Top Albums of 2009

10. Floodplain, Kronos Quartet

I’ve enjoyed the Kronos Quartet and their propensity to experiment with different forms of music for a long time. Their newest album, Floodplain, is a collection of music from cultures in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South Asia and Africa–all countries who’ve had their musical heritages overshadowed by their political conflict and divisions. This fantastic album exposes the Western listener to the music of cultures wholly different from the United States, probably inciting either fascination or disgust. In my case, obviously, it’s the former. “Nihavent Sirto” and “Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me” are personal favorites.

An aside: Upon research, “Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me” is an Iraqi piece, and in Arabic the word “mother” is apparently interchangeable with the word “homeland,” and “the handsome man” could refer to Saddam Hussein (considering his mustache and all, I guess).

9. Three Tales, Steve Reich

Steve Reich is one of my favorite minimalist composers, and this large-scale video documentary opera is an example of Reich at his best: dealing with a political or historical issue through his experimental classical music. Percussive instrumentation and repetitive vocal soloists create a cacophony of sound that at first annoys, then intrigues, and eventually fascinates. Video, created by Reich’s wife Beryl Korot, is supposed to accompany the music, creating a large-scale video opera. The CD is divided into three parts– Hindenburg (about the Hindenburg zeppelin tragedy), Bikini (the development and testing of the hydrogen bomb), and Dolly (cloning technology and the possibility of cyborg immortality)–each parable complementing the others to create a powerful lesson on the danger of unchecked technological advancement. The final tale, Dolly, is my favorite because of its scope and timeliness.

8. The Joshua Tree, U2

August marked my introduction to the Irish rock band U2, and four albums later they have become my working favorite (don’t listen to many bands, but still). The Joshua Tree is the album that made U2 a worldwide phenomenon in 1987, and it features concert mainstays “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” U2 has often been connected to Christianity, and after reading this Bono quote, it’s hard to argue against that sentiment. My favorite songs are what was noted before, along with “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “One Tree Hill.”

7. Symphony No. 3: “Sorrowful Songs,” Henryk Gorecki

I first heard part of this symphony on Pandora when I was laying on my bed, in that place between being asleep and awake. I’m not sure why, but I get strange thoughts during that half-asleep period, especially if there is some kind of noise in the background (which is often incorporated by my subconscious into my dream). In this case, the music was visceral and heartbreaking anyway, but because I was in that no-man’s-land of sleepiness, I was extra-emotional. I nearly cried listening to the end of soprano Dawn Upshaw’s rendition of the second movement of this symphony. The three songs were written by Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, and they highlight the deep pain, suffering, and loss that the people of Poland experienced during the 20th Century. Poland has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few countries to feel the full weight of the two of the most corrupt governments in modern history: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This symphony, as if born out of the blood and tears of the Polish people, masterfully communicates that pain.

6. On the Transmigration of Souls, John Adams

First performed by the New York Philharmonic on Sept. 11th, 2002, On the Transmigration of Souls was created by minimalist John Adams to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 2001. Unlike the Gorecki symphony, which is removed from me by time and culture, the message and memories behind this piece are very accessible. Simultaneously introspective and disturbing, Transmigration uses voices (both speaking and singing) which read excerpts from notes and obituaries from family members about their passed loved ones. The piece builds on several repeated lines, like “It was a beautiful day,” “She looks so full of life in that picture,” and perhaps the most haunting one: “I loved him from the start. I wanted to dig him out; I know just where he is.” The piece does conjure memories of that day, but not in a forceful or disrespectful way (something commonly done by people who market tragedy).

5. Illinois, Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens is an interesting music star, and not just because of his unique name. His parents, hippies at the time, gave him an Arabic name that means “comes with a sword,” which of course is awesome. The sound of his music is interesting too, partly because of the pop, folk, post-rock, minimalism, indie influence, and partly because of the unique instrumentation: guitar, piano, banjo, drums, xylophone, strings, oboe, sitar, french horn, voice, etc. (and he often plays every instrument thanks to multitrack recording). His song themes are unique too, as most wouldn’t expect a popular alternative artist to sing from the Christian worldview he espouses. For example, one song in this album, John Wayne Gacy, deals with the disgusting depravity of the infamous serial killer, but then turns the message on its side with the final line: And in my best behavior/I’m really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid. But perhaps the most unique thing about Sufjan is his ambitious 50 States Project–his 50 album tribute to each state in the Union. This album is the second (and most recent) installment of this project (which he likely won’t get to finish). But this album features a unique musical quality, along with poetric lyrics and Christian themes. Good tracks include Come on–Feel the Illinoise, Chicago, and Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh on Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt From my Sandals as I Run.”

