Albums of 2017, Rock N’ Angst Edition

My end-of-year music lists for 2017 are five: a big collection of songs released that I liked and keep listening to, three cluster of albums I loved and that suit different moods, and, finally, on December 29th, my “A List” of songs for the year.

My second cluster of albums is for brow-furrowing and fist-pumping.

Japandroids, Near To The Wild Heart of Life (self-released)

This Canadian rock duo has been orbiting my ears for years, but it wasn’t until the release of this album that I actually paid them any real attention. Then I couldn’t turn them off. This is a collection of edgy pop melodies riding a train of heavy guitar riffs and north-of-the-border pathos. “No Known Drink Or Drug” is a standout record that features the kind of lyric you commit to memory on purpose:

“When winter’s off the leash and on the loose/we ward off the weather with a witch’s brew/of dominoes, prose, and Delta Blues”

It’s only 8 songs long, but there’s nary a miss on the album.


British Sea Power, Let The Dancers Inherit The Party (Golden Chariot)

I will not be a bad bohemian.

I will not be a bad bohemian.

I will not be a bad bohemian.

It’s a testament to the clarity of songs like “Bad Bohemian” that more than the words but also the conviction behind them get irremediably stuck in your head after listening to Let The Dancers Inherit The Party a few times. The first full-length record on the album does it better than all the others.

These are big rock songs with big guitar riffs and big British vocals, good for pounding the pavement to. Then there is “What You’re Doing,” which is a delightful little change of pace (and vocalist).


Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger In The Alps (Dead Oceans)

After you’ve heard “Motion Sickness” for the first time and thought, “Why do I like that so much?”, you check the label that released it and find that its roster also includes Mitski, Destroyer, Pinegrove, and The Tallest Man on Earth, and then it makes sense.

Phoebe Bridgers is the best thing I discovered in 2017.

The songs on Stranger In The Alps are mostly minimalist things. “Motion Sickness” is the only one with a prominent electric guitar part. But they all drive rhythms you can’t resist, and they all bleed. They mine the mistakes of the self-defeating, but without lacking joy and without falling into a trope.

Oh, and there’s a Conor Oberst cameo.



Aimee Mann, Mental Illness (SuperEgo)

Nobody writes a haunting melody like Aimee Mann. She’s be doing it for parts of four decades now. Mental Illness is an album of melodies that I swear would work with no musical accompaniment, so the plucking strings and light-touch piano that carry most of the songs do amazing work.

On the surface, this album doesn’t belong in the same collection with Japandroids and British Sea Power, but when you let Mann’s lyrics soak in you realize that, of themselves, they have the same snarling effect as the big drum kit.


Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound (Southeastern Records)

So this is a country album from a preeminent “Alt Country” voice. It belongs on this angsty shelf, though, because the best songs on it are ones that voice the mood of our day better than anything anyone else is doing. Like this:

Last year was a sonofabitch/for nearly everyone we know/but I ain’t fightin’ with you down in the ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road.

“Hope The High Road,” “White Man’s World,” “Cumberland Gap,” and (!) “Anxiety” are all in this vein. They feel like important songs. You want people to hear them and think about them. My man is a poet in the lineage of Guy Clark.


Next week: fun!


It Is A Gift To Do Work That Feels Important

It was a full, full weekend.

A funeral.

A wedding.

A Sunday sermon.

A Confirmation class.

A 9th grade lunch.

A visiting college group.

These are the days when I wonder how I lucked into this work. It all feels important. It is not lost on me what a gift that feeling is.

Albums of 2017, Twangy Songstress Edition

It’s time for the annual review of music. There are four Fridays left in December. Three of them will feature a collection of albums released in 2017 that I’m keeping, and the fourth will be for my “A list” playlist of records released this year.

A couple of rules for the albums: that I keep one means that I can play it from start and listen all the way through without skipping more than one song on it. The war against the single was a dark time in music history, but it was fighting for something worthwhile; producing a collection of high quality records at the same time is still a feat worth celebrating. So I do.

