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.

No Matter Who You Are, You Only Have a Piece

There is a tendency we humans have to only see things from our own point of view.  We filter our understanding of the world based on our own experiences, preferences, personality and talents.

Those of us who are part of the body of Christ often bring that tendency into our Christian lives.  We interpret God and who He is and the way He moves through our own experiences.  We interpret church and what it should or shouldn’t be based on our own  preferences.

But that’s now how God set it up to be.  We are, in fact, just single parts of the body of Christ.  And we need each other.  Not only do we need each other’s strengths and talents, but we need each other’s perspectives.  Listen, a God that one person could fully comprehend and explain wouldn’t be much of a God.

Now, so far, I bet most of you are with me.  What I’m saying may seem obvious, and you probably have more insight into it than I do.  But I want to break it down a little bit, because it’s been on my mind.

There’s a verse in Ephesians 4 that says “Christ Himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip His people for works of service…”  And I feel like whole churches, movements even, have been built around just one part of this formula or another.  Whole denominations that may focus on the way the teacher understands God and Scripture, or centred entirely on pastoral (shepherding) leadership.

But I think that God’s strategy is to use all five of these, and, in fact, all of the spiritual gifts, in tandem with each other.  Everyone has a gift, and that gift is just a piece of puzzle, but sometimes we treat our pieces as if they’re the only or most important ones!  We cannot possibly understand God’s intentions or discern His voice fully unless we do it in the context of a community of people representing all of the gifts!  That’s not God’s fault; it’s more that we can’t see beyond our particular bent.

Let me give an example.  If I’m placed anywhere in this “five-fold ministry” as it is sometimes called, I am probably first a teacher.  There are elements of apostle and pastor in there as well, but teaching is my main gift and I am passionate about clear and powerful communication of Truth.

But what if I looked at that as the only thing?  That Truth was just there to be communicated.  Then whenever a problem arose in a person’s life or in a church, or whenever some new idea and strategy needed to get out there, all I did was teach it.  I passed on information, and the people I led would be filled with knowledge.  And maybe not much else.  The church would run like a classroom.

Or if I look at being a good shepherd as the only thing?  I might forego challenging the people I led; I’d be unwilling to confront sin or lead strategically or giving any sort of big picture vision and challenge to the people around me, all in the name of protecting them, making sure they were safe and comfortable and warm and cared for.  The church would run like a hospital.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from that, the apostle who doesn’t see the need for other points of view and gifts ends up running so hard towards a huge vision that he hasn’t noticed that people are stumbling and tripping behind him trying to follow, and he also doesn’t notice in the charge that he’s not entirely sure what steps need to be taken to get everyone there.  The important thing to note here is that despite his big vision and good intentions, it actually takes him longer to get where he wants to get everyone to go because he hasn’t incorporated the other gifts and points of view.

Now, here’s where I’m going to be a bit biased, because it was in relationship to the prophetic gifting that I first started thinking about this.  I love the prophetic people in our midst, and I have worked with some fantastic people gifted in this way who hear the word of the Lord and bring the powerful Presence, the experiences with God we are desperate for.  And these people understand that they are bringing just a piece of the puzzle, that for us to be fully effective in advancing the Kingdom we need to bring those experiences and then pastor them well, teach a foundation to them, and give them a context within a larger vision for why we want them.

The ultimate point of the experiences isn’t to have them.  Yes, we want to enjoy God and always be hungry for anything the Holy Spirit wants to do.  But sometimes there seems to be a belief that every time we gather, on Sunday or in our homes, it should be to seek out experiences.  I’ve been part of some amazing moves of the Holy Spirit–we had a really powerful night in ATS back in June that was unlike any I’d ever experienced.  But it would be silly of me to think that this was all God ever wanted to do.  Some weeks, people just need to get in the Word, or be prayed for and counselled.

You see, these five things work best together.  A new believer coming into the church needs to encounter, and be counselled through the issues of his past, be taught the daily habits of walking with Jesus, learn how to share their faith effectively and be given a big vision for the impact their life could have.

Because God is raising up a church that can carry His hope to the ends of the earth, introducing the lost and broken of the world to His glorious presence.  And that amazing communal movement we call the church will be led by apostles and prophets and teachers and evangelists and pastors.  Working together in synergy.

So I just want to challenge us all: the next time we feel critical towards how something in the church is going that others seem to be okay with, we should first ask ourselves if we’re only looking at our piece of the puzzle.

Why I’m Thankful Jesus Wept

“You should write books.”  “God is saying that one day you’ll be published.”  “I see novels coming out of you.”  I have been told this countless times.  But here’s the problem: I never write.  I do feel like it’s supposed to be part of who I am; I just never do it.

It’s time to change that, I hope.

I recently turned 40, and I realize that there are huge gaps between who I want to be/what I want to accomplish and who I actually am/how I spend my time.

All that to say, I’m going to make an effort to start writing this blog again and doing podcasts.  I may have to change the title and description, because it may no longer be about just the things I’m reading/watching/listening to.  If you read it, and you like it, please help me figure out how to make it look nicer and market it and all that, because I know nearly nothing about that.

So that’s that.  But here is what I have been thinking about this morning.

As most of you probably know, it has been a summer filled with tragedy for us.  On June 22, two close friends, Stephen and Mandy, were killed in a freak accident coming back to Sheffield from a wedding.  Not only they were friends, but they were both central to our work here, and their deaths threw our whole life plan out the window and forced us in many ways to start over.

Amongst many other things, I’ve been thinking a lot about faith during these months of grieving.  The first day after finding out was an intense one, as we felt the shock of the loss as well as the desire to believe by faith for a miracle.  And in our community, there was a wide range of reaction, as you would expect.  There were those who seemed shocked, on the verge of offended, that anyone wanted to even ask for resurrection.  There were those who, though also shocked, primarily saw it as an opportunity for God to move, and were pushing in the Spirit, aggressively pursuing the miracle.  And there was me, and others, who were all over the place, wanting to support those with high faith but not necessarily feeling it ourselves.

I always, always, always want to ask God for the impossible and believe that He can, will, and still does it.  I know He does.  I’ve seen Him do the impossible with my own two eyes.

I was reflecting on this recently in connection with John 11, which contains that most famous shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”  And something struck me that I had not noticed before.  Are you ready?

Jesus starts the story away from Bethany.  He has gotten word that Lazarus is ill.  The disciples know this.  They suggest a visit.  Jesus delays, and eventually tells them, by word of knowledge (one of the spiritual gifts), that actually, Lazarus has died.  And they are going to Bethany so that Jesus can wake Lazarus up.  From the dead.

He reaches Bethany, and has two subsequent and similar encounters with Martha and then Mary.  Both are mourning and showing, in their own ways, trust that Jesus could have done something had He come earlier and that maybe He could still do something now.  Jesus tells Martha that Lazarus will live again…she deflects His comment with a, “Yeah…if you mean in heaven, I know he will.”

Then Jesus goes to the tomb Himself.  And it is there, moved by the grief of His two friends and the sight of their brother’s burial spot and just probably the whole human condition of having to regularly deal with death in all its forms that Jesus breaks down and cries.  He stands there, weeping.

Here’s why this is important to me and what it teaches me: remember, Jesus knows what is about to happen.  He knows that He will raise Lazarus up in mere minutes.  He has known it for awhile–He has announced it, He’s getting ready to do it.  He has the faith.  It’s about to happen.  And yet, He still cries.

This shows me that faith doesn’t have to be full of joy and confidence.  I can approach a situation with faith that God is going to move in it and still mourn and wail over the bleakness of the situation.  Jesus here shows His humanity, and oh how we need Him to be both God and human.

In fact, and I want to study this a bit in Scripture to see if I can back it up, I kind of suspect that in some way God honours our faith more if we really enter into the emotions and world and pain of the person we are praying for.  If we empathize.  If we show compassion–that is, literally, if we suffer with them.  As I think back through Jesus’ many miracles, it feels like He takes each case individually, and heals them in a way that will be the most loving and helpful to them.  He sees them.  He enters in.

Jesus wept.  Even in the midst of one of His most powerful miracles, He wept.  He mourned with those who mourned, and then rejoiced with those who rejoiced.

Help me, Lord, to approach each situation in the same way.  Help me not to use faith as a shelter against the pain of living in this world, but as doorway into the lives of hurting people, to bring them the help and healing they need.

Very Own Podcast Episode 8: Oscar Special

It’s Oscar time!  For years, I have cared about the Oscars, though they don’t actually care about me.  30 minutes of Will Couchman and myself giving analysis of this year’s competition and some strong opinions about years past.  If you don’t like to talk about rich famous people awarding each other for stuff they’ve done, this isn’t the episode to dive into.  Go listen to older ones.

[audio http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/veryownpodcast/Very-Own-Podcast-Episode-8.m4a]