A Toast To Absent Friends

Happy New Year, and welcome to another year-end music list. Just to review, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2018 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that nothing on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.

For the first time, I’m linking to a Spotify playlist for these rather than linking each song, because for almost the first time Spotify actually contains all the songs in the mix. I’m also going back and adding these playlists to previous mixtape posts and to Album Assignments posts, because I like the idea of the music being available right in the post when I’m writing about music. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!

1. Elvis Costello – The Comedians
Over the past few years, I’ve mentioned how the Album Assignments project with my friend Robby has influenced my music listening, and consequently the makeup of these mixes. However, sometimes my other project — The Watchmen Bestiary — can have a big influence too. Alan Moore quotes this Elvis Costello song in Chapter 2 of Watchmen, and I wrote about the connections between them in 2017. I also bought this album, Goodbye Cruel World, on CD at that time, but the delay inherent in having a big stack of CDs to listen to (and interspersing them with a podcast, an audiobook, and periodic iPod shuffles) means that I didn’t listen to it until 2018. Costello doesn’t have many good things to say about this album himself, but I’ve come to like this song quite a bit — possibly Stockholm Syndrome. Its weird, off-kilter time signature, the typically clever Costello wordplay in its lyrics, and of course the Watchmen connection make me fond of it. And really, “a toast to absent friends” couldn’t be better as a title for this collection, since I make it for our friends across the ocean. Cheers!

2. The Killers – Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine
As I wrote in my post on Hot Fuss, I think this is an amazing debut song. That bass line grabs me every time, and Brandon Flowers’ voice could bring thrilling drama to absolute nonsense (and has.) Listening to this song was my favorite part of doing the deeper dive into Hot Fuss.

3. Rilo Kiley – Does He Love You?
Speaking of intensity, I can’t get enough of Jenny Lewis’ vocal theater on this song. She takes us through a full three-act play, complete with twist ending, and plays the character’s arc to the hilt. She starts loving and innocent, then gradually introduces notes of contempt and abandonment. When she comes back to a softer tone, her earlier aggrieved self-pity makes her sound distant rather than supportive, and when she finally reveals the connection between her “married man” and her interlocutor’s husband, she couldn’t sound more disgusted with EVERYTHING. By the time she’s returning to “let’s not forget ourselves”, her vocal is distorted and venomous, and the emotional strings swirl around it, until those strings are all that’s left. Just marvelous.

4. The Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
Now here’s a more fun take on secrets. I loved the chance to dissect why I think this is such a perfect pop song, and every single time I hear it I can’t help but be uplifted and opened. And my god, how I love that drum break at 1:51. Air drums every time.

5. Stevie Nicks – The Dealer (demo)
Stevie did an album called 24 Karat Gold a few years ago, in which she took a bunch of old demos (most of which had been circulating in the fan community for decades) and recorded them with a professional band. This was wonderful, no doubt, but there are also just some unavoidable differences between Stevie in her 30’s and Stevie in her 60’s, and they felt pretty glaring on certain songs. “The Dealer” has been one of my favorite unreleased Stevie songs forever, and the version on 24 Karat Gold didn’t feel like it held up in comparison to the demos. Lucky for me, she re-released her first two albums, remastered with a bunch of extra tracks, and this polished-up version of an old “Dealer” demo showed up with the Bella Donna remaster. This was the best of both worlds for me — all the power and energy of the initial recording, professionally released and cleaned up.

6. The Go-Go’s – I’m With You
I was inspired to assign Beauty And The Beat to Robby after listening to a re-release of Talk Show, the album on which this song appears. I’ve always been deeply partial to The Go-Go’s, not just for their fun but for the musical surprises they always delivered. This song feels like one of those hidden gems — I love the strange minor key melody, paired with such fiercely devoted lyrics. I think this is one of the best things Jane Wiedlin ever wrote (in this case with Gina Schock as co-writer), and it’s the first of a few unabashed love songs in this collection.

7. Wilco – Remember The Mountain Bed
I spent a week or two with Mermaid Avenue Volume 2 this year, and became infatuated with this song. Woody Guthrie’s lyrics paint an incredibly vivid picture of memories of a bygone love — indelible images like “Your stomach moved beneath your shirt and your knees were in the air / Your feet played games with mountain roots as you lay thinking there.” But while the lyrics thrum with life, it’s Tweedy’s voice and music that send them straight into my heart. “I see my life was brightest where you laughed and laid your head” makes me want to cry with the poignancy of it. This song is exactly why I decided I finally needed to learn more about Wilco. (I’ll be coming back to that later.)

8. Fleetwood Mac – Brown Eyes (alternate version with Peter Green)
Wrapping up the love song section is this astounding (to me) alternate version of a lovely Christine song from Tusk. This song has completely different lyrics from the album version — for one thing, it doesn’t mention brown eyes at all. Where the released version is full of Christine’s trademark ambivalence, this one is sweeter and purer. Obviously I’ve known the Tusk version for ages, so this one felt very powerful to me, especially the way Peter Green’s spooky guitar creates a gorgeous, haunting tone that ties it back to the earliest days of Fleetwood Mac.

9. Eric Clapton – Motherless Children
This is one of those songs where the tragic words lay inexplicably atop a joyful foundation. It’s one of my favorite Clapton riffs, and the whole feel of the thing is just a groove party. So why the lyrics about losing a parent? Beats me — all I know is I love all the other pieces of it, no matter what he’s singing about.

10. Talking Heads – Crosseyed and Painless
More from the joyful dancing division — I listened to Remain In Light quite a bit at home during part of this year, and the whole thing just made me dance around the house. Like “Motherless Children”, the words to this one aren’t exactly sunny — and in fact I’m really not sure what they’re even about — but man oh man the Talking Heads had the keys to funky rock castle during this period.

11. Wilco – I am trying to break your heart
So, I wrote about this one at length in my Yankee Hotel Foxtrot post, and would just be repeating myself here by breaking it down. I’ll just say that my experience of Wilco up to this point (on the Mermaid Avenue albums) had led me to a set of expectations that got completely demolished by the first 90 seconds of this song, in the best possible way. I love how the crazy surrealist shit leads your attention one way and lets you be shocked by gut-punches like “What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?”

12. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – Change The Locks
But there’s a straighter path to devastating catharsis. At the beginning of my November to October listening period, I was still in the midst of a grief-fueled Tom Petty jag. I could have picked a lot of songs from his catalog, or even just from She’s The One, the album I ended up writing about. This one just hit me right as the right way to crash out of Wilco. It starts intense, and then cranks things up from there. I love the buildup in this song, the way it keeps cycling back to the same thundering chords, somehow gaining power each time until Petty hits us with that unbelievable scream. It’s not the first thing people usually mention when cataloging his many talents, but he was a hell of an expressive vocalist.

13. Muse – Madness
You want to talk about expressive vocalists? How about Matthew freaking Bellamy? You want to talk about buildup? How about this delicious song, with the thick synths, ever-increasing layered harmonies, elements gelling tighter and tighter until by the end he’s hitting operatic musical heights to go with the lyrical epiphanies? You want me to try summarizing a song using nothing but rhetorical questions? What better place to try a little experiment than on a Muse song?

14. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (feat. Xperience) – Let’s Eat
Change of pace. My family was listening to this album during some of the time we were driving around on our Grand Canyon trip this year, and Laura cracked up at this song, so much so that we listened to it a bunch of times during that trip, and she brought home the printed lyrics from her job one day. Even now she’ll occasionally bust out with “I wanna be like Hugh Jackman / You know, jacked, man!” or “My girlfriend’s shaped like a bottle o’ Coke / Me, I’m shaped like a bottle o’ NOPE”. It’s become part of our family vocabulary.

15. Paul Simon – Wristband
Here’s somebody else who has a way with a humorous lyric. I listened to Paul’s Stranger To Stranger album this year, and this song really jumped out at me. I love how his wry and conversational tone turns serious at the bridge, and suddenly his funny little story reveals itself as a metaphor, illuminating inequality and lack of access as one of the central problems of our time. There’s those who have the wristband, those who don’t have it, and those who don’t even need it. Paul Simon is in the third group now, but he wants to talk to us about the second.

16. Stevie Nicks – After The Glitter Fades
Stevie grew up with plenty of privilege — her dad was an exec for various companies including Greyhound and Armour — but she wrote this song about her own stardom well before she had any kind of success. As I listened to the Bella Donna remaster this year, I loved every song, but this one struck me as particularly elevated by the remastering process. It’s a country song at heart, and the steel guitar blends beautifully with her vocal.

17. Joan Jett – I Love Rock N’ Roll
Right around that same era, another woman was breaking away from her band, to amazing success. This song compelled me from the very first time I heard it — well, saw it. This was the era when much of my music exposure came from MTV, and I loved the way she stood out as a woman totally owning what had seemed to me as a very male world. Before I knew anything about what feminism was, Joan Jett embodied for me what it meant to be a fearless and tough human being, questions of gender aside.

18. Stevie Nicks – Wild Heart
Fearlessness is fearlessness, and as you know if you’ve read much of my other stuff, Stevie’s blend of fierceness and vulnerability speaks to me like nobody else. I don’t know that I could ever pick a favorite song of hers, but this one is always in that top group. As with some of the other songs in this collection, I already broke it down in detail when writing about the album, so no point recapitulating that. Instead I’ll just say that this year was freeing for me in many ways, with breakthroughs happening on the professional, family, and world levels, and this song unfailingly takes me to the place where that freedom lives.

