2007 was the rare year where I actually embraced and enjoyed the winter season, as evidenced by the Christmas and winter-themed songs that dominate the end of Disc Two. Southern California winters are not known for being snowy, but there’s winter imagery to be found if you’re looking for it. As a deliberate contrast, the first several songs on Disc One are dominated by the theme of fire. Because, unfortunately, wildfires are a common feature of California autumns.
Out with the Old:
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Christine’s parents were unable to visit us over Thanksgiving weekend as originally planned, but her sister Angela still came down from the San Francisco Bay Area, where she had been living at the time, to spend the holiday with us. During her visit, we went to the California Science Center, a local landmark that I hadn’t visited since my childhood. I have fond memories of all the IMAX movies that I used to watch there on school field trips, and on the rare occasions when my Dad took me out to do something fun. Since we had forgotten our camera that day, Angela took this intriguing up-close shot of the hanging “galaxy” at the main entrance that I borrowed to use as a cover photo.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Sunrise”, Olivia the Band (Where We Come From It Never Snows, 2008)
Hearing this song a few months earlier, when we saw Olivia perform a set with Huntington beach as the backdrop, gave us hope that another round of Hawaiin sun-kissed pop/punk was on its way. It didn’t officially release until 2008, but it leaked a few months early, and of course I had no shame in checking it out as soon as I possibly could. The group had arranged a fun little acapella outro for the live version that, sadly, didn’t make it into the studio version. Still, this one was tons of fun, it made great use of the lead and backing vocal parts ricocheting off one another, and it was a solid dose of energy to start the mix off with.
2) “The Arsonist”, Thrice (The Alchemy Index, Vol. I, 2007)
The Alchemy Index was a very different project for Thrice, deliberately separating out different components of their sound into individual EPs. The first two volumes had the louder, thrashier, hard rock songs on the Fire disc and the more electronic, ambient stuff on the Water disc. Fire was the most like traditional Thrice, I guess, and this was the track I enjoyed the most from that record. It appeared to be a bit of a rant from a zealous arsonist who was convinced he was cleansing a city he loved by setting it ablaze. Creepy stuff, especially since we suffered through some pretty bad firestorms that year, to the point where our church’s college group, The Passage, had to cancel its fall retreat up near Lake Arrowhead. Much like a forest fire burning out of control due to shifting winds, this song seemed to change its rhythm unpredictably – of course there was a pattern to it, but it’s definitely one of the math-iest songs in Thrice’s catalogue.
3) “Dangerous”, Fono (Too Broken to Break, 2007)
While this song, the lead track on Fono’s long-awaited new album, didn’t directly relate to fire, there was a history behind it that certainly did. It had been eight long years in between album releases for the band (an EP that I never got to hear notwithstanding), which definitely wasn’t their plan. They had relocated from the UK to San Diego after their first album, gotten embroiled in legal drama with their label, and were finally able to start recording again when the Cedar Fire destroyed their studio and their work on the album thus far in the fall of 2003. So this record came out when it did because of a fire, in a dreadfully roundabout way. The song itself seemed to express fascination with a person who was like a loose cannon, creating conflicts and then fleeing the scene without having to deal with any consequences. It makes me think of those cool guys in action movies who flick a match and then casually walk away from a massive explosion going off right behind them, without even flinching.
4) “World on Fire”, Luna Halo (Luna Halo, 2007)
The fire theme starts to get a little perverse here. This was the concluding track on Luna Halo’s self-titled album, a sadistically gleeful sprint toward the finish line. Here a guy expresses indifference towards the world going to hell in a handbasket around him, so long as he can be with the woman he loved when it ends. It’s a bit callous, perhaps even a bit narcissistic, since he’s apparently more interested in this doomsday situation presenting the opportunity for a little “now or never” roll in the sack. I’m pretty sure the band wasn’t taking itself too seriously with this one. I found it darkly amusing.
