Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2016: My Year in Music

Here we go again.  I've been curating my playlist for this post since January 1, and now we're already in 2017! We've come a long way, 2016.

The songs of this year fell pretty easily into clear categories.  I don't know if my year could be categorized so easily, or even into the same categories, but it was helpful to see how these themes just naturally came forth when I started taking a hard look at this year's selections.  And some of them are pretty accurate reflections of my thoughts about what the year has led me through. I've culled this list WAY down from 79 songs, so count yourselves lucky.  I could have written about all 79 of them, and many of the ones I cut appear on my "Albums of 2016" list, which, I fully admit, is sort of cheating.  I tried, really tried, to get it down to 25 songs.  But I just couldn't do it. In many ways, this list serves as an archive of my memories for the year, so if a song has a specific memory tied to it, I didn't remove it because I want to remember.  This has always, from the beginning, been a project to document the soundtrack of my year, and I'm always so grateful to share it. 

If you think of it, would you share some of your soundtrack to 2016 with me? I'd love to know what you've been listening to.  

Here's my list... 

Organized by theme:

1) Admitting you have a music documentary problem is the first step to recovery

Polk Salad Annie - Tony Joe White
What Kind of Woman is This? - Buddy Guy
Sittin' on my Sofa - The Kinks
Everyday Should be a Holiday - The Dandy Warhols

Early on in the year, I tackled the Foo Fighters series on HBO called "Sonic Highways".  I loved hearing how the different cities inspired different songs for Dave Grohl, and how he could respond so accurately to the culture and musical traditions represented in a given place. So many different stories and personalities could be represented and shaped into new forms by collaborating. I can't get enough of witnessing the way musicians create, and the creative process in general.  So it started with the Foo Fighters and Sonic Highways, which led me to dive deep into Tony Joe White and Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters and Allen Toussaint.  Then I just started watching all the music documentaries on Netflix and Amazon Prime.  So I watched one about the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Dandy Warhols feud called Dig! which was a crystallization of the 90s indie rock scene, about which I knew almost nothing.  And I watched one about this Boston Globe reporter trying to reunite The Kinks (Do It Again), which you could easily continue your life without seeing. I can and do highly recommend the PBS documentary series Soundbreaking. AMAZING.  So, yeah, I have a problem.  But it did lead me to some great new genres and artists, and to rediscover or learn more about semi-unfamiliar bands or artists, and that was a very rewarding journey this year. I also have a much deeper appreciation for the people around the music too, producers, studio musicians, engineers, etc. There's too much to say about the different sounds represented in the songs in this section.  Too much to say about the bands and the times in history that they represent.  I only hope that having the songs here will help me remember all the things that these songs and the ones they are pointing to make me think of, make me love about music, make me appreciate about what people have put forth and how they translate what is in us as humans to sound that people understand on some mystical level. And that we can commune through that across the ages and different histories, understandings, and cultures that we represent as listeners.

2) Angry Chick Rock

People Have the Power - Patti Smith
A Day for the Hunter/A Day for the Prey - Layla McCalla
Emotions and Math - Margaret Glaspy
I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore - Lucy Dacus
Orange Flower - Angelica Garcia

At a certain point in the mid 2000s Counting Crows and I broke up because I was so sick of Adam Duritz complaining in his songs. I wanted to pull his dreadlocked head out of the sand and say to his face, "Hey man, ain't nobody got time for your whining! Find something to be grateful about!"  I think the difference between these songs and Counting Crows is that there's a fire behind this discontentment that I think belies a hope and pursuit of something better that I never heard in Counting Crows songs.  I only heard resignation.  These songs engage the anger and the longing. They are funny, passionate, and true. And maybe I feel it more acutely because I, too, am a woman who has problems with men, and the world around me.  All of the conflicts represented in these songs, I've had them or I have them or I will have them. Patti Smith's poetry! I believe that her well-crafted words can help "wrestle the earth from fools". Leyla McCalla's cello channels her Haitian folk heritage and plaintively wonders why was she spared from the 2010 earthquake? Why is she still here? And what is she supposed to do now that she is still here in the wake of all that destruction? Pray. Hunt for goodness and call it forth. Margaret Glaspy's emotions and math!  We've all run the numbers of exactly how long 'til the person comes back, feeling lots of feelings and thinking too much about things in the space between, and sort of stewing about being in that position in the first place. Lucy Dacus "do[es]n't wanna be funny anymore. [She's] got a too short skirt, maybe [she] can be the cute one."  OH man. What witty girl who's been passed over for an objectively hot one hasn't felt that feeling? Angelica Garcia received an orange flower from a guy, who took her out to dinner, paid, and then called her "dude" the next day.  So much confusion and ambiguity. So much reticence to commitment and clarity. This is the best lyrical representation of the modern dating scene I have come across.  There is edge and power in these songs and still femininity. They were never mutually exclusive and they've never been on better display than this year in music.

3) Soul, Soul, Soul, Sweet Soul

How Long Do I Have to Wait for You? - Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
Good to You - Jonny P
The Three of Me - William Bell

If you can sit still during these songs, something inside of you has died. And speaking of died....RIP Sharon (2016 was a rough, rough year for losses in the music industry).  What a voice and a soul you brought to the stages you performed.  These beats, these horn sections, these incredible voices, these smooth sounds.  I feel everything about them. And if I could sum up a lesson I want to take away from 2016 it would be this lyric from William Bell: "There was the man I was, the man I am, and the man I want to be...the three of me. I've got to figure out who I wanna be. It took losing your love to make me see, oh, there ain't no room for the three of me."

4) Country Coming Out Party

Springsteen - Eric Church
Made Up Mind - Tedeschi Trucks
You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast - Wynonna, Cactus Moser
Shine a Different Way - Patti Griffin

This section goes out to SCP! That was this year. I went to see Christ Stapleton and Jason Isbell in concert, for crying out loud.  And liked it! One of my favorite memories from this year was sitting on a boat late at night with a bunch of friends over Memorial Day weekend and having a "round robin" DJ experience where we would pass the phone around and everyone would pick a song to play for the group to listen to together. SCP played "Springsteen" and I immediately fell in love with it, just like I did with my high school/college love, the story of whom this song describes perfectly, right down to the Springsteen songs. And, thankfully, how I feel about it now, the distance and the sweet nostalgia of it.  Then we go straight into Tedeschi Trucks and THE SEXIEST guitar hook I heard all year. I am also obsessed with Susan Tedeschi and I want to be her.  Cactus Moser's slide guitar riff in the next song is so raw (and a close second to Derek Trucks' for sexiness). Wynonna's sassy vocals over it, plus their sweet love story behind the whole song, so good. And finally Patti, that lovely vibrato in her voice and those beautiful words she always sings like these: "I’m gonna let it be the moon/ Let it play the tune/ The one that keeps repeating/ I’m gonna let it be your will...".  Yeah, if this is country music, I'm really okay with it.

5) Wild Heart

Into the Wild - LP
Alaska - Maggie Rogers
Wild Animal - Michael Tolcher
Painting (Masterpiece) - Lewis Del Mar
Chillin' On the Beach with My Best Friend Jesus Christ - Susto
Canary Cage -  The Whistles and the Bells

Something inside me woke up this year.  It's always been there.  I've known about its existence but never felt it activated. But this year it woke UP. I've had an insatiable appetite for exploration and adventure, especially as regards my faith and the lengths of where God is and wants to be on earth. I crave the wild, especially after possibly the best 5 days of my life camping and hiking solo in the wilds of Banff  and Jasper National Parks this summer. LP always sounds epic and this song is just the anthem I want to play every time I grab my shoes and hit the trails. Maggie Rogers' song is just beautiful.  "I walked off you, and I walked off an old me".  Yes. So often when we go on journeys, that's what we are trying to do. The Michael Tolcher song basically sums up how I felt when I got home from China.  I was so fed up with inauthenticity and sameness.  I felt acutely the crushing weight of things that aren't living into their truest selves, and the burden of saving face and keeping up appearances. I don't think the song is produced particularly well but I just really appreciate the chorus: "Don't dress me up like a puppet, no, I'm an animal. Runnin' wild on this planet, dammit, burnin' from my soul." I saw him perform it live and I think it was better in the stripped down, acoustic form but the sentiment is the same.  Burn from your soul! And if you're doing that, then watch out world! I connected with these songs so much because of that.  And also, not taking myself too seriously and feeling okay, within the freedom of Christianity and a loving God, to doubt and to talk to him about it. Lewis Del Mar's "Masterpiece" makes me happy to think of getting a vision and throwing paint on the walls, because I see the colors and they just have to be there. I think the last songs speak of an untethered comfort with Christ, in which we trust so fully that we can then act and move freely and see him as a friend with whom one can enjoy Bud Light! I don't think Susto is in any way being offensive or facetious about their words, though the song might sound a bit tongue-in-cheek.  It's real, and it's fun and Christ is both of those things too! He CREATED laughter, and, if you want to go there... beer. "Canary Cage" talks about that doubt, and Job, and bad things but faith through them. God is wild, and fierce, but understands too, and can stand up to your doubt.  Come with your questions and God will welcome you in all the same.

