Monthly Archives: December 2013

Best of 2013: Live Music

Hello again, everyone!  Hope you all had a very Merry Christmas!  Two more entries for the year and then we’re taking a break.

As many of you know, live music is one of my absolute favourite things in the world, possibly my favourite leisure activity despite the fact that I generally can’t stand the crowd around me.  Sadly, my taste in music doesn’t match up very well with my location, so the bands I’d want to see live very rarely come to Sheffield or the UK.  That being said, I did have the chance to see several performances of live music this year, and instead of ranking them, I’m going to give you a chronological breakdown, as best as I remember it.  Here goes:

1) Sigur Ros (London, March)–Saw them at a venue in London a couple of months before their album Kveikur was released, but they were already playing songs from it to build excitement for the album.  It had been less than a year since their previous album, Valtari, was released, but that one was so mellow that it didn’t really loan itself to a tour.  They’d also recently lost their long-time keyboard player and were officially calling themselves a trio.

I wasn’t in a great personal place on the day of this gig, and that taints my memories of it.  The opening act was a guy who stood behind a computer keyboard for 30 minutes doing something that produced what amounted to one long electronic ambient song.  No one paid attention.

Sigur Ros’ set was fantastic, though I had a hard time engaging.  But they played a great mix of songs covering pretty much all of their albums, and the use of lights, video animation, lasers and sound made for an immersive experience.  Highlights included “Hoppipolla” (the one song by them you’re likely to have heard even if you don’t listen to this band), the closer “Popplagio” and one particular song where lead singer Jonsi held a single, beautiful note for probably a good 45 seconds; when the room realised what he was doing, the audience seemed to collectively hold its breath, waiting for the release from the note.  Sigur Ros was first described to me as a band that inspired worship, and that they did.

2. The Avett Brothers (Manchester, March)-One week later, in a very different emotional place, I saw the Avett Brothers, with Vermont’s own Grace Potter & The Nocturnals opening. I’ve already written at length about the Avett Brothers and how amazing this particular night was.  What can I say?  I connected with God and remembered what it meant to be a human here on earth for this limited time.  A good night.

3. Rend Collective (Manchester, May)–I fell in love with Rend back in 2011; they felt so different, so energetic, creative and communal in their approach to worship, all values and ideas that connect with me deeply.  Live, they are passionate, sincere and tight.  They are responsible for one of my favourite songs of all time (Build Your Kingdom Here) and released the fantastic Campfire album earlier this year.  So ultimately, this gig was a disappointment.  I had not realised that one of their singers had moved on to something else, and I didn’t really like the venue.  Worship concerts are huge challenges, and I’m not sure I understand them.  If things are too planned out, or too focused on engaging the audience in a performance-focused way, you lose out on the spontaneity or flow that real worship seems to require.  However, many who attend aren’t ready for that.  On this night, though they were great musically, it just felt too much like a concert to me.  By the numbers, going through a setlist that they’d gone through night after night.  They seemed a bit more tired than the other four times I’d seen them live.  Still love these guys, but not a memorable night.

4. Once: The Musical (June, London)–I doubt I will ever forget this night.  Just a week before, we sat watching this movie with some friends while, unbeknownst to us, some other close friends were being killed in a car accident.  We found out the next morning.  That week was intense.  I remember feeling nauseous much of the week.  We’d had the tickets to go see the West End version of Once for months, and it fell exactly a week after the accident.  We headed down to London with our two closest friends, hoping for a breather and a chance for some emotional release through the sad and beautiful music from the film-turned-stage-production.

It was a beautiful day, and we decided to get off the tube at a park and stroll gradually towards the theatre.  As we got closer to Trafalgar Square, we became aware of something–it was Pride Day in London, and without going too much into it, the chaos and noise of that environment was in every way the opposite of what we wanted or needed.  After forcing our way through it as quickly as possible, we found a place to eat away from the crowds and finally went to see the show.

It was a great experience.  If you get there early enough, you are allowed to walk about on the stage, which acts as a functioning pub.  You can order a drink from the stage.  Eventually, musicians (the cast) come out and begin singing songs, and you’re up on stage with them.  It’s a great beginning to the show.

The stage production has taken many liberties with the original story, adding and embellishing mostly.  Some of it actually makes more sense now.  I didn’t love the actress playing Her that night, but she was the understudy.  The actor playing Him was excellent, not doing a Glen Hansard imitation and playing things a bit edgier.  And the music…oh, the music.

Our friends had seen the original New York production and said this version was missing some of the raw passion and joy of the original, and I can see that.  But still worth the trip.

5. Iona (Lindisfarne Island, August)–We had the chance to see Iona perform on The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, site of St. Aidan’s monastery.  Gorgeous setting, inside an old stone church.  A very odd crowd–a mix of young and old, (one grumpy lady asked us, “Are you here to see the rock band?”, which we were, though Iona most certainly don’t fit that descriptor), fans and new initiatives.  Iona was billing it as a worship evening, only the second they’d ever done, playing their songs that were fit for worship and some other songs as well.  And this had some of the same issues as the Rend gig, in that everyone there has a different understand of how worship works and flows.  Some people are there to just sing along and enjoy the music.  Others are seeking the presence of God.  Musically, the band was as brilliant as ever, but they seemed unsure how to lead from a worship perspective.  Still, very worth it.

