Number Three. mewithoutYou - Brother, Sister (September 26, 2006)
"I used to wonder where You are
These days I can't find where You're not"
MewithoutYou has a diverse catalog and a diverse fanbase, and it seems like each album has a special place in the hearts of different people - some say the later mewithoutYou is nothing compared to the intensity of A to B: Life, and others feel similarly about Catch For Us The Foxes. For me, it's the album that introduced me to them, with their impeccably melodic yet driving grooves and Aaron Weiss's fluid lyricism: Brother, Sister.
"More like the absence of something so SHADOW AM I!
The whole material world seems to me like a newspaper headline!
it explicitly demands your attention
and may even contain some truth
…but what's really going on here?
One day the water's gonna wash it away
One day! the water's gonna wash it away!
ONE DAY, THE WATER'S GONNA WASH IT AWAY!
....Nothing clever to say."
They're one of those bands that sounds very unlike any other band I've ever heard. Weiss narrates the tracks in a half-shouting, half-talking sing-songy voice that to some is immediately charming, and to others is an acquired taste, at best (or an annoying and unendurable squeal, at worst). But the lyrics are so rich and vivid, full of beautiful imagery and clever metaphors, that I very quickly began to think of it as poetry set to music, and it suddenly became one of the most appealing things I'd ever heard.
our house wrapped in disrepair,
a small mouse peeked out from a hole beneath the stairs
nearby to where my dad sat in his favorite chair,
thinkin' 'bout the government and muttering a prayer
so I scattered some oats in hopes she'd stay
then sat still to stop from scaring her away,
but she hurried on her little way
and scurried around my mind
still there's a whisper in my ear,
the voice of loneliness and fear, and I say:
I'm still technically a virgin after twenty-seven years,
which never bothered me before,
what's maybe fifty more?
open wide my door, my door, my Lord
(open wide my door)
to whatever makes me love You more"
This was enhanced by the fact that the music does much more than simply serve as background filler for great poetry. It's a sort of structured chaos that invites an array of organic instruments - accordions, harps, horns, and a lot of percussion - to the party, where the party is a collection of compelling rhythms that sound so good they could be looped for a very long time before I would start to get tired of them.
"what new mystery is this?
what blessed backwardness??
the Immeasurable One is held and does not resist!
struck by wicked words and foolish fists of senseless men
the Almighty One does not defend!"
what new mystery is this?!
WHAT NEW MYSTERY IS THIS?!!"
The passion fueled by both the music and the delivery of the vocals is so much stronger and more engaging than most of the music I come across today, and it reflects the truths - or a searching for them - that I strongly hold to. I've listened to the album dozens of times, but I still find "new" phrases that jump out at me.
"mewithoutYou hosts communal dinners before shows, invites fans to play onstage with them, and tours on a bus fueled by donated vegetable oil. It feels like they're trying to build a big family, rather than a big fanbase.
That familiarity is something that's immediately striking on Brother, Sister. The big picture is rather unique - Aaron's spoken-word poetry laid on a punk rock groove with folk and chamber-pop overtones - but each constituent part is actually rather familiar, almost nostalgic. The songs here are densely layered and melodically compelling, at times bordering on the grandiose, but if you break it down you'll find that the contributors to that sound are so impossibly small and humble - the groan of a garage-sale accordion, the warblings of an amateur choir - that it's a wonder they can make anything so orchestrally pretty.
mewithoutYou is the sound of community. They're not rock stars. They're not even performers. They're the sound of simple, imperfect people, joining together to make a broken, loving, joyful ruckus."
Number 4. David Crowder Band - A Collision (September 27, 2005)
An old gospel choir sings in a slow, melancholy tone: "Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world…" The old hymn fades into the second movement - an acoustic guitar picking over a restrained percussive backbeat, and you can almost feel the dark clouds roll in. The frontman's voice adds to the driving build-up: "How long…… 'til you hear us?" The refrain wafts along until fading again, with only the long, sad note of a violin carrying over. Suddenly all is cut off with a quick drum hit that ushers in the wild and frisky banjo. The dark clouds are lifted with an abundance of handclaps and rejoicing. "Lift up your heads, lift up your heads…" What crazy mastermind is behind this unexpected welding of gospel, electronica, and hillbilly-bluegrass into a seamless work of art? And that's just two of the twenty-one tracks! What genius can concoct an old country version of a classic hymn, a cover of a Sufjan Stevens song, a movement from a classical composer, and a song with electronic loops that gets played on Contemporary Christian radio - and fit it all on one album with a unified theme? The one and only David Crowder…
I was introduced to Crowder in high school by hearing "O Praise Him" on the CCM radio. I gently mocked his slightly shaking voice, completely unaware of the worship juggernaut he would become - and the importance he would have in redefining worship in my life.
I divide my paradigms about worship into three distinct phases. The first was my childhood, where I didn't really understand what made those songs different than any other song. The second period started in junior high, where under youth pastor Mark Willis I gained an understanding that these songs were being sung to God. My favorite songs were the ones that were surrendering to God or asking him for strength and growth, but I didn't much care for the ones that just declared things about God being strong or holy or whatever. I mean, yeah, that's true, but I thought worship was about singing to God, not just about him.