5) “How Far We’ve Come”, Matchbox Twenty (Exile on Mainstream, 2007)
Wow, I really laid it on thick with the songs about the world burning, didn’t I? Matchbox Twenty’s comeback single took the notion of impending societal collapse a bit more seriously than Luna Halo, possibly playing up a political angle by expressing fears that all of humankind’s goodwill and progress could be easily destroyed if we didn’t keep our greed in check. Rob Thomas being the lovable downer that he is, he was already thinking a few steps ahead and wondering who he’d say his goodbyes to and whether he’d spend his final moments alive on something that actually mattered if the doomsday scenario actually came to fruition. (For context, this was when we were concerned that John McCain might end up being our next president. How downright quaint that sounds now.)
6) “First Time”, Lifehouse (Who We Are, 2007)
Okay, time to shift gears from all the doom and gloom and destruction to… a song about the experience of falling in love giving you a new lease on life. Not exactly an original sentiment, and it almost played out like an exercise in Lifehouse-by-the-numbers, but it was upbeat Lifehouse-by-the-numbers, and honestly that was way better than anything on their self-titled album. It was no “Hanging by a Moment”, but it was a fun song; I probably serenaded Christine with a clumsy acoustic version of it at some point.
7) “Anyone”, Fiction Plane (Left Side of the Brain, 2007)
Looking back at this song, I’m amazed at how well the shownmanship distracted from the bone-headedly simplistic structure of it. It’s a two chord song, and even that triumphant sounding guitar riff at the beginning of it is really just the same thing over and over. The bouncy bass part is probably the most interesting aspect of the song, but there’s an urgency to it that once again made Fiction Plane sound like Sting Jr. singing early U2, and I couldn’t deny the sheer power of it. The lyrics were… about being so privileged and sealed off from the rest of the world that we contributed nothing good to humanity, I guess? The chorus literally just repeats the word “Anyone” over and over, so I’m not even sure what the main point of it all is. It would have described the fat, lazy human race of the future seen in the film Wall-E, I guess, but the movie wasn’t due out until the following summer.
8) “Crazy 8s”, Mae (Singularity, 2007)
Like “Dangerous”, this song appears to be about someone who takes ill-conceived risks and doesn’t care if they’re breaking the law. Why didn’t I put it back-to-back with that song? Probably because I was like, “Well obviously this has to be track 8.” Regardless, this was a solid entry on the more muscular side of Mae’s power pop/indie rock sound. I’d heard them premiere it a full year earlier at that short-lived Cornerstone West Festival, and while it didn’t seem to be a piece of a larger story as on The Everglow, the theme of youthful folly and risky behavior certainly echoed part of that album’s story arc.
9) “Watch Us Explode (Justify)”, The Polyphonic Spree (The Fragile Army, 2007)
This song almost felt like an incendiary mission statement for The Polyphonic Spree, a massive ragtag collection of musicians who could barely contain their exuberance. It was like they were saying all of the awkward phases of individual growth everyone in the band had been through led up to this critical mass of spontaneous combustion being expressed in their music. The manic piano and drum rolls pretty much defined the song, but then of course there was the horn section, and as always the huge choral vocals. The energy was just inescapable here.
10) “Light as Air”, Deas Vail (All the Houses Look the Same, 2007)
Piano and drums were also a strong component of this track, interweaving with each other amidst all of the interesting rhythmic shifts in different parts of the song, which was an artful expression of Jesus’ promise: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Carrying emotional weight ages a person, and I think that’s what Wes Blaylock was getting at in the beautiful coda of this song when he repeated the words: “You’re coming around now/You want to get older/But don’t forget how/To stay alive.” Sometimes we insist on carrying more burdens than we can bear despite knowing that we should be casting our cares on Christ. I’m certainly enough of a worrywort to be guilty of that.
11) “Crayons Can Melt on Us for All I Care”, Relient K (Five Score and Seven Years Ago, 2007)
“I just wasted ten seconds of your life.” That’s literally the entire song. It seems silly to spend more time explaining it than it would take to just listen to it. But it’s worth mentioning that when I saw Relient K and Switchfoot in concert that fall, RK managed to tack this song onto the tail end of a cover of The Office‘s theme song, turning it into an apology for those who didn’t watch the show: “I just wasted two minutes and ten seconds of your life.” I had yet to get into the show. But I found this hilarious nonetheless.
