Category Archives: entertainment

My Favorite Christmas Albums – 2016

Back in 2010, I wrote about my favorite Christmas songs and albums. (You can check it out here.)

Six years is long enough! So, today, I’m updating you on some of my favorite Christmas albums. I’d love to hear what your favorites are, so leave some comments! And even better, I put together a Spotify playlist so you can enjoy them too.

  1. Christmas… From the Realms of Glory by Bebo Norman – Bebo Norman may be retired, but he remains one of the absolute best songwriters in CCM (just give a listen to the cut “Deeper Still” from his album Ten Thousand Days). If you listened to Bebo back in his indie days, you may understand this: Christmas… From the Realms of Glory sounds like it came from his heart more than anything else I’ve heard from him.  With simple instrumentation – acoustic guitar, piano, melodica, hammer dulcimer – the record is a masterpiece of warm, introspective, Americana pop. Highlights: “Born to Die,” “Come and Worship,” “The Rebel Jesus”
  2. Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson – Being in ministry can get tough sometimes. The stress can be overwhelming, especially at Christmas time. A few years ago, I hit one of those walls, and this album got me through it. Peterson and his collaborators – among them Jill Phillips, Andrew Osenga, and Ben Shive – weave a folk-pop tapestry that brings the story of Scripture to life – from creation to Christmas. From the beautiful “Labor of Love” to the silly “Matthew’s Begats,” this is a special album. Highlights: “Labor of Love,” “Deliver Us,” “Matthew’s Begats”
  3. Advent Christmas EP, Vol. 2 by Future of Forestry – So you’re probably noticing a theme among my favorite Christmas albums – serenity. I love the mellow, organic, ambient sounds and Eric Owyoung’s honest voice. Those are the things that make this EP one of the best. Highlight: “The Earth Stood Still”
  4. Silver City by Falling Up – If you remember Falling Up from their early days, you might think, “That doesn’t really sound like Jud’s kind of band.” And you’d be right. But over the years their sound evolved into something more experimental and ambient. That led to their 2013 album Silver City, a collection of inventively arranged Christmas songs and a few originals. There’s energy, contemplation, cool melodies, Jesus, and little bit of sci-fi. Highlights: “Emanuel,” “Sugar Plum Fairy,” “The Little Robot”
  5. Christmas by Michael W. Smith – High-church, classical Christmas album with classic Smitty touches, and it’s pretty flippin’ amazing. Still one of my favorites. Highlights: “First Snowfall,” “All Is Well,” “Gloria”

Christmas album honorable mention: Christmastime by Michael W. Smith, Music of Christmas by Steven Curtis Chapman, Home for Christmas by Amy Grant

The absolute worst Christmas song ever: still “Grown Up Christmas List.”

Feeling Inspired

I got really burned out on music toward the end of Jud Kossum Band in late 2007.  I should have been really excited about our last show (we were opening for Starfield at Murray Hill Theater in Jacksonville, Florida), but I was already so dead tired it almost didn’t matter.  We finished our set.  I had to get up early the next morning, and the guys were gracious enough to load up our stuff and haul it back home without me.  I didn’t even stay for Starfield’s whole set, which is very unlike me.  I always tried to support the other bands we played with.

I haven’t spent much of my limited free time playing guitar in the ensuing four years.  I have written maybe two or three songs since then – nothing in the last couple of years.  I haven’t been playing in a band.

I have been leading worship on Sundays at Magnolia Creek.  I love it, but it’s a different animal.  I do it because I love leading worship, not because I love playing music.  Because, quite honestly, since the band broke up and we moved back to Houston, I haven’t loved playing music.  Haven’t even really liked it.  Too much work and pressure and expectation and disappointment and frustration and exhaustion were tied up in it.

But a weird thing happened a couple of weeks ago.  The Smashing Pumpkins came out with a new album.  That in itself, of course, is not really weird.  The weird thing is that it got me interested.  I’d never really been what you’d call a fan of SP.  I liked what I heard on the radio, but for some reason, I never felt the urge to buy a CD.  But I previewed the new album on iTunes, and it piqued my curiosity.  Through a course of events, I downloaded first Siamese Dream, then Oceania (the latest).  That got me thinking about all the music I used to listen to – the stuff that really inspired me.  Especially Pearl Jam.

For quite some time, Pearl Jam Twenty languished in my Netflix queue.  Last Friday night, I decided to watch it.

Mind.  Blown.

This is no “Behind the Music” exposé, airing all the band’s dirty laundry.  It’s simply a very well done history of the band and a love letter to the music of Seattle in the early 90s.  From the early days – the death of Andrew Wood and, consequently, Mother Love Bone – to the whole Ticketmaster debacle, to the horror of the Roskilde Festival (nine fans were crushed to death, which nearly led the band to break up), to today as the band continues to make its own way across the musical landscape.

And the music.  Oh, man, the MUSIC!

I saw in this movie what I’d always wanted as a musician.  Not rock stardom.  Not unbridled creativity.  The Seattle music scene of the late 80s and early 90s was a scene where everybody knew each other, and they were friends.  They had fun together.  I always wanted to play in a band with my friends and have fun doing it.  And I wanted to be part of a scene where everybody supported and liked each other.

So, I talked to Kacy about how I was feeling.  I picked up my Strat for the first time in ages.  I rewired my pedal board and cranked up my amp.  I laid down a few riffs in Garageband.  I texted some friends and asked them to come jam.

I probably won’t be recording a new album or playing any shows, but I will be making music again.

Man, I love music.

Superhero Cinema and the Genius of Joss Whedon

The AvengersI finally got around to seeing The Avengers over the weekend, and I was not disappointed. My wife and I both are excited about seeing it again, which rarely happens in this day of recycled Hollywood junk. It got me thinking about a couple of things that I thought I’d share – the state of the superhero movie genre and the creative genius of Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but if you don’t want to know anything about the movie yet, you might want to stop reading.

