I was nursed on light jazz and CCM, weaned on secular and Christian rock-alternative, tutored by Bach and Beethoven (and spanked by Rachmaninoff), described by Sara Groves, and charmed by samba, bluegrass, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer.
In my late teens to early twenties I wandered in a sort of musical wilderness, having become disenchanted by much I saw and heard in CCM and “Christian rock,” but not attracted at all by the ethos that permeated the radio. Folks who only know me as an adult might not guess how much I can love big bass, ripping guitars, and robust drums, but I don’t like those things enough to forego compelling melodies, interesting harmonies, and true lyrics. (That’s not to say what I find compelling is the end of the matter! In a previous post On Liking Music I defend the idea that we just like what we like.)
I have come to think of song craft as made up of four elements:
- The structure (here, referring only to the melody, chords, and, where applicable, lyrics)
- The arrangement
- The instrumentation
- The performance
In popular music, a songwriter can record a demo with just guitar and voice, and an artist can hear whether the song structure is compelling. Then the band might get together and arrange the chords, melody, and rhythmic elements across their members. Whatever the band plays, of course, determines instrumentation. But a different instrumentation with a different arrangement might make the song come alive for a different audience. Our household does not listen to Bon Iver, but we’ve been streaming Vitamin String Quartet’s arrangement of Bon Iver’s “Holocene” quite a bit.
And, of course, no matter the quality of composition, arrangement, or instrumentation, it takes a good performance to deliver the music to the listeners. In this vein, a good recording and mixing job is included in the performance category.
Most people seem happy with good instrumentation and performance. They want music to fit a mood, and they don’t want to have to work too hard for it. I think that’s why Pandora and Spotify playlists have become so successful.
I’ve always been more drawn to the song structure - the interplay of melody and harmony. A well performed song with a boring structure is like a pretty book with a boring plot. But, the more I’ve worked to release original music, the less snobby I’ve become about this. No matter how amazing the plot of a book is, it can be conveyed in a paragraph, and you still don’t have a book. Likewise, you can have a great “idea” for a song, but until you can deliver that idea with a complete arrangement, instrumentation, and performance, you don’t have a song.
The following playlists have line-ups that are somewhat off the beaten path. They include well known and lesser known artists, but the songs selected seem to fit a niche I don’t often see promoted. New playlists of relevance will appear on the Playlists page of the website. (If you don't use Spotify but you're curious, let me know and I'll send you the song line-ups.)
I am always eager for song suggestions, so send me any tracks you think would fit! (In particular, I’m looking for tracks for “Awesome Piano” and “Chore Time” playlists.)
Morning Worship: Gentle, Upward, Acoustic
These are mostly acoustic, gentle, cheery, guitar-driven songs with words that go up and out to Christ and his work. So often we need to get our eyes off ourselves. "O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch" (Psalm 5).
This playlist attempts to convey countryside music without the twang or honky-tonk that drives some listeners away. A mostly instrumental mix, it favors the harmonic strains of Appalachia and nineteenth-century hymnody, with some fresh interpretations by current composers. (Wait, Josh Garrels is in the same line-up as Yo-Yo Ma?? Yes! Check it out). Often plaintive, sometimes dancing, always beautiful.
Kids Biblical Mixtape
Alas, parental boredom and taste keeps many a pleasure from our kids! This playlist is an attempt to pull together Scripture-based songs that speak more readily to the minds of children, while still being pleasant for older listeners.
Kids Music That Parents Will Like
Here's another one for the little 'uns. These are songs old and new, folk and not-so-folk, that the whole family can enjoy. I think it's important we preserve traditional songs so we have a common literature. We like to sing what we know; and when we don't know the same songs, it's hard to sing together.
Again, these and other playlists are on the Playlists page. Remember to send me your song suggestions.
And - while you're on Spotify, you might as well follow Vandalia River. Then new releases will show up in your Release Radar. And. There might be a new release sooner or later. Just maybe.