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Mar 22, 2013 - Social Studies    4 Comments

Just Stop: Friday Night Lists

It’s been a bad week in the media for people sensitive to trigger issues. Rape, consent, racism, intolerance, and general lack of humanheartedness abound, and with them the traveling herds of trolls who flock to such ripe feeding grounds from their mountain bridges.

In my assumed role as a sherpa through the treacherous territory of social sensitivity and awareness of others’ boundaries, I’m offering this Friday Night List. If you feel a “but” coming on at the end of these sentences, do not say whatever you were about to–you’ll only end up making someone mad.

SENTENCES THAT OFTEN DO, BUT SHOULD NOT, HAVE ANY MORE WORDS AFTER THEM

(No Buts About It.)

“I’m not a racist.”

“We can all agree that bullying is never okay.”

“I’m not trying to be insulting.”

“Rape is rape.”

“We shouldn’t make light of a serious crime.”

“That looks great.”

“I appreciate your hard work.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud.”

“No offense.”

“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone.”

“Hey, baby.”

“I’m sure this was your best effort.”

“You have a wonderful, energetic child.”

“It’s not my cup of tea.”

“I understand you’re strapped for cash.”

“That must be hard for you.”

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you.”

“I appreciate how busy you are.”

“I don’t want to cross any boundaries.”

“Hitler/Idi Amin/Chairman Mao/Darth Vader was a bad man.”

“You may not want to hear this.”

“I shouldn’t have to say this.”

 

Mar 1, 2013 - AV Club    No Comments

Cover to Cover

I absolutely adore cover songs (originally done by one band, then performed by others). In fact, I’ve got a whole playlist full of them on my phone. Whether they’re irreverent reinterpretations or faithful homages, the combination of one band’s music and another band’s sound is an alchemy that often amounts to more than just the sum of its parts.

A lot of them come from movie and TV soundtracks, because often music directors know which songs they want, but the licensing costs of getting the original would cost the whole movie’s music budget. Lots of great Beatles and Bob Dylan songs make it into shows, but they’re almost always performed by someone else. Heck, even the movie Singin’ In The Rain is basically a movie full of covers. The downside of this, though, is that many soundtrack songs aren’t available as singles

If you know someone else who enjoys messing around with music, a purchased playlist on iTunes would make a pretty awesome gift (though not all songs are available there; some are from a few rare CDs I have).

Dancing Queen by Luka Bloom (orig. ABBA)

Under the Milky Way by Strawpeople (orig. The Church)

Sea of Love by Tom Waits (orig. The Honeydrippers)

Flume by Peter Gabriel (orig. Bon Iver)

Love Song by 311, from 50 First Dates (orig. The Cure)

Enjoy the Silence by Tori Amos (orig. Depeche Mode)

The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead by Crash Test Dummies, from Dumb and Dumber (orig. XTC)

Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Dream Academy, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (orig. The Smiths)

So. Central Rain by Hem (orig. R.E.M.)

When Doves Cry by Quindon Tarver, from William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (orig. Prince)

She’s Not There by Neko Case & Nick Cave, from True Blood, S4 Ep1 (orig. The Zombies)

Toxic by Nickel Creek (orig. Britney Spears)

You Keep Me Hangin’ On by Kim Wilde (orig. The Supremes)

Just Like Heaven by The Watson Twins, used in True Blood S1 Ep7 (orig. The Cure)

I Melt With You by Jason Mraz, from 50 First Dates (orig. Modern English)

Higher Ground by Red Hot Chili Peppers (orig. Stevie Wonder)

Head On by The Pixies (orig. The Jesus and Mary Chain)

Bizarre Love Triangle by Frente! (orig. New Order)

Hurt by Johnny Cash (orig. Nine Inch Nails)

Everybody Knows by Concrete Blonde, used in Pump Up The Volume (orig. Leonard Cohen)

Dead Souls by Nine Inch Nails, from The Crow (orig. Joy Division)

Lips Like Sugar by Seal, from 50 First Dates (orig. Echo and the Bunnymen)

Wild Horses by The Sundays, used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer S3 Ep20  (orig. The Rolling Stones)

Pale Blue Eyes by R.E.M. (orig. The Velvet Underground)

Sweet Jane by Cowboy Junkies (orig. The Velvet Underground)

I Will Survive by Cake (orig. Gloria Gaynor)

Family Game Night: Friday Night Lists

I haven’t done a Friday Night List in a while, mostly because when it’s summer break, Friday night’s no different than any other night. But now that we’re wrapping up the first week back to school, it’s a blessed relief for all of us to flick off the alarm for tomorrow morning, so I thought I’d celebrate.

NEWS ALERT: We are a family of gamers. Shocking, I know. But even more than it being both work and passion for the Darling Husband and me, gaming has become instrumental in our parenting and education styles. They’re fantastic ways to sneak math and reading into their intellectual diet, and kids’ll often tackle concepts far more complex than grade level eagerly to master new levels of success in the game.

And, possibly more importantly, they’re perfect rehearsal spaces for a variety of social skills that all kids need work on, not just kids on the autism spectrum. Games teach turn-taking, graceful winning/losing, flexibility at unpredictable change, calculated risk-taking, cooperation, and enjoyment of others’ enjoyment. Honestly, how many adults do you know who have all those mastered?!

So, here’s a list of what we most frequently play at home these days. It’s very, very far from complete, and there are a number of embarrassing omissions, most notably Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (the DH’s current sandbox) and Once Upon A Time (one of my company’s best kid-friendly games, gorgeous 3rd Edition due in October ). But good games rotate through our regular play schedule, and we’ve got a few great new ones on deck to try out too. Here’s what’s in demand at the moment:

1) GLOOM (Atlas Games): This one is evergreen for my kids. In Gloom by Keith Baker (art by Todd Remick), you’re in charge of a truly despicable family, and it’s your job to make them as miserable as possible before bumping them off in a horrible way. Meanwhile, you want to shower blessings and joy on your fellow players to prevent them from meeting the same fate. Up is down, and down is up, and kids positively cackle with delight when I moan and thrash and castigate them for something so repellent as a picnic in a park. Educational Skills: Positive and negative integers, and awesome new vocab like “consumption,” “dysentery,” and “chastised.” Social Skills: Turn-taking, cooperation/collaboration, winning/losing, strategy.

