2012 Music Review: Twelve Favorites

Over the past several years I’ve gotten in the December habit of compiling lists of my favorite music releases.  While I was in seminary taking preaching classes, I sought out an exercise that would help me enjoy, evaluate, and communicate texts in a creative way to an audience.  Since, at the time, all I was doing was reading and reading and writing and writing about biblical and theological content, I used music reviews as a way to hone my skills.  For about two years I wrote reviews for a small indie music blog out of Macon, GA called the Blue Indian (here is 2010 and 2011).  It was in this time that I realized if you could charitably and critically evaluate content that you sometimes did care deeply for, and some that you just didn’t “get,” and still make a compelling presentation to an audience, you had done most of the logistical tasks of preaching (which is what I wanted to work on).

So I present to you my list of twelve (a cheap way to continue to expand my list and delay decisiveness once more each year) favorite records that came out in 2012.  A brief disclaimer: these are my favorite records of this year, not necessarily the “best.”[1]  They might not be your favorites and for that I don’t apologize.  I may be skewed or inconsistent.  For instance, I’m well aware that half of these selections are from the South (including VA).  I’m also aware that I’m a sucker for M. Ward and the Avetts and unlike the Mumford boys (who came up big last year), they’re near locks on any favorite list I’ll likely write.  Again, I don’t apologize for this, everyone needs these kinds of go-tos.

I don’t have a fixed criteria for this evaluation.  Some of these albums and artists operate within a decisively Christian confession and view of the world, others quite the opposite, and many wrestle somewhere in the middle.  Some tilt towards the traditional, some towards the experimental, most hold both in some sort of tension.  Some are household names, while others share the fate of prophets in their respective hometowns.  I’ve included a Spotify playlist of this list in its entirety as well as a playlist featuring a single song from more than 40 (just wait until the year 2040!) notable releases.  I’d also love to hear, in the comments, some that I may have missed.  Cheers on a great year of music to have enjoyed and blessings on what I hope shapes up to be another.  -CEB

Band of Horses // Mirage Rock
Band of Horses // Mirage Rock

12: Mirage Rock (Columbia)

Band of Horses

These bearded bards have smoothed out some of their previous rolickers into a milder but really interesting album.  They’ve dusted off the legendary Glynn Johns (father of Ethan) for his first production gig in nearly three decades and it really pays off.  You can really hear the Carolina hills amidst the Wilsonian harmonies.

Bowerbirds // The Clearing
Bowerbirds // The Clearing

11: The Clearing (Dead Oceans)


The earthy duo from Upper Air has expanded in number and so has their sound.  This record, grouped with the most recent offerings from Bon Iver, the Rosebuds, and Megafaun, would make for a really oddly cohesive April Base box set: ranging from ambitious and bombastic to charming and homespun.  Between the recurrent wildlife vagabonding and Phil Moore’s strangely entrancing songwriting meter, you are bound to get sucked in by the bare beauty and precious vulnerability of this music.

The Welcome Wagon // Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices
The Welcome Wagon // Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices

10: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Asthmatic Kitty)

The Welcome Wagon

This time around Pastor Vito Aiuto and wife Monique cobble together a less-overtly Sufjan Stevens-infused collection of hymns and spiritual songs.  Again, the covers are outstanding, ranging from Crowder to the Cure.  The hymns are imaginative appropriations of some lesser-known texts, and Vito has continued to prove himself a worthy auteur and purveyor of surprisingly sacred music in the vein of a Brooklyn-hipster-Reverend Gary Davis.

The Avett Bros // The Carpenter
The Avett Bros // The Carpenter

9: The Carpenter (Universal Republic)

Avett Brothers 

The Avetts were in a pickle on this one.  After working with Rick Rubin on I and Love and You and simultaneously getting flack from longtime fans longing for the mountain-punk of their beginnings and getting lauded by a much much larger audience, this album, their seventh full-length studio record (and 14th total release!) bore many of the pressures of a sophomore album.  Somehow they managed to do it.  In the midst of immense scrutiny and personal and familial trial, they produced a record with genuine warmth of sound and lyrical depth.  In my mind, The Carpenter resists conflation with the Mumford phenomenon (though similarities abound and some might disagree), due in part to the band’s willingness to explore (and fall flat in some cases) while frequently tipping their caps to unabashed influences like Townes Van Zandt and Doc Watson.  These influences lie very near the surface but don’t seem as forced or forceful as the literary and biblical allusioneering of their comrades.