It was at the beginning of my college years that I began to gain an understanding of that true nature of praise, as I began to see more and more evidence of God's provision and faithfulness in my life and the lives of those around me. The simplest lines of a song or a Scripture would fill me with great joy, not because of the verse or song itself but because of the truth reflected in the verse. I struggled to explain these feelings, often with romantic metaphors.
The song that most completely captured this paradigm for me was one I first heard at a Friday night youth worship service I attended for awhile in my first year of college. I didn't even know "You Are My Joy" was by David Crowder at that time; I just knew it fully represented the joy that filled me: "And I cannot hold it in, and remain composed / Love's taken over me, so I propose / The letting myself go, I am letting myself go / You are my joy, you are my joy, you are my joy, you are my joy!"
Ian McIntosh's Awakened is the epitome of that third phase for me, but I might not have been able to receive that album in the same manner had David Crowder not paved the way. I believe it was not until my longtime friends and roommates Garrett and Sam were singing and trying to play that song on guitar that I realized it was actually a David Crowder song. I then realized that I already knew a few other songs from the same album, and, buoyed by Garrett's hearty recommendation, I began to check out the entirety of A Collision.
In addition to the expressions of joyful praise found in "You Are My Joy" and several other songs, this album also represents the height of creativity in songwriting. I hinted at the genre-bending in the opening paragraph. David Crowder is obsessed with the looping software known as Reason, and he mixes in his electronic loops with their real drummer and all of the other instruments without sounding, uh, crowded, even when they keep slipping in and out of bluegrass, gospel, and so forth. The album flows very well, changing and growing and building and maintaining your interest as it unfolds, despite its 72 minutes (unlike their latest opus, Church Music, which for the most part feels like an hour of "Can You Feel It?" on repeat). Even the interlude tracks are better than a lot of bands' regular tracks. ("Be.. more… quiet now… and wait… for… a voice to say…")
The album's flow is enhanced by its intricate symbolism, some of which is explained in an "interview" at the end of the album, and some of which can only be explained by Garrett, who somehow has access to information I cannot find anywhere on the Internet. A Collision is about death and rebirth, framed around a motif that represents a rising lark from a piece from classical composer Vaughn Williams… it's about this collision between Divinity and depravity that raises us from our depths, in spite of our inadequate understandings and responses… it's something about the old symbol of an atom that we now know doesn't really represent what an atom looks like. "What we mean to say is that the elements of worship are inadequate, much like the atom depiction," Crowder says. "But this is what we have, you know? It helps us carry the idea." Garrett can wax prolific about the unfolding moods and themes of the album through the ordering of the songs (and his explanations actually don't sound too far-fetched).
The passion that David Crowder pours into his craft, and his desire for excellence, is truly inspiring. And yet, in spite of all this grand posturing, Crowder and Co. refrain from taking themselves too seriously. The [a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nSd9bVMTNQ"]mock-animé evil-squirrel music video[/a] for "Foreverandever, Etc" ranks among my all-time favorites, and the [a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSTfgsjmiW8"]story behind it[/a] is a classic example of Crowder's subtle sense of humor.
Last but not least, A Collision represents a link among us four roommates and our college years. Despite each of our varied tastes and preferences, A Collision is a rare album that all four of us completely enjoy. And what is worship if it does not have unity?
Thanks, David Crowder, for helping us use what we have. That's why you're sitting at Number Four.
Number Five. Thrice - The Alchemy Index (2007-2008)
Thrice was one of those bands that slowly worked their way into my consciousness as I heard about them from different people I knew and saw news about them online. In October 2007, when AbsolutePunk linked to a full stream of their latest project - and everyone on there spoke highly of it - I checked it out. It was the first two parts of a four-part concept project known as The Alchemy Index, containing six songs under each of the four elemental categories of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, which served as an inspiration both for lyrical themes and musical composition. I listened through it a couple times and generally liked it, but I was on the fence about buying it until I looked up the lyrics, really paid attention to them…. and was blown away.
In just over two years, Dustin Kensrue has become one of my favorite songwriters. He creates moving images and settings with allusions to Greek mythology, ancient fables, historical figures, and a lot of Scripture. One of my first favorite songs was "Digital Sea," which discusses how technology invades our lives: "The ghost of Descartes screams in the dark / 'Oh, how could I have been so wrong?'… I am drowning in a digital sea…" "Daedalus" gives the father's perspective of Icarus's fateful high flying and melted wings. "The Lion and the Wolf" paints metaphors about how destruction can come from the outside as well as yourself.
But what really shattered my paradigm was the Biblical references and themes. For a few years I had been witnessing a welcome increase in popularity and respect for Christian musicians in the mainstream industry, but it often seemed to come at the price of watering down their message and hiding what they believed. So it was at once incredibly surprising and encouraging for me to find a band that was never really associated with the Christian market to begin with (or else I would have been spinning Vhiessu instead of Kutless back in high school…) and had a lot of non-Christian fans while still singing about Christ with better lyrics than a lot of the more official "Christian" bands!
