By Joel Hartse
I buy few new albums these days, and half-heartedly listen to a lot of music while I stare blankly at glowing rectangles, so songs that actually grab hold of me are precious. Here is a list of pop songs released in 2010 which reflect where I’ve been and would like to be. They are mostly by jittery, hipstery white guys with Something to Say.
What they’re saying to me has to do with a phrase I’ve been hearing a lot lately, about living in the “already and not yet” of the Kingdom of God, between the atonement and the eschaton (maybe—my theological vocabulary is that of an amateur, which is why I read music magazines instead of philosophy books).
2010 was good to me: I published a book, spent time with my friends and family, did the teaching and reading and writing I wanted to do.
But the seasons change, responsibilities threaten to suffocate, the lives of people close to me seem fall apart in horrific ways that I cannot change, and I feel like I want to throw up almost all the time.
In 2011, I want to control everything and make it good. I cannot. I try to trust that the work of God has been done and is being done and will be done, and I make playlists of songs that sing my life back to me.
The Arcade Fire do this kind of music so well—here’s a song that sounds like an anthem, a call to action, but which, upon closer inspection, is actually closer to an exploration of paralyzing self-doubt. Yet a soaring hope emerges from the darkness, as the resigned “I would” of the chorus becomes the confident “Now I’m ready to start!” of the bridge.
I feel I should apologize for the first minute of this song—let us simply recognize that it was recorded in 1993. This missing piece from the British band’s archives was finally released this year, and despite its dated instrumentation, its tender defense of love, music, and mystery, is timely. Of the Nativity, Paddy McAloon asks: “why if it’s no more than a fable / should it strike so deep a chord?”
Song of the year. Maybe decade. I cannot not move every single time I hear it. Janelle Monae’s music is a revelation, and this song is a celebration of life as a “tightrope,” the peaks and valleys of human experience a dangerous dance of joy. Did I mention it is impossible not to dance to this song?
This is a tiny song, just a sparse ukulele and pedal steel guitar and Elizabeth Morris’ delicate voice. I find something lovely and worth remembering in a song about two people preparing a meal, and the love it takes to go out and get an onion for somebody who needs it: “It seems silly / but this chili / has two heartbeats in the recipe.” It does seem silly, but I know it is true.
Stars is one of my favorite bands, and thought I didn’t find a perfect pop single on the Five Ghosts the way I did on their previous albums, this gentle album opener won’t let me go. The lyric “They were kids that I once knew” at first suggests spectral Victorian urchins; gradually I began to read this song as an autopsy of childhood wonder, a valiant attempt to remember, and the hope that from a dead heart there can be a resurrection.
This song has all the paranoid lyrics, electronic blurps, and confused sensuality that typify the album, but the twin mantras sung by Stevens and his chorus—“I want to be well” and “I’m not f*cking around” strike me as a worthy mission statement. I also like the way the repetition implies another sentence: “Well, I want to be.” It is something we who live in this in-between have to figure out.
I have for some time thought of Lee Bozeman as an Orthodox answer to Morrissey, and this single from his most recent project sounds more like the Smiths—down to the pitch-shifted backing vocals—than anything else I’ve heard him do. A riff on John 18:37, it is also the closest to “pop” he’s gotten in a while.
I’m so glad this guy is still making music. From Christian rock to a modestly successful indie band to this solo project, Brian McSweeney has written heart-stirringly gorgeous melodies and sung them with a voice whose purity recalls Jeff Buckley and Marvin Gaye. I love the sad calls for love and redemption peeking out from behind the sinister drums and synthesizers.
This band—like Allo Darlin—is accused of being “twee” (overly cutesy), but I prefer to think of the gentleness of Belle and Sebastian’s music as an act of Christian charity. This short ditty offers a vision of heaven in which grace is dispensed to both those we label “desired” and “despised.”
I have admired this band since I was eighteen and I saw a group of weird-looking guys playing pop songs about God and I was like “Oh, OK, that’s what I like.” Wonderful usually sounds like a psychedelic Beach Boys—imagine “Kokomo” never happened—and this piece blooms into an ecstatic meditation on the second coming. Just you wait for this album, which is (I hope) coming out this year. I feel like this song actually causes me to believe in God.
P.S. This is my last regular contribution to Good Letters. It has been an honor to share this space with so many thoughtful writers and readers. Thank you, so very much, for reading. I hope to be back at the end of 2011 with another list of songs.