Folks, you don’t need me to tell you this: There’s a lot of hate, fear and divisiveness out in our world these days. People are on edge. Folks are anxious. These are trying times we’re living in.
It was American jazz saxophonist extraordinaire Albert Ayler who famously said, “Music is the healing force of the universe.” Certainly it also takes community action and a prophetic word or two, but the truth remains: Music can most certainly make a difference.
So I thought it would be a good thing in this new year to forego a true album review and focus instead on what I’m calling the “Feel good 17 for ’17” playlist – 17 songs that speak a word of hope, promise and love we’re all longing to hear, ready to brighten up whatever yuckiness comes our way. Let it be said: I am absolutely sure I left off some no-brainers. So feel free to add your selections in the comments below.
Let’s speak and live with our lives a word of hope, promise and love every day of this new year – and if this playlist helps you do that, all the better.
“(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” by Elvis Costello
As I walk through this wicked world, Costello sings over a bouncy pop beat, I ask myself, is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred and misery? The chorus asks another question, and it’s an interesting one. “What’s so funny” hints that the singer may be mocked for his optimism. At the same time, it’s also a statement of faith in the things that’ll pull you through.
“Shiny Happy People” by REM
It is impossible to listen to this song and not be happy. Shiny happy people holding hands and laughing, Peter Buck’s guitar lick and the cascading chorus vocal trio with an appearance by one of the B-52s: awesome. An unabashed bubble-gum, happy-go-lucky tune that represents the finest of musical escapism, with a few substantive thoughts thrown in for good measure: Everyone around – love them, love them.
“Love Alone Is Worth The Fight” by Switchfoot
The boys from SoCal chose this declaration of a song to lead off their 2014 album. It is as well-crafted a pop tune as one can make, with catchy hooks and a chorus that’ll have you raising your fist and singing in unison with the crowd (I know, I did just that at their concert). But the message runs deep: And we find what we’re made of / Through the open door / Is it fear you’re afraid of? / What are you waiting for? / Love alone is worth the fight. It certainly is.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2
Those who know me will not be surprised in the least that a U2 song makes this list. The beautiful thing about this tune is the sense of hope it portrays in the searching. You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains / Carried the cross of my shame / You know I believe it / But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Our world, like each of us, are works in progress. The key is that we keep on looking.
“Blessings” by Chance The Rapper
This Chicago-born hip-hop artist weaves gospel influences throughout this middle-of-the-album track with lyrics that seemingly come straight out a church worship service. When the praises go up, Chance sings, the blessings come down. Later he clarifies: I know the difference between blessings and worldly possessions. And he asks if we are ready for a miracle. We certainly are.
“Love Can Change the World” by Aaron Niequist
This one may be off your radar. If it is, make that not so. Bridges are more beautiful than bombs, Wonder is more valuable than Wall Street. And love can change the world, because God is love. The bridge implores us to keep believing in a better world. The song appears to have been recorded live with an audience singing along – they obviously know the song, as you will too.
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake
My guilty pleasure, folks. I don’t know that there’s anything terribly theological or biblical about this song (although David danced, so there’s that). This tune is certainly the victim of overplay, which can be the death of any good song. And that’s a shame, because this is a good song.
“Awake My Soul” by Mumford & Sons
I think the thing I like best about this tune, other than the honest lyrics, is the slow build throughout. Like a freight train, you can feel it coming. A huge part of the joy of this song is that anticipation. Quiet and serene at first, transitioning to a frenetic whirling dervish, pulsing upright bass and kick-drum in perfect sync. You were made to meet your Maker – less threat and more promise of a long-anticipated reunion.
“From This Valley” by The Civil Wars
This is the lead track for a compilation album appropriately titled, “Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us.” It bounces more than most Civil War tunes do, but Joy’s and John’s vocals work their usual wonder. The guitar plays a G-chord, but the capo is set at the fourth fret, giving the music a sense of being uplifted. Which the entire song certainly does for the listener.
“Better Together” by Jack Johnson
In truth, an entire Jack Johnson album – pick one – could be this whole playlist. It’s nearly impossible to listen to J.J. and not find your foot tapping, your head bobbing, your face smiling. And as far as the message, well, it’s a no-brainer: It absolutely is better when we’re together. And if it happens to be in Johnson’s native Hawaii, all the better.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
The fact that this song was born out of an incident in 1964 when Cooke and his band were turned away from an all-white hotel in Louisiana certainly gets to the heart of the lingering cultural and institutional racism in our country. That’s why this song is just as relevant today as it was back then. Interesting tidbit: This tune was the B-side to “Shake.” Lesson learned: Sometimes the B-sides are better.
“Free” by Gungor
As I brought up in a previous Outlook music blog, Gungor’s music never ceases to amaze and surprise in its musical and lyrical intricacy. “Free” is a mix of gospel and R&B with a chorus that lures you in and simply won’t let you go: So let the light in, keep it shining / Let it break into the darkness / All the love dares us to see we’ll all be free. It repeats over and over again, finally devolving into the simple message, We are free, we’ll all be free. Gotta love the now/not yet duality.
“Dance in the Graveyards” by Delta Rae
Delta Rae sings here about eschatological hope, a hope that transcends death when death makes itself known. There is no greater comfort for the grieving or the living – dancing in joy when our time on earth is through; dancing with those who have already died while we are still living. It’s a beautiful sense of the thin veil that separates this world from the one to come.
“Hope” by David LaMotte
Using the image of the aftermath following a church burning in the South, this song is simultaneously a comforting reminder that, as LaMotte sings, things will work out fine, and a call to action that our dream for a loving world depends heavily on us rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Musically the sound matches the message perfectly – upbeat, bouncy, persistent.
“Fix You” by Coldplay
I’ve led this song at a number of youth conferences over the years, segueing into it from the popular “Prince of Peace” (it helps that they’re both in the key of E). Before singing, I’ll invite everyone to consider that it is God’s voice singing to them: when life drags you down, lights will guide you home and ignite your bones, and I will try to fix you. That may not be a perfect theological message, but they seem to get the truth of a God who calls us home and makes us whole.
“You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King
I totally dig James Taylor, but I prefer to go back to the original source for this particular tune. While Taylor sings it in soothing fashion, King’s vocal has an earnest edginess to it, as if the singer knows we really need to hear what she has to say. It also helps, I think, that the vocal is accompanied predominately by piano, with some subtle strings and percussion lurking in the background. Somehow that makes the message of comradery and compassion stand out more.
“River” by Leon Bridges
I covered Bridges’ debut album in a previous Outlook music blog, and I remarked about how this closing song sets the perfect outro for the album. It does the same here. Take me to your river, I wanna go / Take me to your river, I wanna know. There may be a lot of hate, fear and divisiveness around us now. Let’s drink deep from the river in 2017, folks – and better yet, let’s do it together.
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.