The lead line of "Come All You Weary," my favorite Thrice tune, is straight out of Matthew, and is a beautifully encouraging song for anyone who's ever been battered or exhausted. "Moving Mountains" references 1 Corinthians 13 as the singer claims that he can move mountains and understand angel tongues, yet "I don't know the first thing about love." "The Messenger" draws inspiration from Isaiah in its depiction of a man answering the call of God: "Kiss the coals, breathe in smoke, and I say, 'Here I am, send me.'"
The music was equally impressive. The Fire songs were intense; Water was calm; Air was ambient; Earth was stripped-down and, well, earthy. The quality of production and musicianship held the versatile project together into a cohesive structure. Shifting time signatures here, ambient layers there, and maybe just a passionately strummed guitar over there… it all was supported by strong melodies and even stronger lyrics. This year I reached back into their previous work and also acquired their new album, finding the same strength throughout. Beggars quickly became one of my favorite releases of '09 with its timeless theme that everything in this life doesn't really matter.
For breaking stereotypes with your variety of sound, for shattering my paradigms about what Christians are allowed to sing about in the mainstream market, for making me think and encouraging me and helping me realign my perspectives about life --- here's to you, Thrice, at Number Five.
Choosing my favorite Relient K album is like choosing my favorite flavor of cheesecake. They all have their own distinctive touch, but they're all made from the same basic goodness. Yet when I saw people declaring MMHMM as one of the best pop punk albums of the decade, I decided that I agreed with their sentiments. Relient K is perhaps the only band that has grown with me and my musical tastes over the years, from the cheesy junior high pop punk of the Anatomy… days all the way up to this year's college-esque post-punk folk-indie Forget And Not Slow Down. But if everything I love about them could be constrained to a single album, it would be the one that represents the pinnacle of their storied career: the Relient K that started to leave behind the sillier aspects and mature both lyrically and musically, but before the lineup started changing and becoming a sort of super-band of former Christian rock bands.
Dave Douglas spanned four albums keeping a steady beat for Relient K as their drummer, but if you really pay attention to Anatomy and Two Lefts, it's almost comical how much he relies on the simple, classic kick-snare kick-snare over and over and over again…. pretty much every song has the exact same drum beat…. the entire time! But in MMHMM we start to see some growth as a musician. Woah… is that a tom roll on the pre-chorus? Is that a wood-click? Do I actually hear a high-hat rhythm over here? It probably helped that Matt Thiessen's songwriting was also evolving from simple pop punk anthems and power ballads into more layered and varied songs; I especially love the copious amounts of piano here (after this album they started touring with an upright that has been with them ever since). This is not to say that Douglas didn't still use the ol' kick-snare for most of the album, but we started to see some much-needed growth. (And the growth wasn't limited to his hands and feet, either. I'll never forget the first time I saw "Life After Death and Taxes" live and wondered where the vocals on the verse were coming from until I saw Douglas's turned head singing into the mic…. he lets out a couple screams on the album as well).
The songwriting on this album is also improved from Relient K's previous work. Initially I was disappointed at the lack of a hidden track, but I eventually accepted it as part of the new Relient K that was abandoning the super-cheesiness while still maintaining their clever and quirky side (don't forget the album title, after all). Lyrical themes include God's hope through personal failure, and encouragement to live a selfless life with purpose and without regrets. I still absolutely adore the live performance of "Which to Bury, Us Or The Hatchet" (banjo and all) that, just like the album, transitions right into the prayerful "Let It All Out," complete with a beautifully extended outro. Almost every song contains some insightful lines worthy of reflection or at least a Facebook status. "Life is now worth living, if only because of You / And when they say that I am dead and gone / It won't be further from the truth…"
The radio loved a couple singles off this album and it probably remains their most popular to date. I'm glad Relient K didn't stop here and keep floating down the currents of mainstream pop punk (especially with the adoption of screaming), and while their more recent layered acoustical stuff still pulls on my heart, it's not the same as my classic Relient K. Dave Douglas is gone. Original bassist Brian Pittman has been gone for even longer, and the band now features former members of Ace Troubleshooter and the O. C. Supertones, and a guitarist who toured with Audio Adrenaline. MMHMM will always be the highlight for me - that band with the catchy songs, cool piano riffs, clever wordplay, and hopeful lyrical themes, all of which combine to make me happy and content… and when it comes to music, what else can you really ask for?
The numbers don't lie. Six of the top eight most played songs in my iTunes library are from Ian McIntosh's Awakened, and for a time he claimed the entire top ten. Unlike the musicians on the list so far, you may have never heard of him… so who is he, where did he come from, and what did he do to nab one of the ten places in my heart that represent this decade?
