Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool: A Best Of for 2015

Prolegomena

Inspired by my Japanese apostle, John Mark Mullan, back in the mid-2000s my friends and I started an annual tradition called the Best Ofs. It is not unique but it is special. We reflect on the year through the music we have discovered and we make selections, mix-tapes, and in one very fine contribution, an entire movie. The CD was still dominant when we began and it sets the terms of the project still, a lovely evolving testimony to the fact that we are no longer young. So the rules are as follows:

  • The mix must be less than 80 minutes.
  • It must be more than a minute.
  • Artists can repeat.
  • Songs can be from any era, but just new to you in the last year.
  • Any and all genres are welcome.
  • Crazy ass remixes/mash-ups of familiar songs from long ago count as new
  • You can submit detailed supplementary content or just raw audio or anything in between.
  • You can post us all CDs, make a Spotify playlist, or distribute the files on A4 pages hidden around a local forest – whatever way you think gets the best balance between ease for you (the compiler) and ease for us (the listener). But we have a special dropbox if you want to keep things simple.
  • Anyone invited can feel free to invite others, because the Best of Project is a great way for friends to meet friends’ friends.

When I Think Back On 2015

So when I reflect on the last year I mostly think about books and the battles I wage with them. I have become ever more short-sighted, balding, grey-haired and troubled as I wrestle with my thesis and moving on from the purgatorial grey of Aberdeen. My writing becomes ever more obtuse. My conversation ever more arcane. I was never with it, and they may well have changed what it was, but right now I am definitively square. Marge Simpson is my spirit animal. Hence:

I do not have the skill or courage to write a retrospective of my year that is true or insightful. I do have the songs that resonated with me, which reveal that more than any year in my life thus far, I have been consumed with thoughts about God and life and how thoughts about God are not the same as faith and thoughts about life is not the same as living. The songs are sad or angry and only in one example deliriously triumphant. And that example is a theme tune to a TV show, so that says a lot about the state of my soul, right?

Still, I like to think in my thought and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, that I am not a morose person. I aspire to be guileless like Marge and so even if life in the TheoLab is very much square, I’m happy there, even if I still look into cameras as if they are about to ask me a question I don’t understand:

TheoLab ahoy!

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

So these are the songs that made it into my best of. In the version I will upload to the project, it comes in at 77 minutes and 44 seconds. So listening to it takes a commute to work and back again, probably.

This is the album cover, which is an image from the artist Ryoji Ikeda:

Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool

Here’s a YouTube playlist:

Commentary

Here’s the tracklisting:

  1. The Decemberists – A Beginning Song:
    For various reasons, as the end of 2015 collapses on us, I have a growing suspicion while sitting in the Concrete Bunker that 2016 is going to be a decisive year for our little family. So the song that closes the Decemberists album opens mine, because in 2016, whether we like it or not, the next chapter begins.
  2. Dawes – All Your Favorite Bands:
    Wife-unit’s advice for making mix-tapes is complex and nuanced, but I boiled it down to: “Start strong, but follow it up with the home-run.” This is my single favourite song of the year. Its gentle guitar riff runs through my head constantly and the spirit of friendship and hope that it extols is both deeply resonant and comforting to me.
  3. Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best:
    The jury was out for a long time on this Antipodean sensation. Wife-unit instantly warmed to the 1990s production style, and it definitely tickled my nostalgia for an adolescence full of wordy female songstresses. But in the end, the most raucous track on the album lingered in my memory.
  4. Kendrick Lamar – i:
    I did not wait with bated breath for the Kendrick Lamar album but when it arrived, it was overwhelming. Often it is hard to listen to because there is so much for black Americans to be furious about. Lamar, especially here, is a compelling voice in the midst of that injustice. This song is so damn good.
  5. Blackalicious – I Like The Way You Talk:
    I did wait with bated breath for the Blackalicious album. I waited ten freaking years for it. And when it arrived I was positively underwhelmed. I just built it up too much, I suppose. It’s an odd album because when I play it all at once it is almost anonymous and frequently annoying. But taken on their own the songs are great. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion as the months go by. That’s often the case with me; I am so naturally unmusical that the best stuff often takes a long time to settle in my ears.
  6. Sleater Kinney – Price Tag:
    There’s a famous Portlandia sketch where Carrie and Fred inadvertently open a sweatshop in their basement. This could be a soundtrack for that. But it is one of the most rocking of the album’s tracks (they almost all rock) and I love it because studying wealth and capitalism for the last few years, I am convinced that it is impossible to shop ethically. Best to scream about that than just lie down and accept it, right?
  7. Oh Pep! – Tea, Milk & Honey:
    Like other people in the group, I go to NPR Tiny Desk Concert to find new music regularly and that is where I found these great Australian chaps. This is such a lovely love song. The voices are unostentiously soaring and the person speaking to us through the lyrics has such humble adoration for their partner. “She sings like a church with a choir in it.”
  8. Craig Finn – Sarah, Calling From a Hotel:
    Craig Finn is my favourite song writer. Now that The Hold Steady are on indefinite hiatus, I am consoled that he seems dedicated to his solo career (although I’d swap it all for a novel from him!). No one tells a story like him and this song demonstrates that. This song is terrifying. “Oh God, I’ve gotta go.”
  9. Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved:
    The last two Sufjan albums were not beloved, but they get more playtime from me with every passing year. I was expecting that whatever would happen with Sufjan’s new album, I would have to take a lot of time to get used to it. I was wrong. We all were wrong. Carrie and Lowell is a stone cold masterpiece and I could have just listed all the songs and then drawn this mix to an end. Instead I basically chose the two I chose at random.
  10. The Gregory Brothers – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Tune:
    Certain things run constantly through my mind. Passages from Isaiah. Old Wesleyan hymns. Thomas Hardy poetry. My brain rarely rests, unless I sleep, in which case, it is busy making crap up but thankfully I rarely remember dreams. Now, new this year, the “Unbreakable! She alive damnit!” of this theme tune intrudes on my consciousness a dozen times a day. Making coffee in the morning. In the middle of a sensitive, pastoral conversation at work. Wrestling invading ninjas. At the most inopportune times this song breaks in with its exultant surprise and I submit to it. So now you’ll have to as well.
  11. Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta:
    The week after the Charleston murders, I was in America with my bumchum Taido. We were in Princeton at a fancy conference that drew hundreds of top scholars and students from around America and around the world. In the evenings, we’d go hang out with our friends Matt and Evie and that was a hands-down highlight of the year. Matt drove us around Trenton, the underworld that makes Princeton possible. He invited us to a prayer walk being held in remembrance of the victims of the attack, starting at the local AME church and winding its way through Princeton until it stopped with prayer and song and speech in the square in the centre of the town. We told the organisers of the conference and suggested they call off their evening schedule. “Think of how awesome it would be for these Christians if hundreds of their brethren from around the world joined with them, pausing their business to do the more important work of prayer?” They didn’t agree. A famous and much revered bishop was due to speak and they were not about to sideline him. “Besides,” we were told, “we shouldn’t miss his speech because it is so funny; it’s basically stand-up!” We skipped the ecclesial comedy (which was most certainly tragedy) and went to pray in the town. Who am I to have an opinion on the cultures I do not inhabit but it seems to me that America’s racism is more deeply embedded than the toolkit of the white Ivy League elites can ever hope to reach. Lamar was again an educator for me. Cutting the legs off the slave is not a thing of the past.
  12. Josh Ritter – Getting Ready To Get Down:
    Ritter is one of those people who I am meant to like. So many of my friends love him but I could never get into him, even though Ian Tracy had a brilliant track from him on one of his Best Ofs years and years ago. But his rockabilly Gospel record was great fun and how could I turn down a song about how, very often, studying the Scriptures distances us from the faithful and that spoke of “Just another damn of the damns not given”?
  13. Torres – Sprinter:
    I read Torres’ music described as arena rock for abandoned arenas and I think that is wonderfully descriptive. The songs are smart and long-arched and loud. This song, like so many in this collection, is haunted by the attraction of Jesus and the impossibility of the church. It is autobiographical, I suspect. It is definitely true.
  14. Will Butler – Son Of God:
    If pressed to explain how much I loved Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell, I’d say it is my favourite album since Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. The Arcade Fire are among my very favourites and so the first solo album by Will Butler was bound to get a lot of my attention. This song is again about Jesus and ethics. Squaresville central.
  15. Vandaveer – However Many Takes It Takes:
    After that big fancy conference, Taido and I spent a weekend in New York, wearing holes in our shoes as we sprinted around the place. The first night there, after a heavenly dinner on a park bench in Union Square, we went to the Bowery Ballroom to see a band for whom Vadaveer supported. Vandaveer were better and this – yet another Squaresville tune about searching for salvation but not finding it – is my favourite of their songs.
  16. Sufjan Stevens – Drawn to the Blood:
    One of the (many) reasons Christianity is so deeply bloodless in the West is that it is presented as a solution to a problem. Lonely? Find community at church! Guilt-ridden? Find serenity in the liturgy! Nihilistic? Find meaning in the Gospel! These are half-truths and full lies. When the God of Elijah is your lover, life does not suddenly have meaning. Guilt does not suddenly lessen its grip. Loneliness does not magically stop stalking. The lyrics of this song fall away half way through but the story it tells swells on. Sufjan is putting aural shape around the stumbling that faith in the West in this age consists of.
  17. Alessia Cara – Here:
    An introvert’s anthem.
  18. John Moreland – Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars:
    I discovered this guy in early November and I basically haven’t stopped listening to his album since then. This is basically a thesis-statement-song for Squaresville: “Life will make you homesick for a home you’ve never had.”
  19. Jason Isbell – 24 Frames:
    I suspect Isbell was the most commonly occurring artist in the whole batch of last year’s Best Ofs and his new album is likely to also feature heavily in various playlists. “You thought God was an architect; now you know he’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow”? Squaresville: Yet another song about being unable to reconcile the deep mysteries of life’s hardness with the ever-present promises of God.
  20. Glen Hansard – Winning Streak:
    I remember a friend telling me a story about how, as a young musician, he encountered Glen Hansard and the Oscar-winner (who was then not yet a famous Oscar-winner) was a right dick to him. I probably mis-remembered it, knowing me. But the point is that for years I resisted liking Hansard’s music because he had been mean to my friend. In retrospect, that was both petty and self-defeating because Hansard is consistently astonishing. The latest album is his best yet, richly influenced from all over the place and resounding with a realistic hope that at times appears hymnal. This benediction, this good word of a song, is a fitting way to start landing the best-of.
  21. Glen Hansard – Grace Beneath the Pines:
    And this quiet song of resilience is the perfect way to draw the year to a close. Jason Isbell is a man of deep faith, as are many of the songwriters who feature on my list. But the most uplifting songs come from this Dubliner, who lives a few miles from my family home and from what I can gather, has no religion to speak of. However, to whatever extent the word spirituality means anything, Hansard’s songs are immersed in it.

If you want to download the album, this link should work.

Your Correspondent, He could go on talking, or he could stop

Music Favorites of 2014

For the last few years, my friends and I have had an annual tradition where we compile a “Best of” playlist from the music we discovered that year. This tradition has been going on long enough that they used to be burned on CDs and were accompanied with differing levels of complicated liner notes. Nowadays, they are mostly folders uploaded to Dropbox. Some lazy sods even just roll out a YouTube playlist, or more scandalously again, a Spotify playlist. HOW AM I MEANT TO LISTEN TO YOUR FRENCH POP MUSIC IN MY CAR IF YOU ONLY GAVE IT TO ME VIA GOOGLE?!?

It’s been a great, simple way to mark the passing of time and I often listen back to my favourite entries. You can tell when that one friend was spending the year DJ-ing in Tokyo and remember how that company the other friend was working for famously collapsed in on themselves while he discovered the glories of Blackalicious. The mixes are evocative, not just of the music of that year, but of the great moments with friends in that time.

