Little more than two months remain in this decade… well, unless you want to be technical and say the decade ends on a '0 year, but come on, when we say "the 80's," we're not talking about 1990, so let's call this decade 2000-2009. Anyway, it's almost over, and I've been reflecting on those years and the influence they've had on my life, particularly in the realm of music.
Epoch The First
When this decade began, my knowledge of recorded songs consisted entirely of Chris Rice's "Cartoon Song," Stephen Curtis Chapman's "Dancing With The Dinsoaur," and my father's Petra collection. My parents were not exactly musical connoisseurs, and while they did not necessarily object to rock and roll and the whole shebang (see Petra collection), the Christian radio station my mother listened to in Minneapolis probably did, and their repertoire consisted mostly of talk shows and the occasional "Cartoon Song." Then, in the late spring of 2000, we moved to Chicago.
My mother probably had no idea she was about to change my life forever. She was just looking for a local Christian radio station to replace the one she listened to in Minnesota. But the one she found was much more in tune with the great conglomerate affectionately known as the Contemporary Christian Music industry. SHINE 89.7! (I still remember the jingle.)
This was all new and exciting stuff for me. We had discovered the station just in time for Plus One to storm across the airwaves. I had no idea they were supposed to be appealing to teenage girls. I had no idea they were carbon copycats of more popular (but undoubtedly less holy) boy bands. There was melody! There was harmony! There was instrumentation! This was cool stuff! The Promise, I am unashamed to say, was the first album I purchased with my own money, and later that year when we moved to St. Louis, their concert at the enormous Family Arena with Stacie Orrico and Rachael Lampa was probably one of the highlights of my formative middle school years (though I wish I could go back in time and see the smirks of the older schoolkids as I wore out that band T-shirt through the halls of CHS).
Of course, it wasn't all sugar and spice. Some artists survived completely on the nourishment of the CCM market, but there were others that merely spilled over into radio appeal, and I tended to gravitate towards the Audio Adrenalines more than the Avalons. AA, dc Talk, and Newsboys all put out greatest hits albums around the same time, allowing me to quickly imbibe some of the highlights of the last decade while laying a foundation for the rockier side of things (I also got my first taste of industry practices.. The recorded version of "Say The Words (Now)" has Toby rapping on the bridge?!? And more electric guitar than the radio version?!? But it sounds so much cooler that way!)
I soon discovered that 89.1 played Christian rock on Saturday nights (and they let you request songs!), and while the Internet was a long way from utilizing music to its full potential, I used our dial-up modem and my 30-minute parental daily time allowance to read up on the latest charts, news, and even exclusive music videos from JesusFreakHideout.com. Kutless, Pillar, Thousand Foot Krutch…. such energy and power! Music became an interaction with my friends… John introduced me to some band named Skillet with whom he had a mildly distant church/family connection, and a kid named Dylan let me listen to an album by four young punny guys called The Anatomy Of The Tongue In Cheek(I though it was just OK at the time).
I floated happily along the twin channels of Christian Contemporary and Rock radio for the next three years and into high school (the 2003 "Go Show" at the Family Arena with Audio A and Kutless was another highlight), but eventually I was starting to get bored. I was still eating up new releases by bands that had come to be favorites, but the CCM radio thing was getting stale. The whole worship craze was kicking into gear, and while I had learned to love worship through the churches my family had been attending (particularly The Life! Church), the songs that made it through the machine and onto the careful airwaves didn't give me the emotional connection of Hillsong United's power chords, ambient keys, and raw lyrics. Some of them weren't even original, and it started to bother me that Tree63's "Blessed Be Your Name" and Phillips Craig and Dean's "Come, Now Is The Time To Worship" were contributing sales and popularity to bands that didn't even come up with the songs themselves. So Hillsong United kept me spiritually anchored while I went to explore elsewhere.
Epoch The Second
I'd heard for awhile the criticisms that the Christian industry just copied the mainstream, and, strangely enough, some of my favorite bands were actually starting to get played on secular radio! Those were the stations my high school peers were listening to anyway, and I was ready to get in on the exciting stuff. I was driving now and could listen to the radio in my car, and I was often tuned to the adult contemporary/pop tunes of Y98 or 101.1 The River, but I also discovered the alternative rock of 93.3 before I graduated high school. 3 Doors Down! Gavin Degraw! And on and on…. The well-polished catchiness of the mainstream stars was invigorating. I discovered the Pageant with my crossover bands, and as I had only ever seen a show from the back of a stadium, I was surprised and more than pleased to discover that in this "small" venue, there wasn't a bad spot. The content of the secular musicians wasn't all totally evil, although I wasn't really interested in the depressing stuff. I even found uplifting Christian artists hiding in the mainstream…. The Fray, Flyleaf, Mat Kearney. It only bothered my ever-shaping worldview that there seemed to be an inverse relationship with how popular a band was and how much they specifically mentioned God or Jesus…. new Switchfoot was less blatant than old Switchfoot…. but compared to The Fray? Was this what was known as "selling out"? How could you "be a light" if you had to keep dimming it the farther you got into the darkness?
These thoughts churned in the back of my mind as I delved further into the mainstream. Breaking Benjamin was pretty depressing, but "Diary of Jane" had a cool and intense rhythm. MCR's "Welcome To The Black Parade" sounded soooo epic! I even took a short detour through the hip-hop and rap scene. I certainly never allowed my personal library to be defiled with such vulgar language, but the beats of "Snap Yo Fingers" and "Ridin'" and even some of that Rihanna stuff were really catchy to listen to on the radio. I can still recall most of the songs at the top of any major 2006 songs list, although it amazed me how easily the masses gobbled up the Top 40 "variety." The R&B-laden "Temperature" and beat-driven "Lean Wit It" went down just as easily as the super-sugary ballad "What's Left Of Me" or the country-pop "What Hurts The Most." It didn't matter what it was as long as it was catchy and easy and…. mindnumbing. Oh, so mindnumbing.
