Monthly Archives: September 2009

Best Albums of the 2000s: My Picks

I think it’s a bit silly to be making end-of-decade lists this early (there is still 2.5% of the decade yet to be lived), but Pitchfork has gone ahead with their “Top 200 Albums of the 2000s” list, so I figure I might as well put mine out there now too.

I’ve been adding and subtracting to this list for years now, and doubtless the list will change with time (in a month, some album might come out that outshines everything… and so I’ll adjust this list accordingly). But for now, in the waning months of this first decade of a new millennium, here are my picks for the decade’s 20 best albums, accompanied by a few words about what the top ten have meant to me personally.

First, 20-10:

20) Rufus Wainwright, Poses (2002)
19) Cat Power, The Greatest (2007)
18) Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes (2008)
17) Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury (2006)
16) Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (2009)
15) Low, Things We Lost in the Fire (2003)
14) Doves, The Last Broadcast (2002)
13) Pedro the Lion, Control (2002)
12) The Shins, Oh, Inverted World (2001)
11) Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009)

And here are my picks for the top 10:

10) Explosions in the Sky, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003): I didn’t discover Explosions in the Sky until the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights (which used much of this album on the soundtrack), but once I found them I knew they were a band that perfectly fit my temperament. They make music that is sort of the instrumental equivalent of a Terrence Malick film, and the title of this wordless album perfectly captures the essence of what Explosions’ soaring guitar melodies evoke.

9) Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights (2002): When I first heard “NYC” it was at some coffeehouse at Wheaton College, and I immediately inquired about the band behind this haunting post-9/11 New York anthem. It was Interpol, and their debut album remains one of the best expressions not only of the decade’s musical trends but also the spiritual tenor of a city, nation, and generation working through new waves of cynicism, fear, love and paranoia.

8) Beck, Sea Change (2002): This album was such a change from the Beck we were used to. It was so melancholy, sweeping, dramatic in a Love is Hell sort of way. But for anyone dealing with relational angst, breakups, or the pangs of moving on, the album was utterly perfect. This was one of my go-to albums for cold weather days during the long Chicago winters in college.

7) The Arcade Fire, Funeral (2004): This is quite possibly one of the most generational/zeitgeist-capturing works of musical art to have come out in the 2000s. An album about family, youth, death, and discontent, Funeral announced the arrival or at least the first shout of a new sort of drum-beating, baroque sincerity. Seeing them play live at the Hollywood Bowl the summer after graduating from college remains one of my favorite concert memories.

6) Sigur Ros, ( ) (2002): This album may be the apex of post-rock pretentiousness (an album full of untitled songs with only parentheses as a name?) but it is also some sort of strikingly human, universal catharsis—songs of pure feeling, passion, and transcendence that many a hipster church has played during worship services. And believe me, you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced “Untitled 8” in concert.

5) Coldplay, A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002): It was never all that cool to love Coldplay, but whatever. I love their music. I remember buying this album the day it came out at a Tower store (remember those?) and listening to it in the car on the drive home. The opening song, “Politik,” was already so different than anything on Parachutes. And then when “Clocks” came on, it was utterly clear that Coldplay was on the fast track to arena rock status. Seeing them the next year at Red Rocks was definitely a highlight of my “decade in concerts.”

4) Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005): Where to begin with this album? It wasn’t the first great Sufjan album (and hopefully not the last), but it was the one that catapulted him to indie/hipster rock God status. And as the soundtrack to the summer after I graduated from college and left the “Land of Lincoln,” it will always be an album I remember with great fondness. It’s a near-perfect piece of art and an iconic bit of musical transition on the indie/hipster/Christian timeline.

3) Over the Rhine, Ohio (2003): This double-disc album from Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist (aka Over the Rhine) still stands as one of the most important albums in my own personal musical journey—and I think it can be rightly counted among the best (or at least most cohesive and lyrical) American albums of the decade. These are songs about place and home, memory and history, brokenness and hope… and the changes that come at every turn in life. I still consider the concert I saw Over the Rhine play on their Ohio tour the very best show I’ve ever been to.

2) Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002): From the opening words (“I am an American Aquarian drinker”) of the first song (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”), to the final resigned-but-hopeful emotions of “Reservations,” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is as beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful an album as anything that came out this decade. Jeff Tweedy’s personal demons inform every line of this album and yet it manages to stand for something much bigger and broader: love among the ruins of a deconstructed America. Released halfway between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, Yankee evokes in my memory that peculiar stage in my life where my Midwestern, enchanted analog American youth began to fray at the edges as uncertainty, growth, nostalgia, and education coalesced to shake my paradigm and push me forward as an independent thinker.

1) Radiohead, Kid A (2000): When this album came out in October of 2000, I was a senior in high school. I had only recently begun to expand my musical horizons (I grew up mostly listening to Christian music), but when I bought Kid A, everything about the way I approached music changed. The eerie beauty and boundary-pushing creativity of this album stunned me and made me realize that the potential for transcendence in music had as much or more to do with a spirit of exploration and experimentation than anything else. To create something so new, so true, and so exactly of its time, was a feat only Radiohead—post OK Computer—could accomplish in the first year of our new decade. They ushered us in to the Y2K era with an album that systematically dismantled the 90s, embodied the dot-com culture of its time, and prophesied a decade of silicon chaos and modernist collapse—a frenetic decade in which the surreal and the real would collide in terrifying fashion and we’d be confronted with the wages of avoidant fantasy. As Thom Yorke sings on “Idioteque”: We’re not scaremongering / This is really happening, happening…

Honorable Mention:
Radiohead, In Rainbows
Radiohead, Hail to the Thief
Jay-Z, The Black Album
Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below
U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind
White Stripes, Elephant
Kanye West, Late Registration
Gwen Stefani, Love, Angel, Music, Baby
Hem, Rabbit Songs
Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism
Joanna Newsom, Ys
The National, Boxer
Wilco, A Ghost Is Born
Panda Bear, Person Pitch
Justin Timberlake, Futuresex/Lovesounds
Joseph Arthur, Redemption’s Son
M83, Saturdays=Youth
Bon Iver, For Emma Forever Ago

Bright Star

Jane Campion’s Bright Star is one of my favorite films of 2009 so far, and I highly recommend it to everyone–especially literary types, romantics, or fans of good cinematography/period pieces.

I wrote a full review of the film for CT Movies, but here’s a brief excerpt:

The love story is one thing, but the romance of Bright Star is also in its visual splendor and all-around loveliness. Cinematographer Greig Fraser does a superb job photographing the pastoral English countryside in all seasons, the life and customs of Regency-era Britain, as well as smaller-scale details like the sensual beauty of hands touching or a needle weaving. This is the feeling of falling in love: lying on a bed as the window curtains flap wistfully in the warm spring breeze; climbing atop a flowering tree and lying between its branches and the sun-filled sky; composing letters to our distant love while sitting at a desk by a window looking out to the sea. We don’t need to have heaps of dialogue or sappy soliloquies to know that love is in the air for these characters. We must simply look at the butterflies in the grassy field in the same way these characters do, recognizing that love makes you love others and love things more. It makes you love life.

The film is elemental–almost phenomenological–in the way that it seamlessly weaves human love and drama into the material “fabric” of its setting: nature, food, bodies, dress. In Bright Star, the dressing isn’t the icing on the cake. It is the cake.

The film’s title comes from Keats’ poem of the same name, which you should take a moment to read:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon in death.

The film is an amazing expression of everything this poem is getting at with regard to existence, impermanence, nature and love. It’s a gorgeous, poetic, true film and one that Keats deserves.

Lord Save Us. From Your Followers

Last night I attended a screening of Dan Merchant’s new Michael Moore-esque documentary, Lord Save Us From Your Followers.  It’s a film about how Christians have a huge PR problem and how “the culture wars” are exactly the opposite of what Christians should be battling in this world. The real war concerns things like poverty, injustice, and loving the unlovable, suggests Merchant. If Christians just loved better, befriended drag queens, and washed homeless people’s feet, our image crisis would go away.

But would it gain any new converts? That is the question (one of the questions) I kept asking myself.

After the film, there was a discussion involving four participants: Merchant, Everett Piper (President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University), Bill Lobdell (author of Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace) and Michael Levine (CEO of Levine Communications and proudly secular).

Levine was the most vocal in the discussion, cynically asking the audience from the outset to “raise your hand high if you’re a Christian… Now raise your hand high if you think I am going to hell because I’m an atheist.” He then explained that a conversation is completely impossible when one of the parties believes in their heart that the other is hell-bound.

As unfair as that is, Levine did make a few interesting points. “Why would I believe in a religion or a God whose followers have no noticeable differences in their lifestyle?” asked Levine, making the point that he has a lot of close Christian friends but none of them live substantially better, more peaceful, more loving lives. And then he used this illustration:

“Imagine there is a gym and you have two groups. One group goes to the gym every day and one group never steps foot in the gym. But the group that goes to the gym is just as fat as the group that stays home. So what does that say about the gym? Why would I want to believe in that gym?”

Point well taken. It is very problematic that so many “Christians” look and act the exact same as anyone else.

But I think Piper made a good point in response when he said that one shouldn’t look first to Christians but rather to Christ in order to evaluate the appeal of the Gospel. He said something like, “Imagine you want to know what a fish is like. You go to a beach and what you see are a lot of dead, smelly, decaying fish. Should you then surmise from this that ALL fish are like this, or that this is how the “ideal” fish should be? Of course not! It’s dishonest to judge the truth of something by looking at the ways in which broken humans have distorted it.”

Yes, there are broken, corrupt, annoyingly off-base representations of Christianity. We are all very aware of that. But that doesn’t change the truth of the God Christians worship. I’m so tired of Christians falling all over themselves with apologies for the oppressive scourge that Christianity supposedly is. Sure, we should acknowledge and own up to the bad things we’ve done. The Crusades and the Inquisition DID happen. All sorts of other sordid things have been perpetrated by Christians throughout history. Guilty! We humans are broken, flawed, selfish, confused people who make mistakes. Even Christians.

But it’s not about us!

We won’t win ANY followers to Christ by focusing our case primarily around how great or loving or happy Christians are. We must focus our case around Christ himself; The gospel; What God has done, is doing, and will do for the world, regardless of how helpful or unhelpful we Christians are along the way. God will do what he will do. He invites us to participate in his work but none of it hinges on our abilities or fortitude (thanks be to God!) outside the power of the Holy Spirit.

We need to stop worrying so much about having a favorable image or being liked! The success of God’s work in the world is not dependent on how people in 2009 perceive Christians. If we believe God is sovereign we need to have confidence that he can overcome all the loudmouth bigots who go around saying idiotic things in the name of Christ (not that we shouldn’t chastise and discipline those loudmouth bigots among us).

We need to quit worrying about how the worst among us are ruining our reputation and instead focus on living Christ-like lives in accordance to scripture and God’s will. We need to worry about our own transformation first and foremost. Are we new creations?

We should love others and ease the suffering in the world not because it will be better for our PR, but because the Bible tells us to and because the Spirit inside us spurs us to outward action. We should exude charity and patience and peace in our dealings with others not because it will win us admirers but because it is the Christian thing to do.

We need to be humble, yes, but not tepid. We should have confidence in the God we serve, the gospel we believe, and the church that we are.

In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes the “immeasurable greatness” (v. 19) of Christ and his “rule and authority and power and dominion” (v. 21) over all creation, but then he adds that God gives Christ—and Christ’s subsequent authority over all things—to the church (v. 22), which is Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (v. 23). At Christ’s feet, the world cowers and all creation converges. And as the church—as the body of Christ—we share in this unique, cornerstone-of-creation destiny.

In light of this reality, how could any Christian lack the confidence to be the church in the world—a body constantly spreading itself outward and expanding the reach of the Gospel? How could we ever worry that the fate of Christianity rests on this generation and these immediate challenges, when we know that we are part of something that will outlast time? I like what C.S. Lewis says in his essay, “Membership”:

The structural position in the church which the humblest Christian occupies is eternal and even cosmic. The church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share his immortality… As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the Body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple, we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale.

What an amazing thing! Christians need to wake up to the wonder and privilege and shocking power of what they believe and who they worship. We need to stop looking nervously to the world to define who we are and start looking to the Bible and praying for God’s wisdom. We should spend less time apologizing for all the ways we have failed and spend more time rejoicing and sharing with others the ways that Christ is victorious (chiefly: the resurrection!). And rather than pleading with the Lord to “save us from your followers,” we should simply pray, “Lord, save us.”

Because that’s what he does. And that’s why we should care.

I Joined Twitter… Sigh.

September 19 was a dark day for me… but one that I feared would come soon enough.

I joined Twitter.

This is after years and years of publicly campaigning against it in articles such as “The Problem of Pride in the Age of Twitter” and “Short Attention Span Faith.” 

And now I am a part of the monster, feeding it like everyone else…

Here’s why I did it:

1)  September 19th is my annual “sell out to technology” day. Last year I joined Facebook on Sept. 19.
2)  I might as well try it before I knock it even more.
3)  I have a book to promote.

I still think it’s silly and quite possibly a sign of the apocalypse, but hey, so are a lot of things.

If you want to “follow me” (is that the phrase?) on Twitter, here’s my url: http://twitter.com/brettmccracken

Things I will tweet include book updates, article links, random thoughts, and other worthwhile things that are under 140 characters. I promise I won’t inundate you with what I’m having for dinner or when I’m feeling sleepy or bored.

If I do, feel free to un-follow me (or whatever you call that). I’ll completely understand.

Malick’s Tree of Life: What We Know

There are films to be excited about, and there are films to be EXCITED about.

Then there are films that one’s entire life waits years—even decades—for. Or maybe that’s just me. In any case… such a film is coming soon, and it’s directed by Terrence Malick (the most mysterious and brilliant living filmmaker). It’s called Tree of Life.

Here is what we know thus far about the latest film from the reclusive, Salinger-esque Mr. Malick (and predictably, it’s all gleefully mysterious and writ large):

  • The film is described as “a cosmic epic, a hymn to life” with the main theme being “the loss of innocence.”
  • It stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as father and son.
  • It was filmed outside of Austin, Texas in the town of Smithville.
  • The film is being released by Apparition, a new distribution company that is also behind Jane Campion’s new film Bright Star.
  • The release date has been stated at various times to be December 25, 2009, but just in the last few days IMDB has switched to listing it as “2010.”
  • The official plot synopsis from the film’s distributor:

We trace the evolution of an eleven-year-old boy in the Midwest, Jack, one of three brothers. At first all seems marvelous to the child. He sees as his mother does, with the eyes of his soul. She represents the way of love and mercy, where the father tries to teach his son the world’s way, of putting oneself first. Each parent contends for his allegiance, and Jack must reconcile their claims. The picture darkens as he has his first glimpses of sickness, suffering and death. The world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth.

Framing this story is that of adult Jack, a lost soul in a modern world, seeking to discover amid the changing scenes of time that which does not change: the eternal scheme of which we are a part. When he sees all that has gone into our world’s preparation, each thing appears a miracle — precious, incomparable. Jack, with his new understanding, is able to forgive his father and take his first steps on the path of life.

The story ends in hope, acknowledging the beauty and joy in all things, in the everyday and above all in the family — our first school — the only place that most of us learn the truth about the world and ourselves, or discover life’s single most important lesson, of unselfish love.

  • Jack Fisk—who has worked with Malick on all of his films—is back as production designer.
  • Costume designer Jacqueline West is back after having worked with Malick on The New World.
  • Emmanuel Lubezki is back as cinematographer (he worked wonders on The New World).
  • Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) composed the music.
  • Sarah Green—producer on The New World—is back as producer.
  • In a 2008 interview about his 40 year working relationship with Malick, Jack Fisk said the following:

It’s such an important film to Terry and I think this is the film he’s most wanted to make. His approach to filmmaking just keeps evolving. We made this film with hardly any lighting. People were working without scripts. He would dole them out and take them back. It was Terry at his most excited. He seemed stronger and more inventive than any time in the last forty years… I saw some dailies and when I see this footage it looked like you’d found some film left over from the 50s. It was just magical.

…It’s not structured like a regular film. I think it could change some parts of cinema. I’m just so excited about it. I told Terry, “your going to make it hard for me to work on another film after this. Because they look like films, and this… is different.”

  • There is an IMAX film called Voyage of Time that is reportedly going to be a companion piece to The Tree of Life and will be narrated by Brad Pitt.
  • The IMAX film reportedly covers “the birth and death of the universe.” Of course!
  • There will be dinosaurs. Mike Fink, who is doing effects work on the film, reported this to Empire magazine: “We’re animating dinosaurs, but it’s not Jurassic Park. The attempt is to treat it as if somehow a camera wound up in the middle of these periods when dinosaurs roamed the earth and creatures first started to emerge from the sea onto the land. The first mammals appearing. We’re doing a number of creatures all seriously scientifically based… I think when it’s finished it’ll be something that’s referred to for years.”
  • Douglas Trumbull, the visual f/x pioneer who collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 and Steven Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was reportedly brought in to help with visual effects.
  • In one version of the screenplay, the story opened with “a sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as fluorescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils and out again.” Malick supposedly wanted to create something that has never been seen before, and dispatched cameramen all over the world. They shot micro jellyfish on the Great Barrier Reef volcanic explosions on Mount Edna, and ice shelves breaking off in Antarctica. Special effects consultant Richard Taylor describes sections of the script as “pages of poetry, with no dialogue, glorious visual descriptions.”
  • Some rumors suggest that Tree of Life is a reworking of Malick’s abandoned project Q, which he wrote back in the 1970s. Q has been described as originally having been a “multi-character drama set in the Middle East during World War I, with a prologue set in prehistoric times.”

Whew! Well if that doesn’t make The Tree of Life the most anticipated “might change cinema” movie of the year, I don’t know what does!

The countdown is on. I cannot wait.

West and Wilson Deserve Each Other

I’m pretty sure that Kanye West and Joe Wilson have nothing in common. Kanye is a swaggerific hip-hop fashionista who wears Alexander McQueen suits and Yohji Yamamoto gloves, and whose vanity is only eclipsed by his ego. Joe Wilson is an extremely white, Southern Republican congressman who has never heard a Wu-Tang Clan song and who once voted against the removal of the confederate flag at South Carolina’s capital.

But West and Wilson do have one thing in common: Both men are tactless, disrespectful opportunists.

When Joe Wilson broke protocol during Obama’s healthcare speech and shouted “You lie!” it was shockingly disrespectful; Likewise when Kanye ripped the microphone from sweet little Taylor Swift and stole her VMA thunder. In both cases these men spoke out of turn in trying to prove a point but failed to prove anything but their own annoying dearth of class. In both cases there were subtle racial undertones at play that made the outbursts even more offensive.

But worse than their actual transgressions were their flimsy, shotgun apologies West and Wilson quickly offered to shift the blame away from their own stupid actions. Wilson apologized soon after his “You lie!” outburst, but has since been refusing to publicly apologize again (instead he seems happy to be raking in the fundraising money as the GOPs new bad boy). West, meanwhile, wrote a bizarre all-caps apology on his blog just hours after his Taylor Swift assault, saying he was “SOOOO SORRY” but also “EVERYBODY WANNA BOOOOO ME BUT I’M A FAN OF REAL POP CULTURE!! … I’M NOT CRAZY YALL, I’M JUST REAL.” Oh really, Kanye? So being “REAL” entails being an insensitive low-class pop culture predator? And then he goes on Jay Leno and tries to play the confused victim who is still in grief for his mother? Please.

The rush to apology seems indicative of our culture’s unwillingness to truly take ownership of wrongdoing. When we say or do something stupid, we are lightning quick to wash our hands of it—whether via “apology” or some other recompense—rather than suffer any consequences for our actions. But wake up, Kanye and Joe: If you want our respect, you need to get over yourselves, suffer a little bit for your offenses and NOT throw down a quickie apology wrapped in narcissism.

The Worst “Christians” in the World

A couple of years ago the BBC aired a television documentary about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist (the “God Hates Fags” church). The documentary, The Most Hated Family in America, follows the BBC’s Louis Thoreaux as he spends time in Topeka with the Phelps. I watched it for the first time yesterday, and experienced the most anger and disgust I’ve ever felt towards people who supposedly worship the same God of the same religion and Bible as I do. I was thinking that if these people are Christians and are going to be in heaven one day, I don’t know if I want to be there with them. It’s a HIGHLY disturbing and maddening film for anyone to watch, but perhaps especially frightful for anyone who cares about Christianity and hates to see it be expressed in such a thoroughly skewed, unbiblical, self-serving manner.

Watch the whole thing (60 minutes long) here:

Some of the questions I asked myself after watching this: Why does God allow such crazy, fringe, ungodly people to be such a public face of the Christian church? Are these people actually Christians and is God using them in some purpose I don’t understand? If so, how can I blame anyone for not wanting to believe in this God? Is there any way we can shut down this church and silence the “God hates fags!” voice in a loving, nonviolent way? Why do the 30 people at Westboro Baptist get to do so much damage to the worldwide image of Christianity? What can the other billion of us Christians in the world do to counteract this?

I’ve been critical in recent years of the trend of Christians saying things like “I love Jesus but hate Christians” or “Lord, save us from your followers,” or similar variations on this “Christians are annoying but Jesus is cool” idea. But when there are people like the Phelps clan in Topeka who are masquerading as Christians and dragging that name in the filthiest kind of mud, I can’t help but understand why so many within the church are frantically trying to distance themselves from the designation.

Still, I think it’s wrong to get too worked up and worried by these sorts of people. That the Phelps—such a tiny anomaly of Christianity—could stir such a frustrated, stressed-out reaction in me ultimately indicates that I need to have a stronger faith. Not faith that I’m right and they’re wrong, but that God—above all earthly things—has a purpose and it will prevail, regardless of whatever stupid things people say or do in his name.

Christians today need to have confidence not in their own cultural dogmas or prophetic/martyrdom complexes (as in the Phelps’ insistence that God only smiles upon them and hates everyone else)—but rather confidence in Christ and his transforming, world-altering gospel. Contrary to what the Phelps might think, the Christian gospel is a hopeful message for the world and is about love rather than hate and grace rather than legalistic obsessing about the keeping of Mosaic laws.

Sure, there are unrepentant sinners. And yes, there is the wrath of God. But it’s God who will exact that wrath and doll out judgment as he sees fit. As Christians we should focus on thanking God, worshipping him and being imitators of Christ—which means loving and serving the world unconditionally and spreading a message of resurrection hope.

I don’t know what Bible Phelps reads or what God Westboro Baptist worships, but I’m not going to worry too much about it. They can call themselves Christians (even though they aren’t living Christianly) all they want; It won’t change the truth of who Christ actually was and what he actually said and did.