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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Top 10 2016

A bit later than usual and in no particular order, these are the albums I've most enjoyed listening to in 2016:

'You Want It Darker could be addressed to fans pining for a return to [Leonard] Cohen’s bleakest songwriting; or a lover, or a higher power. As befits a lifelong spiritual seeker, born into a storied Jewish family, but well versed in scripture and Buddhism, the love songs have religious overtones, and the spiritual passages pack a lover’s passion.'

'Featuring production by M. Ward and boasting songwriting credits from Nick Cave, Neko Case, Justin Vernon, and others, Mavis Staples' Livin' on a High Note is a happy record. Its beneficent energy is refreshing after the cloistered prayer of last year’s Your Good Fortune and two thoughtful Jeff Tweedy-produced records.'

Coulson, Dean, McGuiness, Flint - Lo and Behold: 'Cynical ("Open the Door Homer") and idealistic ("The Death of Emmett Till"), self-pitying ("Sign on the Cross") and self-reliant ("Let Me Die in My Footsteps"), but always tough and intelligent. And let us not forget funny.'

Violent Femmes - We Can Do Anything: 'This is an instantly familiar mix of anti-folk, post-punk, phantasmagorical country and alternative rock, delivered via an equally recognisable blend of raw acoustic guitars, thrumming acoustic bass and rattling snare, garnished with Gano’s petulant whine ... It’s classic Gano – simultaneously funny, transgressive and deeply unsettling.'

Gregory Porter - 'Take Me to the Alley sounds fantastic, but that’s down to the warm spontaneity of an album that seems to have been recorded in six days. His own compositions proudly display his gospel roots – not the first genre you’d think of flaunting were you desperate for mainstream success. The title track offers up a parable about the second coming of Christ, its sternness at odds with the pacific piano playing and Alicia Olatuja’s pillowy backing vocals; In Heaven undercuts the small hours loveliness of its muted trumpet with a lyric by Porter’s cousin about death and redemption.'

Van Morrison: 'In his 70th year, the singer has created an album that’s not only one of his most gorgeous, but also one of his most humble. Keep Me Singing glows with soft, quiet ballads, kissed by strings and lilting with keyboards. Hard blues, soul and R&B take a back seat to pop tunes with an elegant turn. Some of the lyrics may deal with the pain of pining but they’re delivered with unfiltered vulnerability.'

Low - Ones & Sixes: 'The spectre of apocalypse has often lingered on the fringes of Low’s music. Their 11th record sounds as if the cataclysm has finally been, leaving a reeling dystopia in its wake. “Gentle” opens with frayed industrial drums and profoundly deep synthetic bass, the effect conjuring an army trudging across a snowy wilderness. You’d imagine Trent Reznor or Tim Hecker to have produced. Similarly, “The Innocents” shudders gravely as Parker intones, “All you innocents better run for it.” Throughout, she and Sparhawk seem to turn their regrets and sacrifices into warnings for those who can still run.'

Michael McDermott - Willow Springs: 'It opens with the autobiographical and confessional six minute plus title track, McDermott in full alliteration-heavy early Dylan mode, before moving on to the uptempo strum, gospel handclaps and tumbling chords of These Last Few Days, an acknowledgement of his self-destructive past that manages to namecheck Judas, Godot and Sisyphus as he sings about having “a tourniquet around my heart to keep it from falling apart.”'

Deacon Blue - Believers: '[Ricky] Ross says, “This album is about the journey we all take into the dark. You come to that point in your life where – whatever you’ve been told, whatever the evidence you’ve been presented with – you just don’t know what the answer is. At which point you can only rely on instincts of your heart. You either take the leap or you don’t.”'

George Harrison - 'The heart of All Things Must Pass resides in its songs of spiritual acceptance. The title was thought to refer, among other things, to Harrison's former band, the likely subject also of the elegiac "Isn't It a Pity." The haunting "Beware of Darkness" suggests the inner fears -- "The hopelessness around you in the dead of night" -- that Harrison's religious searching was meant to calm. And "Awaiting on You All," the title track and "My Sweet Lord" (for which Harrison was successfully sued for "subconsciously" plagiarizing the Chiffons' "He's So Fine") capture the sweet satisfactions of faith.'

And here are the books I've most enjoyed reading:

The Blind Man with the Lamp, originally published in Greek in 1983, is the first English translation of a complete collection of poetry by [Tasos] Leivaditis. A pioneering book of prose-poems, Leivaditis here gives powerful voice to a post-war generation divested of ideologies and illusions, imbued with the pain of loss and mourning, while endlessly questing for something wholly other, indeed for the holy Other.

Born in the heart of Cornwall’s China Clay Country poet, Jack Clemo (1916-94) was one of the most extraordinary poets of the twentieth century. Luke Thompson has published the first full length biography of Jack Clemo, entitled Clay Phoenix. Luke’s biography reveals Clemo’s life and writing in a new light, showing how Clemo used the china clay mining country as a metaphor for his faith and his disease.

The Third Inkling by Grevel Lindop offers a fascinating and completely new view of the shadowy figure of poet, theologian, magician and, fantasy-writer Charles Williams. Charles Williams—novelist, poet, theologian, magician and guru—was the strangest, most multi-talented, and most controversial member of the Inklings.

A vibrant critical exchange between contemporary art and Christianity is being increasingly prompted by an expanding programme of art installations and commissions for ecclesiastical spaces. Rather than 'religious art' reflecting Christian ideology, current practices frequently initiate projects that question the values and traditions of the host space, or present objects and events that challenge its visual conventions. In the light of these developments, Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art by Jonathan Koestlé-Cate asks what conditions are favourable to enhancing and expanding the possibilities of church-based art, and how can these conditions be addressed?

Merton and Friends: A Joint Biography of Thomas Merton, Robert Lax and Edward Rice by James Harford. Thomas Merton, Robert Lax, and Edward Rice were college buddies who became life-long friends, literary innovators, and spiritual iconoclasts. Their friendship and collaboration began at Columbia College in the 1930s and reached its climax in the widely acclaimed magazine, which ran from 1953 to 1967, a year before Merton's death.

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax tells the story of Merton's best friend and early spiritual inspiration. Written by a close friend of Lax, Pure Act gives an intimate view of a friendship and a life that affected Merton in profound ways. It was Lax, a daringly original poet himself, who encouraged Merton to begin writing poetry and Lax who told him he should desire to be a saint rather than just a Catholic. To the end of Merton's life, Lax was his spiritual touchstone and closest friend.

The Courage for Truth: The Letters of Thomas Merton - Famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton corresponded with an extraordinary range of writers, among them Evelyn Waugh, Henry Miller, Jacques Maritain, Walker Percy and William Carlos Williams. He spoke out boldly against political oppression, social injustice, racism and nuclear weapons, and expressed solidarity with Boris Pasternak, Czeslaw Milosz and James Baldwin. His letters to Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and to Argentine feminist Victoria Ocampo reflect his deep love of Latin American culture. Spanning the years from 1948 to Merton's death in 1968, this fourth volume of his correspondence shows the crystallization of his belief that speaking the truth is an obligation which ultimately brings persons of integrity into confrontation with power structures and vested interests.

In Modern Art and the Life of Culture Anderson and Dyrness bring their different backgrounds together to argue that modernist art is underwritten by deeply religious concerns. They assert that there were actually strong religious impulses that positively shaped modern visual art. Instead of affirming a pattern of decline and growing antipathy towards faith, the authors contend that theological engagement and inquiry can be perceived across a wide range of modern art and through particular works by artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, David Jones, Caspar David Friedrich, van Gogh, Kandinsky, Warhol and many others.

An engaging, moving, and surprisingly light-hearted account of a life that had its share of sorrow, Lucky to Be an Artist by Unity Spencer is an account of an unconventional family and the birth of an artist, as well as the tale of a woman who refused to be held back by early trauma and insisted on forging her own artistic path.

I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era by Greg Kot is the untold story of living legend Mavis Staples—lead singer of the Staple Singers and a major figure in the music that shaped the civil rights era. One of the most enduring artists of popular music, Mavis and her talented family fused gospel, soul, folk, and rock to transcend racism and oppression through song. Honing her prodigious talent on the Southern gospel circuit of the 1950s, Mavis and the Staple Singers went on to sell more than 30 million records, with message-oriented soul music that became a soundtrack to the civil rights movement—inspiring Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.


Violent Femmes - Holy Ghost.

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