“People in L.A. worship everything but value nothing.” So says Sebastian in Damien Chazelle’s miraculous musical romance La La Land. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz musician with dreams of opening his own club, but he’s stuck playing bland Christmas tunes in dingy restaurants. He’s frustrated by the lack of passion people around him bring to their lives, along with the fact that he himself can’t hold a steady job as he pursues his own dreams.
Mia (Emma Stone) faces a similar predicament. She gave up college and moved from her Nevada home to pursue acting, but, despite numerous auditions, she can’t seem to get a call back. When she meets Sebastian, she’s initially repulsed, but quickly she begins to warm to his charms and his zest for life. A romance blossoms, but it isn’t long before reality comes knocking for these starry-eyed dreamers. Can these two build a life together, sharing in each other’s’ burdens and ambitions? Or will the cold hand of failure and the everyday struggles of life tear them (and their careers) apart?
The central question of the film is, how does one continue to hold onto hope in the midst of resistance? How can you reach for the stars when life only seems to give you gravel? It’s a profound question, particularly in a year like 2016, when so many have felt beaten into submission by the woes of human experience.
For anyone feeling downtrodden, La La Land is the greatest Christmas present you could ask for. This is a film that will keep a smile on your face during most of its run time, a joyous celebration of the desires of the heart, and the perseverance of hope through all possible obstacles.
The film is love letter to two of my favorite things: movies and jazz. Chazelle already examined the passion of jazz music in the stellar Whiplash, but that film was dark and emotionally brutal. In contrast, La La Land is an infectious, upbeat and ear-catching marvel. This is the kind of film where you can feel the love of movie-making stitched into every frame, a film where the depth of passion and vision behind its creation is palpable and, frankly, astonishing.
La La Land is an infectious ode to Hollywood, jazz and impossible dreamers.
La La Land is billed as a musical, and a musical is really only as good as its songs. Thankfully, Justin Hurwitz’s tunes are mostly great. I’ve been obsessed with this soundtrack ever since I walked out of the theater (and am a particular fan of “City of Stars” and “The Fools Who Dream”). The dance sequences are also phenomenal, from the Fame style jaunt in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam that opens the film to a gorgeous tap-dancing sequence that hearkens to Gene Kelley and a dreamy flight through the Griffith observatory that is its own wondrous creation.
Thankfully, Chazelle’s dialogue is every bit as masterful as the songs. The writing throughout is funny, relatable and emotionally resonant. But what really takes the film to another level is the performances. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are no Astaire and Rodgers, and that’s what makes them so good. Their dancing is charming, their singing voices more than adequate. But, two struggling artists shouldn’t be masterful performers; it makes more sense that the characters would be rougher around the edges. To keep them from perfection is to keep them relatable (though still impossibly gorgeous).
That’s not to discount the marvelous work by the two leads. This is Stone’s best-ever role, proving once again her talent for giving nakedly emotional and absorbing performances. I’m a big Gosling fan, and this role shows off both his comedic and dramatic talents expertly. Despite the film’s flashy style, I never felt like I was watching “movie stars” on screen. I felt like I was watching Mia and Sebastian. These roles feel lived-in, and that extends to the supporting cast (including a surprisingly excellent John Legend).
La La Land’s ending is not exactly a happy one, but it feels authentic, just like the rest of the film. There’s not a false note in sight. It is in many ways a simple film, but it’s not simplistic. It has a lot to say about the importance of holding onto dreams, and even conveys the welcome message that being traditional and old-fashioned isn’t always a bad thing. Some may call La La Land itself old-fashioned. If that’s the case, then I say it’s hip to be square.
It has been 40 years since Queen released their definitive masterwork A Night at the Opera, and the world of rock has never looked quite the same. With the album reaching its 40th anniversary last week, I decided it would be a great time to dive into what is arguably my personal favorite rock album of all time.
The album opens on a viciously cathartic note with “Death on Two Legs,” allegedly lead singer Freddie Mercury’s hate letter toward Queen’s ex-manager. It could also just be seen as a really nasty ode to an ex-friend or lover (the male references throughout would even be keeping in line with Mercury’s homosexuality). Musically, it’s about as epic an opening as you could ask for. The melding of the piano with electronic beeps shows off the blend of old and new the band proved so adept at. Mercury’s voice drops in with an angry growl and doesn’t let up. And check out some of these lyric lines: “now you can kiss my ass goodbye.” “You’re a sewer rat encased in a cesspool of pride.” It’s a brutally efficient little number.
“Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” provides an immediate and jarring tonal shift, but don’t let the frivolous nature of the subject matter fool you—this is one brilliant little one-minute track. I love Mercury’s deliberately British-sounding vocals and Brian May’s lean guitar solo.
“I’m in Love with My Car” is the album’s most traditional-sounding rock song, with drummer Roger Taylor on vocals. His voice is raspier and more in line with a rock star than Mercury’s more theatrical sensibilities, and it’s a nice change of pace. Of course, the always on-point background harmonies still remind us that this is very much a Queen sound. The title obviously implies the content of the song, but I like the clever rhymes in lines like “Tell my girl I’ve got to forget her/I’d rather buy me a new carburetor.”
One of the most well-known and affecting songs from the album is “You’re my Best Friend,” Mercury’s sweet, sincere song about commitment. It’s an awesome feel-good song, one that reminds us to appreciate the loved ones we have in our own lives. Of course, there are some truly great vocal harmonies on display, and Mercury’s smooth, whispered “ohs” at the end of the track are simply infectious.
A song like ’39 begins to display the album’s epic tones as well as Queen’s penchant for grandiosity. The lyrics, sung by Brian May, are apparently about space travel. A group of astronauts embark on a year-long journey but return to find out 100 years have passed on earth time. The acoustic guitar work in the song is unique, and the lyrics invite contemplation. “Don’t you hear my call, though you’re many years away/Don’t you hear me calling you?”
“Sweet Lady” is the song that best shows off the band’s instrumental mastery. It features an incredible variety of rhythm and sound, starting in ¾ meter before switching to a lightning-fast 4/4. It really rocks, and what’s even more impressive is how effortless it all feels.
“Seaside Rendezvous” offers a switch back to Queen’s operatic mode, and the result is just insanely good. Taylor and Mercury’s vocals imitate instruments including a trumpet, clarinet, tuba and kazoo. It’s pretty mind-blowing stuff, and honestly sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard. It’s a tough one to describe, but it’s easily an album highlight.
It may be hard to imagine, but there is a song on A Night at the Opera that rivals “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “The Prophet’s Song” is it. It’s a candidate for most epic rock song ever recorded, as well as for my personal favorite. It’s a dark, long (over 8 minutes) and challenging work, speaking of dreams and prophecies and doom. “Oh, flee for your life/Deceive you not the fires of hell will take you/Should death await you.” The vocal round in the middle of the song is the true highlight, combined with an echo effect that is one of the coolest vocal tricks I’ve ever heard. It’s positively goosebump-inducing. The harmonic layering here is indescribably perfect. Thankfully, May’s guitar still has some room to wail here as well. The song ends on a more hopeful refrain (“Love is still the answer take my hand”) before its subtle and haunting denouement. If there’s such a thing as a perfect song, this is it.
*Note: Below is a really weird live recording that sounds totally different but is still pretty awesome.
“Love of my Life” is much softer but no less effective. Mercury’s beautiful, haunting, melancholic voice breaks with emotion. Bolstered by a melodic theatrical piano background, he strikes that brilliant and tricky balance between vulnerable and powerful as he sings about a love scorned, yet one he hopes to restore. It’s the kind of song Adele makes today. She certainly owes a debt of gratitude to songs like this.
“Good Company” is a clever song that recreates the sound of a Dixieland-style jazz band. May sings and plays ukulele. The odd lyrics seem to describe a man who comes across various people in his life but in the end discovers they were all imaginary. Songs like this once again show off the band’s immense variety and range.
And now we reach the granddaddy of all rock songs. What more is there to say about “Bohemian Rhapsody” that hasn’t already been said? Sometimes I wonder if the song has been spoiled by its perennial overplayed status on radio stations across the globe. Somehow, the answer to that question is always “no.” One does not simply tire of this song, ever. The song follows a man’s rumination on death row after having committed murder. The man expresses intense remorse as he sings to his mother. “life had just begun/but now I’ve gone and thrown it all away.” As he comforts her, he seems at first to accept his fate, but the chorus intercedes; some ask for mercy from the judge, while others condemn him. This one song contains more variety and emotion than 100 entire modern pop albums. There’s the chaotic call-and-response that echoes the narrator’s steadily decreasing sanity (“Mama mia let me go!”). He then turns to rage as the song kicks into rock mode with May’s legendary guitar solo. “So you think you can love me and leave me to die?” The narrator’s inner turmoil and back-and-forth emotional state is absolutely thrilling, but his bleak conclusion is still the same. “Nothing really matters, anyone can see/Nothing really matters to me.”
Oddly, the song ends with an efficient, short guitar interlude of “God Save the Queen.” It’s a nice, quiet ending to an album that is anything but.
A Night at the Opera is one of the most thrilling albums ever crafted. To call it Queen’s best work is to imply that there’s a runner-up somewhere in the vicinity. But this bad boy is in a league all its own. Iconic, both grandly ambitious and achingly intimate, it’s at obviously overblown and self-aggrandizing work. Queen was smart enough to only announce they were the best in the business if it were actually true. This album is proof enough that they most certainly were.
A few weeks ago, I got to see indie rock musician Jon Foreman, the front man for the band Switchfoot, in concert. This led me to contemplate the many marvelous albums from my favorite band, and, like I did with U2 earlier this year, I decided to listen to them all and rank them. Switchfoot’s music is the kind that could literally save your life; words can’t adequately describe the impact their music has had on me since I was a kid. It’s the kind of music that makes me want to be a better person, that reminds me of my obligation to God and to others, and that love is the highest law of the land. Not to mention that their music flat-out rocks (and their music video’s are great goofy fun). Jon’s soulful vocals and guitar playing are backed by his brother Tim on bass, Chad Butler on drums and Jerome Fontamillas on keyboard as well as background guitar and vocals. Throughout their nearly 20-year existence, the band has amassed a formidable catalogue of seriously great music. All of it is worth listening to. Without further ado, here is every Switchfoot album, ranked.