2) GET BIT (Mayday Games): A new favorite by developer Dave Chalker, the mechanics are very simple and attractive: You are one of a line of swimmers being chased by a shark. You have cards 1-7 which you play to determine each round’s race. The one left at the end of the line gets bit. The swimmer pieces have detachable body parts that give a satisfying LEGO-like snap when they come off, though the little pieces require kids to pay special attention during clean-up. Educational Skills: Probability, anatomy (?) Social Skills: Turn-taking, winning/losing, strategy.

3) WILDCRAFT! (LearningHerbs.com): I was attracted to this game by Kimberly and John Gallagher because it teaches kids to recognize common medicinal plants in nature and their uses, and I’m all about nature awareness for my kids. But the game mechanic is purely cooperative, and fosters truly collaborative game play toward the goal of getting everybody to and from the mulberry patch in the middle of forest in the time between sunup and sundown. Players draw Danger Cards for ailments like bee stings, fatigue, blisters, and sunburn, as well as plant cards; a system of symbols and detailed botanical drawings make the game playable even for pre-literate kids. And they collect Cooperation Cards that they can use to bring the last player up with them to get through the forest faster. Educational Skills: Plant recognition, herbal medicine. Social Skills: Turn-taking, cooperation/collaboration, strategy.

4) CASTLE PANIC (Fireside Games): In this game by Justin De Witt, players defend a castle in the center of a board shaped like a bullseye, which is accurate, because you’re under heavy siege by monsters of all kinds lurking in the forest around your keep. As the monsters advance on all sides, players cooperate to defend their walls. It’s largely hopeless, but it’s excellent fun to toss resource chips and skilled warriors back and forth and see how long you can hold out this time. Educational Skills: Um, trolls? Castle building? Social Skills: Cooperation/collaboration, strategy, graceful losing (not much winning).

5) LIGRETTO DICE (Playroom Entertainment): Otherwise known as “The Noisy Game” in our house, each player gets a cup full of six-sided dice of four different colors in this game by Inka and Markus Brand. You shake and dump them out, then race to put your dice on the board in ascending order in each color column. It’s a little bit Yahtzee, a little bit speed game. Adults might have to throw a few games ’til the kids get up to full speed, but once they climb the learning curve, it’s game on. Educational Skills: Numbers, colors, pattern recognition. Social Skills: Fast decision making, calculated risk-taking, winning/losing, strategy.

6) BLINK (Out of the Box Games): Another speed game (designed by Reinhard Staupe and artists John Kovalic, Ariel Laden, & Jurgen Martens)  in which players work through a deck of cards by add to two central piles by matching the number, color, or shape of symbols on the cards. Like the previous, adults may have to handicap themselves a bit at first with younger kids, but it’s great for preschoolers and remains challenging long after they’re literate. It’s also a good, portable game to keep handy for unexpected, open-ended waits (along with LCR). Educational Skills: Colors, numbers, pattern recognition. Social Skills: Fast decision making, winning/losing.

7) MUNCHKIN (Steve Jackson Games): There are so many variants that took off from the original dungeon-raider theme, designed by Steve Jackson and illustrated by John Kovalic; our copies are Super Munchkin and Munchkin Axe Cop. You build a hero, outfit him with gadgets and armor befitting the theme, and go up against villains to win loot. Early in the game, you need more points than you probably have in your hero alone, so players need to negotiate with players to fight off high-value villains, but as players start getting their heroes close to their game-winning 10th Level, those team-ups start turning toward piling more villains on the frontrunner, forcing him to run away or lose valuable assets in battle. Educational Skills: Addition, greater than/less than comparison, reading. Social Skills: Turn-taking, strategy, cooperation/collaboration, calculated risk-taking, negotiation, winning/losing.

 

Not Even A Little Bit: Friday Night Lists

Summer is a season of excess for most people, even if only in terms of temperature. It’s time for vacations, conventions, outdoor events in the long twilight, big Tiki drinks by the pool.

First, I’ve worked in academia for so long that I think of summer as the lean time of year, with summer teaching gigs hard to come by and no funding until fall. Even though I’m not teaching now, it’s hard to overcome the programming of over a decade that says we can’t afford anything but the barest of basics.

Second, I am from generations of profoundly pale people. I was born in the Great White North, and my ancestors were more likely to see the midnight sun over the North Sea than to lie out on tropical sands. I don’t even tan–I burn to red, then peel right back to white, with new constellations of freckles to mark each erroneous exposure. And I get horribly heat sick from weather like we’ve had for over a week now, with heat indices over 100 degrees. Living in Minnesota means we’ve got a little wall AC unit and ceiling fans in the bedrooms, but with all western and southern windows, it just never gets that cool.

So all those “beach reading” lists and travel sections in newspapers and magazines are mostly wasted on me. But I’ve still amassed a number of summer pleasures that make the season enjoyable despite nature’s best efforts. Here are the things I love about summer, without even a shred of guilt:

