There are certain years in my life that I’m heavily nostalgic for. Just seeing the number “2006” brings a flood of memories back, most of them incredibly happy ones. It’s not the only such year, but it’s the example that comes to mind most readily when I ponder which year’s been by favorite so far. It was the first year that Christine and I really got to settle in as newlyweds, with big dreams but no pressure to make big plans in the near-term future, and with the stress that lingered throughout most of 2005 finally gone, this to me is where the “honeymoon” truly started on a more emotional level.
In with the New:
Out with the Old:
Ken Oak Band
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When January 1, 2006 came along, it was the first New Year’s in a long time where my head wasn’t filled with visions of huge goals to achieve for that year. 2005 had been so exhausting to get through that part of me was looking forward to just have a year to relax and see what God did. I knew that one thing I wanted it to be about was community-building – our Sedaqah Group went on a weekend retreat over Martin Luther King Day, and though it was rainy, the time we spent around San Diego, mostly holed up in the little house we had rented in Imperial Beach (literally a couple miles from the Mexican border) did a lot to help us bond. This picture was taken looking up the beachfront walk at the other nearby houses, and toward the Imperial Beach pier, on Saturday morning during that weekend retreat.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Secret Ambition”, David Crowder Band (Ultimate Music Makeover: The Songs of Michael W. Smith, 2005)
It seemed fitting to start this new chapter of life with a new spin on an old favorite song. Sort of a bookend to the original version of this song appearing on my very first soundtrack mix, I guess. The DCB had quickly become one of my new favorite “worship bands”, even as my interest in MWS had waned precisely because he had started putting out nothing but worship albums. Crowder and co. seemed like they still had a love for the art of making music that was just downright fun, and it didn’t get in the way of the message or vice versa. That enabled them to play this slightly more electrified take on a CCM classic pretty close to the original, just with the inherently cinematic scope of the original taken a little farther over the top, because these guys love a good epic climax.
2) “Chaos”, MuteMath (MuteMath, 2006)
“You stay true when my world is false, everything around breaking down to chaos. I always see you when my sight is lost, everything around breaking down to chaos.” Those words could well have summed up how 2005 went for me. And that was when I first heard MuteMath perform this highly energetic song at The Viper Room, but the album didn’t come out until that year (on my birthday, if I recall correctly), so I had to wait until then to give it a soundtrack slot. “Happiness emerging from chaos” was a good enough mindset to go into 2006 with, so I liked having this one as the first truly “new” song of the bunch. Listening to it just made me feel intensely optimistic about whatever the future held.
3) “Image of the Invisible”, Thrice (Vheissu, 2005)
I owe my brother Eric bigtime for getting into this Thrice. Vheissu was the perfect place to start, because for me it was a rather ideal blend of heavier rock and the more melodic stuff that he knew would be right up my alley. It’s still one of my all-time favorites when I’m in the mood for something a little more aggressive. The opening track grabbed me right away with its Morse code bleeding into a kickass drumbeat, and I was pretty stoked to hear “We’re more than carbon and chemicals, we are the image of the invisible!”, triumphantly shouted, a ringing endoresement of the idea that we humans are made in the image of God. Thrice never considered itself a “Christian band”, but a lot of Christian imagery came through in Dustin Kensrue’s songwriting, and this would be the model for a lot of the music I’d relate to most deeply as the actual “Christian music” industry proceeded to repeat itself into irrelevance while a lot of the truly inventive bands that happened to have Christians in them were starting to build up credible followings in the world of indie music or even the mainstream.
4) “The Downtown King”, The Elms (The Chess Hotel, 2006)
The Elms were once a major-label Christian band; as they fell more and more in love with the sound and swagger of classic rock, they decided to go full-on mainstream with a much rowdier album than anyone who hadn’t seem them live could have ever expected. As with Mutemath, I’d heard some of these songs in raw form at The Viper Room within the last few years, but in the case of The Elms, what I heard in concert was pretty much what I got on the CD, and I loved the rough-and-tumble nature of it. I never really figured out what this particular song was about – probably a narcissistic playboy who thought he owned the world. The band was comfortable just letting this guy’s douchebaggery be what it was instead of having to moralize about it in the lyrics. That left it open to interpretation and I think it was a stronger song (and the album it came from was stronger as well) because of it.