There is no such thing as a bad Switchfoot album, but there is such a thing as a disappointing one. This is it. Made toward the middle of the band’s career, Oh! Gravity finds the band trying to maintain their identity while simultaneously reinventing themselves. The result is a bit of a jumble; the songwriting is murkier than the band’s usual efforts and the themes are less clear and more inconsistent.
The excellent title song asks, “Why can’t we seem to keep it together?” lamenting the difficulty of keeping sane in a chaotic culture. The band’s penchant for scathing cultural critique is in full force with “American Dream,” where “excess is equated with excess.” “I want out of this machine,” Foreman sings. “It doesn’t feel like freedom to me.” The chaos tone of the album continues with “Dirty Second Hands,” which recalls the grungier sound of the band’s earlier work. “Awakening” is one of my favorite Switchfoot songs, a cry out for meaning and purpose. “I wanna wake up kicking and screaming/I wanna know that my heart’s still beating.” “Circles” is a deeper expression of inner chaos that still desires to hold on to truth. “Don’t believe that nothing is true. Don’t believe in this modern machine.”
“Amateur Lovers” describes the disease of “insufficiency of love.” “Faust, Midas and Myself” finds the band at its most metaphorical, which the band normally trades in brilliantly. This feels a bit too artsty though, and the result is unclear and unsatisfying. The same can be said for “In This Life.” I do like “Yesterday,” a softer song that feels like a goodbye song. “Burn out Bright” is another cry to restore passion. “Before I die I wanna burn out bright.” “4:12” is another interesting experiment, a song that is literally 4 minutes and 12 seconds. These kinds of gimmicks don’t make good songs on their own, however. “Let your Love be Strong” is a typical exhortation from Foreman to put love first. “Maybe I’m optimistic…that love could be a verb.”
Oh! Gravity has its share of excellence, but it’s balanced by some more forgettable tracks, and the album as a whole doesn’t come together in the way the band’s best work does.
The Legend of Chin
The band’s debut album only suffers in comparison to their later work. On its own merits, The Legend of Chin is a remarkable debut. Switchfoot’s early sound was much grungier, Foreman’s voice a bit rougher around the edges. Their mastery of creative instrumentation and sonic variety was also more pronounced here than on later records. Even the lyrics were more playful, closer in style to contemporaries like Reliant K, as in the song “Chem 6A.” “I don’t wanna read the book/I’ll watch the movie.” “Underwater” is an emotional song about a girl adrift, perhaps in alcohol, or just apathy. The serious subject matter still makes way for a jazzy piano interlude. “Edge of My Seat” continues the album’s creative sound with trumpet accompaniment. “Home” is an album highlight about finding rest in the hope of heaven while praising the grandness of creation. “Someday I’ll see home.” “Ben Hur” shows off Foreman’s lyrical trickery and pop cultural savviness, but “Concrete Girl” is likely the album’s most affecting song. Foreman’s voice shows its vulnerability as he encourages a girl to find the purpose behind the artifice she sees all around her. “Concrete Girl, don’t fall down/In this broken world around you.”
“3/4 Chant,” perhaps obviously, plays creatively with ¾ time. “You” is about resting in God rather than ourselves and our own abilities. “I find peace when I’m confused/I find hope when I’m let down.” “Ode to Chin” encourages the listener to “doubt your doubts/And believe your beliefs.”
The Legend of Chin is a fun and creative debut album, a signifier of greater things to come from an immensely talented group of musicians.
New Way to Be Human
The theme of New Way to Be Human seems to be transformation, and the album does a remarkable job of echoing that theme through the songs themselves, which display a pretty incredible variety. The great-sounding title track features immensely catchy whistling as Foreman sings about “a new way to be human,” which he later reveals is God. “You’re the only way to be human.” “Incomplete” encourages us to accept our weaknesses and allow God to make us whole. “Sooner or Later” reminds us that “sooner or later you find out there’s a hole in the wall.” We’re perfectly happy with life until something goes wrong, then we wonder what has happened. “Have I lost who I am? I threw it all away.” “Company Car” is one of my favorite Switchfoot song; a great sound featuring trumpet accompaniment is bolstered by a cautionary tale reminding us that man can’t serve two masters. The subject has everything he wants, including money, but he ultimately asks, “Have I won monopoly but forfeit my soul?” “Only Hope” is another of my favorite songs, a beautiful ode to searching, longing, reaching out and ultimately finding rest in God. Foreman’s voice rises along with his journey of discovery. “So I lay my head back down/And I lift my hands and pray to be only yours/I know now you’re my only hope.” “I Turn Everything Over” is similarly about giving things over to God. “Under the Floor” is a haunting closer about listening for God as he whispers in the quiet, intimate spaces of our lives.
New Way to Be Human proved that The Legend of Chin was no fluke. This is a confident, assured follow-up, with emotional, stirring tracks. You can sense a lot of grand, epic themes that would be perfected in later albums, but that doesn’t make what’s here any less great.
Fading West is an excellent album, but it suffers in comparison to some of its stellar contemporaries. Still, the album that functioned as a soundtrack to Switchfoot’s must-see surfing documentary of the same title is filled with soulful tracks. “Love Alone is Worth the Fight” establishes the album’s epic tone, and is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s recurring theme that love is the most powerful motivator we have. “Who We Are” is a generational chant featuring a children’s choir, a unique sound for the band. “There’s still time enough to choose who we are.” “When We Come Alive” is another one of my personal favorites, an extremely haunting track about living a life of passion and the way that comes to life in community. “We light the sky when we ignite/When we come alive.” “Say it Like You Mean It” seeks honest words in a politically correct culture. “The World You Want” is another haunting track, featuring tribal drums and Foreman reminding us that the world will be what we make of it. This leads to one of my favorite lyrical refrains that we all have something we worship. “What you say is your religion/How you say it’s your religion/Who you love is your religion/How you love is your religion.”
“Slipping Away” repeats an album theme of reflecting on the past and feeling the past leaving us. “BA55” jolts the album back into harder rock territory with a dark, arresting sound, searching again for that passion, that “fire that can burn me clean.” “Let It Out” is another powerful anthem song about letting things go and not fearing others’ opinions. “All or Nothing At All” encourages us to embrace the whole person—either ourselves or someone else—rather than simply the parts we don’t like, the same way God embraces us. “Salwater Heart” uses the ocean as a metaphor for God’s vastness. “Back to the Beginning Again” ends what is arguably the band’s most hopeful album by seeking a revival and going back to the foundation. “My hope is anchored on the other side/with the colors that live outside of the lines.”
Nothing Is Sound
To call an album like Nothing is Sound ambitious is an understatement. This is Switchfoot embracing their true status as a rock band and claiming that they could tackle grand themes like the vastness of the universe, the afterlife, sex and politics. The most impressive thing about the album is that they were right.
“Lonely Nation” establishes a darker, more epic sound for the band. The song decries the isolation we often feel in an individualistic society. “Stars” may be the band’s single most epic song, contemplating the majesty of God while looking up at the heavens. The singer feels emptiness and loneliness, until he looks at the stars and sees “someone else.” But this someone else deeply affects the singer. “When I look at the stars, I feel like myself.” The song was immensely popular, and it’s easy to see why. A radio-friendly rock song that feels both epic and intimate at once is a very rare thing. “The Shadow Proves the Sunshine” is another one of my favorites, showing how we can often shine when things are darkest. Forman evokes the Psalms when he sings “Oh Lord, why did you forsake me? Or Lord, don’t be far away.” But he doesn’t stay in despair; he asks God to “let my shadows prove the sunshine.” “Easier Than Love” calls out our sex-obsessed culture. Sex is “easier than love,” and we often focus on it to the detriment of love. “The Blues” shows again how vulnerable Foreman’s voice can be; he’s willing to let his voice break. The song is about feeling down, but it cleverly has a bluesy sound as well (Fontamillias’ piano playing is particularly noteworthy here).
“Setting Sun” is a beautiful reflection on the hope of heaven. “Politicians” is another rock out song, not only a scathing critique of the fakery often inherent in politics but also how we all have become politicians, putting on our best face but unwilling to show our true colors to the world. “Fatal Wound” shows off some creative instrumentation with a killer harmonica part. “We Are One Tonight” is a great anthem song about casting aside conflict and coming together. The album ends on an unexpectedly soft note with “Daisy,” a song encouraging a girl to “let it go.” “This fallen world doesn’t hold your interest; it doesn’t hold your soul.”
Nothing is Sound executes that tricky balance of intimate and epic perfectly. It showed that the band could tackle almost any subject and spin gold out of it. The total effect is actually a bit exhausting, which is perhaps the reason why this album doesn’t rank higher. Still, it’s exhilarating stuff.
Learning to Breathe
Switchfoot’s third album was the first I ever heard, at age 10. It holds a special place in my heart, because it had a profound effect on me. It was also the first album to show the band was more than ready for the mainstream.
It’s pretty safe to say that “I Dare You to Move” is the band’s most popular song ever. I doubt few people who turned on a radio station in the early 2000s didn’t hear it at some point (it was also one of several Switchfoot songs featured in the popular film A Walk to Remember). It more than earned its status as a classic song. The lyrics encourage perseverance through hardship and rejecting apathy, and Foreman’s vocals feel particularly haunting here. “Learning to Breathe” is an arresting song about trying to live a life of authenticity, and that such authenticity comes through our day-to-day decisions. “Love is the Movement” is a strong candidate for my favorite Switchfoot song ever. It’s an epic treatise on the transformative power of love, with a gospel chorus accompaniment. Here, love is much more than a feeling, it is something that necessitates action. “Love is the movement/Love is the revolution/This is redemption/We don’t have to slow back down…Get up/Love is moving you now.” “Poparazzi” is a catchy song about the shallowness of celebrity pop culture. The cult of celebrity is driven home through lyrics that conjure religious imagery like “This is a tune for the graven images of Marilyn Monroe.” The ending ends in cacophony, echoing the way our culture often sounds when everyone is trying to speak at once.
