  No?  Well, your loss; you’re missing out on one of the best folk songs in recent memory.  More deep stomach pits for me.

frankocean8. “Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean: There are probably about three or four other songs from channel ORANGE that I could substitute for this song depending on which day of the week you ask me.  Monday is more of a “Pyramids” day.  Friday I’ll probably be leaning toward “Super Rich Kids” and getting ready for a joy ride in Daddy’s Jaguar.  “Thinking Bout You” could fit on Wednesday, I guess (this gimmick is running out of steam).  But “Bad Religion” takes the rest of the days.  It’s the best showcase of Ocean’s smooth vocals, sure, but it also happens to be the track where he comes close to revealing what’s in the heart of his soul.  I understand that this is about Ocean being in love with a man, and while I don’t support that or believe it’s right, I appreciate that he bares his inner thoughts and fears to us so completely.  Who isn’t afraid that “the one” won’t love them?  Would that we could all sound so beautiful when we’re in despair.

benjamindunn7. “When We Were Young” by Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra: Goodness gracious me!  I need a playground, stat.  This song makes me feel like a kid again, or at least it makes me wish that I could remember what it feels like to be a kid.  I know I said that no one else was tapping into youthful desire like Alabama Shakes, and, well…I stand by that statement completely!  Benjamin Dunn & whoever the Animal Orchestra is aren’t really encapsulating youthful desire, they’re capturing what it feels like to remember it.  And they’re doing it in one of the catchiest choruses of any year, let alone 2012.

andrewpeterson6. “Day by Day” by Andrew Peterson: On first listen, I didn’t think much of “Day by Day”.  There are so many good songs on Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy that it kind of got lost in the shuffle.  But as I repeatedly played the album again and again in my car, “Day by Day” began to jump out at me.  It’s like how everyone likes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when they first read the Narnia books, and The Magician’s Nephew is kind of boring, but as you read them multiple times, The Magician’s Nephew stands out as one of the most inventive and wise of the series.  “Day by Day” is like that.  Day after day of listening to it made the song grow on me. Now I’m fully in love with its singular forward motion, the perceptive lyrics about missing your childhood, the wanting so badly to be made new each and every day.  Maybe it’s because I’m at such a crossroads in my life, and the theme of time passing me by on my way to heaven really strikes a chord with me.  But Peterson’s song is a reminder that the mundanity of life on Earth points to a glorious eternity when the passing of the days will only produce more and more joy.  I know that message is not just for me.

usher5. “Climax” by Usher: A song by Usher called “Climax” is begging to not be taken seriously.  But this is the best, and weirdest, song that Usher has ever made.  The structure isn’t familiar to pop or hip-hop; it’s distinctly R&B, but the kind of R&B that they’re playing on the moon somewhere*.  If the title “Climax” sounds like it should belong to an ecstatic anthem to sex and, you know, what happens during sex, the actual song is best enjoyed without thinking about the possible humor in the double entendre.  When accepted fully as a serious song, “Climax” is heartwrenching and will make you want to remain celibate for fear of being as hurt as Usher sounds.  Though, once again, like in “Bad Religion”, if this is what getting burned by love sounds like, I should’ve recorded more alt-R&B songs in high school.

lecrae4. “Church Clothes” by Lecrae: This is the shortest song on this list, and it’s also the one most likely to burn a hole in your brain.  This is one that sticks with you.  Lecrae has never been one to mince words, but on this track (off his mixtape by the same name) he’s spitting real talk of the realest sort.  Over a delightfully retro and makeshift beat that intermittently morphs into a souled-out burner, Lecrae pulls off something remarkable.  “Church Clothes” starts out as a diatribe against everything we should hate about hypocritical churches, things we can all agree give us pause.  Then Lecrae deftly turns the microscope back on us and demolishes all the real reasons why we don’t give ourselves to the church.  Crae’s implication is that our problems with the church are legitimate, but they become excuses for why we don’t submit to God and start serving the church, which has always been God’s vessel for bringing His kingdom in.  Point taken, Lecrae.

davidramirez3. “Fire of Time” by David Ramirez: If Johnny Cash were alive today, he would have made this song, and it would have received the attention that Ramirez’s version deserves.  As it is, this is the best Johnny Cash song he never recorded, and the best song Ramirez has (though it has competition there- see below).  My hope is that Ramirez hasn’t really been in the place that he’s writing from in this song, but it’s far too genuine for that to be the case.  The man in this song has chased after the fleeting desires of this world and become addicted, and, miraculously, someone, probably a woman, has broken through his walls and is pulling him out.  “Fire of Time” is simple; but it doesn’t have to be anything more.

