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?!
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.