Love Is A Serious Business

Even more than in previous years, 2017’s music mix was strongly influenced by the ongoing Album Assignments project that’s happening between me and my friend Robby. Most of the songs on here come from assigned albums in one direction or another, though there are some exceptions thrown in, mostly to do with a few concerts I saw. So what that means is I’ve already written pretty extensively about most of this music. Nevertheless, a mix is a new context, so I’ve got a little bit to say about the songs as they come together here.

1. Pink FloydWish You Were Here
These mixes are an annual Christmas gift to our friends Sian and Kelly, who live in Wales. We haven’t seen them for seven years now — it’s easy to mark the time since they last visited right as we moved into our house. And we miss them terribly. So this song is pretty straightforward in that context. Not that we wish they lived here, necessarily — we know they’re happy where they are, and so are we — but I sure would love to be able to have that Star Trek transporter so that the ocean in between us didn’t have to be such an obstacle. It feels like such an awfully long time, especially as we’ve watched Dante go from 5 to 12. I hope we can come back together soon, whether that’s taking the 3 of us to Wales or them finding themselves in Colorado.

2. Indigo GirlsFugitive
The main factor driving the inclusion of this song is the fact that Laura and I saw the Indigo Girls this April. They played on the CU campus, with the CU student orchestra, which was a unique and wonderful context for an Indigo Girls concert. They said at the time that they were recording a live album during that session, so maybe we’ll get an official document of it someday. In the meantime, we have our memories, and I remember this song in particular as being transcendent, between Amy’s impassioned vocal and the excellent orchestra arrangement. But I also associate this song with Sian and Kelly, due to our shared love of Amy and Emily.

3. AdeleRiver Lea
As I said when I wrote about 25, this is a fascinating song to me — such a different character than the one Adele usually takes on. Also, like the rest of her songs, it’s so well-produced. It just sounds great. And the UK connection makes me think of our friends, though I realize they’re not exactly in London.

4. Death Cab For CutieWe Looked Like Giants
The home-rootedness of “River Lea” leads into the nostalgic tone of this song, and there’s a connection in the bitterness too, although where Adele is resigned to how she’ll hurt people, Ben Gibbard still seems angry when he sings “I’ve become what I always hated.” But even more than the lyrics, the music in this song sweeps me away. I absolutely love when the riff kicks in right after the 30-second mark, and then crashes back like raging waves throughout the song. The rhythm section in the verses is so propulsive, and then that crash comes again… transcendent.

5. The Airbone Toxic EventGasoline
Another great rock song reminiscing about a fiery early love. It’s not as emotionally or musically complex as “We Looked Like Giants”, and its imagery is all heat where the Death Cab song is frosty, but they feel closely linked to me. I guess part of it is the relief of knowing that there’s lots of music to love from the 21st century as well as the stuff I grew up with.

6. The SmithereensYesterday Girl
Speaking of songs I grew up with, okay, yes, it is another nostalgic rock song about a bygone relationship. I’m not doing a bunch of middle-aged mooning over old lovers, I promise — it’s just that for whatever reason I kept assigning or getting assigned albums that partook of the theme, and the songs themselves just stood out like gems. As I said in the review I wrote of 11, I think this is the best version of the Smithereens’ rock voice, and that is a high peak. I read this morning that Pat DiNizio died, which makes me even gladder to have spent time with this album and included this song in the year’s mix. RIP Pat — you were a true rock and roll disciple.

7. World PartyWay Down Now
This is the opener to an album that I absolutely adore, Goodbye Jumbo. Not an assignment, but just a record I revisited because I needed to hear it a bunch of times in a row. I love the entire thing, but this song really spoke to me this year, especially as I watched one disaster and disgrace after another unfold in the news. “Come on and show me anything but this.”

8. Pink FloydUs And Them
Robby assigned me The Dark Side Of The Moon to listen to during the week of the eclipse, which was so absolutely perfect. That record is actually perfect at a whole lot of times, and this song in particular resonated with me, embodying as it does the idea of tribal division as a deeply ingrained human trait. The gulf between me and my people versus the seemingly rock-steady 37 percent or so of people who remain Trump supporters feels enormous to me. I know there’s that othering mechanism in my brain, and I do not want to be controlled by it, but the anger and disgust that his behavior produces in me is visceral, and boy is it not interested in counterpoints.

9. Public EnemyFight The Power (soundtrack version)
Which brings us to this anthem, an amazing vehicle for outrage against the system. Fear Of A Black Planet was an album assignment, but the version of “Fight The Power” on that album is really disappointing, with some of the strongest lyrics censored and some of the best music — including Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet — edited out. For the definitive track, there is absolutely no alternative to the Do The Right Thing soundtrack.

10. Hirway and MirandaWhat’s Next?
2017 was the year of The West Wing for me. My friends Trish and Art watched the show when it aired, and regularly rhapsodized about it, but I just wasn’t up for adopting another TV show back then. But last Christmas I was home for a while, and had some unaccustomed time to take on a little project. Trish was all excited because there was a new podcast called The West Wing Weekly, which analyzed one episode at a time in depth. So I decided to get on board, and watched the whole series between December and March. I absolutely loved it, and this was the perfect time to watch it. Visiting a world where the president is a compassionate intellectual, and his staff spent their days in genuine efforts to make the world a better place for the less powerful, was a wonderful tonic.

Then I started listening to the podcast, which is co-hosted by Josh Malina (an actor who was in the show’s cast from seasons 4-7) and Hrishikesh Hirway (a veteran podcaster). They also regularly bring in guests — people who worked on the show both in front of the camera and behind it, as well as various government officials and experts to speak about the issues the show raises. This podcast is utterly delightful — the dynamic between Hrishi and Josh is hilarious, and their insights are excellent. Spending time with it feels like hanging out with really smart, funny friends. They always sign off the show with phrases that became West Wing motifs: “Ok. Ok. What’s next?”

It turns out another huge fan of The West Wing is Lin-Manuel Miranda — you know, the Hamilton guy. In fact, for his final performance as Hamilton, he took his final curtain call to The West Wing’s theme song. It seems he is also a fan of the podcast, because in January of this year, he recorded this awesome rap, stuffed full of West Wing references, to a version of the podcast’s theme remixed by Hrishi. “The flentl” is Josh’s coined term for sound that plays after the screen has gone to black and is showing end credits. You can see how it’s a flentl in the song’s video:

11. Fountains Of WayneNo Better Place
I got to revisit the phenomenal Welcome Interstate Managers via an assignment this year, and this time “No Better Place” was the song that jumped out at me. I already wrote about how musically fantastic it is, but did I mention the comedy? “Is that supposed to be your poker face / or was someone run over by a train?” Actually, in that line and in the others, it’s really comedy mixed with poignancy, which is wheelhouse territory for FoW, and part of the reason I love them so much. “You’re awake and trying not to be / Wrapped around your pillow like a prawn.”

12. Jonathan CoultonI Crush Everything
Hey, did I mention that I love comedy mixed with poignancy? I saw Coulton open up for Aimee Mann this year, and as much as I loved her, I may have loved him just a little more. The two of them together were the most delightful of all, and I’m thrilled I got to be there. They both talked a lot between the songs, which is one of my favorite things at live shows. (Well, as long as the performer has something interesting and non-canned to say, which they did.) He introduced this one by saying, “Here’s a song about a giant squid who hates himself.” How many artists can uncork that leadoff line?

13. Phil CollinsIt Don’t Matter To Me
Poor Phil has taken on a poignancy all his own, especially apparent in the retaken photos for the covers of his reissued solo albums — same face, different value. But how great he was in his day, and this song is from his zenith period. The contrast between the bright horns and the dark lyrics works so well for me — it’s a great recipe for a denial song.

14. Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVieGame Of Pretend
I liked this album fine, but I so wanted it to be better than it was. For that to happen, though, it would need to be balanced, meaning more McVie and a lot less Buckingham. That’s just not much of a possibility when an ego like Lindsey’s is in the mix. This song came the closest — Lindsey is still all over the place, but at least we get to hear Christine’s piano, and her best lyrics of the collection.

15. Dire StraitsHand In Hand
Piano is the connection to this one. Dire Straits is canonically a guitar band, thanks to the artistry of Mark Knopfler, but when I assigned Making Movies what I found was that a huge part of the magic comes from Roy Bittan’s piano. It features prominently in this song, which lands in the bittersweet place that the mood from “Game Of Pretend” sometimes leads to.

16. Diana KrallSimple Twist of Fate
Nobody does bittersweet places like Bob Dylan, especially Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan. One of the later breakers from last year’s big wave o’ Dylan was an Amnesty International collection I listened to, three discs of Dylan covers. As always in a situation like that, it’s a mixed bag, but there are some gems inside it, and this is one of them. Again, the piano is central, Krall’s gentle playing replacing the melancholy guitar strums of the original. Her voice, too, has a hushed and intimate quality that pulls out the sweet over the bitter, the reverse of Dylan’s plaintive timbre. For one of my Watchmen articles this year, I listened to an awful lot of Elvis Costello, and my rotation was full of Dylan albums. Costello’s wife covering Dylan brings them together beautifully.

