Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve written anything on here. Traveling and the simple busy-ness of life have been factors, and frankly, I haven’t been inspired. There is a half-completed entry on old movies that has sat for months, and other than that, nothing’s really grabbed me.
Until now. Some new album releases and a documentary have inspired me to think about music, and specifically what bands really mean a lot to me. I am a sucker for lists (I recently actually bought a copy of HM Magazine because it had a breakdown of the Top 100 Christian Rock Albums of all time–a list that is actually kind of preposterous), so I started challenging myself to decide on my ten favourite bands ever. About 2/3 of it was easy, the last third quite challenging, and I thought I’d share the list with you!
A couple of things: 1. This is in no particular order. I can’t rank these guys, or if I did, it’d be a ranking that’d be constantly changing.
2. I am in no way saying that these are the 10 best bands of all time. There’s no way these are the ten best or most talented. These are just the ten that mean the most to me.
3. To make the list, the band had to still mean a lot to me. That is, it can’t be a band that I once really dug and no longer ever listen to, or an artist whose sound hasn’t dated well. This disqualifies some good artists whose music just has not stuck with me. Or perhaps I still love them, but only for one album or one era. Whatever the reason, they just didn’t make the cut–my experiences with them or they way they influence my life and worldview just wasn’t strong enough. So sorry, I love you Steve Taylor, and O.C. Supertones, and Bob Dylan and the Beatles, or the 77s, but you’re not on here.
4. There are a lot of artists I currently love who could edge out one of these bands in the next few years. But they just haven’t quite made it yet. People like the David Crowder Band, Switchfoot, Relient K, mewithoutYou…sorry, you’re not here either.
Basically, each of these eleven artists have earned such high standing with me that whatever they try next, if they’re still around, I will give a shot. They have done something so amazing that they have earned a permanent place in the sense that I will follow them their whole career. Even if their next work sucks, I will still keep an ear out for everything that comes after. I can’t promise that about a lot of artists.
Okay, so with each of these, I’ll give a brief word as to how they made the list, and then give some essentials for your perusal. Again, in no particular order:
1. U2–I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. I almost feel bad about putting them on here, but come on, they’re U2. Where The Streets Have No Name. Beautiful Day. Moment of Surrender. Acrobat. Please. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Magnificent. All Because of You. Love Is Blindness. Do I need to go on? I won’t bother listing essentials here.
2. The Choir–For a long time, I considered these guys my favourite group of all time. In the late 80s and early 90s, they were waayyy ahead of their time–the Circle Slide album, which I’ve written about before, carved its own niche of originality in alternative music, not to mention being years ahead of the Christian music of that era. It is rare for any band to have a chain of albums as amazing as the Choir’s run that started with Chase the Kangaroo, continuing through Wide-Eyed Wonder, Circle Slide, Speckled Bird, and Free-Flying Soul, an underrated classic. And they are still making music, a new album about every four years or so. They’ve just released Burning Like the Midnight Sun, and it has some amazing tracks on it. Ethereal yet raw and honest, romantic, sentimental, worshipful, beautiful–The Choir does what they do better than anyone else. No one comes close.
And those lyrics, so full of beautiful imagery: “When I close my eyes, will I see blue skies?” “Tie your shoelaces to my shoelaces/I’ll tie a rope to a tree” “I call to You with one lung exploded from breathing the dust of the earth” Bless you, Steve Hindalong.
Defining Moment for me: The Circle Slide shows, where they’d open with “Blue Skies” and “Restore My Soul” and had the gall to cover “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”
Essential Records: Circle Slide, Free-Flying Soul
3. Waterdeep–So, I saw Don and Lori open for Caedmon’s Call at the Ferrell Center, their acoustic duet swallowed by the hugeness of the space. But there was still enough in the songs to make me buy Sink or Swim, about half of which I absolutely loved, (who wouldn’t love a song called “I’m Afraid That I’m Not Supposed to Be This Way”) and half of which made me cringe. (I hate what I call “Coffee Shop Lyrics”, meaning pretentious lyrics that sound like bad poetry heard at a college-town coffee shop. And “I woke up from a strange rain and it was dreaming outside” is my prime example of that concept. Blech.)
So then they were playing a show at University Baptist, full band. And I went. And they blew my mind. Seriously–one of the best live bands I’d ever seen. They could jam, and their was a passion, energy, and humour that was just incredible. Let me say it again: they. could. jam. They played mostly songs from To Chase Away the Birds, adding this incredibly cool section to “Razor Light”. I will admit…for awhile, I wished I was Don Chaffer.
I love this bands lyrics, especially in the old days. They were so good at telling stories about real people and their need for God, in songs like “Sweet River Roll”, “Walls and Tall Shadows”, “He Will Come.”
And who can’t relate to these two pieces: “I am so often deterred from my actual intent/By distractions in a cellophane wrap/And a cruel voice that taunts me when I open them up/To find just one more box full of crap/It’s where you’re mocked when you abstain and cursed when you give in/It’s all a game that’s impossible to beat/But there’s a peaceful refrain that God will sing in your brain/When you put the nails to your hands and your feet.”(From “If You Wanna Be Free”)
Or this one: “I think about myself so much/It kind of makes me ill/I probably oughta let my cup/Not just fill up, but overfill” (From “Whether or Not”)
Now, I’m not as keen on the last three albums as I was on the stuff before, but I saw them live about two years ago, and they did manage to bring some of the new stuff to life, including this great Lori performance of “Oh.”
