Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014: My Year in Music

Time seems to be passing more quickly than ever before.  I look up and a month has gone by somehow.  I was talking to a friend last night and she made a good observation: that the older you get, the less significant milestones you have to mark time and be present in its passing.  I'm even more thankful now to have this annual musical tradition as a way to meaningfully mark the passage of time. Welcome back, friends.

Music seems to be growing more and more important to me as I get older.  Certainly this year my love for it has deepened.  I heard more in the songs and artists I love- my ears opened.  I wanted to sing and play and have music on almost constantly in my apartment and at work.  But I also sought silence. I saw very clear moments for music and for the absence of sound.

Out of the many music-filled hours in my car, at home, and at the gym, I have come up with the list of the songs I kept coming back to. Please note they are not all from the year 2014.  Just, this is the year I happened upon my own love for them.

As you may know from years past, lyrics are more important to me than just about everything else.  If a song isn't really saying something it can't amount to more than a passing flirtation.  Also, guaranteed repeat listens are brought on by the following things: killer beats, hand claps, clappy-stompy group sing-along breakdowns, banjo, and particularly heavenly chord progressions.  I wish I could be more specific about that. My little brother says that his wife loves any song in the key of A minor.  I think I need to figure out what my chords are.  I absolutely love that there is a retro feel to a lot of music coming out now.  Big, Les Paul guitar sounds with bluesy rhythms, harmonies from a different era, notes that sound like they are coming straight from an Appalachian stream circa 1850.  The diversification and beauty of it all continues to astound me.

Last year's album separated into some very clear themes. This year has shaped up as more of a linear narrative,  almost a Q&A session with God.  These songs tell the story of my year.  And I would ask a question, or hear a good question in a set of lyrics, and God would often answer me through music.  So with that, let's begin.

Q: Hey God, everyone keeps telling me that you really want to hang out with me, like, for real. They even tell me that you love me. I've been reading your book and it says that over and over and over.  Is that really true? If so, do you, maybe, want to hang out sometime?  

(This could just as easily have been Pete Townshend's "Let My Love Open the Door" but his version is not on Spotify and I cannot abide a bad cover.)  This song is an invitation.  Music has taken me further than ever before this year.  I'm so thankful.  Maybe there is an angel on my porch.  I just have to invite them in.  One of the things I worked on this year was trying to be more open.  I realized I have a lot of walls and closed doors around me and it's humbling to try and take them down.  People, I have found, respond to that.  And they also, contrary to what I believed, know when those walls are up and respond with their own distances and defensive maneuvers.  I thought I was getting away with it, but of course I wasn't.  Maybe they can't give a specific name to what they are feeling, but they know on some level they are being shut out.  Sorry, guys. I'm working on it.

A: Yes. I'm right here and I've been waiting.  I've been knocking.  I've come for you.

"You were right at my door, I didn't recognize".  In light of my question, this was a pretty clear answer.  What struck me about this song is how accurate the lyrics are when you feel for the first time the salvific and redemptive graces of really being loved by someone. Even the fear and need to retreat when you are confronted with it, or to misuse it somehow, before you know what is really happening. Her whole album has this epic sound, which it needs to in order to stand up under her incredible voice.  I highly recommend the rest of the tracks on Forever For Now.  And to listen to how good a writer LP is too.

Q: What do you have to say about this Love you are offering, God? 
A1: "Your love, my love, our love/ oh, it's like a mighty river, baby."

Sometimes you just need to jump into the current and let it flow. God's love can wash over you like a mighty river. I love that image. Also, that guitar that comes in at the 2:20 mark?  Yes, please.  This was probably the best show I saw in 2014.  This band is unbelievable live.  Because they were so good- amazing horn section, crazy frontman energy- it made me regret that I hadn't been alive during the 60s and could have seen Otis Redding or Sam Cooke or Wilson Pickett perform live.  Although it did comfort me in that I feel like this singer was channeling their musical spirits in his performance and we all benefited from it.  I like to think the Communion of Saints applies to music.

A2: He comes like rain falling over us.  Like a downpour dancing on the doors. 

One of the great loves of my life is water.  When I am near it I feel calm and centered and I also feel called forth into something greater than just what I see. It makes my heart sing a tune that is familiar and unknown at the same time. I love the image and joyful sound of this song and the picture it gives me of being in a downpour, covered and drenched with a love that quenches every thirst and washes everything unimportant away. (See also previous song, and many other songs, including *cringe* "The Rose", where love is likened to a river.)  Water and love would seem to go hand in hand.

