Friday, December 27, 2013

2013: My Year in Music

The preamble to this is so long I'm sure it's hard to believe I could have anything further to say.  You guys, I haven't even gotten to the actual song list yet. Fasten your seatbelts.

2013 was an incredible year of music.  Artists are using production, sound, and their instruments in groundbreaking ways.  I, for my part, worked at being a more attentive and active listener.  Somehow, music never sounded so sweet.  I went to fewer live shows but diversified the ones I did attend. My rotation also broke more into the cringeworthy Worship genre.  (Michael Gungor writes very honestly on this subject, even as the leader of a "Christian" band, and about how sometimes music in the genre has a strange "soulless" sheen to it.  In part, I agree with him, and it is for this reason I call the genre cringeworthy. He's since written a response to his first essay sort of correcting himself a bit but the initial premise and discontent remains intact.  As I explore bands who write expressly about their faith in music, I'm finding more music that doesn't make me roll my eyes, or want to throw up, and I've even found some stuff that I liked.... a lot.)

At the beginning of the year I made a goal to learn more about the Love of God, and just more about Him in general (1 John 4:8 would say that there is no difference).  Even though I've identified as a Christian all my life, I know surprisingly little about this purported Love that was made incarnate on Christmas day, and of which God is the source.  I didn't feel like I had ever experienced it, though I would have told you I knew what love was, and that I had felt it before, romantic, fraternal, and familial.  It's amazing how if you ask God for things, he actually gives them to you.  He tells us he will do this, over and over and over, but still I have a hard time believing Him.  I asked to know more about Love, specifically His Love for me, and He responded by teaching me.  Simple as that.  But it's also the most complex lesson I've ever embarked on.  When you ask to know more about Love and the one who created it answers, you better strap on a crash helmet because s*** gets REAL.

Because of this quest, a lot of the music I connected to this year was related to love, what it is and what it isn't.  It's not hard to find music about love, of course, but I started to listen for different characteristics being sung about love. In my relationship with my parents, and where they are in their lives,  I also started to hear songs about death or the journey of life in different ways, and connected to those as well.  Again, between the themes of love and the journey of life, we've pretty much covered 99.9% of all music ever written.  I guess I'm just comforted to know that other people have questions and feelings about these subjects, and can write much better than I can about them.

So without further ado, my list:

It is divided into four sections.  The first three are thematic and build off one another, and the fourth is just my hodge-podge of songs that don't really have a deeper meaning, I listened to them constantly this year and just wanted to share them.  There are links to the lyrics if you click on the title of each song.

Section the first: The Mirror Has Two Faces
I learned a lot about how I have both a true self and a false self this year.  The one that I live from is the one that I feed, and they both exist in me.  These songs all speak to that inner conflict and doubt about the big questions: why are we here?  Is there someone out there? What am I supposed to do? Is what I'm feeling true? They all touch on the struggle between right and wrong in ourselves.

1) Just Beneath the Surface - Dawes

"...there's another one of me
At the root of all my trouble, in the twitch before I speak
With thoughts and revelations even I could not accept
So just beneath the surface is where he will stay kept..."

2) Second Child, Restless Child - The Oh Hellos

This song perfectly describes the journey of my soul this year.  I'd been hanging on to a lot of stuff, and believing a lot of lies.  Also, I am the second child of three, and I am restless!  I love how even though it speaks about leaving everything you've ever known, it's hopeful. It is right and a good and joyful thing to do that.  This song always stirs me.

3) Ya Hey - Vampire Weekend

Undeniably, Ezra Koenig's asking big questions about religion in his life on this darker, deeper album.  Ya Hey = Yaweh.  Ut Deo means "as a God" in Latin. I think he makes a direct appeal to God with this song, demanding to know who He is, "you won't even say your name, only I Am that I Am".  He says maybe he's made a mistake not believing but also that there's a lot of reason not to.  I can relate.  But what made this one of my songs of the year was the last verse that he speaks near the end. He says "My soul swooned, as I faintly heard the sound/Of you spinning "Israelites"/Into "19th Nervous Breakdown".  Sometimes when I hear a particularly amazing lineup of music, I think God is behind it too. He absolutely speaks to me through music.

4) Lost in the Supermarket - The Clash

The subject of a blog post from earlier this year, this is an anthem for everyone who is unsure of who they are and looking for identity in the wrong places.  Brilliantly written (this song, not my blog post).

5) If I Loved You - Delta Rae

It's almost hard to listen to because of how much I relate to the words she's singing.  The man she's singing about, I have known him, I have said the words she sings almost verbatim.  The soulful pleading, letting go of something you want so badly because it's not true, it's not right.  It's a painful battle. This song was a reminder of the choice I made that led me into the journey of fully accepting my true self, and starting to live from it.

Section the Second: Here is Love
Love is the place where the journey begins of living from your true self, and finding integration between your true and false self, ending the war between them.  It is about forgiveness, letting go, courage, vulnerability and renewal.

6) Imitation of Life - Gregory Porter

First, let's just dwell on how gorgeous this man's voice is.  Next, without love, you're only living an imitation of life.  Yes, that is true.  Living from love does all the things he says it does in this song.  It is the place we begin, and without it, the world is without color, without sound, without its root.

7) Dust to Dust - The Civil Wars

(A late addition to the list). When this album came out this year I ate it all up.  But "Dust to Dust" stands alone in its beauty and message.  It's coaxing out of loneliness called to me.  One of my biggest discontents this year was feeling left behind in the love department, forgotten and overlooked. I didn't hear this song as a call from a particular man, known or unknown in my life, but from heaven above.  Who sees through me?  Who wants me to find rest? Who calls to me to let him in to burn away all that I should leave behind? Whom does my life reflect, for better or worse?  Who has been standing there, waiting for me this whole time, and even before that? Who is the real answer to loneliness? There is only one.

8) Level Up - Vienna Teng

Where the Civil Wars leave us, Ms. Teng picks us up and runs forward.  "If you are afraid, come forth/ if you are alone, come forth now/ everybody here has loved and lost/ so level up and love again."  Such an inspiring reminder not to dwell in pain after a loss or someone/something knocks the wind out of you.  I'm here to tell you it is that pain that turns us into ash from which we arise and learn to live fully and completely.  It's not something that happens just once either but is cyclical in nature. Don't be afraid. Begin again. Give more. This is the day, no other.

9) Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It - Stars

I don't know if there's better advice out there than the title of this song.  Love must be guarded fiercely by the receiver as it implies trust and total vulnerability.  When it is given, it cannot be given to control, or for an outcome, and in many cases it must be given undeservingly, expecting nothing in return.  I love this band, and I think this song is an homage to New Order, which is awesome.

10) Tree to Grow - The Lone Bellow

The New American Bible translates Jeremiah 31:3 as "With age-old love I have loved you; so I have kept my mercy toward you."  Most other translations say "everlasting love".  The love we give to one another is indeed older than our souls.  It precedes and goes beyond us infinitely.  

11) Where You Go - Young Romans

I heard this at the end of an okay movie.  Totally redeemed it.  It's the sound of someone joyfully and fully experiencing the freedom love brings.  "Give me your story, I'll give you mine."

Section the Third: Meet Your Maker
I've been thinking about mortality this year, mostly as it relates to my parents.  All these songs take the pain and darkness of death but turn it into a praise of life too. They remind me to be always pointed in the direction that I want to go in, that it won't be a straight line, and that life now is beautiful.  Don't be blind to it.
12) People Get Ready - The Kruger Brothers

I went to a bluegrass festival in April which was delightful start to finish, and there I discovered the Kruger Brothers.  This rendition of People Get Ready is a beautiful message about the train we're all on and to keep in mind where it's headed.  Also, just amazing banjo and guitar solos in it.

13) The Man Who Lives Forever - Lord Huron

I got way into Lord Huron this year.  They sound very much like Fleet Foxes but their lush instrumentation makes me feel like I should be back at a Bedouin camp in the Sinai desert.  (Also, hand claps!) It's excellent traveling music. I love how he's wrestling his own mortality here, because sometimes life is just so sweet, it's hard to imagine something else could be sweeter.

