Lead Me On – 25 Years Later…To The Day

Lead Me On

Twenty-five years ago today, music  – especially Christian music – changed for me forever.

Amy Grant was one of my all time crushes growing up. I feel deeply in love with her music at an early age, and to this day I’m still a fan. I was 15 years old in the summer of 1988, and I knew that Amy had something special planned for her new album. It had been three years since Unguarded, and two since she had given us two new songs on her greatest hits collection. I had read that the new record was going to be a bit of a departure for her.

Early in the summer, I reserved a copy of the tape – yeah, the tape – at the Christian bookstore at the mall in Athens. I picked it up as soon as my mom could get me out there to get it. I couldn’t wait to wrap my ears around this new record.

Amy and her team had smoothed off the 80s rock edge of Unguarded, and she hadn’t yet polished to the pop sheen of Heart In Motion. By contrast Lead Me On was acoustic…organic…raw.

And the subject matter? Songs about slavery? The holocaust? Wives considering adultery? The songs were mature and deep, with the thread of faith woven throughout every song. The album moved me, and it changed the way I thought about music, especially Christian music. I realized how broad a palette people of faith have at their fingertips. Lead Me On challenged (and continues to challenge) how I think musically and creatively.

I wore out the tape, and another one, before I bought Lead Me On on CD. I now own it on CD, mp3 (including the 20th anniversary edition), and LP. To this day, nearly all the songs on the album sound as fresh and inspiring as they did back then. Only two of the songs really sound dated.

Lead Me On is one of my three all-time favorite albums – I vacillate on ranking them, but the three remain constant. Considering the company Amy’s in – The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Van Morrison’s Moondance – that’s saying a heck of a lot. But in terms of sheer influence on me as a believer, as a music lover, as a writer, as a singer and occasional songwriter, no other music comes close to this. I’m eternally grateful for this record.

Music Monday: Overrated Bands (A Quasi-Cranky Rant)

This one may stir up a little controversy. There are several bands throughout the history of rock music that I think aren’t worthy of the hype and reputation surrounding them. Without further ado, here we go…

Creedence Clearwater Revival — I don’t get these guys — a bunch of San Fransicso, semi-hippies trying to imitate swampy Southern rock. Don’t get me started on John Fogerty’s horrid screech of a voice. The only time I’ve ever liked any of their songs is when someone else covered them.

The Rolling Stones — When it comes to the big boys of 60s British rock, I’m always going to choose the Beatles. I don’t absolutely hate the Rolling Stones, but I’m not a fan either. I can see why they’re at least somewhat important, but I don’t get the hype. If anything, they’re the least overrated of the bands on my list.

Talking Heads — This group, which had a following in the 80s for some reason, is just…for lack of a better word…dorky. Their music exemplifies so much of what was wrong with 80s music, and I can’t understand why they were so popular. David Byrne’s lame sprechstimme style (like Fred Schneider, only serious and not campy) and the band’s oddball lyrics and quirky arrangements sound totally dated.

The Doors — Here’s a band I have absolutely no use for. Where do I start? Pretentious lyrics, overdrawn instrumental breaks, controversy masquerading as relevance? Or should I go ahead and say it: Jim Morrison sounded like a lounge singer. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

Nirvana — This just might be the one that will get me in trouble with some folks. I actually respect much of their stuff, and I’ll even go as far as to say I liked their Unplugged album. But, other than bringing us Dave Grohl, I just don’t see why they’re hailed as groundbreaking and so important. I’ll never forget riding between Athens and McDonough the day Kurt Cobain died, and being sad, until the announcer referred to him as “the poet of our generation,” at which point I nearly gagged. What I like of Nirvana’s music I like for entertainment value…no more, no less…and that’s why I think they’re overrated. Or would overhyped be more appropriate?

There’s my list. I realized as I got to the end how cranky it sounded, but after all, it’s just my opinion…

Music Monday: Amy Winehouse And The Tragedy Of Self-Destructive Talent

It’s been just over a week since the world lost a truly singular, tragic talent. Amy Winehouse was only 27 years old when she died last weekend. Let’s face it; with her history of drugs and alcohol abuse, it was easy to see it coming. Of course that doesn’t make Amy Winehouse’s passing any less sad, for she was part of a long line of people who dealt with talent and fame through self-destructive behavior.

I fell in love with the talent that was Amy Winehouse in the summer of 2007 when I heard “You Know I’m No Good” for the first time. I bought the Back To Black album not long after, and I was taken in by the retro-soul goodness of it all. Around the same time, she and her then-husband (who, incidentally, was the one who turned her onto hard drugs) got into some criminal trouble. It was easy to see even then that the cycle of her behavior would be difficult to break.

