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:
- 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.
- 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…
- Inside Out – a sigh of relief as Pixar really nails it for the first time in a few films.
- 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.)
- Jurassic World – the most fun dumb movie I saw all year. Loved the end sequences with the Raptors.
- 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.
- 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…