Eyes & Ears 2010: Part I

Every year I find somewhere online to post what I annually call “Eyes and Ears”, a two-part list of the best music and movies I listened to and saw from the year prior.  I’m a little late for the count this year, but I’ll post them anyway.

The best case scenario is that these lists will lead to discussions where music and movie suggestions are traded and all the participants expand their tastes.

So let’s begin with the music.  In 2010, I didn’t listen to nearly the amount of different artists as I usually do over the course of a year, but this gave me an opportunity to listen deeply to the albums and artists in which I did invest.  I’m not a music critic, but when I jump on a band’s wagon, I’m there for a long time and I explore the terrain.  That happened in a big way in 2010.  Here are my top albums of 2010, pretty much in order (counting down).

“Beautiful Things” – Gungor – Self-described as “liturgical post-rock”, Gungor will be a confusing experience for the modern CCM worship guru.  And to that I say, great!  Let’s shake up our complacent understanding of worship!  “Beautiful Things” is a meditative piece, and what makes it unique is its focus.  The title refers to God as a creative force, namely in the act of re-creating people.  You make beautiful things out of dust | You make beautiful things out of us go the lyrics to the title track, as front man Michael Gungor sings to a God who formed us from dust and caused our dead hearts to long after Him.  This album does not havea naïve view of God; it takes His holiness seriously.  It assumes that, since God is holy, everything He does is good and beautiful. That inspires worship.

“Contra” – Vampire Weekend – Here is a band that is endlessly intriguing to me.  Vampire Weekend seem to have no agenda.  So many of the lyrics of “Contra” seem nonsensical.  But these four Ivy Leaguers know exactly what they are singing about.  In “Contra”, Vampire Weekend accomplishes (as with their first album) constant musical surprise.  It is nearly impossible to predict what the following musical phrase will hold, how the rhythm will hiccup us into a brand new perspective.  What’s exciting about an album like this is that it assures us Vampire Weekend is not just messing around.  There’s method to this sonic madness.

 

“Sigh No More” – Mumford and SonsServe God, love me, and mend. With these words, Mumford and Sons opens “Sigh No More”.  And from here each track seems to expound on those three imperatives (which, I would say, are a summary of the Great Commandments).  The album is equal parts romance and grit.  It surges forward like a train through songs about hard times and lost love and new life.   Lead singer Marcus Mumford passionately laments about life’s transgressions, then revels in the cleansing power of grace.  There’s conflict in the DNA of the music and lyrics, like the band’s members are searching for truer, better definitions of love.  They search with gusto, and by the end, they conclude that love is a very serious and complex thing.  It is corrective; it covers sin; it awakens souls; it sets us free; it is supportive; it dismisses our fears.  Love causes us to breathe deeply and sigh no more.

“Between Two Worlds” – Trip Lee – Trip Lee is a rap artist unashamed about his huge, bold message of grace.  But more than that, Lee is a gifted communicator.  “Between Two Worlds” is a platform for him to preach the gospel with profound poetical artistry.  With each listen, I’m stunned by the amount of content Lee inserts into each song.  He’s preaching practical and theological truth, using each song as an opportunity to expose the blatant contradictions of the hip-hop and broad American culture.  He condemns careless living in relationships and the use of money.  He condemns the destructive pride that once ruled his heart.  But over this, he magnifies the gospel of grace – the message that Jesus Christ saves sinners by becoming sin.  The great triumph of “Between Two Worlds” is its no-holds-barred picture of a changed heart looking away from itself to a God of goodness who provides and distributes and saves perfectly.

“Take a Bow” – Greg Laswell – The Chicago native Greg Laswell populates “Take a Bow” with the paradoxical charm of his sorrowful voice.  Unless I’m mistaken, Laswell is almost exclusively writing to or about a girl.  Whoever the girl is or was, she inspired an album of gorgeous chord progressions and vocal melodies, an album laced with romantic lament.  Sometimes Laswell is melancholic; sometimes playful or upbeat or even hopeful.  He’s always in control musically.  He demonstrates admirable vocal range and unpredictable melodies.  I’m impressed mostly with the total cohesive nature of the album.  It’s not one-note – no, far from that.  “Take a Bow” is truly dynamic.

“The Suburbs” – Arcade Fire – In “The Suburbs”, Arcade Fire maintain the same experimental spontaneity that populated their first two albums, but still exercise a great deal of musical maturity.  “The Suburbs” is both entertaining and strangely hypnotic – which I’d say is an Arcade Fire hallmark.  There are moments of ethereal beauty and passages of remarkable lyricism, and somewhere in there we get hints of big sweeping themes flowing from the monotony of suburban life.  The album talks much of waiting around and wasting time, then conjures images of almost apocalyptic proportions, as though we will be taken by surprise when it all ends.

 

“Suburba” – House of Heroes – Like the previous album on this list, House of Heroes’ “Suburba” is a grand portrait of small-town life.  HOH demonstrate here that they have a firm understanding of drama.  “Suburba” is very nearly a “concept album” in that it loosely tells a linear story.  At times, the epical scope of the instrumentation and sweeping lyrics feel like a bold Broadway musical.  Somewhere along the line, it becomes clear that HOH is telling the story of a man (or men?) who races through the motions of a suburban existence.  There are leading ladies, gang wars, high school rivalries, deadbeat dads and dead-end jobs.  There are striking social class comparisons.  There is romance and tragedy.  And through this, our hero encounters what he calls a Spirit fire growing inside me.  Indeed, “Suburba” is the story of how a man can lose his identity in the high-stakes dramas of suburban living.  I related to this album on several levels; the imagery and atmosphere are just right.

“Jars of Clay Presents The Shelter” – Jars of Clay

There was one album in 2010 that, without fail, caused worship and thankfulness to well up in me.  Jars of Clay’s “The Shelter” is a blazingly brilliant functional theology of the Church.  The title comes from an Irish proverb that says, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”  For Jars, it is clear this proverb was a perfect definition of how the Church was meant to function.  “The Shelter” is beautifully woven and spun from this definition.  It inspired the songwriting, the artwork, and even the manner of recording.  Appearing on the album are more than a dozen of the most gifted and contemplative music artists in modern Christendom – from Sara Groves and David Crowder to Brandon Heath and Gungor – who all contributed their words and voices.  This is not a gimmick or a ploy to sell to a larger audience.  It is a breathtaking practical application of the album’s very theme.  By listening to “The Shelter”, you are listening to the Church.  The album emphasizes the practice of love and sacrifice in light of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us demonstrated in the gospel.  Every song pinpoints another glorious angle on this theme.  From “Small Rebellions”, where Jars rightly assumes that loving people requires small daily rebellions against our wicked hearts, to “Lay it Down”, where we get a picture of believers bearing each other burdens as a way to mirror the ultimate burden-bearing act of Christ on the cross.  “The Shelter” is convicting and encouraging.  It exists to edify its audience.  Why?  Because its audience is the Church!  The Bible constantly points to God as our shelter – a hiding place amid the storms and trials of this life.  “The Shelter” understands that the Church – the Body of Christ – exists to shelter its individual members while we wait on this earth.  But most importantly (as the lyrics remind us repeatedly) “The Shelter” proclaims that the unblemished life and atoning work of Jesus Christ means for us, His Body, this very thing: we will never walk alone again, in this life or the next.

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About Collin Damon Welch
Collin worked in the film/TV industry for a while. Now he's pursuing ministry. He and his incomparably beautiful wife Nicole live in Chicago.

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