“You really should listen to this guy”, he said. “A couple of the songs on his new record remind me of what you were saying tonight.”

“I don’t really listen to Christian music”, I responded, half seriously.

“Yeah, um, well, your loss. There’s a strong Yankee Hotel Foxtrot vibe on his new one.”

I’m not proud of the exchange, which took place back in 2005. I had just given a talk to some high school students, and one of the older boys had wanted to engage afterward by telling me about musician Derek Webb. I’d given him an obnoxiously snobby response, and he walked away, sorrowful. He was right though: it was my loss–as I found out a month or so later when the record in question, I See Things Upside Down, arrived in my mailbox. Thus began a journey that would not only unburden me of an embarrassingly short-sighted conception of “Christian art”, but would eventually give this organization its name.

Ten-ish so years later, I’m beyond flattered that we’re on the cusp of Derek playing an “annotated concert” at our upcoming NYC Conference (4/14-16). To celebrate and get us ready, I’m devoting this month’s playlist to his music. His solo work, that is (all of which is available on his website and Noisetrade). That’s not a slight to Caedmon’s Call, more an acknowledgment of how much wonderful stuff there is to choose from. You have to narrow it down somehow. Here we go:

  1. Mockingbird (remix). The song that inspired our name. The original recording is fabulous, all double-tracked vocals, bright acoustics and Kotche’d percussion, but over the years I’ve come to prefer the synth-pop remix he did for the One Zero album. Glorious.
  2. A Love That’s Stronger Than Our Fear. This one’s from the ultra-listenable follow-up to the Mockingbird record, The Ringing Bell. Critics often use the word “prophetic” in connection with Derek’s lyrics, as well they should, but I wonder if the focus on the words has overshadowed his considerable melodic gifts, which are on head-bopping display here. Among the loudest songs he’s ever recorded, and an argument that he should go the rock route more often.
  3. Attonitos Gloria. Jumping ahead to 2012’s Ctrl, a concept record that takes archival recordings of Sacred Harp “shape note” choral music and filters it through In Rainbows with astonishing results. Perhaps the artistic highpoint of his career thus far.
  4. thumbA New Law. Couldn’t believe my ears the first time I heard this one. Still can’t believe it exists. Reformation flag-wavers were understandably quick to co-opt Derek’s more theological songs at the time, projecting what one assumes, ironically enough, was “a new law” onto its author. Thankfully, he’s far too much of an artist to be pinned down, ideologically or musically.
  5. Eye of the Hurricane. Off his most recent record, I Was Wrong I’m Sorry and I Love You, a song that has proven prophetic in its own way. It’d be sad, though, if listeners wrote the song off as an exclusively personal statement. Pretty sure that it was Nietzsche himself who wrote that “haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself”.
  6. Jena & Jimmy. An irresistible and highly subversive slice of synth-pop from the electro-leaning Stockholm Syndrome record.
  7. I Hate Everything (But You). The first of four first-person tunes on this playlist, “I Hate Everything (But You)” typifies the YHF-like production Derek was exploring at the time. As undeniable as his gift for “message songs” may be, the man is often at his best with less ambitious material, i.e. he writes great love songs.
  8. I Repent. This is the one that initially hooked me. Ridiculously catchy and typically incisive. Who else could write a bridge like “I repent of judging by a law that even I can’t keep/ Of wearing righteousness like a disguise/ Just to see through the planks in my own eyes”–and make it sound good?
  9. I Don’t Want to Fight. Apparently based on a post-show interaction with a fan, this jangle-pop number is a response to the theological flame wars into which he was surreptitiously drafted. It’s become something a personal anthem for me, as far as the blogosphere is concerned.
  10. I Was Wrong I’m Sorry & I Love You. There’s just three things he’s been trying to tell us. Amen.
  11. The End/ The Very End. If I were Derek, this mini-suite would probably the work I was most proud of. Impeccably written, gorgeously executed–a perfect recording IMHO.
  12. Let's not forget Feedback, Derek's electronic instrumental worship album, structured around the Lord's Prayer.

    Let’s not forget Feedback, Derek’s electronic instrumental worship album, structured around the Lord’s Prayer.

    Pressing on the Bruise. Another track from the underrated Ctrl, the Shape Note sample takes it to another plane altogether.

  13. Lover. My favorite tune from his ecclesiologically themed debut She Must and Shall Go Free, “Lover” is also the first of a trilogy of similarly titled songs about Jesus, all of which should probably be on this list.
  14. Cobra Con. Derek went full bore hip-hop for a few tracks on Stockholm Syndrome–a quintessentially awful idea for guys who write songs on acoustic guitars. 99% of the time, that is. What should have been a throwaway experiment turned out to be the record’s highlight, thanks in no small part to Josh Moore’s excellent production.
  15. When The Lights Go Out. From one of the EPs he recorded with his ex-wife, the ueber talented Sandra McCracken (and therefore somewhat bittersweet), the song transcends its circumstances and stands as the most romantic thing Derek has committed to tape. In fact, it’s one of the most genuinely romantic songs I’m aware of, period.
  16. Wedding Dress. This is another of the compositions that made him so popular in Reformation crowds, for better or worse. I’ve gone with the remix version again, which sounds a bit like a refugee from U2’s Pop sessions (in my mind, a mammoth compliment).
  17. Reputation. Perhaps his weariest vocal performance, and also one of his best. When the drums come in…
  18. Around Every Corner. Slinky and full of sonic invention, further example of why Ctrl is such an achievement.
  19. Everything Will Change. I’m not aware of much strings on Derek’s records, but he went full-throttle orchestral on this number (off 2013’s I Was Wrong)–to a Spiritualized extent–and man oh man does it work. Perfectly suited to the eschatalogical subject matter.
  20. This Too Shall Be Made Right. Derek in protest singer mode, just him and a guitar, singing about kingdom come. Folk hymns don’t come more convicting–or pretty.

Derek performs on Friday night 4/15 at our New York Conference. Click here to learn more or pre-register. We’ve got some signed copies of the Mockingbird vinyl to give away. Not to be missed.