So far there are only three albums that meet this lofty criteria for me, and in this entry I'd like to share them with you. This is not about how these are the greatest musical recordings of all time, nor is it a fan's obsessive dissection of each and every note and lyric. It is a bit of a peek into what makes me tick. These are more than collections of music, they are windows into the way that I see the world, how I think, what matters most to me. If you want to know me, you'll learn a lot in listening to these three albums, because all three both reflect and have influenced the person I am today.
"I want to run. . . "
February 1992, U2: The Joshua Tree
I was 18 years old and on the bus on my senior class trip. Like most of my classmates, I had my indespensible walkman, and searching for new tunes to pass the miles, I popped in a borrowed cassette of Achtung Baby, the hot new album by the biggest band in the land, U2. I was familiar with a lot of the tunes. "Mysterious Ways" and "One" were topping the charts and all over the radio. For all of high school I'd been a very vocal hater of U2. In truth my distaste for the band was rooted in ignorance (I really didn't know much about their music beyond the big hits on the radio) and in a perverse desire to irritate Esther Pierre Louis who was a huge fan of the ban. Achtung Baby had already begun to wear down this purported "hatred" of U2, but it was about to be completely upended in short order. When I'd worn out my friend Carissa's cassette, I wanted more of the band, and somehow I ended up with another tape, this one borrowed from Tony Exxon, a guy in my class that I barely knew. The cover showed a somber black and white portrait of a group of men standing in the desert. The title of the album was The Joshua Tree.
The album opens like a sunrise. An almost imperceptible melody and chiming guitar that gradually grows in brightness until it burts forth into golden splendor and I can almost "feel sunlight on my face." For years to come, on long haul drives between college in Michigan and home in Florida, I would put this album in the tape player right at the moment of sunrise so as to have the visual to go with audio daybreak. The steady beat and the thrum of the bass are reminiscent of the regular slap of my running shoes on pavement on an early morning run. I hear it and "I want to run." To this day "Where the Streets Have No Name" is always the first song on my race day playlist.
I was floored. I'd never heard anything like it and I couldn't get enough. Instantly, The Joshua Tree became one of my favorite records, and so it remains to this day. Socially conscious, rife with spiritual metaphors, and bringing fresh perspectives on timeless matters of the heart expressed in music as big as the wide open spaces and as personal as an earnest conversation, The Joshua Tree has been a fundamental part of my life for almost twenty years.
There are all kinds of versions of this album out there. Various remasters and bonus discs and such. The basic version on Amazon goes for around $13 for the disc or a mere five bucks for the download.
Itunes carries it for $10.
March 1995, Rich Mullins: A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band
I was on spring break from my year as student missionary teacher on Chuuk and visiting friends and fellow student missionaries on the emerald island of Pohnpei in the Micronesian Pacific. One of those friends, Missy Morrison, lent me a cassette tape with Rich Mullins' A Liturgy, A Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band all one one side and most of other. I remember putting it in my walkman for the first time on a Friday night while lying in the darkness on my guestbed on the couch. The tape was half-played and picked up mid-song and mid-album, but it didn't matter. I was immediately struck. I'd never heard anything so beautiful in my life. Rich sang that he hoped we'd hear the water falling in his music, and I did--that and so much more. I listened to the album to the end, rewound the cassette and listend to it all the way through again. And again. When I left Pohnpei, I had my own copy of the tape, and you might say I've been listening to it ever since. In the remaining months of my time in Chuuk, Liturgy was my choice of music on Sabbath afternoons. I'd listen to it on my walkman down at the beach near our school, and let the music play as the sun set and another Sabbath came to ane end. I'd walk home in the gathering dark listening to "How to Grow Up Big and Strong" and "Land of My Sojourn"--the songs to start a new week. On my return to America, the opening track became my theme song--a reminder that I hadn't been forgotten by the Holy King of Israel even here in America.
Both in words and music, Liturgy captures the beauty, the joy, day-to-day struggle of this journey we call life . Despite the overt Christian emphasis, I felt this was an album that I wanted to share with anyone without any intentions to proselytize. This was music of the highest quality and lyrics rich enough that they could have stood alone without a melody and been considered poetry in their own right.
I actually don't listen to Liturgy as often as I used to, and yet, the songs are always with me. When ever I stand in awe of the beauty of creation evident in something as simple as the color green. When I'm shaking like a leaf and fighting the Lord for somthing that I don't really want instead of taking what He gives that I need. When I wish peace to a friend, or bemoan how hard it can be to be like Jesus, but remember that what I believe is not what I have made but what is making me. When I remember the songs I learned with my students, and carry on. When I'm lonely for my home in this, the land of my sojourn, I'm hearing the Liturgy still, and singing it in my heart.
$12 bucks will get you the CD on Amazon.
You can download the album from Itunes for $10 on either Itunes or Amazon.
"Its undeniable how brilliant you are. . ."
July, 2007, Mat Kearney: Nothing Left to Lose
Springboro, Ohio in the last days of summer vacation. My best friend J had sent me a burned copy of an album by a new artist he'd discovered, a guy named Mat Kearney. This is a must-listen he urged me. And so on a sunny afternoon while I was toiling away at the draft of my novel, I popped in the disc and was promptly blown away. I'd never heard anything like it. The hip-hop rhymes, the catchy acoustic guitar strum, the joyful, thoughtful lyrics. Immediately it was in heavy rotation.
I associate Nothing Left to Lose with Hawaii, because just days after I got the album Babs and I flew there for what, unbeknownst to us, would be our last time there together. Every year since she'd become principal of the Saipan SDA School, we'd spent the first week of August at the principals' meetings and student missionary orientation which were held most years on the island of Oahu. It was our ten year wedding anniversary, and Mat's songs seranaded us constantly. Everytime I hear those songs I see the sheer walls of green mountains rising up around us on the Pali Highway, the verdant tropical landscape of Hawaiian Mission Academy, the sparkle of lights on Waikiki with Diamond Head looming in the background. Nothing Left to Lose became this kid from Oregon by way of Florida's soundtrack to our amazing life in the Pacific. Everyday we were out there was unforgettable, unmistakable, an undeniably brilliant blessing from God and each time I hear those lyrics, I still feel the same sense of gratitude for the life we have.
Nothing Left to Lose can be bought on CD on Amazon for anywhere from $13 to $17.
Itunes has the whole album for cool $8, and it appears you may also get Mat's single "Breathe In, Breathe Out" (made famous on the television drama Grey's Anatomy) and "Chicago" as part of the deal.
Three more songs from these touchstone artists that have resonated with me:
"Lifetime" by Mat Kearney. My personal theme song and Favorite Song of All Time.
"Zooropa" by U2. Ironic critique of the world in which we live and the up-side down values of our culture that is "cold outside but brightly lit."
"All the Way My Savior Leads Me" by Rich Mullins. My daily praise, my daily bread, my daily prayer.