6. Jesus Culture (Manchester, October)–I had no idea what to expect from this night.  It’s Jesus Culture, the 2nd biggest worship act in the world, and arguably the more influential.  Jesus Culture, hailing from Bethel Church, the church of miracles and the power of the Spirit.  Well, first of all it was much more crowded than I expected–I imagine there were a couple thousand people in that room, and we were sat way in the back because of a stressful and traffic-filled drive over from Sheffield.  And I think for me the size of the venue made it a difficult worship experience.  It was hard to connect and engage; to a degree it felt like there were some people way up front playing some music, and as much as we tried to focus and worship and set our hearts on the presence of God, we walked away not entirely sure why we had gone.  It was encouraging to be together with so many people seeking God; I’m just had hoped for and been hungry for something deeper.

7. Foy Vance (Sheffield, November)–I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it was to go to a gig in my own city, to see an artist I love and take the tram to get there.  Hadn’t happened since U2 in 2009.  Foy played the Leadmill, an historic but small venue near the train station.  His opening act, Rams Pocket Radio, won me over (I’m not usually a fan of openers) with his strong voice and enigmatically spiritual lyrics.  Foy played as part of four-piece, and the night was filled with great songs, a cameo appearance by his young daughter on drums, and a somewhat annoying crowd.  People!  I did not come here to hear you sing, ESPECIALLY when you don’t actually know the lyrics.  Zip it!

8. Christmas Pageant (Malin Bridge Primary School, December)–The Year One and Year 2 classes at Malin Bridge Primary School put out their annual Christmas pageant and concert, and Ira and I attended.  The story involved a bunch of young kids not related to me standing up on stage and saying lines too quickly and quietly for me to understand.  There was something about toys and a puzzle, then some songs and a kid played the piano and BLAH BLAH BLAH.  The show was stolen by Choir Member #62, played by Nadia Book, whose performance involved singing along to the songs she was supposed to and occasionally spacing out and forgetting to sing.  It will not be forgotten by a single person writing this.

And that is my year in live music!  One more entry to go!

Best of 2013: Best Songs (Non-Worship Category)

Hello again!  My last post was all about albums (and I didn’t even mention how strong Foy Vance’s entire Joy of Nothing album was), but sometimes you just gotta love a song.  Here now is my list of the best songs of 2013–some catchy, some powerful, some emotional, some just fun.  I won’t offer much explanation, and if you want to know why the “non-worship” clarification, see my last entry.  In no particular order:

1. The Perfect Life–Moby; such a happy song, great to jog to.  With the help of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

2. Give Yourself to Dance–Daft Punk.  They had a song that got a lot more radio play, and if you liked that but couldn’t admit it because of the questionable theme, this is the song you want to listen to–same singer, same vibe, more agreeable lyrics.  (The message: you should dance.  Give yourself to it.)

3. Open-Ended Life–The Avett Brothers.  Again, the harmonica.  Yes.

4. From This Valley–The Civil Wars.  The happiest song this unhappy duo ever wrote.  Sweet Jesus, carry me.

5. Ingenue–Atoms for Peace; all about mood; I love the percussion that sounds like someone’s off banging pipes in the basement.

6. Tie: Step & Diane Young–Vampire Weekend.  Tracks 3 & 4 from one of my albums of the year.

7. Sun–Sleeping At Last.  Do yourself a favour; go out in the sun, somewhere beautiful in nature.  Put on some good headphones.  Listen to this loud.  “We are the apple of God’s eye.”  Feel happy to be alive and loved.

8. Brenninstein–Sigur Ros.  The Icelandic boys show some muscle.

9. Can’t Complain–Relient K; This is from their 2013 release Collapsible Lung, a collection of pop songs you initially don’t want to like, until you find they won’t leave your brain.  A song about being content; I needed it this year.

10. You Put the Flame On It–Charles Bradley.  The Screaming Eagle of Soul relaxes for a song that gives off an old-school Smokey Robinson, 60s era Motown vibe.

11. Tie: I Shall Not Want/Good to Me–Audrey Assad.  Two deeply moving, almost essential songs, both featuring portions of Psalm 23.  The lyrics to the first are deeply honest and ultimately both are very hopeful.  Here, listen:

12. Tie: Janey/Guiding Light–Foy Vance.  I’ve written about him before, and could include a couple other songs from his latest album, but these two are both excellent.

13. Low Light Buddy of Mine–Iron & Wine–There’s new fruit hangin’ from the old fruit tree.  2013’s most overlooked album.

14. Retrograde–James Blake–this year’s Mercury Prize winner at his best, with ethereal music and handclaps, a nearly perfect 3:44.

15. Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body–Over the Rhine.  Smooth.

16. Bleeding Out–The Lone Bellow.  Featuring my favourite lyrics of the year: All the buildings they lean and they smile down on us and they shout from their rooftops words we can’t trust, like “You’re dead, you are tired–you’re ruined, you’re dust.  You won’t ‘mount to nothin’, like tanks full of rust.”  But we scream back at them from below on the street.  All in unity we say “Our time’s been redeemed!”

17. Electric Lady–Janelle Monae.  Funky pop perfection, showing off nearly everything Ms. Monae does best.

18. Loneliness & Alcohol–Jars of Clay.  Jars show they’re still vital with this song about the way many people in the West bury their true selves under things that don’t matter, all just to protect themselves.  We’ve all been here, even if alcohol wasn’t the thing that we used.