“Innocence Again” highlights some great acoustic work, and the brilliant way Foreman matches his voice to the lyrics. When singing the lyrics “Grace is high and low,” his vocals rise and fall accordingly. In “Losers,” Foreman sings about how, in God’s eyes, the losers are the winners. “Economy of Mercy” similarly turns things on its head; in God’s economy, the low are brought high through “the currency of grace.” “Erosion” expresses a desire for revival. “Spirit fall like rain on my thirsty soul.” “Living is Simple” sets up a contrast between living in the body and living in the spirit. “Is this fiction or divine comedy/Where the last of the last is first?”
Learning to Breathe is an important album, an encouragement to live boldly and reject apathy as we seek God and navigate the waters of this world. It’s also just plain fun, with several radio-friendly hits that have some real substance to back up their popularity.
The Beautiful Letdown
Now we’re talking. If Learning to Breathe proved that Switchfoot could play in the big leagues, The Beautiful Letdown showed the world that they were one of the best bands around. It’s an absolute stunner, one that took many of the band’s previous themes and codified them into a near-perfect album. The boys come out of the gate swinging with “Meant to Live,” an anthem song about living a greater purpose. “We want more than this world’s got to offer,” Foreman sings with a new found power he hadn’t shown before. “This is Your Life” asks listeners to examine their own lives. Are we living our greatest purpose now? “This is your life, and today is all you’ve got now/And today is all you’ll ever have.” “More Than Just Okay” continues the theme, emphasizing challenge and growth over stagnation. Chad Butler’s drumming really kicks on “Ammunition,” which calls out our culture of blaming. “Look What a Mess We’ve Made of Love” as a result of the verbal bullets we sling at each other. In “Alive,” Forman sings, “My fears have worn me out.” He seeks life, and finds it in Christ. “His scars are bigger than these doubts of mine.”
“The Beautiful Letdown” features a killer bassline from Tim Foreman, which gives the song a unique, laid back groove. The lyrics discuss embracing failure, for God can use us even at our weakest. I love the line, “The church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools.” “Gone” is another one of my favorites, encouraging the listener to let go of the things of this world. “Where’s your treasure, where’s your hope/If you get the world and lose your soul?” We only have so many days to make an impact, so let’s use them wisely, because “life is a day that doesn’t last for long.” “Fire” is a beautiful song about the passion God can spark in us. “You’re on fire when he’s near you/You’re on fire when he speaks/You’re on fire burning up in these mysteries.” “Adding to the Noise” seeks silence in a noisy world, aka “the symphony of modern man.” “Twenty-Four” is a brilliant closing track about how quickly life can change, capped by the powerful refrain “I am the second man now/When you’re raising the dead in me.” This lyric works on multiple levels. The second man may be referring to putting ourselves second to God, but it could also mean a new man, a born again man. Risen to life in Christ, a new man has taken the old man’s place.
Masterful lyrics like that are all over this album, which doesn’t really miss a beat. One could be forgiven for thinking Switchfoot would never make a better album, which is one of the reasons why what comes next is so extraordinary.
Hello Hurricane is an album that leaves me speechless every time I hear it. It’s a beautiful, soulful meditation on hope in the midst of pain, and a reminder that God can use us even in our weakness. “Needle and Haystack Life” introduces an epic, sophisticated tone that is unlike anything we’ve heard from the band previously. The searching lyrics complement the arresting sound perfectly. The album quickly veers into hard rock territory with the propulsive “Mess of Me,” a song that reminds us that we can’t fix ourselves on our own. “There ain’t no drug that they could sell/There ain’t no drug to make me well…The sickness is myself.” “Love is a Song” is a highlight on an album of highlights. In poetic language, it describes the all-encompassing nature of God’s love as a work of art. “Your love is a symphony/All around me, running through me/Your love is a melody, underneath me, running to me.” “The Sound” is, simply, a kick ass song, one that gives the band plenty of chances to show off. Foreman’s voice has never shown more raw power, and his guitar solo reminds us of his serious axe skills. The lyrics are a generational call, reminding us that “there is no sound louder than love.” We hear the other side of Foreman’s vocal range on “Enough to Let Me Go,” a vulnerable song about, well, knowing when to let someone go. “Free” is a more aggressive song about yearning for freedom from “the prisons of my mind.”
“Hello Hurricane” uses a metaphor of a storm for hardship, and is all about not letting these storms knock us down. “Hello Hurricane, you’re not enough…you can’t silence my love.” “Always” is a passionate song about clinging to hope when everything is falling apart. The epic string accompaniment really drives this one home. “Bullet Soul” is another rock-out song, one I remember being featured in movie trailers after the song came out. It’s all about injecting passion into life. “Love is the one true innovation/Love is the only art.” “Yet” is a moving song about holding onto faith through hardship. “I’m so confused what’s true what’s false/What’s fact or fiction after all…but you haven’t lost me yet.” The song also features one of my favorite lyric lines: “If it doesn’t break your heart it isn’t love.” “Sing it Out” is one of the band’s most haunting songs, asking God to allow our weakness to speak when nothing else can. “Take what is left of me…make it a melody…I need your breath in my lungs tonight.” “Red Eyes” conveys the desperation of looking, exhausted, for something greater. That exhaustion comes from searching for things that don’t ultimately satisfy. The album leaves us with a question: “What are you looking for?”
This is the kind of album that could save lives. I know it has certainly gotten me through tough times. We all need an occasional reminder that our lives are not meaningless, that there’s a higher purpose to our lives and to the universe as a whole. We shouldn’t fear weakness, for it is in our moments of vulnerability or desperation that our true colors can shine, if we allow them to. That’s an important message, and this is an important album, not to mention impeccably crafted and just plain impressive. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
You would be forgiven for thinking that Switchfoot could never make an album that could surpass Hello Hurricane, but you would be wrong. I know I was. In this case, I’m glad I was. If the band’s previous revolutionary effort was about how to be strong in the middle of our weakness, Vice Verses is a reminder that we don’t have to stay in that space. Life is a truly joyful thing to be celebrated.
That embrace of living a full, purposeful life is driven home on the opening track, “Afterlife.” “I wonder why would I wait ‘til I die to come alive?/I’m ready now, I’m not waiting for the afterlife.” The song really kicks, and reveals the band at their peak maturity and sophistication. “Original” features a different lyrical style for Foreman, closer to a rap or a shout. It would get old if overused, but it works here, especially when the song’s theme is about embracing your uniqueness in a world that wants to homogenize you. “War Inside” is a grungy, electric tune about dealing with inner conflict. “Every fight comes from the fight within.” “Restless” is a moving ode to the singer’s tireless pursuit of God. “I run like the ocean to find your shore, looking for you.” There’s a distinct U2/”Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” vibe here, undoubtedly one of Switchfoot’s major influence. The song earns that comparison; it’s that good. The lyrics of “Blinding Light” encourage an unnamed boy and girl to avoid giving into peer pressure or the temptation to fit into society’s standards of beauty or coolness. “We’re the nation that eats our youth.” The kids are asked to hold onto the hope that transcends those standards. “Still looking for the blinding light/Still looking for the reason why.” “Selling the News” brings back the band’s scathing cultural criticism, this time tackling not only the news media but a culture all too willing to exchange the truth for lies. It sort of like a modern version of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” but this song is more layered and nuanced. “Opinions are easier to swallow the facts…The fact is fiction/Suspicion is a new religion.”
“Thrive” may actually be my favorite Switchfoot song. A subtle, soothing bassline plays over Foreman’s agonized vocals. Here is a broken man, airing out his demons and desiring to live life to the fullest. There’s a distinct biblical Psalm vibe here, where criticisms directed toward God are leveraged with prayers. “Am I a man when I feel like a ghost?…I know that I’m not right…I wanna thrive, not just survive.” It’s an incredibly powerful encouragement to anyone experiencing a dark valley of the soul. “Dark Horses” is perhaps the band’s most successful anthem song, with a bit of an epic Bon Jovi vibe. The lyrics see the dark horses as those who won’t give up even when society has given up on them. “Hey, you can’t count us out/We’ve been running up against the crowd/Yeah, we are the dark horses.” “Souvenirs” is a song about looking back upon a life and seeing all the little moments that brought the singer to where he is now. It’s an inspiring celebration of life, both the good and the bad. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“Rise Above It” shows off Foreman’s penchant for creative rhyming, with lyrics that talk about lifting ourselves above our circumstances. “Vice Verses” is a self-reflective, acoustic track, featuring only Foreman’s vocals and guitar. This feels closer to his actual solo work, as the singer looks out at the ocean while thinking about perspective. The singer is not an optimist or pessimist, but simply a realist. “You’ve got your babies, I’ve got my hearses/Every blessing comes with a set of curses/I’ve got my vices, got my vice verses.” The singer also asks some very Job-esque questions of God. “Where is God in the city life? Where is God in the earthquake? Where is God in the genocide?…Everything feels rusted over/Tell me that you’re there.” “Where I Belong” closes the album by expressing loss and displacement in a world which is not truly home. “I’m not sentimental/This skin and bones is a rental/And no one makes it out alive.” The singer sees a greater home, “Where the weak are finally strong/Where the righteous right the wrongs.” It’s a moving end to a moving record.
Vice Verses is literally breathtaking. As in, I find myself short of breath after I listen to it through. The songs here run the gamut of human emotions, and always leave me with a desire to live my true purpose. It’s a dark album that tackles heavy issues head-on, but the overall tone is one of hope. With God on the throne, what do we truly have to fear? It’s one of my favorite albums, period.
The world would be forgiven for not knowing quite what to make of Gorillaz when they were first introduced to the music world in 2001. The collaboration between Blur front man Damon Albarn and Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett was an immensely weird and entirely new creation, one where visuals and music melded together in kaleidoscopic brilliance. Hewlett’s iconic music videos featured the exploits of the fictional band at the group’s center: 2D, the band’s zombie-like singer; Murdoc Niccals, the group’s moody bass player; Russell Hobbs, playing drums and frequently carrying around a dead pig; and Noodle (guitar, keyboard, background vocals), an unpredictable young Asian girl.
Gorillaz self-titled debut was a hit, introducing catchy tunes like “Clint Eastwood” and “5/4” to the world. That album featured what would become group staples: repetitive, trance-like beats, nonsensical lyrics, an emphasis on guest artist collaborations and a surprising variety of sounds and styles. And yet, the album feels ultimately inessential, a decided product of its time.
The same can’t be said for Gorillaz highly-anticipated follow-up, 2005’s Demon Days. Ten years later, it’s hard not to look upon this dark, moody masterpiece as anything other than a modern classic. When I first heard Demon Days (specifically, the popular track “Feel Good Inc.,” I instantly fell in love with the band, and the album remains one of my all-time favorites. Delve into the album with me to find out why.
Referencing the Beatles is a bold move for any music artist. Thankfully, the greatness of Demon Days justifies such a decision.
The intro to the album sets the tone; it’s filled with low, subtle bass sounds. The sonic blend casts a hypnotic spell, and then fades away with the epic refrain: “You are now entering the harmonic realm.” The opening beats of “Last Living Souls” take over, as Albarn’s hypnotic voice asks: “Are we the last living souls?” The question sets up the theme of isolation on the album. It’s hard to know if the speaker’s isolation is self-imposed or a result of cultural influences. There’s also the possibility of a post-apocalyptic interpretation (literally, everyone else could be dead). The album seems to tease this possibility throughout, but Albarn respects his audience enough to avoid spoon-feeding us any one interpretation of his cryptic lyrics. Whatever the interpretation, the song establishes Albarn’s panache for taking a grab-bag of instruments and styles and allowing them to gel beautifully. This track alone features keyboard, piano, acoustic guitar and violin accompaniment.
The album slides further into chaos with “Kids With Guns,” which bemoans our culture’s blasé attitude towards violence. But the lyrics take things a step further by analyzing the motivations behind the kids with guns who are “taking over.” “And they’re turning us into monsters/Turning us into fire/Turning us into monsters/It’s all desire, it’s all desire, it’s all desire.” In an anything goes, do-what-you-want culture, one that idolizes the individual and seems to make promises it can never keep, we end up with a generation of “mesmerized skeletons,” walking corpses, if you will. “It won’t be long” before they explode. Such a message is even more relevant today than it was when the album released.
“O Green World” bemoans a different kind of violence, that which humanity is doing to the environment. The haunting background chants express a longing for a world that no longer exists. When I hear this song, I picture some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland. Albarn expresses a desire to return to living a life of oneness with nature. “Oh green world/Don’t desert me now/Made of you and you of me/But, where are we?” It’s one of the album’s most creative and relevant tracks, as Albarn’s initially subdued vocals rise to a cacophonous cry along with the music, which starts and ends the song with utter sonic chaos.
“Dirty Harry” is probably the album’s coolest song, and one of my personal favorites. Continuing hints at a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the lyrics continue the album’s focus on cycles of violence. “I need a gun to keep myself from harm/The poor people are burning in the sun.” Gorillaz’ penchant for collaboration is featured here, with the San Fernando Valley Youth Chorus providing excellent background vocals and Bootie Brown busting out a wicked rap interlude.
There may not be much to say about “Feel Good Inc.” Everyone has heard it; it was the song that sparked my initial interest in the group. I can say that the music video is awesome, and the lyrics make no sense. My guess would be that the flying windmill featured in the video and referenced on the track is the band’s attempt to flee the chaotic violence of the world below, a sort of Noah’s Ark, perhaps. This is all wild interpretation, because the song gives few clues. “Windmill, windmill for the land/Is everybody in?” suggests a desire to fly away and leave everything behind. The creative, iconic rap by De La Soul helps the track maintain its more upbeat vibe. Oh, and did I mention that Jamie Hewlitt is an amazing artist? Seriously, check the video out. It’s good stuff.
The melancholy quickly returns with “El Mañana,” a haunting track that sees the destruction of the windmill of hope from the previous song. Safe to say, the song is a bit of a bummer, but it once again highlights the album’s staggering variety from song to song. I particularly appreciate the gorgeous string accompaniment here.
“Every Planet We Reach is Dead” delves into some much-needed funk, but the lyrics continue their strain of longing. “But God only knows it’s getting hard/To see the sun coming through/I love you…but what are we going to do?” The song is something of a masterwork, with a creative use of guitar, excellent strings and Ike Turner’s kick-ass, bluesy piano solo. It’s certainly an album highlight.
“November Has Come” is a more restrained but equally fun track. It opens with my favorite rap on the album, a subdued, sublimely rhymed poem from MF Doom. But Albarn still makes room for his melancholic questions. “Something has started today/Where did it go? Why you wanted it to be?/ Well, you know November has come when it’s gone away.”
The album’s sense of isolation reaches its apex with the aptly titled “All Alone.” The heavily electronic track is highlighted by a gorgeous, fanciful refrain from guest artist Martina Topley-Bird. “’Cause I don’t believe, when the morning comes/It doesn’t seem to say an awful lot to me.” I love the use of multiple voices to echo the repeated lyric “All Alone!” The staggered vocal effect seems to suggest the sense of isolation that can exist even in a crowd.
That aching feeling attempts to be filled with alcohol in “White Light,” which only contains the lyrics “white light” and “alcohol.” The chaotic, grungy guitar work suggests a descent into inebriated senses to help dull the pain. And, for this track at least, it seems to work; the track is frenetic but I believe purposefully lazy in its attempt to replicate the temporary, fizzy high of inebriation. It’s all style and absolutely no substance, but that seems more like a deliberate thematic choice than a simple case of poor songwriting.
DARE is a straight dance track, and almost prohibitively catchy. It’s tons of fun, with an entertaining vocal from Shaun Ryder. There’s not really much to analyze here, though I do feel like a broken record for reiterating that the music video is beyond amazing and, of course, delightfully weird.
I’ll admit I wasn’t initially much into “Fire Coming out of the Monkey’s Head,” Dennis Hopper’s spoken word feature. But now, it’s probably my favorite track on the album. Hopper tells a complete story, one that highlights the dangers of greed and hubris. It essentially distills all of the album’s major themes into one track: our culture’s obsession with violence (and war in particular), our destruction of the environment and our celebration of the self over all else. Greed is particularly dangerous here, as it results in the destruction of the town where the “Happyfolk” lived. It’s a brilliant and haunting cautionary tale, especially when Albarn’s brief refrain chimes in. “Falling out of aeroplanes and hiding out in holes/Waiting for the sunset to come, people going home/Jump out from behind them and shoot them in the head/Now everybody dancing the dance of the dead.”
In my opinion, Demon Day’s final two tracks catapult the record from simple greatness into masterpiece status. The gospel-infused “Don’t Get Lost in Heaven” seems determined to try and find some peace or at least understanding amidst all the chaos the rest of the album dishes out. The London Community Gospel Choir does an incredible job here, as this brief interlude surveys the destruction the rest of the album has wrought. The cautionary lyrics that echo the song’s title are certainly open to interpretation, but seem to suggest a hope that the listener will not stay lost in high-minded thinking while ignoring the very real suffering in the world. That suffering is referred to as the “Demon Days” on the album’s closing track. “In these demon days it’s so cold inside/So hard for a good soul to survive/You can’t even trust the air you breathe/Because mother earth wants us all to leave/When lies become reality, you numb yourself with drugs and T.V.” But thankfully, the inspirational chorus is not content to leave us in the despair. “Pick yourself up it’s a brand new day!/So turn yourself around/Don’t burn yourself, turn yourself/Turn yourself around/To the sun.”
This hopeful ending refrain is incredibly powerful, especially because I’ve read the lyrics spelled as “sun” and “son.” Given the track’s gospel sound, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me that the “son” referred to is Christ himself. Such an interpretation would echo a sinner’s redemption as he turns himself around to God and denies his old ways. I think “sun” is the more likely spelling, but perhaps Albarn left us to figure this out for ourselves, like he did on much of the rest of the album.
This is one of the many things that make Demon Days one of my all-time favorite albums. Albarn and his incredible team of collaborators are willing to have a ton of silly fun, but the album is at its best when it sometimes abruptly drops deep, meaningful truths. Many of these are open to interpretation, and that’s the way it should be. The group respects its listeners enough to come up with their own interpretations. Some may be more correct than others, but we may never really know. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for one of the most sonically diverse, thematically daring, original and downright inspired albums to ever grace the ear. That seems like a pretty good deal to me.
In May, I will be attending my fifth U2 concert. It was the first band I ever saw perform live, and I was immediately drawn to its catchy rhythms, soulful lyrics and impeccable musical craftsmanship. Since then, my appreciation for the boys from Dublin has only deepened. Bono’s deeply emotional vocals. The Edge’s searing guitar playing. Larry Mullen’s peerless drumming. Adam Clayton’s rockin’ basslines. Together, they have created a remarkable musical legacy that has lasted 35 years and is still going strong. The band refused to die, completely reinventing itself several times in order to stay relevant but never giving into the crasser commercial tendencies of the various musical eras it has found itself passing through. U2 is also, to my mind, the quintessential Christian band. The members have never been particularly shy about their Irish Catholic faith, but what’s even more brilliant is that they’ve managed to convey that devotion without alienating secular folks who enjoy good music. But, for the faithful, their songs contain some of the most powerful spiritual lyrics in all of rock.
But, do all of their records hold up today? And, with several classic albums to their name, which one is truly U2’s greatest? I took a journey through the band’s 12 studio albums and came up with my answer. Here are U2’s albums, ranked from worst to best (I’ve also included a video with each album highlighting one of its best songs).
*Note: While the album Rattle and Hum contains some excellent original studio songs, it is primarily a live record, and thus I chose to exclude it from this list. You should totally listen to it, though.
12. ZOOROPA (1993)
After the brilliant and stylish reinvention that was Achtung Baby, U2 had a bit of trouble holding onto its identity and fan base for the remainder of the 1990s. Albums like Zooropa are why. Essentially a direct continuation of the style of Achtung Baby, this mess of an album did nothing as well as that far superior work. But, like anything the group has produced, there is some stuff worth mentioning here. The title track is a sleepy, moody piece, but the lyrics put listeners in the mindset of the frustration of the singer, living in overstimulated excess and feeling more lost and confused than ever. “And I have no compass/And I have no map/And I have no religion/And I don’t know what’s what.” The song cleverly repeats advertising lines from popular commercials. “Numb,” one of the album’s more recognizable tracks, is pretty bad, completely wasting a rare Edge vocal by making him sound like a robot. This may have been intentional, but it doesn’t make it good. “Lemon” is also awful, with the most grating, screeching Bono vocals ever. “Stay” is far and away the best song on the album, but its excellence only further reveals the inconsistency of the rest. I suppose I have to admire the bold experimentalism of a track like “Daddy,” but I don’t have to enjoy it. “The First Time,” a great song about losing faith and finding it, is an album highlight. I don’t quite know how to explain “The Wanderer,” except that it’s sung by Johnny Cash. If that sounds like an odd choice for what is billed as an alternative album, that’s because it is. I absolutely love the song, mostly because Johnny Cash can do no wrong, but it deserves to be on a much better album than this bad but ultimately intriguing record.
11. OCTOBER (1981)
Let me get this out of the way right up front: “Gloria” is an incredible track, a powerful, worshipful anthem. I love Bono’s lyric, “Lord, if I have anything at all/I give it to you.” It also has one of my favorite Edge guitar intros. Alas, a good track does not make a good album, and U2’s follow-up to its stunning debut album Boy is pretty much more of the same. There’s no discernable identity here to set it apart. For a band that has made a career off of taking risks, there’s little else here to court controversy or even much interest, despite the fact that this remains one of the band’s most overtly Christian albums. A song like “Rejoice” comes off like a worship song: “I can’t change the world/But I can change the world in me/Rejoice, rejoice.” The song “October” is a welcome surprise, a beautiful piano ballad, but it’s over after two minutes and kind of feels like half a song. October is light years away from a bad album, but it is, on the whole, a bit disappointing. Thankfully, that word wouldn’t come anywhere near the band again for a long time to come.
10. POP (1997)
If I were to judge Pop based upon its first half, I would absolutely despise it. U2’s last gasp of its 90’s experimentalism, it’s hokey and dated in all the wrong ways. Imagine my surprise, then, that it contains two of the most spiritually potent songs the band ever wrote. The album opens with its supposed anchor track, “Discotheque,” which may be the worst U2 song ever. It’s what I imagine a headache might sound like if it were put to music. To think that the boys thought their fans wanted them to turn into a crappy club group is almost insulting. The horrendous music video makes me think that maybe they were kind of making fun of their new identity. They were certainly having fun, but surely no one else was. The band mixes up vulgarity and religious imagery in songs like “Mofo,” which is further insulting given the fact that they’re normally so tactful and judicious about their spiritual over and undertones. Like most dance music, the songs here are unnecessarily long. The shortest clocks in at around 4.5 minutes. The band’s spiritual disillusionment continues on “If God Will Send His Angels.” Bono sings, “Jesus never let me down/Jesus used to show me the score/Then they put Jesus in show business/Now it’s hard to get in the door.” That’s a pretty great lyric. “Staring at the Sun” is one of the most maligned U2 songs ever, and it’s easy to see why. The sound and the lyrics are both incredibly cheesy. “Miami” is just painful, and “The Playboy Mansion” sounds like a cheesy porno song (again, probably the point, but the parody is lost on me if the song doesn’t sound good).
Then we get to the end. “Please” addresses the conflict in Northern Ireland occurring at that time. It’s a powerful call to move past prayer into action in order to stop the violence. “Please, please, please/Get up off your knees,” Bono sings. The final track, “Wake Up Dead Man,” is a pleading with God to do something about human suffering, to help make sense of all the chaos the singer sees around him. “If there’s an order in all this disorder/Is it like a tape recorder?/Can we rewind it just once more?” It’s a surprisingly potent and powerful end to an album that hardly deserves it. Pop is not good, and yet, I don’t think any serious U2 fan can ignore it, either.
9. SONGS OF INNOCENCE (2014)
This album has the unenviable position of being the newest U2 album, so I will admit it’s hard for me to get a feel for it. The band’s most personal album, it chronicles their rise, from the influence of The Ramones to early traveling experiences and struggles with faith and death. It’s heavy stuff, and Songs of Innocence is a fairly heavy album, featuring some of the group’s most profound lyrics. “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) is a great opening track, describing the band’s revelation at hearing The Ramones for the first time. It’s got a great beat and shows off the group’s underrated vocal harmonies. Bono’s voice has a remarkable softness here that I really appreciate. The epic, full sound of “Every Breaking Wave” really complements the song’s searching lyrics. The background noise in “California” sounds like the ocean, which is a nice touch, and the song also has my favorite Edge guitar solo on the album. “Song for Someone” is about Bono’s first love Ali, his eventual wife. “Iris” is about Bono’s mother, who died when he was a teenager. It’s a highlight—sad and devastating, but also hopeful. “Volcano” is a break back to the band’s gritty, edgy sound, moving from grief and remorse to rage. The singer, having lost what he loves, is determined to wrap up the rest of his identity in rock n’ roll. “Raised by Wolves” is a reflection on the fact that “my teenage life was largely dominated by memories of violence,” Bono told The Observer. It’s a bitter, powerful track, anchored by a passionate cry, “I don’t believe anymore.” “Cedarwood Road” is a great, grungy mix of electric and acoustic sounds. “Sleep Like a Baby” is a haunting track about attempting to come to terms with child abuse in the Catholic Church. “The church is where the war is/When no one can feel no one else’s pain.” The Edge’s seething guitar back Bono’s subdued vocals effectively. “This is Where You Can Reach Me Now” uses the band’s chant-like chorus to good effect. “The Troubles” is backed by guest Lykke Li’s haunting refrain, “Somebody stepped inside your soul.”
I like every song here, but I don’t quite love any yet. While I appreciate the deeply personal lyrics, I don’t feel the tunes themselves are particularly memorable. Again, that may change with time, but for now, the album is going to stay in solid “good, not great” territory for me.
8. NO LINE ON THE HORIZON (2009)
Arguably U2’s most overtly “Christian” album, No Line on the Horizon has, strangely, the opposite problem from Songs of Innocence. Most of the songs (with a few notable exceptions) sound spectacular, and there’s tons of variety here. But the lyrics occasionally cross the line from cheesy to straight-up stupid. They’re even, on occasion, distractingly bad, and yet other times the band’s songwriting is so brilliant that I can’t decide of a lyric is idiotic or genius.
The title track features interesting tonal dissonance and some expressive bass work by Adam Clayton, but Bono’s voice is too screechy and strained for my liking. Things take a dramatic upswing when “Magnificent” starts. Fans have healthy debates over many U2 songs, pondering whether they’re about God, something else, or both. There is no controversy here; it’s a straight-up worship song, and it’s beyond spectacular. Bono explores the wonders of God’s majesty in a transcendent odyssey that ranks as one of the band’s very best. “I was born to sing for you,” Bono croons, and sing he does. It’s backed by one of my favorite Edge guitar riffs and one of the profound lyrics in U2 history. “Only love can leave such a mark/But only love can heal such a scar.” I could write an entire blog post about this song, but I’ll spare you.
The rest of the album struggles to maintain that intensity, but it’s still quite good. “Moment of Surrender” is a beautiful ballad; a bittersweet reflection on how loneliness can find us even in a crowd. It effectively brings us back to the dreamscape U2 frequently haunts. It also shows off the band’s continued creative experimentation with both electronic sounds and orchestral accompaniment, something that really stands out on the album on a whole. I don’t like “Unknown Caller” at all—the members sort of half-sing, half-shout in unison, and it’s not very effective. I really like “Stand Up Comedy;” it has great rhymes and either one of the best or one of the worst lyrics ever: “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.” Even if it is terrible, I think I still love it. “Get on Your Boots” is probably a bit deeper than it first appears, but is still fairly nonsensical and silly. Still, it’s a nice aggressive track to help break up a reflective album. “Fez” is the most experimental track, but features more of the full-band chanting that I don’t really dig.
The last section of the record really knocks it out of the park. “White as Snow” is told from the perspective of a soldier dying in the Afghan snow and his last words. He wonders if God could wipe his sins clean and forgive him. “Once I knew there was a love divine/Then came a time I thought it knew me not/Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not/Only the lamb as white as snow.” Taking on the motif of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” it’s a haunting and beautiful track—the band members’ voices take on a ghostly quality. This highly underrated song is one of U2’s very best. “Breathe” finds Bono singing in impressionistic verse inspired by a Cormac McCarthy book he was reading at the time, which means we get some really stupid lines, but I do like the lyric “I’m running down the road like loose electricity.” The closing track “Cedars of Lebanon” is absolutely, dead-stop amazing. Told from the perspective of a war correspondent, it’s one of the band’s most original and cynical songs. Bono “speaks” the lyrics, barely above a whisper, as if he’s letting us in on a secret. “This shitty worlds sometimes produces a rose/The scent of it lingers, but then it just goes.” Far from the worshipful praise the album opens with, the song exemplifies just how much variety U2 can manage to shove onto one CD; some of it is amazing, some of it head-scratching, but all of it is worth listening to.
7. BOY (1980)
The fact that U2’s stunning debut album doesn’t end up higher on the list is not a knock against it, but rather reveals just how stunning the band’s career has been. Still, as far as debut albums go, Boy is pretty high up there. It opens with the song that started it all, “I Will Follow.” The song perfectly captures the group’s incredible ability to ebb and flow from relentless rhythm to more introspective, ethereal flights of fancy, even on a single track. There’s a raw, unpolished edge here; something the group would be accused of abandoning later in its career. “An Cat Dubh” reveals a penchant for the hypnotic. With songs like “Into the Heart,” U2 showed it wasn’t afraid to dabble in experimental instrumentation. “Out of Control” is one song that helped to establish the group’s classic “sound,” and is a personal favorite of mine. Larry Mullen’s drumming is highlighted particularly well on “A Day Without Me,” and The Electric Co.” is also an album highlight. The songs of Boy flow into one another, creating a remarkably cohesive “album” sound. Oddities like “The Ocean” do little to drag it down. Its only flaw may be that some of the songs start to sound similar after a while, but their sum total creates a powerful mood that can’t be denied.
