Looking For America - On A Spiritual Journey Through 2016 With The Best Albums Of The Year
A look back at the past year is what we journalist and writers do. Trying to “get a handle” on what just happened is an age-old task that is always just beyond the reach of even the most senior reporter or cultural critic.
And then there was this year, one that, in many ways defied the odds as being a “weird” year. The U.S. presidential election took new twists and turns almost every week, and the other stories of the year (the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued fragmenting of our once monolithic pop culture into little bits and pieces of entertainment, etc.) form a chaotic whole that defies any attempt to categorize them.
And then there is the personal level. Every year that passes brings personal triumphs and failures, new family members and lost ones too. Jobs are gained, degrees earned, while in other spheres marriages splinter or a child passes away suddenly. One bad car accident can define a year, or conversely, one serendipitous, chance meeting can lead to a new love and the course of a life altered.
And so, as a music journalist, it’s ever so much easier to define the year by the great music I heard and absorbed into my soul. 2016 might have been an up or down year for me (I’d characterize it as an “up” year for the Caldwell clan), but it was also the year I heard “Live It Well”, “Balconies Of Grace” and “Local Construction”, three fantastic songs that have already embedded themselves in my soul’s DNA and inspired me to “live a better story” for the Lord, because, truly, “life is short“, I’m constantly “under construction” and always, desperately in need of “grace.” Traveling back through the year in music is always a joy, because the music that you truly loved marks the days and months (as in, “I remember where I was when I first heard this song!”).
The following are my favorite albums and songs of the year. This is not a “best of” list, as much as it is a “favorite” one. I make no claims to the greatness of these albums and songs (though many of them are), but to how much they moved me and settled in a place in my heart.
1. Switchfoot - Where The Light Shines Through
Every four years the U.S. goes through a presidential election cycle, and it’s almost always greeted with the question of “what kind of country do we want to be? Likewise, turning 40 years old (something I experienced this year) elicits the same kind of questions; am I who I want to be? Do I need to make a change?
For nearly half my life, Switchfoot has provided me the music to go along with those questions and searches, the bigger questing for the divine in the real world:
“This is your life. Are you who you want to be?” - “This Is Your Life” from Beautiful Letdown
“I want more than my lonely nation” - “Lonely Nation” from Nothing Is Sound
“I’m living for more than just the afterlife” - “Afterlife” from Vice Verses
And now, I’ll add:
“Life is short, I want to live it well”
“America, who are you?”
“The wound is where the light shines through”
Jon Foreman and company speak to my soul like no other band, and when they ask hard questions about themselves and their country, it makes me want to do so as well. But in asking tough question and making tough observations, they never skimp on the creative rock and roll. The blistering and epic guitars of “Holy Water” (a clever way to weave a song about baptism in with surfing, but it’s so much more than that) bleed into the fantastic bouncy baseline of “Float”, and then into the sun drenched and poignant title track. This might be Switchfoot’s most California album ever, with Beach Boy harmonies set against an alt-rock backdrop. “Live It Well” may be the closest the band gets to U2, and it’s deservedly turning out to be their biggest hit in ten years, because it inspires without cloying, it uplifts without preaching. Not many artists can do this well.
And in the searching for hope amidst the tough questions (“Looking For America”), Foreman comes down on a God who wants to gather the “poor, tired and huddled masses” (a play on the Statue Of Liberty’s famous motto) into himself. A country, as great as it is, is no substitute for a relationship with the Creator of all things.
And so, the answer to all that searching, is hope in a loving God.
“Hope's a seed you have to sow
When you let it go it comes to life
So you stretch your arrows on the bow
And you pull them back and watch them fly”
Any institution, person or thing I put my hope in down here is ultimately going to fail me. I put my hope in the Lord, and do my best to love my neighbor as myself. I place my life in the hands of the “healer of souls”, and with his divine help, hope to take my life and “live it well”.
2. Paper Route - Real Emotion
If I had experienced any sort of breakup this year, Real Emotion would have been my favorite album of the year. A song cycle about a relationship that’s ended (this I’ve gathered from clues both in the bands comments and in the song lyrics and placements in the album), Real Emotion is a bird's eye view of the cycle of disappointment and renewal that comes when any relationship is fractured. It ends with my second favorite song of the year, “Balconies Of Grace”, where the narrator gives his struggles to the Lord in a terrific, anthemic melody, and prays for the person on the other side of the relationship split:
“Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace
Raise your arms and hold what you can't replace
It's the simple things that I can't get right
It's the hunting heart trying to survive
And for every wound there's a hill to climb
Can we reach that high, reach that high
Raise your arms and hold balconies of grace
Raise your arms and hold
There is loneliness in the things we need
But inside your eyes I am reflecting
There is grace to hold over you and me
There are balconies, balconies”
May we all celebrate the grace that “holds you and me”.