I was introduced to Ian McIntosh by my cousins and their mother (my first cousin once removed…?), who gave my family copies of his album and adamantly insisted that this was the most amazing worship music. To be honest, I expected it to be one of those intense, ambient charismatic CDs with rousing lyrics about more fire and God moving and all of that stuff that is nice and all but not exactly what I like to put on when I just want to worship God and thank and praise him. Well, I actually got something that is exactly what I like to put on when I just want to worship God and thank and praise him. In fact, Awakened perfectly solidified my current paradigms about worship and God (although I will talk more about the transition to that paradigm farther into the list).
When you think of worship leaders and songwriters in the Christian music scene today, you think of middle-aged men strumming on guitars, singing their slightly scruffy voices into radio-ready choruses. Ian McIntosh shatters that perception. He's a keyboardist in his young 20's who fiddles around with electronic loops and often sneaks into a falsetto that is clearly not intended for a sing-a-long with your local congregation. Yet his album is so full of genuine worship that even now if I play it while doing homework I have to stop for a bit and just praise God. His lyrics are simple, but because of everything that I have seen God do, they resonate in my soul as truth and fill me with such a joy that I cannot help but smile: "I was made to love… I am fully loved… you are always good, God… All I want is to be near you, all I need is to see you…" It is an emotion born not out of the song itself but out of the truths contained in the song.
The loops, layers, and piano melodies combine to beautifully accompany the lyrical expressions. My favorite track by far is the title track, "Awakened," which is constructed from the elements of an infectious piano riff and various rhythms and loops that build and come and go until it bursts into a climax, declaring Rain, rain down, rain down your love! with such jubilance that it makes me want to run outside in the rain (cool summer rain, by the way, not this week's November freeze) and just declare praises to God for the incredible love he has shown me… it's not something that can easily be explained, but if you know what I'm talking about, then I don't have to explain how joyous and refreshing and freeing and wonderful it is. Ian McIntosh's album perfectly captured that concept in music, and that's why, even though I discovered it later (summer 2008) than all of the other releases on this list, it's one of the ones I have listened to the most, and a solid representative of my most important musical releases of the decade.
Number Eight. Switchfoot - The Beautiful Letdown (February 25, 2003)
"It was a beautiful letdown, the day I knew / All the riches this world had to offer me would never do"
Jon Foreman is one of my favorite lyricists due to his ability to poignantly express the deepest feelings of my soul with the simplest of words. My introduction to Switchfoot began with a call to Lindenwood's radio station that played Christian rock on Saturday nights and received CDs to give away (the limited number of interested listeners made it super easy to win stuff!). In less than a minute, The Beautiful Letdown was mine - free and legal!
I absolutely loved it. It's one of the few albums I can specifically recall listening to over and over on my CD Walkman. (Yes, friends, we now have obsolete musical technology to fondly explain to our children just as our forefathers did to us!) This poppy, radio-friendly stuff is probably not what comes to mind when you think of intricate multi-layered albums, meant for repeated listens and growth, but this is where I was introduced to that kind of epiphany: Woah! There's piano chords on "Meant to Live"! I never even noticed that the first twenty-seven times I played it! (This is an actual memory, although the number was fabricated for effect.)
The album also forced me to begin reevaluating my paradigms about the Christian/secular divide. It was easy to dismiss those weird P.O.D. guys as not real Christians because they got played on secular radio! Not so easy when your new favorite band blows up on those same stations and sells 2.6 million copies, paving the way for all your other favorite bands to do the same thing. I was too naive to understand the complexities of using or not using Jesus' name to sell more records (because both are surely done, depending on your target market), but I at least began to appreciate artist intent, even if I didn't like the fact that it felt like they were dimming their light to go out into the darkness, so to speak. But I think Switchfoot was part of a growing movement that replaced mockery with respect for Christian musicians by non-Christians. My views on Christian music and evangelism continued to evolve drastically over the course of this decade, and I believe it was one of the most important facets of the music world for me - and for most of the Christian music industry as well.
The Beautiful Letdown is indelibly associated with my early high school days: listening to it on sports tournament trips or while riding my bike through the neighborhood.. discussing the album with the upperclassmen in Yearbook… playing "On Fire" on piano or "Twenty-four" and "I Dare You To Move" on the guitar… memorizing and dissecting every lyric… I still love each and every song, and can still pretty much sing along to every song, too. I don't know if you have a song that instantly transports you back to the happy innocence of your adolescence… maybe it's "I Want It That Way" or "All The Small Things" or "My Sacrifice." For me it's definitely Switchfoot's "Gone." I can't sing it without smiling. Yet the brilliance of the song is that it represents the greatest joys of my youth while simultaneously conveying important themes that still speak to me: "Summer break is gone / Saturday is gone / Just try to prove me wrong / And pretend like you're immortal." Psst! Hey Josh! whispers Foreman. Don't waste your time and focus on the trivial. …And then straight into an outro about Sinatra, Pacino, and Lexus cages…. Does it get any better than that?!