Every time I read or heard a story about more trouble…breakdowns, terrible performances, brief stints in treatment…I knew she was on a destructive path that would take major changes to reverse. Needless to say, her death was unsurprising, even to the ones to whom she was closest. My prayers go out to her family and loved ones, and my heart is heavy at the knowledge that a beautiful voice and immense talent are no more.

Music Monday: My Favorite Music From Walt Disney World (In Honor Of 150 Days Until We Go)

One of the greatest things at (and often one of the most overlooked aspects of) Walt Disney World is the music. Throughout the parks and resorts and everything else in between, music is everywhere, setting the mood and enhancing the experience pretty much everywhere you go.

Sometimes the music is obvious, and sometimes it’s subtle. You may never notice it, but I guarantee you if it weren’t there, you’d miss it for sure. Here’s a list of some of my favorite music from the parks, in no particular order…

SpectroMagic — The Magic Kingdom’s SpectroMagic may be my favorite parade in the parks. It’s not currently running, since they brought back the also classic Main Street Electrical Parade, but John Debney’s score for SpectroMagic is one of the most beautiful, stirring pieces of instrumental music I’ve ever heard. It’s also the only parade music in 3/4…or 6/8, if you prefer…time.

“Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me)” — How can you resist it? One of the most iconic rides in the Magic Kingdom was popular enough to inspire its own series of movies (rather than the other way around), and its theme song will stick in my head for hours, whether I hear it on my iPod or in the park. It’s like an audio souvenir.

Christmas Music at Wilderness Lodge — At Christmastime, the music at the parks and resort raises to another level. Imagine the magic of WDW music combined with the enchantment of Christmas music and you get the picture. At no other resort is this better exemplified than at the Wilderness Lodge. The best way I can describe the music at Wilderness Lodge at Christmastime is peaceful. I have it on my iPod, and I enjoy listening to it during the holiday season.

Music on the buses between the parks and resorts — It’s been said that WDW thinks of everything, and it’s absolutely true. Even on the buses between the parks and resorts, there’s music. It becomes a cool anticipation-builder as you’re riding to a park, or it can be relaxing as you’re heading back to your resort. One cool feature of the bus music is that, as the bus heads to a park, the music is upbeat and energetic, while the music on the way back to the resort is relaxing and calming. It’s all by design.

“It’s A Small World” — Yes, it can be annoying, and cutesy, and simple. But it’s reassuring, and it’s a classic song that’s quintessentially Disney. That’s all I need to know.

Music Monday: Lead Me On by Amy Grant

As a music lover, there are plenty of albums that speak to me in one way or another. However, over the course of my life there have been a precious few albums that have impacted my in so many ways…musically, creatively, spiritually…as Amy Grant’s Lead Me On.

My crush on Amy Grant began six years before Lead Me On was released. She became a truly big name in the Christian music world with the release of 1982’s Age To Age, and she continued to rise to prominence. It had been three long years since her last full release, Unguarded, and two years since her greatest hits collection, so by 1988 Amy’s fans were ready for something new.

With Lead Me On, Amy Grant’s camp promised a more mature record than anything she had released before, and that’s what she delivered. The mid-80’s pop/rock style of Unguarded was backed off in favor of moodier, more acoustic textures. Flourishes of folk and country made their way on the album, and the songcraft was more ambitious.

That’s to say nothing of the subject matter of the record. Rather than rely on the sunny, everything’s-okay platitudes of most Christian music, Lead Me On reflected a more honest view of life, even for a believer in Jesus. The songs on the record dealt with injustice, marital issues, temptation, and the fears of modern living. For this impressionable 15-year-old in the summer of 1988, Lead Me On offered what really seemed like a balanced view of what life is truly like. Most Christian music didn’t even come close to the scope and scale of this album.

Twenty-three years later, Lead Me On still sounds amazing. Very little of the album sounds dated, and the themes on the record resonate today (possibly more now for me than they did back then). Lead Me On was a high creative watermark in Amy Grant’s career, and it was rewarded with a Grammy. Not too many years ago, the now-defunct CCM magazine ranked it as the best Christian album of all time. That’s no exaggeration whatsoever. Lead Me On is absolutely one of the greatest, most influential albums for me, and it’s one that sounds powerful and special every time I give it a listen.

Music Monday: Fire And Rain by David Browne

I like reading books that provide a behind-the-scenes look at seminal events in history and culture. Recently, I finished Fire And Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, And The Lost Story Of 1970 by David Browne. The book takes a glimpse at the making of four classic albums from the dawn of the seventies: The Beatles’ Let It Be, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, and Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s Deja Vu. I’m a fan off all these artists, with the exception of CSNY, and the stories behind these records were truly fascinating.

