Favorite Songs of 2012

In no particular order…

Snow by Sleeping at Last. My taste in music is most satisfied when I am stopped in my tracks, cease what I am doing, and listen closely to the lyrics and melody of a song. That is as best as I can describe the phenomenon of experiencing beauty in music. This one has that effect on me, and I would never have guessed that something like this could found a Christmas mix. Thanks Paste Magazine!

Digging Shelters in the Snow by Neil Halstead. Related to the same effect noted above, this one takes the cake. The nostalgic lyrics make me think of childhood memories of making snow forts and my current habit of listening to music for endless hours studying in the library. I say this Halstead’s best, and that is saying a lot (the piano near the end gets me every time).

Atlas Hands by Benjamin Francis Leftwich. While not the most original sound I’ve heard (think Elliot Smith), there is a sweetness to the melody of his guitar that cannot duplicated. Thoughtful lyrics too.

Bellow My Feet by Mumford & Sons. I don’t normally rave about this band, because many of their songs seem to fit a category of music one should listen to only if one is going through a divorce. But seriously, this one get’s the underlying anger and the swelling, hopeful melodies right.

Breathing Underwater by Metric. The best band with a female lead hits yet another homerun. It’s hard to describe how well they top themselves again and again, and this one, in my opinion, is their best.

Orpheo Looks Back by Andrew Bird. This guy has produced the most original sound I’ve heard all year, and I look forward to hearing more and more gorgeous fiddling from him for years to come.

Carelessly (Dosh Mix) by Haley Bonar. One of the best from my favorite female artist. Since you can’t find this one online, you will have to listen to Candy Machine Gun, which is a close second.

Ho Hey by the Lumineers. Many a toe-tapping beats on their album and this is one of the better ones that can make even the most painful experiences of unrequited love feel good.

Love Love Love by Of Monsters and Men. If I were the director of the next Hunger Games movie, this would be the song I’d use to capture the Peeta & Katniss love connection. Pouty longing sells, but that doesn’t meant has to be expressed badly. Best love song of the year.

Pinwheels by the Smashing Pumpkins. They are still able to pull it off after all these years (unlike Pearl Jam).

Forgiveness by Toby Mac. Same comments made in 10 (sorry Pearl Jam).

Some Christian Music

I work at a faith-based Christian rehab center, and one of the house rules is that only Christian music can be listened to on FM radio. There are a lot of rules in the program, but if I were a student I would find this one to be probably the most difficult to follow. Sometimes when I drive the guys anywhere they turn up KTIS 98.5 and sing a long, much to my consternation. If the radio is on and no one is really enjoying it I’ll turn it off, and state rather forthrightly, “That music is terrible.”

This always elicits a lively conversation about music, the arts, and Christian expression. “How can you not like it? It is uplifting and honoring to God,” they say. “Is it,” I reply. “I don’t think it is honoring to God at all…” and so it goes.

Usually, I have to make a lot of qualifications to say that it is (superficially) honoring to God, or that the intentions of the songwriter were likely good, but I maintain that there is nothing obligatory in this form of music that demands that I appreciate it or consider it beautiful or even worshipful.

So in an effort to be more positive I am going to post this playlist of Christian songs I think are exemplary. Each I consider to be well-crafted, honest, reflective, theologically interesting, sensitive to human limitation, and honoring to God.

1. The Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash. Any song that quotes the texts of terror from Revelation and makes God’s judgment sound “cool” has to have a certain quality to it that is original and unmatched.

2. Dead Man (Carry Me) by Jars of Clay. Jars usually suffer from the problem of overproducing and recording to many songs in any given year. But this track has always been very strong in that it utilizes the angst of rock n’ roll to express the angst of feeling defeated and beaten down by one’s own sinfulness, inadequacy and lack of faith.

3. A New Law by Derek Webb. Webb has always been one of the more theologically literate songwriters, and in this song he expresses his frustration with the Christian community’s lack of thoughtfulness. “I don’t want to know if the answers aren’t easy” is the money line.

4. Alabaster by Rocky Votolato. A story about growing up in a church full of misunderstanding and then encountering the real thing. Great lyrics on the parable of the sower mixed with some harmonica.

5. Stranded by Plumb. Though not overtly filled with metaphors or a clear message, the arrangement is very well done and the theme of isolation and loneliness is explored in way that is soothing.

6. This Is Your Life by Switchfoot. Very poppy, but very pointed in its profound yet simple question “This is your life… are you who you want to be?” It is avoids narcissism by asking challenging it in view of things larger than oneself.

7. I Am by Jill Phillips (not online). A tender lullaby from the “fatherhood of God” perspective.

8. Save Me by Welmore Mile (not online). Yes my friend Peter makes the list, but he really does score points for sounding a simple tune into something far more encouraging than the overproduced drek you hear on the radio

9. Goldmine by The Great Upset (formally known as ODYC–not online). Yes more of my friends, but still a very sweet sounding acoustic arrangement with a thoughtful commentary on selfishness.