3. Crowder - American Prodigal
I guess I’ll make it official: I like the band “Crowder” more than I did the “David Crowder Band”. That might be blasphemy to many longtime fans, but David Crowder is a much more focused songwriter on his new band’s first two outings than he was over the course of his other band’s seven albums.
American Prodigal is a case in point. It has a strong theme, both musically (southern swamp-rock and bluegrass-like folk music) and lyrically (the redemption of a wanderer).
David Crowder mines Southern folklore and gothic themes for traces of God, and uses the musical form in his songs of praise. “Shouting Grounds” (a reference that Southerners of charismatic background will get) takes an old religious tradition and imbues it with new life. The fact that I had to look up what the shouting grounds were is a testament to an interesting album. “Run Devil Run”, with its acoustic blues guitars (and fine music video) is a hoot of a song, and “Praise The Lord” redeems its lackluster title with terrific lyrics about a spiritual awakening, realizing that the Lord is so much more than the box our minds put Him in. These are among my favorite lyrics of the year:
“And I don’t buy that any more.
You’re not who I thought you were.
Praise the Lord…”
4. Needtobreathe - Hard Love
Many see Hard Love as a letdown after four great albums of gritty and heartfelt Southern rock, but the album, with its 80’s era synthesizers and left-field songwriting (just check out the auto-tuned opening vignette “Mountain”) was a needed change of direction for the band. The great title track addresses what is needed to make a relationship (be it a marriage, family or band one) work, and that’s “hard love”. The divisive history of this band over the past few years (something that they are more than candid about) makes this statement of purpose one of the most interesting songs of the year. It’s become a theme song of sorts in my house (I have two tween daughters in the midst of growing into young women, who require a “hard love”, not to mention their frequently grumpy dad) and I hum it often in the midst of any family drama. “Testify” is a wonderful worship song that uses a hammer dulcimer to great effect (something the Rich Mullins fan in me appreciates), and “Great Night” is the best dance song of the year (and made for a great concert opener on their latest tour).
Not everything on Hard Love holds together (the ending song “Clear” is nice, but strangely meanders on and on for almost seven minutes of nothing, and is a vague “is-he-talking-about-the-Lord-or-his-wife” tune), but the highs and good moments are right there with the best of what these fellows from South Carolina have done.
5. Relient K - Air For Free
I ranked these Ohio boys behind Needtobreathe, but if I had it to do all over again, I would switch their places. Are For Free is a great, cohesive comeback for these beloved, former pop-punkers. But while they were away they added a few new tricks, and the album is full of off-kilter songs that retain the puckish (a Shakespeare reference, and where the word “punk” comes from) spirit of the band. “Local Construction” is a bouncy tune that Wes Anderson would be proud to have in one of his movies. It also contains some of the finest lyrics Matt Theisen has put to paper:
“Days rolling by like local construction
I'm watching the tenements increase by increments
Work on it, work at it, work, but it's never done, no no
Fix the car, fix the house
Fix the flaws in myself
It's never done, no no
It's never done, no no
Like local construction
It's never done”
Wherever you may call home, there is undoubtedly a construction project around your town that is never quite done. So too are our lives. Praise God he’s still working away on us, though the days may seem long at times.
6. John Tibbs - Dead Man Walking
There isn’t nearly enough “heartland” rock and roll in Christian music. The honest, blue collar kind of music that refuses to gloss over the tough reality of life, the kind that speaks to you in its authenticity and honesty.
Indiana’s John Tibbs made that kind of album this year. A little Bruce Springsteen, a little John Mellencamp, a pinch of Creedence Clearwater Revival and a whole lot of heart, Dead Man Walking burns with energy and integrity, and never glosses over anything with fancy production or vague lyrics about “struggles”. Instead “Silver and Stone” bursts out of the gate with grit and verve, celebrating the God who makes beauty out of our messes. In “Abraham” Tibbs has one of my favorite lyrics of the year, sung with vocal cord-shredding intensity:
“It's not where you've been
It's not what your eyes have seen
It's not who you are
It's not what you're becoming
It's not what you say
It's not what your hands have held
It's the grace of God who makes this fallen place whole.”