triplee2. “One Sixteen (feat. KB & Andy Mineo)” by Trip Lee: Oh my word this song is amazing.  There’s not a single thing about this song that isn’t awesome.  Every bar is basically a hook.  Which, in a twisted way, makes this the “Ignition [Remix]” of rap songs.  That part where Trip sneaks “man” onto the end of his verse to make the phrase “rocket man” like we wouldn’t notice.  That part where KB compares God to Bo Peep.  That part where Trip makes an astute basketball reference.  That part where KB rhymes “murder does” with “surge of us” and “churches up” because duh.  That part where Andy Mineo raps and kills everyone else in the world.  Best rap song ever?  Okay, that’s an unnecessary argument that I don’t want to get into.  …but maybe?

jimmyneedham1. “Clear the Stage” by Jimmy Needham: For eight years now, Jimmy Needham has been writing songs that toe the line between CCM** and R&B like someone who isn’t concerned with the status quo or that oldfangled thing called the radio that we used to listen to when we were kids.  Jimmy’s songs are funky and full of life, with lyrics that cut to the core of the Gospel and what it looks like to worship the Lord in the midst of a messed up world.  “Clear the Stage” isn’t funky or playful. In fact, it’s a ballad with piano and synth strings and a swelling chorus that actually would fit right in on Air1.  It goes along with the rest of Jimmy’s most recent album (also called Clear the Stage) in that it tends to be geared more towards a more radio-friendly sound.  It also happens to be the best song he’s ever recorded.  What has always made Jimmy a cut above the rest was his brutal honesty.  “Clear the Stage” cuts through the crap and reminds you that you’re full of it, you don’t really think about those words you sing at church, and it’s time you really began to worship your Father in the Spirit.  It’s one thing to say those things; it’s another to command it as forcefully as Needham does here.  But his voice, always soulful, reveals a heart that is just as guilty as ours.  Jimmy knows he has idols; “Clear the Stage” is how he purges them.  And he passionately invites us to join him.

*You know, where there are aliens who are secretly into R. Kelly and Pharrell.  These aliens aren’t interested in blowing up the White House.  But they might consider it if Jamie Foxx was president, since no one in the universe is a fan of “Blame It”.

**That’s Christian Contemporary Music for those of you who like good music.

Fifteen More Songs (in alphabetic order)
Anaïs Mitchell: “Young Man in America”
Bruce Springsteen: “Land of Hope and Dreams”
Frank Ocean: “Thinkin Bout You”
Icona Pop: “I Love It (feat. Charli XCX)”
Japandroids: “The House That Heaven Built”
Kacey Musgraves: “Merry Go ‘Round”
Kendrick Lamar: “B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
Matt Mays: “Indio”
Miguel: “Adorn”
The Olive Tree: “A Larger Portion”
Palma Violets: “Best of Friends”
Phosphorescent: “Song for Zula”
Propaganda: “Forgive Me for Asking”
Solange: “Losing You”
Taylor Swift: “I Knew You Were Trouble”

Top Songs of 2013 (So Far, in alphabetic order)

Ashley Monroe, “Like a Rose”: Kacey Musgraves took 2012 by force from her authentic country contemporaries, but Ashley Monroe owns 2013 so far with this clever, coming-of-age ballad.

Daft Punk, “Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)”: Robin Thicke thinks he reigned over summer 2013, and maybe officially he did.  But we all know who we’re bowing down to when Alan Thicke’s son isn’t looking, and they would never let Miley twerk all up on them.

David Ramirez, “The Bad Days”: His “Fire of Time” very nearly stole best song honors from Jimmy Needham in 2012; his “The Bad Days” is a dark horse contender for 2013.  And I’ll bet this blog is the only place you’ve heard of him; what a shame.

Justin Timberlake, “Mirrors”: The best pop song of the year, because JT so effortlessly fuses his pop-funk with weighty emotions that feel universal.

Vampire Weekend, “Diane Young”: Vampire Weekend are no strangers to great hooks, but this might be their most infectious and inventive one yet.