Second, these collections of mine don’t strictly adhere to genre. More than that, they reflect the mood I need to be in to play the albums in them. The way I identify album collections differs from year-to-year. Some years I make a single list of the “best” albums, but I’m kind of over that. “Best” is so slippery in music. I’ve spent too much time listening to music I didn’t really like because Rolling Stone of the AV Club said it was “the best.”

These three  collections simply reflect the moods I gravitated to this year.

One of them was a mood of pathos for the troubles of female country singers.

Caroline Spence, Spades And Roses (Self Released)

The first record I heard on this album was “All The Beds I’ve Made,” after reading a profile in American Songwriter (She also caught the attention of NPR). It’s what is great about country and Americana: literary writing full of detail carried by minimal instrumentation and a vocal strong enough to be compelling but rough enough to sing along to. says that I listened to the records “Southern Accident” and “Softball” the most.


Lee Ann Womack, The Lonely, The Lonesome, And The Gone (ATO Records)

This one snuck up on me late in the year, when American Songwriter sang its praises in late October. I was like, Lee Ann Womack? Like, “I Hope You Dance” Lee Ann Womack. Nope.

The only reason I even played it was the label–ATO published my favorite artists in the mid-00s, like Patty Griffin, My Morning Jacket, and Gomez, and that has earned some loyalty into the late teens of the century.

I’m glad I did.

The Lonely, The Lonesome, And The Gone is top-to-bottom characterized by restraint and precision, both lyrically and vocally. You can imagine hearing Womack and a small band play it in some dimly lit smoky bar. The title track is just so, so good.


Angaleena Presley, Wrangled (Mining Light)

Her 2015 debut album was a big deal, I hear. I never heard it. The follow up hooked me good, though.

Wrangled is the countriest of the country albums I spent time with in 2017. Presley’s Kentucky drawl drapes itself over all of these songs, some of which are covers of greats like Guy Clark. But the drawl is more than radio effect; there is palpable, infectious, angst coming through it in records like “Wrangled,” “Only Blood,” and “Bless My Heart,” which has one of the best lyrics of the whole year: “If you bless my heart I’ll slap your face.”


Dori Freeman, Letters Never Read (Self Released)

If Letters Never Read were longer I wouldn’t like it as much. It’s brevity is its genius. It ends almost before you realize its begun, and you think, “Wait. I liked that. All of it.”

Freeman is so unassuming that one of her song videos is simply strung together footage of her husband and daughter at a music festival. Jewly Hight’s review of this album got what’s great about Freeman exactly right, I think: “She values her lifelong exposure to living musical traditions, but doesn’t allow her reverence to overshadow her gift for distilling Appalachian melancholy into delicate pop ruminations.”

Next up: some rock records!

See you next Friday.

Dreher And Pavlovitz, I’m Looking At You

That surge of righteous satisfaction you’re giving your readers isn’t helping them any more than the outrage you’re provoking in your detractors is hurting them. Everybody’s mind is already made up. All you’re doing is reinforcing everyone’s conviction about what they already think.

In my previous congregation there was a retired school superintendent who used to say, “Nobody is good enough to be 100% wrong.” I’m thinking about that a lot these days as I struggle to react constructively to almost daily precedent-breaking decisions made by people I don’t agree with or even trust. It kind of feels like taking them all for stupid moron idiots who yearn to drink the blood of the poor is less than constructive though. No doubt there is an audience for that kind of commentary. The question is whether what you give them is material they can build with.

Advent Is No Time for Waiting If You’re A Church Leader

Church leaders are disciples with particular roles and responsibilities in the community of faith. We celebrate and lead celebration, remember and lead remembrance, observe and lead observance, simultaneously. For me, the second half of those couplets is always primary in the moment.

Being a leader means exercising your discipleship with the church at the same time and in the same space as all the saints, while also exercising your discipleship in different times and spaces, when all the saints are doing something else.

Advent is not the time for church leaders to do a deep dive on waiting and anticipation. Our role is to lead the church in those things, so, for us, Advent is execution time. Our waiting and anticipation needs to have been done already, perhaps during a season of Advent planning that took place in September, or even in the middle of the summer.

Another example: I’m leading a time of morning prayer this morning, where of course I will pray. But I won’t pray as much as when I’m not leading.