5) “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”, KT Tunstall (Eye to the Telescope, 2006)
Someone at The Phorum recommended KT to me just before her songs started to get huge airplay in the States. I think the first time I listened to her album, it was the UK release with the original, live-looped version of this track that she had performed on Jools Holland. I came to like the studio version from the American release more, but I definitely think seeing some early videos of KT reconstructing her songs from the ground up in a live setting was what initially got me fascinated with the concept of live looping that would drive me to seek out similar artists who put their own spin on the concept in the years to come. (Oh, and Andrew Bird. I can’t forget about that guy.)
6) “Manic”, Plumb (Chaotic Resolve, 2006)
The rollercoaster of emotions felt by a person suffering from manic depression in this song might have been a better fit for how I felt in the fall of 2005. I’m not sure it was far along to warrant a clinical diagnosis, but man, I was volatile for a while there, calm one moment and then angrier than I ever thought I could be the next. It wasn’t until February of 2006 that I could legally own the new Plumb album, which thankfully didn’t deviate from the bootleg that had leaked the previous fall, so I was thrilled to discover that all of the songs I loved from that album had survived in the exact same form on the official release, just with a few extra tracks tacked on. (Trust me, this sort of this could be a big deal back in the days when I was using Soulseek and ZPoc a lot.)
7) “Exit Calypsan (Only in My Dreams)”, Falling Up (Dawn Escapes, 2005)
This is classic Falling Up – power-chord heavy alt-rock meets dance/electronica with a super-catchy chorus, and lyrics that seem to refer to every other track on the album without ever telling you how this track got its title (aside from the subtitle that was probably tacked on by the record label to make it recognizable as a radio single), and probably close to the last time that something of theirs was a sure-fire hit on Christian radio. Also close to the last time that I cared about stuff like that. Fun song, but they’d grow to do much more interesting things in the years that followed.
8) “This Is the Countdown”, Mae (The Everglow, 2005)
I saw Mae live for the first time in early 2006. It was one of the first concerts that I went to all by myself, probably because Christine had to work that night and it was all the way out in orange County, at Biola University, not the most convenient location for a Sunday evening concert but I didn’t know if or when I’d get another chance to see them. (Later that year, as it turned out.) It’s interesting when you see a band live for the first time and they don’t necessarily have a lot of radio hits, so you have no idea whether your personal favorites are fan favorites or not. I wouldn’t necessarily have pegged this song, with its rhythmic shifts back and forth between the bridge and the chorus, as one of the catchiest or most obvious tracks on the record for people to fall in love with, but the crowd just went wild when the opening guitar notes were played, and didn’t let up from there, so I realized belatedly that it was definitely a highlight.
9) “Somebody More Like You”, Nickel Creek (Why Should the Fire Die?, 2005)
This mildly humorous but mostly biter sayonara to an ex who apparently dumped Sean Watkins because they were too different didn’t apply to anyone I could think of at the time. I was amused by the song and it needed a home, and there was really nothing like-minded anywhere else on this mix, so it ended up being the buffer between the more aggressive/up-tempo stuff that I usually front-load these mixes with, and a more pensive/downbeat back half of Disc One than my usual.
10) “Small Piece of You”, Sara Groves (Station Wagon, 2005)
Out of the two albums that Sara Groves put out in the same year, I identified a lot more with Station Wagon than Add to the Beauty, even though this one was specifically written with parents as its intended audience and I wasn’t a parent. I was thinking ahead enough to wonder what that stage of my life would always be like. I gravitated toward this sort of corny, but still meaningful song in which Groves, in the mommiest of mom terminology she can think of, comes to terms with the notion that her children will grow up and she can’t protect them from the whole world forever, and she can live with that as long as they don’t forget to call/write/visit and keep her in the loop on what’s going on in their lives.
11) “Mother”, Cindy Morgan (Postcards, 2006)
Cindy Morgan releases new records infrequently enough that each one can feel like a sort of renaissance for her. Postcards especially felt like that, gravitating toward more of a raw, folksy sound with occasional bits of rock influence, where it felt like some of the imperfections were left in on purpose. Nothing too challenging for a CCM audience, but I liked that she wasn’t afraid to be honest about topics like her difficult relationship with her mother, and learning how to be friends with her as an adult, and standing up for herself and saying, “This isn’t going to work if you keep treating me like a child.” I put this here deliberately to be a counterpoint to the Sara Groves song. I’m fortunate to have been able to talk to my own mother on a grownup level since I was a teenager, maybe even earlier than that. Some of my friends aren’t so fortunate, and their parents still try to control and manipulate them well into their 30s, so I’m thankful to not have that problem.