14) Ohio - Patti Griffin

How are so many great songs written about Ohio?  Nothing happens there! Neil Young, The Pretenders, Over the Rhine, and now, Patti Griffin. It's a song about death, and how life is not lived in a straight line, it is the winding river.  The blood running through our veins tells a story older than our own. Also, that male voice in there? Oh yeah, just Robert Plant.  NBD.

15) Dance in the Graveyards - Delta Rae

This song rejoices in those that have gone before, hints at the joy that awaits us beyond the grave.  It is not dark, it is not the end.  Let us sing and dance together, and walk alongside those that came before, and will come after us.

Section the Fourth: Sharing is Caring

16) Wishing Well - Cheyenne Marie Mize

17) Rising Sun - All Sons and Daughters

18) Tell Me What Ya Here For - Fitz and the Tantrums

19) We Sink - CHVRCHES

20) Song for Zula - Phosphorescent

21) Old Skin - Olafur Arnalds

22) The Great Divide - The Mowgli's (this was originally in the 2nd section but it got bumped as I rethought my most meaningful songs, it just didn't fit when I took in the work as a whole).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Resident Tourist: Christmas in DC

Thanksgiving was so late this year, coming directly on the heels of Advent.  This year I wanted to explore more of the many activities DC offers at Christmas time, and revel in the beauty of this city under the limited winter light.  A majority of the new people I meet in DC are from somewhere else.  But my closest friends here claim the metro area as their own hometown.  This resident tourist series sparked from a kindling of love for this area and a desire to know it better, despite the length of my relationship with it.  Even though I have kept up with the promise to undertake in one new DC thing per month, I haven't kept with the blogging part.  So now with Christmas upon me, I figured I should get it out there before the moment has passed.

One thing that DC does well is museums.  They are excellent museums, with expertly curated collections and they are free! Since going to South Africa, zoos are pretty much ruined for me, but I still love to go.   And I had never been to the annual National Zoo event Zoolights! They just decorate the zoo's main walkway with a bunch of different light displays.  It's not particularly amazing.  Nothing like this (additionally, the first song used in this is possibly the worst Christmas song I have ever heard, followed by even more horrifically bad Christmas techno.  I can't stop laughing. I wish my little brother were here to do his impression of techno music. It's so good.  Now I'm laughing harder.)

Okay so back to Zoolights. The trick to making Zoolights good is not expecting too much, and it would probably help to be under the age of 9.  But if that's not an option for you, I would suggest thinking of it like a nice long walk with pretty things to look at, rather than a big event.  Make the event having dinner at Ardeo+Bardeo with Zoolights as your appetizer.  But I took a walk down there after work with a co-worker and we very much enjoyed it. Google has very kindly "auto-awesomed" my photos for me.

When I was driving home from Zoolights there was a particularly beautiful moon rising over the city.  I get a gorgeous vantage point of "all the lights resting in the river" and the monuments from the GW Parkway southbound just after crossing the Memorial Bridge.  There is a merge where I was in line waiting and I had just enough time to pull out my camera, and snag this photo, and the long-exposure just happened to catch a car streaking by at the bottom.  Cool!

The night after I went to Zoolights, I treated myself to the NSO and Washington Choral Society performance of Handel's Messiah at the Kennedy Center.  Nothing makes me feel more Washingtonian than a night at the Kennedy Center.  A chance to meditate on the Advent of Christ in one of the most beautiful buildings and with soaring voices, and a full orchestra to help.

 I was there in November to see a production of the ballet Sleeping Beauty which was pretty interesting.  It had vampires and a decidedly gothic feel.  I was front and center in the second row and could hear the dancers breathe.  Sometimes being so close can ruin a bit of the illusion of the story, but for me it was fun to be able to see so much and appreciate the incredible physicality of the dancers.  I also liked being able to see their facial expressions so well.

