I was sitting backstage with Jill Phillips on the Behold The Lamb of God tour when she said, “Well, it’s about that time–time for the end of the year ‘best of’ lists to start popping up.”
And since Jill brought it up, I thought it might be fun to ask my Rabbit Roommates to submit their favorite movies, music, and books lists. To ring in the new year we look back for a moment (so I can make a list of movies, books, and music to buy with all my Christmas loot). After reading ours, share your own list with us:
So Beautiful or So What – Paul Simon
This is my favorite record of 2011. (I wrote a review here.) I’ve turned to this record and its life-giving reflections on love and tenderness over and over throughout the year. Favorite tracks: “Rewrite” and “Love And Hard Times.”
Invisible Empires – Sara Groves
Sara’s one of the best lyricists out there. This collection of songs is at once deeply personal and globally philosophical. Topics range from the miracle of forgiveness in our most intimate relationships to questions of modernity. This is one of her best records, I think, and that’s saying a lot. It’s healing music. It also offers one of the most naked glimpses into the heart of a woman with the song “Finite” written by Sara and Jill Phillips. Favorite Tracks: “Miracle” and “Open My Hands.”
The Cymbal Crashing Clouds – Ben Shive
When I listen to this record, I have the pleasure of experiencing a person doing exactly what God has made them to do. At turns smart and poignant, Ben’s love of the Beach Boys, alternative indie pop, and Vince Guaraldi combine in a way that he makes sound effortless. Ben also collaborated with the boy who did the artwork to make a delightfully illustrated companion book filled with lyrics, Shel Silverstein-esque drawings, and beautiful essays written about each song. The combination of the book and the CD make for the kind of project that I consider a small miracle that it even exists, and it’s extravagant feast of creativity and grace to be celebrated. Ever since I heard the first song on this record, the sound of a train whistle parts the sullen, muted veil of this world and heralds a Kingdom beyond and breaking through this one. Favorite tracks: “Listen” and one of my all time favorite songs, “A Last Time For Everything.”
In This Hour – Jill Phillips
I think I experience this as Jill’s most personal record yet. It’s beautiful and so intimate with details that invite us into her heart. The album opens with a gem of a pop song, “Show Up,” and from there “Find A Way” plunges into the deep end of marital commitment in the face of all that can make that so difficult. “This bed is an ocean / we’re on opposite shores / I used to know my way across but I’m not sure anymore… I don’t know how to fix but I know there’s a way…” These songs are so full of the kind of grace that touches the deepest wounds that it takes a certain kind of courage to listen to because of how it can bring you present to either the grace you need or the grace you could give to someone else. “…everyone thought that suddenly you changed / but you’ve been walking down this road for many years / when you hate the person you’ve become you think the world does too / I’m not trying to make up some excuse / but I can see how it happened…” Favorite Tracks: “Find A Way” and “If You Were Here.”
Mylo Xyloto – Coldplay
My kids have discovered a love for music in a deeper way this year, and Coldplay rose through the ranks to become one of their favorites and a rock band that we all enjoy. Mylo Xyloto may not be my favorite Coldplay record, but the anticipation of its release with my sons and our shared enjoyment of it make it one of my favorite music experiences of the year. Favorite Tracks: “Charlie Brown” and “Paradise.”
Bad As Me – Tom Waits
Though my favorite Waits record may always be Mule Variations, I think this one is his best in many years and a worthy entry in his always strange and often beautiful catalog. More than writing just songs, Waits conjures characters and then sings songs from inside of them. Favorite Tracks: “Bad As Me” and “Pay Me.”
There were so many more movies that I wanted to see this year, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Here’s a list of a few I did see and enjoyed:
Punch Drunk Love
I’ve had this on my must see list for years and finally got around to it in November. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) and a poignant and unlikely leading role for Adam Sandler (don’t let that scare you away, it’s not an Adam Sandler movie), I loved this film. The use of the song “He Needs Me” from the old Popeye movie was brilliant and the kind of thing that I love about Anderson’s genius.
In my mind, George Clooney’s best role and one of the most moving stories of forgiveness and coming alive that I’ve seen a long time.
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II
I feel sheepish including this one because of it’s ubiquity, but I and my family thoroughly enjoyed this movie.
The Best Worst Movie
A Documentary about Troll 2 that Andrew Peterson introduced me to and that we watched on the bus during the Christmas tour. It’s delightfully weird and even offers a revealing glimpse into human nature by the end.