Placing these musical stories against the backdrop of the years events…like the Kent State shootings, the Apollo 13 terror and triumph, and the Weather Underground bombings…Browne chronicles how the tempestuous sixties melted, both historically and musically, into the less turbulent seventies. Looking at these albums and what followed them, it’s easy to see the turn from the experimental music of the hippie era to the more introspective, lighter works that followed.

In addition to catching a glimpse at the making of four famous albums, I was drawn in by the chronicles of the demise of the Beatles…through the eyes of all four of them, the severing of ties between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, the self destruction of the supergroup CSNY, and the emergence of James Taylor into a reluctant, heroin addicted cultural hero. The turns in the lives of the music superstars made for compelling reading, even when I knew what was going to happen to them.

Fire And Rain is a truly worthwhile read for amateur music historians like me, as well as lovers of classic rock and those who appreciate cultural history. I learned a lot, even about the artists with whom I was most familiar. Check it out…you’ll be glad you did.

Music Monday Flashback: My 33 1/3 Favorite Beatles Songs

Inspired by an article I posted last week, I decided to compile a list of my favorite songs by the best rock band of all time. I realize that only people of a certain age will get the title…The 1/3 of a song is “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” (Abbey Road) It’s only a third of a song because it’s part of the medley with “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.” I left it outside of the countdown to comply with the title, but if I had included it, it would certainly be Top Ten.(Author’s note: my point of reference for albums is Steve Turner’s amazing book A Hard Day’s Write.

33. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
32. Here Comes The Sun (Abbey Road)
31. Day Tripper (Rubber Soul)
30. Drive My Car (Rubber Soul)
29. Michelle (Rubber Soul)
28. Something (Abbey Road)
27. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (Help!)
26. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) (Rubber Soul)
25. I Should’ve Known Better (A Hard Day’s Night)
24. Because (Abbey Road)
23. Paperback Writer (Revolver)
22. In My Life (Rubber Soul)
21. I’ll Follow The Sun (Beatles For Sale)
20. Let It Be (Let It Be)
19. Yesterday (Help!)
18. I Want To Hold Your Hand (With The Beatles)
17. Blackbird (The Beatles, aka the White Album)
16. Lady Madonna (The Beatles)

15. Eleanor Rigby (Revolver)
Paul McCartney’s portrait of loneliness is harrowing even for those of us who haven’t truly experienced that kind of life, and the stark, simple backing of a string quartet adds to the haunting loveliness of the track.

14. Across The Universe (Let It Be)
John Lennon said that this song is about the process of songwriting, which gives the potentially weirdo-mystical lyrics some true resonance. A beautiful song.

13. Hello Goodbye (Magical Mystery Tour)
Paul McCartney said this song was simply a word game, and some critics have tried to read some sort of “cosmic” meaning into the lyrics, but I’ve always seen it as a song about a guy and girl who can’t agree on anything. No matter what way you slice it, it’s simply a great song.

12. Getting Better (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
This track about a guy who is turning his life around, despite the attempts of his darker nature to come back to the forefront (“it couldn’t get much worse…”) is a song full of good natured humor and a look at the less savory side of one man’s world. The fact that another one of my favorite bands (Gomez) covered it endears the song to me even more.

11. She Loves You (With The Beatles)
One of my favorite songs from the early, “Beatlemania” days, “She Loves You” is a terrific example of tight harmonies, clever lyrics, and all-around great songcraft.

10. The Night Before (Help!)
I can’t really explain just why I like this song; I guess it’s catchy to me. I love the melody, and I’ve always thought the lines “When I held you near/You were so sincere” were a clever rhyme.

9. You Never Give Me Your Money (Abbey Road)
Leave it to Paul McCartney to turn a lament about the Beatles’ financial and management problems into a joyous celebration of the fun of having nothing to do and no money to spend. One of the most enjoyable and varied songs in the Beatles catalog.

8. The Long And Winding Road (Let It Be)
The Beatles’ poignant swan song…their last “official” single, and a truly beautiful song about the comfort of true friendship. I much prefer George Martin’s organic, stripped-down production (which was released in 2003 on Let It Be..Naked) to Phil Spector’s overdone production, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

7. All You Need Is Love (Yellow Submarine)
Probably a quintessential “hippie message” song, but if I’m going to have to hear a message, why not from the Beatles?

6. All My Loving (With The Beatles)
This is the first Beatles song I fell in love because of my mom’s influence and because of my tape of The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles. What can I say? It has an irresistible melody, and it’s a great song about devotion.

5. We Can Work It Out (Yesterday…And Today)
I’ve always loved this one. I like the enthusiasm of the notion of working problems out despite differences. Plus it’s catchy.

4. Your Mother Should Know (Magical Mystery Tour)
Paul’s obsession with Vaudeville-era music can easily be dismissed as “cute,” but when it produces a song like this one, it becomes something more interesting. There’s not much to the song lyrically, but it’s a nice piece of nostalgia.