Top 5 Albums You Won’t Find on 2012’s Top Ten Lists

Every year the Interwebs are flooded with top 10 lists for pretty much everything.  I love looking through these lists.  When I see them, I’m looking at a group of albums/movies/TV shows that were loved very much.  I’d rather watch movies or listen to albums that appear on top 10 lists than the ones that win awards.  This is because the awards are usually based on a consensus vote, whereas the top 10 lists come from specific critics (who, contrary to popular belief, are living, breathing people).  This means that the works that win awards were merely the most agreed upon as “good” within a group of people; the ones that are on the top 10 lists are the most loved.

That being said, there are great albums and great movies that never appear on anyone’s list, and they’re inevitably left out of the discussion of what was the best art from that year.  Here are 5 albums that you won’t find on any other top 10 lists.  That doesn’t mean they’re worse than the most acclaimed albums of the year; these albums would hold up when next to channel ORANGE  or The Idler Wheel anyday.  Rather, they’re the albums that fell through the cracks.  Not all of them are on Spotify, but if they’re not, I’ve linked you in the name of the album to a place where you can listen to every track.  Enjoy (in alphabetic order)!

underrated1Anaïs Mitchell, Young Man in America: Folk is all over the place right now, to the point where I’m starting to wonder if we’ll start seeing the pendulum swing the other way soon.  But Anaïs Mitchell’s is a unique voice in folk; Sharon Van Etten got all the attention for her dark, brutal album Tramp (and deservedly so), but Mitchell’s Young Man in America is the better, more lived-in album.  Much of the album sounds like it’s coming from a place that’s primal, and Mitchell sings as if there’s a lot at stake.  She doesn’t simply follow the Mumford/Avett model, but she’s crafted her own distinct sound.  Favorite Song: “Young Man in America”

underrated2Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra, Fable: It used to be that great Christian music was hard to find, but that’s not the case anymore*, thank goodness.  Thank God that not only is Christian music easier to access and enjoy, it’s improving creatively.  Enter Benjamin Dunn.  He and his band eschew the traditional Christian rock format and find an ecstatic medium between rock and electronic.  Dunn’s lyrics piggyback off C.S. Lewis and his Narnia characters, but the connection hardly permeates every song and isn’t necessary to appreciate the album.  On top of making great music in his spare time, Benjamin Dunn also runs what looks like a sweet orphanage in India with his wife.  Cool dude.  Favorite Song: “When We Were Young”

ATOZ_JKTChristopher Paul Stelling, Songs of Praise and Scorn: And we’re back to folk.  The pendulum hasn’t quite swung away yet, dear reader, so you’ll have to indulge me as I plug yet another album of music that sounds as if its singer must have a beard.  Stelling does have a beard, though I couldn’t tell you much more about him.  Honestly, he’s kind of a mystery to me.  Three things I do know about him: 1) He’ll tweet you back if you tweet him, @C_P_Stelling.  2) The aforementioned beard.  3) He makes beautiful, simple folk music with lyrics that range from insightful and compassionate to angry and vitriolic.  Best bearded album of the year.  Favorite Song: “Mourning Train to Memphis”

underrated4The Olive Tree, Our Desert Ways: It was a great year for music, but I may not have loved an album more than The Olive Tree’s Our Desert Ways.  Once again, I don’t know much about The Olive Tree, but I do know they consist of two brothers from Texas.  The concept is simple: they make Americana about the things they love.  If their music is to be trusted, they love Harleys, driving, God, the world God created, women, heaven, and not necessarily in that order.  It sounds less lo-fi than you might expect, and some of the songs are downright beautiful in their simplicity.  Favorite Song: “A Larger Portion” 

underrated5The Vespers, The Fourth Wall: Probably the best album on this particular list, The Vespers’ The Fourth Wall was lauded by the Huffington Post, Under the Radar, and Christianity Today, and yet they still don’t seem to have broken out.  Dumb.  Another sibling act (a pair of sisters and a pair of brothers), the Vespers are a folk band (I know, I know!) that has managed to bend its genre to its musical needs.  One song collapses into a shoegazing haze, others are blatantly pop, and still others rock better than Needtobreathe**.  I’ve managed to convince several people to listen to them, and they love them now.  Please give this wonderful band some more attention.  Favorite Song: “Instrument for You”

*One of the many redemptive reasons that the Internet is sweet.