Bill Fay // Life Is People
Bill Fay // Life Is People

8: Life Is People (Dead Oceans)

Bill Fay

This record came out of nowhere for me.  I had heard both Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco) and Damien Jurado cover “Be Not So Fearful.”  But Bill Fay was as obscure to me as he actually is.  Tweedy, himself, makes an appearance on Fay’s first album of new material in 41 years. Fay returns the favor with a cover (almost in latter year Johnny Cash fashion) of Tweedy’s “Jesus, Etc” in one of the finer moments of the record.  “The Healing Day”  offers a cathartic, eschatological anthem for fans of Cash, Billy Prince Billy, Wilco, and Nick Cave.

M. Ward // A Wasteland Companion
M. Ward // A Wasteland Companion

7: A Wasteland Companion (Merge)

M. Ward

For being a spliced-together collection of songs from the road, Companion sure doesn’t sound like it.  While decidedly less lo-fi than his earlier records, and conspicuously featuring indie sweetheart, Zooey Deschanel (the “She” from his other notable project), “Clean Slate” and “Pure Joy” could fit in on an anthology of his best and most characteristic.

Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur
Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur

6: Voyageur (Zoe Records)

Kathleen Edwards

This past fall, I’ve countlessly heard, from both sides of the aisle, the bemoaned, “if so-and-so wins the election, I’m moving to Canada.”  Canadian Kathleen Edwards diffuses this by threatening the inverse on the lead track of Voyageur and then shows her hand on this “empty threat.”  Voyageur succeeds through heartbreaking lyrics and vocals, and daring and skilled arrangements.  Even in some of her less poignant moments, she manages to pull off sounding sincere singing about sidecars and pink champagne in a way rivals Kim Kierkergaardashian‘s ability to combine crass and contemplative.

Father John Misty // Fear Fun
Father John Misty // Fear Fun

5: Fear Fun (Sub Pop)

Father John Misty

Best described as a trip, Fear Fun, is part Josh Tillman travelogue and part apocalyptic fantasy.  Woven strands of reality and fiction are incarnated in hazy Laurel Canyon fare.  The result is remarkably more interesting than either the lush harmonies of Tillman’s former gig as drumming Fleet Fox or his intense but often monotonous singing-ax solo fare.  With the album, he chopped off his hair, and was seemingly and suddenly imbued with newfound frontman swagger.  I’ve wondered on more than one occasion if this could this be a neo-Robert Johnston scenario?  While confusing at times, hilarious at others, and shrouded in darkness even in its sunnier moments, FF has to be considered one of the oddest and most enjoyable albums of 2012.

Floating Action // Fake Blood
Floating Action // Fake Blood

4: Fake Blood  (Removador/Harvest)

Floating Action

Black Mountain experimenteur Seth Kauffman teamed with Jim James of My Morning Jacket and toned down some of the sitar from last year’s wonderful but difficult Desert Etiquette to arrive at his most complete work since his solo album Research.  This “conservatism” suits him well, as a little restraint helps the supreme nuance come out in fewer and less labored listens.  The title of the record stems from his observation and frustration at the pervasive ability of “fake blood” (art that doesn’t hurt to make, but safely appears so) to sell records and make fans.  This epitomizes Seth’s ability to surprisingly craft and juxtapose.  After all, when asked about surprising interests and influences, he once listed Saabs, Paula Abdul and Karl Barth in the same sentence.

Alabama Shakes // Boys & Girls
Alabama Shakes // Boys & Girls

3: Boys & Girls (ATO)

Alabama Shakes 

“I feel so homesick.  Where’s my home?  Where I belong or where I was born?” questions Brittany Howard on “Rise to the Sun.”  Her ability to repeatedly package such existential wonderings in, to borrow a buddy’s descriptor, such “gronky” (here think something akin to Led Zep, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Ike Turner… a funky sonic patina) containers shines.  Throughout this sparkling debut, the Shakes prove that while there is nothing new under the sun, its revolution around the earth and its faithful reemergence can endlessly illumine what we already know in surprising and quite enjoyable ways.

