Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top 50 Albums of 2011

The year 2011 did not set any new standards in music. It was not 2010. The top 3 albums from last year are easily better than anything from this year. But in many ways it was a year of new beginnings, as many new talented artists released surprising debuts (James Blake, Katy B, Youth Lagoon, Cults, Washed Out) and seasoned artists pushed their music in new directions (M83, Beirut, Radiohead, Mates of State, Destroyer, Danielson).

This was the Year of Electronic Music. The seeds that were sown in 2010 bore fruit in 2011. James Blake is perhaps most symbolic of this trajectory, but the influence of electronic music can be seen everywhere. The rise of dubstep as a legitimate and serious mode of pop music is perhaps the most exciting development.

My pick for the most surprising album goes to Mates of State for Mountaintops. I’ve long been a huge fan of their music, but the last few albums have been lackluster compared to their earlier work. The new album does not retread old ground, but it brings back a lot of the old magic. It is one of their best albums ever. My pick for the biggest disappointment is an easy one: TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light. After the stunning achievement of Dear Science, I expected something truly magnificent and groundbreaking for their follow-up effort. Unfortunately, it is their least engaging and most uninspired product. No doubt the loss of bassist Gerard Smith on April 20 due to lung cancer was a huge blow to the band. I can only hope that they are able to recover soon and fulfill the promise of their earlier albums.

What follows are my top 50 albums of the year. Only the top 25 are ordered in a way that I feel more or less confident about; the bottom half are open to (nearly daily) revision.

1. M83, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

Each year seems to have at least one album that expands the definition of “epic.” In 2011, that album was the stunning two-disc work by Anthony Gonzalez.

2. Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Overrated? Hardly. But even if it is, it’s for good reason. Justin Vernon’s sophomore album does much more than merely assuage those worried that his debut might have been a lucky accident born out of an unrepeatable revelatory experience in the Wisconsin woods. And if I hear one more complaint about the cheesiness of the last song, I might lose it.

3. The Antlers, Burst Apart

The Antlers had a tough act to follow after their beloved Hospice, but this is, I think, the superior album. It might be the album I listened to most in 2011, and it will probably be the one that has the longest listening life.

4. James Blake, James Blake

Blake came on the scene in a big way with three magnificent EPs in 2010. His self-titled debut brought his singular (post-)dubstep vision into full focus. Of all the albums from this year, this one still strikes me as the most artistically impressive.

5. Katy B, On a Mission

Katy B was for 2011 what Robyn was for 2010: a supremely talented female artist producing club-ready music without the mainstream recognition that each deserve. Kathleen Brien was indeed on a mission this year, and it paid off beautifully.

6. Handsome Furs, Sound Kapital

The husband-and-wife duo of Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade fame) and Alexei Perry fulfilled their promise with their third album, Sound Kapital. This album did for me what Sleigh Bells did last year: it gave me total sonic bliss. It was as if someone had extracted the magical kernel within Apologies to the Queen Mary and dressed it within the garb of electronic indie pop. It was love at first listen.

7. Youth Lagoon, The Year of Hibernation

The debut album by Youth Lagoon, the stage name of Trevor Powers, was perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the year. His catchy, atmospheric, dreamy, shoegazy sonic concoction delivers some of the year’s biggest musical thrills.

8. The Field, Looping State of Mind

Swedish minimalist techno artist, Axel Willner, doing what he does best. His third album is his best yet.

9. Dominik Eulberg, Diorama

I want to live inside the landscapes of this album. It’s no surprise that the German musical artist occasionally works as a park ranger. If I had to pick a soundtrack for the year, it would be Diorama.

10. Cults, Cults

The Cults debut album—self-released in June—is just about the perfect summer pop album. Its effortless blend of post-punk, power pop, and shoegaze makes me happy every time.

11. Beirut, The Rip Tide

12. Washed Out, Within and Without


14. Arrange, Plantation

15. Cut Copy, Zonoscope

16. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes

17. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues

18. Radiohead, King of Limbs

19. Mates of State, Mountaintops

20. Gang Gang Dance, Eye Contact

21. Destroyer, Kaputt

22. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost

23. Thundercat, The Golden Age of Apocalypse

24. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972

25. Wild Beasts, Smother

26. Danielson, The Best of Gloucester Country

27. The Horrors, Skying

28. Marissa Nadler, Marissa Nadler

29. Richard Buckner, Our Blood

30. WU LYF, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain

31. AraabMuzik, Electronic Dream

32. John Maus, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves

33. Neon Indian, Era Extraña

34. Moonface, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped

35. Nguzunguzu, The Perfect Lullaby & Timesup EP

36. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient

37. Wilco, The Whole Love

38. Panda Bear, Tomboy

39. Real Estate, Days

40. Apparat, The Devil’s Walk

41. Los Campesinos!, Hello Sadness

42. Drake, Take Care

43. Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2

44. tUne-yArDs, Who Kill

45. Boom Bip, Zig Zaj

46. Iron & Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean

47. Shabazz Palaces, Black Up

48. The Decemberists, The King Is Dead

49. Com Truise, Galactic Melt

50. Mountain Goats, All Eternals Deck

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rudolf Bultmann: theologian of Advent

As most who read this blog know, my dissertation is technically on Barth and Bultmann, but my primary interest is in reinterpreting Bultmann and reviving him for a new generation of theology. One of the many benefits of this project has been the chance to read Bultmann’s sermons, especially those that were published posthumously in 1984 in the collection, Das verkündigte Wort. Nine of the pieces in this work were written for Advent. They confirm in a striking and profound way the fact that Bultmann is the theologian of Advent par excellence. His key verse is John 1.14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us...” For Bultmann, all theology is christology, and christology is about the paradoxical identity of divinity and humanity in this concrete historical event.

