So, here they are. These are the songs released in 2011 that either (a) I couldn't stop listening to, (b) meant something significant to me, or (c) both. I'm limiting myself to one song per artist.
10. Love is Eternal Sacred Light by Paul Simon
Paul Simon - possibly my favorite songwriter ever - turned 70 this year, so it's fitting his latest album is filled with thoughts on God and the afterlife. Love is Eternal Sacred Light is my favorite of the bunch - a song that manages to elegantly express the story of the universe and its ironies in just a few verses:
How'd it all begin? / Started with a bang / A couple of light years later stars and planets sang / Fire warmed the cold / Waves of colors flew / Moonlight into gold / Earth to green and blue
Earth becomes a farm / Farmer takes a wife / Wife becomes a river and a giver of life / Man becomes machine / Oil runs down his face / Machine becomes a man with a bomb in the marketplace / Bomb in the marketplace...
Simon suggests that God has more of a sense of humor than we are apt to think, and that in the midst of all this mystery sometimes all we can do is throw up our hands and enjoy it: Sometimes you have to fly down that highway / Free as a bird / Knock on wood / Thank you Lord. Really insightful stuff from one of music's keenest observers.
I don't own the Civil Wars album - just a live album I downloaded for free from Noisetrade. The whole thing is good, but really the only song I keep going back to is this one. I love the way the duo takes turns in the verses, each expressing their respective gender's typically unspoken thoughts in a tumultuous relationship. There's truth in it. Sad truth, but truth. And it sounds really, really good.
Favorite line: I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back / The less I give the more I get back
8. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
If Love is Eternal Sacred Light is about everything, Helplessness Blues is about one's place within it. With soaring Simon & Garfunkel-esque harmonies, the Fleet Foxes beautifully express the human longing for meaning and belonging. In a year where I spent a great deal of time contemplating career and future, this song resonated with me from the first time I heard it:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking
I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me
But I don't, I don't, know what that will be
I'll get back to you someday soon, you will see
What is particularly striking to me is the way the singer suggests - at the end of every chorus - that someone is waiting very patiently for him to come to terms with his life and calling. The identity of the someone is never stated explicitly, but we rarely consider ourselves accountable to other human beings in discovering and following the appropriate path in life.
7. Somebody That I Used to Know by Gotye
Somebody That I Used to Know was my first exposure to Belgian songwriter Gotye. After the song popped up on my Facebook minifeed and I found myself hitting the replay button, I sampled the rest of his most recent album and was very impressed. Making Mirrors is a great album.
As for Somebody That I Used to Know, it's one of those songs that manages to be infectious and sad at the same time. Like with Poison and Wine, the song uses male and female vocals to represent their respective genders - this time in the wake of a break-up. The song is heartbreaking but also strangely comforting. It reminds the listener of negative feelings and experiences, but in a way that assures him (or her) that he (or she) is not alone in the experience. And it's darn catchy.
Most Devastating Line: "Told myself you were right for me / But felt so lonely in your company"
I knew I wanted to put something from Needtobreathe's The Reckoning on here, but it was hard to decide which one. Slumber isn't necessarily the best song on the album, but it's probably the most instantly ear-catching.
I spend a lot of time talking to people who are very skeptical about God's existence, and during one such conversation this year I lost my cool a little bit and said something to the effect of, "if you can't see the fact that your own existence and personal consciousness is in itself a miracle - a testimony to the existence of a Divine Mind - then your eyes are closed." Looking back on that moment, I wish I had handled the situation differently - but I still believe that what I said was true.
Perhaps because of conversations like this one, this song sent chills down my spine the first time I heard it. I want so badly to see peoples' eyes open to truths that I believe are self-evident - that there is right and wrong, that there is a law-giver, and that there is a way we are supposed to live. In this song, I hear a call to open our eyes to these truths - and for those who already recognize them to live in light of them.
5. This Is Not the End by Gungor
It was either this one or Brother Moon - both excellent songs off of Gungor's latest. This is Not the End is hopeful and joyful - a beautiful expression of the Christian hope that all will be made well. It may seem as if everything is heading toward death and disintegration, but the Christian clings - some would say quite stubbornly - to the idea that the best is yet to come.
The idea that the best is yet to come is one that I hope is true not only after my physical death, but also in the rest of my earthly life. There were times this year where I found myself scared that my most sincere abandonment to Christ had passed, but when I heard this song it felt like God telling me that it didn't have to be that way: "This is not the end / This is not the end of us / We will shine like the stars / Bright, Brighter!"
4. Roots and Wings by Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers
I love this song. Americana without an ounce of pretense. I don't have kids but I often think about what it would be like to have them. Throughout childhood and adolescence you feel like youth is going to last forever, but rather suddenly you find yourself at an age where your peers are starting to take responsibility for little human lives, and it's very strange. My generation is shifting from "the kids" to "the parents." I suppose that's the way things have played out for millions of years, but you only experience it once so when you do it feels novel.
"Roots and Wings" encourages those experiencing the shift to embrace it: "There is no reason to be sad / Be thankful for the time you had." I have always thought that, someday, I will have kids - but if I'm honest I have never felt a strong desire to take care of small children. When I listen to this song, though, I actually find myself wanting to give "my roots and wings" to someone. At the very least, I'm encouraged to develop my roots and wings now for that purpose.
My favorite line: "When I was a younger guy / One autumn night I told a lie / My Dad just shook his head and sighed / Said 'one day you'll know what it's like...' "
This song is so haunting - a fascinating mix of harp, synth, falsetto, and drum programming. The vocals sound like they should be bouncing off the walls of an enormous cathedral - or possibly sung by monks. Perhaps this is the birth of "monastery rock"?
Hanging On is smooth but it also communicates a sense of unease - the angst you experience when something is off but you can't put your finger on exactly what it is. I experienced a fair amount of this kind of angst this year, so I think this is an appropriate choice. That, and it just rocks. A very original sound.
2. The Resistance by Josh Garrels
This year, Josh Garrels decided to release his phenomenal Love & War & the Sea In Between for free. It saddens me that someone can make an album this good and have to release it for free in order to get people to listen to it, but I suppose I shouldn't complain about not having to pay for one of my favorite albums of the year. I could have picked a lot of songs off the album for this list, but I decided to pick the "ugly duckling" of the album: The Resistance is a straight-up rap song - and it is one of the most effective and mesmerizing rap songs I've ever heard. The groove is impeccable, the rhymes clever, and Garrels voice - typically used on folkier material - is very well suited to this kind of thing. This is one that I have listened to many, many times, and as I'm listening to it again now it still hasn't lost its luster.
Every mortal breath's meant to bring forth fire
But only when the fear of death gets consumed on the funeral pyre
So let the flames rise higher
And let every man be considered a liar
If he doubts the goodness and faithfulness of God
Itching ears will compulsively nod in approval
When unbelief is taught in all our temples and schools
But God can restrain the madness of a fool
He can bring his truth through the mouth of a mule
And you can move a mountain without any tools
It just takes the faith of a little seed
To make a way through what might seem to be impossibility
1. Midnight City by M83
M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is my favorite album of the year - a nostalgic yet modern two-sided opus overflowing with creativity. Midnight City - the first single - is one of the album's best. It manages to be equal parts danceable and ominous - the hook creating an immersive swirl of noise that I get lost in every time I hear it. It uses some distinctly 80s sounds - particularly the sax solo at the end - but there's something about the track that's completely original, and I love it.
And what is that sound?? It is alive? If you've heard it you know what I'm talking about.