Then, the very next morning, a Friday, I was presented with what may be my favorite Christmas present of 2013.  This sunrise:

I am so fearful of the day, if it ever comes, that I have to leave Old Town and can no longer walk a short time and find a view like this awaiting me.  I had my phone with me, this isn't even taken with my nice camera.  While there is no photographic tool that could recreate the glory of that morning sky, at least this is a reminder of what it felt like to stand there, overcome with the beauty of that still winter morning.  It makes me think of one of my favorite lines from the book Cutting for Stone which starts like this: "When I wake to the gift of yet another sunrise...".  Even if they aren't all this spectacular, they are all a gift.

Hope you all had a very Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Preamble to the 2013 Year in Review Album

It's that time of year again.  List after list chronicling, categorizing and ranking the musical year pops up in my inbox. I love looking and listening through them as much as I can because there is so much new, undiscovered territory for me.  And I am about to finalize my own year-end list. It's an annual tradition friends and family have been collaborating on and it's one I hope never falls by the wayside.

One of the opinions professionals shared this year more than ever is that there just isn't enough time to cover all the music being made.  Even if you only focus on one genre, or sub-genre. Music can be recorded on an iPhone, mixed, uploaded and disseminated so quickly, there would be no way to stay afloat with all that's being produced.  But even the well-known bands with big followings seemed extra prolific this year.  Take, for example, the Avett Brothers.  They released two full-length,studio albums about one year apart.  The Avetts tour relentlessly in the US and abroad, and still found time to write two albums chock full of beautiful, profound songs.  Sometimes I guess you get to a moment when you have a lot to say and you need to make the music when it's in you.  Even as a big Avett Brothers fan, it takes a long time with one of their albums to really know it.  With any album I want to get to know, I sit with it for long car rides, talk about it with other people, think about what the lyrics are saying, listen to it in my apartment, with headphones, and in the car to get all kinds of different sounds and hear different things each track.  Not being a person whose livelihood is made listening to music, it is sometimes hard to find this kind of time in the midst of normal life pursuits. Music professionals who listen to music every waking hour of every day (and sometimes in their sleep) would be able to cover exponentially more musical ground than me, but even they lament the lack of time and how much they missed. You just can't hear everything.

For the longest time, I couldn't accept this fact. How could I live when I didn't, and couldn't, know it all? I was plagued by thoughts of a lute-playing Serbian poet writing the song my soul was born to sing.  What if I never heard it? This fear drove me to a near-suicidal level of concert-going and music-absorption. I probably spent most of my disposable income seeing shows and buying music, back in those days when The Cloud didn't exist.  I was going to four and five shows in a week, and getting the same number of hours of sleep per night, driven to discover.

Partly, this drive came from a search for an identity.  I wanted music, my knowledge of it and my passion for it, to be something that defined me.  I would hear something in a song that I wanted to be. I pursued self-actualization through song lyrics.  And the more I heard, the more heroines cannonized in beautiful ballads, the more my own true character got lost trying to be what people were singing about.  In college, I was in love with a boy who loved music as much if not more than I did. He introduced me to a band called Rockwell Church. They wrote a song called "She Hung the Moon" and I still think it is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard.  I bring it up simply to illustrate that all I wanted in life was to hang the moon for someone, for someone to think of me as lighting their night sky.  Oh, if you could hear those beautiful guitar strings being strummed, and the soft harmonies being sung like I heard them in my head. This guy in particular hung the moon for me at a certain point in my life and that he had shared the song with me meant that I was special. Maybe, I thought, he was dedicating this song to me.  This small act, its significance a tenuous extrapolation at best, became foundational in my understanding of our relationship.  We spoke to each other through music.  We said things we couldn't otherwise say to each other in song, every mix tape or band recommendation a coded message.  

I've realized how dangerous it is to look for the definition of your character, or your relationships, in other people or things.  We have to say what we mean to one another, in real time. It seems an obvious statement, and yet, I see this struggle in a vast majority of the people I encounter, including myself. One song I go back to again and again for its truth is Everclear's "Everything to Everyone".  Though this record, in fact the whole album, is lyrically dark, the sound is ear-catching pop through and through.  "Everything to Everyone" was one of the biggest singles off that album which did very well in 1997.  "You always try to be everything to everyone.  You know all the right people, you play all the right games..."  That rings crystal clear for me at that time in my life.  I just wanted to be perfect, all the time, to everyone.  Know all the answers, know where to go, what to do, and have the right friendships.  That was all I needed to validate me.

First, I derived my identity from the music I was listening to and the words I yearned would describe me.  Next, I got it from the amount of music I consumed and my ability to speak intelligently, nay, esoterically, about it.  If I missed a show or an album release, if I heard bands mentioned that I didn't know about being talked about in friend circles, it was like heaping coals on my head. And I wouldn't share willingly either.  I hated it when a band got popular or sell-out arena tours started.  I hated it when they no longer felt like this discovery that I had made and that was all mine.  I felt like part of my identity, as someone who knew these things, an expert and a trusted resource, was called into question when it became a common resource, a part of the public discussion.  No longer a badge of honor in conversation.  At that point it became about, "well, I knew them when...."  What a horrible thing to say to someone who has just come to you with this newfound joy for a band or a song that I once had myself.  And all I could do was say, "yeah, I've seen them 5 times and I bought that album two years ago.  Have you heard their live anthology?"  Which tells this person two things 1) I am affirming your like of this band, but only in a way that is inferior to my like for them, and 2) you're not cool enough. So Sorry. Thanks for playing.  That was my way of acknowledging and at the same time completely dismissing genuine people trying to connect with me about something they knew I liked or thought I might like.

I've since learned that if you don't want to share things that should be shared, food, music, fellowship, that is a glaring red flag.  I was hoarding something that is designed to be enjoyed communally.  Also, a natural response for joy and excitement is sharing with people you love.  What makes a heart contract like that?

In college, because people who love music tend to find one another, a few friends got together and gave each other the soundtracks of our lives one year.  I cannot tell you how much time I spent on mine.  I must have gone through and listened to at least part of every song in my library to find the ones I wanted to tell my life story up to age 22.  I still remember these discs and how much each of us poured into them.  I got a little courageous with some of my choices and remember learning a lot about the people who submitted through the music they chose, even though we were all already close friends.  We were being vulnerable with each other.

Still to this day, I rely on poets and the words of others to express my heart.  I might have been better at self-expression by now, but while I was trying so hard to be who I thought people wanted me to be, who people needed me to be, and who I thought I was, I lived wholly apart from who I actually am.  I didn't learn how to say what I mean because I was always afraid it would be the wrong thing.  So I either kept quiet or spoke vaguely without any real truth. One thing I have always admired about true artists and writers is that, for better or worse, they seem to have a firmly rooted sense of identity and that's why the best artists and writers write so well.  Nothing can shake them, come hell or high water, the art in them is an expression that MUST COME OUT.  I am so grateful that there are people out there who aren't scared to write lyrics like "If I loved you, life would be easy, there'd be no truth that I'd be scared of...but I don't love you, not like I want to..." and to pour passion into stone like this:

What is the point of art?  What is the point of listening to music?  It coaxes us away from our false selves, and edges us closer to true reality.  Even in artistic impressions of reality, like in Starry Night, we can experience something true.

That is why I listen to music.  It is no longer to find out from the music who I am.  It is no longer to impress people with how much I know about something.  It's no longer a greedy hoarding of good tunes that I alone possess.  Time and again beautiful words and notes come together to lift me out of my flawed self, and towards something true.  That is why you can't look for the definition of yourself in the music, or in the people making the music, or in the people you listen to the music with.  Music echoes the call of Him From Whom All Things Flow.  Art, specifically music, when it is good,  reminds me that we are created from something vastly greater and not of this earth.  It reminds me that we are called to employ our gifts with whatever scope of reach we have in the service of His Kingdom.  Anything with that purpose can turn into a passionate pouring out of love, no matter the job, no matter who it is done for.

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