2017: A year of songs

For the past few years, my brother-in-law has been creating playlists of favorite songs that he’s collected throughout the years. Inspired to do the same now that 2018 is in its infancy, I’ve created my own ‘Best of 2017’ playlist. I’ve always cherished the opportunity to share meaningful music with others although doing so comes with a dash of risk under the radar; sometimes the music drifting out of the speakers reveals much about the stirrings inside of the listener.

So with a moderate amount of further ado, I present to you a collection of favorites that I’ve collected over the past year. Songs on this list met at least one of my personal criteria for a replay-able song:

  • Groove (typically the first thing that stands out to me)
  • Lyrical content
  • Overall song craftsmanship
  • Catchy hooks and melodies
  • Unique story-telling
  • Any other unexplainable quality that makes a song resonate with me

You can listen to the entire playlist (currently 32 songs) via Spotify or YouTube at the links below. Note that a few songs existed on one platform and not the other, so there are minor discrepancies between the playlist versions below:

  • Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/user/two_hands/playlist/02uPSU7BX0vIO2Gxr2CNSF
  • YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ReCMXDgsrgM&list=PLzq8KLPSd4Ac2pDedH6pQympBJAbigILN

These ~40+ song playlists aren’t ordered in any particular fashion so please feel free to enjoy them on shuffle. If you need a place to start, below are 10 of my highlights.
Note: Click on the title of the song to watch/listen directly on YouTube if the embedded player doesn’t work. 

1. Morning Nightcap – Lunasa
We spent Christmas and New Year’s with my wife’s side of the family, with whom an expansive variety of artistic interests and talents are represented. Among them is a multi-colored palette of musical tastes, including the Celtic stylings of Lunasa. Songs from one of their albums (The Story So Far) frequently danced throughout the house over the holidays and Morning Nightcap is the first track, whose heroic melodies caught my ears and would not let go.

2. Non-Stop – Lin-Manuel Miranda (from the “Hamilton” soundtrack)
There isn’t much music from theater productions in my library but I’ve been blown away by the genius of songwriting throughout the Hamilton soundtrack. Non-Stop is sufficiently representative of the craftiness with which Lin-Manuel Miranda compiled multiple styles and musical motifs for each representative character into one song. The entire soundtrack is a mind-bogglingly interconnected web of songs, each containing subtle references to the others yet functioning independently (for example: check out Hamilton’s soliloquy at the 1:42 mark in The World Was Wide Enough which stealthily incorporates titles and lyrics from many other songs in the soundtrack). Technical details aside, the song describes Hamilton’s historically documented, fast-paced life-style of learning, composing, and developing ideas born out of high intellect and beliefs that would eventually shape and defend the US Constitution and lay the groundwork for the nation’s financial system.

3. Chalk – Buddy Miller
My oh my…I often find myself considering whether this is the best song I’ve ever heard or not. This is neither a break-up song nor a love song. It seems to stem from that place in between, where both individuals have come to the end of themselves and with helpless glances to the losses behind and the uncertainty ahead, plead “Jesus come and save us from our sins”. Buddy and Julie Miller have managed to craft a song whose lyrics and instrumental components are so accurately married to the overall emotional contour of the story; flickering embers that illuminate that devastatingly sacred place where the strength of humanity is emptied and can only depend upon the deliverance of God.  

4. Hear My Heart – Andy Mineo
Andy Mineo is one of my favorite rappers who blends style, flow, and saavy story-telling in every song. Hear My Heart is a beautiful tribute and apology to his deaf sister Grace, with whom he had a distant relationship as a child. Having not bothered to learn sign language when he was younger, Andy and Grace could hardly communicate, resulting in the gap between them that Andy now seeks to bridge. Notice in the music video that Andy accompanies all of his lyrics with sign language and that all of the colorful images give visualization to the music; truly a thoughtful, intimate conveyance of love and reconciliation across the gap between the separate audible and visual languages he and his sister speak.

5. Ants Marching / Ode to Joy – The Piano Guys
Over the past year, my daughter and I have spent a lot of time dancing to music together. She sits on my shoulders while we bounce around to a wide variety of music. This song holds a special place for me as one of the earlier entries on a playlist my wife and I have created to feed her musical palette. The Piano Guys have been making their mark on the music scene for a while now with their creative piano and cello duet covers of pop songs and original compositions, often paired with beautiful music videos such as this one, shot on a spinning stage with a drone-mounted camera. The track itself is a beautiful combination of Dave Matthew’s Ants Marching with segments of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy; a counter-intuitive yet effective pairing.

6. Double Beat – Santa Clara Vanguard (composed by Murray Gusseck)
Ah, the drumline. Nothing packs a punch quite like a group of coordinated percussionists who wield the power of their instruments with flair, finesse, and musicality. I recently rediscovered this song and video but since first hearing it back in 2007, it’s catchy rhythmic groove has never left me. I often find myself subconsciously tapping it out on my knees and tabletops. Give several listens to this song and try to listen to each of the three sections of the drumline individually: the snare drums, tenors (the multi-drum units), and the bass line. There’s a lot going on there but it all works together so well. The bass line is particularly impressive with its low melodic movements underneath the snares and tenors. In my estimation, being a bass drum player on a drumline is one of the greatest challenges a percussionist can face. Check out the descending bass line from 0:17 – 0:19 to hear how each member of the bass line seamlessly passes the melody down to the next, requiring the utmost coordination. Also, watch out for the serious beat drop at 1:09.

7. Hound of Heaven – Brettan Cox
The groove is strong with this one. Particularly noteworthy are the drums, guitar-picking, and bass lines. They function as a singular voice, a great example of playing “in the pocket”, and provide the overall song with its characteristically flowing vibe, as though cruising along the top of a rolling wave. My favorite moment is from 2:38 – 2:41 where the bass and guitar follow each other in a surprising melodic riff, ending in some percussive punctuation, to make the last chorus pop. Lyrically, Brettan has taken a rather odd image pairing (hound and heaven) and beautifully highlighted one of the enigmatic qualities of God who, with hound-like accuracy and love beyond reason, is never far from us even despite our best efforts to the contrary (“I could make my bed in the deepest sea, in a desert storm you’d find me – In the streets of New York, with a million people, you’re always right behind me”). 

8. Pennies from Heaven – Louis Prima
This one’s a lot of fun. Louis Prima and his band seem to have been a whirlwind of an entity in their day, taking classic jazz songs and wrangling them into a hootenanny of shouting, clapping, and conversant solos between the instruments. Louis also provided the voice of King Louie in the original Jungle Book movie as well as the well-known song I Wanna Be Like You. What I enjoy about Pennies from Heaven is it exemplifies much of what likely draws most folks to music in the first place: its fun! The background vocals make me smile (I mean come on now, it doesn’t get any better than “shoobeedoobee”) and the vocal/saxophone duel solos starting at 0:44 are hilarious. Whatever else this song may be, it’s a reminder to enjoy what you do.

9. The Men That Drive Me Places – Ben Rector
There’s a refreshing message to be heard here and you may want to read along with the lyrics while you listen (which you can find by clicking here). Ben Rector breaks the mold by writing a genuine song about the underdogs working behind the scenes in his career. With a unique mixture of both reason and humility, Ben acknowledges that he works hard in his publicly celebrated position yet is awed by the feats of those in the woodwork whose quiet and often thankless contributions are made in the midst of challenging circumstances. This is an endearing and practical reminder of many things: the importance of being grateful, working diligently, and going out of your way to thank the silent giants upon whose shoulders you stand.

10. When I Get There – Kirk Franklin
Make sure you are in a safe, unobstructed place with close proximity to a chiropractor before listening to this one. Grooves as hard as this could prompt all sorts of involuntary limb flailings and neck gyrations (known as ‘dancing’ in some circles) that will surely require follow-up with a medical professional. Kirk Franklin is a seriously gifted composer and arranger whose masterful work on this track grounds us in the terra firma of a rock-solid groove while directing our thoughts Heaven-ward. Written after the death of a close friend, Kirk uses the song to remind us all that this life is not the end but that we have the assurance of salvation in Christ for life after death in Heaven. Far from removing us from the responsibility to engage with the troubles of our present times, we are to bring the news of this promise and invitation as a light into the darkness. Whatever 2018 holds for us, let us remember that Jesus told us: “You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:14) and “Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).


On being average

Every now and then a song, book, poem or life event comes along and plunges the deep waters of a spiritual truth and returns to give you a sip of understanding and insight. “Oh Joe” by Flannel Graph is a retelling of the account of Joseph; a man from the book of Genesis who was greatly misunderstood by many in his life. Although a familiar Sunday-school character who has been ushered into pop-culture fame by a Broadway musical, perhaps we have misunderstood him as well.

Along with the other biblical titans, Joseph and his life of incomprehensible Old Testament turmoil and faith can seem distant and inaccessible to us; a toga-clad, Romanesque colossus, starting coldly down from the tall pillar of history to the cell-phone-thumbing populace of the 21st century milling around his feet. And given Joseph’s remarkable life, such a pedestaled view might be understandable. Favored by his father and hated by his envious brothers who sold him into slavery, Joseph slogged through years of bondage, imprisonment, and obscurity before his God-given gift of interpreting dreams caught the eye of the Pharaoh who effectively gave him the vice-executive authority over all Egypt, arguably the greatest world power at the time.

Yet despite all of this, in the course of a three-and-a-half minute song, Flannel Graph manages to gently lift the grand statue of Joseph off his pedestal and chisel away the marble to reveal a flesh-and-bone man underneath. A man who dealt with jealous siblings, unfair circumstances, pendulum swings between bold strokes and self-doubt, and who was, at the core of a manically-contoured life, just like you and me.

Oh Joe, watch it all unfold
Oh Joe, you’re not alone

We are all at the center of our own small story and the periphery of a much larger, collective epic. ‘Joe’ lived a day-to-day life; he woke up, went to work, ate food, went to the bathroom, slept, and did the same thing the next day. But he knew that God had given him this mysterious gift of interpreting dreams. Why? There were years in which his daily life had nothing to do with what he seemed gifted for, passionate for, destined for.

Sound familiar?

Ever had a job that seemed meaningless? Ever harnessed a passion that seemed entirely unappreciated or even invisible to the people around you? Ever felt that you were made for something greater? Joe did. And so have many others before and after him; a number that very likely includes yourself.

But there’s more to Joe’s story.

I was forgotten in my chains
But there was something greater running through my veins

At just the right moment, Joe’s life intersected with those of two fellow prisoners who had strange dreams and needed help figuring them out. Joe saw the moment and went to work: “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (Genesis 40:8). After the interpretations came to pass, word began to spread (albeit slowly) and Joe eventually had audience with the Pharaoh himself, similarly haunted by some strange dreams.

Oh Joe, pulled from jail below
Tell the King my words
Joe, be bold

Such are the words that God has spoken (or may yet speak) to all of us at certain spotlight moments in our lives. After hearing Pharaoh’s dreams, Joe foretells a seven-year, multi-national famine that threatened to wither all of Egypt. Both frightened at this grim prospect and stunned at this glimpse into Joe’s God-given potential, Pharaoh bestows managerial authority of Egypt’s resources to his former prisoner. Joe blossoms fully in this new position, wisely storing up one-fifth of harvests during their abundance, a move that that sustains the nation throughout the famine and saves countless lives from starvation.

What a remarkable finish to an epic story. But before his rise to power, what kept him going when he was imprisoned and trudging through the trenches of obscurity? He knew that God made him for a greater narrative. He persistently framed his turning points through God’s lens. When resisting the temptation to become involved in a scandal with his employer’s wife, he reasoned “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9). When explaining to Pharaoh the source of his dream’s interpretation, he said, “It is not in me; God will give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:16). And in a beautiful moment of reconciliation with his long-lost brothers who helped kickstart his story with violence and force, he declared to them, “…do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5).

So what about us? Sure Joe’s circumstances might not resemble our own but we, like him, are meant to live a great story. In many ways, he was a regular guy but his life left an irregular impact on the world. And all of us are meant to do so, from the kings and queens of our age with all of their grandeur down to the everyday average Joe.

All quoted lyrics from “Oh Joe” by Flannel Graph.

Friend or Foe?

10/2017: Friend or Foe?
Friend or Foe?

I recently started reading the first book of the “Redwall” series by Brian Jacques. I had never read it before but have always been drawn to books in which animals are the characters. I decided to take a break from portrait drawings and do an illustration based on my mental image of the story.

This moment in the illustration follows the attack of Redwall Abbey, led by the legendary Cluny the Scourge. Cluny’s spy has recently stolen something from the Abbey which serves as a source of inspiration and identity-orientation for all within the Abbey. At this moment in the drawing, Matthias, a self-effacing yet fiercely loyal monk from the Abbey, is venturing to St. Ninian’s Church where Cluny’s army has setup camp to confront him. Along the way, he encounters Basil Stag Hare, a proud and elusive hare who offers his support.

I was first attracted to Jacque’s description of Basil Stag as a “patchwork” animal. I’m not quite sure what was meant by that word but it gave me the image of a somewhat rugged creature. I wanted to use this drawing as an attempt to draw some animals and portray the two figures from two different perspectives (head-on for Basil Stag and from behind for Matthias). I’ve also been spending more time adding background details to my drawings so this one provided many different elements for practice, including a distant figure of St. Ninian’s church, a dirt path descending over a foreground horizon line and continuing on into the distance, and various bits of forestry.

See more sketches at the Sketch Gallery.

Here’s your part – “American Hearts” by Piebald

Check out the song above while reading below. Thanks!

