Tag Archives: Avett Brothers

A Year in Review, Part 1

Well, it’s well past the time when everyone is putting out their “Best of” lists for the year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the music, books, films and general entertainment that inspired or moved me this year.  These aren’t “Top 10” lists so much as just a list of what stuck out.  I’m going to give you two entries, with part two covering my overall “Thing of the Year”.  (Catchy, right?)  And so let’s jump right in to the other categories here…

Albums of the Year: This was the year I turned forty-two.  That’s significant musically, because a study was recently done using Spotify user data that showed that right at around age 42, the average person stops listening to new music and settles in to mostly listening to whatever was popular (or whatever they really liked) around the time they graduated high school.  So, if I was to follow that pattern, that means that I’d spend the rest of my days absorbed in the discographies of Petra, the Indigo Girls, and Pink Floyd. Maybe add in some Guns and/or Roses.

One could do worse, I suppose, but still, no thank you.  If you know me, you know that I actually cared about bucking this trend.  But then I spent the first quarter of the year listening through my entire music catalog, getting rid of what I no longer (or never) liked and rediscovering much that I did.  So I approached my 42nd birthday with almost no new albums for the year, save a couple by acts I’ve long loved, such as The Decemberists or Sufjan Stevens.  It wasn’t until around May that I was grabbed my first new music discovery of the year, and it’s one that’s stuck with me even until now.  So the album that stuck with me the most this year is…

Leon Bridges – Coming Home.   Leon Bridges is a 25-year old native of Ft. Worth who only started making music a couple of years ago.  In his debut album, he has resurrected a specific kind of old-school soul; the album has often been compared to Otis Redding or especially Sam Cooke.  And while it does sound like the music of that era, it is also somehow modern in its production.

What I love about this record, though, are the songs and lyrics themselves.  The standout track for me is “Lisa Sawyer”, the story of Leon’s mother, including her upbringing and her salvation.  It’s a beautiful song with Leon’s voice backed by saxophone and some great BGVs.  The phrasing of it is really unusual, but after you hear it a few times it just sticks with you.

This song isn’t the only one with allusions to faith.  “River” could be a worship song; “Shine” and “Flowers” also hint at a real and vibrant faith at the heart of this singer.  But every song on the album stands out–there’s no filler here, and whether he’s singing a love song or telling the story of how his grandparents met, the whole album is refreshing in its purity and vibe.  Give it a listen.

Another record that dominated my year was Gungor’s “One Wild Life: Soul” album, the first in a three-record project, set to be completed by summer 2016.  To be honest, Gungor lost me a little bit with “I Am Mountain”, their previous album.  It’s not that I need all of their stuff to be “worship”; it’s just that I had a hard time connecting with much of the music.  But boy have they rebounded with this one.

It seems to hit everything that Gungor does well at full steam.  Worshipful, God-focused tracks?  Check.  (“Vapor”)  Thought-provoking political or social challenges to the church? Check.  (“Us for Them”, “We Are Stronger”)  Cover song, improving on the original? Check. (“Land of the Living”).  There’s a lot of emotion here, including a gorgeous song written about the birth of the Gungor’s daughter, who has Down’s syndrome (“Light”) and a vulnerable track that seems to be Michael Gungor’s testimony (“You”).  Here’s hoping “One Wild Life: Spirit” releases, oh, tomorrow.

Other notable records this year include Mutemath’s “Vitals”, which is their best album since their first, Sufjan Stevens’ gorgeous and somber “Carrie & Lowell”, and Hillsong United’s underrated “Empires”.

Songs: Much of the year was dominated by the music they played at Antioch’s ICON this year, including mainstays like “No Longer Slaves”, “The Great I Am”, and “Great Are You Lord”, but a couple of other individual songs you probably haven’t heard need to be mentioned: go listen, right now, to “River” by Ibeya, who are French-Cuban twins, and “Na Na Na” by My Brothers and I.  Great tunes.

Live Music of the Year: I went to three concerts and a music festival this year.  A quick rundown:

  1. The Decemberists – O2 Academy, Leeds.  The Decemberists were in great form; I just didn’t love the set list compared with my first experience with them, at the same venue one tour earlier.  Their latest album is good but nothing from it particularly thrilled live.  The one highlight, and it’s a bit of cliche to say so, was the crowd-pleasing encore “Mariner’s Revenge Song”, essentially a sea shanty about being eaten by a whale along side your sworn enemy.  You know, one of those.  The only thing I hadn’t loved about my first time seeing them years ago was that they did not play that song–and in fact, the Leeds show was the only one on that tour that missed it–so seeing it live this time made up for it.
  2. The Avett Brothers – Red Rocks Amphitheater, Colorado.  Mixed feelings about this one, too.  My love for the Avett Brothers is well-documented on this website, and so I was thrilled to see them in this gorgeous and famous venue.  And the venue did not disappoint; Red Rocks is beautiful and the sound far better than you’d expect from such a huge, outdoor place.

The problem is that I was a bit spoiled by my first Avett Brothers       experience–in Manchester with a few hundred people.  The intimacy of that experience is impossible in America where they are far more popular, and an outdoor show with tens of thousands of people made it sometimes hard to engage.

The other problem was again with the set list.  The Avett Brothers perform three nights at Red Rocks every July; I’m not sure if this a yearly tradition, but on this particular night they did not repeat a track in three nights.  That means close to 70 different songs stretched over three nights.  That’s a remarkable feat, even for a band with as deep a catalog as these guys.  But of the three nights, I think we attended the weakest.  They’d already played all of Emotionalism the night before, and many of their best tracks were long gone.

That said, there were some highlights.  Opening with “Talk on Indolence” was exciting; I’d never heard “Salvation Song” live before, and that’s one of my favorites — I performed it at my 40th birthday party.  They brought out their father Jim for a couple of songs, including a gorgeous version of the old hymn “In the Garden.”  It was nice hearing some new songs.  So it wasn’t a bad night; it just didn’t compare to being ten feet away.

3. Sufjan Stevens – O2 Apollo in Manchester.  On the other hand, I had somewhat low expectations for this gig and was pleasantly blown away!  Don’t get me wrong, I love Sufjan; it’s just that the album he was touring, “Carrie and Lowell,” about the death of his mother, is very low key and melancholy, and I wasn’t entirely sure it would make for a fun evening out.  I had a neighbor who wanted to go and felt it was right to go with him to get to know him better; without that factor, I’m not sure the motivation would have been there.

But Sufjan was amazing.  But first, kudos to his opening act, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a son-mother team (he’s probably in his early 30s, she in her 60s) who play acoustic folk.  It was interesting and it worked.

The first part of the show sees Sufjan playing 10 of the 11 tracks on the new album.  I won’t try to describe the set, though it was amazing, because you can just go look it up on Youtube.  But the songs came across powerfully in the live setting.  Some he performed exactly as on the album.  Others were redone or remixed–“All of Me Wants All of You” a standout here–to great effect.  After that, he played a few classics, and then closed the pre-encore section with a fifteen minute version of the 3 minute closing track to “Carrie and Lowell”.  The walls of sound and light created were mesmerizing and unforgettable.

In May, the whole family went to the Big Church Day Out festival in south England.  When I saw the lineup, I knew I had to go, and we ended up bringing the whole family plus a Singaporean friend who had just gotten baptized the week before.  It’s a great festival, but they’ll be hard-pressed to top 2015’s line-up.  (And seeing 2016’s, it is good, but nowhere near as good.)  So who did we see?  I won’t share it all, but some highlights…

Day 1: Gungor: This was my first time to see the whole band play live, and it was epic.  They opened with the instrumental second half of “We Will Run”, a slow build that erupts into a wall of beauty.  They did fantastic versions of most of their biggest songs–“I Am Mountain”, “Beautiful Things”, “Dry Bones” and so on.  I was disappointed that they didn’t do much from Ghosts on the Earth, and I was intrigued by the new songs they premiered.  Sets at this festival run in the 40-50 minute range, which seems really short, and when they introduced their last song, I was disappointed to recognize the chords to what has to be one of the most covered songs ever — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Surely, I thought, there was room for something else from Ghosts or Beautiful Things.  But then Lisa Gungor started to sing, and by the last verse, I was tearing up.  Redeeming an overused song, this may be my definitive version.

needtobreathe: I wasn’t sure what to expect from these southern rockers, but their set delivered.  I like them, but they are fantastic live, and “Difference Maker”, “Wasteland” and “Multiplied” were all standouts.

Bethel Music: My experiences with big worship bands who try to hit both a worship and a concert experience are mixed, but the presence of God was there, and as we sang “Forever” and a few other similar familiar Bethel tunes, I did not want to leave that place.  Ever.

Day 2: First we took the kids to the children’s tent for a morning service, where they were introduced to Audacious Kids worship, officially the first CD that my daughter truly engaged with.  I highly recommend it.  But that’s not what we were there for…

Christafari: Some people think it’s odd that Ira and I both so love this “gospel reggae” band, who are one of the top 10 touring reggae acts in the world.  But we do.  Their set was a mix of original material and reggae covers of popular worship tunes.  It leaned more heavily in the latter direction, and we prefer the former, but they are a tight and energetic band and they preach the gospel.  Good stuff.

Lecrae: My son Joshua is four.  For some reason, his tiny brain really locked into the song “Nuthin'” from Lecrae’s #1 album “Anomaly.”  He doesn’t have much interest in many songs, but occasionally one will just grab him for reasons unknown.  This was one.  So when Lecrae opened with this, he was mesmerized.  That guy on  the stage was singing Joshie’s song!  The girls had gone off to watch Christafari’s second set, but Joshua and I ran around the fields while Lecrae did his thing; Joshua even rode his first grown-up carnival ride (those swings that go around in a circle) while Lecrae rapped nearby.  A cool way to experience a great set.

I know this is long, so just a couple more thoughts:

Films of the Year: I used to see a lot of movies.  In England, that’s really expensive.  (I took my family of four to a film in Texas; the cost was just $2 more than a single adult ticket in Sheffield.)  Plus, with kids and a full life, I rarely have the time.  The result of this has been that I only really go to films in the cinema that are truly worth the effort and money–big movies with big sound and big effects.  Now, I hate blockbusters that just exist to explode pixels.  Looking at you, wretched Transformers movies.  Still, it is possible to make quality big movies.  I only saw what everyone else saw this year (at least in the cinema), but the ones that stood out…

  1. Inside Out – a sigh of relief as Pixar really nails it for the first time in a few films.
  2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a sigh of relief as JJ Abrams nails the right tone and creates new characters I actually want to see more of.  Saw this opening morning and it was euphoric.  (Keep in mind, I am a lifelong Star Wars fan who timed my vacation out of Uzbekistan to Europe in 1999 so I could see Phantom Menace in the theater.  I walked out of that one confused.)
  3. Jurassic World – the most fun dumb movie I saw all year.  Loved the end sequences with the Raptors.
  4. Avengers: Age of Ultron – okay, okay, so considering they deal with the crisis in a few days, it’s not exactly an “age” for Ultron, but despite the naysayers I enjoyed this more than the original.  Also just fun.
  5. The Martian – someone recently did the math and decided that $900 billion has been spent rescuing Matt Damon from various scenarios, which is just funny.  But of all the movies he’s been rescued in, this one’s the most entertaining.  It’s definitely funnier than Saving Private Ryan.

Book of the Year: Sheffield Libraries have a good system, are really convenient, and they try hard.  But they cannot hold a candle to the Waco Library system.  Waco-ans, I hope you guys know what you have there.  I have a pretty broad taste – biographies, fiction, books by comedians, Christian Living – I like a lot of it.  And Sheffield libraries has none of it.  Sure, if you want vampire romance novels or, to be fair, a broad range of travel guides, then these are great.  But Waco…Waco has everything.