3. Hey Jude
This is one of the Beatles best known, best loved songs, and it was certainly their biggest hit. Once again, Paul writes an amazing melody, combining it with incredible lyrics to produce one of the greatest songs of all time.

2. A Day In The Life (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band)
I recently read a critic who said that the true genius of Sgt. Pepper’s lies in the beauty of the songs about mundane life. This statement is no more true than in this song. The combination of John’s observations about things he has read with Paul’s description of an early morning routine are added to the band’s top-notch performances and George Martin’s impeccable orchestration to turn a song about everyday life into an epic. The long final chord at the end of the song gives me chills.

1. Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End (Abbey Road)
This medley, the final one in the series of medleys on Side 2 of Abbey Road, deals with Paul’s struggles with the troubles that would lead to the breakup of the band, before evolving into a joyous jam with one of the best , truest lines in the Fab Four’s canon (“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”). Again, Paul’s songwriting, the band’s performance, and George Martin’s near-perfect arrangement and orchestration converge to create a piece of true, varied beauty.

The amazing thing to me about the Beatles’ music is that there’s never a dull moment, and in just a few short years, they produced an enduring catalog of music that is timeless and never sounds dated. These are my favorites, and I’d love to hear others’ opinions as well…

“And I’ll Find Strength In Pain”

My favorite song right now is “The Cave” by Mumford & Sons. Aside from being an incredible three-and-a-half minutes of music, the lyrics are really powerful. I don’t know what the band’s beliefs are, but something about the words to that songs resonate with me.

Tonight, one particular line really speaks to me in a way that is independent of the song as a whole. The second half of the song’s main chorus says, “And I’ll find strength in pain.” I’m finding that to be true this evening.

Tonight I said goodbye to my grandmother for what I can only presume to be the last time. And though my family has had about two months to prepare for it, it’s not easy. In fact, it’s downright difficult. Even though I know in my heart of hearts that goodbye is really a “see you later” as she prepares for heaven, it’s not any easier to do without her presence here on earth. Continue reading “And I’ll Find Strength In Pain”

The Bizarre (But True) Story Of A Beloved Christmas Song

My favorite secular Christmas song is “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” I love the poignancy of the song. In the midst of these hopeful lyrics celebrating the season, there’s a melody that’s wistful and almost nostalgic. It’s a beautiful song.

I have a dozen different versions of the song on my iPod, from artists like Amy Grant, The Pretenders, David Gray, Lady Antebellum, John Denver & The Muppets, and The Carpenters. My favorite version has to be the one from a CD called That Christmas Swing that I picked up at a five-and-dime sort of store back when I was in college, sung by a session singer from Nashville named Gail Farrell. That particular version is a beautifully sung Big Band version that’s not flashy at all. Like I always say, a good song is a good song no matter who performs it.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” has a fascinating, practically bizarre history. In 2006, Chris Willman wrote an article in Entertainment Weekly that told the story:

There are two Christmas anthems locked in a struggle for the nation’s soul. One, the perennial leader, is the Nat King Cole-popularized ”The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” a glowing portrait of America in heavenly, secular peace. And then we have the challenger: ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which this year leaped to No. 2 on ASCAP’s annual list of the most performed holiday songs. ”Chestnuts” has plenty going for it: embers, tots, reindeer, an assurance of everything in its right place, and that 1-to-92 target demographic. But it can’t hold a candle to the depth and richness of ”Merry Little Christmas,” which wins our hearts by celebrating a quality that’s even more intrinsic to the season: emotional ambivalence.

”’Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ manages to be happy and sad at the same time, hopeful but full of melancholy, as all the best Christmas songs are,” says Bette Midler, who sings it on her new CD, Cool Yule. And the song’s fascinatingly tangled history has left it with several very different sets of lyrics, from the near-suicidal to the downright ebullient. There’s even a recent ”sacred” rewrite, ”Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas.” Which one you prefer may be the truest Rorschach test of your yuletide temperament.

Hugh Martin, the song’s 92-year-old writer, is calling from a California studio where he’s working on demos for a new musical. He’s curious to know who’s done ”Merry Little Christmas” well this year. Though the latest interpreters include Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor, and Aimee Mann, he’s most excited to learn that his song has finally merited a hair-metal cover. ”Twisted Sisters, is that the group’s name? Ha ha ha. That’s a hoot!”

Read the rest at Entertainment Weekly

My Ten Best Songs of 2010

In conjunction with my albums list, here’s my list of what I think are the ten best songs of 2010. This list is always a little bit more difficult than the albums list. I’ve revised the list a couple of times before I even started writing it, and I’m second-guessing it as I write. There were so many great individual songs, and it’s hard to choose, but most of the selections coincide with my albums list. Here goes… Continue reading My Ten Best Songs of 2010