19. Spotlight–Leagues.  Um, maybe the catchiest song on this list.  Great debut album.  “Romantic live is the least of these/It comes and goes, come and goes so easily.”  Go on, listen:

And there you go.  Hope you can discover some new songs here to brighten up your life and point your compass the right way.  What were your top songs of 2013?

Best of 2013: Albums of the Year–Non-Worship Category

Alright, time for my favourite albums of the year.  Some guidelines:

1. Again, I listen to what I listen to and I haven’t heard a lot of other stuff.  There are albums on everyone’s Top 10 this year that I’ve never heard.  So these are my favourites from my own listening.

2. I’m excluding worship music because I feel like it has become its own category.  So this list of albums includes both music by Christians and music by people who don’t believe, but music specifically designed for personal or corporate worship will get its own category.

3. The concept of album is an important one to me.  I heard a lot of great songs this year from bands who weren’t even considered for this list, because to me, an album is a cohesive statement, a single unified work of art.  There are lots of records with a small handful of fantastic songs and some filler, records that feel like collections of singles.  Those, to me, aren’t really albums.  In the age of mp3 and instant download this is somewhat of a lost art, and bands are trying new ways to release their music to the masses (see, for example, Sleeping At Last’s Atlas and Yearbook projects).  But everything on this list feels like a full album to me.

We’ll do a few by category, leading up to the actual Album of the Year category.  So without further ado:

1. Best Debut: The Lone Bellow by The Lone Bellow.  Many of you have probably heard the story: Zach Williams, who is also a worship pastor (or was at some point), began writing music out of journal entries he had written whilst processing a horrible accident his wife was in that they thought was going to leave her paralyzed for life.  The heart of the band is he and two other singers, and the three of them make harmonic magic together.  It’s a great album top to bottom on themes of loneliness, loss and faith in the midst of trial.  Their sound is something like a sped-up Civil Wars hung out with Mumford and Sons and decided to make their music 25% more country, by way of Brooklyn.   Powerful lyrics, powerful music, and apparently a killer live show which they are bringing all the way to Sheffield this year.  Can’t wait!  Here is one of their more hopeful numbers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu-xtzS_4rc 

2. Best Hip-Hop Album: Instruments of Mercy by Beautiful Eulogy.  This, THIS is what hip-hop should and could be.  Recorded organically with lyrics that are wrestled over and debated before finally settled.  The title describes the theme beautifully, and the two rappers trade verses back and forth, parsing Biblical theology about mercy.  It’s fun, it’s catchy, it’s deep.  It’s Truth.  And it’s free!  And I don’t even agree with every song (I’m looking at you “Signs and Symbols”).

Runner-Up: Heath McNease’s The Weight of Glory: Second Edition Heath McNease, a singer-songwriter and rapper (depends on which album you listen to), put out two albums of songs on the works and themes of C.S. Lewis.  The first is singer-songwriter stuff and it’s good.  The 2nd takes all those same songs and tracks and adds hip-hop remix, and the result is at times powerful, a meditation on mortality and immortality.  A handful on the songs on here were in constant rotation in my head in the weeks following our friends’ accident this year.  Not all of it works for me, which is why it is only given runner-up status.

3. Best Album You’ll Be Surprised To Hear that I Have: 20/20 Experience (Volume 1) by  Justin Timberlake.  Um…yeah.  So, there was this one day that UK amazon was selling this really cheap, and I already had some credit, so I got it for like $3.  I had never listened to or wanted to listen to him before, but I’d heard a review of it on a podcast talking about the old-school soul sound and the long meandering songs that weren’t really packaged for radio, and I was intrigued.  I’ve really been interested in soul these past two years, so I bit.  And guess what?  There’s some great stuff on here.  Mirrors.  Tunnel Vision.  A handful of songs I really like.  And some that I don’t.  I gave Part 2 a listen and found it so offensive that I turned it off after 10 minutes.  But yeah…JT.  Talented dude.

4. Best Palette Cleanser From That Last Choice–Magpie & the Dandelion by the Avett Brothers.  I love the Avett Brothers.  You knew that.  And they had an album this year.  It’s different from their past couple of releases–more mellow songs than upbeat.  But think about those songs–Vanity, the Ecclesiastes-inspired number, or Open-Ended Life, or any of the others really, instead of that JT album.  Thanks.

5. Biggest Disappointment that I Wasn’t Disappointed In–Reflektor by Arcade Fire.  I never really get Arcade Fire.  I have tried to love Funeral and Neon Bible, but nothing doing.  Suburba got me–Ready to Start is such an amazing song, and the album closer is beautiful as well.  And then Reflektor, with its 70s vibe and its long songs and weird videos and way-too-much marketing, came along and everyone was psyched and then disappointed.  I had some music credit on this one website and couldn’t find anything else that I wanted that they had (choice was limited) so I got this.  And you know what, I like it, especially the 1st half.  I think their attitude, especially the lead singer’s, is horrible but there are some good tunes here.  In fact, combine half of #3 with half of this and you’d have one incredible (but really bizarre) album.

6. Most Puzzling Album–I Am Mountain by Gungor.  Towards the start of the year, Michael Gungor announced that his band would put out albums under two names–the already-established Gungor and also as something called “The Liturgists.”  These albums might even contain some of the same songs, but one would be just for listening and the other for worship.  There has been no news of an actual Liturgist album as of yet, but he wasn’t kidding about the other part.  After a fantastic worship album (Beautiful Things) and a worshipful work of art (Ghosts Upon the Earth) comes this one.  With songs from mythology and with auto-tune and hard-to-follow lyrics and poetry.  I was unimpressed at first.  But I gave it time, since I’d already spent the money.  And it’s worth it.  Some really good music, and it does feel like a cohesive whole.  I just don’t fully get it.  But that’s okay.  Sometimes art is like that.

7. Comeback Album–Engine of a Million Plots by Five Iron Frenzy.  Yes, Five Iron Frenzy.  We live in the age of Kickstarter right now, and one of the side effects of the Kickstarter phenomenon is that tons of bands whose days had seemed to past are coming back by raising album money on Kickstarter.  Supertones have done it, The Choir, Steve Taylor, Gungor, many others.  Five Irons’ money was raised in less than 24 hours two years ago, and the album finally dropped.  I think the mix is a little weird, with the vocals hard to make out,  but the whole album is really good.  Largely abandoning the ska sound for more of a rock-with-horns approach, this album doesn’t feel like a “trying to capture old-magic to fulfill our Kickstarter” thing that some of these projects have, but instead feels new and vital.

8. Some Other Good Records that Didn’t Fit in Any Categories–I also recommend the latest from Sigur Ros (Kveikur), Iron & Wine’s largely forgotten Ghost on Ghost, and the 2nd album from the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley, Victim of Love.  If you don’t know his story, look it up.  It’s a good one.

Which leads us to…

9. Best Overall Albums of the Year (a tie)–Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend and Electric Lady by Janelle Monae.

I’ve already written in a recent entry about my love for Ms. Monae.  Her second full-length album came out this autumn, and it is a winner from beginning to end.  Except the “skits”.  This is a tradition in certain types of music that I could do without.

It’s worth saying that this CD took awhile to digest, and I didn’t love it on first listen.  But after three or four, I was hooked, and for me, there aren’t even really any skips.  Granted, the second half took longer to absorb than the more traditionally upbeat first half, but this is a fantastic record all the way through.  Everything works–the vocals, the quirky songs followed by more traditional ones, the horn section–oh, that horn section.  Simply fantastic top  to bottom.  Come to the UK, Ms. Monae, please?

And now Vampire Weekend.  This one’s a surprise to me.  There are many albums and bands that I’ve just never had time or extra money for that I always suspected I’d like.  I’ve never heard Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie, but I suspect I’d love it.  Through their first two albums, Vampire Weekend intrigued me but I just never gave it time, never bought it or listened to it on Spotify.

And then this came out, and the reviews were stellar.  I decided to give it a spin on Spotify, and man, oh, man, what an album.  This collection of songs, like Ms. Monae, is worth giving some headphone time to, because there is so much going on in the music.  The band builds layers of sound, with different elements weaving in and out or hidden in the background.  That pulsing halfway through the first song; the haunting choral vocals scattered throughout.  Some songs rock, others are quiet and pensive; some sound brand new, others (like that closer, with whatever effect or filter they put on the piano) sound old but timeless.  Not a single skip in the bunch–every track remains on my iPod.

It should be said, however, that this is not a happy or encouraging album.  It is largely a collection of songs in which these four men wrestle with God and their lack of belief in Him.  What’s interesting is that usually when you get people wrestling with God, they are wrestling with the Christian notion of God.  In this case, they seem to be wrestling with the Jewish notion of God.  And they don’t ever reach any positive conclusions.  So not a very helpful record in that sense.  But the craftsmanship, originality, passion and power in these songs is undeniable.  And some of the statements they make and questions they ask about the things we value in life actually are helpful.

So that’s that.  What were your albums of the year?  Coming soon, Best Songs, Best Worship Music, and maybe best Live Gigs or people to follow on Twitter or glasses of root beer or anything else I feel like writing about.  But at least those first two.  See you soon.

Best of 2013: Best Cinema Moments

Alright, here we go again.  I don’t actually go to see new films that often in the cinema.  Having two kids and a full time job that largely happens in the evenings means that finding the time is challenging, and it’s so dang expensive here.  The nicest multiplex in the area costs £9 a ticket, and I just don’t feel good about spending that for movies.

So this is not in any way a “Best Films of 2013” list.  I haven’t seen many of the films that are going to win all the awards; many haven’t even come out here yet.  This is more a list of my own personal year in the cinema.  I cheated a little and counted a couple of the year’s big movies that I saw on DVD, so consider this my review of my year in new films.  Okay?

Biggest Disappointment: Gravity.  Yup, starting controversial right off the bat.  Don’t get me wrong–the cinematography and effects were stunning in IMAX 3D, the acting fantastic.  It just left no mark on me.  I expected more–I expected to be sucked in and to be holding my breath the entire film.  It was a fine film, but it just didn’t connect with me on any memorable level.  I know a film has hit something when I wake up the next day and think about it sometime within the first hour.  It was halfway through the next day before I remembered I’d seen it.