Let’s start with Whedon, creator of cult icon Buffy the Vampire Slayer and (the best 14 episodes of TV ever produced) Firefly, screenwriter of Toy Story, and master of quirky dialogue. He’s also, apparently, a sadist, consistently finding that one, incredibly human character in each of his works (The Avengers included) and killing them off. “I’m a leaf on the wind.” (R.I.P. Wash, Penny, and – I’m still ticked about this one Joss – Fred Burkle.)

Since the 90s, Whedon has had a small but vocal following – of which I count myself one – and The Avengers is the avenue through which mainstream audiences have finally come into contact with his genius. It doesn’t have the depth of much of his previous work, but it’s an absolutely great popcorn movie. It showcases his mastery of the ensemble cast, including what we love about Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man and Chris Evan’s Steve Rogers/Captain America, while showing us what we’ve missed in Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and – especially – the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). There are just enough pauses in the frenetic movement of the plot to help us invest, more than enough excitement, and TONS of great one-liners. (Bruce Banner gets the best: “His brain is like a bag of cats!”) And the theme of teamwork provides multiple levels of conflict and more depth than you might expect in a movie with all the heroes from the Marvel movie universe.

If you haven’t seen it, get out there and do it. NOW!

Now on to the state of superhero cinema. The Avengers works in part because it both embraces and subverts (somewhat) the tropes of the genre. The best movies in the genre have done the same. Top of that list – in my opinion – is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which would stand on its own as a great crime film if the main characters were not Batman and the Joker. The accoutrements of the genre are there, but what makes the film great is not Heath Ledger’s fantastic performance, it’s the fact that, in the end, Batman becomes a true hero, not being beating up the bad buy, but by sacrificing himself for the good of his city. While the ending of Captain America stumbles, it’s the same kind of depiction of true heroism – rather than the typical comic book variety – that makes me love the movie.

Iron Man is one of the greats as well, but in the end it falls to what film critic Michael Mirasol calls the “predictable conventions” of the superhero movie – mainly the fight with the big baddie.

These are some of the high points, along with X2, Batman Begins, Superman, Superman II, and some I’m sure I’m forgetting. The best are not just about the spectacle, they are about ideas. (The best entertainment in any medium is usually about ideas – not via sermonizing but through deep characterization and engaging, meaningful story.)

Therein lies the problem with superhero movies – and Hollywood movies in general: they are about the spectacle. The problem is, as Mirasol points out, that movie magic “has made the incredible familiar.” The effects are infinitely better today, but nothing is going to match the first time that Star Destroyer flew over your head in Star Wars.

The success of The Dark Knight lies in that Christopher Nolan took a character with great depth and placed him in a world and a story that felt real and powerful. He then drew that story to a meaningful conclusion that can speak to all of us. Mirasol says it well: “The time has come for the genre to tantalize us not just with outlandish imagery, but new ideas.”

Review | Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Click to buy Ready Player One My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is not a literary masterpiece by any means, but it’s been a long time since I had this much fun reading a novel.

Ready Player One takes place in a near future in which human society is on the verge of collapse (sounds fun already!), and everyone has taken refuge in a massive online simulation known as the OASIS. The OASIS’ creator, James Halliday, dies an old man, leaving a will that initiates a contest inside the simulation, the winner of which will inherit all of his vast wealth, as well as control over the OASIS. The “Easter Egg,” as the ultimate goal of the contest is known, can only be found by locating – inside the OASIS – three keys that open three gates, each of which opens to an unknown challenge. Halliday, a child of the ‘80s, leaves no clue to the whereabouts of the keys except for his journal, which contains his musings on his life, the human condition, and – most importantly – the pop culture of the age of excess.

In the beginning, the contest seems to captivate the entire population of the globe, but over time interest wanes. Only a relatively small group of people known as “gunters” – short for “egg hunters” – continue the quest, immersing themselves in all the things that Halliday loved in the hopes that this will direct them to the location of the first key. Finally, years after Halliday’s death, an OASIS avatar named Parzival (his name is Wade in the real world) – our hero – finds it, setting the story in motion.

Let me put this right out there – for those of you who don’t already know. I’m a geek. I grew up in the ‘80s. Cline wrote this book for me people like me. It’s overflowing with random movie lines (“Dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”), references to comic books, video games, sci-fi and fantasy novels. And the highest geekery of all, Dungeons & Dragons plays a major role in the plot early on. (To be fair to myself, I was never THAT into D&D, though I have played my share of RPGs*.) These little nuggets often made me laugh out loud, which I rarely do when reading.

Apart from this, the story moves along at a lightning pace, making Cline’s too-frequent forays into long-winded exposition bearable. (Though, perhaps this was purposeful. I’ve read many a science fiction novel, and I’ve never met a sci-fi author who didn’t LOVE exposition!) The primary line of the plot follows the adventures of Parzival and his friends inside the OASIS, but chilling and compelling events take place in the real world as well. And these serve to get the reader truly invested.

The narrator’s voice is a little weak. There’s too much telling instead of showing. The characters aren’t terribly developed, though there is a little to hang on to. But I’m willing to bet Cline had an absolute blast writing this because that’s what comes across on the page.

For my Christian readers out there who may be concerned about these things, there is some profanity and a somewhat prolonged discussion of a particular sexual activity that is pretty crass, which is to be expected with these characters in this world. Overall, it was bearable in my opinion. If it were a movie, it would probably garner a PG-13 rating.

Ready Player One is a really good story set in a vivid world and told with imagination and childlike joy. This is escapist fare in the best sense of the term.

*Role Playing Games, for the uninitiated.