**Whom I love.

Media Review 3/10-3/16

Movies:

Dracula: My sister has always loved vampires and other monsters, so we’ve watched this 1931 version of Dracula ever since I was little.  Watching it now, it’s frustratingly inconsistent, alternately corny and effective.  They’ve changed up the original plotline from the Bram Stoker novel, but no matter.  In this movie, Count Dracula comes to England with a realtor, Renfield, whom Dracula has driven insane.  The Count takes residence in an abbey near the sanitarium Renfield is placed in.  Dracula begins to terrorize the women who are staying with the head physician at the sanitarium, Lucy and Mina.  When one of the girls dies and displays the same symptoms as other deaths in the area, a certain Dr. Van Helsing is called in to figure out what the cause is.

All of this is presented by largely wooden actors in some flat scenes.  It’s kind of a static movie- director Tod Browning gives us a much more dynamic movie in Freaks, which everyone should check out for a creepy, creepy experience.  There are some great scenes between Dracula and Renfield and also between Dracula and Van Helsing.  Bela Lugosi in particular gives a classic performance that has been imitated and spoofed to no end.  Sometimes his acting is over-the-top, but I see that as more a product of the times than bad acting.  His Dracula has some awesome lines (“Listen to them. Children of the night.  What music they make!” “I never drink…wine.” “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”) and Lugosi delivers them with dignity and passion.  The other standout actor is Dwight Frye as Renfield.  He’s really the most exciting part of the movie, after Lugosi of course.  His insane face is unforgettable, and he adds some spice into a movie that could use a little more.

Good movie- falls short of greatness because of some static writing and directing decisions.  The ending, frankly, sucks.  However, even if you don’t like old movies, this one’s worth checking out for some great bat effects.  Truly state of the art, don’t miss them.

Gods and Monsters: A masterfully constructed and beautifully acted movie.  Gods and Monsters, directed by Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls), tells the story of James Whale, an openly gay man who directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein in Hollywood’s heyday.  The movie takes place in the latter years of his life.  He’s had a stroke, and his mind is going, but the movie follows the new, enlivening friendship that he strikes up with his gardener, Clay.

In a more conventional movie, Clay would be totally accepting of Whale’s homosexuality, their friendship would blossom, and they would both learn something new about life.  Whale would then die happy.  Or maybe Clay would be gay, and it would become a love story of liberation for this old man.  It’s not that kind of movie, though.  Clay is straight, and Whale is passed liberation.  This is the kind of movie that is about Whale’s struggle to find joy in the midst of loneliness and a declining mind, and it’s about Clay’s struggle to understand manhood.

Ian McKellen (of Magneto fame) plays Whale, and it’s the best performance I’ve seen him give.  He’s funny and devastatingly real, often in the same scene.  Whale is dying, and McKellen gives him dignity in that process, but also an amount of desperation to hold on to the good things he finds pleasure in.  Brendan Fraser (you know, from The Mummy) gives his best performance ever.  He’s wonderfully more natural than you’d expect, and he communicates Clay’s conflict as this man’s man befriends Whale, drawn to the man for who he is as a person, though disgusted and confused by his sexuality.  Ultimately, his affection for Whale wins out over his opinions on homosexuality- people who have trouble loving gay people should watch this movie!  Lynn Redgrave steals several scenes as Whale’s disgruntled servant who thinks Whale is going to hell for being a “bugger” and is worried that Whale is “buggering” Clay.

Great movie- above all a great story told with professional lyricism by both the filmmakers and the actors.  There’s a whole wealth of plot and beauty in this movie that I haven’t even touched on.

Albums I Liked:

Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones: I’m trying to listen to all of The Rolling Stones’ albums.  I’ve been unimpressed by the ones I’ve heard so far; none of them really live up to the awesome quality on the only later record I’ve heard, Exile on Main St.  But Beggars Banquet is their first record I’ve heard that is great as a whole album with shades of the blues on Exile.  The Stones I know are made of blues- and country-tinged songwriting channeled into rebellious rock music, and I’m finally hearing that on this album.  Beggars Banquet is the first example of the Stones’ greatness.  Favorite songs: “Sympathy for the Devil” “Street Fighting Man” “Factory Girl”

Clear to Venus by Andrew Peterson: Peterson’s brand of folk music peaked in 2010 with his beautiful album Counting Stars, but my tour through his catalog is showing me that his introspective lyrics and country guitar have been high quality from the beginning.  Clear to Venus is no exception; Peterson sings about the trials of faith and the scope of God’s creation with an honesty befitting the folk genre.  Favorite songs: “Why Walk When You Can Fly” “Let Me Sing” “Venus”

Leaving Eden by Carolina Chocolate Drops: Remember O Brother, Where Art Thou? and that amazing soundtrack?  Would you mind another album just like it?  I thought you wouldn’t.  Here it is- the best old-timey folk since the Soggy Bottom Boys with added substance to boot.  You can’t get away with making music this old-school unless you make it incredibly well, and Carolina Chocolate Drops know what they’re doing.  Their main attraction is their instrumental prowess, but some of their songs are more than just showcases for their banjos and fiddles, such as the title track, which uses biblical imagery to chronicle a family displacing themselves due to hard times, or “Read ‘Em John,” which is basically a call-and-response celebration of a man’s ability to read.  Favorite songs: “Pretty Bird” “Leaving Eden” “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”

Young Man in America by Anais Mitchell: So I like folk music.  Young Man is an enjoyable folk album filled with songs that are almost otherworldly in nature.  Mitchell reminds me of Bjork, or at least Bjork’s less freaky songs.  There are Christian undertones to Mitchell’s lyrics, encouraging her friend in the song “You Are Forgiven,” questioning those who question God in “Dyin’ Day,” and crying for mercy on “Annmarie.”  She sounds like a broken spirit fighting to remain whole.  Favorite songs: “Young Man in America” “Ships” “Dyin Day”

Songs I Loved:

“Pretty Bird” by Carolina Chocolate Drops: The bulk of Leaving Eden is finger-pickin’ and string-playing accompanied by beautiful and strong vocals, but “Pretty Bird” leaves the instruments behind and just lets singer Rhiannon Giddens belt out an ode to freedom and love.  Her accompaniment- the sounds of nature, crickets chirping, frogs chirruping.  Giddens’s voice is soulful, transcending any sort of time period.

“Ships” by Anais Mitchell: A sad goodbye to someone she loves whose ship has just come in.  This song made me think of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” (another moving farewell song, this one by U2) when Mitchell asks “Who’s gonna lay in a bed so wide?  Who’s gonna lay in your lonely bed?” reminding her love that she’ll be here, waiting for him, that no one would be as good for him as her.  Beautiful and devastating.

“Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones: Did you ever realize this song isn’t actually about a guy who street fights?  Me either!  Mick Jagger actually wrote this in response to all the violence in American and Europe due to protesting at the time.  The lyrics to the chorus: “What can a poor boy do / Except sing for a rock-and-roll band / Cause in sleepy London town / There’s no place for a street fighting man”  Whether Jagger was saying we shouldn’t protest or decrying  most of London for not taking any action at all or making fun of the pointlessness of being a rock star, his lyrics are biting, and I don’t know about anyone else, but the song sure gets me excited.

“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones: I had heard this song before, but I’m going to take advantage of this week to write about it.  “Sympathy” is probably in my top 5 Rolling Stones songs, up there with “Gimme Shelter,” “Satisfaction,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “Tumbling Dice.”  From the simply evil guitar solo to the chiming “woo-woo”s and the cleverest, most direct lyrics Mick Jagger ever wrote, “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of the coolest songs ever.  It was obviously just meant for fun, so don’t get caught up in lyrics that sound like they’re celebrating Satan- even Keith Richards and Mick Jagger don’t sink that low.

“Why Walk When You Can Fly” by Andrew Peterson: He begins the song with plaintive harmonies, singing a Mary Chapin Carpenter cover about the limits we put on ourselves instead of acting on our desires.  It’s Peterson’s best song on this album, because it best communicates the kind of hope that Peterson is in the business of spreading.  The implication is that you can fly, even in this harsh world, when you have Christ.  Stay tuned for the equally hopeful and insightful hidden track around the 3:40 mark about the kinds of people who are truly grateful for God’s creation.

“Young Man in America” by Anais Mitchell: It’s a little disconcerting at first to hear Mitchell sing about being a young man in america, let alone to hear her sing about her mother birthing her (or him, I suppose).  But Mitchell is singing from a man’s perspective, expressing what it means to be a man in this world, a man conflicted by sin and expectations.  She has her man “waiting on the kingdom to meet [him] in [his] sin, waiting to be born again,” effectively distilling the experience of growing up in a broken world into a 6-minute epic.