Matthew E. White // Big Inner
Matthew E. White // Big Inner

2: Big Inner   (Hometapes/Spacebomb)

Matthew E. White

Not since Illinois has it been so cool and engrossing to listen to an album that sounds, at times, like a glorified high school marching band jam session.  Like Sufjan’s masterpiece, Matthew E. White (who’s arranged for the Mountain Goats, the Sounds of the South tour and whose backing band has richly ornamented the huge sounding and hugely successful eponymous Bon Iver record) has proven that once you dive in you find the brass and fanfare is actually secondary.  Listen and you’ll be rewarded with a rich lyrical tapestry.  The sacred and the profane touch at times, their threads crawling over each other, combined though not indistinguishable.  At times you wonder if White is miming Randy Newman or Qoheleth as he muses about the sun’s hiding place on “Steady Pace.”  Or when he takes up the slave-song meme of crossing the “Brazos” and explodes into a more than 5 minute long, album-ending chorus of “Jesus Christ, he is our Lord!  Jesus Christ, he is your friend!”

Damien Jurado // Maraqopa
Damien Jurado // Maraqopa

1: Maraqopa (Secretly Canadian)

Damien Jurado 

After warming up with a handful of cover songs and Jurado’s previous release, Saint Bartlett, the Jurado/Richard Swift production tandem has hit full-stride with Maraqopa.  Sometimes enigmatic and others jangly and humorous, the amount of texture, attention, and the nuance kept me listening to this record throughout the whole year.  While his sound has evolved, his writing has remained constant.  He pens “I heard you call my name.  You were outside the door.  How did I not hear you before?” on “This Time Next Year” a parousia anthem whose opening doo-wop chimes are broken up by surf-guitar distortion.  Lines like these are sneaky.  In some ways they underwhelm, but Jurado has developed a penchant for writing such startlingly simple lyrics that lack any semblance dullness or pretension, but manage to strike the hearer as stark and unalloyed.


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, upon receiving the honor of “Best American Theologian” in 2001 by TIME Magazine responded, “Best is not a theological category.”  Likewise, I’m not sure “best” is always a great or suitable category for artistic works.

Newtown, Bethlehem, and the Dark Side of Christmas

[NOTE: this post was originally written for www.BigBible.org.uk, and they are letting me post it here simultaneously on my personal blog.]


A week ago I was sitting in an elementary school watching one of my kids in a little Christmas musical. I was sitting there in the cafeteria with my wife, holding a toddler eager to watch her slightly bigger brother as he mouthed lyrics and tried to remember the right hand motions. My wife was with me, and it did not escape us that this very moment was precious: the sound of children singing Christmas songs, the taste of homemade butter cookies someone had baked for the occasion, the cheerful faces of other parents we know, and the sight of our tiny schoolboy wearing this halo-thing crafted from glitter, glue and construction paper. With two other kids in the same school—all healthy and happy with Christmas daydreams swirling in their minds—we acknowledged together that this was a precious moment in a precious life-stage.

At that same moment, in another elementary school, little children had the Christmas daydreams swirling in their precious minds interrupted by gunshots. Twenty of them will not wake up on Christmas morning to unwrap the gifts their mothers and fathers have stashed into attics and closets. They are gone. Brutally, viciously gone.

The media coverage has been continuous. But no microphones will be there to record the silence in those homes when, on December 25th, the bare feet of those twenty precious little children do not slap the floorspace between bed and tree.

I cannot write anything catchy and inspirational—I have four little kids, some of whom wear the same shoe size and the same size of fleece pajamas as those kids in Newtown, Connecticut. I know the weight and size of those unsuspecting children, how they would feel in the arms of their dads. I have a good idea as to which shows they liked to watch. I know what sort of toys they liked because they are probably lying all over the floors in my own house. And I could take a good guess as to what lies wrapped in cheery, glossy paper in those attics and closets.

What I do not know is the soul-eviscerating pain of their made-up and unslept-on beds on a Christmas morning.

I have no inspirational slogans to offer.

All I can do here is to write about Advent: waiting, hoping, leaning forward into the darkness, hoping that Someone is coming, coming to make things right. Coming with a new Age in which children play over adders’ nests… and play without the crack and smoke of gunfire.

Advent is to be celebrated with as much weeping as rejoicing.

To rejoice without tears may well be a proper way to celebrate our secular culture’s seasonal festivities. And that is okay. Good, actually, in many respects. But to celebrate will at times involve weeping with mothers in Newtown, and with mothers in Bethlehem— with all the mothers who have had children taken away by men with weapons. Advent is about waiting and expecting. Waiting because a sin-induced dysfunction has bled into every fiber of our hearts and our world. We are waiting because we know just enough about our God to expect that he will appear on the horizon bringing a definitive reconfiguration of all things.

He came once. Surely, he will come again.