How on earth did this make the top ten? Well, I used to consider it one of my favorite albums ever, and it was a significant part of my early post-highschool days, so I suppose I can't abandon it now. I discovered The Fray at the height of my radio days, before I started to get fed up with the decadence found therein. Indeed, the members of The Fray were apparently subtle Christians, and at least seemed to refrain from said decadence.
The heavy use of piano (but without Coldplay's depressing and/or vague lyrics) was especially attractive to me, and I spent some time figuring out how to play along to some of the songs (although, looking back, not as much as you might have thought). I also appreciated some of the simple but poignant lyrical themes. Today I dug out an amusing "review" from my old personal myspace over three years ago:
The guys of The Fray*are certainly not rockers, and there is a little repetitiveness in the soft, slow music. I don't mind so much because I like the style and because there's a lot of piano, and there's enough variety for me. Most of the songs are not instantly catchy, but rather the type that grow on you after the third or fourth listen. While the style may be repetitive, they often use unconventional chord patterns and melodic rhythms. And there is one "rock" song ("Little House").
There are songs about relationship struggles, of course (for example, the hit "Over My Head"), but this includes a creative angle. "All At Once" questions whether or not a girl is the one, or if he should wait for someone better, reminding that "perfection will not come." "How to Save a Life" is apparently about trying to counsel someone out of a drug addiction, and "Fall Away" is about how the past will catch up with you if you don't deal with it.
...If you like*catchy piano-led pop,*How to Save a Life*is the CD for you.
This is the album that got me through three years of singleness, as I applied the different lyrics of pursuit and questioning to whatever girl I happened to be shyly crushing on (See, on this song he's pursuing her, and on the next song, he's not sure, and then he goes away, and then he realizes he was "Dead Wrong", and then…). The overplayed radio singles at the front of the disc hide some beautiful ballads that appear later. The simple encouragement of "Heaven Forbid," the innocent pursuit of "Look After You"… it all still makes me smile. And nice-sounding doesn't imply cookie-cutter; the stripped-down "Hundred" has a 55-second piano intro, for goodness' sake!
I actually thought Coldplay's last CD was far more brilliant than The Fray's follow-up album that came out earlier this year, but How To Save A Life still represents the peak of my era of listening to mainstream radio. And every now and then, when my forays into hardcore or indie dissipate into experimental nothingness, I return to this album for a nice, refreshing dose of fluid piano pop.
Number Ten. The Lord Of The Rings soundtrack (2001-2003)
I read C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia multiple times throughout my childhood, but I was not introduced to his colleague J. R. R. Tolkien until my friend and namesake Josh Bauder gave a book report on The Fellowship Of The Ring in the sixth grade (Please correct me if the details are incorrect, Josh). My family moved shortly thereafter, but during that summer of 2000 I read through the entire trilogy. I'm not sure how my eleven-year-old self got through those twelve hundred pages and the introduction of all those names and places, but I do remember using tricks to keep some of the names straight (such as picturing Gandalf as Qui-Gon and Aragorn as Obi-Wan…. Episode 1 was still a big deal back then, OK?)
Reading used to be my chief pastime, and my favorite story element, above all else, was a good plot. I loved an epic fight for the fate of the world, with multiple subplots all weaving together with twists and surprises and everything working out in the end. Maybe it was a subconscious expression of my belief in God authoring his grand plan throughout the universe and humanity; maybe not. Regardless, Lord of the Rings was the epitome of a plot, and I loved it. (Uh… Josh… I thought this was your top *musical* releases of the decade. I know. Here we go.) Peter Jackson's films soon followed, and his dedication to portraying the visual complexity of Tolkien's universe was beautifully supported by Howard Shore's soundtrack.
My obsession with music over this decade has mainly involved bands and songwriters; I don't purchase many soundtracks for fear that they're not very memorable beyond the few seconds of exciting theme (film scores are just begging for "filler"). Some of my favorite themes and melodies come from Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, Gladiator, and the recent Batman films), but no one comes near the completeness of Howard Shore's Lord of the RIngs, which is every bit as fulfilling as Tolkien's story.
Every locale has a distinctive motif: the single violin of Edoras, the shrill melancholy strings of the elves, the ominous 5/4 pounding of the dark lord Sauron. And don't forget the hero's rousing horn sequence! Howard Shore managed to perfectly capture the epicness of the films, and it's only natural that my favorite soundtrack of all time is the one that accompanies my favorite film trilogy from my favorite literature series.
It's ridiculously long, of course, but never boring and always exceedingly versatile. Need a boost to your morning routine? Throw on "Concerning Hobbits." Need to improve your monotonous walk to class? Try "The Ride of the Rohirrim." Need a background to your crazy math homework? Just start playing the whole thing… (And let's not forget Billy Boyd's haunting performance as Pippin before Denethor.) The only thing that would be more exciting than owning the entire "soundtrack" would be owning the entire score (the former is an hour or so of prominent selections from each film; the latter is every single piece of music from each film, and they run for $60 or so apiece on Amazon…. something I can't quite justify)
Music has taken over as my chief pastime these days (It's easier to play albums than read novels while driving to work or compiling C++ code), but amidst my rock/pop/alternative/hardcore/indie obsessions, Howard Shore remains as an indomitable link to my first love.
A friend practically dragged John and I to see this movie, and we're both still glad that she did. I saw it as I was moving away from radio influences, and the natural musical about two musicians and their interactions resonated with me deeply. The film did not hide from desire, but examined it in the light of true love and commitment, and this was so attractive after my year or so of the radio and its increasingly distasteful lust. Glen Hansard's earnestness and Marketa Irglova's vulnerability combine to form a sound that is, quite simply, beautiful, and anyone who appreciates the inescapably woven threads of life, love, and music simply must see the film.
Why It's Not Top 10: While I enjoy the entire album, there aren't a lot of strong tracks beyond the first half, and, removed from the emotion of the film, they amount to little more than Hansard strumming fiercely and belting loudly. Still has a place in my heart, though.
#13. Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer by Jon Foreman (2007-2008)
Jon Foreman, lead singer of my (sometimes) favorite band Switchfoot, took a conceptual solo jaunt about the time I started to dip into the indie scene. (I'm sure his work is too polished for true "indie" purists, but it's stripped-down and acoustic enough for me.) Foreman released six songs every couple of months as the seasons turned, and he did a good job of expressing the different moods through his guitar picking and a varying array of instruments - trumpet, clarinet, cello, harmonica… I was also pleasantly surprised to hear this more vulnerable version of Foreman expressing his faith more openly - each season has an incredible song adapted directly from a Scripture passage (Micah 6, Psalm 51, Matthew 6, and Psalm 23).
Why It's Not Top 10: The best songs rank among my favorites, but the worse songs are more forgettable and almost like filler. There are a few successes among the songs about love and life and home… but if you want really good love songs from a solo member of a formerly popular Christian band, check out Tyler Burkum. Now.
#12. MuteMath (2006)
I accidentally discovered Earthsuit from a hidden track on a CCM hits disc (WOW 2001), but it took me longer than it should have to fully embrace Paul Meany's rebirth as MuteMath. The energy that this band puts into their craft is remarkable (I will be confirming the tales of their live shows this weekend). They really have a mastery of rhythm, through the vocals and the keys but especially through Darren King's organic percussion madness. They're one of three bands that I say can get into a groove that sounds so good that I wouldn't care if they vamped the same thing for five straight minutes (Coldplay's another, and the third is higher on the list). The self-titled debut also has nuggets of truths in the lyrics that still jump out at me: "You stay true when my world is false… It's a beautiful surrender… Maybe we don't need to know anymore than we have to…."
Why It's Not Top 10: I don't really have any complaints about this album, although I suppose I see the points of those who complain it's a little long and indulgent… perhaps there's a bit of dragging in the 63 minutes. But really, as much as I love this album, it doesn't match the importance to me of everything that's farther up.
#11. Children 18:3 (2008)
Stephen thought this would be Top 5, and for good reason. The album is practically flawless. It is the epitome of everything I'm looking for in music these days: incredibly talented musicians, incredibly catchy and well-produced music, and a unique sound and personality, all supported by a smashing live show. The energetic elements of these homeschooled punk rockers still bring a smile to my face after so many listens, whether it's Lee Marie's piercing vocal resonance and powerful bass lines, Seth's forceful drumming, or David's infectious riffs and sharp vocal inflections. Easily my favorite Tooth & Nail signing in the last five years.
SO WHY ISN'T IT TOP 10? The album is truly a work of art, but I didn't discover it in a vacuum. If my last decade has been a musical journey through an intriguing forest, Children 18:3 is one of the most exciting things I discovered once I came into the beautiful clearing. They represent the apex of my musical journey… the next ten releases are about how I got there.
Little more than two months remain in this decade… well, unless you want to be technical and say the decade ends on a '0 year, but come on, when we say "the 80's," we're not talking about 1990, so let's call this decade 2000-2009. Anyway, it's almost over, and I've been reflecting on those years and the influence they've had on my life, particularly in the realm of music.
Epoch The First
When this decade began, my knowledge of recorded songs consisted entirely of Chris Rice's "Cartoon Song," Stephen Curtis Chapman's "Dancing With The Dinsoaur," and my father's Petra collection. My parents were not exactly musical connoisseurs, and while they did not necessarily object to rock and roll and the whole shebang (see Petra collection), the Christian radio station my mother listened to in Minneapolis probably did, and their repertoire consisted mostly of talk shows and the occasional "Cartoon Song." Then, in the late spring of 2000, we moved to Chicago.
My mother probably had no idea she was about to change my life forever. She was just looking for a local Christian radio station to replace the one she listened to in Minnesota. But the one she found was much more in tune with the great conglomerate affectionately known as the Contemporary Christian Music industry. SHINE 89.7! (I still remember the jingle.)