So when we were in Waco for three weeks this summer, I dusted off the library card and we probably checked out 30-40 books during those three weeks.  The kids section is amazing – a range of fiction covering all ages and tastes, a huge number of books about other cultures or famous historical figures.  Nadia learned about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.  And I went through a stack of books I’d kept on a running list during our three years absence.  For many I got only a couple of chapters in before abandoning, but there was one that dominated my summer that still is with me today: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by the amazing Eric Metaxas.  This biography of the famed German theologian is gripping and thought-provoking.  Not only does it paint a picture of how one Christian stood for Christ in the face of evil and tyranny, and how he wrestled through the implications of his faith and the desire to destroy Hitler, but it also gives insight into how the average German citizen was slowly suckered into backing an evil regime, and what life was like for the many Germans who opposed what was happening but weren’t sure what to do.  Fantastic, and a must read.

Of course, I’ve already talked about the Wingfeather Saga in a previous entry.  And all of this was just a ramble of thoughts about the year, all leading up to part 2, to be posted in a few days.  My Thing of the Year–the work that dominated 2015 for me.  Get ready.  It’s an unexpected one…

 

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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.

September Music Showdown: The Avett Brothers vs. Mumford & Sons

Comparison.  It plagues us all at different times, and is rarely helpful.  In music and the arts, at best it’s an interesting diversion, at worst a complete waste of time.  But sometimes it sure is fun.

The following article is only really, truly helpful if you are saying to yourself, “I can only buy one album this month, and both of these sound amazing, so which one should I buy?”  Well, I’m about to tell you.

Here we have two bands.  Both are “indie folk” darlings with heavy bluegrass leanings, both feature lots of banjo, both have rabid fan bases, both have new albums in September, and both have vocalists/songwriters who come from families in the ministry, who use their music (one more than the other) to explore their own faith journeys.

In this corner, we have the veterans: The Avett Brothers.  The Carpenter is their seventh album, and their second under super-producer Rick Rubin.  Their last effort, I and Love and You wasn’t necessarily their best, though it was excellent, but it was the album that garnered them a lot more popular attention.  It earned them a slot at the Grammys, playing their own song and then backing up Bob Dylan, alongside their competitors in today’s match…

Mumford & Sons: hailing in the opposite corner, we have the British bluegrass boys with their second album Babel.   Their first album, Sigh No More, was a smash success that built them a huge following in the States, and rightly so.  I’ve long thought that their follow-up was an impossible task–if they did too much of the same thing, they’d be criticised, but if they strayed too far from what worked on the first album, they’d lose people.

So how did these two albums shape up?

Well, to explain my answer, I need to briefly explain how I expected them to shape up.  Let’s start with…

1. The Albums Are Announced: I first heard the announcement for these albums in early summer.  At that time, I was still listening to Mumford’s album with a lot of frequency considering I’d had it for two years, and especially connecting with’s it’s breathtaking first half.  Though nervous about their follow-up, I was also super-excited.

My relationship to the Avett Brothers’ music was a bit more indifferent.  I knew people that loved them, and I enjoyed them in a light way from time to time, but really only loved one song: the title track from I and Love and You, which made my cut of the top songs of 2009.  But I knew I’d give their new album a try, as I’d really respected their performance on the Grammys and felt slightly bad that the spotlight had been grabbed away from them by the Mumford newcomers.

2. The First Singles are Released–The Avett Brothers’ single “Live and Die” was released first, followed by, several weeks later, “I Will Wait” by Mumford.  “I Will Wait” struck me as neither bad nor amazing on my first couple of listens.  It sounds very much like a track from their first album, and has that energy and passion that makes the first album so great.

“Live and Die” was a different story.  It grabbed me instantly–I think it took one listen for it to be stuck in my head.  I can’t recall a more catchy, peppy tune from these guys–it just has a melody that gets under my skin, and I found myself getting more and more excited for the whole album.  That was definitely helped by reading an essay by I believe Scott Avett on the artist and the way he reflects the Creator.

