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Best Music of 2012, pt. 1

January 3, 2013

Here it is, Ladies and Gentlemen: My personal picks for the best music that I listened to in 2012. Please keep in mind that this list covers the music that I listened to, not necessarily the music that was released, which explains the presence of some older songs and albums. I don’t have the financial means to buy all the hip new albums–if you want to help me out in this regard, that can be arranged. Also, I have a ton of albums that I really have wanted to listen to, but just haven’t gotten around to, so regretfully I wasn’t able to include them. Finally, anyone who is disappointed that Taylor Swift’s Red won no awards will receive no sympathy from me.

Due to the long nature of this post, I had to split it up into two parts. Part 2 will be coming soon.

Best Albums

1. Land of the Living by Matthew Perryman Jones. The phrase “modern classic” has been used so often that it has lost its critical punch. The term has been applied to everything from The Hold Steady to Justin Bieber, until it has become thin and stretched. Jones’ newest album, however, warrants this epithet. Land of the Living is probably the best example of good taste in album making. It is musically and lyrically intelligent without wandering off into navelgazer territory. It’s catchy and big without being brash or cheap. And, most importantly, it has a lot of good songs. Jones makes grandiose, even biblical statements with “O Theo,” the fist-pumping “Waking Up The Dead” and the Revolver-esque buildup of Stones from the Riverbed.” But he’s at his best on his slow jams, and the juxtaposition of the cry in the night of “Cancion de la Noche” and the thankful prayer in “The Angels Were Singing” is nothing short of genius. Those two songs are also two of the best expressions of Christian faith within a contemporary milieu. Jones lets the beauty of the faith shine for itself instead of trying for blatant evangelism. (Up-and-coming Christian Musicians, take note.)

2. The Afterman: Ascension by Coheed and Cambria. Coheed and Cambria has the ability to take technical prog-rock and make it catchy without watering it down. This first album in a duo (the second comes out sometime this year) is filled with good song after good song. It begins with the epic “Domino the Destitute” and the energy never lets up. “The Afterman” shows us Coheed’s tenderer side,  “Goodnight, Fair Lady”  sounds like a tribute to Queen, and “Vic The Butcher” is a brash, punkish, shout-along anthem. The entire album is a tour-de-force.

3. Absence by Paper Route. I’m sorely tempted to call this band “Coldplay if Coldplay was good.” Paper Route plays arena rock that is heavy on keyboards, electronic noises, and technical drum patterns. They also manage to write songs that are able to include these diverse elements without becoming a mere showcase for musical pyrotechnics. The entire album sounds like it is a soundtrack to a post-Christmas winter’s day. “Enemy Among Us” is another great poetic expression of the Christian faith (see a pattern here?). “Wish” should be put on heavy rotation on every radio station. A personal favorite is “Good Intentions,” a song which should be close to the heart of any wounded lover.

4. Ghosts Upon The Earth by Gungor. At some point, music historians will mark an important turning point in Christian rock/pop music. And they will mark it with two designations, B.G. and A.G.: Before Gungor and After Gungor. Gungor has proven that a band can be explicitly Christian, lyrically excellent, doctrinally sound, and musically innovative–all at once. (The only other people whom I can think of who fit that bill are Michael Card and Derek Webb) Michael and Lisa Gungor, the husband-and-wife team who make up the band, are musical polymaths who play many of the instruments and did most of the arrangements. Michael is a great guitar player–go see him live if you don’t believe me–and Lisa has a wonderful voice. Close listening to the record will show how intricately many of the songs were arranged and written. The level of technical excellence and the quality of the songwriting don’t just outshine most Christian artists–they outshine most artists, period. For a good example of Gungor’s style, listen to “Brother Moon,” based on St. Francis’ famous poem about the sun and the moon.