17. Aretha FranklinDr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)
The keyboards are up to something entirely different in this song. There’s the organ in the background, sounding like it came straight from the Baptist church. A preacher ought to step out and start sermonizing the gospel, but instead we get this syncopated, swaying piano from the juke joint, an earthy sound to counterpoint the airy organ. And finally there is Aretha’s voice, the true preacher, evangelizing a love in which the sacred meets the profane, the sensual meets the spiritual. In “doctor” and “feelgood” the mind joins to the body, and the music provides the spirit. The subtitle fits perfectly — this is not frivolous love, but a profound, life-changing force. It felt fitting for a title to this collection, a prayer and wish for the love that has power to change hearts, minds, and spirits.

18. Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersEven The Losers
The day Tom Petty died was one of the worst days of the year for me, on lots of levels. It bad enough that I was struggling through a difficult go-live for a critical portal feature. It was awful enough that some lunatic had opened fire on a concert, killing dozens of people. But to lose one of the guiding voices from my life so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that same day… I couldn’t even listen to his music for the first couple of days, and after that for a while I could listen to nothing else. In the midst of one of those long listening jags, this song jumped out. I’d always loved it, but the words that took me by the throat were: “You made me feel like every word you said was meant to be.” That’s exactly what I wanted to say to him.

And that’s all. 2017 was a year of one shock after another, though perhaps not as painfully as 2016 was. I was learning how to get grounded, find clarity, and keep the flame of hope burning. For me, listening to music and thinking about music was one way of doing that.

Put On Some Silver

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 SwiftClean
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 AirplaneEmbryonic 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 MitchellCarey
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 WayneAction 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 LumineersSubmarines
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 MotelsSuddenly 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 DylanPositively 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 GabrielLovetown
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 & NicoVenus 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 DylanUp 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 NicksSisters 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 NicksCrying 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 PretendersStop 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 PoliceTruth 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 DylanTombstone 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 TwinsThe 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. HeartGoodbye 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. ColdplayAmsterdam
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 DylanThe 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 SwiftShake 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.

Wait Another Day

This year’s music mix has a new factor thrown in. Normally these collections are culled from the music I’ve been listening to over the previous year (with “year” being defined as November – October, so I can get the CD mailed to Wales in time for Christmas). That part hasn’t changed, but the new factor is the album assignments game I’ve been playing with Robby over the fall. That’s changed my listening habits, so that a couple of days out of each week are now devoted to a particular album, with the aim of writing about it later. That’s brought in some things that wouldn’t have been in my regular rotation — Elvis Costello and The Clash among them. It also means that some of this stuff I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Of course, that means I may be a bit briefer than usual on some tunes.

1. The Airborne Toxic EventNo More Lonely Nights
Case in point. TATE is now on my “to-do” list after this track, which performs the minor miracle of resurrecting this Give My Regards To Broad Street tune into something subtle and moving.

2. Stevie NicksBelle Fleur
Okay, I just wrote four paragraphs of background about Stevie’s 24 Karat Gold album, then realized that they’re supposed to go in my article about the album itself. Robby doesn’t know it yet (as I write this), but I’m assigning that album to him next.

Meanwhile, a few words about this song. It’s an example of a song that I’ve had in demo form for decades, but never really connected with that much. This re-recording, on the other hand, moves me a lot. To me, it’s a story of love and magic, but not magic love — it’s no ticket to dreamland. What it is, though, is an exchange of stories, and a sharing of lives — you sing to me, and I’ll sing to you.

3. Joe JacksonOde To Joy
Speaking of new albums from old friends, I just saw Joe Jackson in concert in October, touring to support his new record Fast Forward. This was my favorite song he played that night, and my favorite from the new CD. I love its wholehearted embrace of joy, joy as a pure experience unfettered by the material and phenomenological planes. The New Yorker did a wonderful profile of Joe, and one of my favorite parts of that is this quote:

Some of my early stuff was infected by the deadly disease of cynicism, which is a disease of the young, I think. When you’re young, it seems very clever to be cynical. But as you get older, hopefully, if you’re not completely stupid, you realize that you have to be a bit more positive, as a simple matter of survival.

I happened to listen to this album right before reviewing Don Henley’s Cass County, and Joe’s optimism is a lovely contrast to some the harshness on display there. And being Joe, he cleverly quotes Beethoven in the bargain.

4. Elvis CostelloMystery Dance
I wonder if the kind of world that could produce this song is gone forever. Can sex still be mysterious when so much information about it is so easily retrieved? Sure, there’s a world of difference between reading about something and doing it, and lots of what’s out there could warp a kid’s perceptions and blur the difference between fantasy and reality, but there was a time in living memory when you could try and try and still be mystified. Does that happen anymore?

5. The ClashDeath Or Glory
I can hardly say more about this than I did in my London Calling post. Suffice it to say that I put it on repeat in my car for a day, and never got sick of it. And I drive a lot! It’s as energizing the 20th time as it was the first.

6. Fleetwood MacSongbird (live)
This last year was a special one for Fleetwood Mac fans, because we saw something we never thought we’d see again: Chrstine McVie touring with the band. I actually saw them in December 2014 *and* April 2015, which is why there are two songs from the set list on this CD. In April, she didn’t play “Songbird” — apparently she was dealing with some kind of injury, because it came back to the set later. She played it in December though, and it’s just the most perfect set closer. I never got the chance to see Fleetwood Mac in its prime — my first FM show was the 1987 tour where they replaced Lindsey with two other guitarists, and my first time seeing the classic lineup was in 1997. That was also my last time until now. It was such a joy to hear this song at the end of the show. This recording is from 1977, and was included in the Rumours expanded edition that they released a couple of years ago. [The YouTube clip I linked to above is from a different 1977 show — I couldn’t find the expanded edition one online.]

7. Tori AmosPromise
I’ve been a Tori Amos fan for a long time now, so I was aware that she had a daughter named Tash. But that wasn’t uppermost in my mind while I was listening to her new album Unrepentant Geraldines this year. So when I heard this song, I could tell it was a duet, but I didn’t recognize the other voice — all I could hear was that it was somebody who had a lot on common with Tori vocally. As I listened to the lyrics, discerning that this was a conversation between mother and daughter, I started to wonder, “Could this be Tash?” And sure enough, it is. That realization sent chills through me. Tash was born on 2000, so she was probably 13 when this song was recorded. Given that, it’s a remarkable performance, and as a parent I find the lyrics very moving.

8. Roger McGuinnIf We Never Meet Again
I revisited McGuinn’s album Back From Rio this year — I’ve always liked his twelve-string guitar sound, and this is my favorite of his non-Byrds releases. This time around, “If We Never Meet Again” latched onto me. The tone is just golden, and the message of acceptance for whatever may come sits well with me.

9. Best CoastEach And Everyday
I came across this band on a Fleetwood Mac tribute album done by a bunch of indie groups, called Just Tell Me That You Want Me. There were lots of great covers on that album, but Best Coast’s version of “Rhiannon” really grabbed me, mainly I think because of singer Bethany Cosentino’s voice. So I sought to know more about them and ended up quite enjoying both of their first two albums. (I haven’t got their third yet, but it’s on my wish list.) This is a track from their debut.

10. The ClashThe Card Cheat
There are so many great things about this song, but it has to start with the production. Contrary to what you might expect from a punk band, this song is as well-produced as any pop gem. The ringing piano, valedictory horns, majestic rhythm section — it’s like a classic Phil Spector “Wall Of Sound” record, infused with a cathedral grandeur. Wedding this incredible sound to the tale of a lowlife gambler is like the aural version of a Scorsese film, elevating the dismal criminal world to an operatic level.

11. Paul F. TompkinsKing Hat
My friend Tashi put me onto this comedian, whose records I just adore. Many of his bits have now become part of the conceptual vocabulary in my mind, especially the ones from his most recent album Laboring Under Delusions, which is a concept piece about all the various jobs he’s done in his life. I listened to that album a bunch over this last year, and knew I wanted to include something from it. I had a hard time picking. I went with this one because a) it’s a great showcase for his style, b) it’s a linguistic rant, which I find endearing, and c) it reminds me so much of the stories Laura tells me about her retail-esque experiences at the library. Oh, and because it’s so freakin’ funny, of course.

12. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary LambertSame Love
Here’s another album I spent an awful lot of time with over the last year. I was a bit late to the Macklemore party, but boy The Heist is great. A number of songs from it got thrown into the hopper for this mix, but if I had to pick just one (and, it turned out, I did), it’d be “Same Love.” I so appreciate the personal story flowing into the cultural analysis, and the strong, clear call for hip-hop to stand behind marriage equality. Damn right I support it.

13. Dan WilsonFree Life
Dan Wilson was the lead singer and writer of the 90’s band Semisonic, who were a one-hit wonder with the song “Closing Time.” It’s a shame that they never found greater success, because Wilson is an absolutely brilliant songwriter, who did amazing work with Semisonic and then went on to co-write such killer songs as Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This song is from his 2007 solo debut, and it stands out for me this year because my iPod dialed it up as I was driving back from New Mexico, having just participated in the 2015 Geek Bowl in Albuquerque. It felt so perfect for that specific moment in my life that I put it on repeat a few times, just listening to the music and feeling free.