12) “Airplane”, Bethany Dillon (Imagination, 2005)
I’ve never really liked flying. It just triggers too many of my phobias – fear of heights, enclosed spaces, sudden unexpected motion, etc. Leave it to a songwriter a good ten years younger than me to describe an otherwise ordinary airplane experience in such poetic and engaging terms that I wanted to be there with her, having deep conversations with the stranger in the seat next to me, watching those mountaintops peek through the clouds, and seeing the sun rise twice in one day.
13) “California Town”, Fernando Ortega (Fernando Ortega, 2004)
I tend to think of Fernando Ortega as “the hymn guy” – when he’s not covering hymns outright, he’s usually singing something mellow but deeply spiritual that has a hymnlike quality to it. So I was quite surprised to hear this easygoing, soft rock song simply about a couple on a long, lazy road trip up the California coast, which of course sparked a ton of sentimental memories for me because this is exactly the sort of thing Christine and I love to do for fun. The first thing that came to mind was our trip to San Luis Obispo the previous summer. We’ve been up that way a few times since then, and it’s always a welcome get away from the hectic pace of life in Los Angeles.
14) “Midnight Cries”, Ken Oak Band (Symposium, 2005)
Man, I was really going for the slow burn here. I don’t normally pile up this many mellow songs until deep into Disc Two. The simple combination of an acoustic guitar and two cellos worked wonders on this track. It sounded so beautiful, especially at the end when the cellos were busily weaving in and out around each other’s melodies, but there was something tragic going on in the lyrics about the loss of innocence that I never quite worked out.
15) “Bella Luna”, Jason Mraz (Mr. A-Z, 2005)
Keeping the “late night journaling” mood alive is this love song to the moon, with a bit of flamenco or tango influence – I’m bad at European classical music, but I loved how different this was from the self-aggrandizing, smart-assed pop music Mraz was best known for. It’s sultry, a little bit sexy, and playfully inventive, and none of these are things that I would dare say about any of Mraz’s music nowadays even though it’s clearly still what he’s trying to go for.
16) “Burn That Broken Bed”, Iron & Wine/Calexico (In the Reins EP, 2005)
While I didn’t get into Calexico until a few more years down the road, I loved this hushed and haunting collaboration with Iron & Wine – an artist who I was anticipating a new record from so much that I would happily snap up any little morsel he put out in the meantime. This sort of completes a trilogy of “dark night” songs that I chose to end this disc with – it’s moody and mournful and you get the impression that someone’s discovered a lover has been cheating on him. The muted trumpet rings out into the cold night air as if playing a eulogy for a romance that was never meant to last.
In February 2006, the Evergreen group took me and Christine on another hike that revealed one of Southern California’s best-kept secrets – the Santa Monica mountains. Though not very high (this hike took us to Mount Allen, the range’s highest point at about 3,100 feet), they conceal some absolutely lovely valleys and great areas for rock climbing. This is a view looking down on the windy road that leads through the lush green valley, with the ocean hidden beyond the hills at the far side due to the marine layer, taken from Inspiration Point, along the Backbone trail that leads to the summit.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Say Hello”, P.O.D. (Testify, 2006)
I was actually glad to hear P.O.D. return to the rap/rock sound even though it had pretty much gone out of style by that point. It just suited them better than trying to do lethargic, sorta-heavy melodic rock. This album was a pretty blatant attempt to recapture the success of Satellite, but there were some solid tracks on it, particularly this riff-heavy confession near the end of the album that while they hate being judged and stereotyped, they’re just as bad as the people unfairly doing this to them.
2) “Easier than Love”, Switchfoot (Nothing Is Sound, 2005)
You don’t normally hear a lot of moralizing from Switchfoot, so it was a bit surprising when they took a left turn from the Ecclesiastical musings on Nothing Is Sound to this bit of social commentary on how sex is used to sell everything. After I thought about it for a bit, I realized the point of it wasn’t “sex is bad”; it was more that sex was this implicit promise behind a product being sold that really had nothing to do with sex and was unlikely to help you in the sexual conquest they wanted you to believe it would. And that is annoying, because it takes something that should be a fulfilling, rewarding experience and makes it seem as cheap as a trip to the convenience store.