That is why we rejoice somehow through sobs, why we do this unbelievable act of mustering just enough faith against all the odds and splutter out some expression of joy even when the tears sting like hell. This is not the joy of trite sentimentality, the joy of a vapid theology that says things like “God just needed some more little angels” (yes, this was said—see a response here). This is a raw, hard-fought, impossible joy that belongs to another realm and erupts out of the pain at the prospect of hearing something like,

“Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5)

There is and there has always been a dark side of Christmas—A scandal in Nazareth: the betrothed is pregnant. A reminder of political oppression: we have to register for the census. A mother in labor without a bed: sorry, there is no room in the inn. And worst of all, the sound of soldiers bearing swords and entering homes:

A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more. (Mt 2:18; cf. Jer 31:15)

We are waiting for you Lord. You came once. Come again. Soon.


Advent with the Gathering Church

Inspired by my fellow contributors’ Advent posts, I’d love to share a few items from my community’s Advent observation.

1) Each of the last several years, I’ve had some part in writing and/or curating a church devotional.  Even though these reflections usually take place while there are still leaves on the trees and it’s not yet sweater weather, this rhythm of pre-Advent preparation has been a pastoral boon for me.  Unlike some things, even some sermons, I’ve found this exercise to be preparatory rather than exhausting.  By the time we’re lighting candles on Sunday morning (in an elementary school gym), I’m more prepared and excited rather than bored or tired.  Here is this year’s devotional (available for free download).  Clicking here will get you to some of the previous material, also freely given.

2) It has been really special as a pastor immersed in a community (both church and wider) chock-full of creative types to attempt to foster that creativity.  To pastor people who consider (and some who don’t) themselves artists has been one of the most joyful, challenging, and favorite parts of my duties and the Lord’s provision.  This season, I especially enjoyed the give-and-take that went along with commissioning this piece for our church’s Advent.  I got the opportunity to work conceptually with the artist, Nathan Hood, on a work that would adorn our bulletins and the advent devotional.

© 2012 Nathan Hood
© 2012 Nathan Hood

Here are some of Nate’s words on his process:

When putting things together for this Advent imagery there were a few themes in my mind upfront, including the power of God in the helplessness of a human baby and the mystery of God made known in Christ. Reflecting on it now, two things come to mind most readily.

First is the awesomeness, the wonder, the amazing happening of the Uncreated becoming a created being, becoming human. The question always arising from that thought for me is, “If God himself were to walk among us, what would God do, what would God be like if we could see, touch, hear, taste, and smell him?”  “What would he be up to?”

Secondly, comes the thought that Christ is at once God and man, our King and our Servant, the Lion and the Lamb. There are many realities alive in Him at the same moment. There are many alive in us, and so many if we have received the love and the sonship he holds out to us.

What do you see? What are your thoughts during this time?

Ultimately in our expression of these truths words fail us, as does imagery. Forgive me for attempting both, and thank you for letting me be a part of this. May our capacity to receive the love of our Father grow, increase, abound. Peace to you church.

3) Finally, our music ministry at church decided to give some of our Advent music away.  In 2010, this short record came together as a companion to our Advent devotion.  At the time, we were (and still are) trying to figure out what it means to observe this season of waiting and how Advent tempers our unabated early embrace of Christmas (or at least the sentimental christmas-iness around us).  The result is a “night-themed” collection of alternately chilly and warm devotionally-sprung, but missionally-minded tunes.

I’d love to invite you to take advantage of this here:

Hope, peace, joy, and love during this season.  May God enable you through his Spirit to be an attentive and expectant wait-er.  May we anticipate our Lord’s second coming with the “thrill of hope” that we experience and celebrate his first.

-Chris Breslin

On Locked Rooms & Empty Tombs: A Resurrection Reflection… for Advent

Advent is about waiting for Someone to come. Christmas shows us that He can appear  in unexpected ways and in unsuspected places. The Resurrection teaches us something similar—you never know where the Risen Christ will appear. Or when. Luke, Matthew and John all portray the disciples as stuck after the tragedy of the Crucifixion. We find them crammed in locked rooms or trudging sorrowfully toward Emmaus. It is as if they are waiting for something. But for what, they do not know.

Below is a brief reflection on a verse from a Resurrection scene in John’s Gospel, excerpted from a sermon I preached over the weekend. In all our waiting, you never know when or where he will turn up….


On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”(Jn 20:19)

A locked room is no good when there is an empty tomb.

If a tomb’s sealed stone has been knocked to the side, then your room’s locked doors don’t mean anything.  Shut entryways are no match for a Man whose tomb just lost its stone doorway. A Man who will not stay dead, cannot be kept out.

