New Pop Theology contributor Steve Sudeth brings us up to speed on some of his favorite music releases thus far this year. Let him know what you think he “missed” or should seek out.
One of the benefits of my desk job is that I get to listen to a ton of music… usually 2-3 albums a day. Not everything I listen to is enjoyable (I’m looking at you Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends) but it gives me a pretty good idea of what is happening in the musical landscape. Each month I’ll try to filter through what’s come out to give us an idea of what the musical world has to offer. Since I’m new, we have a bit of catching up to do. So here is a recap of music I have found meaningful and worth a listen from the past six months.
The State of the Nation
Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
The Boss returns with an album that is a forceful commentary on what has happened in our country after the economic down turn. If his album “The Rising” was meant to give us hope after the attack of 9/11, Wrecking Ball is meant to confront us with what he clearly sees as a seminal moment for our humanity. The opening track, “We Take Care of Our Own,” is an attempt to recalibrate a distorted cultural moral compass and reaffirm that “we are the hearts that run over with mercy.” The whole album is heavy with the tension between desperation and optimism (“Shackled & Drawn,” “Rocky Ground,” “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” and “We Are Alive”) and offers a reaffirmation of the human spirit. The highlight of the album for me is “Jack of All Trades,” Springsteen’s ballad of survival and comfort to those immersed in struggle.
An interesting experience is to listen to “My Hometown” (from Born in the USA), “Death to My Hometown” and “Wrecking Ball” in that order.
Anais Mitchell, Young Man in America
Who am I? Young Man in America is an amazing collection of stories that take different characters through the struggles of self-understanding. We learn what it means to come from a place of ignorant self-assurance, go through the wringer of life (laboring), and come out the other side questioning and unraveling. The song “Tailor” is the tipping point: “There isn’t anyone to say if I’m a diamond or a dime a dozen.” Where do we find self-worth and value? Is it through our lineage, our labor or in the opinion of others? Who am I?
I feel compelled to mention something about the themes of the absent parent and how it all culminates into the song “You Are Forgiven.” This is a deep rooted and emotional topic that is explored in almost every song… sounds like I have a new project!
Jimmy Cliff, Rebirth
This album makes me smile and cry at the same time. There is something so uplifting and joyful about Cliff’s reggae sound that almost sugar coats the deep pain and suffering he sings about. The album flows between laments (“World Upside Down” and “Children’s Bread”), celebrations (“Reggae Music” and “Blessed Love”) and even some cover songs that acknowledge the influence Cliff has had over the past 40 years (“Guns of Brixton” by the Clash and “Ruby Soho” by Rancid). This album was actually produced by Rancid’s lead singer Tim Anderson.
Thoughts on God
Patti Smith, Banga
This is not an album that I can have on as background music; it has far too many cultural references that challenge the listener to keep up. Most of the songs deal with issues of destruction and the search for the new and are interwoven with deep literary illusions. The title track “Banga” is a reference to Pontius Pilate’s dog (from The Master and Margarita by Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov) that wrestles with ideas of salvation as Jesus waits in the hallway. “Amerigo” begins the story of ideological (evangelical?) conquest of the new world that comes to fruition in the epic 10 minute “Constantine’s Dream.” Thankfully, Patti gives us some lighter songs (“April Fool” and “This is the Girl”) that serve as a much-needed break from the heavy lifting that the rest of the record demands.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, Here
“Reaching for heaven is what I’m on Earth to do.” Alex Ebert’s alter ego (Edward Sharpe) and his feel good band of misfits are on a trip through all things God, church, and universal love. Every song deals with different feelings and institutions that may be holding us back from living a life of love that is modeled by God (“I love my God, God made love”). Unlike some of the previous albums I’ve mentioned, this one is full of life and incredibly uplifting. There are so many moments on this record I want to linger just a bit longer (either as a moment of meditation, appreciation, or worship), but the music keeps moving me along to the next iteration of their lofty and love-filled desires. There is a lyric in “That’s What’s Up” that has become my prayer a couple times since I first heard it: “Love is our shelter, love is our cause, love goes on forever, love will lead us all.”
Damon Albarn, Dr. Dee
The man behind Blur and Gorillaz gives us the most surprising collection of religiously charged songs so far this year, and as an opera no less! “Dr. Dee is an operatic work that revisits John Dee, a renaissance man of the Elizabethan era. His expertise in mathematics and astronomy earned him the ear of Elizabeth I, but his thirst for occult knowledge led to his downfall” writes Kitty Empire from The Guardian. This album will not make my best of the year list just because it doesn’t do much for me sonically but there are songs and prayers on this album that are great for discussion. “O Spirit, Animate Us,” “A Prayer,” “Temptation Comes in the Afternoon,” and “Cathedrals” are all fertile ground for conversations about how institutionalized religion has impacted us.
Other musical happenings that are worth a listen (Spotify Playlist).
Music that Matters 1-6
Need a breath of fresh air? Welcome back to rock n’ roll.
Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe
Womack gives us an idea of what the future of R&B music could sound like. Not bad for a guy who has been doing this for over 40 years.
Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls
Anyone else hear a lot of CCR going on?
First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar
Frontrunner for my favorite song of the year.
Michael Kiwanuka, Home Again
So, so smooth. Makes me want to find an open field and stare into the sky.
More Suggestions for Your Listening Pleasure
Miike Snow, Happy To You
Vintage Trouble, The Bomb Shelter Sessions
Jack White, Blunderbuss
Willie Nelson, Heroes
Sigur Ros, Valtari
The Walkmen, Heaven
Frank Ocean, Channel ORANGE
Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal
Glen Hansard, Rhythm and Repose
Father John Misty, Fear Fun
Galactic, Carnivale Electricos
Peter Gabriel, Live Blood
Hot Chip, In Our Heads