10. Hope by Don & Lori Chaffer and Hey Ruth (not online). A simple melody about a Christian virtue that is quite comforting to take in

11. Unwind by Don Chaffer (not online). Chaffer takes a Midwest-Americana sound a gives doleful testimony of the lostness of himself and his friends and how God intervened. The guitar work at the end is outstanding

12. Sweet River Roll by Waterdeep (not online). An easygoing psalm about suffering people and the hope of comfort.

13. Jesus Went to the Garden by City On A Hill (not online). A crescendo-ing telling of the Passion narrative

14. Drift by The Common Children (not online). A dressed down rock song about finding guidance, moving on to new adventurous things, and trusting things will turn out well.

15. Clean (My God Has Rescued Me) by The Violet Burning. How could I not include the Violets? Seriously, though, it is one of the more original sounding worship songs I’ve heard. Lots of slowburning energy and serious lyrical piety.

16. Peace by Glassbyrd. Very calming… lives up to its name.

Grand Torino

I saw Grand Torino last night, and I really don’t know what Chris Hewitt is talking about. Eastwood’s performance was well-played, topping off a career defined by portraying outlaw anti-heroes. Instead of a young six-shooting gun slinger, he is an old Korean War vet in a troubled urban neighborhood. True, the characters are not complex, but they are not without substance. There are many moments for unthinking sentimentality to raise its ugly head, but Eastwood deflects them with a gruff sounding growl. The themes of life and death, manhood, having role-models, confession, and self-sacrifice are finely communicated.

3.5 out of 4 stars.

How Does Art Serve Religion In Our Own Time?

My current class is an art appreciation class and I was given the title question as an essay assignment. Let me start out by saying I don’t really know anything about art, except that I think a lot of it is garbage. I used to have some readers that were great art-minds, so if anyone has some opinions to share feel free. In my response, I am intentionally being controversial, yet it is what I really think.


Religion and art have had a checkered history. The relationship between them has been at times cordial but always uneasy, particularly in the West. Though much could be said about the history of art in Western Christianity and what theories there are for reconciling the two, the purpose of this essay will be to say that art does not serve religion in our time, because today’s art is construed as being something oppositional—it is against whatever is perceived to be established.

It may be true that artists can use their creativity to give tangible expression to the unknown or feelings of awe and majesty like they did in the past. But this sense of mystery and wonder is not valued by today’s religion nor does it seem to be valued by today’s culture, hence nullifying the main purpose art can serve in religion. This is not to say that people in general do not have existential moments of wonder and mystery today; rather, it is our culture in general that does not seem fascinated by such sacred realities.

On the contrary, religion has fallen into disrepute among artists as evidenced by the vast amount of iconoclastic creations adorning our Modern Art museums. In the modern age, art has been influenced to value autonomy above all else even to the point of divorcing art from beauty. In the past, artwork that did not contain beauty was deemed to be a failure. Today, innovation is so highly valued that anything that smacks of tradition is uniformly opposed. This distorted view of creativity, so valuing originality to the point that it seeks to reject everything, has brought all kinds of ugliness into the art world, much of it offensive to moral and religious sensibilities, and reduces the artist’s quest to attaining celebrity and notoriety rather than expressing beauty.

Best of 2008

My music shopping is officially dead. I did not buy one CD this last year. Everything was downloaded. I did manage to buy a few full length albums, but just about everything was purchased as a single. I am not proud of that, but I did save a lot of money. Oh what heck, I don’t care. Let’s roll out the Best of 2008 Play List:

1. Life In Technicolor II from Coldplay’s Prospekt’s March. Say what you will about Coldplay’s big name, sell-out status and Chris Martins mediocre lyrics, I like them. Though, I wasn’t too into the album, I really enjoyed the arrangement on the opening track. It sounds epic and I like it that way. Why do I feel defensive for liking Coldplay?

2. Hey Ma from James’ Hey Ma. I had no idea that this was the band that wrote and recorded Laid. I hate that song. But 15 years later this group put out one of the biggest surprises, and along with it, perhaps the most eloquent of protest songs. While I remain mostly in favor what we are doing in Iraq it does not come without a cost, and this song makes for a solemn reminder without becoming preachy or ostentatious.

3. Ghost To Most from Drive-By Truckers’ Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. This band was my favorite find all year. Sadly, I had never heard of Drive-By Truckers until this year, and sadly, I had never had an appreciation for Southern Rock. Ghost To Most makes for great road-trippin’ music as you cruise through the state of Wisconsin on the way to Chicago. It’s not about cheese and liquor, but its close enough.

4. A Gentle Heart from Neil Halstead’s Oh! Mighty Engine.
The Mojave 3 fan in me just can’t get enough of Neil Halstead’s sad, mopey lyrics and his distinct tenor guitar. Though the album is generally forgettable this track stood out as my favorite sleepy summer song–the kind of music you listen to on a sunny Saturday morning with the window open. Keep ‘em comin’ Neil. We Mojave 3 junkies need more.

5. Robin In the Snow from Sonya Kitchell’s This Storm. Sonya was 16 when she put out her first CD. This comes from her sophomore effort that embodies a sound that is mature beyond her years. She is 18. You will have to simply listen to it to hear her rich, graceful voice accentuate tender lyrics.

6. Trying to Put Your Heart Back Together from Slow Runner’s Mermaids. The beat of this song is captured perfectly by a well placed bass drum, and it absolutely makes the song. I love when artists do something simple to make a good song great. An upbeat tune for getting over someone.

7. Something Great from Haley Bonar’s Big Star. Haley Bonar put out Minnesota’s best new album this year. I saw Minnesota’s latest local music superhero open for Halloween, Alaska a few years ago, and thought she could write some songs that were a little faster and happier sounding. She did not disappoint.

8. Graveyard Girl from M83’s Saturdays = Youth. Hey, I was into M83 before they were big. And they deserve to big after producing this delightful and magical song from beginning to end with a dash of melodrama in the middle. I have always liked their ambient stuff while I am reading, and this song complements that as it makes me think of riding my bike to the library downtown. Big city, little bike, lots of books. Feels like you are going somewhere fun when you listen to it.

9. Kids from MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular. I wrote about why I liked this song on a previous post that simply tells you why I love it: I was playing it after I downloaded it and my dad walked in the room and started dancing. He said, “Alright Adam! You are one of the ‘in’ kids.” Enough said.

10. Fix It from Ryan Adams & The Cardinals’ Cardinalogy. As long as there are break ups there will be songs about break ups, and bad break ups sometimes make the best music. Simply tragic, but very very good.

11. Come Around (not online) by Rosi Golan’s The Drifter and the Gypsy. I don’t know anything about Rosi Golan other than she was someone suggested by the iTunes Genius feature, and that she knows William Fitzsimmons. But I like her a lot, and Come Around is nothing short of a treat.

12. Comes and Goes from Greg Laswell’s Three Flights from Alto Nido. Greg Laswell has a sound to envy among those that would fit into a cheesy romantic comedy where the boy and girl start acknowledging the seriousness of their feelings for one another. What can I say? I can’t stop myself from wanting to vicariously live through them. No, I am not a lonely single woman!

13. Your New Twin Sized Bed from Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs. The only song from Death Cab’s 2008 release that’s worth listening too. Don’t get experimental Ben Gibbard. Save that for the Postal Service, and keep writing songs about college couples breaking up.

14. Feels Like Home from Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels. When you start listening to Randy Newman you can officially call yourself an adult. I wish I had the maturity to appreciate his music a long time ago. As some of you know, I really like someone. I met her in high school and reconnected with her on a whim. This song makes me think of that… it feels good.

Favorite Movies:

1. WALL-E. The best movie of the year. A visual feast with a smart underlying commentary that can be truly enjoyed by all ages.

2. Slumdog Millionaire. I usually do not enjoy movies that do love stories. But this had an approach to it (like Titanic) that gave it some credibility by not shying away from brutality. Definitely tragic, but also uplifting.

3. Man On Wire. If you are nostalgic for the World Trade Center towers and enjoy watching eccentric French people pull off ridiculous stunts, this is the film to see. The story is intoxicating, the people involved are funny, and the images are beautiful.

Favorite Book:

Original Sin by Alan Jacobs. From whence does evil come? Read Jacobs and find out… you will be mystified, horrified, and provoked.

Hail to the Chief: Images of the American Presidency

Last night Rebecca and I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and saw the Hail to the Chief exhibit. Though it is a good free date at a ritzy art museum with lots to look at, the exhibit is compelling in itself, especially during an election year. My favorite piece was a haunting photograph of Dwight D. Eisenhower. An honorable mention (and because its online!) is this photo of Ronald Reagan:

Another item of note was a “Nixon bag” from the Republican convention–a grocery bag with his last name spelled repeatedly in a column of red Helvetica-bold letters. Though not a piece of art per se, it was a cultural artifact from a bygone era that communicated a fascinating combination of enthusiasm and Machiavellian policy. You feel the fervor of a 1960s Republican delegate who was hungry for change as well as the present day cynicism of Nixon’s claim, “I am not a crook” just by looking at its strange design.

For the Lincoln buff in me, I was pleased to see the 16th president’s signature on a preserved executive order calling for the draft of 2,000 New Yorkers to fight in the civil war. I had to wonder what he felt as he signed his name to what was most certainly an unpopular directive.

But if you aren’t into history make sure to see this amazing painting by Chuck Close: