Friday, August 14, 2015

My Top Ten Spun Albums

So I decided to finish this post from awhile ago just for fun. This is not a favorites list, which would likely be somewhat different now. This is a list of the ten albums I think I have listened to the most over my entire life. Looking over these, most of these album reviews are often just as much about the band than the album, but that's okay.

(NOTE: Several entries have been significantly edited from their initial posting.)

Going Public, Newsboys

The Newsboys hail from the heyday of the Christian music scene, the golden age of the 90s. Distrusted by older Christians and stigmatized by the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll crowd, the Newsboys epitomize this era of unapologetic Christian themed music made by people who love rock. But I remember when even at a Christian high school almost no one listened to Christian music because any Christian music must automatically be terrible. At the same time the adults distrusted anything with a beat. I still remember my friend playing P.O.D. in gym class and the skeptical look we received from our Spanish teacher when we told her it meant "payable on death". This was, of course, before P.O.D. became ridiculously famous and successful. At that time my favorite Newsboys album was their subsequent album Take Me to Your Leader, one of my first ever CDs, which had catchier lyrics, better guitars and crisper production. But in the quieter years that followed as I watched the more exuberant age of the Christian music scene fade away, I find myself returning to Going Public almost exclusively. For years I had only the cassette tape, but eventually bought the CD somewhere along the line.

Driven more by keyboard, base and soft drumming, Going Public has a classic resonant, haunting pop rock sound. The stand-out single, "Shine", a smash hit that drove the Newsboys to the top of the Christian music charts, is only the beginning of a deep and thoughtful album about real life as a Christian. "Shine" is a catchy number about the radical transformation that can take place when someone commits their life to Christ, comparing it to Eskimos renouncing fur and bouncers taking ballet class, inspiring a memorable music video. "Oprah freaks and science seeks a rationale that shall excuse this strange behavior." Still true even today, as an unbelieving people try to explain away the power of the Holy Spirit behind the phenomenon of Christianity. Why be apologetic about the power of the Christian story? Why hide it? In a world constantly on the attack against the cause of Christ, this was a clarion call to live boldly and unapologetically committed to the simple power that has always animated Christian belief. This was my favorite song for a long time, but the album is stronger than just the single. The theme is repeated in the title track "Going Public", and there are a few other upbeat songs, but the highlights of the album are the slower more thoughtful tracks. The first is the exquisite "Let It Rain", presented as the dying wish of the apostle Peter as he recalls all his experiences with Jesus involving water. He asks Jesus to let it rain one last time before he goes to meet him in heaven. The sound of the album is perfect for a rainy, overcast day, and there is no song I'd rather listen to on such a day, staring out the teardrop streaked windows into the surreal light, longing for home. Then there are the last three songs on the album starting with "Be Still", a call to slow down and meditate on God in a turbulent and fast moving world trying so hard to distract us from the things that really matter.

"We have filled our lives with inventions
That have hurried us nowhere fast
Now we need to turn our attentions
To what will last"

That message is even more relevant today as it was in 1994. Then there is "When You Called My Name" a song about a discouraged and burnt-out pastor trying to hold on to the reasons he originally felt called to be a pastor when nothing seems to be going right. Closing out the album is a heartache of a rock ballad called "Elle G." that has become my favorite song on the album. The song is an emotionally perfect accounting of someone mourning the loss of a close friend to suicide, traversing in poetic, poignant fashion all the feelings of anger, betrayal, confusion, sorrow, loss and desperate hope that he will see her again. How can we hope that a Christian who commits suicide will be in heaven? It's a heart-wrenching question, one my mom had to ask after she found her brother in their garage. The uncle I never met was a schizophrenic who shot himself with a shotgun at age twenty-eight. I always think of my mom in that garage when I listen to this song. She still has his Bible, chock full of handwritten notes. She struggled with that, but believes she will see him in heaven someday, hoping that God will "overcome evil for good." Going Public always reminds me that He will.

Life in General, MxPx

MxPx came out of the West coast, or as they would say it, left coast punk rock scene of the 90s and were one of the first openly Christian bands to reject the Christian label as too confining. In doing so they were the more fun-loving forerunners of bands like Switchfoot, Skillet and Chevelle which have made it big in both markets. It is probably difficult for the average music listener to understand the dilemma faced by Christian musicians that are serious about music and the music industry, but MxPx has always eschewed both factions, the secular and the Christian.

Sex masquerades as rock and roll
And manufactured music to save your soul
So go and do your homework
Demographics target marketing
~"Your Problem, My Emergency"

Unfortunately for MxPx, demographics and target marketing are genuine attempts to find out what people want, and ignoring that means ignoring what people want and, by direct consequence, being less successful in industry terms. Bands like MxPx elevate their own sense of artistry over what the market wants. At the expense of making more money and having a more successful career, they gain a sense of independence, and MxPx has consciously embraced that ethic with all the consequences. Many bands fail and then complain about the marketing and business aspect of the music industry, but MxPx has from the beginning preferred rebellion and independence over doing what anybody else wants from them, the primary objection to the Christian music scene. (For instance, the Christian music industry's answer to the Grammy's, the Dove Awards, began requiring certain lyrical standards in order to be considered.) Remarkably, in MxPx's later years (they are still actively recording and touring over twenty years running), they began to fear that they were abandoning their original fan base and tried to write music that was more punk and less pop. Unfortunately for this attempt, MxPx has always been better as a pop-punk band and has the uncanny ability to write song after catchy song in that vein, an ability no more apparent than on Life in General. Though The Everpassing Moment is probably their best album, there is one reason why I have listened to Life in General more: it's great driving music. For a long time I had only a cassette player in my car and I owned a cassette copy of Life in General. Most of the time it was just easier to put in the tape than hook up my portable CD player with a tape adapter. That and most of their most well-known concert anthems are from this album. So two reasons.

The obvious smash hit from the album is "Chick Magnet", a hilarious song about a popular guy who gets all the girls from the perspective of a loser unable to get girls, presumably the band members. Songs like this today often emphasize resentment and rejection of the person in question, but MxPx has always accepted that people are different and this is part of life, for good or for worse. "Chick Magnet" doesn't lampoon the *ahem* magnetic personality, in fact it pretty much wishes him well (He's gonna settle down if he meets that special girl soon). It's really more a funny, "that's just life" comment on the fact that girls tend to like some guys more than others. This song, though by far the most popular and well-known song on the album, is the tenth song on the album. Underground bands like MxPx often have hit songs later in the album because they are chosen organically rather than by radio airplay of songs that are marketed as "hit singles" and are always put in the first three or four on the album. The video is must see TV, as MxPx purposely uses their drummer, by far the ugliest guy in the band, to play the chick magnet.

The album in general is a clean, honest reflection on the life of a normal teenager. Loves gained and lost, understood to be what they were: just part of growing up. From the sappy love song inspired by an awkwardly cringing pick-up line, "Do Your Feet Hurt", all the while admiring and respecting the girl for waiting for her one true love because she believes in God, to the comparison between high school and prison, "Doing Time", to say nothing of "My Mom Still Cleans My Room". And those aren't even the best songs on the album. Then there is the final track, "Southbound" about the joys of driving on the highway, something my family and I did a lot when I was younger. I have never heard an album more honestly and refreshingly faithful to what it's really like to be an average teenager. Perhaps that's because it came from the perspective of innocent but inevitable mistakes, simple joys and exaggerated tragedies, rather than the darkly tragic or cloying perspectives. Or perhaps it's because MxPx started the band in their teenage years and never left them. Never grow up, MxPx. Someone needs to stay young. 

The Black Album, Metallica

If Michael Jackson is the king of pop and Elvis is the king of rock 'n' roll, then Metallica is the undisputed heavyweight champion of metal. I have not yet found a hard rock station that does not have a show called Mandatory Metallica, a solid half hour of nothing but classic Metallica songs late at night. Most Metallica purists prefer Master of Puppets, saying the Black Album was the beginning of Metallica's exodus from their roots, but all bands that make it big are accused of this by their original fans. For me, Metallica was the first non-Christian band I really started listening to in earnest, so this album represents something of an exodus for me as well. As far back as high school I knew I loved the music. I remember well when the basketball team at my Christian high school played "Enter Sandman" as their entry music for one game and caused a minor controversy. I was somewhat ambivalent, but if I had been asked I would have been against it at the time. For some strange reason, Metallica is one of those bands that symbolizes to Christians all that is evil about secular music, despite the fact that they rarely curse and never really sing about explicit sex or glorify violence or drugs. Compared to the spectrum of music out there today, Metallica is so mild they don't even register a blip on that radar. For them the focus has always been the music, not the message. And there is no band that political conservatives should admire more.

From the beginning Metallica kept ownership of their own music and vigorously protected their intellectual property rights. When young progressive rockers were rebuking commercialism in music, holding their nose at the crowd, and then creating their own industry which we now call indie music, Metallica was succeeding both commercially and in maintaining actual independence from the corporate world, gaining real fans for one reason only: their music is awesome. They also led the charge against Napster and online file-sharing before admitting defeat at the hands of the new reality of the Internet. But more than that, Metallica elevates and admires the individual against the crowd. This, more than anything, explains Metallica's huge appeal. Metallica became a huge sensation without much marketing or traditional music industry support because they made truly creative music. In an age when heavy metal meant hair bands and arena rock, Metallica made exquisite, almost classical, long meandering numbers full of multiple independent themes with little or no lyrics. In fact their best album is probably S&M, or "Symphony and Metallica"), a live performance with the San Francisco Symphony playing original arrangements for their songs. Metallica did everything a band was not supposed to do, they did it on their own and they made it big. They are the perfect example of the free market rewarding creativity and innovation when the odds are purposely stacked against it by large, centralized bureaucracies. Yet strangely, Metallica is not popular with the sort of people who love to hate big business. We will see why in a moment.

The clear highlight of this album for me is "The Unforgiven", which to me reads almost like a resentful conservative's take on the liberal vision for a man in modern society. That man must follow all the rules and must submit his will to a society that often contradicts itself in the asking and doesn't fulfill in the taking, yet still refuses to allow dissent.

They dedicate their lives
To running all of his
He tries to please them all
This bitter man he is
Throughout his life the same
He's battled constantly
This fight he cannot win...

In the end, this man is defeated and feels as if his life was wasted living up to a confusing system of contradictory rules and has missed the opportunities he had to shine and reach fulfillment, blaming a society he only ever tried to please:

What I've felt, what I've known
Never shined through in what I've shown
Never free, never me
So I dub thee unforgiven

Certainly not a Christian band, Metallica deals with emotional and even spiritual issues of life, sometimes involving politics. They do have a song here called "The God That Failed", but a little Wiki research shows it was written about one of the band member's mother who died of cancer, refusing treatment because she was a Christian Scientist, basically a denomination of pseudo-intellectual faith healers for whom I have little sympathy. To someone like myself who has endured the progressive gauntlet that is the modern state university, the song "My Friend of Misery" has special meaning. The song is about a friend who is trying to save the world, and ends up putting all the sorrow and pain of the whole world on their own shoulders, crushing them in misery, for no human can save the world. At times I have been that person, possessed of both Christian compassion and up close and personal knowledge of suffering around the world from a very young age. It did not help me to be surrounded by clueless people who actually think the world can be saved from the consequences of sin and human mistakes and that it is our fault, meaning Americans, Christians, white people and men. I knew, again from personal experience, that American Christians are doing by far the most to alleviate suffering in the world. In many ways, I could have been a liberal but for the fact that I knew no one can or should be forced to shoulder that heavy emotional burden, and even if they were, it was American Christians who have been most responsive to it. These people act as if no one else in the entire world bears any responsibility except us. Modern liberalism constantly uses guilt and the suffering of others to emotionally browbeat people into submission to their program. I hate it with a passion, because for a time I really did believe it was all my fault. This song pretty well captures the same sentiment.

"Sad But True" has become probably my second favorite song on the album, and I really can't describe the theme without using Christian terms. The song is about the evil sin nature inside every one of us.

I'm your truth, telling lies
I'm your reason, alibis
I'm inside, open your eyes
I'm you

CCM and most worship style Christian music is notorious for putting a happy  Christian face on things because they are concerned about appearances. Here a non-Christian band tears that all away and reveals the evil inside everyone. Jesus Christ is not a cosmic teddy bear. He saves us from this evil inside all of us. Without that He died for nothing, and Metallica is halfway there.

If one is looking for an excellent conservative political anthem, look no further than "Don't Tread on Me". The title is pretty self-explanatory and unabashedly pro-American and conservative. If the Tea Party ever becomes a real party, it's animal symbol would be the rattlesnake from the Gadsden flag.

Liberty or death, what we so proudly hail
Once you provoke her, rattling of her tail
Never begins it, never, but once engaged
Never surrenders, showing the fangs of rage
So don't tread on me

Metallica represents the biker version of American conservatism, individualist, rebellious and contrarian. The metal attitude and rough exterior are largely an affectation designed to quickly get rid of those who are only interested in righteousness for the sake of appearances. They are also an excellent example of how conservative Christians rightly criticizing the culture and calling for change often fail to understand who their friends are. Oh, and they make damn good music.  

Speakeasy, Stavesacre

Stavesacre was the band which eventually supplanted Newsboys as my favorite, and stayed number one till they stopped making music. They are my Ford Edsel. No album has meant more to me personally than this one. In high school and even college I would sometimes drive somewhere to get away from it all. This was always the album I played on those trips. I always considered it an offense against high heaven that Stavesacre never made it big, and it was the only band I ever really made an effort to sell my friends on.

Stavesacre also presented a microcosm of the evolution of the Christian music industry over my lifetime. They started out aggressively and unapologetically Christian, complete with worship songs and seething anti-abortion anthems prophesying destruction on the U.S. for this offense against God. Eventually, the lead singer and front man Mark Salomon could no longer endure the hypocrisy constantly eating away at him, both from others and from himself. He has always hinted that he was sexually abused as a child, though even in his tell-all autobiography he only said that some things must stay in the family. But in the early Stavesacre years, behind the scenes he was sexually promiscuous, prideful and manipulative. He used his friends until they finally dropped him, and he hit bottom. Throughout all this, all he really had was music. When he came back to it, the band was still there, but the music and message changed. Speakeasy was released during somewhere in the middle of this transition. I actually had a conversation with Salomon once on MySpace, of all places, some time during the 2008 election, in which he objected to my contention that electing Obama would mean abortions would increase. He said if abortion was made illegal he would take to the streets with molotov cocktails. Stavesacre's transition could not have been more complete without them becoming atheists. The only other band I know whose transition during this period in Christian music was more complete was David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, whose story also involved sexual sin.

I watched this transition transpire over my lifetime, both in Stavesacre and the larger world of Christian music. There is a post called "The Rise and Fall of Christian Music" languishing in my queue. I cannot follow Stavesacre or Pedro to where they ended up, but I understand where they are coming from. As usual, the great Christian apologist and culture warrior C.S. Lewis has advice that is still relevant, even today:

"...when I speak of 'resisting the abuse of culture' I do not mean that a Christian should take money for supplying one thing (culture) and use the opportunity thus gained to supply a quite different thing (homiletics and apologetics). That is stealing. The mere presence of Christians in the ranks of the culture-sellers will inevitably provide an antidote."

In its early days, the Christian music industry failed to follow Lewis' sage advice, and the experience of bands like Stavesacre, Pedro the Lion and MxPx are the result: disillusionment, skepticism and failure. In the case of Bazan, it led to a loss of faith. Christian music became a front for selling Christianity to a world that was hoping to buy good music, and it took a long time to reform it's vision. It is all the more tragic because all the good, unknown Christian bands making great music during that time suffered stigmatization they didn't deserve, coming from Christians whose standard for music was apologetics just as often as from the "secular" world craving sex and drugs and hating on Christian music in general. The fact that they made great music didn't matter, because they didn't belong in either scene. Instead, they were the forerunners of a new scene, paying the price the industry visits upon innovation. Today, rock music as a whole is finally leaving its infancy and becoming more about the music than it has ever been. It is an environment within which Christians can and often do succeed, providing Lewis' antidote to the abuse of culture by their mere presence, not their preaching. 

Stavesacre's is a story of personal and professional failure, but in the midst of the ashes rises Speakeasy, a gem of an album whose tragedy revolves around a singular hope in God, thus capturing the true gospel message to the suffering. We may not ever find an end to it in this life, but God is still Just, and He will right all wrongs in the end.

"Under wings of gold and silver
Sometimes we have to hide
For shelter from this bitter winter
At least tonight"

"Thought I was a good man
And fell short of my standards
Now what am I left with?
All or nothing
And my first taste of freedom

Freefall weightless and terrified
On I go crossing over from living to so alive
And purified I know weeping is cast for the night
And joy comes in the morning

If I fall down
If I fail you
When I fall down
When I fail you
I hope to find you there
I hope to find you there
I know I'll find you there
I've always found you there"

The last song they ever released, though not on Speakeasy, is the perfect end to an inauspicious career, and one of their best ever. It looks back at the beginning and the end, realizing the whole struggle was a search for significance and success that never came:

For a moment I was sure there was a difference
No longer small or insignificant
The sound and fury only returned
To silence

Over all the years and all the changes in their outlook and art, they never made it. Their music was always more important to them, and to me, than to the rest of the world, but "against the silence the band played on." Play on, Stavesacre.

Our Newest Album Ever!, Five Iron Frenzy

FIF was/is a bunch of Christian band geeks rejoicing in self deprecatory humor about their junior high loserly nerdiness. And yet they are also former punks/metal heads who sing passionately about their faith. Somehow these eight strange bedfellows found each other and formed a ska/punk band in the mid 90s that became one of the most beloved Christian bands of all time. I suspect that happened mainly because Five Iron spoke to the sort of people who actually listened to the good Christian music in the first place: Christian teenagers whose parents wouldn't let them listen to secular music and were actually honest enough to obey them, but still rebellious enough to go for the underground stuff because it was so much better than what virtually all Christian radio stations played at the time. None of this was any sort of marketing strategy on their part. They were who they were, and they just happened to be the same kind of people who listened to Christian music back then. They were authentic and they were us, and that made them loved in a way I really haven't seen any other band loved by their fans.

Their second album, Our Newest Album Ever! did not remain true to its title, followed by Quantity is Job 1, from which this author took his web handle, the live album Proof that the Youth are Revolting then All the Hype Money Can Buy and Five Iron Frenzy 2: Electric Boogaloo, and finally The End is Near, an album they wrote knowing they were breaking up. Then ten years later they got back together and made the surprisingly good Engine of a Million Plots which was financed entirely by crowdfunding. But Our Newest Album Ever!, though no longer the newest, remains the definitive FIF album.

