We’re featuring playlists from different individuals across Mennonite Church USA reflecting on their top 10 most important songs. This playlist comes from Ben Wideman. Ben is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective, a Penn State University Student Organization seeking to create spaces for peace, justice, and faith on campus. 3rd Way Collective is sponsored by University Mennonite Church.
You can listen to Ben’s playlist below.
1. Nate Ruess, “Nothing Without Love”: Ruess’ music has followed me through life in several iterations. I was first introduced to him as the lead singer of the indie band, The Format, and more recently as the front-man for the group, Fun. His recent move to release a solo album brought this song into my life.
The melancholy pop-rock sound hooks me right away, but the song’s premise that we are nothing without love connects me with a deeper truth about who we are and how we are created. I’m not sure if Ruess sees himself as a prophetic voice in pop culture, but in this song I see him in that light.
Favorite Lyric: “I’m just these thoughts without a pen. And I would take credit for this song, but I am nothing without love.”
2. Belle Brigade, “Where Not To Look For Freedom”: When you have the pedigree of a deeply musical family that includes composer John Williams as your grandfather, I’m sure the pressure to make great music can be overwhelming. The Belle Brigade have embraced their roots and make incredible West Coast-inspired music filled with catchy hooks and layered harmonies.
This song wrestles with the concept of freedom, and what happens when our personal prison is self-made. It also does a good job of illustrating the complexity we’ve created within institutionalized religion, especially as we make efforts to reach out to the world beyond the walls of our churches. I first saw Belle Brigade perform a free concert as part of an outdoor summer concert series and was captivated by their energetic performance. This song takes me back to that moment.
Favorite Lyric: “Well I’ve been looking real hard for a teacher, but they better not be looking for me. ‘Cause I never found one in a preacher, oh Lord, anyone that says that they see the way I should be”.
3. Dawes, “Time Spent In Los Angeles”: Confession time: I’m a different person because of the time I spent living in Los Angeles County and studying at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. It deeply shaped my understanding of the gap between the rich and poor; the impact humanity has made on the environment; the struggle of living in a diverse and continually changing culture; and how to practice theology given all of the aforementioned complexities. Southern Californa’s Dawes knows how to write music that resonates with that experience, and this song always pulls me back to the four years I spent in California. Maybe I don’t always carry “that special kind of sadness” in a visible way, but deep within me is a part that is still shaped by my time in Los Angeles.
Favorite Lyric: “When people ask me where I come from to see what that says about a man, I only end up giving bad directions that never lead them there at all.”
4. The Avett Brothers, “The Perfect Space”: I’m not sure if it’s the slight bluegrass twang that pulls me back to my time living in Virginia, but this band gets me every time. The Avett Brothers’ music transports me to bluegrass shows in grimy student houses during my time at Eastern Mennonite University, and to the friendships and connections I made during that time. This song is such an interesting mixture of a slow folk tune with a punchy refrain in the middle. Add in some layered and beautifully harmonized lyrics, and you’re left with one incredible song.
Favorite Lyric: “I wanna have friends that I can trust, that love me for the man I’ve become and not the man that I was.”
5. The Wailin’ Jennys, “Glory Bound”: Several years ago I saw this Canadian folk and bluegrass trio perform one of the most beautiful live concerts I’ve ever been to. The memory of their performance of this song has stayed with me for several reasons. For starters, the song is so beautifully crafted with a simple melody and stripped-down musical accompaniment. I was also struck by the poetic illustration of what “glory” will be. But what stood out most was the way it was performed. The Jennys introduced it as a participatory “hymn” and asked the audience to sing along on the “Hallelujah” refrain. This filled the entire concert hall with a collective musical experience that I’ve never experienced at another show. This recording captures only a glimmer of what I felt that night.
Favorite Lyric: “I’ll be traveling far from home, but I won’t be looking for to roam. I’ll be crossing o’er the great divide. In a better home soon I will reside.”
6. U2, “Running To Stand Still”: This two-chord song was one of the first I learned to play and sing along with on my dad’s old guitar. U2 was the first “secular” band I fell in love with (a bit of a jump from my collection of Michael W. Smith and DC Talk albums at the time), and it was The Joshua Tree album that first sold me on the depth and soul that was capable from these fascinating Irish rockers and the persona that is Bono. This song is one of the most simple from their massive archive, and I’m not sure I understood how hauntingly beautiful it was until I listened to it while standing in the midst of Joshua Tree National Park a few years ago.
Favorite Lyric: “You got to cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice.”
7. Nickel Creek, “Where Is Love Now”: I think Sarah Watkins may be the owner of the most beautiful singing voice in the world (in my humble opinion). Her self-titled work is great, but her artistic talents really explode as part of the new-wave bluegrass trio, Nickel Creek. This song off their latest album (one which fans had to wait almost 10 years for) is beautifully written–both in music and lyrics–and grabbed ahold of me from the very first listen. Rather than answering the question posed in the song title, this track leaves it open-ended without providing an answer.
Favorite Lyric: “Cry the tears from my eyes. Leave me here long enough to realize. Where is love now?”
8. Mumford and Sons, “Awake My Soul”: It would be putting it lightly to say that this song holds a special place in my mind. It was playing in the car when I drove to spend time with my good friend Matt Styer’s family after learning that he had died from his battle with cancer. It happened to be in the CD player when I drove away from the hospital after discovering our stillborn daughter just a few months later. It was playing on my computer as I struggled in the wake of both of those losses to write a sermon on prayer early in my journey of pastoral ministry. I ended up titling that sermon, “Awake My Soul,” and was touched when a friend offered to perform it as part of that worship service. I’m not sure that I’ll always enjoy Mumford and Sons (especially if their last album is any indication), but I know this song will always well up a wave of emotion for me.
Favorite Lyric: “Awake my soul, for you were made to meet your maker.
9. Arcade Fire, “Intervention”: Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes and just listen. Rumor has it that the echo in the old church Arcade Fire was using to record made it impossible to splice together multiple takes so the result was done in just one take. The lyrics in this song are powerfully pointed for those of us who are employed by the Church. At the core this song reminds us of the peculiar space that pastors occupy. How often do ministers put their job and parishioners ahead of the well-being of their own families, and do we really know what the consequences are when this happens? I listen to this song and hold it as a reminder of the dangerous balancing act of a life in ministry.
Favorite Lyric: “Been working for the church while your life falls apart. Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart.”
10. Coldplay, “Death And All His Friends”: Clocking in at more than six minutes, this song is really a walk through several acts–quiet and contemplative, musical buildup (in classic Coldplay arena-rock fashion), soaring sing-along chorus, before coming back to earth in a quiet electronic outro (in which, music nerds rejoice, the song creatively leads back in to the first track on the album). Coldplay is a guilty pleasure of mine. I like pretty much everything they have ever released–from their stripped down, melancholy, debut album to their radio friendly singles with the likes of Rihanna and Jay-Z making guest appearances. This song in particular pulls me in through the buildup, and contains what I think is Coldplay’s greatest lyrical nugget.
Favorite Lyric: “I don’t wanna battle from beginning to end; I don’t want a cycle of recycled revenge; I don’t want to follow Death and all of his friends.”