5. Mercyland by Various Artists. Subtitled “Hymns for the Rest of Us,” this CD is a collection of Gospel Songs and Songs About The Gospel from a mix of American Folk Artists, from Matt Kearney to Emmylou Harris to The Carolina Chocolate Drops. The artists on the album all come from different religious backgrounds, but all are obviously interested in exploring the artistic dimensions of the faith. The album raises more questions than answers. Is Shawn Mullins’ “Give God The Blues” a paean to squishy religious pluralism or an orthodox declaration of man’s depravity and God’s love? Does The North Mississippi All-Stars’ “If I Was Jesus” reflect tongue-in-cheek flippancy or sincere admiration? And why on earth did Dan Tyminski do something other than bluegrass? Questions aside, this compilation gives a modern twist on the gospel genre, and the world is better for it.

6. Wounded Healer by The Followers. Speaking of Gospel, this is the only record I listened to this year that was classified as “neo-Gospel.” It is the fruit of a collaboration between songwriter Josh White of Telecast and Eric Earley of Blitzen Trapper. This strange mix of K-Love and Sub Pop Records (home to artists like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana  and The Head And The Heart) actually ends up working quite well. It sounds like a lost Jesus People band from the 1970s, albeit a lot less cheesy than some of the Jesus People music. The Followers prove that gospel music is still relevant for today. Crank it up.

7.  The Weight of Glory: Songs Inspired by C.S. Lewis by Heath McNease. Heath McNease recorded this album where every song is about a different C.S. Lewis book in the comfort of his home (McNease’s, not Lewis’). If a homemade album about a literary figure sounds like a disaster in the making, fear not! McNease is perhaps the only man who can make a catchy song out of Mere Christianity. At points you can tell that it is a somewhat homemade album, and it drags a bit at the end, but, come on. It’s an album about C.S. Lewis! How cool is that?

8. The Shelter by Jars of Clay. Jars of Clay is an old favorite for me. Back in my high-school days, I found them and recognized them as one of the Christian Bands that Didn’t Stink. (The list has grown longer, thank God). I have never heard a bad album from Jars of Clay. The Shelter has an interesting concept. First, it consists entirely of worship songs and worship-like songs. Secondly, almost all the songs feature special guests, but the guest singers are integrated into the songs in interesting ways, rather than the traditional alternating verses of most duets. This organic approach to guests pays off–the songs are never overpowered by guest vocalists. This is a very uplifting album. The title track was an inspiration to me during this summer.

9. Raising Up The Dead by Caedmon’s Call. Like Jars of Clay, Caedmon’s Call is one of the “Christian Bands that Didn’t Stink,” and they also have never put out a bad album, although Company of Angels II didn’t quite live up to the original. This album shows a darker side of Caedmon’s Call, most likely due to the influence of Derek Webb, who provides a lot of the vocals. The songs focus more on personal issues and stories, making this record more like 40 Acres or Caedmon’s Call than Back Home, or any of the worship projects. The music is also more “indie” than the previous records–and yes, there is the Sufjan-influenced trumpet solo. This is one of Caedmon’s Call’s best records yet, and it shows their ability to write in a different style.

10. Wake Up by Swoope. Before I listened to this album, “Christian Hip-Hop” was a byword for me. The genre seemed like a third-rate knockoff of the real thing, a cheesy counterfeit peddled to youth group kids whose parents wouldn’t let them listen to Kanye West. This album changed it all. Swoope’s music has the flow, the beats and the production values to stand up to heavyweights like Kanye, Jay-Z, and The Roots. His lyrics are spiritually invigorating, theologically sound and convicting. He poignantly addresses both issues of social justice and his own heart. Best of all, he has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps him from sounding cynical or somber. ” He said the Narrow Road/I too the scenic route/He told me Song of Solomon/I put the remix out” raps Swoope in “Fantasy.” Christian Hip-Hop has reached a turning point.

11. The Evolution by Butterfly Boucher. Boucher’s music is a mix of fist-pumping singalongs (“Soul Back”, “5678!”), bleak ballads (“Drift On” “A Bitter Song”) and something completely different (“Not Fooling Around Tonight”). Her music is punchy, catchy and fun. What more do I have to say?

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 14, 2013 9:22 am

    Hmm, got some new albums to listen in the car!

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