2009 Song Assassins

Last year, I started a tradition of listing my annual “Song Assassins.” I through these out on last year’s blog, but I shut that one down, and so I present this year’s selections.

Here’s what this list is not:

  • This list is not the “Best Music of 2009″; there are some 2009 releases here, but there’s some older songs as well
  • This list is not objective; selfishly, these are my highly subjective opinions

Here’s what this list is:

  • These are songs that grabbed my attention, that made me stop what I was doing, and listen, or tap my foot, or marvel at a lyric or a guitar line
  • These are songs that stayed in heavy rotation on my iPod or in my CD player for a few days in a row

With those clarifications, here they are; do yourself a favor and give them a listen.

  • January: “A Break in the Clouds” (The Jayhawks). If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge Jayhawks fan. I think they represent the best in midwestern Americana — great, hymn-inspired harmonies, unpretentious arrangements and musicianship. This is from their release, Smile, which NPR’s Fresh Air once referred to by asking, “What if you made the best record of the year (2000), and no one heard?”
  • February: “Fix It” (Ryan Adams & The Cardinals). Ryan Adams can write a 3 minute song of longing and desire like no one else. When he sings, “I’d fix it if I could”, I believe it. I feel like I’ve spent the last three years of my life trying to write this song; I still haven’t written it.
  • March: “I’m a Man” (Black Strobe). I’m a pretty huge Guy Ritchie fan, and couldn’t wait to see Rocknrolla when it came out on DVD. This song has great imagery behind it in the movie and with the audio here, I just love the attitude–everybody “chunkin” away on that shuffle groove. This is 21st century blues. I think Muddy Waters would be proud.
  • April: “Wake Up” (Arcade Fire). It’s simple: as spring arrives, and it’s possible to drive around with the windows down, who doesn’t want to crank this up and scream “Ohhhhhh Ohhhhhh….” along with this.
  • May: “Palestine, Texas” (T-Bone Burnett). I love almost everything about T-Bone: his producing ethos, his guitar playing, his quirky song-writing. This song is from 2006’s True False Identity, which is an amazing journey of depravity and salvation. What an amazing groove: stand up bass, awesome, “greasy and gritty” guitar sounds… If you like stuff like Buddy and Julie Miller, I think you should give this a listen as well.
  • July: “That’s Not My Name” (The Ting Tings). I was driving through Knoxville, TN late one night, and heard thirty seconds of this song, and I was instantly hooked. The next morning (thanks to Google), I had identified the tune and went in search of it. This song actually swings…hard! — it’s not just mindless pop.
  • October: “Names That Fell” (Zach Williams). I went to a conference for pastors and church leaders in October. Most of the music there was pretty boring and typical — high-powered Coldplay and U2-esque tunes and bands that looked much “too hip” for me — when all of a sudden this guy walks on stage with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Mind you, this wasn’t the typical evangelical acoustic guitar (which is usually either a Taylor cutaway or an $5,000 Breedlove or Nashville-approved custom box); no this was a gritty, songwriter’s guitar: something like this. He also looked like he could’ve walked right off the cover of Big Pink or The Band. Now he had my attention. He sang this song, unaccompanied, and just blew me right away. Such conviction, such simplicity.
  • December: “Staráflur” (Sigur Rós). Years ago, probably in winter 2004, I’d heard enough about “this freaky band who didn’t sing in any known language” that I decided I needed to seek some of their stuff out. I went to the library and found a CD that had song titles I couldn’t read or understand, took it back to the house, and put it in the computer. Sounded nice. Got some tunes onto the iPod — a first gen, mind you!! — and filed it away for “future listening”. One grey day, I’d hopped on the El to go downtown dialed it up. With the grey, snow-blanketed landscape of Chicago forming a backdrop, I had an amazing musical (I daresay, spiritual) experience. This was music at its best: transcendent, emotional, communicative. It took me to the unexplained places in my soul… A few years (and many iPods) later, I’d lost the copies I had, and since their flipping songs aren’t titled in English I couldn’t remember what I’d been listening to that magical winter’s day. This December, I finally found it again. Though “Svefn-G-Englar” was the actual first song I’d heard, this year, this was the song that grabbed me.

So there it is! I hope you enjoy the tunes, and my commentary on them. Sorry there’s no blazing guitar solos, but if you know me at all, you know that those just don’t matter that much. It’s the music that gets ya!

