Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell's Staff Picks 2013 Thoughts
1. Jars Of Clay - Inland
People listen to music for wildly different reasons. Some folks need something to be on in the background during a shift at work, something to occupy their mind or fill up the lonely space around them. Some folks just need to party, and music serves as a catalyst for the good times. Some just like a catchy tune to sing along to.
I’m fine with all this, but I’m always on the lookout for something that moves me, engages all the senses. Melody is necessary, but thoughtfulness and purpose are important too. Music that sticks with me beyond the first listening is what I’m looking for. One Direction might have a catchy song (I saw them on Saturday Night Live a week ago), but that song didn’t really say anything. It was like a piece of candy; yummy but ultimately empty and vacuous.
And no other album hit all those requirements this year like Jars Of Clay’s Inland. It has a strong sense of purpose and theme (not just getting older, but maturing) married to memorable and tuneful songs.
It all started for me with the title. I read a post when the band announced the album’s name, and I was immediately struck with the possibilities of that one word - “inland.”
You see, I’m from the coast of Maine, and I know what it means to go inland. It’s a trip, a hike, a journey. You are leaving what is familiar and traversing into the unknown. The true pioneers of our country went inland; the timid folks remained near the coast and settled.
And Jars Of Clay did exactly what I hoped they would with the title; they used it as a great metaphor for growing up, maturing, and making better decisions. It’s a hike to get away from the coast, from what is usual and familiar, but it’s a trip worth taking. There are mountains to cross, but what you get on the other side is worth the hard work, and is so much better that moldering on the coast. It’s worth it to push inland.
The song titles alone are worth the price of admission. “Reckless Forgiver” (I sure need one everyday), “Love In The Age Of Immature Mistakes” (experienced it, made some big ones), “Love In Hard Times” (had some to get me through), “Loneliness And Alcohol” (we’ve all experienced loneliness, thankfully I knew from a very early age that substances are never a good solution to turn to, thanks mom and dad.)
Production wise, the album is full of sharp songwriting and great performances and great instrumental choices. And Dan Haseltine’s witty, insightful lyrics bring everything home. It’s the total package, and a blueprint for how to mature as a band.
May we all continue to march “inland”.
2. Aaron Sprinkle - Water & Guns
It’s great when a veteran makes a great, unexpected return. Aaron Sprinkle was the main songwriter in beloved 90’s alternative band Poor Old Lu, and he last put out a solo album in 2004, the fantastic compilation that was ironically titled Lackluster. Since then he has been the in-house producer for the Tooth & Nail/ BEC collective. The label kindly let him release this sugarcoated convection of an album this year. Sounding like Sprinkles’ current band Fair mixed with Postal Service type soundscapes, Water & Guns is a bottom to top great album of tuneful songs that prove that what makes you dance and smile can also make you think, feel and ponder.
It’s a wondrous thing when technology is incorporated into music, and somehow makes the music seem more human and emotional in the process. Aaron Sprinkle, who I fist heard back in the early 90’s, shows he knows how to write a hook-filled album that also speaks of deeper truths and rugged faith.
3. Over The Rhine - Meet Me at the Edge of the World
I first saw Over The Rhine live at a small church in Philadelphia in the fall of 1996. I still have not recovered from that concert. They were touring with the Vigilantes Of Love, and that show maintains its number one status as the best show I have ever seen.
And Over The Rhine has never put out a bad album either. Meet Me at the Edge of the World is a wondrous double album that finds main songwriter Linford Detweiler singing alongside his wife more and more, and the harmonies this couple weaves in and out are worthy of Simon and Garfunkle. The album swings from folk-rock to blues to rock and roll and back again. At almost two hours of music, Over The Rhine continues to turn out rich and meaningful music well into their twentieth year.
This band is a well-kept secret that is told more and more every year.
4. Five Iron Frenzy - Engine Of A Million Plots
I had forgotten how much Reese Roper and company made me think as I was skanking away in the mosh pits of my college years. Some of the boldest lyrics in the Christian music marketplace made Five Iron Frenzy a treasure. The band has questioned the American church’s love affair with the right wing of this country, and the glossing over of history when it comes to marginalized people. Taking on gun-culture (“lock and load, just like Jesus did!”) and the soft racism that parades itself as much of “immigration reform” (be scared of brown people, even if they are providing the services that allow you to eat that cheap cheeseburger!) Back in the day, few youth group leaders realized that their kids were listening to critiques of the military-industrial complex or America’s treatment of its Native American population. It’s possible that Five Iron Frenzy was the most subversive thing on the Christian Bookstore’s shelves.
Five Iron has a sneaky way of making you think while you shake about. Their sound here is matured, but familiar. This is a blueprint for how to make a return, rock the body, illuminate the mind.
5. Beautiful Eulogy - Instruments Of Mercy
I am way out of my depths discussing hip-hop. I have very little experience with the genre and I’m constantly afraid of making blundering, mildly-racist observations when the topic comes up. Being from rural Maine does not lead to much perspective here, but Instruments Of Mercy seems like so much more than just beats and rhymes. Genuine instrumentation is the order of the day, and a deep artistry of matching music to themes bursts out of the speakers. “Cello From Portland” opens up the album well (despite its painful pun) and “Vital Lens” and the title track mesh acoustic guitars and pianos to fierce and thoughtfully spit out lyrics. The ending of “Instruments Of Mercy” with its sung ending coda shifts from a hip hop number to a folky, campfire sing along with ease. The takedown of the miserable prosperity gospel that pervades television and bookshelves on “Symbols and Signs” sounds like an updated version of a Old Testament prophet standing on a hill outside Jerusalem and taking down a corrupt kind who would use Jehovah for personal gain. More power to you Beautiful Eulogy.
6. Gungor - I Am Mountain
I think I’ve hit on a theme here, because I Am Mountain might be the most subversive and thought provoking thing currently sitting on your local Christian bookstore’s music shelf.
Coming from a band who made their mark in worship music and touring with the likes of David Crowder Band, Gungor’s new album contains songs that sound like the list of following influences: Sufjan Stevens, 80’s soft rock band Toto, the auto-tuned tendencies of the last few years, the dance music of Daft Punk and the film scores of Ennio Morricone (The Good The Bad And The ugly).
But beyond the wild mix of influences, the questions asked by I Am Mountain make me glad that they took a risk and followed their consciences in making something that was not “safe” but was “true” to the Christian tradition of questioning the status quo. “God An Country”, a song that traces the history of the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels and the wars that dependence has sparked, is probably not played on the loudspeakers very often at your local Family Christian Bookstore, though maybe it should be. This album is the spiciest tamale’ currently in circulation.
7. Citizens - Citizens
By now, most folks know what “worship music” is supposed to sound like (mid-period U2 and Coldplay, with a touch of Pink Floyd for the daring), but Citizens have come charging out of Portland, Oregon (a great city for subversive art and culture, see the show “Portlandia” for further research) with a poppy, punk-rock take on worship. The same vertical lyrics are present, but they are delivered on a bed of spiky guitars and vocals that are anthemic, inspiring and refreshing.
8. Audio Adrenaline - Kings and Queens
I wish these guys would have just gone ahead and named their band something else, because one founding member does not a band resurrection make, especially if that band’s lead singer is well known from his time in another beloved band. It’s like Sting fronting Pearl Jam and still calling the band Pearl Jam. It’s just a silly marketing tactic based on name recognition.
Having said that, the album Kings And Queens is a really tuneful slice of pop-rock that sounds great on the highway and has ten songs that sound like summer and surfing. “Believer” and “Kings And Queens” soar in that way that my ears love, and the video for the title track is heart felt and inspiring in all the right ways.
These guys got back together to raise awareness for the band’s longtime commitment to the orphans of Haiti, and that makes this a comeback that I can get behind and trumps my (mostly surface-level) objections. “Boys will be kings, girls will be queens when we love the least of these.”
9. Plumb - Need You Now
This is another welcome comeback in a year full of them. Tiffany Arbuckle Lee has always had a knack for the dramatic, and it serves her well here on tunes like “Drifting” and the pleading and worshipful title track. The mix of industrial crunch and alternative rock set against Plumb’s wailing voice and great songwriting make Need You Now a comeback worth waiting for. Arbuckle Lee reportedly had a few tough years leading up to the release of this album, and that makes the title all that more important and resonant.
10. Fiction Family - Fiction Family Reunion
When does Jon Foreman sleep? Does he write a song every night before he goes to bed? Does he own stock in Red Bull? Is he currently sitting on twenty albums worth of material?
I hope so. His songs with Nickel Creek’s Sean Watkins are folkier versions of Switchfoot songs, but retain the great lyrics (“God Badge being another Old Testament style takedown of shallow religion) and fantastic melodies fans have come to love.
Top 10 Songs of 2013:
1. Switchfoot - “Love Alone is Worth the Fight”
This song does what I hope every new song I hear will do; inspire me to get up, get out of my comfort zone and go live this life God gave me to the fullest. There are few things worth fighting for, most of our struggles down here are for silly things; things that are passing and are honestly a waste of precious personal energy and resources. Love alone is worth the fight. If you mix soaring music with a worthy message then you have me every time. Currently, Jon Foreman and Switchfoot do this for me more than anyone else out there right now. This is a lyric I have written down, put in my pocket and hope to live out every day. Loving my neighbor as myself is a good way to “put my God badge down.” Thank you Switchfoot.
2. Jars Of Clay - “Reckless Forgiver”
Why does God forgive? Why does he show grace? It seems pretty reckless to me, like I’m only going to break his heart again. For that matter, why does my wife extend me grace, why do my daughters? It’s hard to understand, but no less real.
I need a reckless forgiver. I’m so often a mess. It really is amazing grace.
3. Jason Gray - “With Every Act Of Love”
“God put a million doors in this world for his love to walk through. One of those doors is you.” Amen. Jason Gray’s music is consistently the best that you will hear on Christian radio.
4. Aaron Sprinkle - “Giving Up The Gun”
…a great song of hitting bottom, surrendering and seeing that the rescue you need is closer than you realized.
5. Fiction Family - “God Badge”
“Put your God badge down and go love someone.” Maybe I should take that fish off my car and go help someone in need.
6. Plumb - “One Drop”
The best use of a ukulele this year. The video inspired my daughters to buy gifts for believers in third world countries this Christmas.
7. Five Iron Frenzy - “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”
Here is an exercise for you: Go look up these lyrics on the internet, print them out and stare at them for a few minutes. Then consider your position on current hot topic political issues.
8. Audio Adrenaline - “Believer”
Kevin Max sounds fantastic here, and this tune swirls and soars and makes me want to punch the air Rocky Balboa style.
9. Over The Rhine - “Meet Me at the Edge of the World”
This is a song where the world-weariness seeps into every note. Life is hard, but it’s worth living well. Sometimes it helps to think of what is ahead, and the world being re-made.
10. Beautiful Eulogy - “You Can Save Me”
A sermon set to a great set of beats. This is where the mix of faith and hip hop shines the brightest in my opinion.
And that is all. It’s great to think back on all the great music that I listened to this year. Sometimes a reviewer’s work is tough, because there is much that you have to call what it is; lazy songwriting, uninspiring melodies etc. It’s refreshing to talk about the good stuff all in one spot.
Have a great 2014, and remember, love alone is worth the fight.
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell
I think Inland deserves to be at the top of everyone's lists. I was excited to see Fiction Family Reunion on your list! Love Alone is truly an amazing song, I can't wait to hear the full album. Reckless Forgiver! I love this song, I wish it would get some radio airtime so there would really be a high quality song bringing attention to the masterpiece that is Inland. God Badge is good, although there are many Fiction Family songs I prefer more. It is one of the most meaningful I will say. Out of curiosity, have you heard the Fiction Family Reunion track "Monster"? It was an itunes bonus track and it is THE BEST song on the album. Jon's voice is haunting and beautiful. Best listened to loudly with headphones.