A couple of years ago, I wrote about my annual Christmas tradition with my friends Siân and Kelly, a mix CD of songs I’ve been listening to that year. The songs generally reflect a little something about my life in one way or another, though not perfectly so — sometimes they’re just songs I’ve imprinted on for some reason. The liner notes tradition has continued as well, but I didn’t post the notes from 2010. See, 2010 was a terrible, terrible year. Professionally, it was by far the unhappiest I’d ever been in my job, and personally, my marriage tailspun into a major crisis right at the same time we moved into a new house and my work life was at peak misery. It was very difficult, and painful, and I withdrew from many things and people.
Then came 2011. In January, I started a new job, thank god. I am in a much healthier atmosphere now, and am much, much happier at work. Laura and I finally found the right counselor in the spring, and have healed a lot of things. By the time November rolled around, I had started to emerge from a fair amount of depression, and it was in that mood that I made this year’s CD. I feel really happy with the collection, both as a musical collage and as a reflection of my year.
1. DEAR PRUDENCE – Siouxsie and the Banshees
Siouxsie Sioux was always in the back of my mind as somebody I wanted to learn more about, so last year I procured a greatest hits album. I liked it, though I don’t think I’ll go much deeper than that. I quite enjoy her voice, especially on this cover. It was a pretty Beatles-y year for me, so this was a fitting choice for that, but even more so for the lyrics and tone of the song itself. To me, this is about emerging, after being shrouded in protection. That’s pretty much what happened with me this year. I can hardly measure how much better things are now, both at home and at work, compared to this time last year. Not that everything is magically perfect — there’s still a lot of work to do — but the skies are a lot sunnier now.
2. ALL THIS BEAUTY – The Weepies
And what do we see when we come out to play? This was a year of The Weepies for me. They’re a married couple of singer-songwriters, Deb Talan and Steve Tannen, who started out as fans of each other’s solo work, and then literally began to make beautiful music together. Their harmonies are lovely, and their songs are just killer. I absolutely fell in love with their album Hideaway, from which this track is taken. That was the launching pad for my Weepies infatuation, and this was one of the songs that made me want to buy the album. (Thanks to the Internet radio station for bringing them to my attention.) It’s hard to pick just one song from that album, but this one fit my mindset a lot, or at least a part of it. (Lucky for me, there are other Weepies songs to fit other parts. 🙂 ) It’s about remembering to be amazed — there is so much beauty in this world, and sometimes it’s easier to see it if you close your eyes, then slowly open wide.
3. HERE COMES THE SUN – Paul Simon with David Crosby and Graham Nash
Speaking of lovely harmonies. I saw Paul on tour this fall, and he completely surprised me by singing this song as part of his set. It’s such a beautiful song anyway, and it fits his voice perfectly. After a little research, I found that he actually has a long history with the song — he sang it with George on an SNL episode way back in 1976, and various times in his career after that. I’m a lifelong Paul Simon fan, but I had no idea about this connection. It was a high point of the concert for me, and those always find their way to these end-of-year compilations. Not only that, it resonates with one of the most beautiful moments from the Love show I saw this year (more about that later), and perfectly encapsulates the theme of the year. Hence my title. I had a little trouble finding a good recording of him singing it solo, so I went with this one, from the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’s 25th anniversary concerts.
4. TRUE FAITH – New Order
Sometimes focus falls on something one year because it belonged to a project from the previous year. So it was with this song. My Christmas gift for my sister in 2010 had a Guns ‘n’ Roses theme, since that’s one of her favorite bands. I decided to follow up on that with her birthday gift (not much of a reach, since her birthday is on New Year’s Eve.) Our tradition is some kind of themed CD as her birthday gift from me, so last year I decided to make her 3 volumes of songs from 1987, the year G+R’s first album came out. I love a lot of the music from that year — it’s probably not coincidental that I was 17 at the time, and just fully embracing music as a part of my identity for the first time. I’m sure plenty of people find much of their favorite music rooted in their late teens. This song appeared on that collection — it’s one of two New Order songs written that year to be bonus tracks on their greatest hits collection Substance. I find the music both hypnotic and uplifting, and the lyrics fit in well with the previous song — “my morning sun is a drug that brings me here.”
5. SECRET LOVE – Stevie Nicks
Why yes, Stevie Nicks did come out with a new album this year! 🙂 In Your Dreams was her first release in 10 years, and I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone that several songs from it would appear on this compilation. This one was the advance single, and the record company offered a download of it with pre-orders of the album. It’s based an a demo I’d been listening to for years. Stevie has tons and tons of these unrecorded demos that have circulated amongst fans forever, and it’s an incredible thrill when she finishes one up with a proper studio version and releases it. Sometimes these actually turn out to be a little less satisfying than the demo — a couple of songs from the 2003 Fleetwood Mac album are like that — but often they are wonderful realizations of a rough outline. That was the case with this song. I got a full-body rush when listening to it for the first time. I think Dave Stewart does a fantastic job of production, Stevie’s vocals sound great, and it got me very excited for the album.