This was all new and exciting stuff for me. We had discovered the station just in time for Plus One to storm across the airwaves. I had no idea they were supposed to be appealing to teenage girls. I had no idea they were carbon copycats of more popular (but undoubtedly less holy) boy bands. There was melody! There was harmony! There was instrumentation! This was cool stuff! The Promise, I am unashamed to say, was the first album I purchased with my own money, and later that year when we moved to St. Louis, their concert at the enormous Family Arena with Stacie Orrico and Rachael Lampa was probably one of the highlights of my formative middle school years (though I wish I could go back in time and see the smirks of the older schoolkids as I wore out that band T-shirt through the halls of CHS).
Of course, it wasn't all sugar and spice. Some artists survived completely on the nourishment of the CCM market, but there were others that merely spilled over into radio appeal, and I tended to gravitate towards the Audio Adrenalines more than the Avalons. AA, dc Talk, and Newsboys all put out greatest hits albums around the same time, allowing me to quickly imbibe some of the highlights of the last decade while laying a foundation for the rockier side of things (I also got my first taste of industry practices.. The recorded version of "Say The Words (Now)" has Toby rapping on the bridge?!? And more electric guitar than the radio version?!? But it sounds so much cooler that way!)
I soon discovered that 89.1 played Christian rock on Saturday nights (and they let you request songs!), and while the Internet was a long way from utilizing music to its full potential, I used our dial-up modem and my 30-minute parental daily time allowance to read up on the latest charts, news, and even exclusive music videos from JesusFreakHideout.com. Kutless, Pillar, Thousand Foot Krutch…. such energy and power! Music became an interaction with my friends… John introduced me to some band named Skillet with whom he had a mildly distant church/family connection, and a kid named Dylan let me listen to an album by four young punny guys called The Anatomy Of The Tongue In Cheek(I though it was just OK at the time).
I floated happily along the twin channels of Christian Contemporary and Rock radio for the next three years and into high school (the 2003 "Go Show" at the Family Arena with Audio A and Kutless was another highlight), but eventually I was starting to get bored. I was still eating up new releases by bands that had come to be favorites, but the CCM radio thing was getting stale. The whole worship craze was kicking into gear, and while I had learned to love worship through the churches my family had been attending (particularly The Life! Church), the songs that made it through the machine and onto the careful airwaves didn't give me the emotional connection of Hillsong United's power chords, ambient keys, and raw lyrics. Some of them weren't even original, and it started to bother me that Tree63's "Blessed Be Your Name" and Phillips Craig and Dean's "Come, Now Is The Time To Worship" were contributing sales and popularity to bands that didn't even come up with the songs themselves. So Hillsong United kept me spiritually anchored while I went to explore elsewhere.
Epoch The Second
I'd heard for awhile the criticisms that the Christian industry just copied the mainstream, and, strangely enough, some of my favorite bands were actually starting to get played on secular radio! Those were the stations my high school peers were listening to anyway, and I was ready to get in on the exciting stuff. I was driving now and could listen to the radio in my car, and I was often tuned to the adult contemporary/pop tunes of Y98 or 101.1 The River, but I also discovered the alternative rock of 93.3 before I graduated high school. 3 Doors Down! Gavin Degraw! And on and on…. The well-polished catchiness of the mainstream stars was invigorating. I discovered the Pageant with my crossover bands, and as I had only ever seen a show from the back of a stadium, I was surprised and more than pleased to discover that in this "small" venue, there wasn't a bad spot. The content of the secular musicians wasn't all totally evil, although I wasn't really interested in the depressing stuff. I even found uplifting Christian artists hiding in the mainstream…. The Fray, Flyleaf, Mat Kearney. It only bothered my ever-shaping worldview that there seemed to be an inverse relationship with how popular a band was and how much they specifically mentioned God or Jesus…. new Switchfoot was less blatant than old Switchfoot…. but compared to The Fray? Was this what was known as "selling out"? How could you "be a light" if you had to keep dimming it the farther you got into the darkness?
These thoughts churned in the back of my mind as I delved further into the mainstream. Breaking Benjamin was pretty depressing, but "Diary of Jane" had a cool and intense rhythm. MCR's "Welcome To The Black Parade" sounded soooo epic! I even took a short detour through the hip-hop and rap scene. I certainly never allowed my personal library to be defiled with such vulgar language, but the beats of "Snap Yo Fingers" and "Ridin'" and even some of that Rihanna stuff were really catchy to listen to on the radio. I can still recall most of the songs at the top of any major 2006 songs list, although it amazed me how easily the masses gobbled up the Top 40 "variety." The R&B-laden "Temperature" and beat-driven "Lean Wit It" went down just as easily as the super-sugary ballad "What's Left Of Me" or the country-pop "What Hurts The Most." It didn't matter what it was as long as it was catchy and easy and…. mindnumbing. Oh, so mindnumbing.
