My Favorite New Albums of 2016 (So Far)

I hope everybody had a great Independence Day and holiday weekend! Insert obligatory “Can you believe the year’s half over? Where does the time go?” comment here.

If you didn’t guess I thought I’d share some of my favorite new albums that have come out in the first half of the year but I have to be honest: I’ve not been as diligent seeking out new music as I’ve been in years past. I mostly just listened to Bob Dylan for the first three months of the year but some artists I enjoy put out new material and there’s been a few discoveries.

The list in alphabetical order and a few thoughts on each:

Andrew Bird, Are You Serious? I used to listen to a lot of Andrew Bird in college and then I moved to California and listened to less Andrew Bird. This is a solid outing. The lyrics aren’t as inventive or experimental as previous albums which I think makes this album more approachable than others of his. Favorite Track: “Truth Lies Low”

Bifrost Arts, Lamentations: Simple Songs of Lament and Hope Vol. 1 Oh man! This album is so good. You’d think an album called “Lamentations” would be a major bummer, it’s not. I mean it’s not easy listening by any stretch of the imagination. Bifrost Arts is a collective a musicians that are writing songs for the church based heavily on psalm texts, ancient prayers, etc. Their albums feature chants, folk song, praise choruses. Favorite Track: “Wisdom and Grace (Psalm 90)”

Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book I’ve been pretty enamored with Chance the Rapper’s music since seeing him kill it on SNL late last year. The mixtape he released earlier this year is easily my favorite album so far this year. There’s not a single track on the mixtape that isn’t amazing. Chance is honest and transparent but every lyric and note is dripping in joy. Also it may be the only secular album to sing about “The exalted Christ”. Tyler Huckabee wrote a must-read review of the album over at Gradient: Chance the Rapper’s ‘Coloring Book’ is Exactly what 2016 Needed  Favorite Track: “Same Drugs”

The Gray Havens, Ghost of a King And my second favorite album. If the band name didn’t clue you in this music sounds like Tolkien wrote a pop Christian album. There’s only one track that feels like a misstep in its radio-friendliness except that it services the whole album by introducing a new musical theme. This a concept album that develops like symphony. Favorite Track: “At Last, The King”

Honeysuckle, Honeysuckle This is a very new album to me, I’ve only listened to it a handful of times since being turned on to it by NPR’s All Songs Considered mid-year wrap up of new albums. I like it a lot so far, it feels like a less polished Punch Brothers though the production quality and harmonies are top notch.

Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp I discovered this album from the same NPR show and have listened to several times over already. The synth pop has a 90’s vibe to it and the lead singer’s voice is super clear. There’s some fun jams here. I’m looking forward to spending more and more time with this one.

Kings Kaleidoscope, Beyond Control This was my most anticipated album of the year and I’m afraid it doesn’t match up to my expectations. But! That’s not to say it isn’t a good sophomore effort. Kings Kaleidoscope symphonic/indie/ska groves are second to none. You’d think a ten piece band would sound clutter but there’s not a false note on the album. My problem is with the lyrics – these songs are less congregational and more confessional so the lyrical polish from their first album is lacking.Favorite Track: “A Prayer (explicit)”

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The artwork on Beyond Control is the best artwork though. How cool is this image?!

Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger If you like Paul Simon’s music you’ll like this. I do and did. Favorite Track: “Wristband”

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool I’m not a good Radiohead fan. I like “Creep”, In Rainbows is my favorite of their albums, I’ve not listened to King of Limbs yet… I’m not sad enough to love Radiohead the way you’d think a guy of my pallet would so take this with a grain of salt: This is a great album, it sounds like Radiohead playing with the lushest of string arrangements which is a very good thing. Favorite Track: “Present Tense”

Zachary Bolen, 1001 Alyssa and I were talking about how we wished there was music that dealt with the reality of drama of ordinary life without being melodramatic and overwrought. Here is an emotionally honest, simple album doing does just that. Bolen is the lead singer of Citizens & Saints but this album forgoes their electronic sound in favor of classic acoustic rock. This is also not an overtly Christian album – though themes of grace and mercy lace throughout. Favorite Track: “Give It Time”

Here’s a playlist with two tracks from each album:

If you want to find some more good music you can check out the NPR show I mentioned here: Your Favorite New Musicians of 2016 (So Far). And if you’re looking for other good new music here’s Paste’s write up of new music so far this year: The 25 Best Albums of 2016 (So Far)

 

My Favorite New Albums of 2016 (So Far)

Lord Just Lord Don’t Destroy Us Ummm Thanks (How To Pray, Part 1)

I remember the first time I prayed aloud in a group. Pious it was not. There was a girl in the youth group, I was in high school. Nothing is sexier to 16-year-olds than piety? Lucky for this poor girl I grew up in church so I knew exactly how to pray:

Dear God, Lord, I just, Lord, ummm… You are so awesome, Lord, I just ummm… not my will but, Lord, I just ummm… want to, Lord, bless us. Lord, we need your blessing, Lord. I just ummm… want to thank you, Lord. … Lord, I pray for all those who are hurting. Ummm… Help my mom pass law school. Thanks? In Jesus name we pray, (aggressively squeezed the hand of the student next to me because Thank-God-that’s-over-I-hope-she-noticed-and-it’s-your-turn).

Lord, the only honest prayer was for my mom. She graduated top of her class. Correlation does not imply causation but… The girl and I were never more than just umm friends.

There’s an awkwardness to prayer. To an outside observer I can imagine the whole thing is kind of crazy looking. Just some goofy goofs talking to their imaginary sky friend. Even to the initiated prayer is – to put it lightly – audacious. What do any of us have to say to the King of the Universe? Creator of Every Thing, Counter of Every Atom, Igniter of Every Star, Spinner of Every Galaxy – I have some thoughts. Here, I’ll just list them off for you. It’ll be easier that way. Oh, and bless me. Thanks in advance, bro. 

What is man that God is mindful of us? Is it no wonder his followers ask Jesus how to pray? It’s not really the kind of thing you want to get wrong LEST YOU BE DESTROYED! 

The ancient person, and any modern person who has ever asked a friend to pray for them, recognizes that we’re not really qualified to talk to divinity. We feel a certain priestly need. We sense that we need someone more qualified than ourselves to talk to God. Lest we be destroyed and all that.

So the agnostic asks her faithful friend to talk to the Big Guy Upstairs in their time of need and the temple priest sacrifices a virgin to the Volcano monster so it doesn’t spit its lava saliva on the village below.

Forgive me but I’ve watched the Pixar short film Lava with Atticus more than once, I know how this works. We need somebody more confident than we dare be. We need a priest.

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FEEEEEEEEEEEEED ME!!!!!

A priest has two jobs. They talk to the gods for the people and in turn talks to the people for the gods. Lest theyyou know – be destroyed! A holy buffer of sorts. Or, like the friend in middle school who passes back and forth notes with the person you’re to scared to ask to the Spring Formal. Future generations are going to have awful metaphors.

But the problem with most priests is that they’re only human. Regardless of their qualifications most priests are just as jacked up as the rest of us. And most of them eventually die.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4.14-16 NIV 

Those who profess faith in Jesus have a better priest than the ones we resort to. Jesus is the great high priest we long for. Jesus isn’t only human. Jesus isn’t as jacked up as us but he totally gets it. He knows just how frail and dumb we are and loves us anyway. He is both like us in that he has been tempted in every way. And Jesus is nothing like us in that he’s not succumbed to the temptation. And like no other priest death couldn’t keep Jesus down.

Jesus sits right next to God and prays for us. We can approach the throne of God without being destroyed so let us approach with confidence that we may receive mercy in our times of need.

When we don’t know what to say let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy. When we ask for the wrong things let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy. When we’re not worthy let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy. When we stumble and fall let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy. When we don’t know how to pray let us approach the throne with confidence that we may receive mercy.

Every embarrassing and mumbled Lord just umm…, every selfish request, every loss of words is turned to grace in the prayers of Jesus. In Jesus name we pray means we pray with and through Jesus. Jesus says for us what we could never say, our best and worst words are heard by God in the voice of Jesus.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

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Grace (Colorized). Eric Enstrom

This weekend we sang the following songs:

  • Manifesto by The City Harmonic
  • Good, Good Father by House Fires (arr. Zealand Worship)
  • Your Love is Strong by Jon Foreman
  • How Deep the Father’s Love For Us by Stuart Townend
  • Father, You Are All We Need by Citizens & Saints
  • Grace Alone by The Modern Post (arr. Kings Kaleidoscope)

Now go buy these songs.

Lord Just Lord Don’t Destroy Us Ummm Thanks (How To Pray, Part 1)

A Cup of Kindness Yet

Last Thursday after putting Atticus down for the night Alyssa and I went out to celebrate the new year with some old friends. Save a couple, I’ve celebrated almost every New Year of my adult life with the same old acquaintances. One memorable party included a 45 minute jazz rendition of Auld Lang Syne. I enjoy the party aspect of New Years Eve but like most things it’s a mixed bag for me.

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Happy New Year. December 27, 2015. frankieleon. Some Rights Required.

On one hand: New Year, New Me. Right? Me 2.0 – Just Like the Old Me but Better. 

How exciting!

The lead up to a new year is loaded with so much potential. How exciting! We dream in iridescent technicolor of what will be. How exciting! Our imaginations play with plans for the coming year. How exciting! The least creative of us have no trouble making art of an unlived new year. How exciting!

This will be the year I loose that weight; or, that I finally start using a dayplanner; or, go to the gym; or, read more books; or, whatever. This year I will be kinder to myself, this year I will yell at my kids less, this year I will be betterstrongerfaster.

How exciting!

The guy who says, “Vanity of Vanities! All is Vainity! Eat! Drink! Be Merry! For Tomorrow We Die!” is a drag and drinks alone in the corner. He’s not helpful, we don’t need him. “Keep on Keeping On” isn’t good enough. Not growing is dying so lets get on with the living. On your marks, get set, GOALS!

New Year, New Me. Just Like the Old Me but Better. 

How exciting!

On the other hand though: Doesn’t that just sound exhausting? Resolutions by their nature suggest that something ain’t right.

To effectively set goals and resolutions for a new year one needs to first reflect on the previous year with its highs and lows. Bummer. The good we did wasn’t satisfactory – so we’ll do more, and the good didn’t outweigh the bad, mediocre, or forgettable – so we’ll do better. 

This desire for change and improvement is a good and right desire. It’s what God does – what is last will be first, what is small will be great, what is old will be new, what is dark will be lit, what is dead will live. But on New Year’s Eve I forget that’s what God does. So, in a fit of retrospection and novelty I decide to rebuild the foundations of the House of Me with the original rotting lumber.

And everybody is in on the joke.

On the last day of 2015 my Twitter feed was flooded with variations on a theme, my favorite: “Try again in 2017. – Sincerely, 2016”. I chuckled as I ate a sleeve of Oreos while lounging on the couch scrolling through Twitter and thinking about how I’m going to lose all that weight.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Psalm 127.1-2

Jesus is calling, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” God gives rest to those of us who are weary and wearier from our DIY efforts. Thirsty from working in the sun? Here, he offers a cup of kindness yet. He’s got this one covered so why don’t you just go ahead and take a nap.

Eat! Drink! Be Merry! Happy New Year!

Seriously, if you skipped over watching that video stop reading. Go back. Watch that video. I’ll still be here when you’re done. Pinky promise.

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Did you watch it?

Good.

Now watch it again. There’s some interesting visual cues which I think really enrich the already diabetically rich new lyrics for that old familliar melody. Make it an anthem while the Year is still fresh.

In the first service I played a mash up of Auld Lang Syne/Amazing Grace during prayer partners as if to say there is grace in our striving. And in the second service we sang the new lyrics during communion – reminding us that the cup of kindness offered is the very blood of Jesus.

Blessed are the ones who were at both services, I guess.

The rest of the tunes we sang this past week were:

  • Unstoppable God by Elevation Worship
  • This Is Amazing Grace by Phil Wickham
  • God is Able by Hillsong
  • You Are My King by Billy J. Foote (Popular recordings by Chris Tomlin, Newsboys)
  • All Glory Be To Christ (Auld Lang Syne) lyrics by Dustin Kensrue, arrangement by Kings Kaleidoscope

Here’s a Spotify playlist of the tunes we sang. But, do yourself a favor and go buy all the music all these artists have recorded.

A Cup of Kindness Yet

Top 10 Steps To Being The Best You Now!

1. After I finish my prayer and study when I begin writing I create a playlist that covers the themes and pop culture references I make. I quite like this particular playlist, there’s some really great tunes on it. I’m particularly fond of the two Derek Webb songs (New Law and Spirit vs The Kick Drum), the Bob Dylan tune (Lay Down Your Weary Tune). But, there’s one tune, “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” by The Flaming Lips that teases out the sin-sickness in our hearts in a funny sort-of-way.

3. If you’re interested in learning more about “Law and Gospel” here is a list of books that I think are fantastic and will help you breathe a little easier:

4. It is easy to think of faith as a work we do to curry favor with God. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “All you have to do is have faith and God will…” or, more menancingly (and sadly I’ve actually heard this), “God didn’t do that because you didn’t have enough faith…” There’s that tricky Mr. Law coming and redefining what “faith” means. Did you notice the cause and effect clauses in those statements: “If I have X {faith} then Y {God will heal/bless/endorse my campaign}.” But, that’s not what faith is:

Schaeffer Faith Quote

This picture was originally shared by Crossway Publishing and I saw it serendipitously after church while I was scrolling through my FaceBook feed.

5. I read this poem in the March 2015 issue of Poetry magazine, and it’s stayed with me since.

Bible Study
TONY HOAGLAND

Who would have imagined that I would have to go
a million miles away from the place where I was born
to find people who would love me?
And that I would go that distance and that I would find those people?

In the dream JoAnne was showing me how much arm to amputate
if your hand gets trapped in the gears of the machine;
if you acted fast, she said, you could save everything above the wrist.
You want to keep a really sharp blade close by, she said.

Now I raised that hand to scratch one of those nasty little
scabs on the back of my head, and we sit outside and watch
the sun go down, inflamed as an appendicitis
over western Illinois – which then subsides and cools into a smooth gray sea.

Who knows, this might be the last good night of summer.
My broken nose is forming an idea of what’s for supper.
Hard to believe that death is just around the corner.
What kind of idiot would thnk he even ahd a destiny?

I was on the road for so long by myself,
I took to reading motel Bibles just for company.
Lying on the chintz bedspread before going to sleep,
still feeling the motion of the car inside my body,
I thought some wrongness in my self had made me that alone.

And God said, You are worth more to me
than one hundred sparrows.
And when I read that, I wept.
And God said, Whom have I blessed more than I have blessed you?

And I looked at the mini bar
and the bad abstract hotel art on the wall
and the dark TV set watching like a deacon.

And God said, Survive. And carry my perfume among the perishing.

[Source: Poetry (March 2015).]

6. So often I am tempted to avoid the bad things that I’ve done and that I do. I actively avoid my failures. I present the best me availble to myself, to the world at large, and – worst of all – to God. I hide the ugly and unpleasent parts of me. But St. Augustine has this other wonderful Latin phrase, “Felix Culpa,” which means: “O Happy Fault.” It comes from a Catholic mass that when translated reads: “O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer.”

Stephen Colbert, to honor his new Late Show starting tomorrow, in a recent and heartbreaking interview with Joel Lovell at GQ describes “Felix Culpa” this way:

“Our first night professionally onstage,” he [Stephen Colbert] said, the longtime Second City director Jeff Michalski told them that the most important lesson he could pass on to them was this: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”

“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.” (You’re welcome, Dune nerds.) – The Late, Great Stephen Colbert by Joel Lovell; GQ Magazine

7. There is a good-hearted, well intentioned tendency to preach behavior modification methods (Law) to ourselves in the hope that we’ll become more Sanctified (the process of becmoing more Christ-like) and better behaved people. Which, again, is counter-intuitive.

Over the past year or so I’ve been trying to articulate what the role of Justification (our standing with God) and the grace of the cross are in the Sanctification process. I’ve not been successful then I came upon this quote by Lutheran theologian, Gerhard Forde, in my research for this past week’s sermon that articulates it, in my opinion, perfectly:

Santification is the art of getting used to our justification.

8. Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-son1

9. I read this on Twitter the other day, I forget who tweeted it:

Build a man a fire and he’s warm for the night, set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life.

There’s this idea that if we preach too much grace than it’ll become lisence for sin. So we preach to ourselves behavior modification (seven steps to blah blah blah) because if you give a man a fish – grace – he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish – law – he’ll eat forever. All Law. We begin to trust the Law to do what it is not capable of doing. The Law is not capable of producing what it instructs, only grace can… BUT! BUT! IF YOU PREACH TOO MUCH GOSPEL PEOPLE WILL KEEP ACCEPTING HANDOUTS!

Paul heard that too, his response, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6.1-2)” and “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2.20)

We wrongly assume Jesus is our Co-Pilot and that we’re still the one’s doing the living. But us Christians have been crucified with Christ and we no longer live but he lives in us! As we walk, by faith, with the Spirit we won’t gratify the desires of our flesh.

Walking by the Spirit is a much different process than sin management; one looks like Beholding the Lamb of God who “takes away the sins of the world! and the other looks suspiciously like navel gazing.

10. At the conclussion of the sermon we were comissioned to “love one another” by way of Les Misérables to reinforce that message:

Top 10 Steps To Being The Best You Now!

Worship Review 7.5.15 – The Greatest of These

This weekend we sang:

  • “You Make Me Brave” by Bethel Worship
  • “Father You Are All We Need” by Citizens & Saints
  • “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” by lots of folks (I like the Kings Kaleidoscope version)
  • “How He Loves” by lots of folks (I like the David Crowder version)
  • “Grace Alone” by The Modern Post/Dustin Kensrue
  • “The Time Has Come” by Hillsong Worship

Attached is a playlist and I encourage you to check it out. If you like the tunes please buy them so that the artists can continue creating excellent worship for us to sing.


This weekend we sang a song that was popular a few years back and oft debated: “How He Loves.” And I want to spend some time thinking about what it means that “Yeah! He loves us! How he loves us! How he loves us!” and then some.

jly02

But it’s difficult to write about love for various reasons. For some it’s too effeminate. For others it’s effervescent, flighty, and poorly defined. For others its abstract and impractical. For some its just about who we go home to at night. But then there’s the Apostle Paul writing:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

from 1 Corinthians 13

What is love though? Is it an emotion? Is it whose bed your boots are under? Is it something government legislates? Is it butterflies fluttering about your abdomen? Is it charity? Feeding the poor? Is it poetry and verse? What makes love so great?

Singing “How He Loves” we sang about God’s jealousy towards us, about how the weight and force of God’s love bends us like a hurricane bends a tree, we sang that He is our portion and we’re His prize, and a swell turn of a phrase for the butterflies (“my heart turned violently inside my chest”). But it’s a bit obtuse so when we get to that amazing chorus: “Yeah he loves us, yeah he loves us, yeah he loves…” ad ininitum what are we singing?

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A different author writes it this way:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 1 John 3.16

Working backwards through the service, when we took communion and as we approached the table I sang “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us.”

“That He should give His only son to make a wretch His treasure, how great the pain of searing loss, the father turns His face away as wounds which mar the Chosen One bring many sons to glory.”

More often than not I’m tempted to think of love as an abstraction of emotion and romantic experience but as we gather at the table and we take the bread and we drink the wine we recognize the great reality of love.

God doesn’t love us so much that He has warm thoughts towards us. God is not an anxious high school student at prom standing across the dance floor with all the other nervous hopefuls wishing that we’ll like him enough to dance.

The love of God is not obtuse, it is not distant, it is not effeminate, it is not an emotion. It is a gift from a father to his wayward children. God’s love is tangible. It is very Real. The weight of His love is more Real than our heaviest and realest emotion or experience. The weight of His love doesn’t just bow us down, it is so very Real and Heavy that it bends His own self down. We know what love is because God bent toward us and gave us His son. We know what love is because while we were still awful, God-hating rebels Jesus died for us.

CS Lewis in my second favorite of his books, The Four Loves, writes:

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

Love is the tangible reality of God. It can be touched, it can be tasted, it can be seen, in all ways we can experience here and now with our senses. At a specific moment, in real time the flesh of love was torn, pierced, and hung up on a tree.

“Yeah He loves us, oh how He loves us.”

Worship Review 7.5.15 – The Greatest of These