Because I’m sending these year-end CDs to Wales, my listening year runs November to October, giving me time to assemble and mail a mix in time for Christmas. This year, that meant I’d done most of the assembly work during the first week of November. Shortly after that, you may or may not have heard, the United States held a presidential election. It was a pretty low-key affair — only about 55% of us actually bothered to vote. What’s more, we have this quirky system that gives more power per voter to rural (ahem, whiter) areas of the country than to more diverse urban areas, a system we’ve decided to reinforce by drawing super-crazy boundaries around congressional districts in order to keep them as ideologically homogeneous as possible.
Anyway, when faced with a choice between the most dangerous and least qualified major party nominee, like, ever, and a woman with decades of political experience and a clear, proven track record of working to help vulnerable people with compassionate policies, we of course chose the qualified woman. That is to say, more people voted for her. Like, a couple million more. But, funny thing, she’s not actually going to get to become president, because the couple million extra people who voted for her live in the wrong states. Did I mention we have a quirky system?
Anyway, for people like me who were rooting for the qualified woman to not only win the most votes but also to get elected president, it’s been kind of an emotional time. You know how after you go through a big breakup or suffer some kind of major loss, every single song that comes on the radio seems to gain this halo of extra resonance, to get freighted with a bunch of additional meaning so that it turns out all those songs are about EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUFFERING, who knew? Listening to music was kind of like that for a few weeks in November.
That experience seems to have permanently infiltrated my experience of making this mix, and thus of listening to these songs. So it’s possible these liner notes may feel a bit repetitive for that reason. Oh, and also for the reason that a bunch of these songs have already been written about in the context of my ongoing album assignments project. All those messy caveats aside, here’s a mix of songs I was listening to in 2016, and a few thoughts about each one.
1. Taylor Swift – Clean
This was the year I got around to 1989. The Taylor Swift album, I mean. I’d never been drawn to her stuff too much previously, though she did always seem to me like the real thing, a talented singer-songwriter who was committed to a musical life, rather than being a video pop tart. But the country idiom isn’t a natural one for me, so I never sought her out until I heard the infectious and addictive “Shake It Off.” (And stay tuned for that one.) A few singles into this album and I knew it was for me. I wasn’t wrong, either — I love the whole thing, and this track is especially compelling to me. It’s a collaboration between TS and Imogen Heap, who herself vaulted onto my list after this. Her album is on the docket for next year. “Clean” is a relationship song, clearly, but heard in the November context it was how I was hoping to feel on the 9th. That didn’t work out.
2. Jefferson Airplane – Embryonic Journey
As I wrote in my review of Surrealistic Pillow, I think this is my favorite rock instrumental of all time. I find it absolutely transcendent, in a way that defies encapsulation in language. Maybe that’s part of the definition of “transcendent.”
3. Joni Mitchell – Carey
Blue was an assigned album this year, and listening to it I was struck anew at just how gorgeous it is. Every note sounds so pure and right. Every song feels on par with all the others, so picking a song from it was a bit arbitrary. “Carey”, though, feels emblematic of the album, musically joyful and lyrically both aching and celebratory. I love the bohemian images, and the feel of reveling in the sweetness of life just as we still revel in the sweetness of this album. The lyric “put on some silver” makes me think of making the choice to embrace life and happiness even in dark times. It seemed a fitting title for this collection.
4. Fountains Of Wayne – Action Hero
After getting to know FoW last year, I dove deeper this year, branching into some other albums, including their (presumably final) entry from 2011, Sky Full Of Holes. It’s a typically great collection, but for me this song stands above most of the rest. There’s the usual lyrical cleverness, stringing together rhyme chains like “tests”, “chest”, “best”, “guess”, “rest”, and “stress”, with an internal rhyme of “suggest” thrown in there as a flourish. But the moment that gives me goosebumps everytime is after the second chorus, when the music swells underneath “and he’s racing against time.” Where the action hero metaphor starts out comical, with the man serving as a bit of a punchline, by the end of the second chorus his true heroism reveals itself to us, reflecting upon us the way we’re all racing against time.