14. Elton JohnRocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long Long Time)
Sometimes a classic just jumps out and reminds you why it’s a classic. I was listening to Honky Château in the car, and when this song came on I marveled at how intensely gorgeous it is. Plus, it’s a fantastic song to sing along to, which is probably why I sang it over and over on that 45-minute commute.

15. Elliott SmithJunk Bond Trader
I’ve had XO in my collection for a while, and while I enjoy it, I never really imprinted on it. Figure 8, on the other hand, knocked me out. So many great songs on that album — as with Macklemore, there were a bunch in the running and it came down to this one. The lyrics to this are so fantastic — elliptical and evocative, with the occasional razor-sharp one liner, like “Checking into a small reality / Boring as a drug you take too regularly.” What’s it about? I really don’t know. But I sure do dig how it’s about it.

16. Fleetwood MacSisters Of The Moon
This was the highlight of the April 2015 Fleetwood Mac show. It’s always been one of my favorite Stevie songs — I love the power chord progression and the mystical vibe. She can’t hit those high notes any more (the backup singers do it for her), and the cocaine-fueled frenzy that used to characterize live performances of this song is long behind her, but still, it is a powerful, spellbinding incantation, and it lifts me up every time I see it.

17. Florence + The MachineDog Days Are Over
Speaking of powerful. Ceremonials was a big record for me in 2014, so I decided to check out Florence’s debut as well, and I’m glad I did. There’s a reason this song got so famous. I love rock songs with big drums and a big voice like this — they make me feel like I’m flying.

18. Best CoastThe Only Place
Here’s a song from Best Coast’s second album. True to their name, it’s a paean to California, and I have to say they make a pretty good case. Especially for somebody like me who could be perfectly happy never seeing snow again, Southern California seems like a pretty amazing place to live. Oh, except for the earthquakes. And, I guess the mudslides. And the forest fires. And how expensive everything is. But other than that, aces!

19. Fountains Of WayneBright Future In Sales
One final showcase from another album I really got into in 2014. My friend Trish has been a huge FoW fan for ages, and always told me I should check them out. You know how it is with that kind of thing, though — I’d always think, “Yeah, I should,” and then go listen to something I already know. That’s the beauty of the wishlist, though. I can just tag something based on a passing thought, and then some angel will bring it into my life, where I can give it the attention it deserves. This album, Welcome Interstate Managers, dominated my car for about 3 weeks, and I got to love each and every song on it. There were a bunch to choose from, but this one does a great job of encapsulating the humor, the characterization, the storytelling, and the awesome power pop slam that Fountains Of Wayne brings to its music.

It’s Never Over

It’s another year of music from me, and this year I think a little bit of a theme emerged in a few songs: saving people. If there’s one overriding neurosis in my life, it’s my desire to rescue the people I care about from the danger they’re in, at least as I perceive it. Or sometimes even people I’ve just met, or never met. I could blame it on too many superhero comics, but I suspect the cause and effect goes the other direction. In any case, this is not the worst personality flaw in the world, and in fact I think it has some pretty positive aspects, but I do have to watch it, lest it override my better judgment. For instance, it drew me into and kept me trapped in a very toxic relationship when I was in college, and has sometimes prompted me to lead with my emotions at work rather than my rational brain — not always the most productive approach. So I maintain awareness, and do a reality check every so often, but it’s no surprise that I find myself drawn to songs about transcendence, or pulling people out of the dark. This is not a “concept mix” by any means (except for the usual concept: songs I listened to and loved in the last year), but I find this theme recurring in several of the songs that compelled me.

1. Melissa EtheridgeEnough Rain
Case in point. Melissa came out with 4th Street Feeling in the fall of 2012, but in my typically belated fashion, I listened to it in early 2014. I don’t think it’s one of her stronger works, but it’s flawed in some interesting ways. Like this song, where the speaker is reaching out to a troubled friend. “Haven’t you had enough rain?” she asks, implying that the subject wallows in misery, but the metaphor is telling. Somebody who is suffering from a mental or physical illness (or a spicy combo plate of both) can no more shut off their suffering than somebody who’s sick of bad weather can say, “Okay, I’ve had enough rain.” Well, I guess they can say it, but that doesn’t make the rain stop. A close friend of mine went through a lot of trouble with a sleep disorder this year, so the line “Don’t go back to sleep” hit home with me. But when it’s raining, it’s raining.

2. Arcade FireIt’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)
Here’s the rescue-iest song of all the rescue-y songs. I reviewed an IF game that invokes the Orpheus myth, and part of what I wrote is pertinent here, so let me quote myself: “I identify very strongly with the Orpheus myth. There have been various times in my life… when I find myself questing about desperately to find the magic that will retrieve a loved one from the underworld into which they have descended. And even when it seems like I’ve succeeded, it is very difficult to maintain a belief in that success.” This song speaks directly to that experience, making the point that unlike finding your way out of Hades, when it comes to ongoing relationships, there is no finish line. Crises come and they pass, and they do the damage they do, some of which might even be averted by great effort on everyone’s part, but there’s no crisis that we can call final, save of course for the end of life itself. Because I’m in the midst of an ongoing Watchmen analysis project, I’m strongly reminded of Dr. Manhattan’s final words to Adrian Veidt: “‘In the end?’ Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” Needless to say, I love this song. It’s probably the thesis statement of the whole mix, and hence its title.

3. The CureThe Hanging Garden
As Arcade Fire emerges from the underworld, The Cure dives deep into it. I revisited their album Pornography this year, and my GOD is it dismal. I don’t mean it’s bad — it’s excellent — but it is just the pits of depression. Even for The Cure, it’s a depressing album, and that is saying an awful lot. But this song has always stood out to me. There’s a reason why it was the single. Where the other songs are dirgelike, it is propulsive, and angry where the other songs are helpless. I mean, yes, the animals are still screaming and dying, but those drums carry me through.

4. David GilmourMurder
Robert Smith and Roger Waters know how to be depressed. David Gilmour, on the other hand, never quite got the knack. Even this song, meant to be an angry cri de coeur, tends to feel mostly mellow. But I absolutely love Gilmour’s voice, and his guitar playing evokes emotion from me like no other guitar player I have ever heard. Gilmour and Waters needed each other, and on their own neither one ever reached anywhere near the heights of Pink Floyd’s best work. But after they split, I was never able to tolerate a Roger Waters solo album, whereas I could listen to Gilmour’s over and over, which I did again this year. This is a little odd for me — I always think of myself as a lyric person first, with music a distant second. But with Gilmour, the music makes up for even the most labored lines. The sweeping crescendos in this song get me every time.

5. Death Cab For CutieWhy You’d Want To Live Here
I embraced Death Cab a few years ago, and since then I’ve been slowly making my way through their catalog. This year I spent a little time with The Photo Album, and this song jumped out at me. It’s a scathing anti-L.A. track, and while I’m no L.A.-hater, Ben Gibbard does a fabulous job of making me want to hate it. A great riff, a great melody, and most especially great lyrics sung in Gibbard’s sweet-angry voice, with (again) a giant sweep into a bridge full of spitting venom, make me put this song on repeat.

6. Stevie Ray VaughanWall Of Denial
Less a song about saving somebody else than saving yourself, Stevie Ray wrote this song (and many others on the In Step album) to document his own recovery from alcoholism. By coincidence, I happened to be listening to this album when a friend of mine disclosed that he had finally faced and surrendered to the reality of a lifelong addiction that had controlled him for decades, and entered a 12-step program. As I talked with him, these lyrics kept ringing in my head, so much so that I was practically reciting them by the end of the conversation. I’ll always associate this song with that day in 2014.

7. Cocteau TwinsHeaven Or Las Vegas
Rememember when I characterized myself as somebody who cares about lyrics much more than music? I still believe it’s true, so how is it that I have always been utterly enchanted and fascinated by The Cocteau Twins, who are notorious for having absolutely incomprehensible lyrics? I tried to learn any of the lyrics to their Heaven or Las Vegas album, only to find that they almost never print their lyrics, and even their most ardent fans, who put together encyclopedic web sites full of lyrics, tend to say stuff like “These lyrics transcriptions are almost purely hypothetical… what you see is what I imagine them to be, or what I have managed to piece together from my own ideas and those of others.” Nevertheless, I can’t get over how gorgeous this gibberish sounds. Apparently I am large and contain multitudes. Also, I had a stroke of amazing luck when I was in Vegas for a conference in 2014, so that’s why I picked this song in particular.

8. PinkWicked Game (live in Melbourne)
I finally got to see Pink this year, and while my seat wasn’t the greatest, I still had a great time. Being up in the rafters isn’t so bad when an artist can fly. 🙂 She played lots of hits, and lots of tracks from her latest album — there’s some crossover between these categories. But for me the most memorable moment was when she played this cover. First, I love it when an artist does the unexpected in concert, either a surprise cover or an album track you’d never expect to hear. Second, in keeping with this song’s sexy image, the staging for this tune involved Pink doing various trust falls and being caught by a cadre of men, then hoisted, passed around, flung, etc. Whew! It was a whole thing. Here, it looked like this. Kinda stuck with me.

9. The Alan Parsons ProjectGames People Play
I am a fan of The Alan Parsons Project. In fact, the first CD I ever bought was their Best Of album, partly because their sound is so clean and full at the same time — that was the first digital music I wanted to hear coming out of my own speakers. After spending time with both “Best Of” volumes, I dove deeper into their albums, mostly on cassette at the time. I’ve been slowly replacing those, going digital with them once again, and this year I spent some time with their Turn Of A Friendly Card album. They did such a beautiful job of braiding some of the very disparate strands of music from their time — progressive rock, California harmonies, disco, funk, soul. Soul and prog are not normally heard in the same sentence, let alone the same song, but many Alan Parsons songs, especially those with Lenny Zakatek on vocals, marry them effortlessly. “Games People Play” is a perfect example, and I’ve never gotten tired of it.

10. Jonathan CoultonYou Ruined Everything
When Jonathan Coulton’s daughter was born, he quit his job as a computer programmer to become a full-time musician, figuring that if he didn’t go for his dreams immediately, he’d never have the courage to do so at all. Besides, he wanted to set a good example for her, trying for the brass ring. I just read an Alan Moore biography that says he did pretty much the same thing — quit his day job as soon as his first child was born. I am risk-averse, and cannot relate to these people, but I do relate to this song. It’s a love song Coulton wrote to his daughter, about how a kid changes everything, into something often even better than before.

11. The Magnetic FieldsGoin’ Back To The Country
The Magnetic Fields’ album Love At The Bottom Of The Sea is 15 tracks of typical Stephin Merritt cleverness. I spent some time with it this year and this song called out to me. Merritt is a modern-day Cole Porter to me, with rhymes so literate and clever that they’re the intellectual version of fireworks. “Let Laramie take care of me til they bury me.” I also love Shirley Simms’ voice on this and all Magnetic Fields songs she sings.

12. RodriguezCan’t Get Away
I had a long journey with this song. I saw Searching For Sugar Man in late summer of 2012, and wrote about it here (well, back when “here” was LiveJournal) a couple of weeks later. I was surprised and honored to get a response from Eva Rodriguez, the artist’s own daughter, who shows up quite a bit in the film. I enjoyed the music too, so put the soundtrack on my wish list. By the time I’d gotten it and worked through the backlog in front of it, 2014 had arrived. There are quite a few songs on that soundtrack that really resonated with me, so it was a bit of a toss-up to decide which one to put on this mix. The melody of this one hooked into me, and I found myself singing it at odd times throughout the day. I love the sense of foreboding and doom in the lyrics, the sense that when something is ingrained in you, it doesn’t matter how far you run.

13. “Sirvana”Cut Me Some Slack
Dave Grohl’s documentary film Sound City is about the studio where dozens of classic albums were recorded, including parts of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s got tons of great commentary by Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Trent Reznor, Paul McCartney, and a bunch of others. Of course I was going to love it. The other part of the plot, though, was that Grohl recovered the Sound City’s big mixing board after the studio went under, and recorded an album’s worth of new music with his various guests, using that board. Consequently, the Sound City soundtrack has some pretty special moments, including a new Stevie song that doesn’t appear anywhere else. However, this song stands out for me, even above the Stevie tune. It’s Paul McCartney basically taking Kurt Cobain’s place in Nirvana — Grohl on drums and Krist Novoselic on bass. That sludgy Nirvana sound, with the rockin’-est possible version of Paul Freaking McCartney singing lead, is AMAZING. To me. I didn’t even know that version of Paul still existed. I love the way he sounds on this track.

14. TotoRosanna
Toto was one of the first bands I ever got into — their Toto IV album was huge in 1982, when I was 12 years old and just starting to tap into popular music in any kind of attentive way. I played that LP over and over, starting with “Rosanna” and going through to “Africa“. I wasn’t terribly taken with the music they made after Toto IV, but I never stopped liking that album. Still, I hadn’t heard it for quite a while when I started learning a little more about Jeff Porcaro, their drummer. My friend Trish’s son is a drummer, and through him I learned that Porcaro is seen as a virtuoso, a genius among drummers. It’s not the sort of thing I have an ear for, but when I watched a video about how he created the Rosanna beat, I was able to get the sense of why he’s so revered, and why that beat is seen as such a challenge. Last year, my Sony credit card rewards people ran a deal that essentially resulted in me getting a bunch of free CD’s from them, including “The Essential Toto.” I listened to that CD this year, and heard the song with new ears.

15. Thompson TwinsIf You Were Here
I think the Thompson Twins are a pretty underrated band, and this is definitely one of their most underrated songs. Its music feels intimate and romantic in an 80’s, 16-Candles-Soundtrack kind of way, but its lyrics are just the opposite — detached, depressed, uncertain. I burned a CD of soundtrack songs this year, and this was the one that jumped out at me. Its contradictions hook me.

16. Florence And The MachineShake It Out
And now, a return to transcendence. Florence Welch’s voice is perfect for this song, gathering in power (and multi-tracked) as the synths swell, the drums kick, the choir bursts free. I never fail to get gooseflesh at “tonight I’m gonna bury that horse in the ground” — such an incredible image. I want nothing more than to pull that devil off people’s backs, but Florence acknowledges the truth, and ownership, of that situation: “Looking for heaven / found the devil in me / Well what the hell / I’m gonna let it happen to me”. I can’t hope to keep up with this song vocally, but I love to sing along — it feels like flying.

17. The Beach BoysDon’t Worry Baby
So, on one level, this song is about racing cars, male competition, and teenage insecurity. But after those opening lines, nothing else matters. “Well, it’s been building up inside of me for oh, I don’t know how long / I don’t know why but I keep thinking something’s bound to go wrong.” Who can’t relate to that? Plus, it’s just one of the most beautiful damn melodies ever, matched with a perfect vocal.

18. StingSomeone To Watch Over Me
I first learned this song through Sting’s version, and it wasn’t until I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s that I understood how Sting’s gender-flipping of the song did some damage to it. It was originally written to be sung by a woman, which is how it got internal rhymes like “a certain lad I’ve had in mind.” Somehow “a certain girl I’ve had in mind” doesn’t quite have the same snap. But in another way, the flip is rather subversive. “I’d like to add her initial to my monogram,” Sting sings. How often do we hear that sentiment from a man? In any case, I love this song, whoever is singing it. And I feel it too — each of us needs someone to watch over us, even those of us who are self-appointed guardians ourselves.

This Promise Of Paradise

Another year, another music mix. I’m a little later with the liner notes this year — sorry about that. For the past few months I’ve found myself with a whole bunch of short-term, unduckable, hard-deadline projects. (Christmas counts as one of these. :)) My time is opening up a bit more now, so I’m finally able to get to these notes! This year’s mix is heavy on the Neko Case, a singer/songwriter I’ve loved for a few years but really dug deeper into during 2013. It’s also got plenty of the usual suspects (Folds, Nicks, Beatles) and some other stuff that grabbed me this year for a variety of specific reasons.

1. Ben Folds FiveHouse
I got hold of Ben’s box set in 2012, but it didn’t reach the front of the queue until early 2013. The discs are themed — rarities, live stuff, and “greatest hits.” He also got back together for a few tracks with the other two guys in Ben Folds Five (the Five was always a trio), and the hits disc has a couple of new songs from the band, including this one. I loved this song almost immediately. It reminds me of people I’ve known who have been traumatized in a family setting and then left the house behind. Maya Angelou talks about leaving her childhood home of Stamps, Arkansas — not just the place but “the condition that was Stamps, Arkansas.” The places where you go through great pain live inside your head themselves, and even if you can’t burn the house down, you can certainly choose never to re-enter that condition again.

2. Neko CaseAt Last
Oh Neko. Her songs are mostly short but I find them so electrifying. First, there’s her lyrics, elliptical and evocative in that Stevie Nicks way, but with an earthy, bloody touch that gives them a different tang in the brain. Then there’s the music, spooky melodies on country instruments, folk rock with the occasional jagged edge. And finally, the voice oh my god the voice. Neko has one of my favorite voices of anyone, ever. It is almost literally intoxicating to me — I can feel my nervous system lighting up like fireworks when I hear it — my breath gets short and my pulse gets quick. This song has a Dickinsonian quality to it as well, contemplating death with equanimity even as it embraces and longs for life.

3. Neko CaseRed Tide
One reason I dove depeer into Neko’s work last year is that I bought a ticket to see her sing in September, and wanted to know her ouevre a little better before I saw the show. As it turned out, she was sick for the concert, so although she still sounded PERFECT her energy was muted. I think my favorite performance was of this song, which is from the first album of hers I really got to know, a record called Middle Cyclone. Like many of her songs, it is compelling, immediate, and vivid to me. She sings it with this incredible full-throated authority, and again, it makes my brain buzz and my whole body want to be alive.