6. ALL THAT YOU CAN’T LEAVE BEHIND (2000)
After U2’s mixed 90’s experimentalism, All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a very welcome return to the things that made the band great in the first place. Marking the group’s second major reinvention, it features the clear bass lines, killer guitar riffs, clean rhythms and soft-but-powerful Bono crooning that put it on the map. And yet, this is not an album content with living in the past.
When L.A.-based radio station 100.3 The Sound asked its listeners to pick their favorite U2 songs, “Beautiful Day” came out on top. It’s easy to see why. Celebrating the beauty of living God’s creation, it’s an epic song with lyrics that literally travel around the world. The result is nothing short of transcendent. “Stuck in a Moment” is an exhortation to live a decent life; to enjoy the moments, big and small, that define it. It also celebrates the ways in which we touch each other. It’s stirring stuff, and shows off how great the band members are at vocal harmonies. It also reveals Bono’s reinvented voice; while he may not be able to reach the insanely powerful highs as he used to, he proves here that a soft whisper or subtle intonation can be just as powerful. “Walk On,” dedicated to Burmese activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is a true powerhouse track, an encouragement to persevere in the face of hardship. If you focus on “all that you can’t leave behind,” then you can “walk on” from this world unburdened by all the things that you can’t take with you anyway. I’ll admit to tearing up listening to “Kite” most times I hear it. It’s about “saying goodbye to someone you don’t want to say goodbye to,” Bono said during the 2001 tour. In this case, it was his father. It’s also about the large shadow that someone can cast upon our lives. But there’s also a hope of reunion. “I know that this is not goodbye,” Bono sings. The Edge called “Peace on Earth” the band’s bitterest song ever, but I sense a great hope that things can be better someday underneath the pain. It’s a sad, achingly beautiful track, one that affirms the immense power and importance of the individual life. I see “When I Look at the World” as a conversation with God. Bono asks what we see when we look at the world. Do we give into despair or hold out for hope? One day, might we be able to see the world not though man’s eyes, but as God sees it—clear and unblemished? “I can’t wait any longer/To see what you see/When I look at the world.”
Ending song “Grace” is both beautiful and important. It’s one of the clearest and most expressive reflections on God’s grace ever written. Grace is personified as “the name for a girl” but also “a thought that changed the world.” She’s got “the time to talk” and “travels outside of karma,” or man’s ways of thinking. And, ultimately, she heals us. “What left a mark/no longer stings/Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.” Silly, self-indulgent tracks like “Elevation,” “Wild Honey” and “New York” do little to drag down this wonderful, intimate, resplendent album.
5. THE UNFORGETTABLE FIRE (1984)
In case the album War wasn’t enough of an indication, The Unforgettable Fire proved that U2 was here to kick ass. And boy, did they ever. This thrilling album rocks hard. If War was grounded in gritty reality, Fire often floats toward the ethereal. This is made clear in the first track “A Sort of Homecoming.” “And the earth moves beneath your own dream landscape,” Bono sings. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” may be my single favorite U2 song. The lyrics highlight the difference “one man” can make “in the name of love,” showing that an act of love can change the world. The lyrics discuss Martin Luther King Jr. before moving onto Jesus Christ himself. It’s a powerful anthem that’s beyond inspiring. In songs like “Wire,” we sense Bono’s voice quaking with so much passion that it seems like it might give out completely, but it doesn’t His vocal control is unmatched, and I think his voice was never as powerful as it was here. “Bad” proves this further. The song is so good it almost defies comprehension and certainly categorization. It’s a yearning for spiritual transcendence, to “leave this heart of clay” and reach a place where “I’m Wide Awake/I’m not sleeping.” Bono’s rebellious scream is complemented perfectly by The Edge’s guitar, which sings out like a bell. “Elvis Presley and America” is a challenging track—it may be nonsensical or profound. Either way, it shows that the group was not interested in being “commercial” artists in the musical sense. Closing track “MLK” comes off like a haunting lullaby, soothing but with a sense of unease to it as well.
There are a few odd tracks here (“4th of July” is just an extended bass solo), but The Unforgettable Fire more than lives up to its title. It’s searingly memorable, and proof that U2 still had a lot of surprises up its sleeve.
4. ACHTUNG BABY (1991)
I’m not sure the world was quite ready for Achtung Baby when it released in 1991. Marking the band’s first major reinvention, this is a wild, insane, brilliant album, with a staggering amount of variety that leaves it feeling remarkably fresh and exciting even today. When making the album, U2 expressed interest in getting as far away from the sound of Joshua Tree as possible, and they succeeded without sacrificing everything that makes them so great.
“Zoo TV” reveals a more minimalist U2, but also a more stylish one. The grungy introduction indicates that there’s a very different band in town. Bono’s distorted vocals offer a different kind of mesmerizing from what the world had heard before. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” confirms a startling fact—U2 can be really sexy. This is probably one of the more sensual rock albums ever made, if in sound more than lyrics. “One” is easily one of their best, a bittersweet ode to the ways love can simultaneously build us up and break us down. The lyrics continue to show off the expert balance between the epic and the breathtakingly intimate. Sometimes, they can be one and the same. I used to hate “Until the End of the World,” but now I see it as one of U2’s more rewarding songs—not to mention it sounds amazing, with some of The Edge’s best guitar work ever. Its subtext is a conversation between Jesus and Judas, his eventual betrayer. The concept is potent and absolute genius. “Baby” goes on to showcase the album’s variety—every song here feels different and unique. The sensual longing that tracks throughout the album continues on the underrated “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” “The Fly” is a clever critique of the group’s own superstardom. It features a man having a conversation with himself (or perhaps with the devil). The lyrics feature multiple conversations singing in unison. “Mysterious Ways” is the album’s high point, proving that “fun” U2 can be every bit as awesome as “profound” U2. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” shows the band’s penchant for bizarre wordplay. It features the immortal lyric “A woman needs a man/Like a fish needs a bicycle,” definitely one of the group’s funniest lines. “Ultraviolet” is a beautiful song about the redeeming power of love. Bono could be singing to a woman here, but more likely, he is singing to God. “Your love was a lightbulb hanging over my bed.” “Acrobat” seems to be a song decrying relativism and hypocrisy. “I’d join the movement, if there was one I could believe in.” “Love is Blindness” adds an ominous organ. Eerie and haunting, the album ends on a somber note, eschewing the group’s previous practice of ending on a more hopeful tone. The Edge’s wailing guitar acts as a pointed question mark.
Achtung Baby is one of the more complex U2 albums, both lyrically and musically. It has inspired many conversations over the years over whether its songs are more religious or sensual in nature. I wonder why they can’t be both. Oftentimes, our relationship with God can only be personified in earthly love, something we tend to be more familiar with. And the Bible itself contains all that “bride” language when talking about the church. If you see the album as a shallower celebration of excess, that’s fine. But I think there’s something much deeper, and more unforgettable here for those who are really looking.
3. HOW TO DISMANTLE AN ATOMIC BOMB (2004)
I’m always a bit baffled when I hear people criticize U2’s post-millennial output as being too commercial or too artistically safe or just, all in all, not very good. Clearly those people did not really take How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb seriously. The album is a soul-stirring masterwork, filled with the kind of music that makes you want to be a better person. It’s also a true guitar album, and the result is an exquisite mix of the band’s older and newer styles, as well as lyrics that rank with its very best.
Vertigo is as dizzying and thrilling of an opening song as that on any U2 album. It has all the complex rhythms and powerful guitar work we’ve come to expect, as well as some great lyrics that are very much left open to interpretation. Rather than make a club song, this song actually takes place in a club, or so we’re led to believe. I think it could be a metaphor for purgatory. It’s a very cool song. Backed by a killer guitar riff, “Miracle Drug” is an excellent track about the strength of love that sets the inspirational tone for the album. It was apparently inspired by the Irish author Christopher Nolan, a man paralyzed with cerebral palsy who was given a drug that allowed him to move his neck. He eventually learned to type using his head, and ended up being quite the poet. It has some incredible lines about the desire to be inside the mind of someone you love to “see your thoughts take shape and walk right out.” “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own,” dedicated to Bono’s father, is a passionate call for reconciliation. It reflects on the power of love despite the power our loved ones often have to hurt us as well. Bono’s voice is more sensitive and passionate than it’s ever been, and the result is deeply emotional. “Love and Peace or Else” shows that despite the sensitive tracks, the band is still very much interested in rocking. I don’t think any U2 album is complete without an anti-war song, and this one is fantastic. It’s got a nice build-up and a really gritty sound. “City of Blinding Lights” is an all-around great song—the stadium anthem the group so desperately needed at this point in its career. Thanks especially to some beautiful piano work, it’s definitely a song to lift your lighter to. The Edge’s guitar work at the start of “All Because of You” makes me happy, but so to the lyrics, which seem to suggest that God is the one who can restore us when we fall. “I’m not broke but you can see the cracks/You can make me perfect again.” “A man and a Woman” is a heartfelt ode to romantic fidelity, with the great lyric “I could never take a chance/At losing love to find romance/In the mysterious distance/Between a man and a woman.” I also love the acoustic guitar work, and there’s a vulnerability to Bono’s lyrics that is truly mesmerizing.
“Crumbs From Your Table” features another great Edge introductory riff, and Larry Mullen’s drumming is particularly outstanding here. It’s a critique of first-world nations offering “the crumbs from your table” when giving relief aid to nations in need. That message is backed by the powerful line “Where you live should not decide/Whether you live or whether you die.” “One Step Closer” is a gorgeous, subtle song about holding on to hope in the midst of chaos. It’s also about coming to terms with the fact that we can’t know everything. “Original of the Species” was apparently written to The Edge’s daughter, but it’s more generally an encouragement to young people to be themselves in a culture that praises conformity. It’s also got some great string accompaniment. “Yahweh” is, obviously, about God. It’s a moving and emotional prayer as the singer asks God to guide his direction: “Take this soul, and make it sing.” The lyric “This love is like a drop in the ocean” is a picture of how deep and how wide God’s love is for us. Even the so-called bonus track, “Fast Cars,” kicks ass here. It’s a pure adrenaline shot, relentlessly paced and bolstered by a cool Middle Eastern sound. The wordplay here is top-notch, but so fast it’s hard to catch it all in one listen. It’s about holding onto what matters in the midst of our information-overloaded culture. It’s a pure blast, one of U2’s most underrated songs for sure.
Atomic Bomb is one of those albums you keep thinking has given you its best, until the next song starts. Every song here hits, either in its creative instrumentation or its insanely brilliant lyrics. There is not one second of this stellar album that fails to knock it out of the park. I could go on about it all day, but when I think of the definition of a “great” album, some of these songs start playing in my head.
2. WAR (1983)
While we’re on the subject of what defines a “great” album, my working definition is one where no song feels inessential. I think you could maybe have an album with a few misses that could still be considered great, but it has been rare for me. Albums should, first and foremost, be a cohesive whole, one where each song builds off of the previous one and contributes something meaningful. It’s a hard thing to do, which is why it’s so mind-boggling that U2’s third studio album did this so perfectly. The album that rocketed the band into the stratosphere, this is as deep, fun, thrilling, heartbreaking and memorable as rock music gets.
What really strikes me about War is how much passion is put into every song. These are musicians that had something to say and knew exactly how to say it. Yes, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is overplayed, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is amazing. U2’s passion for social justice comes shining through here, as the band decries the infamous massacre of Irish protestors by British soldiers. The lyrics are biting and convicting, the kind designed to jolt the listener out of apathy: “We eat and drink, while tomorrow they die.” But, as always, the lyrics move beyond criticism as they hope “to claim the victory Jesus won.” “Seconds” is a great early indication of how well the band members could sing together using vocal harmonies. “New Year’s Day” might be even more overplayed than “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” but it still remains a great track—it’s a showcase for how effortlessly they pair the achingly intimate with the grandly epic. It’s also gets to show off The Edge’s clean, searing guitar solo, one of my favorites. This album does a great job of letting us notice what an underrated bass player Adam Clayton is as well; his clear, expressive lines are the driving force behind the tunes here, but they never overpower any of the band’s other elements. His part on this song remains one of his best. “Like a Song” is a great introduction to how soulful Bono’s voice could get—we hear the breathless but powerful desperation in the cry “Is there nothing left?” “Drowning Man” is a haunting track that drops some scripture on us: Isaiah 40:31, specifically. “Rise up, rise up with wings like eagles/You run, you run/You run and not grow weary.” It’s an encouragement to hold on in the midst of a relentless tide: “Hold on, hold on tightly/Hold on, and don’t let go of my love.” It’s powerful stuff.
“The Refugee” easily makes my list of all-time great U2 songs; thrilling doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s electric. And that cowbell…oh man, it’s good stuff. The refugee in the song dreams of a better life in America: “Her mama say one day she’s gonna live in America.” “Two Hearts Beat As One” lays out U2’s repeated theme of reconciliation—of reaching out across divides and finding common ground, even amidst confusion and disagreement. “Red Light” has some amazing harmonies, featuring female background singers and even a trumpet solo. “Surrender” is a suitably epic climax—taking the musical themes introduced throughout the album and brilliantly smashing them together. The album’s powerful coda is “40,” a recitation of Psalm 40. It’s undeniably inspiring and powerful, but the true gut punch comes in the ending. The singer recognizes that repeating scripture isn’t enough to alleviate the pain he sees in the world. He knows he must move beyond it, but sometimes he is powerless. He wonders, “How long to sing this song?” The album leaves us pondering that question.
War is pretty much a perfect album. Every song has meaning, both musically and lyrically, and each one contributes to the sum total effect of the work. It’s powerful in ways the group hasn’t ever fully replicated, although they’ve certainly come close. Words can’t really do it justice, and so I’m going to stop trying.
1. THE JOSHUA TREE (1987)
When I think of the quintessential U2 album, I think of TheJoshua Tree. It represents everything good about the band and nothing bad. It also happens to be one of the best albums ever made. I can’t think of a single criticism to level against it. How many albums can you really say that about?
“Where the Streets Have No Name” may be the best opening to an album ever. The song builds for two minutes before Bono’s vocals slide into the track. The right word for the song is epic, far beyond anything U2 had attempted before. It’s a patented effort to convey every single emotion in a concentrated 5 ½ minutes. What turns a great song into a legendary one is the fact that it nearly succeeds. The song smoothly transitions into the intimate soul searching of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which contains one of the most beautiful and pure lyrics in rock history. “You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame/Of my shame, you know I believe it/But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” Everything great about U2 is present in this song. “With or Without You” wraps up one of the most incredible three-song sets in the history of rock. After Bono’s high-pitched wails on The Unforgettable Fire, it’s nice to hear him exploring his lower register here, and he does so expertly. The singer here is tortured, singing about someone he can’t live with or without. It’s a song that can be interpreted in a million different ways, without anyone actually being wrong. That’s what great art can do; no matter the intention of the artist, their creation will impact everyone differently. I’ve read amazing Christian interpretations of the song, but you don’t have to read into any religious connotations to recognize its brilliance. In case you thought the band was going too soft, “Bullet the Blue Sky” brings back its guttural, gritty energy roaring back, featuring The Edge’s groaning, overwhelming guitar and Bono’s unique spoken dialogue. This immediately transitions into the soft acoustic sound of “Running to Stand Still.” It features a killer harmonica part, and makes clear the album’s themes of the tension between spiritual stagnation and the possibility of running after something greater.
“Red Hill Mining Town,” apparently about the U.K. miner’s strike of 1984, is also a beautiful reflection of a man “wound by fear, injured in doubt.” There is something broken in the man that needs fixing. He cries out, “I’m hanging on/You’re all that’s left to hold on to.” “In God’s Country” is another highlight, with one of my favorite lyrics. “I stand with the sons of Cain/Burned by the fire of love.” The indecisiveness of the narrator continues in “Trip Through Your Wires,” this time about a woman. Is the woman who “put me back together” an “angel or a devil?” She was kind but trapped him in her “wires.” “One Tree Hill” is apparently named after an island in New Zealand, but I think it’s a larger reflection on the fact that there is only one place we can truly call home, wherever it may be. However, that home can be hard to find for a restless spirit. “We run like a river runs to the see/ We run like a river to the sea.” “Exit” is told in a haunting whisper. Bono has said it’s about a religious man who becomes dangerous. He “wanted to believe in the hands of love,” but he ends up with a gun in his pocket. What he chooses to do with that gun is not explained, but it ends on the haunting lyric, “So hands that build/Can also pull down/The hands of love.” “Mothers of the Disappeared” is a haunting final track, a somber meditation on loss. “Midnight, our sons and daughters/were cut down and taken from us/Hear their heartbeat/We hear their heartbeat.” Like the album itself, the song is so beautiful it almost defies comprehension.
The Joshua Tree ends on a similar note of insecurity and longing as the beginning, but, along the way, we feel we’ve learned something indescribably beautiful and essential about ourselves. There is no person this album would not speak to on some level, even though it may speak to everyone differently at different points in their lives. This, above all else, is ultimately what makes The Joshua Tree the greatest U2 album. It’s essential listening for anyone with a heartbeat.
*All quotes and citations used in this post are from the excellent songfacts.com.*
“For beauty I will gladly feed my life into the mouths of rainbows, their technicolor teeth cutting prisms and smiling benevolently on the pallid hue of the working class hero.”-From the Supermodel album cover
Rock music is no stranger to songwriters who double as modern-day prophets. From Bob Dylan to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin to Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, U2, Pearl Jam and Mumford & Sons, one could argue that many truly memorable modern songwriters have a bit of the gift of prophecy indwelling within them.
The latest and, for my money, most refreshing addition to that tradition comes from an unexpected source. The alternative rock band Foster the People already put themselves on the map with their first album “Torches,” spearheaded by the effervescent, catchy and deceptively dark single “Pumped up Kicks.” But it’s their second album, Supermodel, released in March, that truly catches the prophetic imagination in unique and sometimes startling ways. If it appeared that Foster was headed toward instant super-stardom, their sophomore effort will likely perplex or even anger some fans of their earlier work; and that’s just one reasons why Supermodel is one of the most complex, challenging and, yes, prophetic works of art to emerge from contemporary rock music in quite a long time.
In discussing the prophetic tradition, it’s important to define what we mean by “prophetic.” In the history of humanity, prophecy goes back a long way. Nostradamus made prophecy chic in the 15th century, but the most famous examples of prophecy stem from the biblical Old Testament prophets, in particular Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.
Prophetic voices may differ on the source of their inspiration, but one thing they all share is a dissatisfaction with their surrounding culture. Often, this leads to a warning, an exhortation that if we do not change the course we have set for ourselves (and, in the biblical example, turn ourselves toward God), calamity in some form will ensue. “As I live, declares the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, o house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).
In that same vein, modern prophetic songwriters write lyrics that dream of a better world, that convey a dissatisfaction with the way things are and perhaps even dream of ways we can make things better.
The thrilling thing about Foster is that their prophetic voice is often filtered through the explicit language of old-school biblical prophecy. Their vision is uncompromising, sometimes even impenetrable upon first listen. Such an approach can be off-putting but, much like the prophets of the Old Testament, their message is profound and well worth exerting a bit of intellectual effort for.
