Living on a Prayer: My Top Ten Albums of 2017
What do the following musicians all have in common: Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Jack White, Jennifer Lopez, Kid Rock, Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Jon Bon Jovi, Madonna, Stephen Tyler, Lana Del Ray, Conor Oberst, Ariana Grande, Billy Corrigan (Smashing Pumpkins), Celine Dion, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), and Christina Aguilera? You guessed it; they were all raised Catholic. And to the best of my knowledge they have all been fully initiated into the Church through the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion. They are part of the Body of Christ.
Now before you scroll down to the comment section and tell me how most of the aforementioned artists no longer practice their Catholic faith, or worse yet, have said terrible things about the Church, and how some of them have even acted in complete contradiction to Catholic moral teaching, please hear me out. Are there any members of your own family or network of friends who were raised in the Catholic faith and who no longer practice it? Me too. And don’t you wish that they would come back to the fold and be an active part of the Body of Christ because they have so much to receive, as well as to give? Well, that’s how I view all of the artists mentioned above. I love them and I am for them, because Christ loves them and He is for them. Jesus died and rose from the dead, and because of that, all things are possible. So I hope and pray for their conversion, as impossible as it may seem to some. St. Mary Magdalene and St. Paul, ora pro nobis.
Because priests work weekends, most of us take a day off during the week; Friday is my day away from the seminary. For the past seven years or so I’ve been remembering most of the artists listed above in my intentions at Mass on Fridays, as well as other musicians who are not Catholic, like Chan Marshall (Cat Power), Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Jewel, Josh and Tyler from Twenty One Pilots, the guys in Walk the Moon, and even the original members of Guns ‘N’ Roses. I figure that the talent these artists all possess is God-given, and that if their God-given talent is recognized by them as such, and if they use it for good and not evil, then these men and women have been given a very important role to play in building up of the Kingdom of God, even if they don’t know it yet.
So as you read this list of my top ten albums of 2017, know that you will find a couple of artists who take their Catholic faith seriously, but as for the rest, well, let’s pray that if it hasn’t happened yet, that one day they will embrace the One who gifted them with such creative genius.
Annie Clark has eight siblings and was raised in a Catholic family from Oklahoma. The things she has to say about Catholicism these days aren’t the greatest, as she recently told Entertainment Weekly: “I’m very obsessed with the aesthetic of nuns and priests. They got a lot of things wrong, but they got their costumes right.” But her musicianship is hard to match. Clark won a Grammy for her 2014 self-titled record and I think Masseduction has surpassed it. She taps into her prophetic baptismal call on “Pills” in a harsh critique of our over-medicated culture, while she exposes the sexism and superficiality of Hollywood on “Los Ageless.” (The album artwork is also a bit shocking, but I take it as an artistic rendering of the cause of the current harassment scandal plaguing the entertainment industry.) Clark is a true artist and she studied guitar at Berklee College of Music so her sound is innovative and original. She is also very intelligent and witty, so lyrically—although it’s not an album for children—Masseduction demands one’s attention. I liked it upon my very first listen. And to me, that’s the sign of a great record.
I first heard Julien Baker at the Festival of Faith & Music at Calvin College in April of 2017. Not only did Ms. Baker play a show and engage in a lively Q&A session with her audience about her music, songwriting, and the role that her faith plays in both, but I also sat in on an excellent lecture she gave entitled, “The Power of Failing: Relating Gospel and DIY Ethics as a Tool for Discourse and Activism.” Baker’s latest album contains some brilliant songwriting and her voice is that of good friend sitting with you through some very hard times. “Happy to Be Here” and “Hurt Less” put the gifts of this 22 year-old on full display. Baker speaks the language of iGens, so if you work with young people, she is mandatory listening.
Although I didn’t mention it above, Matt Maher is Catholic and I include him in my Mass intentions every Friday. The big single off this record is “Your Love Defends Me,” and if you run in Catholic circles or listen to Christian radio, I’m sure you’ve heard it. However, some of the best tracks off this record aren’t on the radio, but they should be, as they address the political and cultural tensions in America today. Co-written with fellow Catholic Audrey Assad, “Clean Heart” opens the record with a deep desire for personal transformation and cultural change: “When everybody’s looking for another fight/ When trouble’s on the rise, no end in sight/ Oh Savior won’t you come and make the wrong things right/ Let me be the place you start/ Give me a clean heart.” Maher sings for the anawim on “The Least of These,” and we should all listen, as it’s an echo of Matthew 25. Maher dedicated this Grammy-nominated album to his recently deceased father. I hope he wins.
This album was my great surprise of 2017, as I’ve always been suspicious of boy bands and the member who leaves the band for a solo career in particular, which is exactly what Harry Styles did when he left One Direction. I caught Styles’ performance on Saturday Night Live and decided to buy the record. It’s a winner. He had some help writing the songs, but they’re really good, especially the dramatic “Sign of the Times” and hard-hitting “Kiwi.” Don’t miss the album dedication: “To my Family, I thank you every day for supporting me. And for loving me.”
A friend asked me recently, “If you had to listen to only one musical act for the rest of your life, who would it be?” Almost immediately I responded, “Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.” For over twenty years Rawlings and Welch have been writing some of the best Americana music ever made. Although the duo always play together, the name on the album is determined by who writes the majority of the songs and who takes the vocal leads. “Cumberland Gap” is up for a Grammy this year for Best American Roots Song, but the whole album is worthy. “Midnight Train” and “Come on Over My House” are great examples of why Welch and Rawlings are considered the greatest of all time in folk and bluegrass circles. Don’t miss their interpretation of creation stories from the first two chapters of Genesis, “Good God A Woman.” I think St. John Paul II would approve.
I started praying for Miley Cyrus upon the release of 2013’s Bangerz, and I know that I’m not the only one who did. It seems that those prayers worked, as Ms. Cyrus found her sobriety and has written a solid, fairly mature pop record. It’s hard for me not to think of St. Augustine, “Feels like I just woke up/ Like all this time I’ve been asleep” and Heraclitus, “No one stays the same…/ Change is a thing you can count on” when listening to the title track. What’s so impressive about this album is that unlike her previous album, Cyrus wrote every lyric on Younger Now. On “I Would Die For You” and “Love Someone” you get the sense that Miley is thinking about a lot more than twerking these days. She’s younger now, and wiser too.
In 2016 Alanna Boudreau’s Champion was my third favorite album of the year. Boudreau is currently working on a new record, but in the meantime she had a baby and released a nine-track collection of covers and originals that is only available through bandcamp. Her interpretations of Ryan Adam’s “Rescue Blues” and The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” are absolutely beautiful. And the nice thing about this record is that you get to name your price in purchasing it. (I chose to pay $7, since seven is a good Catholic number.) Boudreau is a good Catholic woman, so if you haven’t checked out her music yet, now is the time to support a very talented Catholic artist.
Josh Ritter is one of the most prolific songwriters around today. It seems that he’s releasing a new album just about every year, and almost all of his albums are noteworthy. Gathering is not as dark as his most recent efforts, and it seems a lot of that darkness was fallout from his divorce. On Gathering it appears that Ritter has learned how to love again, but not before making a pseudo-penitential act on the opening track, “Showboat.” He longs for transformation on “When Will I Be Changed,” and on “Dreams” Ritter recounts an experience substituting a lover for God, which ended in disaster: “I held on to her hard until I just wore her out.” Ritter was raised in a Christian home, and although he’s yet to return to the fold, he’s not far from the gate.
One of the best discussions I have with students in my epistemology class is about whether a cover of a song is the same song as the original. Msgr. Sokolowski (CUA) believes the (identity of the) song remains the same, but the interpretation gives you a new presentation (manifold) of the song. On Folksinger Vol. 2, Willie Watson—formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show—offers new presentations of ten classic folk songs as only he can. “Gallows Pole” is haunting, “John Henry” will make you clog dance even if you don’t know how, and his version of “Take This Hammer” rivals Lead Belly’s classic recording. In addition to the music, Watson’s song-by-song commentary in the CD insert is worthy of a careful read.
Taylor Swift produced one of the best pop albums of all time with 1989, but on Reputation she’s changed her sound and her attitude, and some have argued that she’s lost her innocence as well. I reviewed Reputation earlier this year for Word on Fire, but one thing that I neglected to say in that review is that Taylor Swift still knows how to make an entire album. Most Millennials and iGens tend to buy single songs or listen to music on Spotify, so many artists concern themselves simply with writing singles, but that’s not the case for Taylor Swift. She still writes a traditional concept album and she has the rare ability of building incredible excitement around the release of a new album.