The wall has come down.
By my lights, anyway, it appears that this was the year that brought it crumbling to the ground.
When I was a teenager, I lived in a world where Christian music existed in a carefully protected city with high walls, where we whispered about the dangers and depravity of “secular” music. We believed that we could copy the sound and production values of secular music and just write “Christian” lyrics. We were fooling ourselves. If there is any such thing as “Christian music,” it needs to be defined. Shouldn’t that definition have something to do with truth? People beyond the wall have been singing about the truth. Shouldn’t it have something to do with honesty? The blues, country music, and rock-and-roll are full of honest expressions. Shouldn’t it have something to do with beauty? The music within the walls of the “contemporary Christian music” region was pleasant at times, but usually simplistic, sentimental, and derivative, whereas there was new ground being broken, new heights being climbed beyond those walls.
What we didn’t know was that there were Christian artists beyond the walls, keeping a low profile but doing the hard work of telling the truth, asking questions, and building beautiful things, letting their light shine before the world.
And then a handful of artists—most notably Amy Grant, but most passionately Sam Phillips, U2, Bruce Cockburn, and The Call—slipped through a back gate and began reinventing themselves in the spotlight of popular culture. They didn’t just sing praise songs or blatant advertisements for Jesus. They sang about every aspect of life, claiming them as sacred, calling out the hypocrites, ministering to the broken, confessing sins, celebrating freedom, and leaving signposts along the way that pointed to the source of all good things.
This year, I see no more reason to make the distinction between “Christian music” and “secular music.” Some music is clearly and deliberately crafted for purposes of worship and spiritual reflection, but it can come from anyone. Some music achieves these ends inadvertently, or even in spite of itself… and it can come from anybody. Other music is self-indulgent, simplistic, superficial, and dehumanizing… and it can come from anybody. Many of this year’s most impressive releases came from Christians who compose music so beautiful that the whole world seems drawn to it. And some of what strikes me as this year’s most profound musical revelations of God’s glory come from artists who would loudly deny any religious inclinations.
Sure, there are still those who live in fear of what they perceive as “secular,” and yet jealously plagiarizing “secular” styles and trying to “save” them with un-poetic, cheesy, elementary, propagandistic lyrics. But the wall is down now, and when compared to other artists easily identifiable in the mainstream arena, they’re shown up for the mediocre and misleading “artists” that they are.
The wall is down.
There is no more reason for the Christian music industry to exist. Christians have discovered that they can cross that line and the water is fine. Sufjan Stevens is being celebrated in Rolling Stone. The wall is down. Sam Phillips’ concerts are treated like secrets so special that you want to tear down the posters for the show so she remains accessible. U2? They’re on the cover of TIME again, and continuing to change the world, where their non-religious counterparts (R.E.M., Pearl Jam) are fading into history.
We live in the world I wanted to live in a decade ago, where Nick Cave, Over the Rhine, Pedro the Lion, The Innocence Mission, and Buddy Miller demonstrate that Christians can be serious artists doing work that requires no qualification, and they can do so without keeping their faith on the hush-hush. The controversial “crossover” is no longer necessary.
Sam Phillips…..A Boot and a Shoe
This year, there were three albums so great I had to listen to them every week from the day I purchased them. I felt compelled to study them, take them apart, and put them together again. The lyrics felt as though they were written directly to me, addressing both my personal troubles and the troubles dominating the headlines. The music was unpredictable, surprising, and intense, sometimes as quiet as whispers, other times as furious as storms.
But when it came down to this ridiculous pursuit of listing… I had to choose the one that won not just my head but my heart as well.
A Boot and a Shoe joins 1986’s The Turning and 1996’s Martinis and Bikinis as one of Phillips’ true masterworks. It’s more raw, personal, stripped-down, and soul-searching than anything she’s recorded since The Turning, plumbing the depths of the heartbreak she endured during the long slow separation from longtime husband T-Bone Burnett … who remains, amazingly enough, her producer, even for this album.
Musically minimalistic and yet melodically gorgeous, A Boot and a Shoe marks another “turning” for Phillips … a turning from an era of collaboration to a new future where she looks likely to become more confident, more courageous, less cocky (and that’s a good thing), and more independent. Her lyrics have never been more poetic, her humor never sharper, and her voice has lost that blunt, sarcastic edge to reveal a new vulnerability and openness.
In a year of conflict, Phillips is a still small voice of contemplation, confession, and hope.