6) Self-destructive behavior

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk - Rufus Wainwright
Perfect - One Direction
I'm Not Feeling It Anymore - Van Morrison
I Need A Forest Fire - Bon Iver, James Blake
Turn Our Eyes Away - Ruby Amanfu, Trent Dabbs

The reason I'm almost a month late with this post is because of this section right here.  As soon as I recognized that this was a theme of 2016 (and these were the songs that showed it to me, loud and clear) I didn't want to own that. I got to this section to write it and just stopped cold, and couldn't pick it up for three weeks. It's too true and I don't want it to be an accurate description of where I am.  In college I used to love the lilting piano, funhouse sound of "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk".
Listening to it again this year it felt painfully accurate.  "Everything it seems I like's a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me...".  And then I heard the song "Perfect" by One Direction which concurrently made me very angry as well as making me sad because I know that what the singer(s) of the song is/are offering is something meaningless, with high social-media/selfie value, reckless and ultimately destructive....but probably at least a little bit fun while it's happening.  Maybe a lot fun.  I really want that but also really don't want that.  How do both exist at the same time? That's something I'm thinking a lot about in 2017.  Van Morrison gives an honest rendition of what I think fame must be like.  And probably what it feels like when you come down on the other side of a relationship like the one described in One Direction's song.  The harsh light of reality glaringly reveals the emptiness of what we get caught up in when it comes to fame and celebrity.  What Van is talking about in this song is that disillusionment that comes when you can finally free yourself of the confines of caring what other people think and pursue truth, and truth alone.  That's admirable, and I want to be able to do that. I think one of the first steps of that journey is what James Blake and Justin Vernon talk about in "I Need a Forest Fire".  I absolutely love this song in large part because of the recurring image of the forest fire.  I think about how important forest fires are to keeping a forest healthy and how they're so destructive and awful during them, but they need to happen! Rangers set controlled burns to keep forests thriving and I cling to that metaphor when I feel like there is something in me that I know needs to go.  I like that it doesn't just say just because it is in you it must be true or good.  We do have things in us that aren't good and need to be cleared away, maybe even with a metaphorical fire. And I had to end the section with the bittersweet ballad of sad hope by Ruby Amanfu.  It acknowledges the brokenness in us, but it is also brave and confident too, which is sort of how I feel about my own personal situation, mostly because of grace.  

7) Nothing New Under the Sun/80s child forever

A Change of Heart - The 1975
Oblivious - Miniature Tigers
Love is a Stranger - Eurythmics
Atmosphere - Joy Division

If I listened to all of these without any contextual knowledge, I would be hard-pressed to separate which songs came from which decade.  The first two are from the 21st century, the second two are from the illustrious dawn of the synthesizer, and I love them equally.  More evidence that music is just doubling back on itself, (in addition to the new retro, and newgrass) I can't be mad.  I have always had a soft spot for the strange sounds of experimental 80s synth-pop and I've never appreciated the Eurythmics more.  I really DON'T like "Sweet Dreams", probably because of strong association with Marilyn Manson, but "Love is a Stranger" is awesome! Annie Lennox's voice is a force to be reckoned with.  And I am awarding The 1975 the quirkiest lyrics prize for 2016.  I am continuously amused by these lines:

You smashed a glass into pieces/ That's around the time I left
When you were coming across as clever/ Then you lit the wrong end of a cigarette
You said I'm full of diseases/ Your eyes were full of regret
And then you took a picture of your salad / And put it on the Internet

 It's a sardonic and removed look at what I'm sure was a real interaction that took place with the writer and a girl at some point.  The overall callousness of this song doesn't sit well with me but I'm oddly fascinated by it. The Miniature Tigers could literally be a hit band 30 years ago.  However, they are a band today! And I really like this song for its 80s overtones.  And then Joy Division.  Well, many of us owed a large portion of our entertainment in 2016 to Stranger Things and I was very appreciative of the soundtrack, which included this song.  It's rare that a song is led by a bass line and such a strange voice becomes so captivating.  I love how weird and interesting it all sounds.  So thankful for the break from Drake, Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris, Martin Garrix, Ariana Grande, and J. Beebs who are all pretty much sounding the same to me these days.

8) Ear Candy 

Warm Foothills - Alt-J
Side Pony - Lake Street Dive
Sit Still, Look Pretty - Daya
Jonti - Wild Cub

These are just fun picks that sounded innovative and fun to me this year, that I really couldn't stop playing.  I don't really have much to say about them other than that.  They are infectious, layered, and wildly different from each other. Variety is the spice of life, n'est-ce pas?

As always my friend, wishing you a year filled with amazing music, in which you find truth, beauty and joy.  

My Albums of 2016

 And so here are the albums that played a big part in my year in 2016. They aren't in any order or organization.  I just loved these bodies of work and the artists who made them.  Let's dive in, shall we?

Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Sonically, I think this was probably the most interesting and beautiful album released this year. Justin Vernon has a head for laying down tracks and paints these rich canvases of sound that I can listen to over and over.  It took me a while to get into this record but once I finally put it on in my house on a cold winter night and spent some time with it, I really heard it and started to love it.  It was 8 (circle) that initially grabbed me.  The horn arrangements on this record alone.  Haunting. This is an expected choice.  This was on everyone's list this year and I believe it deserves a place among the best musical contributions of 2016 for sure.

Lori McKenna - The Bird and the Rifle
Definitely my favorite album lyrically of 2016.  You have likely heard Lori McKenna songs, but someone else was singing them, like maybe Tim McGraw, or Little Big Town, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, or Faith Hill? I hadn't heard anything she had written until I came across this album this year. I listened to the first track, "Wreck You" and my jaw dropped. I don't know if I've ever heard such an honest set of lyrics.  On her website, Lori is quoted as saying
My words are front porch, kitchen, there's always a car in there... but that is where our greatest conversations happen––sitting in the front seat of someone’s car in the driveway when we should have gotten out 15 minutes ago.
It's rare that I connect so completely with a sound and lyrics but hers really hit home with me. And maybe, I almost hope, that she personally hasn't walked through everything she writes about but goodness can she put words to a feeling.  And her voice isn't perfect.  I love that there is imperfection and insecurity in her voice -- makes me love it all the more.

Front Country - Sake of the Sound
I lose track of where I am in time when I hear this record.  It's stripped down, full of pure country bluegrass, and sounds like it was recorded in someone's bathroom. It has a fantastic raw quality to it, but the songs are classic, rooted in tradition. Beautiful banjo, fiddle and mandolin arrangements sound like clear mountain streams and make me want to run away to the mountains and leave this city life behind every time I hear them.

Tedeschi Trucks - Let Me Get By
One of the few bands to be on both my albums and songs of 2016 list.  Susan and Derek just really got me this year.  Susan's voice is absolutely incredible, sounds like what bourbon tastes like to me: smoky and complex, with a sultry quality to it. Their show at Wolf Trap this summer was one of my favorites of the year.  And Derek Trucks' guitar riffs are enough to make anyone sit up and notice. One of the most talented players out there today, IMHO.  Not a track on this album I don't really enjoy listening to.

Shovels and Rope - Little Seeds
Another favorite show of 2016 at 9:30 club.  The harmonies and the country/rock marriage of Michael and Cary Ann work together so well. I listened to this album a ton as I was cleaning or cooking in the apartment this year.  It feels jangly and loose and would relax me at the end of ridiculous days when I was too uptight about my to-do list.

Jared and the Mill - Life We Chose
A sweet band of beautiful men from Phoenix, AZ.  I saw them at Jammin' Java by myself on a Sunday night in summer and they played way past they were supposed to be shut down due to noise regulations in Vienna, so they just unplugged and played a whole acoustic set on the floor with all of us around them.  The plinking banjo sound and beautiful melodies, with relatable lyrics.  I know what that search in your 20s for meaning and self-realization feels like.  Some people never come out of it. But this is the sound of it, without a doubt.  And I love it, both for its nostalgia and the sweetness of its tarnished but still intact naïveté.

Frank Turner - Positive Songs for Negative People
Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls actually opened for Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton at Merriweather Post Pavilion this summer.  Yeah, I was surprised to.  Frank has a pretty great story about being a punk rocker and then kind of turning the tide to his current sound after his post-hardcore band Million Dead broke up.  He cites Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" album as a big influence in the change in his career and I think you can hear it.  He's got a great message in his music and I just loved his stage presence and the way he approaches his career.  He's funny and writes really good, fun, and honest songs.

Margo Price - Midwest Farmer's Daughter
A great show enjoyed at the Hamilton with KG.  She sings her heart out and since I have just returned from Nashville where I toured the Ryman auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame, I can see exactly where she gets her sound from.  She has gone back to the roots of the old female greats of country like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette, perhaps without the domestic abuse problems. She has stepped back in time and I liked listening to this album.  I should try listening to some of the originals next to Margo and see how they compare side by side.  2017 project idea!

C.W. Stoneking - Gon' Boogaloo
Because it's just so swampy and dirty and fuzzy.  If you can figure out the time signature during the verses on The Jungle Swing, you are a better person than I, my friend.  What the heck is happening with those rhythms? Whatever it is, I want more of it.

Gregory Porter - Take Me to the Alley
Oh Gregory, sing to me.  Anything.  Sing the phonebook to me.  But sure, if you want to write a song about how Jesus looks for those in the alleys and not in the gilded houses, and says "take me to the afflicted ones, take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their way", that's okay too.  Or you can also sing beautiful original love songs too.  I accept.

River Whyless - We All the Light
Not quite bluegrass, not quite country, not quite rock, not quite The Beatles' Revolver, but certainly heavily intertwining all of the above.  There is a lot going on in their songs and this was another stellar Jammin' Java show I went to this summer.  They played with heart and soul and have a unique sound that is really hard to do in an era where everything sounds like a remake of something else, old or new.  They're from NC too, which I have to tip my hat to.

Julien Baker - Sprained Ankle 
One of my biggest live disappointments of 2016, I saw Julien at U St. Music Hall and she was great but the sound system was terrible and really got in the way of her performance. She soldiered through like a champ but didn't do an encore and practically ran off stage at the end without saying anything.  I could barely hear her and there was tons of feedback.  But her album, thankfully more professionally produced, is full of songs about struggling to find faith, and meaning, and love in the midst of sadness and addiction.  It's beautiful.  I can't wait for more from her this year. She's so young, it's hard to imagine having lived what she has by the tender age of 21.

Andrew Peterson - Burning Edge of Dawn
Andrew Peterson is one of my favorite poets, and just happens to be great at putting poetry to music. I LOVE his lyrics, and I love how he "smuggles in the light" to a world where there is a lot of darkness.  I love how he sees the world through which he walks, and how he is moved to tears often by brokenness but is never discouraged for long, and always returns to hope.  Sometimes the sound can get a little cheesy and Christian-y for me, but by and large he is one of the most consistently good Christian artists and I return to him, if not just for the sheer beauty of the sentiments expressed through his lyrics.

Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
Listening to this album is like going to a church where they love curse words.  I definitely get the sound of the Sunday choir all throughout this, but it's not shying away from language and raw expression in lyrical flow. I love how this guy thinks and rhymes and I love how this album was produced. It's full of great questions and honesty and he just lays his life out to consider with us via these tracks. I felt like I was having a conversation with him while I listened to this album. I felt invited in to his world and that is not easy to accomplish.

Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger
I saw Paul this summer at Wolf Trap and it was one of the top five best concerts I have ever seen in my life.  He is one of our best songwriters, ever.  His band is incredible and he infuses so many different world musical traditions into his songs and writes such interesting lyrics, he is just on another level.  I can't remember the specifics of the concert that night really, other than I was sitting there on a perfect summer night just hoping it would never, ever end.  I love the themes he explores in his music, both sonically and lyrically and he never fails to break ground in what he's doing.

Honorable Mentions:
Anderson .Paak - Malibu
Raury - All We Need

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