12) “I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time”, Over the Rhine (The Trumpet Child, 2007)
And what better way to follow up a ten-second waste of time than with a song that doesn’t want to waste your time? That was Over the Rhine’s promise on the opening track of The Trumpet Child – they didn’t want to make music that was disposable or that the listener wouldn’t consider essential. They succeeded with this slow, jazzy track, whose horn intro reminded me of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” for a few brief seconds before veering off to do its own thing. This was OtR’s version of a mission statement, and it was offered in their usual laid-back, conversational fashion, inviting listeners to pull up a seat, have a drink or two, and let the good tunes slowly soak into their minds. Making a true connection with the listener meant way more to Karin and Linford than being stars with huge lines of fans waiting to get an autograph signed and have a meaningless 10-second conversation with them.
13) “Pardon My Dust”, Chris Rice (What a Heart Is Beating For, 2007)
The idea of a person as a work in progress fueled an unusually jazzy tune that turned out to be a highlight on Chris Rice’s new record that fall. (So far, it’s the last one he’s put out. I didn’t realize how much I’d miss the guy.) It works because the music has the feel of slowly shuffling through a dimly lit room, maybe tripping over a few things, but seeing something beautiful in the works amidst all of the clutter and the signs warning you to watch your step. These sorts of songs from CCM singers always meant more to me than the ones that made lofty promises to always do the correct, holy thing from now on.
14) “Hold the Light”, Caedmon’s Call (Overdressed, 2007)
Another Andy Osenga-penned highlight from Overdressed was this long ballad about a man going through a period where he was wrestling with God and found it difficult to believe. It’s about the strength of faith that a friend had for him, and how that sort of accountaibility to one another made it possible for one of them to stand in the gap for the other one, when the other couldn’t find enough faith. I love that idea of strength in numbers when it comes to having faith in God’s plan. I often find it easier to believe that God still has a meaningful and beautiful purpose to serve in a friend’s life when they believe all hope is lost, than I do in my own difficult situations. The function of prayer, and the question of whether God will act sooner or more noticeably just because more people pray about a situation, are still mysteries to me in a lot of ways. But that encouragement of knowing you’re not alone in a dark time when a lot of Christians too afraid to confront the difficulties you’re going through would probably steer clear, can be an answer to a prayer you didn’t even know to pray.
15) “Shelter (Cherry Blossom Edition)”, Corrinne May (Beautiful Seed, 2007)
Corrinne May’s third album didn’t quite captivate me as much as her first two – she’d largely moved on from acoustic coffeehouse and lovey-dovey pop music to more simplistic songs of faith at that point. But I enjoyed the two versions of this song that appeared on Beautiful Seed, particularly this alternate take that more of a “soundtrack-y” sort of quality to the piano melody that supported it. This one and “Hold the Light” just seemed to belong together – one was a friend asking another friend to be strong when he was weak, and the other was a friend promising to be strong and encouraging the other friend to open up to her about anything and everything getting them down. I’m not the world’s greatest empathizer. I’ve been reminded of this many times when Christine’s gone through rough stuff that I didn’t fully understand because I wasn’t there experiencing it for myself. Songs like this encouraged me to listen first and talk only after careful consideration of what had been said.
16) “Peace Is Here”, Jars of Clay (Christmas Songs, 2007)
Jars of clay had wowed me with their versions of “Little Drummer Boy” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in my college days, but when they finally put a full-length Christmas album out, the songs that did it most for me were two of the originals. This bright anthem, with its keyboards and guitars and bells ringing out, heralding the good news, had language much like a lot of the old, beloved carols that proclaim peace on earth and goodwill to men. Jars of Clay’s exploration of what that desire for peace meant to them really resonated with me, in a cultural context where there was much political debate about how we could put a stop to extremist religious wars we wanted no part of, and whether it was justifiable to deliberately instigate wars between nations as a means to this end. “Men to men in violent rapture/Wars lay sons in fields unknown/Hope to quell the disappointment/Justice born and mercy shown.” Those are powerful words that still stick with me. And the “Gloria”s in the chorus, while not extending over as many notes as they did in the classic carols, were no less exhilirating to sing loud and proud. This, to me, is a modern Christmas classic. It was the perfect note on which to close out Disc One, after all of the songs of violence and destruction and personal turmoil that I’d stacked up earlier in the playlist.
