sinead o’connor

Ubiquitous End of Year Best Of List, 2012 Edition

Yes, it’s that time of year again. And since I’ve had a very leisurely holiday, which included a trip back to my home state of Pennsylvania, I’m late posting this list. I’m sure most lists have favorite films, books and TV shows, but I’ve been so busy as a student that I haven’t absorbed much in the way of culture and content outside of music. And so, the 2012 list is music, music, music.

TOP ALBUMS

RUNNER UP: I’ve been a fan of Bettye LaVette for a few years now. I learned about her from a few music blogs, then saw clips of her majestic Kennedy Center Honors performance and an appearance on Austin City Limits.

Her albums have had great tunes on them, mostly remakes – a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” stands out – but in some cases on the previous albums, the song choices kind of blurred into each other. This was especially true of her British songbook CD.

Her new album, “Thoughtful and Thankful,” is perfect from beginning to end.

LaVette also reworks an old song, “Dirty Old Town,” written by Ewen MacColl (who, in addition to being the famed songwriter of songs like “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,”, is also the father of the late Kirsty MacColl).

In any other year, “Thankful and Thoughtful” would have been my number one, for its amazing songs and the way LaVette lays bare her emotions on every track. But one album featured an even more transcendent performance.

NUMBER ONE: My number one choice has been a constant on my playlists since I first fell in love with her music in 1989 and 1990. Songs like “Troy” were the soundtrack of my college days. And in 1990, she took a Prince-penned song – “Nothing Compares 2 U” – and made it her own.

I’ve followed Sinead O’Connor’s music since, and though she’s had several great albums since – “Faith and Courage,” “Theology,” – but her 2012 album, “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)” is every bit as amazing as her initial music. The themes of her music – faith, love and the loss of love, and her own struggles with mental illness – make this my favorite album of the year. In a year of pop tarts and Autotune, O’Connor’s authenticity is like a cool drink of water in the desert for me.

TOP SONGS: 

A number of other songs caught my ears:

Aimee Mann: I love Mann’s music, and on several new songs from “Charmer,” she injected some different sounds and a lot of levity.

I also liked “Labrador”, “Crazytown,” and “Living A Lie.” Check them out.

Miguel Migs: I’ve gone down the electronica/chill tracks road, and one of the new songs released this year that I loved came from an album produced and compiled by notable DJ Miguel Migs. This Me’shell Ndegeocello collaboration is among my favorites.

Frank Ocean: He’s on every Top 2012 list invented, and for good reason. Though I didn’t love every song on his debut album, there are several amazing tracks. And for his first public performance to be as arresting and amazing as this one? We’ll be seeing much, much more of him. Again, a true treat of unique talent and authenticity in a cesspool of corporate copycats.

Gossip: Every time The Gossip puts out music, they land on my list – and my playlist!

The Cherry Thing: I can’t wait for a new Neneh Cherry solo CD – rumored to be coming out in 2013 – but her vocals floating over the moody jazz/electronica of The Thing made for some fun beats.

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Music Monday: Faith, God and rock and roll

Music speaks to a wide range of human passions and human experiences – whether it’s rock and roll, country twang, rap music or a symphony. And people who are passionate about faith and about God have used music to express that passion.

Let’s be honest, though: the genre known as “Christian rock” has produced some profoundly awful music – particularly back in the 80s and 90s, when the attempt to merge those two ideas was executed quite poorly by some major record labels.

But there’s been some really great, thoughtful music in the last five to ten years from artists that we’d consider ‘mainstream rock artists, and that music has come forth in a very organic way. They explore their faith and their God in their songs. I think by avoiding that “Christian Music” label  (which is, as all sales of music are, 98% about PR and where the music fits in a sales environment), it allows people to just hear the songs and experience them.

A few of the mainstream artists that have mentioned faith in their music:

Sufjan Stevens is one of my favorite artists. He’s got some inventive takes on rock and folk and I love his arrangements. His faith was a subject in a lot of the initial interviews he gave, and he was reluctant to speak about it. His attitude was that his music said it all. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is one of the more heartfelt songs where Stevens tackles a religious theme.

The Innocence Mission has been around for over twenty years, and their music has always referred to their faith, in ways both subtle and obvious. Without directly mentioning God, lead singer Keren Paris draws from religious imagery in the song “Now In This Hush.”

