January 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Well, it’s that time again, although judging by the hundreds of year-end lists that have already appeared, I seem to be a little late. I don’t understand the preoccupation with forming year-end lists in early December. I mean the year isn’t even over by that point, I’d rather wait until January, which I have done. Anyway, if you read my Top Ten Pieces of Impacting Culture over at Mockingbird Blog you’ll notice a lot of overlap from that list to this one, as to be expected. I’ll be writing about five albums in particular, because I felt like picking ten was a bit of a stretch as I wasn’t able to listen to as much new music this year as I would have liked. So here’s the list, complete with Youtube videos galore.
1. The Age of Adz-Sufjan Stevens
I’m not sure what more I can say about The Age of Adz that I haven’t already said, but it continues to remain a revelation to me. By reinventing himself, Sufjan has created a masterful album full of strange noises and at times even stranger lyrics. But underneath all the alienating electronic buzz and depressing musings on life, runs a pulsing current of vitality, the same current that has always run through Sufjan’s music. This is Sufjan at his most personal, albeit slightly disguised behind the seemingly impersonal musical landscape, but I think this musical approach allows Sufjan to truly explore some of the darker corners of his personality without it become overbearing. Regardless, The Age of Adz is an amazing album, its joy tempered and then exalted through the very reality of life.
2. High Violet- The National
The National’s music is so beautiful, in part due to its understatement. Everything about The National seems relaxed, from their laid back music to their abstract lyrics. On closer listen, however, it becomes evident that The National is exploring deep emotions of the soul, often doing so through the mood created by their music and lyrics. High Violet does this exceedingly well, weaving tales of love, loss, fear, addiction and more together into an album that forces you to confront the insecurities and depressions of your own life. It’s an intense look into the soul and mind of the postmodern individual, revealing the struggles of most twenty-somethings that populate America right now, yet High Violet does manage to carry a sense of weathered hope, especially in its closing triad of songs.
3. Sigh No More-Mumford and Sons
If High Violet is beautiful in its understatement, then Sigh No More is beautiful in its zealousness. The neo-folk of Mumford and Sons is brash, hopeful and full of excitement. Blasting through its twelve songs, only stopping for breath briefly, Sigh No More is full of grand statements about life, love and God which is part of its charm. The British quartet is not afraid of wearing their collective heart on their sleeve, a refreshing change from some of the more emotionally guarded bands that exist. What I love about Mumford and Sons is that their optimism is grounded in reality. Sigh No More is relentlessly optimistic and hopeful, but it never sugarcoats the realities and problems of life, but points to a hope that these problems will eventually be made right. A beautiful album measured with grace and humility.
4. How I Got Over-The Roots
How I Got Over is an album that has continued to grow on me since I first heard it in the late summer. The Roots are one of those groups that consistently release albums that are thoughtful both musically and lyrically which is something that I greatly respect. How I Got Over is a dark album that by its end has risen above the darkness in triumph, celebrating life for both its peaks and its valleys. There is a definite shift in the album toward hope as its approaches its midpoint, and this hope comes to fruition in the album’s climatic song The Fire. It is made all the more celebratory because of what came before it, a beautiful realization that sometimes life’s best moments are found after going through the storm.
5. The Suburbs-Arcade Fire
In my opinion, The Suburbs is the Arcade Fire’s best album. It manages to combine their unique musical approach with lyrics that are able to evoke strong emotions, while avoiding many of the problems people have had with their lyrics in the past. The Suburbs is an honest album, delving into the experience of growing up in the suburbs and what suburbia has done to America. It is both nostalgic and critical at the same time, a difficult balance to strike. Full of the bold instrumentation and soaring vocals we’ve come to expect from the Arcade Fire, The Suburbs continues in the same steps as its predecessors, but is better than those albums ever were.
Here’s a few albums that I couldn’t put on my top five list, but deserve to be listened to as they are a bit out of the ordinary.
Juanes is not incredibly well known by English speaking people, but is one of Latin America’s hottest recording artists, for a good reason. He makes great music, pop-rock infused with a Latin sensibility, and sings more than generic love songs. His latest album is another great piece of music and is well worth checking out.
All Day- Girl Talk
I mentioned this album in my blog about the mashup, and I’m still digging it. All Day is extremely fun and creative, combining various pop hits from the past four decades into a new creation that gives these old songs new life. It can be downloaded for free here.
Feedback- Derek Webb
I love Derek Webb and his new album is an instrumental exploration of the Lord’s Prayer. The album is a multimedia affair, coming with abstract art and photographs that complement the music. Webb is always one to try new things, and Feedback is a stunning piece of art that needs to be experienced through the ears and eyes.
September 23, 2010 § Leave a comment
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day over lunch. We talked about normal things for us: music, film, school and life. In the middle of all of this talk, however, we started talking about the role of art in faith and evangelism. While this is a topic I’ve touched on at times on this blog and will do so in the future, what stuck out to me was something my friend said. He said, “I think art’s purpose is to reveal a need,” and from there we went on to talk more in depth about that. However, I want to focus on just that statement, which verbalized something that I’ve thought about but never said in quite that way.
In this same conversation I brought up The National’s newest album, High Violet, and how adept The National is at evoking emotion not just through their music, but through occasionally obtuse and nonsensical lyrics. I think these two things are related.
If art shows us a need inside of us that we can’t ignore or sometimes even explain, I think it has done its job. I think this need is probably different inside of each of us, but it comes down to the fact that we are scarred and broken in this world looking for answers and often not finding them. Sometimes we want to give up looking for the answers but good art forces us to confront these issues time and time again; it gives us the strength to keep pressing on, because we know that someone out there is feeling the same thing as us. I think The National excels at evoking this because there is something emotional and worn about their music that is immediately identifiable.
On Alligator, their third album, the chorus of opener Secret Meeting says this, “I’m sorry I missed you/ I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain/it went the dull and wicked ordinary way.” Immediately I’m hooked, feeling the same way I do after spending hours in thought, never coming to any concrete conclusions. The National’s lyrics bring to mind images and then these mental images seem to project emotion. Alligator’s closer, Mr. November, is much the same. Lines like “I wish that I believed in fate/I wish I didn’t sleep so late/I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders” are juxtaposed with the chorus, lyrically and musically, of “I won’t f*** us over, I’m Mr. November” to create a very visceral feeling of disappointment and longing for days before failure.
This metaphorical, almost poetic language is very apparent on High Violet as well. In one of my favorites from the album, Conversation 16, the chorus goes like this, “Now we’ll leave the silver city cause all the silver girls gave us black dreams/leave the silver city to all the silver girls/everything means everything.” Using colors like silver and black place an image in the mind and invests this image with the emotions usually associated with silver and black. So, even though these lyrics are straightforward, they are charged with an extra emotional intensity due to their poetic nature and Matt Berninger’s vocal delivery.
One of the overwhelming senses I get while listening to The National is that there is something just out of reach. It feels like the words are trying to tap into something bigger, reveal something deeper. I often feel a profound sense of longing when I listen, a longing to be known in this fragmented world. There is a deep sense of alienation in many of The National’s lyrics, reflecting the way many people feel as they try to understand and live in this world. They do a great job of showing this, revealing this need.
The National is making artistic music, revealing the need for true love and intimacy, in a world where it is very difficult to be known by others. Sometimes this can be depressing, because they offer no solutions to these problems. They tell us stories of looking for meaning through drugs, sex and success that have all come up short. But The National is here to expose the need, performing an important service by not handing us happy stories of true love around every street corner. They leave us with a question: how will you meet this need? Where will you go, what will you do to truly be known?