One of the sermons, “Der Sinn des Weihnachtsfestes,” was delivered in Marburg on December 17, 1926. I have translated a section from the end of the sermon that I have found immensely helpful in understanding Bultmann. As with all his Christmas writings, it is an example of his theological mind operating at the highest level and on a topic of profound concern to him. (Please forgive the woodenness of the translation.)
The message of Christmas is: there is a second beginning; that event, “the Word became flesh,” is this beginning, in which love became an actuality. How can love be a possibility for us, become an actuality for us, if we come from hate? One way only: by the fact that we are loved. How can we become new, start a new beginning, get away from ourselves? One way only: through love that forgives. ... 
We are confronted by the choice whether this beginning will be our beginning. It is not an event that has created objective world-historical values which are bestowed on us without our choosing, that is, without faith. It is not an event that has led to a world-historical occurrence, in whose so-called blessings we all readily participate. But instead it is an event that, as a beginning, is always ever a beginning; it was not once a beginning that has now long since been built over, indeed, rendered obsolete by means of a developmental process. In the pagan idea that God is always born anew, in the childish thought that the Christ-child is always a child, lies a meaningful clue. ... Precisely this is the reason that we celebrate his birth, the Christ-child; because it brings to expression the fact that we do not fancy him according to human standards of what is great and impressive, but rather that we hold in earnest to the claim: “The Word made flesh.” Of course, when we say, “always beginning,” we are not talking about an eternal becoming-human of the divine in humanity, but instead we speak of that one event that has divided history, of that human being in whom God’s love appeared as an actuality. When we say, “always beginning,” we thus mean: this event always demands our decision. We have to choose whether it will be a beginning for us. 
In truth, this event, which always wants to be the beginning for us, is in fact always the beginning for us, whether we want it to be or not. We choose always only in which sense it will be the beginning for us. For ever since this event took place, all history has been marked by it. The one who chooses it has chosen life, and the one who spurns it has spurned nothing less than life itself; that person has chosen death. Each person has chosen. One cannot ignore this beginning, and even to ignore it is to take a position; the one who spurns love remains in hate. 
And finally, once again: “The Word became flesh,” God became a human being. It’s not about the miraculous transformation of some cosmic substance, but rather the fact that through the birth of a human being history has been decisively determined. It’s also not about the fact that we have sensed God’s grace in special matters and special experiences as something extra, but rather the fact that in the person of Jesus Christ God’s grace and actuality have appeared and marked our history. As flesh, as human beings, we belong to the history whose beginning he is. If we believe in him, this means that we believe that these occurrences of everyday life, these doings and sufferings, these givings and receivings, in which we stand as human beings, can and should be stamped with the mark of love. In view of that beginning, this life should be guided by faith in the love that surrounds us with forgiveness—in the love whose word, if only that one great word is heard, can become everything. But, of course, that is only if we ourselves become such a word of love, that is, if we love. Since one can only love as one who is loved, to whom love has been given, so one can also only receive love if one accepts it as the power to love in obedience. 
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as the reconciliation for our sins. Beloved, since God therefore loved us, we also should love one another.” 
Rudolf Bultmann, Das verkündigte Wort: Predigten, Andachten, Ansprachen 1906-1941, ed. Erich Grässer and Martin Evang (Tübingen: Mohr, 1984), 237-38.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Actualistic ontology: a word of clarification

I am blessed to be surrounded by people interested in carrying on vigorous and intelligent conversation regarding the intricacies of contemporary theology. For this, I am truly grateful. But as part of this ongoing conversation, I occasionally encounter misunderstandings of certain theological positions. One of the most misunderstood, even by those who are largely sympathetic, is the current post-Barthian conception of “actualistic ontology” (hereafter AO). I will not here advance my own arguments regarding the validity of this position as an interpretation of Barth. I only wish to clear up a bit of confusion that has cropped up among those who reject ontology tout court as theologically illegitimate. Those who hold such views are one of two camps that believe all ontology to be metaphysics; the other group being those who think theology needs to embrace metaphysics. They are two sides of the same “ontology = metaphysics” coin, and both sides are wrong—but I won’t get into all that now. The criticism is simply that AO, by virtue of speaking about a theological ontology, is an instance of trying to give human beings a kind of epistemological control over God, that is, to secure God as something stable and graspable. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I will keep my clarification of AO very simple. AO does not give unwarranted ontological security; on the contrary, it de-secures our ontology. AO locates the fragility and instability of our knowledge of God—what dialectical theology rightly emphasizes over against orthodox and liberal attempts to make such knowledge secure through some kind of general foundationalism—in the very reality and identity of God. Or, rather, it affirms, in an act of Nachdenken, that God has located such fragility within Godself. AO thus says something quite remarkable and radical: the vulnerability of our epistemic relation to God is not merely a feature of our finitude and sinfulness; it is, in fact, a vulnerability in which God has eternally willed to participate—a vulnerability, in fact, that God has willed to make constitutive of God’s very being. The weakness and riskiness that marks our human situation is one that God has chosen to mark the divine situation. There is no control or stability here. On the contrary, AO radicalizes the instability and maximizes our lack of control by grounding these in the being of God.

There is an Advent sermon embedded in these thoughts, but I’ll let others develop it. I have a dissertation to write.