Prefab Sprout has been around for even longer – about 30 years – and band leader and lead singer Paddy McAloon is critically acclaimed for being the Irving Berlin/Cole Porter of contemporary pop music. But McAloon has always worn his faith on his sleeve. The band’s most famous album, Jordan: The Comeback is about God. Or Jesus. Or Elvis. Possibly all three. McAloon’s output has been diminished significantly in recent years as he’s lost a significant amount of vision and hearing from health ailments (including severe tinnitus), but a few years ago the band released Let’s Change The World With Music, which has several songs with vivid religious imagery.

I can think of no pop song as deeply vested with Biblical imagery than Prefab Sprout’s song “One Of The Broken,” one of my favorite songs of all time.

And perhaps the most controversial person I’ll mention here: Sinead O’Connor.

I know people remember her ripping the photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live – a topic I addressed in an earlier post – but this is a person who is still actively exploring and  questioning her faith and the meaning of it in her life. Which I think makes for some very compelling music. And no one in contemporary pop music is exploring faith in their music as often and as thoroughly as O’Connor.

“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” may be a number from a Broadway song, but it takes on many more layers when O’Connor, who’s herself been a clergywoman, sings it.

Her latest album ends with the stunning “VIP,” which questions crass commercialism and celebrity culture and designates God as her VIP.

Sinead’s songs always make me really think about matters of faith and about how she examines those ideas. She’s a controversial figure and has a very messy public narrative, with her comments on religion and sexuality and her open struggles with mental health issues. It’s interesting that she’s often judged so harshly for her imperfections. What, I wonder, would Jesus say?

Sinéad was right

There were few places I went as a college student in 1989 that didn’t have Sinéad O’Connor as a soundtrack.

Her debut album, The Lion and The Cobra, had just been released a few months before. Songs like “Mandinka” and “Put Your (Hands On Me)” were a great mix of alternative, hip-hop and dance music, and more than a few of us exorcised our romantic demons with “Troy” playing in the background.

Sinéad became a household name after the enormous success of her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, with her classic take on the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U.” If she wasn’t getting attention for her phenomenal music, she was getting attention for her appearance – her shaved head, a big middle finger to an industry that wanted female artists to be tarty and marketable.

Sinéad’s career continued, with ups and downs. She maintained a high profile in the States – until October 3, 1992, when she appeared on Saturday Night Live. On that program, after singing her version of Bob Marley’s “War,” she did the unthinkable – she ripped a picture of Pope John Paul II while looking at the camera and asking the audience to “fight the real enemy.”

The reaction was immediate and ferociously negative. Thousands of people attended rallies where copies of Sinéad’s albums were burned. Her career was burned, too, and her popularity in the United States took a permanent hit.

At the time, very little was made of the reason that Sinéad gave the press for her actions: she was protesting the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse that had happened in the church. Children had been abused by priests.

It was, perhaps, a relatively new concept in the media, a new concept to readers and viewers. We hadn’t heard much about the events she was speaking about at that time. Her actions were remembered, but the more complex reasons behind them were not. She was often vilified as being anti-religion and anti-Catholic, when in fact her faith was so deep she eventually became ordained as a priest (in an offshoot of the Church).

The great irony of all of this is, of course, that the abuse scandal that Sinéad reacted to (in Ireland) was only the tip of the iceberg. The Catholic Church has clearly had issues with abuse – and its subsequent handling of such abuse – and it wasn’t limited to one country or even one continent. Or one decade, since the problem seems to have resurfaced time and again.

Sinéad may have been impetuous, or impertinent. She may have even been guilty of a grand, ineloquent gesture.

But there’s no denying it: Sinéad was right.

Her career as originally conceived and launched in the States is no more, though she’s released dozens of albums since. I still love her music, and her voice is even better with age. She’s been recognized for her work and is still active in matters of faith.

I just wish that somehow, Sinéad could be more fully acknowledged for what she did and said – and what she risked to say about a people and a community that she loved.

EPILOGUE: After decades of secrecy, Pope Benedict issued what is an astonishing apology just this past week for the abuses that have been committed by priests. It’s long in coming – perhaps too long for some victims – but it’s a very real beginning to healing and making the Church a stronger community.

The idea for this post has been growing in my mind for a few months, since the latest round of revelations in the States regarding the abuse scandals in the Church.

I came to this idea on my own, but after Googling this topic, I’m both glad – and sad – to see that I’m hardly the first person to say “Sinéad was right.” There’s about a dozen or so Google hits that say similar things, including an excellent piece by now-ABC reporter Jake Tapper that was published on Salon.com – you can check it out here.