If I Could Write
One Day Late
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds…..Abattoir Blues
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds….The Lyre of Orpheus
If this was classified as a double-album, I would probably have chosen it as my #1 of the year. But Cave insists these are two separate records, and I can’t say that either one of them, standing alone, is as strong for me as Sam Phillips’ album. Moreover, they don’t speak to my heart and my personal experience the way A Boot and a Shoe does.
But as far as a landmark accomplishment, these records stand as the most impressive artistic advance all year. They’re both masterpieces, the two towering peaks of his career, and that’s quite a surprise, coming as late in his repertoire as they do.
Where Shoe feels like a heartfelt letter, Cave’s work has the complexity and scope of a great poem by William Blake. Abattoir Blues and The Lyre of Orpheus are two terrible twins, works of frightening and awe-inspiring gospel-rock music that faces the wickedness of humanity without flinching, and clings to the thread of hope that “the mystery of the Word” will prove true, and God will deliver on His promises. Nature becomes the vehicle of His voice, whispering of beauty and design in a world where we are spreading chaos as fast as we can.
There She Goes, My Beautiful World
Let the Bells Ring
The Arcade Fire…..Funeral
U2…..How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Don’t be surprised if you hear these playing on Classic Rock stations even though the songs are brand new. Atomic Bomb is packed with irresistible pop songs disguised as ferocious, macho, swaggering rock and roll anthems.
While it’s not nearly as exciting as U2’s 1990s forays into new territory–a courageous and experimental period that alienated fans who wanted U2 to be predictable and redundant–this album seems calculated to lure back the fans that have bailed over the last decade. It sounds like Edge is saying, “No, please, don’t go, we can still turn out those great guitar-driven hits like we did with Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree!”
And yet, while they may be resting on their laurels, and they may not be breaking any new ground here, this is still fantastic rock and roll, with several tracks that can stand alongside the best of Achtung Baby. Furthermore, these songs wrestle with God more than any collection they’ve ever released. And Bono seems to be getting younger, his voice getting stronger. Where All That You Can’t Leave Behind felt half-finished, filling in the corners with B-sides, Atomic Bomb is an album of solid, radio-ready, “instant classics” with only a couple of stumbles along the way. It may be predictable. It may be old-fashioned. But it’s still better than almost anything on rock-n-roll radio this year.
And sized up against the latest album from rock’s other Superband of the 80s and 90s—R.E.M.’s Around the Sun—there’s just no contest. Where R.E.M. sounds like they’ve given up and checked into an assisted-living facility, their creativity on life support, U2 sounds ready to storm the stage for another decade of astonishing live shows.
A Man and a Woman
Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own
Crumbs from Your Table
All Because of You
Equal in power as a rock album, and superior to U2’s Dismantle as a work of art (if not quite as wide-ranging in style), Arcade Fire’s Funeral is a gorgeous, complex work of deep sadness woven through with threads of furious hope. This is the most astonishing debut by a rock band in ages, echoing the better qualities of bands like The Cure, Talking Heads, Modest Mouse, and Radiohead. And their lyrics are pure poetry. Just when the world needed to know that we haven’t seen the last of the Great Rock Bands, Arcade Fire comes to show us that we don’t have to settle for Coldplay.
Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)
Neighborhood #2 (Laïka)
Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)
Patty Griffin…..Impossible Dream
Patty Griffin reaches a career peak with this collection of songs that ache with the wounds of love gone wrong. It’s on the level of Emmylou Harris’s finest work, and thus it makes complete sense that Harris, Lisa Germano, Buddy Miller, and Julie Miller are able to participate on the album without ever threatening to upstage this star in her shining hour. This is clearly one of 2004’s greatest musical highlights … but proceed with caution, because it’s also the heaviest dose of heartbreak you’re likely to hear in any year.
Top of the World
Mother of God
From my previous review: “Each track on Retriever is a minor masterpiece of pop that bursts like a camera flash and leaves little glowing spots all over your brain. The songs are short enough never to wear out their welcome, deceptively simple at first and then packed with unexpected key changes and delightful turns of phrase, poised between sentimental diary entries and poetry. Sexsmith sings them with the same effortless grace that he’s known for, each plaintive performance as clear and tart as a good glass of gewürztraminer. He sings without ego, sounding sincere and humble and reflective, the kind of talent that usually slips by unnoticed because it lacks anything indulgent. His greatest strength is melody, putting him in good company with Rufus Wainwright, Ed Harcourt (who plays piano on the album), Chris Martin of Coldplay, and, his ballads can stand alongside any of Elvis Costello’s.”
Whatever It Takes
From Now On
Buddy Miller…..Universal United House of Prayer
Buddy’s closest thing to a rock and roll record is still laced with southern-fried Nashville twang. Backed up by the fiery gospel soul of Ann and Regina McCrary, with the help of his wife Julie, Emmylou Harris, and Jim Lauderdale, he delivers an energy and war-year passion that’ll burn down any house he plays in. It’s also an unapologetic gospel album that will break your heart and then put it back together again. Opening with Mark Heard’s anthem “Worry Too Much,” soaring with the soul-shaking “Shelter Me,” climbing higher with a superlative 9-minute delivery of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side,” and concluding with the grin inducing gospel fireworks of “Fall on the Rock” (try not to chuckle at the audacity of the refrain), this is Buddy’s strongest album yet.
With God On Our Side
Worry Too Much
Over the Rhine…..Changes Come
On Changes Come, Over the Rhine sounds like a band playing their last concert, pouring every last ounce of energy and passion into making these songs as brilliant as they can be. The result is a performance so intense, soulful, soaring, and astonishing that it will make everyone hope this is actually not the end, but the beginning.
In the summer of 2003, I saw Over the Rhine at Cornerstone take the stage in the company of multi-instrumentalist Paul Moak, bass player Rick Plant, and drummer Will Sayles. I’ve seen Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist several times with different Over the Rhine combos, but what happened there felt like defying gravity. They became something new, ferocious, and beautiful on that Fourth of July, while the fireworks exploded outside the tent. This recording, thank goodness, captures the energy of that performance at an unlisted stop along the tour soon after.
The set list for the album is, of course, shorter than the real show, but their selections are perfect. Highlights: Well, where do I start? The whole album is a highlight. This has immediately become, for me, the essential Over the Rhine album. It’s the one in which Karin’s voice reaches new heights, and the band pushes the songs into spacious new territory. It’s the peak of the band’s career as a live band, and we can only hope it’s a sign of things to come.
The World Can Wait
When I Go
Wilco…..A Ghost is Born
Tom Waits…..Real Gone
Both of these albums show artists courageously breaking new ground, concerned about vision and passion when, with their popularity, they could have just thrown out something derivative and earned applause.
A Ghost is Born is a sorely misunderstood release, one that rewards only those listeners patient enough to wrestle with it. Wilco turns in another unpredictable, courageous album of personal revelations, cryptic language, Scripture references, and beautiful poetry. Full of noise, distortion, and feedback, it occasionally congeals into piercing beauty that makes all of the hard work worthwhile.
Muzzle of Bees
Tom Waits’ latest is not one of his greatest, but it’s certainly one of the most original and memorable. It’s a fierce nightmare at the end of the world, with wreckage that’s been hammered into instruments for a cacophonous, arresting, and sometimes hilarious sound. If you thought Bone Machine was edgy, wait’ll you hear this.
Hoist that Rag
Sins of the Father
Dead and Lovely
Stop and Get Me on the Ride Up
Ben Harper & the Blind Boys of Alabama….There Will Be a Light
Need to have your spirits lifted? Here’s the trick. This recording of Ben Harper crooning and soloing in the company of the brilliant Blind Boys is casual but frequently inspired. You know how Bono talks about those moments in the studio when “God walked through the room”? This is one of those sessions when God walked in and stuck around. Harper’s humble enough to give the Boys plenty of room to work their magic, and his restrained use of simmering lap steel guitar give it a rock and roll edge, especially during the smokin’ anthem “Wicked Man.” There’s not much to the record in the way of production or special effects—the guys pretty much walk in, sit down, and sing their hearts out. You’ll be moved, delighted, and satisfied after spending some time with them. This one’s unlikely to leave my “heavy rotation” list anytime in the near future.
Well Well Well
Take My Hand
Sufjan Stevens…..Seven Swans
Iron and Wine…..Our Endless Numbered Days
Mysterious. Spooky. The distillation of prayers and stories into psalms. There’s a glow of revelation here, something glimmering in the poetry that will bring you back for more. One of these, though, is much darker than the other.
People You Meet
No sooner had I discovered a great new band, fallen in love with their first album, and been thrilled by several live shows, then they had to go and break up! Okay, okay, I know they broke up for good reasons. And that it was much harder for them than it was for me. But I sure hope they find new vehicles for their talents in the near future. They were a blast while they lasted. Mr. Partain … keep writing songs.
R.E.M……Around the Sun
I’ve never been so deeply disappointed by a favorite group. R.E.M. sound as if they’ve lost vision, discernment, and creativity on this record, and I come away depressed, discouraged, bored, and even angry that they would be content to release something so half-baked. I’m not giving up on them because of one bad album, but I seriously hope they learn from their mistakes and pull it together. Or quit.