That effort is put into overdrive on Supermodel’s first track, “Are You What You Want to Be?” which finds the band experimenting with Afro-Cuban inspired chants and drum beats. Any illusion that the band is gunning for another easy-listening, radio-friendly hit is shattered by lead singer Mark Foster’s staggered lyric. “The right words in the hands of dissidents with the fire/Will rip apart the marrow from the bone of the liars/Well I’m afraid of saying too much and ending a martyr/But even more so I’m afraid to face God and say I was a coward, yeah.” The song speaks of waiting for “revolution,” which, in the spirit of prophecy, is a very anti-establishment thing to say.
But what exactly is Foster rebelling against? Foster gives us an idea in a revealing interview with the L.A. Times.
“For me, a lot of the record is about Western culture, consumerism and the ugly side of capitalism,” Foster says. “I don’t want to hit you over the head with it, but those are the major topics. One thing I find really interesting is our worship of celebrity or politicians. We love to put people on pedestals. Look at reality shows. These people become giant stars. I find that fascinating. ‘Supermodel,’ for me, represents the age we are living in.”
Foster’s revolution may be cloaked in violent language, but their desire appears to be to increase understanding, creating a quiet revolution by rejecting the vanity inherent in the cult of celebrity and instead focusing on the “biggest question,” and it all starts with deciding “Are you what you want to be?”
The band’s philosophical inquiry grows more explicit in perhaps the album’s high point: “Ask Yourself.” The song suggests that we can’t do our part in making the world a better place if we resign ourselves to simply dream big; being who we want to be takes something more. “And you say that dreamers always get what they desire/But I’ve found the more I want the less I’ve got/Is this the life you’ve been waiting for/Or are you hoping that you’ll be where you want with a little more?” The subject of the song “Never needed the proof/Just followed the rules,” but found that “I’m always falling behind/Just floating the lines.”
But human endeavors to improve ourselves can only take us so far, if “Coming of Age” is any indication. In the prophetic tradition, Foster says that we cannot find true peace within ourselves because we are, in so many words, wicked. In biblical prophecy, this condition is more directly referred to as “sin,” a concept songwriters have been utterly fascinated with ever since the first guitar chord was struck. If anything, it’s a bitter answer to the last song’s charge that hard work alone leads to improvement. “You know I’ve tried to live without regrets/I’m always moving forward and not looking back/But I tend to leave a trail of dead while I’m moving ahead.” Lyrics like this are a rejection of philosophies like Buddhism, which say that we can reach salvation (or at least inner peace) by searching within ourselves. Our default state is failure after failure after failure; and such seemingly fruitless striving can take its toll.
The eerie “Never Mind” serves as the band’s rejection of moral relativism, or the idea that an absolute “Truth” is unobtainable and therefore not worth pursuing. “You have your truth and I have mine,” as the mantra goes. Foster expresses his confusion over this muddled philosophical view. “Yeah it’s hard to know the truth/In this post-modernist view/Where absolutes are seen as relics/And laughed out of the room/And I’m scared to say your name.” The band is concerned about a culture where they fear to even mention God’s name due to the fact that they may offend someone whose “truth” doesn’t cop to the idea of a deity.
In the album’s trippiest track, the seemingly drug-induced fever dream “Pseudologia Fantastica,” the band goes further in calling out post-modernist thought as “Another weekend massacre of opinion” before calling to memory some of the most powerful and challenging words Jesus Christ ever spoke. “Don’t be afraid of the knife/Sometimes you have to cut the limb to survive.” In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus was referring metaphorically to cutting off anything in our lives that may cause us to sin; Foster seem to be referencing a more philosophical rejection of anything or anyone that sacrifices a desire for ultimate truth on the altar of opinion.
“A Beginner’s Guide to Destroying the Moon” offers the band’s most challenging lyrics, as well as the deepest philosophical subtexts. It’s here where their use of direct biblical language is most obvious. Foster goes directly after those phony people who do things for show and talk about nothing but trivial matters. I’m coming for you giants and your liars and your chariots of fire/You charmers with your anecdotes have started to show your true colors.” The language gets even more old-school. “We’ve been crying for a leader to speak like the old prophets/ The blood of the forgotten wasn’t spilled without a purpose, or was it?” It seems to me that Foster is clamoring for more prophetic voices to speak the truths that no one else wants to hear. Looking at the history of prophetic music, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lack of people with wisdom to impart, but, rather, a lack of reception from the people who need to not only hear their messages, but be transformed by them.
The album’s last two songs drive its message home powerfully. “The Truth” reaffirms the idea that there is a Truth (singular) even while “floating within your walls of opinion.” The song goes on: “There is a Truth, there is a light if you’d follow me there/I’ve been searching for the directions and/I’m convinced the world doesn’t know what it needs/There is a hope for the hopeless/I can promise you that.” The band again takes the emphasis off of our own actions to “discover” what life means, and rejects the idea that the object of our searching is forever out of reach. “The truth stands in the end/While you’re deciding what to do.”
The soft, pleasant acoustic album closer “Fire Escape” is actually the album’s most bitterly ironic song. It’s an outraged cry to the band’s hometown of L.A., a place of “pimps and prostitutes” who “wave you down at stopping signs.” Foster sings, “Los Angeles, I’ve been waiting for you/To pick yourself up and change.” The song repeats the refrain: “Save yourself, save yourself, yourself.” Of course, the city can’t save itself from its wickedness, just as we can’t save ourselves from ours. When the troubles of this world turn on the heat, we think we can jump out of the fire escape unsinged, but the rest of the album has shown that attempting to save ourselves is a fruitless exercise that leads to pain and defeat. So, the biggest question the album leaves us with is, if we can’t save ourselves, who can?
Supermodel is already an underrated album critically, mostly because it does not feature a catchy radio-friendly counterpart to “Pumped up Kicks.” That’s a great song, and Torches is a great album, but Supermodel takes the listener to places I never thought they could go. Not every song is immediately catchy, but every song is, in its own way, essential to the band’s inspiring contribution to the imagination of the prophetic voice.
In a philosophical slap in the face to most popular music, Foster the People says things are not okay, we are not okay, and our post-modern culture’s search for ultimate meaning is so grounded in the individual self (just think of all the popular songs that seem to find ultimate meaning in romantic love) that it has lost nearly all of its value. Mark Foster contemplated this as the band’s popularity grew. He told the L.A. Times, “I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with no kitchen. I lived paycheck to paycheck. Then suddenly my life changed. We had people helping us. We had money. We could see the world. I traveled and saw how other people lived, and it left me brokenhearted.”
“I felt guilty for how my life had changed.”
Our culture places a high priority on finding a truth, but belittles the idea of the Truth, with a capital T. What is that bigger Truth, and what is our part to play in it? I believe that bigger Truth rests in God himself, and I have a sneaking suspicion Foster does as well. Nevertheless, a culture that refuses to even ask that question is living blindfolded, stumbling around in the dark and headed for self-destruction. And, if we find out someday that Mark Foster was correct, and we chose to ignore his pleas, at least he can be comforted by the fact that no one ever listened to Ezekiel, either.
I’m convinced there’s only one way to spell the word beatle. Microsoft Word is telling me it’s wrong, but how could it be? There’s only one way that word can be used, and it’s to describe the band that changed the way we communicate.
Fifty years ago, on Feb. 9, 1964, the British pop band The Beatles came to America for the first time when they played on TheEd Sullivan Show. It’s impossible to overstate what that moment would mean to the history of popular western music.
On Sunday, CBS aired a stunning tribute to the band called The Night That Changed America: A Grammy salute to The Beatles. A variety of pop stars, from Stevie Wonder to Ed Sheeran to Imagine Dragons, played their own interpretations of classic Beatles songs. But one of the most striking moments for me was when Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters, said, “Without The Beatles, I wouldn’t be a musician.” Some day, I imagine, the next generation of musicians will be saying the same thing about Dave Grohl.
I can safely say, as a music fan, without The Beatles, I wouldn’t be a music lover. I play the trumpet, and the musical influences that have shaped my ear are too myriad to print here. But I’ve never forgotten that my eclectic tastes point back to one source.
This poster of Abbey Road, my favorite Beatles album, will forever occupy prime real estate on my poster-covered wall.
I have to thank my dad for introducing me to The Beatles (among many other of my all-time favorites), but, unlike many older fans, I don’t remember hearing them for the first time. In my world, they have always existed; they have always been timeless. I can’t remember having not heard nearly any of their songs. This speaks so directly to the group’s widespread influence, that a typical ‘90s kid is as familiar with their body of work as someone who experienced their music afresh while growing up.
But why is the music of The Beatles still seem so new, so enduring? What makes them stand out over their contemporaries? The radio station 100.3 The Sound played an amazing set of the “top 50 Beatles songs of all time” on Sunday (as voted by listeners). A DJ on the station said that “The Beatles introduced art to popular songwriting.” Now, there had certainly been popular rock n’ roll artists before The Beatles: Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, etc. But art as The Sound used it is, I think, more akin to appreciating a favorite painting in a gallery.
Popular music had made us feel before, but not like this. A song like Let it Be or A Day in the Life cause us to feel not just an emotion, but the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience. Never before had rock allowed us to feel hope and despair and outrage and love, often at the same time.
In an interview with David Letterman on that CBS special, Ringo Starr said that the reason he thought The Beatles were so successful because they could play anything; they were never confined to one genre. And, looking through the Lennon-McCartney songbook, it’s easy to agree. The Sound’s top 50 songs include aching love ballads (And I Love Her, If I Fell, Yesterday), nonsensical flights of fancy (I am the Walrus, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) and epic, transcendent odysseys (Strawberry Fields Forever, Golden Slumbers Medley).
While everyone has their personal favorite Beatles songs (Hey Jude was number one on this countdown), it’s tough to argue that any particular “style” of song is superior to another. It seems to be a matter of preference. In other words, The Beatles have something for everyone.
During the countdown, I noticed that many of the Fab Four’s most haunting songs involve looking (often focused on the lover’s gaze). Think of I Want You (She’s so Heavy), You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, I Saw Her Standing There, Something and Eleanor Rigby. Isn’t that appropriate for a band that has changed so much about the way we see?
Speaking of seeing, we’ve never seen anything like The Beatles—never has a “popular” band so expertly mixed politics and pop culture, rage and romance, coolness and controversy—and we never will again. I don’t think we want to.