Snow is beautiful. Hiking in snow is really hard on the lungs. Especially when it’s barely above freezing, and windy, and the trail is steep. I re-learned that lesson when a hardy group of us got up very early on a Saturday in December and drove all the way up to Devil’s Punchbowl, on the opposite side of the San Gabriel Mountains from L.A., for a challenging hike to Devil’s Chair. I had done this hike back in 2004, but the light snowfall and temperatures in the 40s made it much more difficult. I also found out that cold weather isn’t good for digital camera batteries – mine died early in the hike. So I borrowed this picture that Linda took, illustrating the simple beauty of the winter landscape, which was really interesting to contrast with the desert scenery below us whenever we arrived at a lookout point.
Where in the world is this?
1) “Funnyman”, KT Tunstall (Drastic Fantastic, 2007)
I always wondered who this song was about. It seemed to be addressing a comedian of some sort who had hidden, tragic depths – maybe people only ever expected him to make them laugh when he had a lot more creative output that had gone unappreciated, or perhaps he was slowly dying in some way. Sometimes the best comedians are “listening to the word turn in on itself”, as the song puts it – they can take aspects of life that are dark and scary and find unusual ways to think about them that makes us laugh. Yet sometimes they’re also dealing with personal demons that we’re not fully aware of until they pass on or experience a humiliating fall from grace. I only consider myself a moderately funny person – which I guess is good, because it means my personal demons are only moderately tragic.
2) “Name”, Derek Webb (The Ringing Bell, 2007)
This song – one of the most delightful rockers from The Ringing Bell was about labels. If you’re the kind of person who isn’t content with the status quo and will speak your mind even when it ruffles some feathers, you’l get pigeonholed into all sorts of categories that aren’t really you – Fundamentalist, secular humanist, extremist on either side of the political spectrum, stuff like that. Derek was no stranger to these labels, so he wrote this as a song of defiance urging people in similar situations to not let themselves be so easily “named”, I guess.
3) “By Number”, Anathallo (Floating World, 2006)
I’m not sure what to say about this one, other than that I liked the pounding piano, “squashed” horns, and the Japanese poem at the end that comes out of nowhere, with the group vocals making it sound like it’s being sung by an overseas equivalent of the Smurfs as they happily march to work. My overactive imagination can connect some pretty weird dots when a song like this is so abstract that I’m not quite sure what to make of it.
4) “Wallfly”, Steven Delopoulos (Straightjacket, 2007)
“I used to be an angel healing/Now I’m just a wallfly stealing.” As Delopoulos got a little farther into his solo career, with Burlap to Cashmere in the rear view mirror, he seemed to become more and more aware that he was the odd man out in a music industry that had at least briefly embraced his band. Straighjacket was a little performance-arty and had a few screws loose in places, but the rambling, Cat Stevens-esque folk music we knew to expect from the guy was in fine form on this song, filled with colorful phrasing and a small arsenal of “lai lai lai”s to round it all out. He seemed to be rejecting commercial norms here, hoping the “Holy Ghost power” could still speak through his unconventional lyrical approach. It was fitting, considering he’d gone completely independent for the release of this album, which I can remember excitedly devouring when it became available as a digital download over Thanksgiving weekend that year.
5) “Everything Glorious”, David Crowder Band (Remedy, 2007)
A lot of Crowder’s songs made the rounds in church services and small group worship times in those days; this song always makes me think of Irwin, who played it once or twice for our small group before the album was even out (probably due to the song becoming popular after Crowder played it at a Passion conference). This one was fun both from the perspective as a guitar player, trying to get those tricky hammer-ons and pull-offs right in the catchy riff that set the song in motion, and as a worshiper, reaffirming that God doesn’t make mistakes and that includes us, the people singing. “You make everything glorious, and I am Yours. What does that make me?”
6) “Drago or the Dragons”, Falling Up (Captiva, 2007)
This was a rather fascinating deep cut on Captiva, which started with the shimmering sounds of what I assumed was a synthesizer trying to approximate a harpsichord, and ending with a fun little “breakdance” outro that made an excellent case for Falling Up’s shift from guitar-driven rock with traces of mu-metal still audible on their previous albums, to more of a progressive, keyboard-based rock sound. I had no idea what was going on in the lyrics here – some sort of a plot to distribute an antidote to poison by spiking local lakes and rivers with a miracle drug? Let it never be said that these guys weren’t imaginative.
7) “Still Life”, Lost Ocean (Lost Ocean, 2007)
Since there was a fire theme running through several songs on the first disc, I ended up with a water/ocean/ice theme running through several songs on the second. Lost Ocean’s name brought that sort of imagery to mind by default, but this song really brought it to the forefront, with its shifting rhythm feeling like the song was being tossed about at sea as a man battled his apathy and cried out for love, and… some other open-ended, poetic stuff happened with rainy city streets and footsteps on the ocean floor, and… in case you hadn’t noticed, I cared more about the vibe I got from a lot of these songs back then that I did about what the lyrics actually meant.
8) “Digital Sea”, Thrice (The Alchemy Index, Vol. II, 2007)
The cold, icy synths and strong electronic backbeat of this song were quite different for Thrice back then, especially since this was the first track on the Water disc, which was an introverted 180 coming after the ferocious songs on the Fire disc. I have to keep that perspective in mind, because now I view this as a classic Thrice song, and the experimentation as an essential component of their sound. The iPhone had just come out that year and I still wouldn’t dive into the world of digital music players and smartphones for several years, but already the band was observing a trend of people’s interests being consumed by technology, at the expense of real life flesh-and-blood relationships with one another. Some would say the technology enhances those relationships – my personal view is that technology is just a tool and it can be used to connect us or isolate us, depending on how obsessed we get with the medium instead of the reason for that medium existing. Regardless of whether your view is pessimistic or optimistic, I thought this was a fascinating song, especially with Dustin Kensrue’s voice melting into digitally compressed ones and zeroes as the song gradually morphed from a recognizably human performance into something completely electronic and alien.
9) “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, Radiohead (In Rainbows, 2007)
I really loved the groove-based side of Radiohead that emerged on songs like these, which were still quite moody in their lyrical outlook, but to my ears far more intosicating than a lot of their slower and more challenging material. The rigid drums played off of the guitar arpeggio here, the two instruments on purposefully different cycles that only came around to match every twelve beats due to their insistence on 4/4 and 3/4 time, repsectively. The lyrics described a man sinking in the ocean, witnessing all sorts of bizarre and malevolent sea life until the music turned a more sinister corner and the drowning man starting fighting his fate, declaring “I hit the bottom and escaped”. I love it when the bass comes in during that last part. Musically it’s a lot darker, and yet that’s where the rays of hope finally come shining into the song, suggesting a way out of the cycle of depression and madness.
10) “Carousel”, Iron & Wine (The Shepherd’s Dog, 2007)
Speaking of guitar arpeggios, this song was based around a rather beautiful one, and it ended up among the “water” songs because even though it’s an electric guitar, it’s mixed to sound all watery, as are Sam Beam’s vocals. He could have plucked this out on an acoustic guitar with no effects, and it would have been a captivatingly tragic tune about old age and a brutal snowstorm consuming the life of a small southern town. But the imagery hits even harder due to the weird filtering effects he put on everything.
11) “The Last Time He Saw Dorie”, Copeland (Eat, Sleep, Repeat, 2006)
“He’s in love with tragedy… She was a wreck, but he loved her.” Those opening lines set the stage pretty well for a song that seems to be about a man having to walk away from someone he loves because she’s too far gone to receive it. I don’t think the song is actually about the forgetful character of Finding Nemo, but the song has always made me think of a place somewhere in the cold, blue depths of the ocean due to that mental associate with the name, plus I strongly associate a lot of the back half of Eat, Sleep, Repeat with mental images of snow for other reasons. So it was a perfect fit here. The texture of the song is a true accomplishment – there’s so much care given to Aaron Marsh’s wispy vocals, the piano played both forwards and backwards, and the delicious strings and woodwinds. The female vocal that comes in at the end – perhaps a reply from the “Dorie” character herself affirming that the love spent on this person who was not in a mental state to fully appreciate it – breaks my heart in the most beautiful way possible.