At the end of John 19 there is a sealed tomb. Near the end of John 20 there is a locked room. The 1st cannot kept Jesus in.  The 2nd cannot keep Jesus out.

When we come across a Resurrection scene, we need to recognize that something cosmic, something epic, something irreversible, something terrifyingly wonderful has happened… something that changes everything. When a dead Man walks out of his tomb, then a wrench has been tossed into the machinery of Evil. A holy virus has infiltrated the superstructure of the Dark Powers. That emptied grave has sent into reeling Death, Disease, Darkness and the Devil….

And while all this cosmic madness is underway in unseen realms, the disciples of the Risen Lord are huddled up in a locked up room… afraid.

To be clear, the Disciples have not locked the doors to keep out Jesus. They are trying to keep safe from the Jewish leaders who have crucified their Friend. They are dreading that awful sound: the sound of footsteps at the door, that awful sound of a hard knocking.

But Jesus came and stood among them. 

Maybe you are reading this and you feel trapped and stuck, locked up and afraid. Or maybe you are trying to lock yourself up, hoping to keep Jesus himself at bay. It is the footsteps and knocking of Jesus you don’t want to hear at the door. Maybe you are hoping he will observe the “No Trespassing” you’ve tacked up. Or maybe you feel imprisoned and it is your enemies who have thrown away the key. And now it’s just waiting, waiting, waiting… straining the ears sensitive to every sound, hoping Someone might show up for a jailbreak.

If Jesus made a tomb-break, he can pull of a jailbreak.

Both Advent and this particular Resurrection scene affirm this: There is no distance too excessive for the Coming Christ… even if it takes Incarnation. And they do not make doors thick enough or locks strong enough to keep the Resurrected Christ out. No stone is dense enough, no bars wide enough, no dungeon secure enough, to keep you trapped when the Resurrected Christ has broken out of his tomb, descended into hell, and come back to talk about it.

Jesus came and stood among them… “Peace to you.”

Jesus claims in Revelation 3 that he is the One “who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (v.7). He is coming for you, clasping the key of a King in His hand.

A locked room is no good when there is an empty tomb.


(A basic little something I wrote for practical purposes at my church. The season of Advent is quite the season for hopeful realism, by the way.)

On Advent

Time, how it’s used and its soul-shaping quality, is really important in Christian spirituality. The daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms of our lives are not a neutral aspect of the life of faith.

This is always been recognized in the tradition.

Early Christians, using the Jewish rhythms — feasts, holy days, etc. — as a point of departure, began to think of the yearly Christian experience in seasons. This is where we get the idea of the church calendar.

Advent is one such season.

Advent is not Christmas. It’s the season before Christmas, intended to guide us into the desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting that has always been associated with the people of God. Longing and waiting for God to come to rescue, fulfill, deliver, restore, make things new and fresh.

Think of profound things you’ve had to wait for. Think of that weird frustration/swirling angst/sometimes faint hope/painful longing you felt. That feeling comes close to the heart of the Advent season.

At Advent, we enter into the desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting of the people of Israel, as they hoped and anticipated the arrival of God’s anointed, king-like figure, foretold in the shadowy, mythic oracles of the prophets. This anointed-one would somehow play a role in the re-establishment of Lord’s rule and reign in the world. We feel their desperation, and taste the seemingly delusional hope that their God just might be the kind of God who would break-in and make things right and new.

At Advent, we also enter into desperate longing and somewhat frustrated waiting of Christians everywhere, as we hope and anticipate the re-arrival of Christ. He snuck into our world in a unnervingly ordinary way the first time. The second time will be a different story.

And the great Christian hope is that he will appear to finish the job he started. To re-assert his rule and reign in a final and complete way.

Again, we long, hope and wait. All the while remembering that our God just might be the kind of God who would bring such total and complete restoration.

The Christian journey is lived in the tension of these two Advents, arrivals, comings. God’s kingdom’s re-establishment has been launched in Jesus’ arrival. This kingdom is here, but not quite fully here yet. It will be here fully (eventually) but for now we wait.

By the way, if this living-between-comings doesn’t explain a lot about our lives and our world, I don’t know what does.

Advent is the season when we enter into this story. When, in a uniquely focused manner, we read, think, pray, long, wait and hope along these lines.

If you are in need of Christ in a fresh way in the very mundane ordinary realities of you life, if there are things that only he can give for which you are longing, hoping and waiting, then the Advent season is for you.

Christ came. Christ comes. Christ will come.

Get ready.