Don't consider this a best of list. That would be presumptuous and impossible anyway, given the element of subjectivity involved. But these are the records from 2012 that I keep coming back to, that seem to offer something deeper than mere ear candy. What I am amazed at is how little of what I listen to actually sticks; most is, sadly, flash in the pan. These will stick. (Note that they are in no particular order.)
A Creation Liturgy, Gungor. I nominate this record for the best worship album of all time, and I don't even usually like worship albums! The musicianship, the lyrics, and the beauty simply compel worship. There is rock, a classical guitar solo, a traditional hymn, and much more, a rich palette of songs that are stirring in their energy. I only wish I could have been at one of the live shows this album is taken from. If you want to see what I mean, just listen to Track 2, "Heaven," in its entirety. It's excellent, which is what our worship should be but which, sadly, so often fails to be. Two powerful poetry readings are amazing, like speed preaching. I'm blessed by it all.
Release Me, Barbara Streisand. What can be said? Streisand has released 60 albums since 1963 and done far more besides. These 11 tracks, previously unreleased, were the "throwaways" from those many recording sessions. The thing about it is, Streisand's crumbs are food for the gods. There's not a bad track here, from Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We" to the touching rendition of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today," with Newman on the piano. On several tracks there are snippets of dialogue between Streisand and a musician or recording engineer. She's witty, funny, and probably quite the diva, but she's also an amazing singer. I love the crumbs.
That's Why God Made the Radio, The Beach Boys. While inconsistent, a much anticipated 50th Anniversary reunion of the still living originators of tunes such as "Help Me Rhonda" and "Fun, Fun, Fun" finally came together. While the tour was short-lived, ultimately shut down by Mike Love, who has continued to tour under The Beach Boys moniker as mostly a nostalgia act, the reunion did produce this record, its songs made memorable by the contributions of the fragile genius of Brain Wilson. There is a bittersweet feel to the project, in its best moments hearkening back to Pet Sounds, and yet such writing seems closer to reality, somehow resonating more than the buoyant likes of "Fun, Fun, Fun" or "Good Vibrations." The closer, "Summer's Gone," about says it all: "Summer’s gone/ It’s finally sinking in/ One day begins/ Another ends/ I live them all and back again." With each new album, I always think that Brian Wilson is done, and yet he keeps surprising me. May God grant him many more years.
Life Is People, Bill Fay. I think every reviewer of this album by this highly regarded 69-year old English singer-songwriter captures both the humility of Fay in light of his understated brilliance and his spirituality. He reminds me of Nick Drake without his tortured soul. And yet no one seems to pick up on the specifically Christian spirituality that permeates his lyrics. There's Jesus's propitiation for sin: "Every city brawl, every fistfight/ Every bullet from a gun/ Is written upon the palms of the holy one" ("There Is a Valley"); the hope of Heaven: "Ain't so far away, the healing day/ Coming to stay, the healing day" ("The Healing Day") and "I'm waiting for the city of God/ Yeah I'm waiting for the city of God/ When was is will be what was/ Waiting for the city of God" ("City of Dreams"); and a clsing prayer of thankfulness, like a benediction those close to him: "Thank you Lord, for giving life to me/ a river so wide, flowing from you and through me" ("Thank You Lord"). Maybe the state of biblical literacy is so low that reviewers don't even know how to express what he is saying and yet are deeply attracted to the clear-eyed hope of which he sings. Regardless, Bill Fay is one artist whose "little songs" (his words) should be heard.
Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut, Andrew Osenga. As I wrote a review just for this album, I cannot do better than sum it up as I did in that blog post: "This is likely the richest album both lyrically and musically that Andrew Osenga has launched. There is a quirkiness in his character, and yet there is profundity in what the man has to say. This record just might resonate more broadly than in just the CCM community, as it touches on many universals and eschews the hackneyed phrases that abound in CCM marketed music. In fact, it strikes me as "acoustically-grounded, lyrically thoughtful, and spiritually provocative," just the kind of music I would have wanted to find and support in my Silent Planet Records days. And yet who needs a record label anymore? Leonard was funded by 365 fans via Kickstarter, and the set, a mock homemade spaceship, built by supporters. That's a testament to community and a new, broader sense of the importance of patronage." All that I said is still true. Give this unlikely record, one that could have gone oh-so-wrong a listen, to see what is oh-so-right.
Palindrome Hunches, Neil Halstead. Mojave Three frontman Halstead makes folky, dreamy records, a little like The Innocence Mission. If you don't like the latter, you won't like him, but if you do, you may be all over it. He lacks the undergirding Christian vision of TIM, but he makes up for it in wit. The record is very British, welcoming, warm, and lyrically indecipherable much of the time, allowing space for your own meanings --- in other words, it's "shoegazer" folk. Even the title, "palindrome," meaning a word or line which means the same read backwards as well as forwards, hints that something is up here. You listen. You figure it out.
Silver and Gold, Sufjan Stevens. I normally wouldn't include a Christmas album on my favorites list, but Sufjan's Christmas albums are worth playing all year long. Not that every song is a keeper, but there is so much here that you can assemble two good CDs of hymns, carols, original tunes, and more, all rather intimate and homemade, but it works. There are moments of sheer beauty, as in "Justice Delivers Its Death," or in his arrangement of "Joy to the World." I think the point of the whole lot of it is the heavy weigh that Christmas must carry --- sacred and religious --- but the sweet essence of the celebration, the Incarnation, shines through in the hymns and carols. And maybe that's his point.
So, that's it for 2012. It's sad that in all the popular music rendered I could only come up with seven albums that will stick with me. I leave you with two videos, one by Bill Fay, the other by Sufjan Stevens, that were simply moving --- beautiful songs and simple images. Enjoy!