7. Unspoken - Follow Through
Unspoken played perhaps the best one hour festival set I’ve ever seen this past summer. Maybe it was because they were playing a rare hometown gig (on a Mountain in Maine), or maybe they were just excited to be playing through their new album. But whatever the cause, they rocked and rolled through most of their new album with a humble swagger (I know that’s a contradiction in terms) I’ve not seen in a long time. This lead me to listen to their new album Follow Through with more curiosity that I normally would give something this “pop”.
But darned if they didn’t hand in the sharpest pop album of the year; a jubilant mixture of uplift and grit, of heartache and praise. With great melodies and the fantastic vocals of Chad Matteson (who channels Maroon 5’s Adam Lavine), Follow Through jumps out of the speakers. The extended version (which really should be the only one) has “Roots”, a great Paul Simon-like number that uses an African choir and a great agricultural metaphor that, if their record company had the temerity to do so, would be the best thing Air1 or K-Love played put on their play lists this year.
8. Tyson Motsenbocker - Letters To Lost Loves
A folkie based in the Northwest and debuting on Tooth And Nail Records, Motsenbocker had the best opening song of an album I heard this year. In the gut-wrenching “In Your Name” (a song inspired by the news of his saintly mother’s cancer diagnosis) he sings about praying for healing:
“Well maybe he is occupied with other people's wars
Or he's organized militia to fight the war on Christmas
or maybe he's protecting our children from the gays
Who have promised to destroy this utopia we've made
In His name
In His name
In His name
Well I hear that you've been speaking through the man on the TV
And you've helped the Dallas Mavericks with their field goal percentage
So when my mother's doctor calls again with more bad news
It's an honest heart's reaction - who, my God, have you been listening to?
In His name…”
Letters To Lost Loves is a travel log of faith, and takes you through the dark times (and the light) of trying to hold onto your faith. Christian music needs many more Motsenbockers to speak to the full spectrum of what it means to believe. Even the album cover, with a picture of his parents embracing, is devastating.
9. Sho Baraka - The Narrative
Humble Beast Records continues to put out some of the best and most challenging music from people of faith. Baraka’s The Narrative is a great title, and the album makes a great use of a historical motif, with songs that correspond to historically relevant events (like “Maybe Both, 1865” which is about the Emancipation Proclamation and the modern day Black Lives Movement), and with songs that demand repeated listens to get the depth and rapid fire maturity of the lyrics. The Narrative shines with fantastic, live instrumentation and an intensity of purpose that stuns.
In the afore mentioned “Maybe Both, 1865” Baraka spits out a rapid fire assessment of the troubles of the narrative of American history:
“Why stop now?
I haven't caught the holy ghost yet
Sing a little louder, we can drown out the protests
We build an antebellum, they too busy to listen
I hear disturbing things come from so-called "Christians"
Quick to justify your man's death
Because of a criminal record or how a man dressed
Thugs I guess, only perfect people get grace
If that was the Lord's way, there'll be no one in the faith
True flaw, America kills and hides behind the law
They purchase this land with violence, but never count the cost
Put a dollar to your ear, you can hear the moaning of a slave
America the great was built off the labor that they gave
Jefferson and Washington were great peace pursuers
But, John Brown was a terrorist and an evil doer
Oh yes, God bless the American Revolution
But, God ain't for all the riots and the looting?”
There are surely angles to debate here, but white Evangelicals would do well to consider Baraka’s words, and try, just for a moment, to see things from a different perspective and listen for another “narrative” that is out there.
10. Judah & The Lion - Folk Hop ‘N Roll
Folk Hop ‘N Roll is just about as experimental as a bluegrass album can get. With dance rhythms and zany turns of instrumentation (mostly done on acoustic instruments like mandolins and banjos), Folk Hop ‘N Roll is a down-home party record that grew on me as the year rolled along. There’s no better album I heard this year to dance on the front porch of your cabin along with. I’m happy these guys are getting such good exposure this year (they are opening for 21 Pilots on a world tour this coming spring).
Music is soul food, and one of the Lord’s neatest inventions. May you hear many good songs this year, that make you want to “live life well”, celebrate God’s “balconies of grace”, endure the endless “local construction” of you life (it’s never done), and be a blessing to the world “in His name”.
Peace to you, and a very happy 2017.
May we live it well.
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell