Image above is entitled “Transition” and is featured courtesy of the artist, Denise Presnell (oil on canvas).
It’s been quite a year, huh? For a lot of us, 2017 cannot end quickly enough. Over the course of the year, I’ve touched on some of the stimuli potentially driving some of our eagerness to get to January 1. However, despite all the hard, there has been good as well, not the least of which has been deeply talented and creative artists making beautiful and provocative music. With that truth in mind, I want to take a moment to reflect on some of that music, especially the artists, experiences, and recordings which impacted Tomme Suab most significantly over the course of 2017, starting with some year-end honors.
2017 Tomme Suab Artist of the Year: Sylvan Esso
From Sylvan Esso’s Facebook page
Admittedly, I am late to the Sylvan Esso bandwagon. Back in 2014, I featured a track from their self-titled debut album on one of the very first TS10 playlists. However, I just couldn’t get into their music. Can’t explain it, but it just wasn’t speaking to me then.
Things have changed over the last three years. When I learned they would be playing at the third annual Eaux Claires festival this past June, I figured I ought to give it another go. Pretty soon, that first album was in regular rotation in my personal playlist. Their defiant spirit and pulsing sound took me prisoner and I’m still sitting in that cell. My fandom was cemented when I saw them play at the festival. Standing there in the midst of a crowd of thousands, this overweight, 40-something couldn’t help but move. So much energy. So much vivacity.
Their second release from earlier this year, What Now, has grabbed ahold of me more recently , sealing the “Artist of the Year” deal. Another great record full of creativity and emotional highs and lows. All of these factors combined, there’s no musician or band who has impacted Tomme Suab more in 2017 than Sylvan Esso.
2017 Tomme Suab Song of the Year: “Who We Are” by Gungor
There are several Gungor tracks which have grabbed my heart over the years (Beautiful Things, The Beat of Her Heart, and I Am Mountain among them), but none more so than Who We Are. This one, released this last summer, hit the proverbial spot for me. The right song done in the right way at precisely the right time.
The central question in the song, which is featured in the TS2017 playlist below, is “Will those who say they follow Jesus actually live up to those words?” The song represents a timely, poignant, and perhaps even prophetic question. As one who attempts to be like Jesus as much as I can, this question could not be more pertinent. The central human being in history, the one who opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, the embodiment of love, who calls us to love our neighbors, the strangers, the prisoners, the sick… the generally downtrodden, is the model for all who say they follow him.
And yet, here in America, we see the Evangelical church (again, among those who say they follow Jesus), playing a pivotal role in electing perhaps the most un-Jesus-like President in our history, a person who denigrates women, makes fun of people with physical disorders, and mongers fear and hatred against those who are not like him (the very downtrodden who Jesus loves and values). We, the church, have defended and made excuses for his behavior. We stand with his unbridled hubris and claim that he is more overt about Jesus than previous Presidents (thank you, Franklin Graham). We should be ashamed of ourselves. We are standing on the wrong side of history once again (just as we did during the 18th and 19th centuries when it came to slavery, just like we’ve done in our historical treatment and “Christianization” of native peoples, just like we did during the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century and on and on and on. More importantly, we are not aligning with the one we say we want to be like.
Gungor, not standing in a place of judgment or ridicule but in the midst of the Evangelical American church, calls us to question these things in Who We Are. It challenges the church to set aside it’s political allegiances and learn to love once again. It asks, “Will we be who we’ve always said we are?”, intimating the vast disparity between the love we are supposed to embody just as Jesus did and the hate and fear we support politically as well as the apathy we show toward those who Jesus treasures. For all these reasons, Who We Are grabbed a hold of my heart like no other song this year.
2017 Tomme Suab Album of the Year: J.E. Sunde’s “Now I Feel Adored”
There is no question that J.E. Sunde is a TS favorite. I am a fan of just about everything the man makes. In 2017, Sunde released Now I Feel Adored, his brilliant sophomore solo album and it did not disappoint.
His vocal prowess is on display from the very beginning as Monica Martin from PHOX joins him on I Will Smile When I Think of You and continues throughout, never more evident than in My Attempts to Grow a Beard. Sunde’s committed focus on detail and precision, as well as phenomenal craftsmanship, is pervasive and virtually palpable. But it’s his lyrical content that brings all of it together for me and makes it a beautiful package. I won’t go into great detail here as I shared my thoughts on the record earlier this year here on TS. Suffice to say, the groaning of Prism, the hope of Called By Our Names, the romance of Color Your Nails, the strained apathy of Fire on the Mountain, and the passion of Wedding Ring, along with various other themes and feels, make for a powerful record. And there was no record that spoke to me as deeply as this one.
The following ten songs, in one way or another, have held sway and depth of meaning for TS over the course of 2017. Below the playlist is a brief description of some of that sway and meaning.
Sylvan Esso, “Kick Jump Twist”
Please see above. Sylvan Esso makes even this old guy want to kick, jump, twist.
Gracie and Rachel, “Tiptoe”
I’ve just been getting to know Gracie and Rachel’s music this past year. While I LOVE what I have heard from them overall, Tiptoe is special for me as it served as an introduction to their music. Dramatic, intense, morose… I’ll have more to say about them soon from an TS-exclusive interview.
David Bowie, “Blackstar”
I’ve always had immense respect for David Bowie. Honestly, I think he was a genius. Having said that, I haven’t always stayed current on his releases. The album Blackstar, released in 2016, didn’t really hit my personal radar until early 2017, about a year after Bowie’s death. The titular track immediately seized my attention and simply did not let go. It is an epic (a little less than ten minutes long) and encapsulates so much of what I like about David Bowie’s music.
Gungor, “Who We Are”
Please see above.
Soundgarden, “Jesus Christ Pose”
R.I.P. to one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time, Chris Cornell. And, for what it’s worth, there something in this song which speaks to some of what’s wrong with the Evangelical church.
I hate the “n” word, always have. And, full disclosure here, I don’t understand black folks calling each other by that name. I don’t get it. And, I think that’s the point of this song. Solange released A Seat at the Table on the same day as Bon Iver’s 22, A Million in September, 2016. Because of my obsession with Bon Iver’s record, I didn’t jump into Solange’s record right away. This song encapsulates well the mix of creativity and the roiling discomfort the entire album brings. And, for this guy, that roiling discomfort happened much in 2017.
Jetty Rae, “Can’t Curse the Free”
The spiritual defiance in this song resonates deeply with me. The darkness has no right over the free. Preach it, sister!
Jessie Smith – “Been in the Storm”
This song is great in and of itself. But, it also serves as a great reminder of the fun I had connecting this artist with local venues here in the Chippewa Valley and spending a little time with her and her husband. Good, good people (and AWFULLY talented).
Leon Bridges – “River”
Oh man… this song. What a beautiful song. Originally released in 2015, I had not been exposed to River until a buddy of mine pointed me in it’s direction earlier this year. There is both universal and personal truth here… there’s blood on my hands and my lips are unclean… take me to your river, I wanna go.
J.E. Sunde – “Called By Our Names”
Redemption and hope. That’s this song. Dreams of a day in which all is made right, when shalom reigns. Let it be so.
NOW, onto 2018!!