4. Johnny CashFolsom Prison Blues
I keep falling farther and farther behind on current music, because I find myself fascinated by filling the gaps in the knowledge I grew up with. Johnny Cash was one of those gaps. I’m not usually a country guy, but Cash to me transcends genre. He’s another one with an unforgettable voice, though in a whole different way than Case. (Hm, one letter difference. How about that?) But I only ever knew the barest outline of his work, so I got hold of an “essential” collection for him and added to my repertoire. This song is one of his most iconic, and for good reason. It’s got the great storytelling of folk music, delivered in a way that’s solemn, knowing, and a bit playful all at once. And he performs it *at the prison*. It’s a stunt, but what a stunt. (Apparently the cheers for “I shot a man in Reno” were added in post-production. Cheating!)

5. Ben Folds FiveAway When You Were Here
The BFF experiment on the box set was so successful that the band decided to get together for a whole new album, released in fall of 2012. My musical shelf being what it is, I didn’t listen to it until 2013. It’s very typical of their work, which is to say it is part rockin’, part silly, part thrilling, and part heartbreaking. This song falls into that latter category. I just love his lyrics, the way he can capture the interior experience with an image — “Sometimes a phrase or a manner that’s you / Comes through me and goes in a flash” — and then enact that image by paralleling “You seemed lost in clouds” and “When I’m lost in clouds.” God, that’s good.

6. R.E.M.The One I Love
In February 2013 I went once again to Austin, Texas, to compete in a big trivia contest called the Geek Bowl. That was the second time I’d gone, and as we’d done the first time, some teammates and I went to a great record store there called Waterloo Records. There among the incoming used CDs was R.E.M.’s Document, an album I’d always had on cassette but never had a digital copy of. So I snagged it for some low low price and revisited it later that year. It’s funny to come back to albums that came out when I was in my teens. (Document came out in 1987, when I was 17 years old.) I remember at the time wondering what it would have been like to be alive and aware when something like Sgt. Pepper, or Pearl, or Surrealistic Pillow was released. Well, now I know, and it’s lovely to get the same pleasure now that I got from the album 25 years ago. It felt like a classic at the time, because it was.

7. Glen HansardLies
I saw the movie Once when it was in the theaters — in fact, I didn’t know this at the time but the showing I saw was the very last movie shown at the movie theater on 30th and Pearl in Boulder, before they tore it down to build a Barnes & Noble. (Boulder used to have at least 4 different movie theaters — now it has one. Apparently the town can’t support that many movies?) I really liked the movie at the time, especially the music, so I put the soundtrack on my wish list some time later, and finally got it in time to listen in 2013. It’s hard to pick a song from this album, but this one seemed quite emblematic of the angst, longing, and fierceness that runs through the film and its music.

8. Lindsey BuckinghamThis Nearly Was Mine (instrumental)
I get impatient with a lot of Lindsey’s solo work lately, all breathy vocals and superfast virtuoso picking. It’s fine, but it gets pretty samey, especially compared with the record I see as his masterpiece, 1992’s Out Of The Cradle. That collection had some of his picking and sing-talking, but it also had fantastic pop songs like “Countdown” and “Don’t Look Down”, lovely ballads like “Surrender The Rain” and “All My Sorrows”, and beautiful instrumental passages like this one. I got the mp3 album from Amazon, burned it to CD last year, and spent some time reacquainting myself with it. “This Nearly Was Mine” is actually a Rodgers & Hammerstein tune, from South Pacific — it was a favorite of Lindsey’s dad, so it got included here as a kind of tribute. Lindsey’s treatment of it is uncharacteristically gentle — even his softest songs tend to have an aggressive edge to them, but not here. (Though the only link I can find is to a live version where he can’t help himself from slipping into virtuoso mode at one point.) He brings out the poignancy of the melody so much that I had to look up the lyrics, and having done so I decided to quote them for the title of this collection, promises of paradise kept, broken, and found at last.

9. The BeatlesHow Do You Do It?
Most of my Beatles Anthology listening was in 2012, but a bit spilled over into 2013. This is from the first one, which had lots of very early stuff from their formative days. That has limited appeal for me, but this tune I found fascinating. I’m used to stories of Lennon-McCartney compositions not recorded by the Beatles but made famous by other artists (e.g. The Rolling Stones having one of their first hits with “I Wanna Be Your Man”, which the Beatles only recorded later.) This song, though, wasn’t by Lennon-McCartney, but fits that early Beatles sound nicely. They recorded it but didn’t release it, and then Gerry & The Pacemakers took it to a giant number one. Great going, Beatles. Of course, they had their revenge when “From Me To You” knocked it off the charts. 🙂

10. Steven WrightCross Country
For Christmas 2011 I made my sister some comedy mix CDs, which allowed me to go out and collect lots of comedy I didn’t have digital copies of before. Steven Wright’s I Have A Pony was one of these. Picking a favorite Steven Wright joke is like picking a favorite Far Side cartoon, but one I’ve always loved is: “Last summer I drove cross country with a friend of mine… The whole way across we only had one cassette tape to listen to. I can’t remember what it was.” Seems like a fine inclusion for a music mix.

11. Iggy PopLust For Life
I’ve been doing an independent learning/writing project revolving around Alan Moore’s Watchmen, pursuing all the cultural texts it references (or is said to reference by fans.) There’s a panel in Watchmen that quotes Iggy’s “Neighborhood Threat”, which led to me getting the Lust For Life album and reading a biography of him. (I wrote up the Iggy/Watchmen connection here.) There are plenty of great songs on that album, but this one is just so magnetic to me, even after it’s been worn smooth by Trainspotting and endlessly repeated cruise commercials. I learned that Iggy actually improvised all the lyrics to this on the first take. Wow! Though I suppose it does explain the “hypnotizing chickens” and “had it in the ear before” parts better than anything else can…

12. Greg WellsDisarm
Okay, so here’s an odd one. This guy Greg Wells? He played a big part in my life recently — he hired me into my current job. Though an IT guy by day, Greg’s true passions are music and photography. He’s a talented musician with a home studio, and during my first couple of years on the job he was developing his most recent album, which is mostly covers with a couple of originals thrown in. He plays all the instruments on all the songs. Greg knew I was a music guy, so he’d periodically bring in draft copies of the album for me to listen to and give feedback on, which was a lot of fun. I ended up really liking this Smashing Pumpkins cover. I think his phrasing is actually better than Billy Corgan’s. I owe Greg a lot — he helped me out of a really bad work situation into something much better — but I’d enjoy this even if I didn’t know him.

13. Ben Folds FiveThe Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
I couldn’t restrict myself to just one song from this album. Nick Hornby wrote the lyrics for this one, as he did for Ben’s previous album Lonely Avenue. I absolutely love the Taupin-John thing those two guys do, and this time Hornby’s lyrics seemed to tap into Folds iconography, recalling the bright but dissatisfied Sara (spelled without an h) from “Zak And Sara.” I have a special affection for people with noisy brains, and I just adore the portrait of how disconnecting it can be to live among people who engage life on a different level, as well as how profoundly satisfying it is to find the life of the mind at last. Plus, this song rocks like a mother.

14. Ben FoldsNot The Same (live)
One more tune from the box set. I got introduced to Ben’s music when I saw him open for Tori Amos at Red Rocks. He played this song at that show, and he did the thing you can hear on this recording, introducing the harmonies to the audience so that they could sing them when the time came. At the end of the song, he climbed on top of his piano and conducted 9,000 singers. Our voices rang off the rocks, in three-part harmony, and I knew I had to find out more about this guy.

15. Neko CaseThe Pharoahs
This is another song from Middle Cyclone. It came very close to being included in the mix from a few years ago, when I was listening heavily to that CD, but in the end it didn’t quite make the cut. I decided to resurrect it since I was doing so much Neko this year — I’d always regretted just a little bit my decision to leave it out. I find the melody so hypnotic and elevating, along with the fucking brilliant imagery — “I listened in when you thought you were alone / Calling the sphinx on a tornado’s phone.” It’s such a perfect vignette of a young crush, that moment of growing up when “the wanting in the movies and the hymns” crashes up against the facts of real life and real people. And my GOD, that voice.

16. Stevie NicksBattle Of The Dragon
This song and the next one are from the same source: a Christmas 2012 mix CD I made for my sister called “Good Songs Bad Movies.” This pensive Stevie rarity is from the perfectly awful movie American Anthem, a starring vehicle for Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord. Mitch plays a guy who, uh, wants to be a gymnast. Anyway, this is pure 80s Stevie, a picture of a complicated and vexing relationship, played over sparkling, chiming synths. It deserved a better fate than exile to the American Anthem soundtrack.

17. EvanescenceBring Me To Life
Then there’s this song, which appeared on the Daredevil soundtrack. I’m a big fan of the character and I really, really wanted to like the movie, but I just couldn’t, which should tell you something about how bad it is. The song, on the other hand, I absolutely love. Amy Lee is like a heavy-metal Stevie herself, and this is my favorite thing she ever did — I always have to turn it up loud whenever I hear it. I relate to the lyrics probably more than I should. What I mean by that is they tap into that part of me that wants to save the people I love from their misery and pain. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I always have to keep an eye on how much it drives me, because it can lead to distorted decision-making. It’s really the perfect song for superhero movie, as it addresses the part of the superhero metaphor that I’ve imprinted upon very deeply. Too bad it couldn’t have come with a better movie.