Having grown up on the Muppets, I found this a delightful and often poignant return to a world of characters that I’ve always loved. How the Muppets manage to be both so unapologetically sincere and slyly subversive at the same time is a mystery that I enjoy thoroughly.
I’ve always been a fan and have read many of his books, but this was the year of Walt Wangerin Jr. catch up for me, and these are his books I read that deeply nourished me:
Miz Lil And The Chronicles of Grace – This is my new favorite Wangerin book. This book is made up of stories of the deconstruction of his faith from childhood to adolescence and the later rediscovery of it in his pastoral ministry. I either laughed or cried on nearly every page. Wangerin’s bravery is inspiring here as he shares stories where more often than not he is the fool or the villain. Beautiful.
As For Me And My House – Wangerin’s book about marriage is distinctive in that his pastoral and storytelling vocations combine to offer storied, humble wisdom about our most sacred relationship. More than a “how to” marriage book, it reads like a great story that you can’t put down. In Walt and Thanne’s story you may find your own.
The Manger Is Empty – Wangerin’s book of reflections around the idea of Advent. The chapter about his adopted son Matthew’s stealing problem and the moment that changed his heart is one of the clearest and most beautiful gospel moments I’ve ever read.
And speaking of Advent, our own Russ Ramsey’s Behold The Lamb Of God was the perfect travel guide to my advent season this year, full of insights that put me in the middle of the greatest story ever told.
I also reread C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy this year and LOVED it. Lewis’s understanding of sin as rejecting the good that is because it isn’t the good you hoped for began to shift continents of understanding in my heart.
The Muppet Movie – One of two movies I’ve seen in an actual theatre this year (Cars 2 being the other). So moving and funny that my four-year-old son vomited on my wife at the high point of the film. What I did get to see of Muppets was superb. I hope the gang got their $10 million. Maniacal laugh.
The Simpsons (on DVD) – Mock me if you must, but I still really like this show. After getting the boys to bed at night, I often watch an episode or two in those moments when I desperately need a good laugh. Which is, to say, often.
My Name is Asher Lev – Andrew Peterson recommended this book to me years ago, but only recently did I purchase a copy and read it. Originally published the year of my birth, I read and saw in this moving and poignant story a portion of myself and my own personal artist leanings. It did me much good.
In The Heart of the Sea – Nathaniel Philbrick is among my favorite living historians. He has a tremendous gift for writing narrative history (i.e., non-school-book style), especially on the topic of seafaring and whaling. An absolutely incredible story of whalers lost at sea for ninety days, and how/if they survive.
David Mead – Dudes – His music continues to slay me. I’m a geek of a fan. Though lyrically crude at times, “Dudes” seems to be a light at the end of a dark tunnel for David. This album is a return to David’s pop-rock leanings to which I was first introduced and fell in love with ten years ago. Mead has a gift that few possess: an uncanny ability to write maddeningly catchy melodies and hooks, along with an unmistakable voice to deliver said goods. “I Can’t Wait” is a prime example.
Ben Shive – The Cymbal Crashing Clouds – You may argue that I’m including this as a hidden form of suck-uppery to my producer (and friend), Ben Shive. I assure you I am, and am not. Here’s why: Ben has a musical mind that I simply cannot fathom, cannot often comprehend, cannot relate to at times, but stand (and listen) in awe of. He clearly knows what he’s doing, whether on piano or behind the production wheel. But, Ben is also very much a poet, an elder mind, and a clear thinker of great depth. I truly admire Ben; his pen, his wit, his mind, and his poet soul. Frankly, I wish he would contribute more to the Rabbit Room.
Movies (so far, but I haven’t seen all the Oscar contenders yet)
Drive: I loved this film and wish I could recommend it to everyone, but I can’t due to the violence. I loved its stillness, its existential movement, its beautiful picture of self-giving love, its humor, and its perfect twisting of convention.
Super 8: Yes, the monster was lame. But the acting was tremendous, the story was superb, and I left the theater wanting to make my own zombie movie.
The Descendants: A small film about the biggest questions. Some of the minor characters were lacking, and there is a storyline that never really develops, but I consistently believed the main characters. I felt like I was in the room with a real family, and I empathized with their anger, resentment, and heartbreak.
And yes, I saw Tree of Life, Melancholia, and The Help. And no, they are not on this list.
Books (that I read this year, not that came out this year)
The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene – The broken, incomplete, and triumphant glory of the Church lived out in the life of one drunken priest. Brought me to tears more than once.