With crowd pleasers like "Superpowers", "Suckerpunch" and "Oh, Canada", the album has the catchy, humorous songs that have always been Five Iron's trademark. "Suckerpunch" is a song about losers and manages to be funny, self-deprecating and worshipful at the same time. It's real life honesty about those younger years reminds me of MxPx. It's what Christianity represented to all the kids who loved them. We learned the benefits of Christianity in personal and social terms.

A song sung for underdogs, for all the left out.
A flag flying for losers, somewhere in the Heavens.
The God of ever-lasting comfort, believed in me,
Loved me when I was faithless, he still died for me.

"Oh, Canada" is a song about Canada if you didn't catch that. I have never heard a song containing all the Canadian stereotypes that exist, and some that don't, followed by "Hey, let's go there!". 

"Superpowers" has the same mix of humor with a moral to the story. It's addressed to fans who tend to idolize musicians. In fact, it's actually making fun of such people. Imagine the Beatles or Michael Jackson singing lyrics like this:

"Eat some food off the floor
I've developed a taste for bread mold
Ride around in a van
Don't take a shower for six weeks and... "

"Sometimes we have a deadline
For writing our songs
Five minutes left to write this one
La, La la, La la, La la la."

What Five Iron Frenzy is doing here is purposefully and effectively destroying anyone's attempt to idolize them the way people sometimes do of other bands. They intentionally communicated their faults and threw cold water in people's faces just to get their fans not to think of the band more highly than they ought. Many of the bands I listened to, some on this list, recognized this but none of them tried harder to nip it in the bud than Five Iron did. In an industry dominated by prima donnas and attention seekers, Five Iron simply went the other way as hard and fast as they could. And we loved them for it because it obviously wasn't fake modesty. It was really what they wanted. They just wanted to play their music and all the rest of it to just go away.

These three songs alone would have been enough to make the album one of their best, but the clear highlight of the album is the final song, Every New Day, which became the song Five Iron always ends their concerts with. The song goes through its normal progression of verse, chorus, verse, chorus until the beautiful bridge-like crescendo at the end. Hearing it live should be on every Christian music fan's bucket list. If that wasn't enough, there's also the amazingly resilient number Blue Comb '78, a enduring fan favorite mixing humor and nostalgia about an ordinary plastic comb. It became commonplace to see people holding up blue combs at Five Iron concerts. In later years, the song Fistful of Sand has become one of my favorites. The lyrics are well and carefully written, which is somewhat uncharacteristic of Five Iron, as well as cleverly advancing a story-like message about greed. The album, like every Five Iron album with the possible exception of the last two, is not very accessible, but Five Iron is a truly unique and original band. There are no other bands even remotely resembling them, and this album brought them to the forefront of the entire scene. It was also the last album they made before they became really successful, something they never really got used to. This was Five Iron as they always were to their fans. The next release was an EP called Quantity is Job 1, and even though the quality was pretty good, the title betrays an increasing uneasiness with, well, the adult responsibilities of running a successful band. Our Newest Album Ever! was the last music they made without that feeling.

Songs to Burn Your Bridges By, Project 86

The simplest way to convey what Project 86 means to me is a rebuilding of a masculine Christian identity based on Truth. Though most of their other eight albums are very good and memorable, this remains by far the best Project 86 album. Project's first album was released on Tooth & Nail, the definitive Christian underground label, and got some attention. Their second album, Drawing Black Lines, was co-released on a major secular record label and achieved quite a bit of commercial success for an underground Christian band. Following this was Truthless Heroes, also released on Atlantic, which was an ironic scathing indictment of the entire industry. Though quite good on its own terms, the album was a flop commercially and precipitated Project 86's exit from the big time. In the midst of flailing around looking for a personal and professional identity, Project 86 independently produced and released Song to Burn Your Bridges By, a declaration that they were not sorry about what had happened.

"You wrote us off for so long, so, so long
We burned that bridge instead
And now we've got a song"

"The contract on my head
Isn't worth the paper, isn't worth the pen
Isn't worth the plastic promise
When the units aren't moving
We know. we know, we know
Our hearts are beyond prices
These words erupting from swollen tonsils
Will devour your clever devices"

"You broke my heart
But something tells me that I won't
That I won't
That I won't miss it"

The album was so amazing it couldn't go unnoticed, but there was no way Project 86 was going back to Atlantic. Eventually, they repaired their still existing relationship with T&N and re-released the album again with three extra songs. I'm a proud owner of the original limited independent release from 2003. Looking back on it now, the timing of the album's release probably has something to do with why it means so much to me. Project 86 wasn't high on my list of favorite bands until I heard this album as I was beginning my junior year of college.

My first two years I did what I was supposed to. I got straight As, mostly. The summer after my freshman year I got a job working full time in a genetics lab, then after my sophomore year I got a NSF-funded internship at another lab. But as I started my junior year I realized something had begun eating at me, something that took me years of reflection to understand. I had always known that I would have to be careful about representing myself in academia. I had always known that I would have to be partially deceptive in what I said and did in order to succeed, but I had always believed that academia was what it claimed to be: an open-minded dialogue. It was worth it, so I thought, to meet them on neutral ground because they could be convinced if they were shown the truth in the language they understood. What I began to unconsciously realize, was that they were not what they claimed to be. They were not open. They were not themselves willing to compromise and meet us on any neutral ground. It was never about Reason or Science or scholarship or anything else. It was always and ever about power. I knew they had it, and I didn't, and there was nothing I could do about it. I knew that the one thing they were asking of me was the one thing that really mattered. I tried to continue to do the things I was supposed to, but something deep inside my soul simply refused to participate. There were certain things that were non-negotiable for me, and I had mistakenly thought that I wouldn't have to give them up to participate. It wasn't a dialogue; it was a trap.

This album came to represent that part of me which refused to comply. I listened to it over and over again, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. For better or worse, that part has become who I am. Maybe it always was. Like Project 86, I am not sorry, and I don't miss what I left behind. My life is certainly worse for it, but I don't care. I need Truth.

I grew up wondering seriously whether I would be able to endure torture and martyrdom for what I believe like so many Christians had and were. How could I then balk at giving up professional success? What must go on in the mind of a potential martyr? It would be so easy. All I have to do is say a few words. I don't even have to believe them, I just have to lie and tell them what they want to hear. They are only words. Maybe if I survive I can do more good with the rest of my life than a simple truth that no one else will hear anyway. Maybe lies can advance the Truth.

And that is the problem. If one believes in the power of the Truth, one cannot also believe in the power of lies. This contradiction no man can navigate. No amount of cleverness, talent, charisma, influence or anything else can turn lies into a weapon for Truth. Mankind has no inherent power over such things. We are nothing. We are either slaves to one or the other. There is no neutral ground.

"Let's go back in time, you and I, to my
Initiation to your false empire
You greased, you aimed and then you spit while I
Once again pushed away my conscience"

"And though I once desired your twisted sense of fame
I know, I know that in myself I'm nothing

Nothing
Nothing
Nothing but the words of the meaningless

You have given me all I'll ever need
The nerve, the greed, the lust, the lust, the lust, the lust for justice
And now I will never rest until
The meaningless become your silence"

Silence, Blindside

Blindside is something of an enigma to me. Their first two albums were straight euro hardcore. I have them, but I could never really get into them. Then somehow they got a major record deal with Elektra and tried to break into the U.S. market. Somehow they cleaned up their sound to make it more accessible but managed to retain all the raw emotion to make this gem of an album, still one of my very favorites. The album was certainly a success, but somehow Blindside dropped off the radar anyway. I still followed them, and they still made some good stuff. Their last album was amazing too. But Silence will always be their magnum opus. They are still somewhat active, and recently played a show in New York where they simply played the entire album live. I seriously considered going, but Blindside was never a great live band unfortunately.

"The one thing I hate most about me
Is the one thing you wanna make your trademark
To feel lust
Without cute, boring love"

I recently found a new band that I really like called Wolves at the Gate. I was surprised and delighted to see they had done a cover of Sleepwalking from this album, which I always thought was the best song on the album even though the more well known song was the first single, Pitiful. Sometimes I think that record companies intentionally release the second-best song as the first single so that the second released single, the best song, has more legs. The problem with that strategy is that you might never make it to a second single. But every last song on this album is a classic, and there's not many albums even on this list about which I can say that. Blindside's style is unique, chaotic and creative. Blindside's songs refuse to follow a formulaic pattern. Often a verse/chorus pattern can be identified, but the ebb and flow of the music is always unexpected, yet still crunchy and satisfying. The closest band with the same innovative spirit in their music is Chevelle, which unlike Blindside became very successful in later years.

The other thing I love about Blindside is their colorful, foreign use of the English language. Blindside is a Swedish band, and like Nightwish, they have a strange but somehow coherent way of using English as a second language, heavy on symbolism, light on grammar and creative use of words. They manage some pretty creative lyrics at times, and they always somehow turn the words they want to say into an unorthodox melody. With two Scandinavian bands making this list, maybe I just like the way Scandinavians use English. I think this is where I recognize the similarity to Chevelle. Both bands seem at times to be forming the music around the lyrics, rather than forming the lyrics into lines like poetry and setting them to a tune. In any case, it works, and this album is still one of my very favorites. I only stopped listening to it when I had listened to it so much I could play the songs in my head on command.

"Time will change your heart
I'll be coming against your words
With something inside of me"

The Fashion Focus, Starflyer 59

Of all the albums on this list, this is the one I would most likely leave off an actual favorite albums list. It is not even my favorite Starflyer album. I put it here because I was trying to honestly list the albums I listened to the most. There is one reason why this album is here: I have always listened to this album to help me go to sleep.

The album marked a major change in Starflyer's sound. Their first three albums were a very heavy wall of sound, that were, unlike metal, extremely passive and soothing. The Fashion Focus eliminated quite a bit of the heavy elements, though some still exist, and went with weird instead of heavy as the sonic hook. The lyrics make little sense, as is always the case with Starflyer.

Before this album I had listened to previous Starflyer albums to go to sleep, but the transition to a lighter sound combined with the same sleepy, passive, slow nature of the music made it the perfect album to go to sleep to. Over the years I developed an almost Pavlovian response to the album. Sometimes it doesn't work, but sometimes it really does help me sleep. When it works I wake up in the morning without remembering hearing even the third track.

Song in My Soul, Acappella Vocal Band

Oh man. To this day just thinking about this album puts a smile on my face. I remember listening to this on cassette tape while navigating the crowds at a Husker football game. I remember listening to AVB's 90 minute best of/re-mix tape on long car trips. But most notably, AVB was the first band I ever saw live. They were four guys dancing and singing with lights and smoke. I don't remember being that taken with the concert, but I always loved the music and still do.

AVB came from non-instrumental denominations and that is why they were an a cappella band, which means they use no instruments at all. The interesting part is not that they were an an a cappella band, it's that they were very clearly trying to emulate groups like New Kids on the Block. AVB started as a spin-off band from a band called simply "Acappella". Acappella remained in the contemporary Christian music scene, or CCM, and AVB went off on its own somewhere by trying to target young people. Eventually they tired of the strained theology of non-instrumentalism, probably brought on by the fact that for some reason they were allowed to use all manner of recording equipment to alter the sounds of their voices during production but weren't allowed to use any instruments that were pretty much making the same sounds. For instance, the bass singer would quite often spend the entire song making a beat just like a bass drum. In their later years they left non-instrumentalism entirely, and I remember reading a rather long blog post denouncing them written by some non-instrumentalist pastor.

But Song in My Soul was before all that.  I was kid and blissfully unaware of the other stuff. Regardless of how they were produced or re-mixed later, the songs are just good and a joy to listen to. My only complaint is the album is way too short, clocking in at under thirty minutes and only ten songs. Listening to it over and over again, which I tend to do, sometimes makes the songs get old before they should. It probably also contributes to the number of times I've listened to the whole thing, but who's counting?

Dark Passion Play, Nightwish

This is the newest album on this list by several years, released in 2007. Albums made it onto this list by the sheer number of times I've listened to them, which means most of them are old albums that I go back to once in awhile. This album made the list because I went absolutely bonkers for this band when I first got into them. They are still the only band I've really gotten into after I graduated from college, even though they've been around since the 90s, although Wolves at the Gate may become my next new music obsession here soon.

Nightwish is a unique band, to say the least. They are melodic or "symphonic" metal with a female singer. Their original singer was a trained classical opera singer, Tarja Turunen, and she defined their early sound. Just the idea of an opera singer singing to metal got me interested. I've always loved Metallica's metal merged with classical, but Nightwish took it to a whole new level. Unfortunately, the original singer was fired from the band for reasons that never quite made sense to me. Supposedly she was spending too much time on other music endeavors, like opera singing and such, and the band wanted her to focus on the band and help it make the big time. Dark Passion Play is the first album they made without her.

It's not the tree that forsakes the flower
But the flower that forsakes the tree

Basically, Nightwish believed itself to be a great band without her. That is undeniably true, but it also appears to be true that they are never going to make it really big without her. Nightwish may have been as big as it was going to get before she left, but they were trying to break into the U.S. market in a big way. Tarja was the really unique thing about the band, and when she left they lost their unique niche in the market. However, it's also very possible they never would have made it big in the U.S. anyway. It's an open question whether the U.S. market could accept an opera/classical/heavy metal band. Sometimes I wonder if that wasn't the real reason they got rid of Tarja. I can easily imagine them listening to some American music industry people telling them opera metal wasn't going to work in the U.S. market. The images clash too much, even if the music meshes just fine. Regardless, they made two albums with their new singer, who then got stressed out apparently from dealing with fan criticism, and they just put out another album with another new singer who appears to be working out better, especially in her ability to handle the old stuff written for an opera voice. Neither are opera singers but both are female, as Nightwish is trying to hang on to its unique sound without Tarja.

Dark Passion Play was the new album when I got into the band, though I also bought two of their older ones with Tarja at the same time. I really, really wish Tarja had stayed, but despite her not being on this album, I just couldn't stop listening to it. I knew I like Tarja's singing better, but there's just something special about this album. I think Nightwish just found the sweet spot meshing metal with classical right here. Before this album it was too much metal, although I'm sure most Nightwish fans would say Once, the last album with Tarja, was their best. After Passion, the sound was too much classical, folk and sometimes just plain weird. But Dark Passion Play is just right. The music is difficult to describe since it's so completely foreign to American ears. The main songwriter, or perhaps composer, Tuomas Holopainen, listens to film scores for fun, so maybe that's the best description. It's movie music with a metal edge.

I probably would not have cared too much about the lyrics or philosophy except their most recent album had Richard Dawkins reading a couple passages from Darwin's Origin of Species on the first and last tracks, which I found exceedingly creepy given my own proclivities. It's almost enough to make me hate a band, much less stop listening to it entirely. The title of the album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, is a direct quote from Origin, and so I found myself pondering the themes of their music as a whole.

Aside from the obvious theme of the latest album, Nightwish has always obsessed over life and death, though more especially death. Even the band's name could probably be interpreted as "Deathwish". The title of Dark Passion Play is obviously a reference to Jesus Christ's last week before crucifixion, as well as keeping their European stylistic rebellion against Christianity. One of the best songs on the album, The Islander, breaks from their normal style for a simple acoustic, folk music sound and depicts an old man whose wife and children are all gone who has taken a job manning a lighthouse out on an island somewhere all by himself. He reflects on a full life well lived, but the good memories have become curses reminding him of the life he no longer has and making his loneliness unbearable. Eventually he sets sail in a "ship without a name" saying "farewell to the world", presumably committing suicide by sea. The song glorifies euthanasia, and post-Christian Europe, especially Scandinavia, has embraced this death cult. Nightwish is the third highest selling band in Finland, their native country, and Scandinavians have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. The Islander is one of the more coherent and easily interpreted Nightwish songs, but by no means the only one clearly about death. It seems clear to me now that Nightwish's artistic vision is consumed with finding beauty and meaning in death without resurrection, an emotionally and spiritually fulfilling atheistic worldview. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' professed love for the Myth of Evolution even after he rejected it as truth.

"But that is not the note on which I wish to end. The Myth has all these discreditable allies: but we should be far astray if we thought it had no others. As I have tried to show it has better allies too. It appeals to the same innocent and permanent needs in us which welcome Jack the Giant-Killer. It gives us almost everything the imagination craves - irony, heroism, vastness, unity in multiplicity, and a tragic close. It appeals to every part of me except for my reason. That is why those of us who feel that the Myth is already dead for us must not make the mistake of trying to 'debunk' it in the wrong way. We must not fancy that we are securing the modern world from something grim and dry, something that starves the soul. The contrary is the truth. It is our painful duty to wake the world from an enchantment. The real universe is probably in many respects less poetical, certainly less tidy and unified, than they had supposed. Man's role in it is less heroic. The danger that really hangs over him is perhaps entirely lacking in true tragic dignity. It is only in the last resort, and after all less poetries have been renounced and imagination sternly subjected to intellect, that we shall be able to offer them any compensation for what we intend to take away from them. That is why in the meantime we must treat the Myth with respect. It was all (on a certain level) nonsense: but a man would be a dull dog if he could not feel the thrill and charm of it. For my own part, though I believe it no longer, I shall always enjoy it as I enjoy other myths. I shall keep my Cave-Man where I keep Balder and Helen and the Argonauts: and there often re-visit him."

In America metal is, as I explained with Metallica, largely an affectation. In Europe they take the American affectation seriously because they have nothing else left from which to draw cultural meaning and purpose. Perhaps that is what so fascinated me about Nightwish. It is the first time I have really seen the same beauty in the evolutionary myth, which is really just a death cult in disguise, that Lewis saw and so reluctantly left behind. He is probably right. The evolutionary myth is now so deeply ingrained that it will take a very long time to root it out, and it probably cannot be done directly. I remember watching my physical chemistry professor shake with emotion when he broached the topic in class as something which was under attack. Maybe I will never fully understand, but it is definitely something which means a great deal to people in emotional terms. The only emotions I've ever experienced in relation to the Myth are hatred, zeal, disappointment and disgust. But for now, perhaps I can see something in this Myth and re-visit the Cave-Man when I listen to Nightwish. 

Now that's whack.


Honorable Mention

Fallen, Evanescence
Sumo Surprise, Ghoti Hook
The Blue Album, Weezer
Sam's Town, The Killers
All Star United, All Star United