12) “Marsh King’s Daughter”, Eisley (Combinations Special Edition, 2007)
This whimsical tale of a poor boy meeting a royal princess in a far-off swampy land, and the two falling in love despite it apparently being forbidden, is quite possible the most “high fantasy” song Eisley’s ever put out. They hint at storybook inspiration elsewhere, but on this oddball bonus track, they really went to town with it. I love the woodwinds and plucked strings, and the happy-go-lucky rhythm that sounds like something straight out of the very early days of Hollywood. I can practically envision synchronized swimmers doing an elaborate routine to the tune of this one, which would be a gloriously colorful thing to hold if not for the fact that we’d probably have been watching it in black and white. This wasn’t specifically a holiday song, but it had the sort of childlike wonder to it that made it a perfect segue into a few picks from Christmas albums that were in heavy rotation that year.
13) “Hibernation Day”, Jars of Clay feat. Christine Denté (Christmas Songs, 2007)
I’ve often said that I vastly prefer the spiritual Christmas songs to the sentimental ones, because I didn’t grow up in a place where it snows, and thus I can’t relate to all of the wistful, whimsical, and romantic songs that try to play on the audience’s memories of white Christmases from their formative years. This lovey-dovey duet, a bit of imaginative role playing between Dan Haseltine and Christine Denté, broke that mold for me, because it’s an irresistibly warm little ballad about how a couple just wants to crank up the heat and hide under the covers rather than dealing with all of the hassle awaiting them out in the real world. The obvious inspiration here was “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, but this one drops the creepy baggage of that old chestnut, in favor of depicting a couple who is totally on the same page in terms of feeling like the rest of the world can wait until there isn’t as much snow to shovel and ice to scrape, because who needs to go outside when you’ve got each other?
14) “Sleigh Ride”, Relient K (Let It Snow, Baby… Let It Reindeer, 2007)
Relient K’s swing-y take on this holiday standard – which later turns a corner into the piano-driven pop-punk style they had become known for – was a fun addition to their newly expanded Christmas album, which included a few newly recorded tracks on top of a re-release of their 2003 album Deck the Halls, Bruise Your Hand. Seeing them perform this one in concert – even though it was early November and they had to work with the audience a bit to fully get us into the holiday spirit with a little help from a snow machine – finally managed to seal the deal for me. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced the sort of equine recreation depicted in the song, but I can’t help myself – this one’s just too much fun to sing along to, especially when they drop that slick key change near the end.
15) “Frosti/Aurora”, Björk (Vespertine, 2001)
The arrival of winter meant that it finally felt appropriate to be spinninhg Vespertine constantly – not that I hadn’t already been doing so since my first listen to the record that summer. I was really cheating by putting two tracks in a row here, but they were inextricably linked on the album, with the childlike wonder of the chimes in the instrumental “Frosti” bleeding into the sound of crunching snow and the plucked harp that made “Aurora” such a beautiful, wintry site to behold. When I listen to this one, I think of what the ancient peoples of the Arctic must have thought of the long polar nights when the sun didn’t rise for several weeks, and the Northern Lights dancing in the sky overhead on clear nights. It must have seemed godlike to them, and Björk perfectly captures that sense of awe and wonder here, characterizing the aurora as a sparkling goddess, lighting the way home for a confused young girl who has gotten herself lost in the snow.
16) “Hljómalind”, Sigur Rós (Hvarf/Heim, 2007)
This grandiose, rock-oriented cut from Sigur Rós’s odds and ends collection seemed like a triuphant way to close out the string of wintry songs I’d stakced up at the end of this disc. As with most of their songs, the lyrics are either in Icelandic or a made-up language, so I can’t say what they’re about, but I sort of pictured this as the search party combing the frigid, snowy glacier for the lost young girl in the previous song, gallantly guiding her home where the warmth of food, family, and ancient holiday rituals would remind her she had always belonged. Merry Christmas/Hanukkah/solstice/whatever jolly winter occasion you celebrate, folks.