Q: Okay so you love me.  What does that mean? 
A: I got this love in me.  But it's not just mine to keep.  Like treasure that's buried deep, I come alive when I set it free.  

I have felt more myself and more alive this year than in the past.  And I contribute it wholly to the power of a renewed sense of identity in Christ.  Even the tiniest moments- watching dawn break in my apartment when all is quiet- seem rich and full.  It also can't stay contained, it is meant to flow outward.  The natural response to a love so great, so transformational, is to give it away to others and watch what it can do in them too.  I have had the very great privilege of getting to know a lot of new people this year and watching this Love grow in them, and receiving the same Love from them. I consider this one of the great joys of my life.

Q: But you love everyone, God.  How can you care about me, specifically? 
A: Everbody wanna steal my girl.  Find another one, 'cause she belongs to me.

Believe me, I'm as surprised as you that I have a superhuman boy-band, unstoppable, inescapable mutant hit on this list.  But I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you that this song was significant for me.  I blame Matt Wertz for my pop proclivities in 2014.  I started following his #WertzWednesdays playlist at the beginning of the year and it became a gateway drug.  On a serious note, when I imagined that it wasn't the dreamy teenagers of One Direction singing to me, but my Heavenly Father telling me that I belong to him, it took on a whole new meaning.  When I have felt under attack this year, it's been a helpful reminder.  And: it''t.stop.listening. (Clappy, stompy, group sing-along featured here too!) Ugh, boy bands.

Q: God, you and I have known each other for kind of a long time and we're just now getting to know each other.  Shouldn't we be further along by now?
A: I can see it all, the longer we stay together. The mountains start to fall as long as we stay together.

I love love love the lyrics to this song. Especially when I imagine it as a conversation between me and God.  I ask God to prove himself to me all the time and it's so comforting to know that he sees that and is patient with me.  I'm trying to prove myself to him too, but I keep forgetting that's already been done by Someone Else. I also love the image of the mountains coming down as long as we stay together. I see so much of myself in the probing questions and need for reassurance in this song.  And I have thought that we should be further along in our relationship but this seems to tell me that that doesn't matter either, as long as we stay together.

Q: How do we deal with darkness? 
A1: Identify it.

This song sounds like encounters with old darkness.  My year has been littered with them. I became aware that I was actually fighting them for the first time.  I love the beat behind the song and how it switches from minor to major chords a few times because it sounds like a struggle between dark and light.  I constantly feel myself slipping backwards but then pushed forward again too.  And these are dangerous days, for a myriad of reasons.  But it's not without hope.

A2: Know that we can't be perfect but keep going anyway.

It's not just because of the banjo part in this song that I love it so much.  It's also not because I got to meet Matt this year (thanks to Laurel! I'm forever in your debt...) and see him a few times live.  It's a simple and honest ballad about feeling like you've come so far, only to slide all the way back down, and continuing to press on in spite of that.

A3: Hope

Because full life doesn't come without struggle.  We have to choose all the time and it's hard. I love the lyrics: "A song's never just sad, there's hope, there's a silver lining." We have to remember that.  It is there, but we don't see it if we don't believe it exists.

Q: Why do we have to deal with darkness?

I think Gregory Porter and Roseanne Cash have hit most accurately upon the best way to deal with darkness.  It is that this world has things about it that we know don't sit well with us, and that are wrong and hard. Roseanne wrote the album Black Cadillac to deal her father Johnny's death.  She responds by looking for meaning in whatever the path she is on brings to her.  She finds God in it all.  And one of the other sentiments this year is expressed more beautifully by velvet-voiced Gregory Porter.  When Spring finally arrived in DC in 2014, I couldn't remember another winter that was colder, icier, darker, or longer.  When the the earth finally thawed and trees finally blossomed I really understood the meaning of Psalm 96 when it says "Let all the trees of the forest sing for joy."  I realized that they were actually doing that.  All Creation around me was responding to a new season coming with joy.  I think Wind Song is talking about a proper response to God's presence in everything (even the darkness) - gratitude.  

I don't really have a question that goes along with this song except that it really does sound like rain at sunset.  It's beautiful and I think it builds off of Porter's ability to make nature into music.  I had the good fortune of seeing Chris Thile twice in concert this year, once as part of Nickel Creek.  His talent as a musician is astounding.  I'm so grateful for people with the gift to make instruments do amazing and beautiful things. I hear the eternal in this music.

This is just a great observational song about the nature of people.  I was immediately drawn in by its awesome beat.  Sarah's a folk singer and her albums usually have a much different sound but this time she used a hip-hop producer and I think got a fantastic result.  Her sweet soprano with the battlefield beat underneath is fantastic.  She speaks so much truth here... I've seen these lyrics reflected over and over again in my day to day interactions.

And then the obligatory single person's musical lament:

Geez Beck, did you have to lay it out so clearly in that first line?  Can't we beat around the bush a little bit? As soon as I heard the mandolin and that line, I knew it was going to be a song of the year.  Beck's a savant and his sound continues to mature and evolve, never formulaic. That is QUITE a task in today's market.  Much respect, dude. This is a beautiful song about feeling lonely. I get that.

 I love the opening line, "True, it's a dance, we know the moves/ the bow, the dip, the woo/ though the words are true/ the state is old news".  That is exactly how I feel about dating in my 30s. Sylvan Esso's sound, like Beck's, stands apart.  And it's not just innovative musically either, these lyrics are haunting: "Do you love me? Wrap me in your arms. I can't feel it, but wrap me in your arms." I think it touches on a paradox of relationships these days: We all long to feel close to someone, and more often than not it is physical closeness that precedes everything else.  It's the quickest path to intimacy.  But even when we achieve that, it doesn't always satisfy the way we thought it would, and without a more complete picture and foundation of intimacy, it fades quickly away.

A hilarious and oh so catchy airing of dating grievances from the female perspective.  Maybe it's not all true, but boy it sure feels that way sometimes.  Romance sometimes does feel dead and gone, so I took Chromeo's advice and downloaded all of Sam Cooke's available catalogue.  It was very comforting, in fact.  I always knew I fell into the Bob Seger "Still Like That Old Time Rock and Roll" camp and now I know it's not just for the retro sound, it's for the innocent sentiments of a by-gone era- it's for the romance.

100% how I feel about going out on New Years Eve now. Especially about champagne getting spilled on me.

Whoever you may end up being, this song is for you.

Damien, you beautiful, tortured, Irish poet.  You keep writing these heart-wrenching and profound albums and singing them with your achy voice. I listen to it on rainy days (which have been seemingly endless this November and December) and it makes me desperate to swim across the cold Atlantic and heal your pain.  The instrumentation on this song is flawless.  Stripped down, acoustic guitar, simple piano melody... and then the longing cello, then melodica... then a full string section that swells behind the cello at the end... Damn you, Damien! I never stood a chance. *puts on goggles and swimcap*

Just in case you felt like you needed a stiff drink after that last song, here's a sweet, straightforward love song from a group I got to see twice this year thanks to some kindred musical spirits who like to share. I really hope they make it big because they are so talented and I love their Americana, fun, folk style and ridiculous covers.

Which of these songs is not like the others? J-Pop America Fun Time Now! ....But seriously, in the very likely event that my life gets turned into a video game, I will require that this be the soundtrack. 6 minutes of phantasmagorical adventure.

I present to you my pick for sexiest song of 2014.  Somehow, this category has become an annual tradition. Just go with it.

Really loved this whole album.  It's faded a bit in its initial sheen, but it feels important to acknowledge it since I did spend a lot of time on it this year.  Listening to the lyrics it's easy to tell Jack Antonoff suffered huge personal loss in formative years of his life and is still processing that.  I think he's done it very well through this album and it never sounds defeatist, it sounds hopeful.

I spent two months of my year in deep study of C.S. Lewis' book The Great Divorce.  In that book, which deals with the concepts of Heaven and Hell, ghosts from Hell get on a bus and visit Heaven and encounter Bright People.  Up there, the ghosts become aware that they are transparent and the Bright people are solid.  I guess what this song makes me think of is that on this earth, we're all "walking lightly" and while it's real, there is a greater reality beyond this one.

I read a fantastic book on Bob Dylan and the Christian themes in his music this year.  The book was the beginning of a long rabbit trail of other esoteric Dylan songs, biographies and philosophical readings.  It led me to tackle all 11 volumes of Dylan's bootleg sessions that have been released progressively over the last few years.  This song is over 50 years old and it has aged well in my opinion.  A fitting end to a year, and lead off to the new year, in which I am sure more struggle will come my way, and the ones I am in will continue but not without joy and purpose and, hopefully, victory.

Thank you my friends, as always, for reading.  It is a joy to share this with you.

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