Alrighty, my friends, it’s time for our annual round up of favorites, which I had way too much fun putting together. As always, these are predominantly personal picks, albeit ones with an eye toward Mocking-resonance. TV went live last week. (Click here to check out last year’s list). Here goes:

Music

Favorite Discoveries

  1. Jimmy Webb. This one counts as about 20 discoveries wrapped up into one. I had known the hits–“Galveston”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Macarthur Park”, who doesn’t?–but that was as far as it went. Talk about the tip of the iceberg! Webb’s is a gift that’s been giving for nigh on 40 years, from the legit lost classic” of 5th Dimension’s The Magic Garden (first I’ve discovered since Honeybus’ Story) to Garfunkel’s Watermark to his work with the Supremes to the Last Unicorn soundtrack to his Mach III work with Glen Campbell, 1988’s brilliant Light Years, and beyond. Campbell’s cover of Webb’s “Adios” closed out his final (posthumous) solo album earlier this year, the definition of a tearjerker that earns every tear. And then there’s Richard Harris’ The Yard Goes on Forever, and 1986’s Animals Christmas, the latter of which has been my go-to this season. To say nothing of the supremely underappreciated work he recorded under his own name, most notably 1977’s incredible El Mirage and 1974’s Land’s End. If you glimpsed my most-played on iTunes, that former record would be at the very top. I could go on, but suffice it to say, in a year when absolutely everything became politicized, where ‘non-engagement’ became a mortal sin among serious people, Webb’s stirring songs about heartbreak and hope served as a haven of deep feeling and a much-needed reminder that, contrary to the refrains of the day (both in the church and outside it), there exists a layer of experience underneath all the endless ‘narrative’, a place where loss and love are the only things that matter. I put as many of the key tracks on February’s playlist as I could fit (though don’t forget “Crying in My Sleep”!), but I can’t not single out “Where I Am Going”, a gospel tune that Jimmy wrote for Glen back in 1992 and which I’ve had that one on full blast all year. Amen, gents, and thank you.
  2. Amy Grant’s Lead Me On [1988]. Basically, I couldn’t read another interview with The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle where he went on about this record without finally hearing for myself what he meant. Then, when I found out it contained a Jimmy Webb song (“If These Walls Could Speak”), I sprang. I am so glad I did. Everything about this record is exquisite: the production, the songwriting, the singing, yes, even the theology–which is both understated and profound. I can’t speak for Grant’s work before or after this, but I’m happy to be in even more debt to Darnielle than before, and to have had my preconceptions about 80s CCM so radically challenged. Favorite track is probably the opening “1974”, though there’s not a weak one to be found (“What About the Love?” “Wait for the Healing” “Shadows”, “Saved by Love” – sheesh). PtL.
  3. The Hot Wax/Invictus label, 1969-1973. I’ve always loved Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland writing/production team; it’s hard to grow up in this country and not love them, even if you’ve never heard the names. But I’d never investigated their story, which a Morrissey-inspired revisiting of Martha and the Vandellas discography prompted while I was on sabbatical. Basically, as their hitmaking esteem grew in the 60s, they started to chafe under Berry Gordy’s tight control of the label’s purse-strings and creative direction. And so they bolted, seeking to establish a fresh stable of artists to deliver their songs on their own imprint, where they could reap more of the profits. Unfortunately, Gordy’s legal team prevented Brian, Lamont, and Eddie from using their actual names in conjunction with the new tunes. They went ahead anyway and ushered a heap of would-be classics into the world, only a few of which got traction with radio, e.g., Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” and Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time.” After four-ish years of furious activity, the new labels (Hot Wax and Invictus) both folded, and H-D-H went on to pursue other avenues, though not as a threesome. Come to find out, unlike Motown, the singles they issued only hinted at the depth of what was being recorded. Both of Freda Payne’s first two platters (especially the second one, Contact) are masterpieces, as is Honey Cone’s second full-length Soulful Tapestry, and just about everything The Glass House released. Invictus also put out the immaculate first few Chairmen of the Board albums–so we have them to thank for Beach Music as a genre.

Twelve Favorite Songs Released in 2017

  1. “Elon Musk Is Making Me Sad” – The Rentals
  2. “Magnetar” – The Hill & Wood
  3. “Perfect Places” – Lorde
  4. “Total Entertainment Forever” – Father John Misty
  5. “Call Me the Witch” – Cotton Mather feat Nicole Atkins
  6. “Holy Mountain” – Noel Gallagher
  7. “Already Gone” – Slaid Cleaves
  8. “Landlady” – U2
  9. “Home Is a Question Mark” – Morrissey
  10. “Black Sheep” – Lacy Green feat Adam Wood
  11. “Sign of the Times” – Harry Styles
  12. “The Man” – The Killers

Twelve Favorite Songs Discovered in 2017 (By Artists Not Mentioned Above)