Best Loud, Explode-y Movie: Iron Man 3.  Okay, most summer blockbusters these days, and forgive me for sounding old, all kind of run together–explosions, fights, special effects, CGI.  I see less summer movies each year.  They often fail to impress.  But Iron Man 3 was highly, highly entertaining and continues the Marvel pictures trend of just generally being awesome.  It was superior to its two predecessors; the action sequences varied in tone and pace, with the final one being very, very clever (all the bits of the suit and multiple suits flying around).  It was hilariously funny in places (remember that one guard–“These people are weird”) and even a bit subversive.  Note its treatment of Iron Man’s most well-known nemesis from the comics, turning him into…Trevor.  Ultimately fluff, but very, very entertaining fluff.

Most Underrated: The Lone Ranger.  Ooh, controversial again.  Now, don’t get me wrong–this is by no means a great movie.  But it annoys me when films are proclaimed to be bombs before even critics have seen them or a paying audience has had a chance to decide for themselves.  People stay away because they’re being told by the media that everyone else is staying away.  So I saw it because I thought it looked fun.  And guess what?  It was fun!  It has its terrible moments–some of Johnny Depp’s Tonto antics are over the top (but not as many as you think), Helena Bonham Carter serves almost no purpose, some of the humour is out of place and it probably should have been cut by 20 minutes.  But it is far, far better than either the third or fourth Pirates movie, and maybe even the second.  Armie Hammer does a great job in the title role, and the final action sequence, when the William Tell Overture finally kicks in, was just crackers.  I had fun.  Empire Magazine, whose reviews I happen to like, agrees–their DVD review gave it a defiant four stars.

Most Ridiculous Moment: I saw Man of Steel on DVD.  It was okay.  The tone was all over the place.  Some of it worked for me, some of it didn’t.  It was more science fiction-y than expected with more fight scenes than character development.  I liked the way flashbacks were structured in, as well as Russell Crowe’s characters multiple appearances after he is dead.  But there is one moment that made me laugh out loud when it wasn’t supposed to.  General Zod has come to earth and announced that earth better turn over Superman or they’ll be in trouble.  Superman has to decide whether to turn himself in or not.  He goes into a church and speaks to a priest while deciding whether to save mankind by giving himself up.  If the metaphor wasn’t obvious enough, there’s this shot:

Superman

Yes, that’s Superman thinking about it, with a medium close-up on his face, and the background behind him a huge stained-glass image of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsename.  It was so much the opposite of subtle that I name it most ridiculous moment of the year.

Biggest Cry: Saving Mr. Banks Fine, I’ll be vulnerable.  It hasn’t been an easy year, and I’m prone to crying at random times set off by random things.  Joshie has been watching Wall-E a lot and the moment where “Thus Spake Zarathustra” kicks in and the Captain stands on his feet makes me tear up almost every time.  But in the cinema, I found myself bawling for no clear reason two or three times in this tale of how Walt Disney convinced P.L. Travers to grant the rights to Mary Poppins.  I felt like I was crying for broken humanity and for the possibilities of a redeemed humanity.  Or maybe I was just tired.  But when they get Ms. Travers to dance to Poppins closing number…my tear ducts opened and didn’t shut for awhile.  Luckily, I was the only person in the Showroom that day.

Biggest Surprise: Monsters University.  As you know, I’m a huge Pixar fan, but  their last two films before this, Cars 2 and Brave, had somewhat tarnished their reputation.  Cars 2 was a fun James Bond parody but not much more, and Brave was beautiful with a somewhat cliched story.  Monsters, Inc. was never one of my favourite Pixar films, so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about its arguably unnecessary sequel, which is not much more than an Animal House for Kids.  To my surprise, I found it hilarious and had such a good time watching it that I look forward to seeing it again.  The jokes and story just worked for me.

My Favourite Picture of the Year: No big surprise if you know me, but of what I’ve seen thus far, my favourite movie is Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.  Filmed in his house with a bunch of his actor friends during his two week break between filming Avengers and editing Avengers, Much Ado is modernised Shakespeare the way it should be done.  Granted, it was a setup for me–my favourite writer-director directing actors from all his previous works in one of Shakespeare’s funniest, lightest works.  I saw it at the Showroom and smiled through the whole thing.  It’s the only film this year I felt inclined to buy and re-watch, and I’m even nerdy enough that I plan to watch it with commentary soon.  Be forewarned: it is PG-13 for some unnecessary sexual content (no nudity, but two scenes of uncomfortable implication), but if you skip those two scenes, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching Shakespeare.  And Fred and Wesley, together again!

Lastly, some quick acting awards, again reminding you that this is just for films I’ve seen:

Best Actress: Amy Acker in Much Ado About Nothing–how she is being overlooked in awards season is something I can’t quite grasp–most of the cast is good but she is superb as Beatrice.

Best Actor: Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips–I’ve never been a huge Tom Hanks fan one way or the other, but the last five minutes of this movie, where Hanks’ rescued captain goes into shock, is some of the most powerful acting I’ve ever seen.

Best Supporting-Actor: Tom Hiddleston in Thor 2.  Okay, I’m sure there are loads more serious performances I could put here.  But without Hiddleston, Thor 2 doesn’t work.  His Loki, 75% villain, 25% hero, is the most interesting character Marvel currently has going, and he has never been better than in Thor 2.

I’ve got nothing for Supporting Actress.  Just haven’t seen enough.  Sorry.

Well, that’s it for today.  Stay tuned for the next in my Best of 2013 series.

Best of 2013: Top 5 Avett Brothers Moments

Okay, so, my goal over the next two weeks is to be disciplined in writing small pieces each day, most of which will be along the theme of “Best of 2013”.  I’m a sucker for end-of-year top ten lists; hours wasted dissecting these pieces from Time, Paste, even EW.com.  So it’s time I do my own.

And since the Avett Brothers have dominated my musical tastes in 2013, what better way to start than by giving you my five top Avett Brothers moments of my year:

5. Playing the opening track of their new album Magpie and the Dandelion on NPR First Listen while at work.  It was my first time hearing it.  The song is called “Open-Ended Life”, and there’s a moment in the middle where suddenly Scott Avett sings “Let’s find something new to talk about/I’m tired of talkin’ bout myself…” and this killer blues harmonica kicks in.  When that came on the speakers, people in the room just started smiling and I wanted to jump and applaud.  It’s beautiful.

4. Singing “Salvation Song” and “Just a Closer Walk” with Doug Penman at my 40th Birthday And One Month party.  It was an honour to play these songs that mean a lot to me with a dear, talented friend.  (And later I received a banjo and am figuring out how to play these songs on it as well!)

3. In Concert: My top 5.  I went to see the Avett Brothers play live for the first time back in March.  They typically play around 23 songs a night, and the setlist varies greatly night to night, usually covering songs from any or every album.  I had a list of 5 top songs I hoped they sang; two of them were the main two songs from their last album, so they were almost givens, but the other three were up in the air.  Not only did they play all 5, but they played the three or four I would have listed afterwards as well.  For the record, those 5 were, “I and Love and You,” “Talk on Indolence”, “The Ballad of Love and Hate”, “Live or Die” and “Down with the Shine.”  “The Ballad of Love and Hate” was an especially good performance, with Seth just singing the heck out a couple of the lines after being distracted by someone in the audience’s comment.  You can watch that performance here:

2. Discovering the Covers: I sincerely wish that the Avett Brothers would release an album of the covers they’ve done live.  It would be a fantastic album.  It started with discovering their rendition of the hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Me” on youtube as I prepared for the gig.  Amazing.  Further searching revealed a cover from a concert several years ago: “Cigarettes and Whiskey”, a song I had only previously heard on the Peter Sellers episode of The Muppet Show.  The album would also have to include their cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”.  Then at the concert itself, they did a few covers, including an obscure Buck Owens song called “Reno Lament” and an old folk song called “The Coo Coo Song”.  Hours could be wasted on youtube just listening to their covers.

1. And the number one Avett Brothers moment of the year: Discovering their lyrics live!  As you may have picked up from me saying this numerous times, their concert was a transcendent experience for me.  Deeply and truly.  And one thing about it that stood out was the way lyrics jumped out and hit me during the show.  I find live concerts usually the worst place to hear and absorb lyrics, but for some reason, they stood out and spoke to me at this show.  Whether it be “When nothing is owed or deserved or expected/And your life’s doesn’t change by the man that’s elected/When you’re loved by someone you’re never rejected/Decide what to be and go be it” from “Head Full of Doubt”, or most of ‘The Perfect Space”, the ending bits of “Laundry Room”, or the ending of “Shame” (I used to say just let ’em fall/It didn’t bother me at all/I couldn’t help them; now I can), the lyrics just hit me where I live and made the concert an all-the-more powerful experience.

So there you have it.  Still to come: best films and TV shows of the year; songs; albums; worship albums; concerts; anything else I can think of!  Stay tuned.

They Should Be Bigger

I have a couple of serious entries in the works for the thirteen of you, but I’m in the mood for something more trivial.  I’ve been thinking recently about artists who should be bigger than they actually are.  People who consistently put out good work that should appeal to masses, but somehow have stayed hidden in shadows or drawing a fanatic but small cult audience.  Maybe you’ve heard of most of them, maybe none, but I hope in sharing these with you that you discover new music or books that you can connect with and love!

Now, I’m going to go ahead and just fly through the first couple of artists because they’ve already had things written about them on this blog.  But just to reiterate:

The Avett Brothers–when I tell people about them, I tell them that they are Mumford & Sons older, more experienced brothers, and I believe they should be bigger than Mumford ever was.  Their new album, Magpie & the Dandelion, isn’t what I expected but I really like it. I saw them in concert in March and the best way I can describe it is “transcendent.”  I emotionally stayed at that concert for weeks afterwards.  A big surprise.

House of Heroes–straight up rock & roll isn’t in style these days, but I think they’re one of the best rock bands on the planet.  I named their album The End is Not the End my favourite of 2008.  They have followed that up with numerous EPs and two stellar albums, Suburba (not quite as good as The End… but a masterclass in group backing vocals) and last year’s Cold Hard Want, an album I come back to over and over again.  Listen. To. Them.

Most of the rest of this list is made up of other musicians, but there is one author I wanted to present to you guys, so as a break, I’ll start with him:

Stephen Lawhead: Stephen Lawhead writes historical fiction (especially Celtic history) and fantasy.  I don’t remember entirely how I first got introduced to his writing, but in 1997 I did have the chance to meet him at Cornerstone Music Festival.  He is an American who has lived most of his life in the UK, mostly Oxford.  It’s likely that you haven’t heard of him, but you should have.

His first big success, and probably the books that enabled him to make a career of this, came from his series on King Arthur, a cycle of novels which began with Taliesin and concluded five books later with Grail.  

To me, Lawhead’s biggest strength is that he doesn’t write Christian fiction, but instead writes compelling, excellent fiction that stays true to his Christian worldview.  There’s a big difference.  I’ve long given up on most Christian fiction, finding that much it either crosses the line from “inspired by” to just plain “ripping-off” C.S. Lewis, or beats me over the head so hard with its faith, a faith usually crammed awkwardly into a mediocre story.

Lawhead avoids these traps and has his own voice.  You’re more likely to find him in a Waterstones or Barnes & Noble than you are a Christian bookshop, but he writes in a way that his worldview comes through nonetheless.  Now, to be clear, these aren’t heavy literary reads (although the first book I talk about below comes closer than anything else he’s done).  These are just enjoyable fiction, something to read a few chapters of before bed or to take on holiday with you.

It would help to mention my two favourite works by him.  The first is a standalone novel, a rarity as he mostly works in series.  It tells the story of Aidan, a monk who is kidnapped by Vikings and brought to Rome, only to find much of it corrupt and immoral.  The opening sentence is a good one: “I saw Byzantium in a dream, and knew that I would die there.”  It’s been years since I’ve read it, so I don’t remember a lot about it, but I do remember that the style is a bit denser and descriptive than his series work, and the story a strong one.  Aidan wrestles with his God, even turning his back on Him at points, even while trying to live a Christian life before his Viking captors-turned-friends.  The ending, the last few pages, are affecting and powerful, leaving a mark on me even years after reading.

The other work by Lawhead that I love is his “King Raven Trilogy”, a series of books that retell the Robin Hood legend, setting it in Wales instead of the Midlands, for reasons clearly explained and defended by the author.  All the characters are there in various incarnations–Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Marian, the Sheriff–and the sections in which Hood, a prince whose family has been murdered and his land taken from him, and his band play various complicated tricks on the local authorities are gripping.  Each book in the series (Hood, Scarlet and Tuck) are narrated by their namesakes.  And the third book takes on some really unexpected twists, making the series a statement on the power of pacifism and forgiveness.  I actually maintain that had Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe chosen these books as the blueprint for their Robin Hood movie of a few years ago they would have had a much stronger film on their hands, and the beginning of a good series.

These days, Lawhead is finishing up a five book series called Bright Empires.  It’s written with a style that sometimes reminds one of 19th century English authors–Austen, Dickens–with a formality that contrasts with the story, one of a treasure hunt where the characters race through dimensions and different times, travelling by use of “ley lines”.  I’ve read the first three books in the series, and it grows on you…I left the first one completely baffled, but the second and third get progressively better.  Not my ultimate favourite by him, but maybe the easiest to find and a good start if you’re interested.

Janelle Monae: Janelle Monae is amazing.  You need to listen to this woman.  Her albums (2 LPs and an EP todate) ostensibly tell the futuristic story of Cindy Mayweather, a messianic android who falls in love with a human.  Of course, if you didn’t see the album art or read anything about this, you’d likely never pick up on it from just listening to her music.  And what kind of music does this woman make?  It’s hard to say, really…it’s soul.  Funk.  Hip-hop.  Pop.  70s Jackson Five-style Motown.  R&B.  Indie.  Gospel.  Jazz.   She does it all, with a seemingly endless supply of energy and creativity and a versatile voice that can rap, sound low and smooth or belt it with the best of the divas.  She’s quirky, but her music makes me want to dance and just be alive.

She’s the hipster Beyonce.  Maybe?

Where to start, if that above paragraph has convinced you at all: Well, I think Electric Lady, her 2013 album, is her strongest album overall (and I cannot figure out for the life of me how this was not nominated for any Grammys.  Seriously.) but I do know people who much prefer her previous album, The ArchAndroid.  I love that record as well, but I really only love about half of it–there are 5 or 6 amazing tracks and then a bunch that I skip.  The Electric Lady is a more complete package to me, though if you’re looking for every track to be like “Tightrope” or “Cold War” from her previous album, you’ll be disappointed.  It hits all the styles I mentioned above and is divided into two halves she has described as “fire” and “water”.

If you just haven’t the time to suss that all out, let me give you a handful of tracks to sample: “Dance or Die” (which is the one that originally got me), “Cold War”, “Electric Lady” (holy cow do I love the rap on this song) “Primetime” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love.”  Go.

Iona: On a completely different continent of my musical world comes Iona, a Celtic progressive rock band from the UK who have been together for nearly 25 years.  These guys can play.  Possibly one of the best live bands on the planet, they manage to replicate really complicated songs in concert, making it sound easy.  I have no idea why they aren’t more famous; they exude more pure talent and skill than 95% of the bands out there.

Let me give an example: there’s one song, “Bi-Se I Mo Shuil Part 2” (a Gaelic language take on “Be Thou My Vision” on Journey into the Morn, arguably their best album) that has an instrumental section that is in something like 11/8 time.  (It’s either 11/8 or it alternates measures of 5/8 and 6/8.)  I believe the first time I saw them play live, they had electric guitar, keys, flute and uilleann pipes trading off on this section, or playing all together.  It was literally breathtaking–I felt myself holding my breath as they moved through it.  Not an easy song to play.  Listen here, though the video quality isn’t the best.  The section in question comes at about the 2:30 mark:

Describing music with words has been compared to dancing about architecture, but I’ll give it a shot.  It’s Celtic music–think about Riverdance–mixed in with a lot of electric guitar and keys, with progressive rock tendencies–epic long songs that build into walls of sound–all fronted by the beautiful and powerful voice of Joanne Hogg.  Thematically, they sing about the “thin places” of the UK, the places where heaven seems just a bit closer to earth, and how they have met with God in those places.  The Book of Kells might have their most well-known music, but I prefer Journey into the Morn or their live album Heaven’s Bright Sun.  In fact, start there for the amazing mix of Irish jigs, beautiful renditions of old hymns, gorgeous instrumentals and catchy self-penned tunes.  They recently came out with a new album, the two disc set Another Realm, which is their best in ten years.  Great music for driving around through beautiful scenery and connecting with God; think a sort of Celtic Sigur Ros effect.

Over the Rhine: Another band with a long and storied career (nearly 25 years), Over the Rhine is a husband-wife duo (she’s the singer) that make emotional, moody indie-pop/folk/anything they feel like.  She’s got an amazing voice, and they write powerful songs.  They’ve won numerous awards, been named on lists of greatest living songwriters, and toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket.  Critics that write about them frequently write about their bafflement that these guys aren’t bigger.

I don’t have much to say about them other than I think they should be bigger.  You’ve heard of the Civil Wars, right?  They’ve been doing that kind of thing, and from a more honest place (as they are often actually singing about each other), for much longer.  (For example, most of their album Drunkard’s Prayer is about their marriage, the struggles they’ve faced in it, and the way they’ve clung to it).

So where to start?  Well, depends on what you like.  Some of their older stuff is a bit more alternative sounding, a bit more ethereal–my favorite song from that era is  “The World Can Wait” from 2001’s Films For Radio.

Lately, they’ve been a bit more indie folk with hints of jazz and country thrown in, but they’re still putting out great stuff.  Their latest album, Meet Me at the Edge of the World is a double-set, and it’s good.   As is The Trumpet Child.  And their Christmas record Snow Angels is gorgeous, a melancholy and mellow counterpart to all the upbeat Christmas music out there, including a brilliant tribute to Vince Guaraldi, composer of the Charlie Brown’s Christmas score.

Foy Vance: Foy is a fantastic live performer.  The Irish singer-songwriter has an incredible voice; it’s got a great range and can be aggressively soulful or smooth and quiet, often within the same song.  He’s got one of those voices that everyone should instantly recognize.  His songs have been featured on numerous TV shows, and he’s now on the same label as Mumford & Sons and Phoenix.  He has toured and dueted with Bonnie Raitt, opened for Ed Sheerhan.  He should be this generations Van Morrison but cooler.  Why is this man not a huge star?

Though he’s put out numerous EPs, live albums and other bonus projects, he really only has two albums proper, 2007’s Hope and 2013’s Joy of Nothing.  Though the latter is an overall stronger effort, the highs of Hope are incredible, with a handful of songs that will stick with you forever.  “Gabriel in the Vagabond” a story of a homeless man’s encounter with an angel,  builds to a breathtaking conclusion, and has a cool enough video that I’m putting it here.  WATCH TO THE END, or at least the climax:

SEE?  Also “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness” and “Shed a Little Love” from that same album hit hard.

A word needs to be said about the two times I’ve seen him live.  The first time, at a small venue in Leeds, was just Foy and his guitar.  He was using a loop pedal, as many solo artists do these days, to build songs by recording a sound or a line or a lick and looping it, playing a new one on top of that, another on that, and so on.  It was mesmerising.  And the content itself was…interesting.  The best way I can describe it is this: it was like watching a man fight his faith.  He wrestled his faith, he got angry with God, he abandoned it, he re-embraced it, he rebelled against it, fell apart, and all with no clear ending.  I ultimately think the show ended with an embracing of eternal love.  His father, a minister, had recently died, and Foy drank a lot during the show.  It was an emotionally wrenching experience.

The second time was just a few weeks ago, here in Sheffield.  This time, Foy had a four-piece band with him.  His voice was as powerful as ever.  Though he wasn’t as all-over-the-place emotionally as before, his feelings about God and church had become clearer.  The man has been hurt, and he is bitter.  One song included the words “God killed Judas and the church killed God” and later “The church killed me.”  And yet.  And yet it is still clear from his lyrics and his music, including the chorus that closes every concert “When I need to get home you’re my guiding light, my guiding light”, that he still believes in spiritual love, in God in some way.  His music is genuinely spiritual, and there is still a clear longing in him to know God.  The words of Bono from “Acrobat” come to mind, and I hope that Foy finds that church he can break bread and wine in.

So there you go, kind of long, kind of rambly, but those are my artists who should be bigger!  Your turn: who are some people whose art you love do you think should be more well-known?  And come back over the next couple of weeks as I post my “Year in Review” entries.  They’ll be shorter.  I promise.