Empire of the Summer Moon – S.C. Gwynne – The terrifying and heartbreaking story of the Comanche Nations. It had a particular poignancy for me because their reign ended almost exactly where I grew up, and their greatest American enemy was a distant relation of mine.
Under the Banner of Heaven – Jon Krakauer – I read this in an attempt to figure out what is going on with Mormonism. I walked away with a deeper sensitivity to the danger of blasphemy, especially in my own religion.
Music – This is where I always get into trouble because I have to play favorites among my friends. But I’m just going to suck it up and say what I think. The best new music in 2011 came from these three sources:
The Civil Wars – You take two musicians who were often overlooked, you stick them together, and you get the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of music. Totally, utterly beautiful.
Jill Philips and Andy Gullahorn – Andy has really come into his own as a splendid songwriter with his finger on the pulse of my favorite counter-culture. And Jill’s new CD is truly the stand out album of the year. These two are more than excellent musicians, they are honesty and compassion set to music.
Florence + The Machine – I flipped out when I first heard their rendition of “Addicted to Love,” and I still cannot get enough of them. Florence is like a druid/dervish Amy Winehouse with, I hope, less drugs.
Drive – This was one of those movies that arrived completely unannounced, no fanfare, no trailer, and no hype, and it pretty well blew my mind. It manages to deserve both the classic and modern definition of the word “awful.” It’s filled with as many beautiful moments as it is horrifying ones, and one enhances the power of the other. It’s never less than mesmerizing. It’s also got one of the best and weirdest soundtracks ever.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes – One of the best sensations I know of is that of watching a story unfold while not only being captivated by it and desperate to know what happens next but feeling the elation of genuine surprise when that next thing happens in a way I didn’t at all expect. If you don’t know what I mean, go watch this movie. The word “No” has never carried so much dramatic weight.
Tree of Life – This isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s such a singular vision of a film that it wipes away some of my cynicism about the Hollywood machine and reminds me that it’s still possible for one man to communicate in vision and poetry without the anchor-weight of blockbuster commercialism dragging behind him. Or if, as is more likely the case, that anchor does drag, he drags it mightily along.
Midnight in Paris – A love letter to art and literature. Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Dali, Fitzgerald–how can I not love it. Thank you, Woody Allen.
Honorable Mention – Troll 2 – Wow. Just wow. Popcorn will never be the same.
Mind of the Maker – This book rocked my world this year. Sayers’ trinitarian analogy of the creative process struck a deep and resonate note in me. I’ve since gone back and read it multiple times and find myself applying her ideas whenever I’m thinking critically about any work, especially my own.
A Tale of Two Cities – I think I read this (or maybe part of it) when I was in high school. It didn’t make much of an impression, and I didn’t remember anything but those famous first and last lines. I read it again this year (for the first time, you might say) and it’s become my favorite book, maybe my favorite book ever. It’s so good on so many different levels that there’s no way I’m going to attempt to do it justice here. I’ll be re-reading it for the rest of my life. Amazing.
Everything That Rises Must Converge – I rarely appreciate audiobooks, but Jonathan Rogers loaned me a disc from this audiobook of Flannery O’Conner’s final work and it blew me away (I promptly begged the other discs off of him). It’s a collection of some of the best short stories I’ve ever read (listened to), and for someone raised in the south much of it felt so close to home as to be both intensely uncomfortable and incredibly authentic. Can’t recommend it highly enough. I was sad when it was over because there will never be another Flannery O’Conner story to baffle, amaze, and humble me.
Mylo Xyloto – I really don’t know what to say about this except that I love how bright the music is. I’m not sure yet if I like it as much as Viva la Vida, but at the very least it’s my favorite “pop” album of the year.
Love & War & the Sea in Between – I just discovered Josh Garrels this year, and thank goodness. This record is in permanent rotation at our house. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and I can’t get enough of it. Maybe the highest compliment I can give Josh Garrels is that he has done what no other artist on earth has ever done: He has made me love a rap song.
The Cymbal Crashing Clouds – I love every inch of this album. It’s almost like Ben Shive reached into my brain and pulled out exactly the kind of songs I’ve always wanted to hear but had forgotten existed. And on top of the great record, there’s an amazing book to go along with it.
S.D. Smith, maker of lists. Listmaster Monthly‘s top 5 Listmasters Listmakers five years running.
Books (in no intentional order).
The Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling – I finally got around to reading these over the last six months. Actually, Jim Dale read them to me. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and Jim Dale is in the top three (reading) performers I’ve ever heard. Brilliant. On Rowling’s series: A few quibbles aside, this was really amazing. I thought book 3 was exceptional and the ending to book 7 transporting. The ending is thoroughly beautiful and brilliant on so many levels. It truly was a delight. Also, she is an amazing writer. Some of the features of the series were so convoluted (which is a huge problem anytime limits are vague –as with magic), it amazes me she was able to keep us engaged and bought in so thoroughly. But she did. What an incredible performance she accomplished in these books. She excelled at both of the main jobs of a novelist. The story was fantastic and the performance was equally so. I’m sure she’s delighted to hear of my approval a thousand years after everyone else. It was excellent. I loved the triumphal ending. So true to the way God is telling the story of mankind.
Beyond Smells & Bells – Mark Galli – A very helpful little book on the beauty of the Christian liturgy, a subject I’ve been on a slow train towards understanding for twenty years. The train has sped up in the last few years and this was a help.
The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic – Jennifer Trafton – A delightful read, full of humor and whimsy. Jennifer is one of those writers who give me hope. That she is just beginning her career as a public novelist tells me there are, by God’s grace, many years and many tales to come which I will love. Jennifer seems incapable of writing anything dull, or destructive. I look forward to years of enjoying and sharing with others the fruit of her construction. Also, my eight-year-old daughter, who reads a huge number of books, counts it among her very favorites. I love books and music and movies that delight (and are fit to be received) by both eight and 34-year-olds.
That Hideous Strength – C.S. Lewis – This was a reread, but I mention it because it is so fantastic. It is the novelization of the ideas in The Abolition of Man. Here is a thorough demolition of much modern (and post-modern) absurdity in a terrific tale. Did you know this is novelist N.D. Wilson’s favorite novel?
The Prodigal God – Tim Keller – This was a fantastic little book. Like a lot of Keller’s work, it reveals the Gospel as a third way between the approach of the younger and elder brothers. He rightly points out the target of the parable is the elder brother and constitutes a challenge to him to stop his own manipulation of the father (Father) and to enter into the shocking welcome he has for those who don’t deserve it.
Picking just a few is impossible, but I shall stop there. I’m saying nothing about Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle? What is wrong with me?
I don’t know. I can’t remember anything too amazing except that Cars 2 was disappointing. Pixar!? I don’t go to the movies very much and I honestly can’t remember one movie that amazed me. Oh, I loved Jane Eyre. And the last three Harry Potter movies were really excellent. If I remember any more, I’ll call a press conference and people can start camping out in a line, sleepless and breathless and brainless with anticipatory anticipation.
I’m an incurable homer. As Nacho Libre (hey, that’s a movie) sort-of-almost said: “All the Rabbit Room music-types and The Square Pegs are my favorites too!” Everything I attempt to write about them seems weird for some reason, so I’ll leave it at that. Or… I love them like I love the sound of rivers dancing like tulips on the streets of my cobble-stone heart in a hat with wet tulips in it on drugs. <—not weird at all.
Otherwise, I loved Josh Garrels. And I’ve really enjoyed Hutchmate Zach Smith’s The Walla Recovery. Fernando Ortega keeps getting played in my car regularly. I love Dan Zanes and he got plenty of plays in our home in 2011, especially his Sea Songs. I really like Jacob Dylan’s Women and Country, which is new to me in 2011. I keep listening to Rich Mullins all the time. I’ll never get past that.
Live: We had Randall Goodgame up in here in West Virginia for a Slugs & Bugs show and it was amazing for our community. We saw Behold the Lamb of God again in Charlotte and that is so special for my whole family (almost literally). The Square Peg show and the Jason Gray release show at Hutchmoot were sweet. But the coolest: I got to be acting road manager for my man, Eric Peters, for a short leg of his tour through West Virginia and Pennsylvania. That was simply smashing. Eric is the berries.
It was an unusual year of reading for me; in the first half of the year my reading revolved around the Flannery O’Connor biography I was writing, and in the second half of the year all my reading revolved around teaching literature and the history of the English language. But I’m happy to offer up my favorites:
The Habit of Being. Flannery O wrote fiction in the morning and letters in the afternoon. The Habit of Being is a collection of those letters. She lived in isolation from other writers and intellectuals (she didn’t even have a telephone for most of her adult life), and yet she craved intelligent conversation. Her letters served that purpose. As editor Sally Fitzgerald wrote, we are blessed that Flannery O’Connor’s best conversation didn’t “go up in talk” as it would have if she had been able to sit down and talk with the people she wrote so many letters to. These letters are hilarious and smart and theologically rich. And every time I get to that last letter she wrote, I get weepy. She’s so alive in her letters, it comes as a surprise when she dies (at 39!).
Dr. Faustus, Much Ado About Nothing. In the fifteen or so years since I finished getting educated, I’ve been on an overwhelmingly American diet of reading. Teaching literature this past semester, I remembered why I specialized in the British Renaissance. The richness and texture of the plays and poems–it really is astonishing. Much Ado is on the list simply because it is the most recent Shakespeare play I read. It could have been any of Shakespeare’s plays.
I didn’t see too many movies in 2011. The favorites on my list have all been listed above, and their merits better articulated. Nevertheless, here goes:
Tree of Life – I’m crazy about this movie. It breaks several of my hidebound rules of storytelling, and it breaks rules I didn’t even know I had (no CGI dinosaurs in a family drama, for one). It’s an infuriating movie (twenty minutes of planetarium movie footage? Really?) And yet I love it anyway. It may be some kind of Stockholm Syndrome, where the movie maker beats me into submission, and yet I end up on his side. In any case, the fact that somebody even was able to make and distribute such a movie makes me happy.
Super 8 – Just saw this last week and got very nostalgic for the Spielberg movies of my youth.
The Muppets – Again, it makes me happy to know that sometime in 1970s, Jim Henson said, “I’ve got an idea: let’s do a prime-time variety show with puppets!” And that the idea still lives.
Midnight in Paris – This one was just a ton of fun and not as annoyingly pseudo-intellectual as I expected it to be.
Love and War and the Sea in Between – Josh Garrels – We wore this one out this year. Josh Garrels’ songs are shot through with the gospel and thick with the language and imagery of scripture.
The Cymbal Crashing Clouds – Ben Shive – Jason already hit the nail on the head. This is a guy doing exactly what he was made to do. Pete hit the other nail on the head. I love every inch of this album. Ben Shive is such a clever young man.
In the Kids’ Music category, I have already written about how much I love Slugs and Bugs: Under Where? and Coal Train Railroad Swings.
2011 was the Year of Noisetrade for me. I have loved having the opportunity to sample music that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard. Here are two of my favorites that nobody has mentioned yet:
What the Crow Brings – The Low Anthem – This isn’t The Low Anthem’s most recent album, just the one they offered on Noisetrade. What the Crow Brings is broody and dark and reflects the band members’ interest in the history of American music. The songs sound like they could have been written and sung in mining camps.
Youth Is in our Blood – The Dirty Guv’nahs – This is just straight ahead Southern Rock, more of the runka-runka variety than the noodly-doodly variety. (To put that in Skynyrd terms, they’re more “Give Me Three Steps” than “Freebird”). Sometimes they start sounding like a Black Crowes tribute band. Which is kind of awesome.
Hugo – Martin Scorsese’s ode to cinematic history is an intimate, vulnerable story that showcases a beautiful side the celebrated director’s never before unveiled.
Love & War & The Sea In Between – Josh Garrels – Garrel’s magnum opus is an expansive, dynamic 18-song collection that features some of the most soul-stirring lyrics I’ve ever heard.
The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes – This 2011 Man Booker prize-winning novel is one of the finest releases in English literature in years. With beautiful prose, Barnes disarms the fears of not only his character but all of us as he ages.
Super 8 – I saw this film twice–once by myself (which is how I usually roll) and then with my son and AP and his boys. The second time I spent a good part of the movie watching my 11 year old son watch it– trying to see if he’s aware of girls yet. My findings are confidential.
Drive – Brutal in places. But there’s this scene at the end where the hero lays everything down for the sake of love that struck a note of truth in me.
So Runs the World Away – Josh Ritter – Call me late to the party, but man! Josh Ritter is an amazing songwriter. This isn’t a perfect record. But there are a couple of songs that are as close to perfect as you can get.
Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars – I defer to other synopses in this post. A sonic rarity.
Isaac’s Storm – Erik Larson – I love historical events told as story. This isn’t Larson’s best work, I’m told, but still its a pretty mesmerizing account of one of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit the US (Galveston, TX) and the weather man who didn’t see it coming… or did he?
The Charlatan’s Boy – Jonathan Rogers – Loved this book. JR is such a terrific story teller. The culture he unfolds in this book, and the poetic wisdom of the narrator made this book a joy to read. Also, it has one of the best opening lines of any book I’ve ever read: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.”
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".