3) “Confessional Booth”, Kevin Max (The Imposter, 2005)
“I take back everything I said that ever caused you pain or stress”. I’m not 100% sure what Kevin was confessing as he wrote this song, but for me, it represented the remorse I felt for my anger and paranoia over everything that happened in 2005 putting Christine through the wringer and causing a shadow to loom over what should have been a happy first few months of our marriage. I was determined that 2006 wasn’t going to be like that.
4) “Here I Am Send Me”, Delirious? (The Mission Bell, 2005)
My superficial reason for picking this song was because I loved it when Stu G. would trade off lead vocals with Martin, and this was one of the catchiest examples of them doing so. On a deeper level, I can’t remember if it was right around then that one of my numerous missionary friends had been commissioned and was leaving the country. But I remember Kent was already in Cambodia, Nate and Mailin were either already in Turkey or soon to leave, and I’d been in conversations with other friends who were itching to go overseas or who already had been on short-term trips. Evergreen really prioritized not only supporting our missionaries financially, but also understanding in more detail what they were doing, whcih was often more than the popular perception of “just show up in a country and start preaching”. Often it was helping the poor on more of a practical level – helping them to build wells, schools, create jobs so that they wouldn’t have to beg or engage in illegal activities to feed their families, that sort of thing. If you’re not actually helping people, and also helping the leaders you leave behind when you come back to America to continue making their home a better place, then I think the Gospel is going to ring hollow for a lot of these folks.
5) “You Are My Joy”, David Crowder Band (A Collision, 2005)
“And I cannot hold it in, remain compoased/Love’s taking over me, so I propose/The letting myself go.” My favorite memory of this song involves sitting atop one of the Beach Bluffs in Palos Verdes with my guitar on Valentine’s Day weekend, and singing it for Christine as we overlooked the ocean and the view of Catalina Island in the distance. We had eaten lunch at one of the restaurants overlooking the water in San Pedro, and enjoyed a nice peaceful walk along the boardwalk afterwards. She’s always been good at finding these interesting places in Southern California that I didn’t know about for us to explore on our various dates.
6) “Atlantic”, Thrice (Vheissu, 2005)
Keyboards, percussion, and a melodic, mellow vibe were probably a strange new world for a lot of Thrice fans when they first heard this song, but I knew right away that this one would become a favorite. This one alludes to a long-distance relationship held together by “tin cans and string” – the year 2005 wasn’t that primitive, but I’m sure it seems that way looking back now that we have Skype and FaceTime, etc. I remembered the days of dating long distance with 3,000 miles of the Pacific in between us, so this one definitely resonated. I liked that the dreamy mood of it was sentimental without being sappy.
7) “Chicago”, Sufjan Stevens (Come On! Feel the Illinoise!, 2005)
This ode to a rather sad and poverty-stricken road trip (which of course sounds way more upbeat than it really is until you listen to the lyrics) is probably Sufjan’s signature song for a lot of people. It says a lot about the overall quality of the Illinois album that I had been cherry-picking great songs from it for the better part of a year before I even got to this one. It wound up making an appearance in Little Miss Sunshine, which was one of my favorite films to come out that year – never mind that the messed-up family in that trip was making the journey from Albuquerque to Los Angeles instead of from Chicago to New York, I still think of their sorry excuse for a minivan with the door jammed open and the horn constantly beeping and the engine always needing a push-start whenever I hear this one.
8) “Lay Me Down”, Andrew Peterson (The Far Country, 2005)
“I suppose you could lay me down to die in Illinois.” I thought that opening line made a great transition out of “Chicago”. Though Andrew sings of coming full circle and spending the final days of his life in the state he was born in, he alludes to being “from” several other places throughout the song and the album it came from, and ultimately he sees Heaven as home, so the little details like where to bury his body seem inconsequential in light of that. I didn’t know it at the time, but my absolute favorite song to come out that year would also deal with the topic of where to bury a body once the soul has departed, and how the sorrow of saying goodbye shouldn’t be overshadowed by the joy of that person being in a better place.
9) “The Towers and the Trains”, The Elms (The Chess Hotel, 2006)
Life in small-town Indiana inspired a lot of The Elms’ songs. This one really painted a picture of a hardscrabble life in a town with a lot of rusted machinery sitting out in its fields, and a lot of people out of jobs. While it starts off a bit downcast, it turns into one of the most triumphant explosions of sound on the record, and having first heard it live at their Viper Room show the previous year, I was thrilled that the extended drum solo at the end made it onto the studio recording. Chris Thomas was just an animal on this one.