KEVINDECENCY 2014

Taido Chino, a recent but treasured addition to our group, stuck his up on his blog, so as with everything, I am going to copy him. You can download the album here: KEVINDECENCY 2014 and this is the tracklisting.

Track listing

The terrain of the year is apparent in this track listing. A vast amount of time was spent sitting at a desk in the TheoLab, reading popular histories of the Irish economic crash of 2008, early Patristic writing about wealth, and Karl Barth on the parables of Jesus. I found that three kinds of music suited the sort of in-depth reading I was doing: jazz (socially acceptable), movie soundtracks (slightly below the threshold for social acceptability), and (overwhelmingly) video-game soundtracks (full on musical pariah status guaranteed).

But think about it: video game soundtracks are composed with the intention of encouraging focus. The art of the Halo soundtrack is that it helps you focus on nothing but Halo. I soon sent my ears wandering from games I knew (Command and Conquer’s “Hell March” was an old favourite) to new soundtracks for games I’ve never played. The only computer game I play is Football Manager, so this meant I was fairly voracious in sucking up old classics. The PS3 game Journey has a great soundtrack but the best of all time has to be the 1998 game Katamari Damacy. I didn’t want to be dishonest about how very uncool my music selection is this year so I kicked it off with a track from that soundtrack.

Later I chose “Go Big or Go Exctinct” from the Pacific Rim soundtrack because that record was so often an early morning selection to get my concentration-on. The loud announcement noise of the guitar that features so prominently throughout that album is part of my brain’s furniture at this point.

One other thing I notice from this album is how predictable my middle-aged tastes are. Jenny Lewis and The New Pornographers and Janelle Monae have all featured on earlier Best-of mixes. And throughout it, the recurring aural arrangement is a combination of male and female voices with a strong piano line. Amazon’s algorithm could just write music for me for the next 20 years and save me from becoming a fan of Ed Sheeran.

The final thing that I notice is just how sad the songs that stick in my ear are. 2014 has been widely hailed as a miserable year and personally it has been a bastard to me at times, even in the midst of my larger contentedness with my studies. The music that resonates with me this year is music about struggle with ourselves and others and death.

Even the song about dancing is a satire about amusing ourselves to death.

Cheery.

The best album of the year for me was The Both, the project that brought America’s wittiest lyricist Aimee Mann into collaboration with America’ wittiest punk Ted Leo. It doesn’t feature in any of the prominent Best-of lists because Best-of lists are inherently stupid.

Anyway, go download my Best-of playlist. Adding the word “play” always turns stupid things into wisdom.

Your Correspondent, Like Danish pastry, he’s looking tasty

Some Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck

Christmas music usually stinks. I know this with certainty because I live with someone who turns on the Irish charity radio station Christmas FM on December 1st and as much as is possible, keeps it on through Advent until it finishes broadcasting about 7pm on St. Stephen’s Day. There is only so much “Christmas Shoes” and Justin Bieber promising “I’mma be under the Christmas tree” can be played before a man considers divorce. Christmas music stinks so much that Bruce Springsteen’s effort is horrendous. I am glad for your sake that you haven’t even heard the unreleased R.E.M. Christmas songs.

This year, more than any year, I have relished Advent and anticipated Christmas. Life is harder than I thought it was. And one of the undersides of the struggle is that I no longer have the energy to maintain the sour opposition to Wham’s “Last Christmas” and its musical fraternity. Who cares if it was originally “Last Summer” and they changed it because they spied a chance to make a mint? It’s a great pop song. The Band Aid song still pisses me off for the same reasons it pisses all sane people off. But to an extent I never thought possible, I enjoyed the Christmas build up, the secular Advent this year. It is no coincidence that my enjoyment of street lights and public Christmas trees and jingles played incessantly in H&M has increased in proportion to my engagement with the Christian practice of Advent. The Gospel shapes you to welcome light wherever it is found. The pseudo-piety of the Christian Christmas naysayer is revealed for a waste of time when you realise just how much fun it is to shout “IT’S CHRISTMAAAAS!” along with Slade.

Don’t get me wrong. Christmas music usually stinks. But there might be some albums that you can download and play for the next 9 days that don’t drive you demented. Here are three:

1) Moya Brennan – An Irish Christmas
Moya Brennan is a member of the legendary Irish traditional group Clannad. Think of her as Enya’s cooler, Christian cousin. That’s how lame Enya is. A Pentecostal Irish-speaking Christian is still cooler than her. This album has that Celtic, echoey feel that you’d expect from a musician from the Donegal Gaelteacht but it is not gratingly artificial like that stuff often is.

2) Annie Lennox – A Christmas Cornucopia
Lennox is not (to my scant knowledge) a Christian, but this album has the kind of muscle that comes from someone who gets the earthy, fleshy core of the Christmas message. If GK Chesterton was a Scottish pop legend, he’d record an album like this. At Christmas we rejoice in the light breaking into the darkness. But the darkness can’t be sentimentalised away. Lennox’s album keeps the menace of Christmas alive, if that makes sense. Listening to this you cannot mistake Christmas for the celebration of a baby meek and mild, no crying he makes. An invasion of occupied territory has begun. We are holding our breath in anticipation.

3) Blind Boys of Alabama – Go Tell It On The Mountain
This was the first Christmas album I ever fell in love with. Tom Waits joining with them as they command us “to go tell it on the mountain” is probably all the advertisement that you need to track this gem down. The first two albums definitely fit into the stereotypical musical tone of a north European Christmas. They are cosy albums for days that get dark early and that freeze. The Blind Boys record doesn’t have that scarf-and-hat feel. What it does have is sincerity. This is the closest to a worship album as you need to go for Christmas.

I will continue to quest for better Christmas albums. Someday I might have the patience to filter through Sufjan’s 100 Christmas songs to make an album of 10 viable tracks. But in the meantime, these are trustworthy choices.

My Favourite Christmas Song?
One Christmas I had to preach in the lovely little Presbyterian churches in Howth and Malahide in north Co. Dublin. Wife-unit was sick. I drove out there on my own and took too long and didn’t come close to saying something worthy of the setting but as ever, the congregations were warm and responsive and encouraging and joyful and when I got back into my car to go back home, I was full of gratitude for the job I had been given. On the radio, passing that crossroad at Portmarnock, a song called “Rebel Jesus” by Jackson Browne came on. I had never heard it before. But it moved me to tears. I had to pull in because it was a better sermon than I could ever preach.

I realise I love the songs the church sings at Christmas. But this awkward track might be my favourite, doubly so because it is a gift to Christians from “a heathen and a pagan.” Kate and Anna McGarrigle have a cover version that tops the original. On this, the third day of Christmas, it might be a blessing to you:

Your Correspondent, Celebrates the true spirit of Christmas; people being helped by people other than him.

Best of Album 2013

While I am heartened that JM is trying to kickstart a blogging renaissance in Ireland, I don’t know if my dozen faithful readers will ever get the service they deserve from Creideamh. After all, I can’t let any of my startlingly original research go out into the public because then it might be disseminated and I won’t get appropriate credit for it in academic journals, while delivering papers at conferences or chatting up girls in nightclubs.

The best use of the blog at this point in the web’s development seems to be as a venue to extend real life conversations. So when I blog quotes from books, I’m really looking forward to sitting down with Declan Kelly over coffee and when I write about shoes for poor children, I’m trying to make sense of my ramblings for Josh. Similarly, tomorrow I might have time to write about films I saw in 2013 and that is in response to a conversation I had with a friend who prudently remains blogless.

But here, instead of giving you a run down of my terrifically hip music listening (dominated in the last month by Christmas.FM and before that by replayed R.E.M. and Hold Steady albums), I shall share with you my mixtape.

Best of cover 2013

In my circle of friends, the Best Of project rotates around the following rules:

    1) Playlists cannot exceed 80 minutes.
    2) Playlists can be as short as you like.
    3) Songs can be from any era but they have to be new for you in 2013.
    4) Artists can be repeated, numerous songs can be taken from the same album.
    5) Any and all genres are welcome, although the less evangelical Christian death metal one can fit on a CD, the happier we’ll all be.
    6) Track listing, specially designed covers, annotated explanations for which songs have appeared and why are encouraged but not in any way necessary.

See how acclimatised I have become to Britain? Everything is more fun with rules!

The album can be downloaded from here.

Each number on the list links to a version of the particular song.

1. Arcade Fire – Normal Person: Lots of people were disappointed by the new Arcade Fire album, including important and relevant cultural commentators such as Noel Gallagher. I think the complaints about it being indulgent are well placed, but some of these songs get deep inside my ears and crucially, make me want to do jittery David Byrne style dancing all around the living room. This song starts the album because it has just that effect. Plus it begins with Win asking, “Do you like rock music? I don’t know if I do?”

2. Vampire Weekend – Unbelievers: The whiteness of this album is firmly established in track 2. Having begun with a Montreal based art collective, I move on to everyone’s favoured recipient of intellectual scoffing. Scoff away my friends, but the third Vampire Weekend also manages to make you want to scoot around the kitchen in your socks. This song is a sort of atheist musing on Pascal’s wager, which is fairly ambitious compared to the average hipster hit single.

3. Dawes – Hey Lover: Moving to Aberdeen has been a tough transition for Wife-Unit and I. The great consolation to me has been the friends I have made. One of the recurring themes running through these songs is how my Aberdonian friends have turned me on to entirely new loads of music. For my first meeting with my PhD supervisor, he took me out for coffee and told me to take a month to just read novels. He also told me about this band. I love this song, even though it requires considerable translation for it to apply to my life. With lyrics like “And when did I decide to grow this beard and gut?”, you really have to stretch it to see what relevance it has for me? After all, I still can’t grow a beard…

4. Trampled By Turtles – Where Is My Mind: At that same meeting, my supervisor introduced me to Tyler Atkinson. Tyler has sadly moved back to America but his music recommendations leave him a fine legacy in the Concrete Bunker. He told me about Trampled By Turtles, who have many fine songs that are not Pixies covers, but when a Pixies cover is better than the original, that has to be recognised in a best-of.

5. Josh Garrels – Rabbit & The Bear: Josh Garrels is the rarest of things; a Christian songwriter I am not ashamed to love. The man is prone to penning lyrics of real beauty and wit. As I read through boring, boring books about the history of the Irish economy, this Francis of Assisi style musing on the beauty of God’s creation always induced a smile. Forgive me while I get preachy (a mode I am in repeatedly on this Best Of) but there is no more beautiful thing to contemplate than that coming Kingdom “Where every creature sings ‘Oh Lord, you rescued us all!'”

6. Gungor – Beautiful Things: And I suppose whatever vestige of coolness has now just drained away because I have followed up one contemporary Christian track with another. Gungor are a bit of a phenomenon in the Christian world but I just discovered them this year. Again, they are renowned for writing songs that Christians aren’t utterly embarrassed to be found listening. Perhaps we should just get over ourselves? But this song passes the test for a song about God that bears re-listening. For one thing, it is about God, not just a projection of our feelings. And while there are more basic and more important things to say about God, the repetition of the truth that He makes beautiful things is a good one. Sing it to yourself while you brush your teeth and before long, you’ll know how to pray.

7. Goat Lonesome – Measure of Things:So I mentioned Tyler Atkinson earlier. Tyler, on top of being a damn fine theologian, was also the best thing about the music scene in Aberdeen, which makes his return to the Carolinas all the more sad for us. He and his Scottish buddy made up “Goat Lonesome”, who gigged around the bars of the city. Tyler wrote his thesis on the Jewish wisdom literature we call Ecclesiastes, which among other things muses on the nature and experience of time. He does an astonishing job of compressing this 2,500 year old piece of practical philosophy into a three minute song.

8. Radiohead – Gagging Order: My brother has to work extensively in China and Japan and sometimes he comes home bearing gifts in the form of obscure releases I’ve never heard of from bands I love. This year I got this Radiohead release called Com Lag and this song is the middle of the album. For a year when society crossed some strange event horizon of anesthetized surveillance, this “Move along, there’s nothing left to see” is haunting.

9. Public Service Broadcasting – Night Mail: “Eight-thirty p.m., weekdays and Sundays, the Down Postal Special leaves Euston for Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.” So there is an elegant transition (hopefully) to this classic track from a band that composes music around sampled public education filmreels of the past. Since The Simpsons have been skewering public educational efforts for decades, we should all know by now that the point of these films (or the modern versions in the form of gory road safety advertisements and public health advertising on billboards) is not education but discipline. From Gagging Order to Night Mail, we’ve got a sort of musical journey back to where the strange world we now live in began…

10. Frightened Rabbit – State Hospital: … and this song is a portrait of how that weirdness works out in the specific place I now live. My flat is in one of the worst areas of Aberdeen. All around us we see the tangible effect of decades of neo-liberal experimentation on the working class. “A slipped disc in the spine of community … She cries on the high street just to be heard, a screaming anchor for nothing in particular.” I was alerted to Frightened Rabbit by an internet friend who maintains a blog that is worth following called Invisible Foreigner. As Scott Hutchison sings “All is not lost” as a closing refrain, this song can serve as an anthemic companion to the time I’ll live here in Tillydrone.

11. Tegan & Sara – I Was A Fool: This album is getting too heavy. Now is the time for pop music. Tegan & Sara’s very 80s inspired pop record is a triumph. After all that cod-philosophising I just did there, and the theologising before it, very little needs to be said about this song except that it is really good.

12. Miley Cyrus – Wrecking Ball: And the less said about this song, the better. I had not heard the original version and was about to put a cover by London Grammar on this album when Wife-unit advised me to go listen to the Miley version. It is a phenomenally great song. I watched the video too and it made me feel strange in a sour milk sort of way. But Taido stuck One Direction on his best of, so I’m allowed have this, ok?

Wife-unit has just heard this song and come out to lecture me, saying, “Your refusal to listen to radio means you miss out on songs like this!” Perhaps my New Year resolution should be to listen to broadcast radio?

13. The National – Sea of Love: If I stay here in the land of radio pop, trouble will find me. So now we resort back to standard middle-aged person music transmission.

14. Neko Case – Man: But if we’re going to have lots of middle-aged person’s music, let’s make it the cooler variety. Neko Case continued her impeccable career with a superb album. While the heartbreaking “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” could have made the list, to mark a year when I have been thinking extensively about gender and the problems it represents, this is the perfect song.

15. Billy Bragg – There Will Be A Reckoning: I caught myself yesterday describing Bruce Springsteen as “America’s version of Billy Bragg.” If such a thing exists, that probably is a cardinal sin. But Bragg’s album arrived early in 2013 and probably wins the award as my favourite of the year. I could easily have thrown four of his songs on here, but I chose this one because it is true and getting truthier. The UK seems intent on devouring itself with racist fantasies. While London financiers pillage the state, the people are fed dark fairy tales of foreigners robbing their way of life. The self-fulfilling nature of these violent myths of invasion from Bulgarians, Romanians and Muslims is going to incite a conflagration. In the coming year, politicians will have to rediscover ethics or Bragg’s song will move from prophecy into history.

16. Mavis Staples – I Like The Things About Me: Mavis Staples’ new album, produced by that chap from Wilco, is a brilliant piece of modern gospel. If There Will Be A Reckoning is a song that is true about the society in which I live, I Like The Things About Me is a song about the person I am who lives there. I like the things about me that I once despised and I am glad someone wrote a song about that.

17. Everything Everything – Don’t Try: I put Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend on here. Now I finish with Everything Everything. If only Coldplay had released an album, I could have put the four most hateable bands around on here! Everything Everything seem to annoy a lot of people but I think they are great – smart and witty and catchy. This seems like an excellent way to end the best of. Don’t try to fight it, it will wriggle into your ear eventually.

Album can be accessed here.

Your Correspondent, He built this city on rock and roll

Praising a Fellow Ginger-bearded Man

This morning I am procrastinating by putting together my Best Of mixtape. Or at least starting the process, since we all know it takes a vast amount of time before one makes the heavy decision to burn the final copy.

What I am struck by is how, even though I sort of consciously try to be open to radio friendly pop music and hipster music that websites you haven’t heard of haven’t even heard of, as I age my music taste becomes more and more pedestrian.

Here I am, at the age of 32, confronted with my profound uncoolness.

Cue Marge Simpson.

Homer: So I realized that being with my family is more important than being cool.
Bart: Dad, what you just said was powerfully uncool.
Homer: You know what the song says: “It’s hip to be square.”
Lisa: That song is so lame.
Homer: So lame that it’s… cool?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I’m glad. And that’s what makes me cool—not caring, right?
Bart and Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we’ve tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be told you’re cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?

One of the clear symptoms of middle-agedness is that my favourite albums of the year is Billy Bragg’s Tooth and Nail. As I compile my list, pretty much every song on the record could slip in to the mixtape.

The album begins with a song about grief that alludes to the deep spirituality that runs through all of earlier Bragg’s anthems for the righteous revolution. It stills me every time I hear it.

Your Correspondent, This is how the end begins

Everything I Know About Writing A Theology PhD Thesis

    1. Gather together a few vague instruments that look like they could be interesting.

    2. With a sort of do-it-yourself gumption, bash them together to see what sort of noises they make.

    3. If it goes wrong, just delete it and start again.

    4. With the help of people engaged in the same sort of thing, you get a rhythm built up.

    5. Follow the melody where it takes you.

    6. You know you are almost finished when, finally, as you read what you’ve been doing it moves you to tap your foot, shake your booty and eventually actually go out into the world to love God by caring for people.

It probably doesn’t predict success when one’s theological method is an adaptation of a Tune-Yards performance on YouTube:

Your Correspondent, Confident and yipping at the heels of my yuppie teachers

On Church Shopping

Moving to Aberdeen has meant that I have had to find a new church to join. Having worked in a church for years, I can spot the church-shoppers. They often want continuity with what they were used to and they sometimes want a change from their normal routine but the main thing is they want a Sunday service that services their perceived needs.

I am he.

I think I have found the church I will join in Aberdeen. It is not Presbyterian. It is not sufficiently Catholic for my theological commitments. It doesn’t share Eucharist every week and when it is done, it is tragically casual. They meet in a school, not a vaulted cathedral. Their leaders are not wise old people, schooled in the art of prayer over decades but folk younger than me, bearing the markings of their generation in the form of prominent tattoos.

I could go on for a thousand words about the things that I find difficult about the church that I will almost certainly join. That is my natural inclination. Instead, as of today, I will try to discipline myself and cite instead the things that are in their favour. Women teach and lead. They haven’t mentioned how British Christians are “persecuted” or how there is a thing called a “gay agenda” or even hinted that they doubt the Earth is 4 billion years old.

More importantly again, they are sincere. And they seem to love God and want to love each other. They don’t approach the pursuit of justice the way that I would, but justice in the social sphere matters to them and they don’t just talk about it. They welcome difference, at least as evidenced by the undramatic presence of a disabled teenager whose groaning attempts at song are more beautiful than the choir I heard in an Anglican cathedral a fortnight ago.

My wife is a prison chaplain and they have a thriving prison ministry. I am a preacher and they do their best to actually engage with the text. And they are the closest church to our house.

But even with all these good things going for them and with my sincere desire to discipline my thoughts away from consumeristic church, there is one thing that remains very problematic for me: the “worship”.

In the kind of low Protestant church that we are dealing with here, “worship” is the dreadfully inappropriate word used to describe the music that the congregation sings on Sundays. There is a global industry dedicated to the creating, crafting, recording and distribution of “worship” music for sale to churches like this around the world. That alone ought to be sufficient to prompt a serious theological reconsideration. But the songs that are written and then performed almost always tend to be in the first person and to deal vaguely with human experience.

There were about eight songs in the course of yesterday’s service. Seven of them were written primarily from the perspective of an individual. One song, which was an old hymn updated, was written with God as the topic addressed. The best of the seven Me Me Me songs was a new one from one of the titans of the global worship music industry, Matt Redman.

It is a slick product.

Let’s get past that. It tells no lies against the historic declarations of Christianity. It has serious merit. For one thing, it can be sung by people who don’t have good voices. Secondly, it can be learned by people not used to committing things to memory. Thirdly, it can be read by people with low levels of literacy, including children.

We can even say that it is brave. It explicitly deals with the topic of death and directs a contemporary audience to consider the worship of a God who is going to let them die. This is theologically fruitful and culturally bold.

If you visit one of a hundred thousand churches around the world next Sunday and find yourself faced with this song, you’ll sing Verse 2:

You’re rich in love and You’re slow to anger
Your name is great and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find

What does the word “heart” mean in the final line?

If it went, “Ten thousand reasons for my mind to find” it would scan slightly less well but innoculate the singers against anti-intellectualism. But instead the gifted team who put this together went for a word that means nothing and everything to everybody. Heart obviously doesn’t refer to the organ in the human chest that is incapable of finding. It may be a secular-age version of soul, but there is ambiguity about whether the singers think of the soul as a component of the self or the equivalent to the self. Heart was a concept that was at work in the communities that composed the Bible but their anthropologies were very different from ours and aren’t straightforwardly compatible.

I get that worships songs focus their attention on us. We are interested in us! I get that they make declarative statements that I feel uncomfortable about because people want to feel intensely and strong words induce that. But why do they use words with some ill-defined meaning and why do we so rarely recognise that what we’re singing is formally meaningless?

I’ll go back to church on Sunday. I’ll have a better attitude. I’ll know the songs better, feel more at home and before long have settled in so that I don’t think to notice these things anymore. But in the meantime, my HEART longs to know why we use short words no one understands.

Your Correspondent, Here he is, in a sewer eating pizza with 3 other dudes

Janauary Stations

In January I spent a great, big chunk of my waking hours in the new NUI Maynooth library, studying for exams, writing sermons and trying to get my ideas for a PhD together into a proposal that wouldn’t read like the insane ramblings of a deluded serial killer who intends to murder three victims called “CaPiTaLiSm” “MaRkEtS” and “GlObAl1zAt1On”.

Here’s a picture of that new library, taken by my friend Eoin O’Mahony, with his mobile phone, as he casually walked by looking like the late-blossoming hipster that he is (I assume that is how it happened). It is especially accurate because the weather has been that dismally depressing all freaking month:
NUI Maynooth Library

I thought this year that I might copy Jason Goroncy and write a summation of all the lovely things I had time to read and watch and hear over the past month. So here goes:

Reading

    Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers.
    In the Poorer Quarters by Aidan Mathews.
    Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters.
    A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers.
    Esio Trot by Roald Dahl.

Watching

    Ruby Sparks – 4 stars
    Groundhog Day – 5 stars
    The Imposter – 5 stars
    Jack Reacher – 3 stars
    The Sound of My Voice – 4 stars
    The Pact – 3 stars
    The Life of Pi – 3 stars
    Chinatown – 3 stars
    The Jerk – 3 stars
    The Girl Who Played With Fire – 3 stars
    The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest – 3 stars
    Django Unchained – 1 star
    Zero Dark Thirty – 4 stars

Listening

    Stars – Heart
    Gungor – Creation Liturgy and Ghosts Upon The Earth
    Best ofs for 2012 compiled by my friends.

2012: A Year In Review

As I come to the end of 2012, I feel a lot like this guy:
Falling bear

But here are the best things I listened to, read and watched.

Music
For the last number of Christmases my friends have operated a minor little tradition where we each compile an album of the best music we’ve discovered in the previous year and share them around:

    1. The music can be from any era, but it has to be new to you this year.
    2. The collection of songs can’t be longer than 80 minutes.
    3. The collection of songs can’t take up more than 150mb of data.
    4. There are four rules.

As I put my best of album together each year, I listen to the old ones. Each of them is definitively stamped with a certain family resemblance. My albums are never brief – they always push up against the 80th minute. My albums are full of new music, typically single songs representative of highly rated albums with one or two stand out records honoured by a double appearance. They tend to start loud and finish upbeat. They tend to mix genres almost as if I just threw a load of songs into winamp and randomised the order (which is indeed what I typically did).

If you knew me only by my best of you’d start getting worried after hearing the effort I put together at the end of 2012.

The songs come overwhelmingly from four artists – Craig Finn, Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, Rodriguez and Brother Ali. And listening through, the songs are either all unbearably sad or their context is tragic. So there are songs about a father dying of cancer, a man depressed to the verge of suicide by failed relationships and a happy lovesong best known for serving as the backdrop to a sob-inducing film (You and Me from Blue Valentine).

Nobody ever taught me how to grow up and grow old and I have learned little by osmosis. I am years and years into training to be a pastor and still I am astonished by how poorly I know myself, nevermind others. Human beings are complicated. I know this from personal experience.

Listening to the music that has most lingered with me this year, I am tempted to say something has broken inside me. But maybe it is a delusion which has been shattered? Perhaps the real delusion is to think that one’s patterns of consumption add up to anything at all, for in the world we live in, even music is a product marketed at us by minds more canny than ours. But nonetheless, this year where I was 30 and then turned 31 has been a bruiser. And it follows on from a couple of years marked by too many visits to hospitals and graves and dark places of doubt and rootlessness and loneliness.

2012 isn’t a year I’ll remember for amazing journeys to distant shores or pulsating parties that then languidly slide into the next day. It is the year my wife and I made a baby and then it died. It is the year I finished my work and found that not having a job (even when it is replaced by the absurd luxury of being a fulltime student) is immensely hard. It is yet another year littered with the little lonelinesses that come as a result of this strange vocation – to be a church pastor in an age when churches are meant to go quietly into the good night of yesteryear.

And in the fraught tension that has marked too many of my nights this year, the stand out album has undoubtedly been Dictionary Crimes by Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. You probably have never heard of Ronan Hession, who writes songs as Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. But his three albums are treasures that have guided me through the last ten years. His first album was the soundtrack to me finishing my degree in computer science. His second album was in the background as I learned the ropes working in the church. And with Dictionary Crimes there are ten songs that mark the currents of grown up life: mortality and family and disappointment and hope. It is perfect. I heartily recommend it.

Words
It is a basic conviction of mine that life is hard. In the last year, the books I have most enjoyed have spoken of this. Aidan Mathews, the Irish Catholic poet, novelist, playwright and broadcaster I have enjoyed so deeply this year put it well for me when he wrote:

We are ordained by our troubles and our tragedies, not by college diplomas.

Daniel Bell in his breathtaking work “Liberation Theology After The End of History” and William Cavanaugh’s heartbreaking work “Torture and Eucharist” told different sides of a story that I maintain is the story of all reality – life is hard in a large part because our lives are held captive by forces that aren’t human. The only path to liberation is the sacrificial love of God. For Bell, God makes it possible for us to forgive and forgiveness is a currency that renders those forces bankrupt. And for Cavanaugh, Christian worship makes it possible for us to commune with God which is the only way we can have communion with each other.

Whatever else I can say at the end of 2012, the prospect of being able to follow in the paths that men like this have tread before me is one that brings me hope. Whatever else has come my way, the conviction that the unnoticed guerrilla activity of preaching remains among the most important and noble things humans get to do is unchanged. Having absorbed Torture and Eucharist, I want more fiercely than ever for my life to embody the battle between Mammon and the Word.

Among oh-so-many, my favourite blogs of the year remain Declan Kelly’s Charismata, Invisible Foreigner, Vinoth Ramachandra’s musings from Sri Lanka and Jason Goroncy’s peerless Per Crucem Ad Lucem.

It has few words, but the blog Everyday I’m Pastoring is a new entry in my “Unmissable” folder in Google Reader, as did DL Mayfield. Wife-unit wrote some fabulous stuff too, and shared tasty food. The random funniness of Julia Segal and the occasional hilarity of the Worst Things For Sale also deserve a mention, as does the consistently touching Slaughterhouse 90210.

Films & TV
My computer is slowly dying. And in one of the crashes I lost my records of all the movies I have seen in the last six years. That is annoying.

So I work purely from memory when I say that the film I most enjoyed was Argo. It was deadly. A great yarn, told well, that reflects out on the world. Even the boring final ten minutes didn’t bruise the delight I felt at the running gag of “Argo fuck yourself!”, a joke crafted by God to be especially hilarious to a Dublin accent.

Wife-unit and I like to watch old movies and one that stuck with me, even through the crashing computer and lost notes is Who’s Afraid Of Viriginia Woolf? That is a gem of a film.

Since we’re fragile types, we haven’t got around to watching The Wire or Breaking Bad yet and we fall asleep every time we watch Downton Abbey so the best telly we watched is the entire 7-Up series, which followed a dozen children from the 1960s through until today. It was bleddin’ wonderful. The quirks and witticisms of the seven year olds back in black and white have become slogans and catchphrases in our own home. Neil Hughes and Tony Walker and the rest of the gang featured over half a century were the absolute highlight of our televisual year.

That and the mad one from Fair City.

Your Correspondent, Waiting for your supportive eye-rolls

A Thesis On Music Reviews

I don’t think there has ever been a month like this one for new music releases. Stars, Cat Power and Animal Collective all released new albums. As did Ben Folds Five, Brother Ali, Bob Dylan, Mumford and Sons, No Doubt, Aimee Mann, The Dum Dum Girls, The xx the Avett Brothers. My disapproving ex-housemate gave me the newest album by Spook of the Thirteenth Lock and my wife-unit gave me a great bootleg of an REM gig from 1989 (with something like this on it).

All this and the greatest of the Irish songwriters you don’t yet know about, Ro Hession, has a new album out too.

New music can feck off this month.

But one of the drawbacks of so many great artists releasing stuff is that I spent longer than usual reading music reviews. And I developed a theory.

I could call it the Mumford and Sons principle because most of the reviews that really aggravated me were about their latest album. I’ve only given their new record a single listen and I’ll grant that it sounded samey and I’m surely a little hasty here but a touch like the leftovers from the first album’s rehearsal sessions all polished up and made sparkley. In other words: I was underwhelmed.

