Wednesday, January 4, 2012

music of 2011

I've been looking for a good excuse to write about some of the music I've been listening to lately. I still haven't found one, but I've decided that the end of the year is occasion enough. So what you've got here is a list of the top 6 albums that have impacted me over the course of this year. I limited it to 6 because that's the exact number of albums that I've engaged in over the year. Before I get into the specific albums, I just want to comment that a few years back I decided to stop listening to isolated songs and instead listen to whole albums. I've found that in listening this way I start  to know the artist's heart, and can find themes of thinking running across albums and even across artists' careers that bring much more meaning to the music.

#6 Sara Groves, Invisible Empires.

Sara Groves is one of those artists whose albums I've listened to over time.  Some of her work over the years has been brilliant. I wouldn't put Invisible Empires in that category, but I respect her as a poet, and as one who is thinking seriously about God and society, and so I keep listening.  She ends the ablum with a song called "Finite" about being a woman in this world of ours, and it's a good'n.

#5 Randall Goodgame, Slugs and Bugs: Under where?

This kids album is about 8 parts goofy, and 2 parts serious. I am thankful for the messages it sends through my home, and hope that they seep into and form my kids understanding of the character of God. The goofiness is about holes in socks, making oneself dizzy, and going pee in the potty - communicating that silliness goes with being a kid, and celebrating that fact. The seriousness is no joke: its about the fact that kids are loved specially by God, and it teaches kids what to do with their own sin. The song "God made you Special" has choked me up more than once. And even though its an album for kids, the instrumentation and production of the album makes it enjoyable for me, too.

#4 Paul Simon, Surprise

This album took me about three hearings to like, and about ten to love. And the more I listen, the better it gets. Each song deserves to be studied for meaning, and enjoyed for it's ambitious production. The album makes me think of a letter that Paul Simon has written to America. He  asks the big questions with these songs, and ventures to answer them, too.   This review, I think, gives a good picture of the album, if you're interested in reading more. 

#3 Josh Garrels, Love and War and the Sea in Between

Like all of Josh Garrels's albums, this mostly sounds like hip-hop, with occasional meanderings into ballads or waltzes. You read that right. Josh's lyrics are truly mind-blowing. What intrigues me most about him is just how deeply Christian he is. He isn't boiling Christianity down to some take-home truths to apply to life. He is clear about the fact that Christ Himself, and not self-denial, or beauty or justice,  is the center of our hope and the source of our being and joy.

Give the song below a listen. Notice how in the first verse, he casts a vision of resistance to society like someone who knows that we have to fight the systems that oppress in order to pursue justice, but in the second verse it becomes clear just how Christ-centered his vision is.

The album is free. Go get it.

#2 Mumford and Sons, Sigh no More

I've already written quite enough about this album. I still can't help popping it in when I've got a long trip by myself. The album always reminds me what I care about and inspires me to be who I am.

#1 Ben Shive, The Cymbal Crashing Clouds

Ben Shive plays piano and produces music for Andrew Peterson and several other artists around Nashville. His best work, though, is what he's done with the songs he, himself has written. I met Ben last February and I told him that his first album, The Ill-Tempered Klavier, was my favorite. This is his second work, and it has been no disappointment. This is music like none you've ever heard before. He is producing Christian music that is not a spin-off of any sound a secular artist has made. His music wont gain popularity for just that reason, but I bet he's okay with that. His albums will be most appreciated by people who have ventured to make music or make poetry.

In this album, he's dug every instrument out of the closet. It's clear that beauty and the "right sound" trumped timeliness in every decision.  He may use a choir of violins and an electric guitar for just a bridge, and a horns and woodwinds only for a second verse. There are times in the album where it's hard to pick apart how many sounds are coming at you at once, and he still somehow maintains unified themes and variations. Stylistically, he's all over the board. He jumps from sounding like Ben Folds to the Beach Boys, from folk to pop. Lyrically, the songs are about everyday life on their surface, with deep theological meaning underneath. In short, Ben Shive music stretches me in all sorts of ways, and I love it.  Maybe you will, too?

Below is a youtube video you can play to hear the song he starts the album with, "Listen!" It's about waiting for a train to come in the middle of the night in a small town. And it's about the second coming of Christ. I suggest you throw some headphones on before you hit play so you can hear all sounds he strings together, and all the biblical allusions, too.

Honorable Mention: I'd also like to add an honorable mention category for the music of Eminem. My students adore him because he seems real to them and because he sings about their lives and their pain. They might not now what life is like outside of their neighborhood, but they know the pain they feel inside, and Eminem's eloquent acknowledgment of his pain somehow validates them.  The kids have encouraged me to watch some of his videos, and I have been impressed. Eminem is clearly a deeply unhealthy man, but that is not stopping him from shepherding some of our nation's most needy, lonely and fatherless youth, who are growing up like he did.

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