Defining Moment: The concert at University Baptist, the outdoor spontaneous show at Cornerstone, and the Cornerstone jam session the following year. Oh, and the concert Lauren Roberts filmed for me at Highland. It’s glorious.
Essential Recordings: This is easy–start with Live at the New Earth, and then make sure to pick up Everyone’s Beautiful, To Chase Away the Birds, Sink Or Swim, Waterdeep Worship…and then everything else.
4. Five Iron Frenzy–This is the band that inspired me to write this post. What I want to do right now more than anything is sit down with Reese Roper, ask the man some questions, and then give him a big hug. Because I seriously feel like we are two peas in a pod. Yes, I have a man crush.
What can I say about Five Iron? I just got finished watching the three hour documentary, “The Rise and Fall of Five Iron Frenzy” and am nearly done with all the bonus features. It is a relatively thorough document, made by lead man Roper himself, chronicling the nine years this band existed. My only complaint about the film is that I feel he could have gone deeper–he skirts on issues the band dealt with and then doesn’t explore them, even mentioning twice how they felt stuck between the Christian and secular industries, neither of whom could fully accept or understand them, without really exploring what that meant or what could be done. But really, the film is a love letter to these nine years of his life, including loads of concert footage and candid comments from everyone in the band.
And Five Iron means so much to me. I remember how I heard them–I’d gotten into ska through picking up the first Supertones album, and was at Family Bookstore in the mall where they had this little machine previewing coming albums. It mentioned on there the upcoming debut from Five Iron Frenzy, and that I’d like it if I liked the Supertones, and so I gave it a listen. The song was “Cool Enough For You”, and it was definitely ska, but it also had this original voice to it, and this slight Latin influence in the horns, that immediately distinguished it from the Supertones.
Eight years and at least five concerts later, Ira and I were at their final show in Texas on their farewell tour. It was something we just had to be at, and I was sad not to be able to go to the actual last show. This DVD release blessedly includes that show in its entirety, including all the thank-yous and the worship time at the end.
What was it about Five Iron for me? What keeps me coming back? Well, I’d say it was the way Five Iron managed to maintain a sense of fun and humour while simultaneously glorifying and worshiping God and exploring all sorts of issues. Take what may be their best album, their final record The End Is Near. There are songs of worship and thanksgiving, a track criticising the materialistic spirit of America, another track warning about the over-influence of the media, and joke songs about Reese dealing with ageing and the need to play video games. Other times they’d hit on the historical treatment of Native Americans or the pain of breaking up with a fiance. And with every album, originality, compassion, and a desire for God.
Watching the final concert moved me. Roper’s words to the crowd before launching into their final song, the classic Every New Day, was moving, and his vocal performance on that song topped anything he’d done before.
As goofy and weird as they could sometimes be, with their 6 second songs and their rock operas about pants, I love these guys. I miss them. They were one of the greats. The Untimely Death of Brad, indeed…
And one day, I will sing “You Can’t Handle This” before a live audience. I hope.
Defining Moment: Probably the first time I saw them live, when no one knew what they looked like, so they opened for themselves as another band called Naked Fish, with everyone playing the wrong instruments. Hilarious.
Essential Records: Probably need to start with Our Newest Album Ever, then The End Is Near, with its absolutely epic and never-performed-live closing track, “On Distant Shores,” possibly the best song Five Iron ever wrote. I should say that at least half the band considers their best album to be Five Iron Frenzy 2: Electric Boogaloo, though that one is uneven to me.
5. Sufjan Stevens–Sufjan, the ever-evolving, complicated Sufjan. So, I bought Come On Feel the Illinoise, and put it in the CD player. And it was weird. I did not get it. But so many had written about how amazing it was, so I kept it in there.
After literally 2 whole months, it suddenly clicked. And now I consider it one of the best albums of all time. Sure, he’s a bit twee, a bit pithy at times, but he is undeniably a creative and original voice, experimenting with rhythm and instrumentation, combing various styles–pop, baroque, electronica–into new and weird way. And lyrically, he’s no joke. A poet, both weird and earnest, and it all culminates with the Illinoise album. To top that off, he went and recorded what I consider to be the best Christmas album (really 5 EPs) ever done. And then he released the Castanets remake “There Is the Blood” on the Dark Was the Night compilation, and his orchestral piece about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, and it was clear he was trying even newer things and heading new directions. I’ve heard bootlegs of some of his new live stuff, and it is weird, but he’s earned his place. I long to see this guy in concert. And that voice…
Defining Moment: The one-two punch of “Chicago” and “Casmir Pulaski Day” on Illinoise. Once they both got in me, it was all over.