So with the singles, Round One goes to: The Avett Brothers.

3. The Albums Themselves Both came out in September, and I’ve had a chance to get to know both.  Let’s start again with Mumford & Sons’ Babel.

The reviews for this thing have been all over the place–I saw a harsh 2 star review and I’ve seen several four star reviews.  My take on it is this: hmmm.  That’s my take.  Just: hmmm.

Okay, I’ll expand.  I like the album.  I do.  They definitely hew closer to the formula of the first album than I expected, but I think that largely works in their favor.  In the context of the album, the single is better than I gave it credit for.  They do add some new flourishes–Marcus Mumford’s vocals are more snarly and aggressive than before (take the title track), there’s a bit of electric guitar here and there.  And there are some amazing songs: Holland Road, Hopeless Wanderer (which I can’t wait to play loudly while driving down the M1), a few others.

But there are cracks, as well.  I find it annoying that they felt the need to again include one song peppered with the F-word, as if the “1 F-word song and everything else pristine” is going to be a gimmick from now on.  Some of the songs are, forgive me, boring.  Some of the lyrics seem quite cliched or uninspired.  And that last word sort of sums up for me some of how I feel about this album.  Go back and find on youtube their Grammy performance–it feels inspired, hopeful, joyful.  And to me, watching clips of recent performances, the lead singer specifically seems a bit more angry, and a lot more tired.  The joy seems to be missing.  I get enough of tired and angry in the real world to devote my energy to it musically.

You know, at some level, it’s not even that it’s uninspired.  Some it feels maybe even inauthentic.  As if they thought, “Well, songs about spiritual struggle worked, so here’s some more of those.  Having one song with the F-word worked, so…”  That may not be true at all.  But that’s what I feel.

What’s missing to me is a strong sense of melody–it’s hard to remember some of the songs, and there are few of those singalong moments the first record had, nothing like those “It will set you free…be more like the man you were made to be…”-style moments.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sounding like I hate this record, and I don’t.  There are some, once-again, breathtaking moments on here.  Beautiful ones.  It’s just that their fewer than I wanted, and they are surrounded by some things that worry me about the future of this band.  They have slipped from the top of my “must see in concert” list.

Overall Grade for Babel: a mid-range B.

Now on to The Carpenter.  For the first time since I was told about the Avett’s about six years ago, I get it.  If this is about comparison, then know this: the song-writing on this record is just better.  These guys have more experience, and they’re willing to work on songs until they are tight.  They cover a broad range of topics, from the sentimental (A Father’s First Spring, about a newborn daughter) to the…well, to whatever the rocker Paul Newman vs. The Demons is about.  There’s nothing groundbreaking here, just twelve tight well-written songs.  Not a single one is a “skipper”.

Highlights for me include the single mentioned above, I Never Knew You (there’s a moment towards the end that gives me goosebumps, when the harmony of the chorus changes to being the melody of the chorus–just great singing), and Down With the Shine.  I have to be in the right mood for the numerous slow songs, of which there may be one too many for my tastes, but all in all, a beautiful record.

Overall grade for The Carpenter: A minus.

One interesting effect of this: every time I put on the Mumford record, I do like it a lot.  But when I think about them in general, I have a sudden sour taste.  The effect of the Avett Brothers record has been the opposite–I had a couple of other albums of theirs that I never really got into–free downloads and whatnot–but now I’m going back and appreciating older stuff at a deeper level.  That is a rare thing for me.  Suddenly, they’ve gotten into my skin, into my soul; I’m even considering singing one of their songs at an event tomorrow.

They’ve also made it to the top of my “see live” list, and it is not uncommon for them to play 28 songs in a concert.  They are supposedly amazing live, and some of the footage I’m finding on youtube testifies to that.  So I’ll leave you with that: a blurry performance of their simple (but catchy) Down With the Shine from Jimmy Fallon, which they perform with an urgency I find unusual but enthralling for a live performance, as if the singer (is it Scott or Seth?) is desperate that we understand what he is communicating.  Enjoy: