Crooked, Yet Still Fumbling Towards The Light
On A Spiritual Journey Through 2017 With The Best Albums Of The Year
The old Baptist hymn says “This world is not my home / I’m just a’ passing through / If Heaven’s not my home / O Lord what will I do?”
“O Lord, what will I do…”
Those words ring heavy with me this year, for I’m convinced more and more that there is no earthly solution to what ails me, and what ails our world. No psychological explanation can truly answer why mass shootings happen. No election can turn the tide of moral decay, no government body truly answer the problem of hate. There is no financial solution or tax cut that can heal the woundedness of my heart, or answer for why I am constantly tempted to sabotage my own good situation with selfish choices. This year our land (myself included) faced our collective selves in the mirror, and the reflection was tough to bear. The continued sexual abuse and misogyny story of the last few months continues on, and a collective reckoning of past sins (it’s not a new story my friends, it’s as old as the book of Genesis) is unfolding before us. The answers (such as they are) are spiritual, and not of anything down here. (Rich Mullins would call it “the stuff of earth”)
And as I listen back to the records and songs I loved this year, I see a clear theme of our collective brokenness (Propaganda would say “we crooked”) and the shining light of the grace of God, which is the only source of hope for our world, and for me personally. John Mark McMillan, Propaganda, Audrey Assad and Josh Garrels, John Tibbs, Drew Holcomb and others testified to that oldest of truths; that God’s love and His intervention into history at Christmastime, is the only hope we have. Any other answer that we come up with only leads to more collective heartache.
And 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 “tough”, one full of upheaval in our land, and a mighty reckoning for a sin that has gone on too long. 2017 had its ups (unemployment continues to fall and the stock market rose) and its downs (the seemingly-unending sexual harassment news that is toppling public figures left and right, the threat of nuclear war).
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. 2017 might have been an up or down year for me (I’d characterize it as an “up” year for the Caldwell clan, but a tough one for me personally), but it was also the year I heard the epic and folksy “Rescuer”, the magnificent and worshipful “Wood & Nails” and the massively hopeful “Won‘t Let Me Go”, three fantastic songs that have already embedded themselves in my soul’s DNA and inspired me to celebrate my “rescuer” and recognize what He did with those “wood and nails”. Traveling back through the year in music is always a bittersweet thing, because the music that you truly loved marks the days and months (as in, “I remember where I was and what was happening 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. May the best kind of art lead us back to what is true, and in its light may we see both that we are crooked and that He is sovereign and worthy of our whole lives.
(In the interest of time, I’ve posted both the lyrics that stopped me in my tracks, and a salient part of a review that I wrote for each album.)
1. Propaganda - Crooked
But ain't we all a little bit a monster? We crooked! / Man, your heroes are worthless / And man can sure try, but only God gives purpose / You crooked! / Be humble or be quiet
Your kingdom can catch flames as effortless as riots / Entire empire's a card castle, chill
And the strength of your whole team is crumbled with one meme / It's crooked! / Your whole works is twisted - “Crooked Ways”
Crooked is Propaganda’s most complete work, both sonically (those organic beats are thundering) and lyrically. The album is so dense, and so full of references (political, historical, cultural, etc.) that a whole semester class could be designed to pull apart each reference. And this backdrop of the failings of man is only a journey to set up the need for one who makes “our crooked ways straight”.
Here is what I wrote in my review:
“In the perilous present day, where believers are inundated with false ideologies and confusing and confounding political and social times, Crooked is a handbook for how to ask the hard questions of faith in humility. There is a lot to unpack on the album, and listeners should be prepared to google all the historical references that Propaganda throws down at a dizzying pace. But those who dig in will find their perspectives challenged and minds sharpened. Crooked is an album of such lyrical and thematic quality that it transcends both its genre of Hip Hop and music in general with its cerebral take on what being a "thinking" follower of Christ looks like in a 21st Century context. Propaganda is steadily showing himself to be a modern C.S. Lewis in his ability to take huge theological and cultural ideas and boil them down to a "plainspoken" level (in the way Lewis did in Mere Christianity).”
May we all see the truth of where we are, and who can lead us back.
May I stand in the belly of what Babylon is biting / In the vein of the best metaphor of what love exists for / May my legacy be permanently associated with those hated
An exodus from Exodus with zero concern for what Pharaoh thinks / May we be crooked champions / And we are not those without hope or hoping in hope alone / Resurrection shows that this land is not our home / We are sojourners living out what a past action bought us / With the knowledge that we have yet to see the fullness of what it got us - “Made Straight”
2. John Mark McMillan - Mercury & Lightning
I've been chasing God / I've been chasing mercury and lightning / And I've been pressing hard / I've been coming up short / Lately, I've been thinking about / What's gonna happen with you and I / I need a new religion / Or I need a new lie - “Mercury & Lightning”
McMillan’s take down of the values of Western Culture (Mercury = the Greek God of financial gain; Lightening = The quick and sudden burst of fame and attention; i.e. internet or reality television fame) is a fine bookend to Propaganda’s album. The writer of beloved worship staple “How He Loves” shows a breathtaking scope of craft here, and Mercury & Lightning serves a rock and roll version of “Crooked”. May we chase only that which truly satisfies.
3. The Porter’s Gate - Work Songs - The Porter's Gate Worship Project Vol. 1
The work was done with nothing but / Wood and nails in Your scar-borne hands
O show me how to work and praise / Trusting that I am Your instrument
The is the best collaborative album of the year, and the best Folk/Gospel/R&B worship album you‘ll hear. Josh Garrels and Audrey Assad continue to make the case that the best music does not need a record label, or a label of any kind. It only needs be honest and well-done. Great ‘work’ indeed!
4. John Tibbs - Heartland
Knocking down the fear of failing / Kicking in the doors that lock me out
Say goodbye to ghosts that haunt me, go on / I don't need you now
I don't need you now / Hope's been blowing on this flame
Since I found out...
You won't let me go
“Heartland is a masterful effort from Tibbs, and serves as a textbook example of how to write a rock and roll song with an authentic spiritual, emotional and honest core. With much of Christian music suffering from an excess of glossy and varnished songwriting and production, Tibbs' Heartland ep (and his previous full-length effort Dead Man Walking) is a blueprint that songwriters of faith should give serious consideration to. The world doesn't need anymore clichéd songwriting; it needs honesty and true passion, which Tibbs has in abundance. Turn it up and go for a drive, particularly someplace with fields and a horizon to look at, and then consider the geography and terrain of your own heart.”
5. Army Of Bones - S/T
Time, is not on my side / I can't make it better, with the wounds that I hide
But I know there'll be an end / And the end will see the stars begin to fall
Love will still be here to save us all / I'm still waiting for you, waiting for you
I'm still waiting for you, waiting for you don't be long / Don't be long
Don't be long - “Don’t Be Long”
“Army Of Bone's debut album is a master's class in taking influences and tweaking them just so to create something that is both unique and familiar at the same time. The melodic, chilly and epic Britpop template is the perfect bed for a prophetic and pleading album. Army Of Bones is a fantastic return for Smith, and one of the very best albums of the year.”
Martin Smith of beloved worship pioneers Delirious? returns with a new band, and proves that he hasn’t lost a beat…
6. Beautiful Eulogy - Worthy
From the skies to the seas and everything that lies in between
Everything that exists in the universe is dispersed by His decree
He's infinitely supreme and orchestrates all things
The One who sits in the Heavens and laughs and does whatever He pleases
Who governs the governments, and establishes kings
The Prince of Peace who proceeds over prophets, presidents, and priests
Who guides the plans of man, but lets that man choose freely
While simultaneously exercising divine sovereignty - “Sovereign”
Worthy was a ground-breaking hip hop worship album with a liturgical and historically theological bent. Beautiful Eulogy is unlike any other hip hop group out there, and by filling in this missing piece in the worship field, they are to be commended.
7. Ellie Holcomb - Red Sea Road
Fear is like a broken record, same old songs of accusation play
Like, "who are you to speak the truth, just look at all your failures and mistakes"
And "If they really knew you, there's no way they could love you anyway"
Oh-oh-ohh, but I will...
Fight the lies with the truth, oh-ohh
Keep my eyes fixed on You
I will sing the truth into the dark
I will use my fighting words
Oh-oh-ohh, fighting words
Oh-oh-ohh - “Fighting Words”
Holcomb is a mighty fine songwriter, and both she and her husband Drew are proving a fantastic model for doing it yourself in this changing musical landscape.
“If there is the kind of song that Holcomb should write more of, it's "Fighting Words," a feisty, down-home, barn-burning Americana track about self-doubt and guilt. Taking the classic southern expression and repurposing it as a song about fighting the lies of the devil (about self-worth and shame) with the truth of God's word, "Fighting Words" is a textbook example of how to take a familiar idea and phrase and tweak it for a surprising take on the truth of grace in the believer's life: "I will fight the lies with the truth / keep my eyes fixed on you / I will sing the truth into the dark / I will use my fighting words." The closing, rousing "Living Water" and the hushed "Man Of Sorrows" end the album well, with a personal call for revival, and a reverent, hushed take on the life of Jesus.
Red Sea Road is a terrific album that has a strong, passionate Americana feel, and just enough great songs to carry the less interesting ones along with them. Holcomb is proving to be a treasure of an artist; one who is fiery and unpretentious, catchy without being cloying, and above all, sincere in her writing and seeking.”
8. Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors - Souvenir
I don't know about you / But I like to tell the truth
But the truth seems to change every Tuesday / When I watch the news
Man it just gives me the blues / No one listens, just on a mission to hear their own voice
It's a wild world / We're all trying to find our place in it
It's a wild world / And no one seems to understand it
It's a wild world / But there ain't no way I'm gonna quit it
“By forging their own path (Holcomb and his band distribute all of their music on their own record company, Magnolia Music) and writing piercingly honest music, Drew Holcomb And The Neighbors have grown both their artistry and fan base in equal measure. Souvenir could have used a few more up-tempo numbers (they are trending more mellow on their last few releases), but as an honest, humble and tuneful look at life, the album gathers its "souvenirs" of songs well. The dusty tunes of Souvenir are a welcome addition to the American songwriting tradition, and a fine new chapter for Holcomb and company.
9. Third Day - Revival
Anybody here looking for revival
In our own hearts and across the land
Anybody looking for a revival
Lift up your voice and say Amen
Lift up your voice and say Amen
Ain't gonna find it in a politician
Not from the government or any law
Can't get it going by your own religion
Only by the Spirit and the Word of God
Only by the Spirit and the Word of God
“The band maintains the pace and quality of the Soul Music vibe all the way through Revival, and it's obvious that the band's love and respect for this type of influential American music has been there all along. The band has been playing with Gospel music choirs since their beginning (see "Worship Song" on their debut album, "Have Mercy" from their second album or "King Of Glory" from their fine worship album, Offerings), but they have not gone "whole hog" until now. Revival is exactly the kind of labor of love project that a veteran band should make. It's true to its roots, lovingly crafted and capably executed. Like a Rolling Stones Blues cover album, a Sting medieval music side trip or a Bruce Springsteen folk music jaunt, Revival finds Third Day playing with a format that they clearly have "in their marrow," and in doing so, have put out one of the best albums of their career. It's also one of the best things you'll hear this summer, and will sound great live when the band takes it on tour. Turn it up loud (if you have it on vinyl, all the better) and get down with the old-school vibe.
10. Rusty Shipp - Mortal Ghost
I’m alone in this world, drifting like a lost ship at sea. The more I live the less I feel at home. Treading water just to keep from drowning. All creation ‘round me groans till the sea and all that’s in it is undone. Something’s nipping at my toes. Treading water till the angels come. Give me that ancient feeling, the kind of love that David felt, shining through the jaws of holy war. I want to go behind the curtain, to where the golden cherubs dwell, find something worth us fighting for… - “Treading Water”
Rusty Shipp’s Mortal Ghost is an old school, 90’s grunge record and a prog-rock concept album at the same time. Consider it a surprise delight and this year’s best debut. Turn it up when the house is empty and pour over the lyrics at the same time. Then stand up and air-guitar the rest of the day away.
Top 10 Songs:
"Won’t Let Me Go" - John Tibbs: I had a hard year, and this song was on constant repeat on my daily jog/walk/crawl as I made my way through the woods and rejoiced in a God who is steady and ever-present.
"Wood & Nails" - The Porter’s Gate: A haunting worship song that deserves wider exposure and a listen in a quiet place.
"Crooked Ways" - Propaganda: The most epic nine minute opening track you’ll hear this year.
"Rescuer" - Rend Collective: The kind of “shout along” chorus that needs to be sung from a rooftop in your town. The Gospel is good news indeed!
"Even If" - Mercyme: The most honest song you’ll hear on Air1 this year. More songs like this please!
"Wonder" - Hillsong United: My father had a massive heart attack this spring, and this song was in high rotation as I sat by his bedside. May we have the Spirit’s help to see this world as the Father does. May our sense of wonder drown out the hate and paranoia of our times.
"Old Church Choir" - Zach Williams: This is my youngest daughter’s favorite song this year. May the Holy Spirit light your fire inside, and may there be a choir deep in your soul, constantly singing.
"Love Song For A City" - Army Of Bones: A great prayer for a hometown…
"Fighting Words" - Ellie Holcomb: The way that Holcomb turns a phrase is fantastic. Scripture was given to us to “fight back” against evil.
"Cannot Do This Alone" - Colony House: A Thunderous, epic reminder that we are meant to live in fellowship with the divine and with each other.
May your new year be merry, and may we hear the song the Lord is singing to us every moment…
- Alex "Tin Can" Caldwell
December 20th, 2017