Essential Recordings: Come on Feel the Illinoise, Christmas Album, Seven Swans, his track on Dark Was the Night
6. Sigur Ros–I was teaching at TCA, and one of my more eclectic students commented about Sigur Ros, who I had heard of before but not listened to. She said that they were like worship to her. That intrigued me. So on a whim and a desire to get something new, I put their album Takk on my Christmas wish list. And my parents bought it.
And it was worship. I found the first half so stunning that I immediately went after their back catalogue. The album () accompanied us on our drive around the Grand Canyon. The video for “Hoppipolla” found its way to my iPod, and the gorgeous documentary “Heima” brought them to a new level. And then came the long and unpronounceable naked people album, whose 7th track caused me to literally gasp the first time it came on the stereo. Gorgeous stuff, and on certain moods definitely inspires worship.
Defining Moment: Listening to tracks 3, 4 and 8 of () while approaching the Grand Canyon.
Essential Recordings: Takk, (), Hvarf/Heim, and Med Sud…
7. L.A. Symphony–A hip-hop collective that should have broken big alongside the Black-Eyed Peas, who they collaborated with in the early days in the clubs of L.A. and San Diego. But they were Christians and they had label issues, and their breakthrough album was never released. They turned that disappointment and pain into works of art, and used their rap to process those places of pain and reach the healing and forgiveness God had for them. Each of the main Emcees, including Sharlok Poems, Joey the Jerk, Pigeon John, Flynn, Uno Mas, and Cookbook had their own style and personality, and they made some funny, moving, and unique hip-hop that should have earned them a better crowd.
Defining Moment: Hearing clips of Pigeon John’s first solo album; seeing the guys perform with Chris Mann at 2 AM on a work night.
Essential Recordings: The End Is Now, Baloney EP, and the not-available Call It What You Want. Disappear Here and Pigeon John’s solo stuff are also excellent.
8. House of Heroes–It’s weird to put these guys on this list, but I feel they deserve it. They are the newest and youngest band to be on here. Their first album had some strong moments, with an amazing opening track called “Buckets for Bullet Wounds”, but for the most part was unoriginal alternative rock. There was a three or four year gap before their next album came out, but the buzz about it was above the stratosphere. So I bought it. That album, The End is Not the End, was my favourite record of 2008 and has its own blog entry on this site.
So now they’ve just released Suburba, continuing their trend of releasing albums built around themes, this one being growing up in the suburbs. And just like the previous one, it takes awhile to grow on you. I didn’t like The End at first, and I didn’t like Suburba at first. But what I’ve found is that after about 5 listens, the songs begin to stick to you like glue. And though Suburba isn’t quite as good as the previous album (to top it would have been a near-impossible feat), it is still pretty amazing and offers a masterclass in how to do back ground vocals. I’m serious. The BGVs on Suburba are astounding–so many group vocals and chants and “ooh aah”s that get stuck in your head and won’t leave. I love it.
Defining Moment: One song: “Code Name: Raven”
Essential Recordings: Well, I just told you.
9. Mute Math–This is my biggest hesitancy on this list, and the only reason its on here is because of the live show these guys do. Usually I think a live show is improved by knowing the albums, but in this case the albums are improved by seeing the live show. I haven’t seen them on the Armistice tour, and I don’t yet love that album, but I wonder…
Seriously, my favourite live band. Experiments in controlled chaos is how I’d describe them. I saw them probably four times on the same tour, and every show was different, with improvs on different songs and new arrangements of familiar tunes. Go see them live if you don’t mind having your mind blown.
Defining Moment: Seeing them at Six Flags opening for Switchfoot. Had low expectations that soon turned to goose bumps. And that was a festival crowd, a hard thing for these guys to play to. Blew my mind.
Essential Recording: Self-titled album.
10. Derek Webb–Derek’s post Caedmon’s career is staggeringly awesome. He hasn’t made a stinker yet, though I don’t fully get The Mission Bell. I love his lyrics, the way he forces you to think, and the fact that none of his five solo studio albums sound alike. I’m tired, so I’m making this short, but…buy yourself some Derek Webb. His most underappreciated album would probably be I See Things Upside-Down, including it’s stark and beautiful closer in which you learn that the title of the album isn’t a boast but a meek confession. And I for one love Stockholm Syndrome
Defining Moment: Hearing “Wedding Dress” for the first time. And listening to each record for the first time.
Essential Recordings: Stockholm Syndrome, I See Things Upside-Down, Mockinbird I am also enjoying the Democracy Volume 1 covers.
11. Rich Mullins–Rich. What can one say about Rich. He’s kind of like U2 in that I just need to name songs: The Color Green. Awesome God. Ready For the Storm. Everywhere I Go. Bound to Come Some Trouble. Peace. Here in America. Boy Like Me/Man Like You. Screen Door. And tons more.
Defining Moment: I have 3: My best friend at Baylor playing for me “Who God is Gonna Use” on his acoustic. I liked it.
2. Seeing him play live in Missouri. Tank top and shorts, a full band, and his dog that keeps wandering out on to the stage. Got to meet him.
3. I’d heard a rumour he’d been killed, and I didn’t want to believe. I walked into Sunday night church, and Rich was playing over the speakers. I knew it was true. My stomach fell.
Okay, bedtime. Thanks for reading!