Punk rock. Or “punk rawk” as I used to spell it during the time when the genre frequented my ears. In those days of anger and questing betwixt 12-13 years of age, I had spiked hair, a skateboard, a thick chain necklace, and would have rallied around a ‘fight the system’ mentality without even being able to tell you what that meant or which system it was that I wanted to fight. At this stage, my developing sense of music appreciation resonated almost exclusively with the immediate sound of a song. My rave musical reviews probably consisted of statements like, “That drummer is awesome” or “When the guitars do that middly-middly thing at the end…it’s really good”. Nothing unusual there. There are many songs to this day that I appreciate for similar reasons. Essentially, if it gave me goosebumps, I was hooked.

It was only until later that I started noticing and weighing a song’s value based on its meaning. Although there are fabulous composers out there who can convey volumes of meaning through sound alone, lyrics are often a direct revelation of the songwriter’s intent.

Piebald’s “American Hearts” is one of those songs that I had heard a few times back in those early teen years. When I stumbled across this song via a Spotify rabbit-trail last week, listening to it was akin to plugging a pair of headphones into my 15-years-younger subconscious. I heard the anthemic voclas and the aggressive wall of guitars and drums. I saw my over-gelled and spiked hair, heard the calamity of my high school hallways, and felt the mysterious, unwieldy angst of youth in my chest. But I heard something new this time around: a message. My history was lecturing to me. It was as though a “you’ll-understand-this-when-you’re-older” concept from some long-forgotten lesson that fell on my youthfully deaf ears had decided I was ready to catch its meaning:

“Hey! You’re part of it.
Who? Me?

“Yeah! You’re part of it.”
Part of what? I don’t understand.

“This country is unequal still”
Yes, I have heard that. It’s tragic. But why are you telling me?

“History continues itself…”
But surely our current problems are different than those of our ancestors? Haven’t we come such a long way as a society?

“History continues itself…”
OK maybe so. The human race continues to destroy itself while clambering for money, status, and power. Slavery is illegal but racism is still alive in midst. We remember the genocides of history but the hatred that fueled them still lingers in the shadows of our society. Someone should really do something about that and fix our community.

“Hey! You’re part of it.”

And here’s the rub: You’re part of it. I’m part of it. All of us are parts of a community, a country, and a global human race. There are problems and graces to be found at each level and to greater or lesser degrees, we’re part of those as well by our awareness and advocacy or lack thereof. The state of the whole is determined by the state of its component parts.

And so at this present age, when I have much to say about the conditions of my community, this relic from my youth returns to shake me by the collar to remind me that there is no convenient middle ground of detached neutrality. With its refraining question, I am called to account for how I have utilized my sphere of influence and whether I am satisfied with how my decisions, compounded with similar ones made by billions of others, have impacted society. 

Be encouraged. You have far more influence than you think you do. Use it effectively and others will be notice. Eventually, you may be emulated and that influence will spread. May we never fail to include ourselves on the grand list of items that, if changed even just a little, could make the world a better place. After all, you’re part of it.

If a big change in the world is due,
The world needs a little change in you

What are we?

“It is…the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

These words were penned by Dietrich in the middle of the 20th century, when the social tides in Germany were swelling with a tragic hatred stemmed from a manipulative sect that targeted the Jewish people and attempted to cast them as objects of national fear and spite. Bonhoeffer saw the crucial need for the church to remain undefined by such pressures which had begun to invade the nation’s congregations and distort their teachings. Far from being a dusty chapter in church history, this need is one that we are faced with today. Allow me to borrow and modify his phrase to reflect the present scenario:

It is…the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where native and foreigner stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.

What do you think? Christians, what do you believe? Are we the church or are we not? Is the church the hands and feet of Jesus Christ who gave his life for all and spent it with not only the immigrant and the foreigner, but also the poor, the criminal, the prostitute, the unchurched, the politically-opposite? Or is it not? Are we a part of the church Jesus founded and is continuing to build or are we not?

Today is the day we must face the fact that “faith without works is dead.” These are not the cold words of some ancient proverb. Read the fuller context and see how inescapably relevant these words are to us today: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead”
– James 2:15-17

This is the day when we come face to face with the refugee and the immigrant. We gaze over their bent shoulders to a tattered past and the war-ravaged lands from which they seek asylum for their children. We behold the dreams that they, just like you, are trying to achieve and the crippling memory of a home and a history that was stolen from them. These precious people are before us today and we must make a decision.

Now is when we find ourselves echoing the question that Jesus told us we would all ask of him at the end of all things: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” And it is now, right now on our very doorsteps, when his response to that very question takes on present-tense bodily form and refuses to be just some faraway prophecy for a faraway time in the faraway reaches of our theology: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
– Matthew 25:31-46

With the recollection that we too have personal or family histories of crossed borders and foreign roots, we must endeavor to give substance to the words engraved on the doormat of our nation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the door”
Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

What do we preach? Forget words for a moment. What do we preach with our actions? Much of the world already knows our Sunday school lessons and can recite them just as well. There are too many empty words out there; society is glutted with phrases and proverbs but starved of the actions to back them up.

The words of Jesus matched the doings of Jesus. Do ours?

There are far too many opportunities to engage, love, and serve out there for us to keep making excuses. Give food, time, money, shelter. Buy someone a meal, donate to a relevant cause, join hands with people that are ethically and righteously standing against injustice. No act is too small. Break chains with every word you write, shatter darkness with your art, lead the way with your voice. Do something lovely because you can and because this is what you were made for. Open your home, your hands, your heart. Do not let silence close your lips when the oppressed are bullied or mocked in your presence. Do not let fear filter your eyes such that the dark crimes of a select few stain the innocence of the masses. Do not let your mind become a warehouse of false propaganda. Your whole body is an extension of God’s home, refuse to let anyone else live in it: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own”
– 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Jesus calls us into the messiness of the world to bring something into it that wasn’t there before. Lights in the darkness, water in a dry land. With our words, we boast of a faith in God and his love, forgiveness, protection, and trust. Do we attempt the impossible task of reconciling this with our lives of silent distance and neglect? Or do we join him in this work for which we were made? Are we not his church?

“…Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Isaiah 58:6-7

The colors of integrity

Forgive me for stating the obvious when I say that Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of integrity. As a man of moral steadfastness whose riveting words were supported by bold action, the word seems fitting.

But, to draw out the point, what I mean is that he is man whose many parts were integrated*. Until recently, I had only a public school knowledge of his life. I never actually knew what it was that he did for a living. Was he a politician? A preacher? An activist? Yes…but no.

Occupationally-speaking, he was a preacher at a church in Atlanta. But while he was at it, he travelled the country to pioneer the civil rights movement. He rubbed elbows with dignitaries and pop stars. He was invited (several times) to appear at the White House. He ran fundraising campaigns. He led protest marches. His thunderous voice rang from countless stages to address the issues of the times: poverty, rights for the black community, the war in Vietnam.

Why such cross-platform involvement? Isn’t it dangerous to mix faith and politics? Yes, it most certainly is. But as we’ll soon see, there was no “mixing” in the life of Dr. King.

So why did he do it? He had to. He knew that to be a follower of the person of Jesus would cause him to be a doer of the things of Jesus. In other words, there was no distinction between the faith and the politics of Dr. King. His political actions were the outward expression of his faith.

Take a listen to the video at the top of this post. Here we have Dr. King preaching at his church, where many people would have liked to have kept him. But the subject of the sermon is Shadrach, Meeshach, and Abednego; three figures who resolved to trust and act on their faith in God, even when doing so yielded death threats and attempts from the ruling authorities. As the sermon progresses, one cannot help but see the common threads between biblical account and that of Dr. King:

These men were saying that ‘Our faith is so deep. We found something so dear and so precious that nothing can turn us away from it’…

[18:41] You may be 38 years old as I happen to be…and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand upon some great principle…You refuse to do it because you are afraid…because you want to live longer…you’re afraid that you would lose your job…be criticized…lose your popularity…that someone would stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90 but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90…You died when you refused to stand up for right…when you refused to stand up for truth…

In this is revealed the heart of Dr. King’s mission. Just as Shadrach, Meeshach, and Abednego knew that their lives were found in standing literally and figuratively for God, so Martin Luther King knew he would only live when his life was laid down for the oppressed. Tyranny’s greatest weakness is the life of even one spent in servitude to its victims.

Too often, we attempt to dis-integrate ourselves. We would like to think that our lives are a series of boxes where each item is granted its own, unique space that is entirely separate and disconnected from the others. Our work life stays in the “work” box, our home life stays in the “home” box and so on. This is merely the recipe for living two or more separate lives. We are meant to be whole people, integrated people. To me, Dr. King is someone who allowed the contents of the boxes to be compiled into a cohesive whole. And this is exactly why we are still feeling the affects of his life so many decades after his death.

Our words and our actions will outlive us. Future generations will ride the crests of the ripples we now cast throughout the ocean of life. So it was with Martin Luther King, so it is with us, so it shall be for our children.

* I am grateful to Sarah Arthur from whom I first gained this insightful description of integrity as a character quality from her book Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey Through Lord of the Rings.