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Your Friends

Most of the time, I think your friends will tell you more about the state of your life than any other group of people. If you’re willing, you can look at them and get a feel for where you are in life, compared to any relational goals (if you have any goals, that is).

Off the top of my head, here are some “diagnostic questions” to ask yourself in relation to your friends:

  • How many of them are there? Is my circle expanding or contracting? We all go through seasons where we are either transitioning to a new community, or simply retreating for some “alone time.” However, I think that we can sometimes identify potential themes in the size of our circle, at least as it relates to our capacity for loving others. If your circle is growing smaller, you may need to think about where your capacity for love and engagement is, and address that part of your life.
  • How healthy are they? This is even more dicey. Sometimes we find ourselves in turbulence and storms, and never realize that we find ourselves in these places because this is who we cultivate. Our friends influence us — our decisions, our moods, our focus — and if we surround ourselves with negative people who seek destruction in their lives, then you can bet it will spill over into our own.

This may be a “duh-factor” for a lot of people, but I think sometimes what we need most is some way of objectively measuring the state of our lives, and the best way to do that is through the filter of others lives. If you take a look at these people who are closest to you, you may get a hint or two of where you are in life.

My .02.

What Kind of Deal Is This?

Last week a family in our faith community lost a baby. The baby had come too early, and was born with some chromosomal problems, and after one week, Campbell Joy crossed into eternity. The memorial service was one of the saddest scenes I’ve ever encountered: a small coffin over a grave, friends and family huddled in a cold pouring rain.  A Hollywood director couldn’t have thought up a more apt setting.

Today, some other friends got news that their baby (due in about 5 – 6 weeks) was too small, and may need to be “delivered” (the doctors said, “taken”, but I’m not comfortable with that language). Because the docs are going to wait a week, I have no idea how serious this could be, and my mind goes to the some less-than-optimistic places. I imagined myself having to walk through the loss of this child: what would I say, how could I be there for them in their pain? I thought of all the other ways that we experience loss in this life, and the roads I’ll have to walk through with my friends, regardless of where they are and when it happens.

To a great degree, I think that love actually is defined by our reaction to others’ pain. It certainly is revealed by it, brought into focus. Engagement with someone else’s pain = love. Retreat away from that pain, and you are retreating from love. I like to tell people, “As a pastor, you don’t get paid for the good days; you get paid for the bad ones.”

All of that lead me to the question, “Why do this community thing?”, which really isn’t the right question. The question is, “Why do this love thing?” If all love will — almost by definition — lead to pain, then why do it at all? I started listing out all of the ways we can experience pain in community:

  • Break ups
  • Death
  • Injury
  • Aging
  • Separation
  • Failure
  • Infidelity

All of these things will, nearly inevitably, accompany each relationship. And what can we place on the other side of the equation? What balances out this terrible list? “Life” and “Love”? What does that mean?

I think it means a lot, actually. I think that to the degree we weather the pain of relationships, our love and life expand, grow larger and more abundant. To the degree we retreat away from the pain, we shrink a little, atrophy away, grow dimmer. I believe we were designed as “lovers”, that is, to expand and grow into great engagers of humanity, and do you know why?

Because our Creator is the same way. God shows us the way love and pain works: As the very definition of love, God doesn’t shrink away from pain; he engages it, looks it full in the face, and as he does (or did) that, he shows that love overflows and extends in welcome embrace to the other. Ultimately that dialectical embrace of love and pain spilled over to the person of Jesus the Messiah, who simultaneously engaged our pain and revealed the abundant life we are called to.

Engaging pain is a tough deal, but the expansive, abundant life of love on the other side of the equation more than balances scale.

I Unplugged…

So I did it. I left my computer at work on Sunday night, and — here’s the important part — left it there until Tuesday morning (my phone is “dumb”, not smart, so no, I wasn’t cheating!).

No e-mail.

No twitter updates.

No blog reading.

Nothing. And you know what? The most amazing things happened.

(a) The world did not end.

(b) There was nothing that I walked into this morning that needed dealt with yesterday.

(c) I actually relaxed more. Felt more peace, more engaged with my family.

I’m just saying.

Advent Poem

Pause and reflect –
One moment only,
In the torrid  burning of our time,
And consider this:

We are not the lists we keep,
– Gifts to buy,
– Things to do,
– Things we’ve won,
– Loves we’ve lost,
–  Even the things we’ve done.

No, none of these will do –
We are babes, merely in waiting
For something to be formed,
For love-to-come
In the Advent of us all.