Personal discipleship must inform and guide our church leadership. It’s just that it happens on something of a staggered calendar from the one we’re leading others to follow.

Who Reads Email Newsletters?

More is not better in communication with parents about sign ups. My last several weekly e-newsletters have felt way too full to be useful. Sign up for this. Register for that. Don’t forget. And all in an email.

Who even reads email newsletters? Do you? I can’t think of a single email newsletter that hits my inbox and makes me go, “Yes! I can’t wait to read this!” The purpose of email is to get rid of it.

So how about just making sure the information people need lives in a location they can easily find. Like a website. Then people can get what they want and do what they need on their own, without some faux urgent email with bold type, neon headers, and gratuitous exclamation marks.

“Here’s the website. Everything is there.”

Maybe that will allow the email newsletter to be more than an announcement canon.


Sometimes Serving Communion Feels Like Trying To Speak A Foreign Language

“I feel like I’m in a foreign country where I don’t know the language.” That’s the thought that occurs to me in the middle of worship, as I am rehearsing the communion serving choreography for the 37th time in my head during my colleague’s sermon. There’s a printed guide for leaders that I have tucked inside my worship bulletin. I’m reading and re-reading it with the prayerful fervor.

I help serve communion during the really full Sunday services about once a year, and it makes me a nervous wreck. The first time I ever did it I nearly tumbled off the chancel steps with hands full of juice trays. Communion at the early morning service I serve about twice a month, and I’ve got that down, like I had communion down in my two previous congregations. But this one involves many more moving parts. The mental movies of me screwing it up are endlessly varied: I get up and the wrong time, I grab the wrong trays, I drop the trays, I trip, I stand in the wrong place, I confuse the other servers . . .

All of this anxiety is unnecessary, and it detracts from the value of the thing it’s so worried about. Or rather, it doesn’t, because it can’t; the bread and the cup are still served. Christ is still present. The meaning and the impact of the sacrament don’t depend on perfection from those serving.

Having something down so cold that you don’t even have to think about it is valuable, but so is the pressure of not knowing exactly how it’s supposed to go, because that requires a leap. That forces you to trust your training and trust your people, both of which pay off more than they don’t.


Fridays in December Are For Music

Fridays in December are for sharing the music from 2017 that I dug the most. I have a Google Play Music streaming subscription; music is on almost constantly at home and during my commute, and I actively curate lists of albums and songs. I’ve got a list of albums from 2017 I favored, as well as lists of songs.

“2017 Radio” is the list I compiled over the last 11 months of any song released during the year that made me say, “Yeah, I dig that.” There’s a shortlist coming later this month, culled more carefully.

So here’s an early December list of 114 2017 releases that enjoyed repeated listens. Enjoy.

Not My Words

“The bread of life.”

“Ashes to ashes . . . ”

“Those whom God has joined together . . . ”

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Pastors lead people through moments of immense personal and communal significance, and the pressure to deliver the right words in those moments is significant. I share a recurring nightmare with many of my clergy colleagues in which a bride or groom’s name is either mispronounced or forgotten, or in which the we suddenly forget all the words during a baptism or communion.

What puts me back to sleep after waking from these nightmares is remembering that, at these occasions, the words I have to say are not mine but the church’s. They are the words the church has uttered at the graveside and the font and the table long, long before I got here to say them with my hard-won combination of earnestness and self-effacing delivery. Thank God for that.

There are really important moments of leading in a church when the primary task is to let words you didn’t come up with do the work they have always done in the company of the faithful and to get your personality out of their way.



Yesterday was my first day of work after five days off. I filled it with bullets related to the coming week, Advent, and January, and I spent hours anxious that none of the work was getting done well, or even that it was the right work to be doing. In short, I spent the day in my head.

Then, returning to the church for an evening meeting, I ran into a student doing some homework at the coffee shop across the street, waiting for her weekly volunteer tutoring commitment to start . We talked for only a couple of minutes, mostly catching up, but it’s no exaggeration to say that it turned my day around. I went into my evening meeting in a different head space than the one I’d spent the day in.

There are clues scattered across our days about the things that make us come alive and the work we ought to be doing.