  1. “He Is the Light” – Al Green
  2. “My Sentimental Friend” – Herman’s Hermits
  3. “People Help the People” – Cherry Ghost
  4. “Pandora’s Box” – OMD
  5. “Hospital for Sinners” – The Wallflowers
  6. “Sacred Songs” – Daryl Hall
  7. “Anthem for a Lost Cause” – Manic Street Preachers
  8. “I Came to Believe” – Johnny Cash
  9. “Keep You on My Side” – Chvrches
  10. “Pass Away” – Chuck Berry
  11. “Cool” – Gwen Stefani
  12. “Death of the Party” – The Keene Brothers  (RIP Tommy)

Eight Favorite Albums Released in 2017

  1. Antisocialities – Alvvays
  2. Science Fiction – Brand New
  3. When You Go – The Hill & Wood
  4. Turn Out the Lights – Julien Baker
  5. As You Were – Liam Gallagher. I’m as surprised as you are.
  6. Twin Peaks: The Return (Music from the Limited Event Series) – Various Artists
  7. The Blinding White of Nothing at All – The Lees of Memory
  8. Ghosts – Jeremy Enigk

Favorite Reissue: For Sale: Live at Maxwells 1986 by The Replacements. Full band “Answering Machine”!

Most Grace-Tastic Devotional Music Discoveries: Cherry Blossoms by Andy Squyres, Of Old It Was Recorded by Wesley Randolph Eader, and Pilgrim’s Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams

 

Media

Favorite (and Most Cited) Columnists, Religious or Otherwise: Stephen Freeman and Elizabeth Bruenig

Long Reads We Got the Most Mileage Out of: “Why Time Management Is Ruining Our Lives” by Oliver Burkeman, “Excommunicate Me From the Church of Social Justice” by Frances Lee, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” by Wilfred McClay, and “Half-Full of Grace” by Dorothy Fortenberry

Most Moving Profile of a Modern Saint: La Times on Mohammed Bzeek

Most Fascinating Interviews: Simon Sinek on Inside Quest, Russell Brand in The Guardian, Bonnie Poon Zahl with The Salvation Army, and Alan Jacobs on Give and Take

Favorite Social Science Study: Even Work-Life Balance Experts Are Awful at Balancing Work and Life

Favorite (and Most Grace-Oriented) Documentaries: ASK, Finders Keepers, Riding Grace, and The Work

Favorite Podcasts We Don’t Host: Heavyweight, Revisionist History, I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats, and Invisibilia

Favorite Movies, Bearing In Mind That I Haven’t Seen a Ton of What’s Getting Press: The Big Sick, Lady Bird, Get Out, Thor: Ragnarok, Blade Runner 2049, A Ghost Story, Meyerwitz Stories, Logan

Favorite Talk From an Event We Didn’t Host: “Burying the Calculator” by Chad Bird (vid at bottom)

Humor

Most Relevant Onion Headlines: “Study Finds Average American Hopes No One Saw That 12 Times Per Day”, “Picture Most Closely Resembling Actual Self Deleted”, “Former Conservative Recalls Belittling Tirade From College Student That Brought Him Over To Left”

Favorite Babylon Bees: “‘Religion is a Parasite’ Says Guys Living in His Parents’ Basement,”Local Woman Discovers Prayer Request–Gossip Loophole,” “78% of Marital Problems Now Caused by HGTV Home Renovation Shows.”

Favorite McSweeneys Pieces: “Please Forgive My Microaggressions”, “The Modern Confessions of St. Augustine”, “And God Created the Millennial Earth

Most Relevant New Yorker Cartoon: This One.

Great Job Internet Award: Sad Topographies, Twilight Zone Plot Generator, Random Sermon Generator

Great Job Scandinavia Award: The Museum of Failure

Favorite Tweeters: Wendy’s and Nicole Cliffe

Favorite YouTube Video (That’s Supposed to Be Funny): Passive Aggressive Relationship Techniques

Books and Literature

Favorite Novel I Read This Year: The Nix by Nathan Hill

Most Essential Non-Fiction That Both Came Out and I Read This Year: How to Think by Alan Jacobs

Most Prophetic Mixing of the Two I’m Embarrassed I Hadn’t Read Before: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

2017 Book That Scared the Bejeesus Out of Me But I Still Think Should Be Mandatory Reading: iGen by Jean Twenge

Favorite Pop Psychology Handbook: Why Won’t You Apologize? by Harriet Lerner

Favorite YA Trilogy: Quarantine by Lex Thomas

“Trade Books” About Religion I Found Most Personally Helpful, Faith-Wise (Top Theology Books Post Coming Next Week): Russell Brand’s Recovery, James Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (inspired a class at our church actually), and Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart

Essay Collections I Can’t Stop Thinking About: Free Women, Free Men by Camille Paglia and Against Everything by Mark Greif

Favorite “500 Years of the Reformation” Article That We Didn’t Publish: Duh! (Forgive me). On a more sartorial and less theological note, though, there’s lots to enjoy in “Searching for the P in WASP”.

Favorite Poems of 2017: “Pastoral” by Mischa Willett and “In the Church of All The Answers” by Nina Forsythe

Favorite Poem Discovered in 2017: “Perfection, Perfection” by Killian McDonnell