Another treat to tide you over until we shift back into full-speed next week, a guest year-end list from Carl Laamanen of the excellent Losing Sight of Land blog. 

Human beings, especially those that really like popular culture, must love lists. This is the only explanation for the hundreds of year-end “best of” lists that begin to pervade the internet at the onset of December. This is also the only reason I can provide for why I find them so fascinating. Heck, Popmatters had two weeks of music lists alone, leading up to their top 70 albums of the year, and I probably read at least half of them. Instead of a top ten of the best music or film of this year, I wanted to give you all a glimpse into all of the above: the films, music and books that have had the biggest impact on my life this year. These works of art have challenged and encouraged me, and while they aren’t all from this past year, they are deserving of being remembered and treasured in any year.

The Age of Adz – Sufjan Stevens

The Age of Adz is utterly befuddling and entirely exhilarating. That is the only way to describe this conglomeration of electronic sounds, soaring vocals and personal ruminations. Make no mistake, this is Sufjan’s most personal album yet, and from these contemplative lyrics come some truly remarkable insights. I see myself and all my insecurities reflected in Vesuvius and I Want to be Well, and my spirits are buoyed by the title track and Too Much. But it is the album closer, Impossible Soul, traversing the ups and downs of life, which reassures us that a fearful life is not worth living, instead celebrating both the incredible potential and sometimes painful reality of human relationships. In fact, the whole album seems to be an exploration of the tension between celebration and sorrow and as such, offers both catharsis and counsel on how to live with it.

Sigh No MoreMumford and Sons
There is no doubt that Mumford and Sons make fantastic, grace-filled music. Their earnest lyrics manage to look the evil of the world (and the evil within us) in the eye and not back down, trusting that love and grace will ultimately defeat it. Roll Away Your Stone speaks to the very heart of the Gospel with its exploration of the darkness and fragility of the human condition that culminates in an impassioned cry for a new, refreshed soul. In one of my favorite lyrics of the year Awake My Soul reminds us of our humanity and responsibility, “In these bodies we live and in these bodies we will die, where you invest your love is where you invest your life.” Album closer, After the Storm, speaks quite frankly about human limitations, pointing to a day where love and grace will make us whole. This year, Mumford and Sons provided a much-needed dose of grace in the face of widespread cynicism, crafting an album that does not diminish this life’s hardships but makes clear that love has the final word.

How I Got Over – The Roots
While it may not be the cheeriest album of 2010, How I Got Over eloquently explores how to live in a fallen world. The album undergoes an evolution from pessimism and despair to a measured optimism that seems content with looking for the best in this broken world and thanking God for the good things that we do have. Black Thought cogently weaves philosophy, politics and theology through his carefully rapped words, never shying away from the reality of evil and pain, but also never letting it defeat him. By the time the album hits its second half, it has transformed, musically and lyrically, from a sober look at life’s problems to an emphatic statement of perseverance and pursuit of excellence as we see in The Fire. Amidst the depression and problems of the world The Roots find hope in everyday circumstances; How I Got Over inspires me to do the same.

High VioletThe National
There’s just something about the music of The National makes that forces me to confront the ever-present ache within my soul, a reminder that we will never be completely fulfilled in this age. Their music strips away the veneer of self-sufficiency, trading the façade for a deep, painful look into the insecure human psyche. All their albums are full of authenticity, and High Violet is no different. Afraid of Everyone serves double duty as a condemnation of the American tendency to be afraid of the unknown and an uneasy questioning of the pursuit of safety. The album’s last three songs, a veritable casebook on the fragmented postmodern individual, leave a devastating mark that is both depressingly realistic and surprisingly hopeful.

I and Love and You – The Avett Brothers
I’m not sure why I didn’t start listening to The Avett Brothers until this year, but I am certainly glad that I did, as I and Love and You has been a constant companion. The Perfect Space is one of those songs that expose the inner workings of a misunderstood mind in exquisite detail. The brief album-ending Incomplete and Insecure closes the record with an honest realization of our limited powers and the need for someone or something greater to spur us on and lift us up. Add to these insights hopeful songs like the title track and Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise, and some stirring insights on love like Kick Drum Heart and Tin Man, and you have an album capable of speaking to the soul at any point in time.

The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells is high-class animation for any age. The tale of the Book of Kells, a famous manuscript of the Bible, is told with startlingly lively animation, mimicking the Celtic manuscript’s style. Worth seeing for its artistry and appreciation of beauty alone, the film also offers up an indictment against a Christianity closed off from the outside world. When our young protagonist, Brendan, finally escapes from the walled monastery into the woods the film comes alive. Things become more dangerous and more difficult, but the film masterfully shows that danger and difficulty must not be avoided or feared, because it is through these things that we truly grow and experience the beauty of God’s creation. In addition to being gorgeously crafted, The Secret of Kells reminds us to look for God’s beauty and grace in everything, and not be afraid.

The Thin Red Line
I’m not sure what can be said about Terrence Malick and his incredible films that hasn’t already been said. The Thin Red Line is simply an amazing cinematic exploration of the war between life and death, both the physical and spiritual one. I wrote a blog this year about the concept of glory in The Thin Red Line, a concept which has stayed with me the entire year. Malick asks us, time and time again, if we are the kind of people who can see the glory of God in any circumstance and any person or if we can only see death, destruction and pain. At one point in the movie, Private Train utters these lines, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. That death’s got the final word, it’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird — and feels the glory — feels something smiling through it.” The Thin Red Line poetically encourages us to reassess how we’re looking at life.

Exit Through the Gift Shop
While this “documentary” by British street artist Banksy may not offer up many spiritual insights, it may be one of the most important pieces this year that deals with the perception of art and beauty. Still inspiring discussion over whether or not it is a genuine documentary, or if Banksy is simply pulling one over on everybody and making a mockery of the art community, Exit Through the Gift Shop simply must be seen. Banksy never shows his hand. If the whole thing is real, it’s absurd, but if it’s manufactured it’s almost just as absurd. Having seen it a mere couple of weeks ago, I can’t get the film out of my mind, which makes it a keeper in my book.

GileadMarilynne Robinson
Let me just say, if you haven’t read Gilead yet, you should buy it immediately and read it posthaste. The winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, Gilead is a striking meditation on death, life and beauty. Robinson’s prose is sparse and calculated, yet full of joy and bristling with electricity. Gilead portrays life as something to be savored, not tossed aside while waiting for something better. Every time has the potential to be the best time, and every moment can reveal an unforeseen beauty. These lines, near the end of the book, surmise everything that I love about Gilead, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Annie Dillard
I’m not sure why it took me so long to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but I regret waiting until I was a junior in college to experience this masterpiece of writing. Dillard takes us somewhere in between a spiritual memoir of a year lived in the wilderness and a science textbook concerned with issues of morality. Drawing on sources of wisdom from many generations and different disciplines, Dillard crafts an intellectual work that is so beautiful in its execution and prose that it seems more like 275 pages of poetry than anything else. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek reminds us to live in the present, for we can never get it back, and in Dillard’s concern for all living things, of the grand scope of the created world, its goodness as well as its brokenness.

These are the works of art this year that have gotten me in touch with my fallen condition, spoken grace into my life and shown me the glory and beauty of creation. These aren’t the only ones, but they represent a good part of them. Which ones have impacted your life the most this past year? I’d be interested to know.