I got sick of the Top 40 stuff very quickly as I realized that three months later I didn't know the songs anymore… it was all new and yet it pretty much all sounded the same as the old stuff. And the lyrics seemed to be getting even trashier. The unfaithful and cheating "Lips Of An Angel," the deliberately audacious "Girlfriend"… it all felt like a blatant attack of selfishness, instant gratification, and destructive pleasure. It broke my heart to see my McDonald's co-workers collapsing in broken relationships while they were listening to an utter glorification of physical satisfaction by any means possible (consequences not included). The Akon radio edit that replaced the obscene verb of "I Wanna F--- You" with "I Wanna Love You" (as if the two words were somehow equatable) was one of the last straws. By the time the more innocuous and simply mindnumbing "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" came around, I had said goodbye to the radio, and I have no idea how that song goes, or most of the transient "hits" that have followed.
So what filled the new void? Well, the hardcore scene, for one, although that was really only one piece of a bigger puzzle (Underoath powerfully pioneered my epiphany that screaming nonsense actually contained discernible lyrics, often backed by beautifully talented music). But the integral element of my newly forming landscape was the Internet.
Epoch The Third
By the time I started my first year of college at the end of 2006, the Internet had come a long way from merely displaying charts and providing online radio…. and no, I'm not talking about downloading (which I still shun for a patchwork of legal, ethical, and philosophical reasons). I'm talking about this little website called MySpace and this nebulous buzzphrase called "social networking." People forget that before MySpace there was no surefire, legitimate way to spontaneously listen to an entire song without spending money (unless you were lucky enough to find a music video on AOL… here's to you, modern YouTube). You mean I can listen to the whole song… not just a clip…. of "Bad Day" without buying the album and without waiting 30 minutes for the radio to play it again??!! This was a monumental breakthrough!
Initially, towards the end of my radio days, I merely used this service to satisfy the urges for singles I had not yet purchased from iTunes. But it quickly became an efficient tool for discovering new music. Everyone was on MySpace. When CCM Magazine (which my grandmother mysteriously stopped renewing for me right about the time its value was waning for me) recommended a little Arkansas band called Deas Vail, I was able to find some tracks online that convinced me to purchase the album when it released.
AbsolutePunk.net quickly became a priceless beginning source, which, despite its name, collects news and reviews from a variety of genres. I had heard that Switchfoot's Jon Foreman was working on solo projects, but it was a news post on AP that reminded me that it was out and that I needed to get it. I had heard the name Thrice mentioned here and there, but it was the buzz on AP that led me to the MySpace full album stream of the Alchemy Index (Vol I & II) that led me to purchasing the project that led them to become one of my favorite bands. A lot of these bands were also re-jolting my Christian/mainstream paradigms, as I discovered an increasing amount of Christian musicians who were respected and liked by unbelievers - even the musicians that were less compromising about their faith.
I was finally checking out musicians that had never been played on the local radio stations. Some of the bands I was listening to couldn't fill a place like the Pageant, and I soon discovered truly small venues like the Creepy Crawl, Pops, and Off Broadway. I couldn't try out every band I heard of, obviously, but I fell into a system of letting the buzz on a band build upon itself from a variety of sources - Internet, friends, live shows, etc - until they warranted a listen. I had heard of mewithoutYou, and I knew my friend Sam really liked them, but it was their midnight show at my first Cornerstone (2007) that finally pushed me over the edge. Ah, yes, Cornerstone. I have said plenty elsewhere about the impact of that annual festival.
These days, I feel like I'm pretty well-rounded. David Crowder Band and MuteMath slowly worked their way into my consciousness through a variety of connections via CCM, the Internet, and friends until I finally purchased an album and fell in love. Even now I don't manage to entirely avoid the CCM circuit and occasionally come across a gem (tobyMac's "Made To Love" gets a 5-star rating), and this is also true of the mainstream (see Coldplay's last album). I found Children 18:3 because of my brother Jacob, Ian McIntosh because of my cousin Andy, and Josh Garrels because of my newer friend Josh. I went from the fence to a fan of Becoming the Archetype thanks to my college friend Ben, and Tyler Burkum went from forgotten to fascination this February thanks to a girl I had just met named Emily.
Maybe I'm starting to spread myself too thin, trading a few popular acts for a smattering of smaller ones and scooping up dozens of follow-up releases that all too often simply don't seem as good as the originals (I'm looking at you, Ian McIntosh, Mat Kearney, MuteMath, The Glorious Unseen, and A Fine Frenzy). But before I consider the path of the future, I'm going to spend some time looking back at the last decade, highlighting the landmarks of my journey that was ridiculously long in the telling.
I'm a musical nerd who always posts top lists at the end of the year. In the coming weeks, as we finish off the 2000's, I will be posting my countdown list of the ten most personally influential albums of the decade - how I discovered them, what I liked so much about them, and why they were and still are so important to me. If you want to humor my mild narcissism, feel free to guess what's coming and read along….
Week of 10/18 - Honorable Mentions (#14-#11)
Week of 10/25 - #10.
Week of 11/1 - #9.
Week of 11/8 - #8.
Week of 11/15 - #7.
Week of 11/22 - #6.
Week of 11/29 - #5.
Week of 12/6 - #4.
Week of 12/13 - #3.
Week of 12/20 - #2.
Week of 12/27 - #1.