18. AdeleHe Won’t Go
Speaking of rescues, this song is very personal to me. A major feature of my 2013 was watching a close friend spin into an extended crisis, which actually just hit its peak (Jesus, I hope so anyway) a couple of weeks ago. As I watched him go through cycles of recovering and relapsing, I worked hard to blunt the edges coming at him, to ensure he wouldn’t lose everything to a force he couldn’t control. I don’t know how much of that was being a loving friend and how much was my rescuer complex, but I think I did some good things in the end. So when Adele says, “If this ain’t love, then what is? / I’m willing to take the risk,” I hear it right down to my core.

19. Thompson TwinsLay Your Hands On Me
One more song about love and healing. I always thought the Thompson Twins were underrated, and this song is probably tied with “Hold Me Now” for my favorite of theirs. I was listening to a greatest hits collection last year, and this one jumped out at me for reasons similar to the Adele song above.

20. Bob MarleyHigh Tide Or Low Tide
Okay, perhaps more than I realized, the theme of this past year for me has been loyalty and dedication in love. Funny how you don’t always know what something’s about until you make it. I saw the movie Marley in 2012, and listened to the soundtrack in 2013. Bob Marley has always been a greatest hits artist for me, and he still is, but I really enjoyed digging a little deeper into his catalog. This is a gem that was overlooked until the movie featured it prominently — I don’t think it was even on any of Bob’s albums, though as I said I’m not an expert. In any case, it fit perfectly into my year.

21. The BeatlesThe Long And Winding Road
Yes, this song continues the love and loyalty theme, but the reason it featured in 2013 for me was that I finally got around to acquiring Let It Be… Naked, the version of Let It Be without all the Phil Spector overdubs and instrumentation. The biggest difference was on this song, stripped of the choir and orchestra that Spector layered onto the original version. I loved the original, but I think I like this one a little more. It is more powerful in its simplicity.

22. Neko CaseI Wish I Was The Moon
I close with one more from Neko, a piercing melancholy ache. I think I want to let this song speak for itself. “How will you know when you’ve found me at last? / Cos I’ll be the one, be the one, be the one / With my heart in my lap / I’m so tired, I’m so tired / And I wish I was the moon tonight.”

Isn’t It Good?

This year’s music mix isn’t nearly so autobiographical as last year’s was. I’m back to making mixes that are just songs I’ve listened to and loved during the year, and I like it just fine that way. Emotional pain, even when you’re emerging from it, makes music feel more meaningful, but it’s a pretty rotten trade-off. I prefer being happy, thank you very much. I certainly don’t love the music any less.

1. The BeatlesEleanor Rigby (Strings Only)
This was a very Beatles-y year for my listening habits. I found that in my job upheaval and subsequent office moves, I’d inadvertently packed away a Beatles A-Z collection my friend Robby had made for me, so I retrieved and listened to those. Besides that, I also dug into the Anthology series for the first time. I’m obviously a Beatles fan, but when those Anthology CDs came out, I wasn’t all that excited about them. They seemed like alternate, inferior versions of the tracks I knew, alongside tracks that didn’t make it onto an album because they weren’t all that good. Recently though, Trish told me they were worth listening to, and since my Beatlemania had been reawakened by the Love show, I decided to put them on my wish list. Now I’ve got them all, and I find that we were both right. There’s a lot of stuff on there that doesn’t excite me, but there are also a number of very cool tracks, and this is one of them. I went to a couple of great lectures this year by a guy named Scott Freiman, a Beatles scholar who does a series called “Deconstructing The Beatles.” He explains everything about the history and behind-the-scenes info of a particular Beatles album, and then plays tracks where he’s pulled apart the different parts of the mix, explaining how the song was put together, talking about earlier “draft” versions, playing sounds in isolation that you’d always heard but never noticed, mapping out how the technology of the time influenced the group’s sound. Super cool. This track reminded me of those lectures — it’s amazing to hear just one part of a Beatles song in isolation, and this one really emphasizes the loveliness of George Martin’s string arrangement. Plus, it makes an excellent backing track for car karaoke. Woo hoo!

2. Arcade FireSprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
It is seemingly becoming a trademark of mine to enthusiastically latch onto a group long after the rest of the world has taken a seat on the bandwagon. This year, it was Arcade Fire. My sister has been trying to get me into them for a some time now, and while I haven’t been hostile, I also just hadn’t put them on my list. That changed when I was preparing questions for a trivia bowl, and decided to do a bonus question on musical mash-ups, where two songs get blended into each other. I found great ones where Madonna merged into the Sex Pistols, or Nirvana into Michael Jackson. I also found this song merged into Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass”. I knew I had to seek out the song on its own. The lyrics grabbed me immediately: “They heard me singing and they told me to stop / Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” It also has just a beautiful energy to it, and a great vocal. I found myself listening to this song over and over again, and then doing the same with the whole album. The parenthetical title comes from a book by Tracy Kidder called “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about a physician who fights tuberculosis around the world and who encounters and embodies the Haitian proverb, “Beyond the mountain, there is another mountain.” I relate to that.

3. Indigo GirlsNo Way To Treat A Friend
In the early days of seeing Indigo Girls concerts, they didn’t have very many albums out, so they’d play all kinds of unreleased stuff. Some of this would show up later, and some of it wouldn’t. This was one of the songs I saw them play a couple of times back in the day, but which never made it to a studio album, so I more or less forgot about it. This year, I downloaded some tracks from the amazing Lifeblood site, which included a collection of pre-1989 studio recordings. I rediscovered this song on that collection. I think it’s a gem. Why did they never put it on an album? Maybe Amy was embarrassed about “walking right out of your eyes.”

4. The BeatlesNorwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
This is one pulled from the Beatles A-Z collection. I listened to those CDs at work a lot, and because I was sharing an office with someone, I tended to listen on headphones. That helped me really appreciate the sitar part in this song. I always liked the tune and the words (so sneakily risque for the day), but it’s amazing how headphones can illuminate details in a recording that you just don’t notice or appreciate as much without them. This song is also the source for the title of this year’s collection. I quite like how it expresses appreciation and doubt simultaneously. (Though in the song, I think the contrast is between sincerity and sarcasm.) I want to notice how good things are, even as I remain alert to the ways it can go wrong.

5. U2Silver And Gold (live)
I’d had Rattle And Hum on tape for ages, but burned it to CD for the first time this year. On revisiting the album, this song stood out for me. Not, mind you, because I think it’s the best song on the album, or even the best version of “Silver And Gold” — I prefer the studio B-side. No, it’s all about Bono pausing at the end of a long rant about apartheid to say, “Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to BUG YA.” I just love that. It’s so funny to me. I even made it my email signature quote at work for a while.

6. Miles DavisBlue In Green
For the most part, I’m not really a jazz guy. Most of the time, it just makes me think of the Paul F. Tompkins routine about jazz — “It’s just a bunch of dudes playing solos at the same time. It’s like a genre of music that is defying you to like it.” In fact, instrumental music in general I find hard to latch onto. I’m a lyrics guy. (Interestingly, I don’t think of the first track on this CD as instrumental music… because I can hear the voices singing over it even when they’re not there.) However, as part of my ongoing project to obtain on mp3 everything that I currently have on tape, I picked up Kind Of Blue, since a friend of mine had put this track on a mix tape. I liked it. It’s still not anything I’d seek out on my own, but I found that listening to it while driving put me in a calm, meditative state of mind. So long as I was sufficiently caffeinated, that is. Otherwise, it made me kinda sleepy.

7. Pink FloydWhat Shall We Do Now?
My concert-going habits have been drastically curtailed due to the one-two punch of lack of funds and lack of time. However, I did make it a point to see Roger Waters perform The Wall this year. He’d come around with it once before, and seemingly 50% of my co-workers and friends went to it and loved it, whereas I’d blown it off immediately because I’m not a fan of solo Waters. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, I bought a “cheap” seat (yeah, like $90) and watched the show from the back of an arena. It was AWESOME. The Wall is one of those albums I listened to over and over again in high school, and Waters pulled it off impeccably, with tons of clever staging approaches, and some very clever updating of the material. He also performed this song, which isn’t on the album (the much shorter “Empty Spaces” is in its place), but is in the movie. I decided after that show that I needed a better version of The Wall on my iPod. I own these crazy 24k gold CDs of it, but ironically their sound is mastered so quiet that whenever a song from them comes up in a random shuffle, it fades into the background unless I notice the lack of music and turn up the volume. So I found a remastered version that is much better, and on top of that ripped the audio from the movie, so now I have two different versions of this great stuff. This one is from the movie.

8. Jonathan Coulton & GLaDOSStill Alive
For Christmas 2011, my friend Tashi gave me a couple of computer games: a game called Portal and its sequel, Portal 2. Now, normally I’m just as late to the gate with computer games as I am with any other kind of entertainment, and this was no exception, at least in part. All my IF friends had raved about Portal when it came out in 2007, but it never even made it into my queue. However Portal 2 came out in April 2011, so for me to play it in January 2012 was amazingly current, for me. Anyway, the plot of Portal is that you’re a test subject running the gauntlet at the whim of a crazy computer named GLaDOS (voiced by Ellen McLain). At first, everything seems legit — you’re even promised cake and a party at the end of your tests. But it quickly becomes apparent that all is not well. You have a “neat gun” — one that doesn’t shoot bullets, but instead can create dimensional warps — portals — that let you travel between different parts of the landscape. The game constructs a bunch of clever puzzles around this mechanic, ending in a climactic scene in which you dismantle GLaDOS (by directing her own weapons at her via the portals) and “throw every piece into a fire.” At the very end of the game, this song plays. It blew my mind when I first heard it. I’d never heard pop music used in a computer game like that, just exactly the way movies sometimes play a new song over the credits to sum up the emotional journey of the story. I thought the song was brilliant, the way it recast the adversarial video game relationship as a failed romance. Plus, it eerily informs you that GLaDOS wasn’t really destroyed, setting up the sequel. I immediately bought the song. It comes on an album called “The Orange Box” (named after the game bundle in which Portal was originally sold), and thus wraps up the colorful section of this CD — silver and gold to blue and green to pink to orange.

9. Arcade FireWe Used To Wait
Here’s another selection from that Arcade Fire album I kept listening to this year. Again, it’s the lyric that grabs me. I love the observation, that slow communication imparted a kind of hope. You could always believe a letter was on its way — something email, facebook, etc. just doesn’t afford. I think we’re still working to understand all the ways in which the Internet changed our lives. I love it, and I would never want it to go away, but I do understand a bit of the nostalgia in this song. I don’t necessarily equate paper with authenticity in the way that it does, but I do believe in patience, despite the constant acceleration of our lives around us.

10. Elton JohnPinball Wizard
I picked up the rerelease of Caribou and listened to it this year. This was one of the bonus tracks. I knew and loved Elton’s Beatles cover (Lucy in the Sky), but I never realized that he’d covered The Who. I adore piano rock, and this is a fantastic slice of it. The arrangement brings in the piano beautifully, and I love the way he works the “I Can’t Explain” riff and chorus into parts of the song. It was also wild to listen to it and hear *new* lyrics, which (at least according to Wikipedia) were written by Townshend. Of course, now that I’m writing this, I realize that I totally should have switched the order of this one and the previous one. “Pinball Wizard” would have continued the game theme from the Portal song, and the sense of bafflement would have transitioned into “We Used To Wait”, which in turn would have fit well with “Your Mother Should Know” in looking backwards. What was I thinking? Oh well.

11. The BeatlesYour Mother Should Know
More Beatles. I’ve always dug this song, partly because it has one of those impeccable McCartney melodies, and partly because I like the idea that even as they were at the top of the world, the group still paid its respects to the music that came before it. It’s funny, too, to hear it as I age and my musical taste gets just a bit more mired in the past, little by little, all the time. I still try to keep up with at least some of what’s new, but as time goes on I’m just out of touch. I have to laugh at myself when Jeopardy! runs a category about current music. I’m a music guy, but I am hilariously CLUELESS on those questions. (Also, based on its sponsors, I surmise that the Jeopardy! audience itself is not exactly a bunch of spring chickens.) I’m not sure if that’s how it has to be, but that seems to be how it is.

12. The ZombiesTime Of The Season
And now, let’s all get up and dance to this song, a hit before I was born. I have always loved “Time Of The Season” (along with the other classic Zombies tune, “She’s Not There.”) The unique rhythm, the breathy vocal, the keyboard part… it’s just so much fun. I’d burned a CD this year of classic rock mishmash, and this is the standout from that collection.

13. Paul SimonSo Beautiful Or So What
I’m a Paul Simon guy, and have been since I was about 8 years old. Amazingly, he is still writing great songs. This one was the title track from his 2011 album, which fell into my 2012 music year due to backups in the queue. The basic message of this song — “life is what you make of it” — is so simple as to be a cliche, but the way he puts it across is just beautiful, grounding it in everyday details like cooking and parenting. Then the chorus lifts into a higher realm of observation, distilling wisdom into quotable rhyme — I especially love the bit about “mistaking value for the price.” And then, unexpectedly, he draws the scene of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Did that story have a happy ending? Maybe yeah, maybe not.

14. Indigo GirlsGone
Those Indigos. I love how they’re still at it, after all these years. This was another 2011 album that fell into my 2012 music year, partly because I mark the year from November to October. Beauty Queen Sister was a nice return to form after their Christmas album, and it had a number of highlights — “Share The Moon”, “We Get To Feel It All”, the title track, and “Damo”, but I finally settled on this one. I love the romantic feel of it, how you meet your new life and wave your old life goodbye. Also, I have a fond memory of Dante hearing “I’ve seen a million suns go down on this tired town,” and replying, “A million suns? What planet is she on?”

15. The BeatlesGet Back (rooftop version)
Here’s the final Beatles entry in this collection, another entry from the Beatles A-Z collection. Robby and I have been doing this A-Z thing for decades — the first one was a Steive Nicks A-Z he made for me for my 18th birthday, which I thought was one of the most epic gifts ever. One of the fun things we do with these is try to introduce interviews, rarites, and other fun stuff to spice up the collection. This was a great example — I’d never actually had the rooftop version of this song in my collection. I love this song, and I love this version. John’s famously witty topper — “I hope we’ve passed the audition” — ushers in the comedy section of this CD.

16. Flight Of The ConchordsBusiness Time
A few years ago, Trish recommended that I watch season one of HBO’s Flight Of The Conchords show, a comedy built around Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, “New Zealand’s 4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a capella-rap-funk-comedy-folk duo.” She loaned me the DVDs and everything. I loved it, and began the process which eventually landed all their albums in my house. It’s a tough, tough choice to select a favorite from their self-titled album, but I eventually landed on this one. It’s just such a perfect choice to lampoon gettin’-it-on songs by casting one in the context of a long-since-settled domestic partnership. “Then you sort out the recycling — that isn’t part of the foreplay process but it is still very important.” The self-deprecation is dead-on — the song wouldn’t work without it, really. I’ve heard this song dozens of times, and still find it funny.

17. LoverboyWorking For The Weekend
Okay, so this isn’t technically a comedy song. For me, though, it is inextricable from two hilarious images:
1) Mike Reno in his ultra-80s outfit (headband, bandana, leather jacket & pants)
2) Shirtless Chris Farley competing for a Chippendales spot against Patrick Swayze
So it makes me laugh every time. Also, it’s just a totally fun song. I don’t subscribe to the “guilty pleasure” concept — I’m over having shame about the things I like. So it’s just a pleasure. Also, pairing it with “Business Time” pretty much covers the whole week!

18. Stephin MerrittWhat A Fucking Lovely Day!
As I noted a few years ago, when I saw The Magnetic Fields in concert, they played a bunch of songs I’d never heard before, from the various crannies of the Merritt catalog. This is one that just cracked me up, predictably, from the moment I heard the first line. Especially coming from Merritt’s deadpan baritone, it was just so funny. The recording took me a while to track down. It turns out that Merritt wrote the music for a few different theatrical musical adaptations. This one comes from a musical version of a thirteenth-century Chinese play called The Orphan Of Zhao. It’s sung by the cast member from the show, which is too bad, as it loses something without Merritt’s voice, but nevertheless, it’s well worth the 82 seconds it takes up.

19. Steve MartinGrandmother’s Song
Laura and I have evolved a little tradition for Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. It’s a two-part gift. First, the honoree gets the day off from childcare (an ironic but still delightfully freeing way to observe the day.) Second, the honoree buys a gift for the partner to give. It saves effort and takes the pressure off the day. So this year, my gift from Laura to me for Father’s Day was a couple of Steve Martin CDs — Wild & Crazy Guy, and Let’s Get Small, from which this track is taken. I had these on vinyl, but never transferred them to tape, so hadn’t listened to them for ages. When I finally did listen to them, I happened to have Dante in the car when this track came on. He was utterly tickled at how this song gets sillier and sillier. He couldn’t wait to come home and play it for Laura. We all sat in front of the computer listening to the song, and he just about burst, waiting for “Be obsequious, purple, and clairvoyant” to come on. I like sharing all kinds of cultural artifacts with him, but it’s especially fun to share the ones I myself loved as a kid, since it gives me both the pleasure of nostalgia and the joy of watching him experience it for the first time.

20. Stevie WonderSir Duke
We finish with a couple of songs about the joy of music. I said a few years ago that I’d rehabilitated my image of Stevie Wonder, which had been unfortunately maimed by the fact that when I was discovering music, he was all, “I Just Called To Say I Love You, Part-Time Lover!” So this year I got the greatest hits, and started allowing the exuberance of songs that everybody else has already known and loved for ages. It was awfully hard to pick a highlight, but I went with this one just because it so gorgeously exudes a love of music, while encased in an excellent tune of its own. Plus, I just know that one of these days I’m going to ask a trivia question about which musicans he names in the lyrics. (Okay, that day was yesterday.)

21. The ByrdsMr. Tambourine Man
Here’s another love letter to the elevating power of music. Now, I’m a language-oriented person, and I favor lyrics over music. In a contest between this version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Dylan’s original, I would have to favor the original — it just has so many brilliant words that this one leaves out. However, musically, it’s no contest. While Dylan has some mostly monotone strumming and a bit of lead guitar, The Byrds have a *killer* riff, a hypnotic beat, and harmonies as clear and sparkling as diamonds. This is the song that invented folk-rock, and it still sounds good after all these years.

That’s it! At least, until next year.