5. The Lumineers – Submarines
On a musical level, I find this song hypnotic. The way it switches time signatures back and forth keeps me wonderfully off-balance, and the mix of instrumental voices is a pleasure — strong piano, subtle cello, stomps and snares for percussion. Lyrically, it’s about seeing a danger coming that nobody else believes. I can imagine there were a few who could relate to that feeling recently. I wasn’t one of them, though — I’m not sure whether I wish I’d seen it coming or not. That’s a bit like the old philosophical question about knowing the time and manner of your own death.
6. The Motels – Suddenly Last Summer
I think The Motels are one of the most underrated bands of the 1980s. I love Martha Davis’ voice, and her writing often has a mysterious, evocative quality, hinting at truths greater than the words can capture. This song is a perfect example — I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but you can’t miss the the yearning, regret, and pain in the music. It always makes me think of how some incident can change your life completely in an instant, branching you into a future very different from the one you expected. For me, the words “one summer never ends, one summer never begins” are about that inflection point.
7. Bob Dylan – Positively 4th Street
I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan this year. The subtitle of this mix may as well be “Hope Ya Like Dylan!” He’ll be showing up frequently in this list. This song is one of the best kiss-off tunes of all time. In Dylan’s context, I think it’s about the false friends he had in the Greenwich Village folk community, people who pretended to love him but were in fact jealous of his success and ready to undermine him at any turn. (At least, from his perception — no doubt there are many sides to that story.) In the 2016 context, it’s about seeing through bullshit, something we’ve all had to become well acquainted with.
8. Peter Gabriel – Lovetown
Here’s a little-known Peter Gabriel track, from the soundtrack to the 1993 movie Philadelphia. Like many of the soundtrack’s songs, it’s an interpretation of the tone of the movie — a complement to Neil Young’s “city of brotherly love, don’t turn your back on me,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?” Gabriel’s song is more subtle, more translucent than transparent. But that’s where I think its power resides. It brims with powerful images, like “do those teeth still match the wound” and the corresponding “whose lonely lips will find these hidden scars?” I listened to that soundtrack this year, and even though I love most of the other songs on it, this one felt the richest and the deepest to me.
9. The Velvet Underground & Nico – Venus In Furs
As I wrote, this is the song that captivated me most when I listened to the VU’s debut album on assignment this year. It illuminates an unusual relationship to suffering — pain as release, pain as freedom, pain as comfort. It’s not my path — as Armatrading said, “It’s their way of loving, not mine.” But I’ve learned about it from friends, and come to see it as another aspect of diversity, and possibly even a different approach to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. It’s a brilliant purple candle flame in a darkened room, casting weird shadows on the wall but nevertheless an irresistible cynosure.
10. Bob Dylan – Up To Me
Oh, “Up To Me.” The way these mixes come about is that as I go through the year of music listening, I keep throwing standout tracks into a playlist, and then I pick from that group when November comes around. There are always more songs than would fit on a single CD, so some culling is necessary, and that’s all to the good. Some songs, though, I mark as sure keepers, that will make the mix no matter what else doesn’t. This is one of those songs. I found it on the third disc of Dylan’s 1985 box set Biograph. I listen to music mostly during my commute, and when a song particularly catches my interest, I repeat it. And when it obsesses me, I repeat it until I’ve learned it. That’s what happened to me with this song, which is every bit as good as anything from Blood On The Tracks, one of my favorite Dylan incarnations. It feels like an epic novel to me, but condensed down into a series of scenes that indelibly carve the runes of friendship, regret, responsibility, loyalty, and memory.
11. Stevie Nicks – Sisters Of The Moon (demo)
There was a period, probably about a decade ago, where conditions in my life and conditions on the Internet were ripe for gathering lots and lots of Stevie bootlegs. People had web sites up where they’d feature some collection of mp3s for a week, then take those down and put up a whole new set, week after week, site after site. Some of this stuff gets pretty repetitive — how many fan-taped shows from the 2002-03 Fleetwood Mac tour does one person need? (Answer: a combination of “the best quality one” and “the one from early in the tour where they hadn’t dropped the rare songs yet.”) But there’s one collection that stands as my favorite. It was labeled “Gems” by whoever put it up, and the description is apt. It’s piano demos, mostly young Stevie singing by herself, accompanying herself, doing versions of her songs from when they were freshly written. Of that collection, this one is my favorite, an acoustic “Sisters Of The Moon” before it became a Fleetwood Mac powerhouse, when it was just a spooky, hushed, mystical gauze draped over a Tiffany lamp.
12. Buckingham Nicks – Crying In The Night
When I saw her on October 27th, Stevie’s set was full of surprises, but none more surprising than this one. This is the opening track from the Buckingham Nicks album, the one she and Lindsey released before they were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. This album isn’t even available to buy — it’s been out of print since a few months after it was released in 1973, and has never even come out on CD. (At least, not in a version released by any record company.) I never, ever expected to hear it live, and it was a huge thrill. Maybe that means we’ll see a disc one of these years? We keep hoping.
13. The Pretenders – Stop Your Sobbing
Yes, The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks are side by side in this mix because they were side by side in concert. And yes, pairing “Crying In The Night” with “Stop Your Sobbing” was no accident. But I’d likely select this song even without the thematic connection, because Chrissie’s performance on it was her fiercest of the night. Yeah, it’s a Kinks cover, but for me this is a Pretenders song through and through, and one of the best. This month, it also represents what to do next.
14. The Police – Truth Hits Everybody
Now here’s a song that resonated in November. I’d just assigned Outlandos d’Amour the month before, and rediscovered the furious allure of The Police as a young band, especially Stewart Copeland. Now, listening back to the music I’d selected from the year, this song jumped out at me and took me by the throat. Reality has seldom felt so merciless.
15. Bob Dylan – Tombstone Blues
Here’s another version of merciless truth, one flooded with metaphor and cloaked in symbol, but the chorus is pretty plainspoken: “Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes / Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food / I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues.” Sure, there’s Belle Starr and John the Baptist and Galileo and Gypsy Davey and on and on, but at its heart this song is about poverty, desperation, and death. It turns out those are powerful forces that, in a democracy, can be harnessed and pointed at a target. Sometimes, the target is even the people themselves, though they only find that out later.
16. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins – The Big Guns
The commander-in-chief says, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry.” Okay, I’m still on the previous song, but it connects right up. This Jenny Lewis solo album is much closer to the parts of Rilo Kiley that I love than was the actual last Rilo Kiley album. This track was a standout when I listened to it months ago, but it really jumped up when I was putting the mix together. “I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace / Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me / Cause we’re tired and lonely and we’re bloody.” Some people just love the big guns, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more from them soon. Not that the last 8 years were some peaceful haven — we’re still in some kind of 1984 state of constant war — but it was directionally correct, and we’re about to lose that, I think.
17. Heart – Goodbye Blue Sky (live)
Which leads right into this. I think it’s very hard to cover Pink Floyd successfully — I’ve not even heard that many people try. But I absolutely adore this version of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” It comes from a Heart live album in which they play the entirety of Dreamboat Annie, and then go on to cover some of the other people’s songs they loved from that period. The original of this is fantastically sinister, but the Ann Wilson treatment just launches it into the stratosphere, no unsettling reference intended. The incredible sense of menace and power fit my November mood perfectly.
18. Coldplay – Amsterdam
The turning point. This song captivated me when I listened to A Rush Of Blood To The Head on assignment. I connected with it emotionally far more than any other song on the album. To me, this song is about being in the deep well of despair, for a time that feels it will stretch into eternity, and then finally seeing a shaft of sunlight break through. Right at 3:57, the song absolutely takes off, and the feeling changes from hopelessness to freedom. I’ve been through this once already. In 2004, I gave up on us in disgust, only to witness what felt like a miracle in 2008. This time, I’m not giving up — we just have to keep climbing until we get to that sunlight.
19. Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’
This song was first played on October 26, 1963. Less than a month later, and before the song was released on an album, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, giving the clarion words an entirely different cast. Yet when we hear it now, it signals all the good changes that came out of that painful decade. The words, though, can play either as hopeful or foreboding, or maybe both at the same time. “The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” That’s where we are. But the change doesn’t stop, and we can be a part of it.
20. Taylor Swift – Shake It Off
So here we are. I started with a wish to be clean, but it’s a dirty time that lies ahead. But I can’t stay mud-encrusted. As much as I can, I have to rise above, and the only way I know to do that is to connect with human joy. This song crystallizes that for me. Haters gonna hate, and that’s not something we can change. What can we do? Shake, shake, shake it off. 🙂 And look forward to 2017, despite everything.
Happy New Year.