  1. FRESH HERBS FROM THE GARDEN–Everyone says homegrown tomatoes are the gateway drug to gardening, but I think walking outside to grab handfuls of fresh parsley, basil, rosemary, and mint for any and every dish is the height of luxury. I could live on fresh pesto, and we’ve had summers where we went poor buying enough pine nuts to keep pace with the abundance of glorious, spicy-licorice-smelling basil. I’ve long since switched to walnuts, which keep the oil balance right and don’t cost the earth.
  2. MOVIE MATINEES–Whether it’s a popcorn-chompin’, eardrum-poppin’, vertigo-inducin’ summer blockbuster or an art-house revival of a cinema classic, it’s a blessed relief to escape the relentless sun in a dark theater during the heat of the day. And it’s often so cold that I have to bring a sweater, and the chill clings to my skin for long minutes after I’m back out in the heat.
  3. OUTDOOR ART FAIRS–I absolutely adore a leisurely stroll around an art fair, peering in each tent to see the variety of colors, textures, and media each artist brings to share. It’s hard not to buy many of the beautiful objects, but they got a whole lot cheaper when I started making my own jewelry and refusing to buy anything I could make just as well myself.
  4. LOUD MUSIC–Make no mistake: I love loud music all year round, but there’s something particularly satisfying about rolling down the windows, feeling the wind in your hair, and singing along with something that makes your pedal foot a little heavier than the speed limit recommends. My favorites for this purpose: “Dashboard” by Modest Mouse, “What’s Left of the Flag” by Flogging Molly, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” by The Ramones, “Keep the Customer Satisfied” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “I Shot the Sheriff” by either Bob Marley or Eric Clapton.
  5. HAMMOCKS–The problem with napping in the summer is that, unless you’ve got really good central AC, it’s a warm, uncomfortable business. Even with a strong fan blowing on you, it can only cool the part of you that’s not flush with the heat-holding mattress. But hammocks…hammocks are pure genius. The air blows over AND under you, and it can rock and hold even the biggest of us like we’re back in our mothers’ arms. Give me a stack of trashy romance novels, a gallon of lemonade, and a hammock, and I’ll see you in September.
  6. SANDALS AND TOENAIL POLISH–I love sundresses and skirts and other summery clothes, but cute shoes always look good, even if the diet’s not going so well. I’m not a heels person, since they put me over six feet tall, but I love strappy Greek sandals, brightly colored florals, and the chunky comfort of Birkenstocks. Slap on a coat of shocking pink or siren red toenail polish, and at least you know your feet look cool and stylish.
  7. THUNDERSTORMS–I’ve had a fraught relationship with storms my whole life. Nobody figured out until I was in seventh grade that loud, sudden noises (the kind that make you feel that percussive force on your eardrum) were my migraine trigger. This information suddenly made sense of my terror of fireworks, gunshots, even balloons popping, and the days of misery that followed the Fourth of July, Memorial Day parades, and kids’ birthday parties. As long as I’m safely inside, though, I love to watch the fearsome spectacle of lightning and thunder, lashing rain and wailing winds. Not to mention the drop in temperatures thunderstorms usually bring.
  8. DR. BRONNER’S PEPPERMINT CASTILE SOAP–I’ve got my good friend Christie to thank for introducing me to this “air conditioning in a bottle.” There’s a ton of real peppermint oil in this concentrated liquid soap, and paired with a nice cool shower, it leaves you feeling frosty and fresh (at least until you step back out into the sweaty, humid heat). Important note: Be careful about spreading it around body parts where the sharp, tingly feel of, say, Vicks VapoRub wouldn’t be welcome. Hoo-ah indeed.
  9. FARMERS’ MARKETS–Not everyone has room for a garden or the money to take part in a CSA (Community Sustained Agriculture) program, but farmers’ markets are becoming more numerous, more affordable, and more diverse in their offerings all the time. From exotic greens, to pesticide-free berries, to heirloom varieties of garlic and tomatoes, to locally sourced honey, there are seasonal treats galore almost every day of the week in larger cities. You can find your local farmers’ markets with helpful websites like LocalHarvest.org.
  10. BONFIRES–There’s something deeply visceral about the smell of wood smoke in night air, the whispery crackle of flames consuming dry timber, the seductive dance of blue and ivory and buttery yellow and sunset red. Maybe it calls to our collective memory of the security fire offers–security against the dark and the cold and the hunger and the threats. Every song sounds better, every kiss seems sweeter, every story is scarier around a fire. I need to make more friends with firepits.
Jun 16, 2012 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

What I Didn’t Know 10 Years Ago: Friday Night Lists

Next Tuesday, my eldest son will be ten years old. This is unimaginable to me, and must therefore be false. As part of my effort to grapple with this harsh reality, here’s today’s installment of Friday Night Lists:

10 Things I Know Now That I Didn’t Know 10 Years Ago

YEAR 1 — Leave the diaper on until the last possible second, unless you feel like a visit to the Bellagio.

YEAR 2 — Birthday cake and banana make awesome, all-natural punk hair product.

YEAR 3 — Parents who disapprove of a Jon Stewart-themed 3-year-old birthday party because The Daily Show is on at 11.00pm EST don’t understand DVRs.

YEAR 4 — If you think 4-year-olds can’t come up with sophisticated rhetorical arguments why they should be allowed to stay up as late as their newborn brother, you’d be wrong.

YEAR 5 – When your kid asks you “What’s the Ring Cycle?” ask “Why do you ask, honey?” before launching into a 20-minute lecture on Germanic folklore, opera, and Looney Tunes. Because he may just be mispronouncing “rinse cycle” after hearing it in the Chipmunks movie.

YEAR 6 – The key that turns the lock in your child’s mind may unlock yours too.

YEAR 7 — Imaginative children sometimes change religion after a really good book. Be open to it.

YEAR 8 — Summer is the best time of year, because kids can just grow right out the bottom of their shorts and you don’t have to worry about pant length until school starts in the fall.

YEAR 9 — If your kid tells you he wants to die and tries to hurt himself, he’s as serious as a heart attack. Listen to him and get help.

YEAR 10 — Wishing for a son like Calvin (of & Hobbes fame) is both a best and worst case scenario, because you might actually get one. (Or two.)

My boy, after a hard day. SuperTiger is always beside him as he sleeps.

Jun 2, 2012 - AV Club, World Religions    5 Comments

The Reel and the Surreal: Movies About Religion

I’m a documentary whore. I absolutely adore them. Can’t get enough. The more esoteric the subject, the better. I’ve always enjoyed them, even as an admittedly weird kid, but I really fell back in love with them right after my second son, Griffin, was born. He was not what anyone would call “a sleeper,” and I found myself awake in the middle of the night more often than not. Fortunately, there always seemed to be an HBO documentary on demand, and I started actually looking forward to those sleepless nights when I didn’t have to relinquish the TV to children’s programming.

I like to keep my classroom style varied, and video is instrumental in demonstrating concepts with a single clip that it would take me an hour to explain, and even then, the students wouldn’t know what the thing I was describing actually looks like in practice. This is especially true in my religious studies classes. Being able to immerse them in the sights and sounds of holy places, and hear everyday practitioners and learned experts alike reiterate what I’m trying to teach is priceless.

I’ve assembled a list here of films that I find particularly good at demonstrating core concepts of the philosophy and practice of religion. Many, I’ve used in class; some are just personal favorites. They’re organized by topic the same way I organize my Intro to Religious Thought classes. This is just a handful of the amazing, thoughtful, incisive, unsettling, critical films being made about religion. Some of them are available on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video; many are commonly stocked in libraries. All are worth tracking down.

Sacred Time

The Last Wave, dir. Peter Weir (Criterion Studios, 1979) — And, of course, I start with a movie that’s not a documentary at all–I’m just that perverse. This is a weird, dated, surreal Australian film by the same director as Witness, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society, and The Way Back. Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds, Dr. Kildare) stars as a Sydney lawyer who takes on the case of some Aboriginal men accused of killing another one. Chamberlin starts dreaming of a huge flood, and his clients disclose tribal secrets that help him decode the dreams–he’s dreaming of the end of a cycle in Aboriginal time, when they will step into the Dreamtime, leaving the white world to be washed away. It’s a confusing, circular movie, but it’s the most effective demonstration of the Aboriginal concepts of non-linear time that exist nowhere in any society outside of Australia or Africa.

Sacred Space

Ganges, dir. Tom Hugh-Jones (BBC Warner, 2003) — A beautifully filmed look at the centrality of the Ganges River to India as a continent and Hinduism as a faith. They explore the river in its environment and its religious functions, all the way from its disputed origins high in the Himalayas, down to the rich delta at the bottom of the subcontinent.

In the Light of Reverence, dir. Christopher McLeod (Bullfrog Films, 2001) — This film is difficult to find, but so well worth it. The three chapters show the importance of the land to three different Native American groups, and how difficult it is to preserve them with their inherent worth isn’t visible or understandable to Anglo-Americans, who think there has to be a building or monument for a place to be holy. This movie will make you scream and cry, and maybe get involved in the fight to preserve these special places.

Sacred Acts

National Geographic—Inside Mecca, dir. Anisa Mehdi (National Geographic Video, 2003) — I had actually wanted to use the BBC documentary Hajj: Journey of a Lifetime, but it wasn’t available on DVD when I went to teach. Now, wonderfully, the whole thing is free on YouTube. But the National Geographic film is great, too. Only Muslims are allowed in Mecca during Hajj (the annual pilgrimage that’s part of an observant Muslims obligations, at least once in his/her life), so an entirely Muslim crew was assembled for each of these two films. They follow a variety of Muslims from all over the world through the hard physical and spiritual work of the Hajj. It’s fantastic for basic literacy about Islam, and experiencing such a moving journey.

Jesus Camp, dirs. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Loki Films, 2006) Even if you’ve grown up Christian, you may not know that places like the Bible camp in Colorado that’s depicted in this film exist, or what goes on inside them. It’s a harrowing look at the pressure put on kids as young as 5 and 6 to conform to a pretty extreme brand of Christianity. It raises some important questions about how and when to impose your own beliefs on children.

How to Cook Your Life, dir. Doris Dorrie (Lions Gate, 2008) This is a delightful movie about a Zen Buddhist monk and a chef in San Francisco. It perfectly demonstrates the idea that the most mundane, pedestrian things in our lives can become sacred acts with the right mindset. Don’t watch this if you’re hungry.

Sacred People

The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, dir. David Grubin (PBS Home Video, 2010) — A lovely documentary blending legend and history to tell the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince who achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha.

10 Questions for the Dalai Lama, dir. Rick Ray (Monterey Video, 2007) — This is a very personal film, and though the narrator occasionally gets a little annoying in his self-centeredness, the Dalai Lama is so wise and happy and brilliant and wonderful that everything else fades into insignificance. He talks about the situation of his people’s exile from Tibet, the importance of science, and many of the central ideas of the Buddhist world view. I could listen to him talk forever.

The Devil’s Playground, dir. Lucy Walker (Wellspring, 2003) — This movie follows several Amish teenagers as they launch into a practice known as “Rumspringa,” when they leave the cloistered communities they grew up in and fully experience the “English” world. They swear like crazy, use drugs, go to drunken parties, drive cars, smoke, get jobs, wear jeans. It’s shocking to learn that every Amish person–people we think of as so sheltered and devout–intentionally tests the things of which the Amish life would deprive them. Even more surprising is how many of them choose at the end to leave it all behind and go back to their communities. It’s riveting.

Sacred Words

National Geographic: The Gospel of Judas (National Geographic Video, 2006) — Most people think the Bible has always looked the way it does now, but this film explodes that notion for once and for all. It tells the story of a remarkable document, which purports to be a Gospel written by the disciple Judas, whom the traditional four Gospels of the New Testament says betrayed Jesus to his death. The text is one of the gnostic gospels which interpret the lessons and life of Jesus very differently than the orthodox ones do, and it radically challenges our understanding of the Bible stories everyone hears every Easter. There’s a lot of dramatized action, which always rubs me a bit wrong, but the experts in the video and the story of the text itself more than make up for it.

Sacred Events

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, dir. William Cran (PBS Home Video, 2004) — This is a very long, four-part documentary, but it throws into high relief precisely what a messy, confusing, unpredictable origin Christianity had. It gives a ton of valuable information about the Mediterranean world Jesus was born into, the political and social climate that led to his death, the wildly varying (and competing) interpretations of Jesus’ message and life, and the weird horse race to become the “official” version of Christianity that the Roman Empire eventually embraced. It also features most of my favorite historians of Christianity, and it’s a good way to get to know them; many of the authors on last week’s book list are in this film. All this flies directly in the face of the tidy, sanitized, fait accompli history Biblical literalists would have you believe, but the truth is always messier and more interesting.

The Mormons: A Frontline/American Experience Special, dir. Helen Whitney (PBS Home Video, 2007) — Especially in this election year, it’s really important to know the origins and evolution of the only American-born brand of Christianity. This documentary talks to both the officials and the faithful of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints today, but also its critics. It grapples with both the problematic aspects of Mormonism–such as its attitudes and actions toward Native Americans and African Americans–and the very troubling exercise of federal power to exterminate the Mormons.  Whether you find it silly or compelling, it’s all American, and the imprint of this country’s ideals on the Mormon faith is indelible.

The 3 Rs: Recommended Religion Reading

This list was so much harder than you’d think. I’ve read literally hundreds of books about religion and history over the past 15-20 years, so narrowing it down to a few essentials left me feeling like I was trying to find the most refreshing thimbleful of water in the river. The one “book” I wasn’t able to find in a linkable form to include is the current US Military Chaplain’s Handbook, but that’s a fascinating read. It appears to be primarily available in CD-ROM form, which makes sense, since it’s really a large collection of field manuals, devotionals, and other resources.

In the meantime, though, here are the best books I could think of for folks who may or may not have had an Intro to World Religions class in college at some point, but are otherwise not too informed about religion, even their own. Please, suggest your own books down in comments! I’ll have a list of movies that demonstrate important religious concepts or new perspectives that break our stereotypes for you next week.

RECOMMENDED READINGS FOR THE RELIGIOUSLY CURIOUS

  1. Prothero, Stephen, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know–And Doesn’t. (HarperOne, 2008) This book makes a powerful case that understanding the major world religions–including the reality of Christianity–is absolutely critical for social progress, international security, and continued democracy. Prothero has a new book, God Is Not One, that I haven’t read yet, but profiles in more depth eight of the world’s major faiths.
  2. Livingston, James, Anatomy of the Sacred, Sixth Edition. (Prentice Hall, 2008) This is the textbook I used for my most recent course on religious theory. It fits pretty well with my approach of looking at different facets of religious behavior and belief, and filling in variations on those themes from a wide variety of historical and contemporary religions. Because it’s a college textbook, it costs a stupid amount of money; on the other hand, used copies abound.
  3. Eastman, Roger, The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions. (OUP, 1999) I don’t use other people’s anthologies of primary sources, for the most part–I pull together a much more diverse selection of my own devising than any I’ve ever found in print, both for religion and history classes. But if I had to pick one for a religious studies class, I’d go with this one every time. It’s by far the most diverse, and the excerpts are nice and long (relatively speaking, to the rest of the field). If you haven’t ever heard the voices of faiths other than yours, I cannot possibly stress how important it is for everyone to read the actual sources themselves.
  4. Meredith, Hickman, Rogers, and Kirkby, The Usborne Encyclopedia of World Religions: Internet-Linked. (Usborne, 2010) This is a “kids'” book, but like everything Usborne does, it’s a hell of a lot more informative than anything you’ll encounter in the vast majority of mainstream media. It’s also lavishly illustrated, something that’s really important as you try to wrap your head around new and foreign faiths, and it’s Internet-linked to all sorts of extra articles, pictures, and videos. This may actually be the very best place to start if you’ve never taken a course on world religion. NB: The link is to the book listing on the UK Usborne Publishing page, but Usborne books are available here in the States too, both through home distributors (think Tupperware, but with awesome books instead of burping plastic) and, increasingly, in retail outlets.
  5. Matlins, Stuart, and Arthur Magida, How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, Fifth Edition. (Skylight Paths, 2010) This may be one of the coolest books around. Religion by religion, sect by sect, it gives you the basic etiquette to guarantee you don’t embarrass yourself at religious ceremonies of any stripe. Practically speaking, it’s awesome if you’ve got a diverse group of friends who do things like get married, give birth, or die, but it’s also a fascinating read cover-to-cover, and should be considered for the bookshelf of any graduate or world traveller.
  6. Swami Tapasyananda (trans.), Srimad Bhagavad Gita. (Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2003) You may have picked up a free copy of the Gita from a table on your college campus, but this is the edition of the essential (if not only) Hindu holy book recommended by a very smart and learned Krishnavite friend. It’s part scripture, part epic poem, part philosophical treatise, but it sums up with passion and poetry some of the most compelling concepts of Hinduism.
  7. Kornfield, Jack, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Religious Life. (Bantam, 1993) This is a wonderfully simple introduction to Western Buddhism, especially the core concepts of mindfulness, compassion toward all living things, our attachments to the material world, and the practice of meditation. Western Buddhism certainly isn’t the same as all the Asian variants, but this explains those central ideas in a way that sets the reader up well to make more far-reaching inquiries.
  8. Robinson, George, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals. (Atria, 2001) I have it on very good authority (from an honest-to-goodness Jewish school teacher!) that this is one of the most popular texts for people new to the Jewish faith; it’s even used as a textbook in conversion classes. I need to pick up a copy myself, come to think of it.
  9. Beard, North, and Price (eds.), Religions of Rome (2 vol.). (Cambridge University Press, 1998) This is a very scholarly two-volume set–the first volume is synthesis and analysis of the religious landscape of the Roman Empire at its height, and the second is full of annotated primary sources (inscriptions, imperial proclamations, legends, and rituals). It’s geared toward the expert reader, but if you want to get a clear view of exactly how much like every other Mediterranean mystery cult Christianity was, and how fundamentally weird that was in the history of human religious practice, there’s no better starting place.
  10. Wansbrough, Henry (ed.), The New Jerusalem Bible (Doubleday, 1999) My Latin and Roman History teacher calls this the “Scholar’s Bible.” The translation is directly from the original Hebrew and Greek by some of the best biblical experts in the world. It’s not the easiest version to read, but it’s probably the closest to the original text as we’re going to get.
  11. Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. (HarperOne, 1999) I can’t recommend against any of Crossan’s work, but this one’s particularly good at highlighting the historical truth that Christianity was not founded by Jesus, but about Jesus, by lots of other people. Crossan is one of the leading experts on the historical Jesus, and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating the real horse race Christianity was in for its survival, and how unlikely in many ways it was to have been the faith that came out on top.
  12. Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels. (Vintage, 1989) The discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the 1940s revolutionized our understanding of Christianity in the decades following the life of Jesus. Most Christians get a very tidy, unified history of the development of the faith’s core principles–even the compilation of the Bible–when the truth is very far from that. We knew other gospels existed, but until the Nag Hammadi texts, we only knew them based on what more orthodox critics said about them. This book tells us about the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, among others, and illuminates the radically different interpretations of Jesus’ life and message among his own followers.
  13. Pagels, Elaine, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. (Vintage, 1996) Pagels is another historian whom it’s hard to go wrong with, much like Crossan, when it comes to the history of early Christianity. I also recommend this particular book, though, because it highlights the point at which Christianity was no longer the outcast under attack, but the dominant power that could attack others, even other kinds of Christians whose beliefs weren’t officially endorsed. It also helps us understand the anti-Semitic foundations of Christianity that reverberate into the present day.
  14. Aslan, Reza, No God But God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. (Random House, 2011) The absolute best book on Islam I’ve ever read. You get it all–history, culture, faith, practice, conflict, poetry, mysticism, expansion, controversy. Aslan’s analysis is unflinching. I wish more universities would make this their freshman read as students come into the collegiate world.
  15. Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Ballantine, 1994) Armstrong is one of the world’s most respected experts on world religion, and she makes it incredibly accessible for regular readers. She’s written dozens of books, on many different faiths, but I wish more people read this one so they could see the full extent to which the Abrahamic religions are interdependent and similar. Armstrong is also doing great work with her non-profit foundation Charter for Compassion, which promotes understanding and dialogue among people of all faiths.
  16. Comte-Sponville, Andre, and Nancy Huston, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. (Penguin, 2008) This slim volume is surprisingly full of simple, elegant wisdom. Don’t let the title mislead you, though–this book isn’t out to convert anyone away from believing in gods or religion. Instead, it blends science, philosophy, humanism, and history to prove that there’s immense mystery and majesty in what and where humans are, even before we try to understand the unknowable.

 

Before the Ballot: Friday Night Lists

Every presidential election year, I assign myself a whole pile of relevant non-fiction books as my Election Year Reading List. Some of them are topical; some are great political, sociological, or economic minds; and some are just strong liberal voices that clarify the values that motivate me to pick up my clipboard and get to work. I thought I’d share this year’s reading list, and a few important pieces that are still relevant from the ’08 list.

I’m putting this list in the order I’ve read them so far; those I’ve read will be marked with asterisks. Totally at random, the order of #2-5 has worked out very serendipitously, so if you decide to read these, let me recommend that order. I’ve already made quite a dent in this year’s list, so I could use a few more suggestions to fill it out through November, especially in specific issues of foreign affairs. I’m also always willing to read different points of view, so long as they’re rational, fact-based, and not overly polemical. You can leave your recommendations in comments, or friend me on Goodreads so we can see each other’s lists.

2012 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST

*1. Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government–and How We Take It Back by David SirotaSirota, a progressive radio fixture,  offers a good basic primer of how money affects every branch of the government, from local to federal, and suggests some common-sense, achievable solutions to reverse that trend.

*2.  Tear Down This Myth: How The Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future by Will Bunch. This book by Bunch, the Philadelphia Daily News senior (and former political) writer and Huffington Post columnist, sets out to remind its readers of the realities of Ronald Reagan’s background, politics, and actions as president, untangling him from the distortions the man and his record have been subjected to in recent canonization efforts. The book’s definitely critical of Reagan, but the history review is good, and serves to point out just how far left of today’s conservatives Reagan really was.

*3.  Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi. The Rolling Stone columnist delves deep into the mechanisms and psychopathic personalities that led directly to the 2008 economic meltdown. Taibbi’s wacky, profane style keeps the economic explanations from being dry, and he’s got a real knack for capturing characters that make you want to tear your hair out.

*4.  Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. Headliner on the MSNBC primetime line-up, Maddow‘s first book puts her ferocious intelligence on display as she traces the transition of the US military from the all-volunteer force of WWII, through the Vietman Era, into the privatized professional military with its overused, sequestered backbone of soldiers of today. She ends with a few good actions to begin reversing this trend toward permanent war.

*5.  With Liberty and Justice For Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful by Glenn Greenwald. The tightest-written and most persuasive book I’ve read in a long time, Greenwald, a widely respected Salon.com contributor, lays bare the subversion of our justice system to protect the social, political, and economic elites from the reach of the law.

6.  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. I think the racial disparities within our justice system, and the private for-profit incarceration industry, comprise one of the most important issues in American society today. I saw Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State and a Huffington Post contributor, speak on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, and I’m braced for a hard, harrowing, eye-opening read.

7.  End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman. A New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Krugman is the hero and standard-bearer for modern Keynesians. I trust his analysis without reservation, and I’m very interested to see his prescriptions for the short- and long-term changes that our economy needs.

8.  Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unexpected Resurgence of the American Right by Thomas Frank. I loved Frank‘s earlier book (see later, in the best of ’08 list), and I’ve heard him speak on the current one on NPR a few times. He’s got a way with case studies and relating them to broader trends, and the examples of “broke” billionaires and the trappings of that culture I’ve heard him talk about just blew my mind. I expect this book to be funnyhorrorsad.

9.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I first encountered Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, on The Colbert Report, and I’m wildly intrigued by his work on identifying the psychological underpinnings that make political and religious zealots so similar.

10.  Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective by Paul Rieckhoff. I respect the hell out of Rieckhoff, a retired Army specialist and one of the founders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I’ve read a lot of about the wars and today’s military by civilians, but I always want to get a balanced view, and I’m looking forward to his smart insights.

11.  Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it by Robert Reich. Reich, Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor and a current professor of economics at UC Berkeley, dazzles me with his talent for condensing complex facts into easily understandable patterns. He’s a good Keynesian too, like Krugman, but add in his expertise on labor history and government experience, and you’ve got an expert I’ll always stop to watch/hear/read.

12.  The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs. I heard Sachs, a professor of health policy and management and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speak on MPR, and I spent most of the hour with goosebumps from his smart, impassioned argument for the restoration of the real American values that made us great in the 20th century. After all the previous books help me get a grip on the scope and details of many problems we currently face, I’ll be ready for his strong restatement of our core values.

13.  Back To Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy by Bill Clinton. Similar to Sachs’ book, but obviously from a very different perspective, Clinton‘s most recent book should offer lots of good suggestions for how to get the country back on track. His work at the Clinton Foundation is on the cutting edge of new global solutions, so I’ll be creating my Debate Watchword Bingo score cards from the key issues he highlights.

THE BEST OF MY 2008 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. This exhaustive work by Scahill, a journalist who reports on US foreign policy for media outlets like The Nation and Democracy Now!, ripped the lid off the world of private contractors in the Iraq War with his exhaustive, shocking expose. It’s impossible to understand our current foreign policy without understanding the role of privatization post-9/11, and this book is as relevant now as it ever was.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. This book made a huge splash for a very good reason–Klein exposed the practices and policies that make people and nations very rich by whipping up fake disasters that turn into real ones. I’m so glad to have read this before terms like “shortselling” and “credit default swaps” came on the market. It also gave me an entirely new perspective on the tumultuous history of South America.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. If you’ve ever wondered why Red States are SO RED, despite policies by their elected politicians that seem determined to destroy the very middle-class, salt-of-the-earth workers who elect them year after year, this is your book. Frank demonstrates with grace and humor the ways in which conservatives have tapped into good heartland values and twisted them into bogeymen and puppet strings that work way too well for anyone’s comfort.

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. Don’t let the title put your back up. Zakaria–columnist,editor-in-chief of Newsweek International, and host of the only dedicated foreign affairs TV news shows today–provides a great, crunchy exploration of the ways in which countries like India and China have moved into modern positions of global power, following very different paths than the one America took. His analysis of global trends is really second to none.

Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew Bacevich. Written by a retired Army career officer, now professor of international relations at Boston University and Huffington Post columnist, this book would be great to read alongside Rachel Maddow’s newer contribution. Bacevich also explores the ways in which the war industry pushes us to engage in conflicts around the world that are actually against our national self-interest.

 

May 11, 2012 - Social Studies    No Comments

You might be a geek… : Friday Night Lists

I’m a fool for stand-up comedy, and lots of one-liners and references have made their way into the Banks household lexicon. As with my books, music, and movies, I’ve got prodigal tastes that include things that might surprise even those who know me best.

So let me here admit: I love the Blue Collar Comedy Tour films. Don’t judge me–that’s some funny stuff right there. We laugh at Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck jokes, but if we’re honest, we know that more of them apply to more of us than is comfortable. And as a joke format, it’s just about perfect.

So, for today’s Friday Night Lists post, here’s my spin on Foxworthy’s list. If you don’t recognize them all, fire up that Google machine! I’m sure I’m leaving out a billion things, so if you’ve got one that should be included, be sure to leave it in comments! Hopefully, this conveys my general view that geekdom is universal, and everyone’s a geek about something.

You Might Be A Geek If…

… you know that MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes aren’t limited to a barnyard.

… you know that 1964 1/2 is a real model year for the Ford Mustang.

… you know that K1P1YO and 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 actually spell something.

… you know the difference between declension and conjugation.

… you know what “frabjous” and “brillig” mean.

… you know Ted Williams’ lifetime batting average.

… you know why 2 pistons and 1 pin are the basis of a copyrighted sound.

… you’ve ever reamed a pearl.

… you know that you’ve probably seen the movie “Blue Harvest.”

… you have a favorite Federalist Paper.

… you’ve ever had to explain the joke on your t-shirt to someone.

… you’ve ever made a costume for a convention, but you take shirts to the dry cleaner for mending.

… you care deeply about the Oxford Comma.

… you have a favorite Doctor.

… you’ve ever paid for shareware.

… you’ve ever written shareware.

… you’ve ever risked serious bodily harm for the perfect photograph.

… you carry a Sharpie so you can correct punctuation on signs.

… you’ve ever bought a new die because “the old one doesn’t work.”

… you’ve ever bought wooden knitting or crochet needles so nobody hears if you drop them in church.

… you can tell the difference between Chinese, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cinnamon by smell.

… you use a thermometer and a timer to make tea.

… your child must cite history and/or literature when introducing themselves by name.

… your body bears a tattoo featuring a mythical beast and/or language.

… you wish they made trading cards for astrophysicists.

… you took the day off work to celebrate the solution of Fermat’s Theorem.

… a museum or library security guard has ever let you “take your time” because they know you so well.

… you’ve ever walked out of a movie because the inaccuracies were ruining the whole experience.

… you’ve ever been kicked out of the room during “Jeopardy!” or “Trivial Pursuit.”

… you have to remind yourself that Malcolm X wasn’t a medieval Scottish king.

… you own your own libretto for any work.

… you know who Weapon X is, and what the X stands for.

… you can name more than four Beatles or Kryptonians.

… your boxen have ever frotzed.

… you can sing Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.”

… you know there’s a male Pink and a female Pink.

… you’ve ever heard of the Butlerian Jihad.

… you’ve ever traded bottlecaps for a stimpak in Megaton.

… you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket with the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42.

… you’ve bowed your head for a moment of silence in the direction of Reach or Hera.

… you’ve ever played a video game so much, you dreamed about it after you went to sleep.

… you’ve ever complained about a sign’s kerning.

… you’ve ever blamed your kid’s misbehavior on Mercury.

… you can recognize the sounds of a glockenspiel, a celeste, or Franklin’s armonica.

 

May 5, 2012 - AV Club, Fine Arts    No Comments

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Friday Night Lists

This is the third and final week (for now) of music on Friday Night Lists. I’ve got a bunch more music lists, but my tastes are eclectic, and the world is full of things to list! The following bands/musicians are some of my favorites, and I’m sure many of you will know several of the names on the list. But given what a broad swath of the music scene they cover, I’m hoping you’ll discover at least one new artist that’s worth investigating. If you’ve got your own little-known, must-hear recommendation, please leave it in the comments for everyone to enjoy! And now…

10 MUSICIANS/BANDS YOU NEED TO HEAR

1.  Robyn Hitchcock

What he sounds like: New Wave + Salvador Dali + silly British accents

You may have heard him: if you listened to college radio in the ’80s

Robyn Hitchcock is like the Monty Python of ’80s music: intellectual, frequently hilarious, surprisingly musical, and often nonsensical. Hitchcock started out in the influential ’70s group The Soft Boys, but went solo with some of the other Soft Boys as Robyn Hitchcock and The Egyptians. He’s got a long history of collaboration with other alternative artists, like Peter Buck of R.E.M., Billy Bragg, and Gillian Welch.

Here, try this: “Balloon Man” or “Uncorrected Personality Traits”

2.  Frank Turner

What he sounds like: English folk music + punk + Buddy Holly

You may have heard him: at UK music festivals or opening for The Offspring or Dropkick Murphys

Former frontman for the punk outfit Million Dead, I can’t say enough good things about his fun, cool, loud, wonderful music. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Here, try this: “I Still Believe” or “The Road”

3.  Neko Case

What she sounds like: Nancy Sinatra + Clannad

You may have heard her: on the Hunger Games and True Blood (Season 3) soundtracks

Neko (like Nico and the Velvet Underground, not Necco like the wafers) Case has an utterly distinctive voice that she deploys in music that’s not like anything else out there. Whether she’s solo, as on her albums The Fox Confessor Brings The Flood or Middle Cyclone, or with The New Pornographers, her sound is as addictive as it is indescribable. You just have to hear her.

Here, try this: “Hold On, Hold On” or “She’s Not There”

4.  Jeffrey Foucault

What he sounds like: John Prine + Jack White + that staticky station in the middle of Kansas

You may have heard him: in small venue, new folk/Americana concerts

Here, I admit to rampant bias. I went to high school with Jeff (he was two years behind me), and we went to State Solo & Ensemble contest singing a Henry Purcell duet my senior year. Back then, he had a lovely, clear tenor. Now he sounds like someone put his voice in the dryer with a box of rocks–it’s as gravelly and aged and worn as the best old pair of blue jeans. He’s a fantastic songwriter, and he’s developed a sound that fits perfectly between old country music like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, ’60s folk like Bob Dylan, and new Americana like Alison Krauss and Crooked Still. I can’t believe I know someone so wildly talented. It’s only a matter of time before he hits the big time.

Here, try this: “Ghost Repeater” or “Hello In There”

5.  1 Giant Leap

What they sound like: World Music + Trance  + Deep Philosophy

You may have heard them: in the movie they made about recording their album

So I was flipping channels one day, and I came across this movie with Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.) singing. I paused to see what it was, and suddenly, Asha Bhosle, the high priestess of Bollywood music, is singing too. I watch longer, and see Robbie Williams, and Tuvan throat singers, and a West African tribe, and Michael Franti. Stitching together the songs and travel footage from all over the world are clips of interviews with people like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Tom Robbins, talking about concepts like love and beauty and death. My Mind Was Blown. Their greatest strength is in combining musical styles in geographically impossible, yet perfectly complimentary ways. If you’re a fan of world music at all, you need to hear their eponymous album.

Here, try this: “Braided Hair” or “The Way You Dream”

6.  Hem

What they sound like: Southern folk + Dream Academy

You may have heard them: in the first Liberty Mutual “random acts of kindness” ad

I saw that ad, too, and searched the Internets all evening to find out what that gorgeous song was. Turns out, it’s “Half Acre” from Hem’s album Rabbit Songs. Lead singer Sally Ellyson’s voice is soft and sweet and haunting, and the instrumentals include steel pedal guitar, mandolin, and a nice assortment of acoustic music. Funnel Cloud is my favorite of their albums. If you want something to play as you enjoy a drowsy, humid summer night on the porch, look no further.

Here, try this: “Half Acre” or “Not California”

7.  Flogging Molly

What they sound like: The Chieftains + Green Day

You may have heard them: at the last show of the night at Irish Fest

This band kicks all kinds of ass. Add another dram of punk to The Pogues, subtract a little hardcore from the Dropkick Murphys, and you’ll find the sweet spot called Flogging Molly. They do heartwrenching ballads, wild jigs and reels with a driving Ramones-like drum line, and recklessly cheerful drinking songs equally well. Not only do they sprinkle Irish nationalism liberally through their lyrics, but they also make forays into piratical themes. It’s almost impossible to sit still through their music, and the whole crowd feels like one big, Irish family by the end of their phenomenal live shows.

Here, try this: “What’s Left of the Flag” or “Float”

8.  The Mutton Birds

What they sound like: Crowded House + R.E.M. + a trombone

You may have heard them: if you lived in New Zealand in the ’90s, or on The Frighteners soundtrack

You didn’t know there’s a “New Zealand sound”? Well, there is! My Darling Husband included a few of their tracks on the first mix tape he sent during our courtship, and I couldn’t get enough. It’s pretty straightforward pop/rock, with the quirky addition of a trombone here and there. But Don McGlashan, the band’s primary singer/songwriter, has an uncanny knack for telling complex stories in his songs, stories that each listener can interpret like a Rorschach inkblot. Each one is like a novel set to music. They’ve also done a few covers that did well on the antipodeal charts–they contributed “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” to Peter Jackson’s film The Frighteners.

Here, try this: “Dominion Road” or “Ngaire”

9.  E.S. Posthumus

What they sound like: John Williams + electronica + world music

You may have heard them: in many, many movie trailers

This group produces grandiose, classically styled themes, blended with electronic beats and distinctive regional instruments. The combination yields majestic landscapes of sound that lend themselves perfectly to big, impressive cinematic visuals–hence their popularity as movie trailer music. The only problem was that I would get so jazzed by the fantastic music in the trailer that I couldn’t wait to hear a whole score of it in the movie, only to go see the movie and hear its entirely different (often underwhelming) original music. If you listen to this, whatever you’re doing at the time will seem Much More Exciting!

Here, try this: “Pompeii” or “Nara”

10.  Gillian Welch

What she sounds like: an Appalachian woman from the 1700s

You may have heard her: in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Hunger Games soundtracks

When I listen to Gillian Welch, I am certain the Space-Time Continuum has been subverted to project her voice 200 years into the future. Or she’s an evolutionary throwback, a weird genetic accident that gives her the purest, keenest folk voice I’ve ever heard. With songwriting and performance partner Dave Rawlings, she channels that exact moment in music when the English and Irish music that came over with early immigrants turned into something American. Her murder ballads will make your hair stand on end; everything else is simply riveting. She’s one of the three sirens at the river in O Brother, Where Art Thou? but, unlike Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, it seems impossible to imagine that ancient voice singing modern music. And that’s just fine.

Here, try this: “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” or “Caleb Meyer”

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