Twenty Essential Albums for Me Today

There have been a lot of people on Facebook recently sharing albums that shaped them when they were teenagers, which is quite interesting. I thought I’d also like to share my current ‘Top Twenty’ – in alphabetical order by artist surname, with the proviso that I will not let myself pick more than one album per artist. These albums are by the artists I currently play the most and consider essential to my musical well-being and inspiration.

  1. Nicola Benedetti: ‘Vaughan Williams/Taverner’
  2. Billy Bragg: ‘Tooth and Nail’
  3. Anne Briggs: ‘A Collection’
  4. Matthew Byrne: ‘Hearts and Heroes’
  5. Martin Carthy: ‘Martin Carthy’
  6. Bruce Cockburn: ‘Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws’
  7. Maria Dunn: ‘Gathering’
  8. James Findlay, Bella Hardy, Brian Peters & Lucy Ward: ‘The Liberty to Choose: A Selection of Songs from the New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs’
  9. Genticorum: ‘La Bibournoise’
  10. Nic Jones: ‘Penguin Eggs’
  11. Choir of King’s College Cambridge/Philip Ledger: ‘Orlando Gibbons: Tudor Church Music’
  12. Mark Knopfler: ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream’
  13. London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis: ‘Handel’s Messiah’
  14. Maddy Prior: ‘Seven for Old England’
  15. Jean Ritchie & Doc Watson: ‘At Folk City’
  16. Red Tail Ring: ‘Mountain Shout’
  17. Stan Rogers: ‘Northwest Passage’
  18. Kate Rusby: ‘Ten’
  19. Martin Simpson: ‘Kind Letters’
  20. Sting: ‘Ten Summoner’s Tales’

Anyone else like to share their top twenty?

The Trouble with Normal

Suddenly, this Bruce Cockburn song from the early 1980s seems horribly relevant again.


Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage
Suddenly it’s repression, moratorium on rights
What did they think the politics of panic would invite?
Person in the street shrugs — “Security comes first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Callous men in business costume speak computerese
Play pinball with the third world trying to keep it on its knees
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea
And the local third world’s kept on reservations you don’t see
“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Fashionable fascism dominates the scene
When the ends don’t meet it’s easier to justify the means
Tenants get the dregs and the landlords get the cream
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Written by Bruce Cockburn • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Carlin America Inc

Bruce Cockburn – It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

This is another one from Bruce’s 2003 album ‘Christmas‘.

On the album booklet Bruce says, “The first of what seems to be becoming a series of Christmas radio concerts had me playing Woodstock, NY, in December of ’91. It happened that I was on tour at the time, and it happened that Sam Phillips was the opening act on most of that tour, so it was natural she should be a guest on the radio show. One of her contributions, performed with T-Bone Burnett and David Mansfield, was this arrangement of “Midnight Clear” which she had recorded for a film of that name. Her clever and simple device of shifting the song to a minor key enhanced the poignantly thoughtful words in a way that made me wish I’d thought of it. The next best thing was to sing it that way — so here it is.”

Bruce Cockburn: ‘Water into Wine’

I believe this video was taken at an outdoor concert at the Forum in Ontario Place in the summer of 1979. I was at that concert, having been a Bruce Cockburn fan for a couple of years at the time. I had never in my life heard a guitar played like this by anyone else, and Bruce inspired me to do my best to become a much better fingerstyle player.

This tune is called ‘Water into Wine’ and can by found on Bruce’s 1976 album ‘In the Falling Dark‘. The guitar Bruce is playing was made by Jean Larrivée and was one of the first ever acoustic guitars to feature a cutaway to allow the guitarist more access to high notes. In the 1970s most acoustic guitar builders believed you could not make an instrument like that without sacrificing tonal quality, but Jean Larrivée proved them wrong.

Pacing the Cage

I’ve loved this Bruce Cockburn song ever since I first heard it. I can just see the old tiger in my mind’s eye, walking back and forth behind the bars, wanting to get out but having almost given up hope that it will ever happen. It’s not a song that many young people could write; it comes from years of struggle to hold together the shining ideals we strive for and the harsh, broken reality of life in a world shot through with imperfection and evil.

For me, this is not first of all about sitting in judgement on the world around. There’s more than enough imperfection and evil in my own heart for me to be going along with. I don’t have to read the gospels for very long before I’m confronted with example after example of how I’ve fallen short of the very teachings of Jesus that fire my imagination and inspire my discipleship. Yes, it’s true that I live in a fairly modest house and at a fairly modest level of luxury, but I’m still a long way away from selling my possessions, giving to the poor, and following Jesus with a whole heart and a single mind. Yes, it’s true that I do my best to live in peace with my fellow human beings, but there are still unspoken resentments and unforgiven grudges, and I’m certainly a long way from loving my enemies and praying for those who hate me. Yes, it’s true that I work as a pastor in the Christian church, but so often my work is half-hearted, and I take the easy road more times than I care to remember.

I guess everyone who’s lived into their fifties catches themselves from time to time looking back nostalgically at the days of their youth and wondering what happened to all that innocence and idealism. Yes, we were going to live off the land in the countryside, with next-to-no carbon footprint, growing vegetables and singing folk songs with unamplified acoustic guitars. We were going to live a simple life and care for the poor and needy. We were so thankful to have experienced the presence of God and the power of the gospel of Jesus, and we were going to share it with others and help them become Jesus’ followers too. Church was going to be simple, without the trappings of tradition and clericalism and power and pretentiousness.

I’m not inclined to sit in judgement on that youthful idealism. Yes, it failed to take into account our own sinfulness and the power of entrenched evil in the fallen world around us. And yes, some of the answers offered were overly simplistic and unrealistic. But then, isn’t that how the words of Jesus themselves sometimes sound to worldly and world-weary ears? Are we going to sit in judgement on him as a youthful idealist? Are we going to say, as an old Scottish lady apparently once said after her pastor preached about the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Our Lord was a very young man when he preached that sermon!’?

So I find myself asking, how did a movement which began with volunteer missionaries joyfully going around the Mediterranean world at their own expense, planting churches with little structure and no buildings, end up as a huge organization that frequently needs multi-million dollar fundraising campaigns to sustain the sort of mission it believes in? How did a movement which foreswore violence end up blessing battleships and praying for success against the enemy? How did a movement which warned of the dangers of clericalism (see Matthew 23:1-12) become so totally dependent on professional ministers, (in many cases dressing them up as gorgeously as wannabe Roman bureaucrats)?

Is this the kind of church Jesus had in mind? More to the point, am I the kind of Christian Jesus had in mind?

Yes, I know that God is gracious and merciful, and that throughout the long history of his dealings with human beings he has shown himself to be more than willing to work with flawed and imperfect people and flawed and imperfect institutions. But am I supposed to make peace with my own compromises, and institutionalize something that so often seems to be in contradiction to the sort of Christian community envisioned in the pages of the New Testament – even though their practice of it, like ours, was also flawed?

So yes,

Sunset is an angel weeping
Holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot
Make out what it’s pointing toward
Sometimes you feel like you’ve lived too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage

Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend
Today these eyes scan bleached-out land
For the coming of the outbound stage
Pacing the cage
Pacing the cage