I got sick of the Top 40 stuff very quickly as I realized that three months later I didn't know the songs anymore… it was all new and yet it pretty much all sounded the same as the old stuff. And the lyrics seemed to be getting even trashier. The unfaithful and cheating "Lips Of An Angel," the deliberately audacious "Girlfriend"… it all felt like a blatant attack of selfishness, instant gratification, and destructive pleasure. It broke my heart to see my McDonald's co-workers collapsing in broken relationships while they were listening to an utter glorification of physical satisfaction by any means possible (consequences not included). The Akon radio edit that replaced the obscene verb of "I Wanna F--- You" with "I Wanna Love You" (as if the two words were somehow equatable) was one of the last straws. By the time the more innocuous and simply mindnumbing "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" came around, I had said goodbye to the radio, and I have no idea how that song goes, or most of the transient "hits" that have followed.
So what filled the new void? Well, the hardcore scene, for one, although that was really only one piece of a bigger puzzle (Underoath powerfully pioneered my epiphany that screaming nonsense actually contained discernible lyrics, often backed by beautifully talented music). But the integral element of my newly forming landscape was the Internet.
Epoch The Third
By the time I started my first year of college at the end of 2006, the Internet had come a long way from merely displaying charts and providing online radio…. and no, I'm not talking about downloading (which I still shun for a patchwork of legal, ethical, and philosophical reasons). I'm talking about this little website called MySpace and this nebulous buzzphrase called "social networking." People forget that before MySpace there was no surefire, legitimate way to spontaneously listen to an entire song without spending money (unless you were lucky enough to find a music video on AOL… here's to you, modern YouTube). You mean I can listen to the whole song… not just a clip…. of "Bad Day" without buying the album and without waiting 30 minutes for the radio to play it again??!! This was a monumental breakthrough!
Initially, towards the end of my radio days, I merely used this service to satisfy the urges for singles I had not yet purchased from iTunes. But it quickly became an efficient tool for discovering new music. Everyone was on MySpace. When CCM Magazine (which my grandmother mysteriously stopped renewing for me right about the time its value was waning for me) recommended a little Arkansas band called Deas Vail, I was able to find some tracks online that convinced me to purchase the album when it released.
AbsolutePunk.net quickly became a priceless beginning source, which, despite its name, collects news and reviews from a variety of genres. I had heard that Switchfoot's Jon Foreman was working on solo projects, but it was a news post on AP that reminded me that it was out and that I needed to get it. I had heard the name Thrice mentioned here and there, but it was the buzz on AP that led me to the MySpace full album stream of the Alchemy Index (Vol I & II) that led me to purchasing the project that led them to become one of my favorite bands. A lot of these bands were also re-jolting my Christian/mainstream paradigms, as I discovered an increasing amount of Christian musicians who were respected and liked by unbelievers - even the musicians that were less compromising about their faith.
I was finally checking out musicians that had never been played on the local radio stations. Some of the bands I was listening to couldn't fill a place like the Pageant, and I soon discovered truly small venues like the Creepy Crawl, Pops, and Off Broadway. I couldn't try out every band I heard of, obviously, but I fell into a system of letting the buzz on a band build upon itself from a variety of sources - Internet, friends, live shows, etc - until they warranted a listen. I had heard of mewithoutYou, and I knew my friend Sam really liked them, but it was their midnight show at my first Cornerstone (2007) that finally pushed me over the edge. Ah, yes, Cornerstone. I have said plenty elsewhere about the impact of that annual festival.
These days, I feel like I'm pretty well-rounded. David Crowder Band and MuteMath slowly worked their way into my consciousness through a variety of connections via CCM, the Internet, and friends until I finally purchased an album and fell in love. Even now I don't manage to entirely avoid the CCM circuit and occasionally come across a gem (tobyMac's "Made To Love" gets a 5-star rating), and this is also true of the mainstream (see Coldplay's last album). I found Children 18:3 because of my brother Jacob, Ian McIntosh because of my cousin Andy, and Josh Garrels because of my newer friend Josh. I went from the fence to a fan of Becoming the Archetype thanks to my college friend Ben, and Tyler Burkum went from forgotten to fascination this February thanks to a girl I had just met named Emily.
Maybe I'm starting to spread myself too thin, trading a few popular acts for a smattering of smaller ones and scooping up dozens of follow-up releases that all too often simply don't seem as good as the originals (I'm looking at you, Ian McIntosh, Mat Kearney, MuteMath, The Glorious Unseen, and A Fine Frenzy). But before I consider the path of the future, I'm going to spend some time looking back at the last decade, highlighting the landmarks of my journey that was ridiculously long in the telling.
I'm a musical nerd who always posts top lists at the end of the year. In the coming weeks, as we finish off the 2000's, I will be posting my countdown list of the ten most personally influential albums of the decade - how I discovered them, what I liked so much about them, and why they were and still are so important to me. If you want to humor my mild narcissism, feel free to guess what's coming and read along….
Week of 10/18 - Honorable Mentions (#14-#11)
Week of 10/25 - #10.
Week of 11/1 - #9.
Week of 11/8 - #8.
Week of 11/15 - #7.
Week of 11/22 - #6.
Week of 11/29 - #5.
Week of 12/6 - #4.
Week of 12/13 - #3.
Week of 12/20 - #2.
Week of 12/27 - #1.