If I sound harsh, please be assured that this is a warmer review than many I have read of one of the most eagerly awaited albums in years. The consistent tone in all the negative reviews is “I told you they’d come unstuck! I told you they were shit!” I read one sour review that just cited 24 reasons to not touch the album. A common theme running through the hack-jobs was that the band is made up of posh Englishmen playing American country music. I always thought the genius evolutions in pop music came about when people appropriate other people’s music and make something new? I think the whole pop music thing might possibly be the result of a bunch of posh white boys ripping some people off… Another subtext that maybe I am just paranoidly imagining is that these boys are very religious, aren’t they? Hence uncool.

Aimee Mann’s album got a listen while I did the grocery shopping so it is an equally fleeting impression I have gathered. It is full of lovely songs with stunning lyrics. In other words, it is like all of Aimee Mann’s albums. She has suffered because she wrote two of the greatest albums of all time; Whatever and Bachelor #2 (which doubled in a large part as the soundtrack to Magnolia). The peaks that those records represent render the other albums relatively underwhelming. But if Smilers had been released by a debut musician we would have all done cartwheels over it.

Perhaps because of her occasional legendary brilliance, Aimee Mann’s consistent but not necessarily breath-taking brilliance has had a muted critical response over the last few records. However, with this album she has all her famous friends appearing in funny videos, one of which is a shot-for-shot remake of one of her successful videos from the 1980’s. And it features that handsome dude off of Mad Men. So I predict that this album will get lauded with a deafening chorus of critical applause.

There’ll be a backlash next time though.

Ben Folds Five have reassembled. And they are suffering a bit of a backlash. One review declared Ben Fold’s work misogynistic! The same writer declared his lyrics condescending. Which, you know, is a bit like a kettle calling a pot an African American. All those wonderful collaborations with Nick Hornby and Regina Spektor and Amanda Palmer and other people who are quite cool are now going to haunt Ben Folds and the two unfortunate buddies-from-the-90’s that pal around with him until he reaches that mysterious Burt Bacharach phase and becomes cool again, forever, just as he retires.

The thesis I have formulated is that people shouldn’t write negative musical reviews.

Why is it that a damning review of a movie can be simultaneously enjoyable, informative and still somehow make you want to watch the movie whereas damning music reviews (even with verdicts you share) just make you want to ban music reviews? Why is it that a hard slamming of a novel approaches the kind of artistic status that we extend to good novels themselves but bad music reviews are, well, bad?

I think it might be because of narrative. Books and movies and plays tell a story or at least focus on a theme. Concept albums are so rare that we always review them with dainty opinions lest hindsight show us up to be idiots without vision. For the most part, an album of contemporary music is a collection of the best 10, 12 or 14 songs the artist could gather before a record-company inspired deadline. They don’t tell a story. And so we don’t have characters and plot or even perhaps intertextuality in the same way. It is hard to review a collection of songs that are held together by little more than the fact that they are packaged in the same plastic box.

Furthermore, while a novel or collection of essays is unlikely to have the kind of massive grammaticall carcrashingss you’ve come to expect from my bl- . they can still be full to the brim of technical failures. Writers can fail to meet an expected standard. The same holds with TV and movies. Actors can be hammy. Directors can be heavy-handed. With pop music though, any issues with technique can be ironed out by a producer with a few gigabytes of RAM and the right software package. Hence you have critics attacking Mumford and Sons because their songs feature common contrasts between quiet and LOUD. That is meant to be more disreputable than using changes in tempo or key to effect the listener, allegedly.

Good writing on music exists. Of course it does. In Ta Nehisi Coates we have a jewel of a writer. And Nick Hornby can still make reading about music almost as harmonic as the thing itself. But the key to writing well about music is writing about music you love. I most enjoy the reviews that gush. I want to listen to the albums that people enthuse over.

In many ways, music has become our purest cultural sphere. The internet has removed so much of the market’s interference. We all listen to our music for free and unconstrained, whether through legal channels like Spotify or through illegal channels I am not allowed to tell you about. But snark remains the tone in which we get to discuss music.

I say, without a hint of ironic detachment, “Down with this sort of thing!” Write about music you love. Read writers who aren’t shy about sharing why they love music. We’ll lose nothing if we stop grading albums out of ten or with five stars. The albums no one can get giddy about will be the albums we know we can miss. I suspect, as a result of all this musing, that you can expect a carefully constructed ode to Dictionary Crimes soon.

But if I seem like I am just writing an attacking review of the reviews that attack, let me finish by quoting something fine my lovely Wife-unit once wrote, when she was trying to explain, with the help of Aristotle that there can be no morality without friendship. The antidote to the cynic’s Mumford and Sons principle is found around the edges of Aristotle’s teaching on temperance (of all things!):

Temperance is the mean between the deficiency and excess of bodily pleasures, although there are some exceptions. It is not self-indulgent, for example, to delight extravagantly in music. And while it is not indulgent to delight in the smells of “apples or roses or incense” it is indulgent to excessively delight in the aromas of “dainty dishes” for the reason that these are objects of a man’s appetite.

This is an important and nuanced distinction. When we listen to music, we are delighting in it for its own sake, because of exactly what it is to us at the moment when we listen, and it is for happiness’ sake that we listen to it. Likewise, when wandering in the countryside and we are delighted by the discovery of the smells of the outdoors – flowers and fruits – we enjoy their odours for what they bring to us at that moment. However, when we smell the aroma of our dinner being prepared, it is not the aroma itself that we appreciate; rather it is the anticipation of eating our dinner that we enjoy. This is a base and animalistic response for, as Aristotle puts it, “ … dogs do not delight in the scent of hares, but in the eating of them, but the scent told them the hares were there.” To smell a delicious meal with a full and satisfied belly brings two responses: nausea at the prospect of more food, or disappointment that one is too full to continue eating. No such response is elicited while delighting in a sensory experience that is not linked to the animal appetites.

Attack not the music you despise. Be temperate! Love without exhaustion the music you love and share it. We’ll all be better off.

Your Correspondent, A victim of sideshow hypnosis