10) “Stare at the Sun/Obsolete”, MuteMath (MuteMath, 2006)
Speak of live show highlights with extended solos… MuteMath was nice enough to split off the instrumental, exploratory part of this song as its own track, but really it’s just one big, trippy, nine-minute song. Probably one of the most psychedelic-sounding things they’ve ever done. While everyone in the band is a singular talent, the upright bass solo in this track is the first time I can remember Roy Mitchell-Cárdenas stealing the spotlight. The slow, throbbing drum beats were so deep that I could swear I felt them more than I heard them.
11) “Someday”, Nichole Nordeman (Brave, 2005)
There was something about the chill vibe and the hints of electropop in this song that grabbed my attention when otherwise, it might have sounded to me like any other mid-tempo CCM pop song. Ever since her first record, I respected Nichole Nordeman for being to engage the “mysterious” aspects of her faith, the things that couldn’t be summed up with easy answers. Typical CCM usually tries to put a neat little explanation on a lot of these things, or failing that, some sort of a bumper sticker slogan that oversimplifies the issue. Nordeman didn’t want to offer that, and instead wrote a song about how the unexplained may one day be revealed to us in the afterlife, but until then, it’s actually a good thing that we have this hunger for knowing things that we can’t fully understand, and it’ll never feel quite complete. It’s not meant to.
12) “The Boy Vs. the Cynic”, John Reuben feat. Tim Skipper (The Boy Vs. the Cynic, 2005)
Summing up an album that swung wildly back and forth between optimism and cynicism, this song detailed the struggle to keep one foot grounded in reality while also trying to not lose faith or hope for the future. Those two aspects of my own personality had been at war with each other more than they had ever been in 2005, so coming out of that period and settling into more of a peaceful, contented existence in 2006, I strongly related to this one. Bonus: The hook on this song was sung by Tim Skipper from House of Heroes, before I knew who he was or that HoH would become one of my all-time favorite bands.
13) “Amen”, Shaun Groves (White Flag, 2005)
This simple, humble prayer for mercy was the backbone track on White Flag. I had sort of overlooked it at first, then it became a belated favorite when I saw him perform an acoustic version of it at Calvary Chapel Pasadena (yeah, it was one of those “use a popular CCM artist to rope people in so they can hear your pastor militantly ranting and raving about the evils of our society” type things, but the music was good and I had a higher tolerance level for that sort of thing at the time). I got to meet Shaun that day and thank him for not taking my songwriting advice on “Heaven Hang On”. Somewhere around that time, I wrote a parody version of this song called “Ah-choo”, about having a cold, that replaced the Scripture reading at the end with a reading of the NyQuil slogan. I can’t remember if I’d written it before I met him, but I decided it probably wasn’t best to share it.
14) “Change Me”, Sanctus Real (Fight the Tide, 2004)
I miss the days when, even in their more serious and heartfelt songs, Sanctus Real knew how to have fun. What could have been a simple acoustic ballad had all these fun little harmonic guitar effects, flirted a bit with electronica, and almost went into a full-on symphonic rock breakdown midway through. It was still straight up the alley of CCM radio in those days, but at least it had personality.
15) “Communion”, Third Day (Wherever You Are, 2005)
For some reason this little devotional track, which sounded exactly like the kind of thing you’d play while people were queuing up to take communion on Sunday morning, struck me as one of Third Day’s better worship songs in an era where they were starting to write too many of them and most of them sounded the same. mac Powell’s vocals on this one reminded me of his collaboration with Fernando Ortega on “Our Great God”, and I guess there was something Ortega-esque about the hymn-like nature of this one.
16) “How Great Is Our God”, Chris Tomlin (Arriving, 2004)
From the repertoire of Chris Tomlin-penned songs that a lot of modern worship teams still seem to run through almost weekly, this is one of those songs that baffled me because it was about as simple and straightforward as they come, yet something about the melody and phrasing of it really captivated me, and it honestly still does, long after I’ve gotten tired of most of his other songs. It was surprisingly durable – easy to play and easy to teach people, but a real joy when you got to that big chorus and then some folks could break off and sing the bridge overlapping it. I figure a lot of the hymns we still sing nowadays are the “greatest hits” out of a much larger crop that were mostly forgettable. Someday when our current style of “modern worship” seems antiquated and the church at large has moved on to something else, I’m willing to bet this will be one of the “hymns” of our era that will actually be fondly remembered and still get sung from time to time when folks are feeling more “traditional”.