4. Different Trains, Steve Reich/Kronos Quartet

Steve Reich appears again (not the only repeat on this list, as you will see farther down), thanks to an even better album that I was introduced to this year. I’ve long thought that trains are an excellent metaphor, because they have that classic, industrialist feel to them. Reich uses three pieces that all consider the use of trains before, during, and after World War Two. Each one uses old interviews as instrumentation, linking the strings (played flawlessly by the Kronos Quartet) to the notation of the person’s voice, and–in typical minimalist style– cycling the motif over and over. This creates a hypnotic effect that obviously links the common subject (trains) to the style (repetition). Because of this, I think minimalism is perfectly suited to feature trains as a thematic element. Trains were used to transport all kinds of people all over the world before the war (first movement), then to transport Holocaust victims to concentration camps like Birkenau and Auschwitz (second movement), and then used to carry the news of the war’s end (third movement). The album is tightly composed with an effective message. An all-time favorite for sure.

3. Cloudburst, Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre first joined choir his freshman year of college so he could meet cute girls. Then the choir performed Brahms’ Requiem, and Whitacre was moved to tears. Struck with the emotive power of music, Whitacre started writing his own choral music, and fifteen or so years later his work is some of the most widely performed in the United States. This album features the British choir Polyphony, and their interpretation of Whitacre’s pieces perfects the already-fantastic compositions. Personal favorites include “I Thank You God for Most this Amazing Day” (an e.e. cummings poem), “When David Heard,” “and “Her Sacred Spirit Soars.”

2. No Line on the Horizon, U2

The other double-featured artist. No Line on the Horizon is U2’s newest album, and the Christian influence is hard to ignore. The second song, “Magnificent,” features very strong religious language like “I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up/And sing whatever song you wanted me to/I give you back my voice from the womb/My first cry, it was a joyful noise,” along with a short bridge, “Justified, ’till we die-you and I will magnify/The Magnificent.” Words like “justify,” “magnify,” and “joyful noise” are used in almost exclusively Christian contexts. Further, songs like “Unknown Caller” and “Breathe” seem to speak about the beauty of new life (which makes sense when coupled with the birth metaphor of “Magnificent”…perhaps this is a Christian New Birth motif?). The music itself is quite varied, as U2 use their typical rock style replete with guitar solos from Edge in “I’m Gonna Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight,” “Get On Your Boots” and “Stand Up Comedy.” They also feature some experimental and ambiance-like stuff in “Fez-Being Born” and “White as Snow,” and some wider instrumentation in “Unknown Caller” and “Breathe” (brass, piano, and cello). In all, regardless of whether it’s “Christian” or not (I’m not sure secular music albums really can be), the musical quality is U2’s best.

1. The Atonement, Shai Linne

None of the music on this list is really Christian music, with the exception of this album. God rescued Shai Linne from a life of sin (as He did for all of us) and directed Shai into a holy hip hop ministry. But Shai Linne’s music is not the sin-glorifying, lust-filled, obscene MTV stuff most people envision when they think of “hip hop.” Like he has done with other mediums (and our hearts!), God has taken an ugly thing like secular hip hop and transformed it into a beautiful thing that glorifies Christ above all else. If you’re doubtful, I encourage you to look at the songs and read the lyrics. For example:

Regeneration- the Holy Spirit’s true work in His love
To the elect, who receive new birth from above
Expiation- expiation means God’s removed my filthiness
The old testament type was the goat into the wilderness
Redemption- we’ve been freed from slavery to sin
And His very own blood is the price He paid, my friend
Propitiation- Propitiation means since the Lamb has died
His work is finished- God’s wrath is satisfied
Adoption- adoption means God is now my Father
I got the hottest Poppa and by the Spirit holler Abba
Reconciliation means there’s no more enmity
God is now a friend to me, we’re no longer enemies
Justification- God declares us righteous
Sanctification- we’re being made into His likeness
Glorification- that’s what happens at the finish
When God conforms believers perfectly to Christ’s image!

Ah yes. One other thing. Shai Linne is an unabashed Calvinist when it comes to soteriology, as the lyrics above indicate. He’s not the only holy hip hop artist to openly teach the doctrines of grace in his music, either. Strangely, the Lord in his Providence has decided to teach me, a white evangelical from a Baptist family in the Midwest, with the lyrical preaching of passionate, persistent, doctrinally-sound saints from the streets of urban America. Perhaps that’s partly what Christian unity means.

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