6. MOONLIGHT (A VAMPIRE’S DREAM) – Stevie Nicks
Here’s one of my favorite tracks from that album, and one of the standouts from her wonderful concert this summer. Again it’s based on a demo, but in a peculiar way. The demo that fans have been calling “Lady From The Mountain” has the beginning verses and piano part, but the more driving music that kicks in on the lyric “Strange, she runs with the one she can’t keep up with” is all new. Apparently Stevie was inspired by the first Twilight movie — she says it reminded her of an experience she had, though she coyly never reveals what that was. I’ve never read or seen any Twilight anything. All I know is that this song charges me full of energy every time I hear it. I love what it does with “Lady From The Mountain”, marrying its fragility to a smooth, powerful backbone.
7. GERM FREE ADOLESCENTS – X-Ray Spex
This song begins what I think of as the “Thank You Siân” section — all artists I’ve learned to love because of her influence. Laura was friends with Siân first — they were in CU‘s English Literature PhD program together. That’s how I met Laura too, except that I was doing my M.A. Siân wrote her dissertation on punk rock. I remember her telling me about X-Ray Spex back when she lived in Colorado — in fact, now that I look at the dissertation, its very title is an X-Ray Spex reference. So I filed that away but rarely thought of it again until she mailed me a couple of CDs of punk songs from the Sunday Times. This song appeared on that CD, and I liked it enough to seek out a compilation. The songs in that collection made X-Ray Spex one of my favorite punk bands — “Identity”, “Art-I-Ficial”, “I Am A Cliche”, “Let’s Submerge”, “Age”… I’ll stop before I list out all their songs. They’re all great, but this was the one that lit the way, and there’s still something special about it.
8. SHOOT THE MOON – Hugh Blumenfeld
Yeah, here’s another guy I wouldn’t be listening to if not for Siân. Hugh is actually a friend of hers, and she’s put various songs of his on mixes she’s made for me over the years, and I eventually became a fan. She and Kelly visited us in August of 2010, and she brought me four of his CDs at that time. My backlog being what it is, I ended up listening to them in November, which marks the beginning of this music-listening year for me. There were many songs I enjoyed from those CDs — I picked this one both because it reminded me of Dante and because it happened to have a wonderful resonance with another much-loved song from another much-loved Siân Mile artist…
9. THE SPACE RACE IS OVER – Billy Bragg
I think Bragg is Siân’s favorite artist overall, and another one I adopted because she passed some of his best stuff along to me. I’ve been buying more things in MP3 form in the past few years, to feed and fill the iPod’s sacred shuffle, but that’s meant that I don’t listen to them as closely as I do my CDs. Therefore, I periodically burn a batch to CD, and so it was with one CD from a Billy Bragg box set I’d downloaded a couple of years ago. It’s a fine collection — some songs I knew and liked because Siân had included them on various compilations, while others I heard for the first time and learned to love on my own. This was one of the latter. I think my jaw literally dropped when I heard him sing, “I watched the Eagle landing on a night when the moon was full / And as it tugged at the tides I knew that deep inside / I too could feel its pull.” What an incredibly gorgeous lyric. I love the way this song summons an elegiac and wistful tone for the bright future that might have been. I think it’s better than the Blumenfeld song, though that’s hardly a fair comparison, and they do pair so nicely.
10. PICTURE WINDOW – Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
This is from the album Lonely Avenue, in which Ben Folds and Nick Hornby do their version of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin partnership — Hornby wrote the lyrics and Folds wrote and performed all the music. It is a gorgeous album, and while it’s hard to pick a favorite song on it, this one emerged from the pack for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s just heart-rendingly poignant; it’s easily the most moving song on the record. Second, it reminds me strongly of an experience that made a major impression on me this year. A very close friend of mine went through a horrible hospital experience this summer — her 12-year-old son went into the hospital as a result of multiple health issues crashing into each other. I visited them frequently during this period — her son loves comics and music, so I was able to relate to him and bring him some things to make him happy in that difficult hospital environment. I watched him suffer awful, awful mental and physical anguish, and I watched her agonize every day over him, playing the very difficult role of protector and intermediary between him and the institutional realities. There was a series of horrible situations produced by a combination of organizational dysfunction, misjudgements, parental personalities, and the nature of his issues, which weren’t easily pigeonholed. After several weeks of hell, he finally got some treatment that, although rather invasive, began to turn things around. They were in there for a couple of months total, and they’re still recovering. Watching your child suffer like that day after day is one of the worst things I can think of.
11. HELPLESS – k.d. lang
About 5 years ago I saw a movie called Away From Her, about a woman (played by Julie Christie) whose mind is slowly disintegrating from Alzheimer’s. It made a huge impression on me, and this song played over the credits of that movie. It blew my mind. lang’s incredible voice brings out a power I’d never heard in this song before, and every time I hear it, I feel this thick blanket of emotion settling over me. Eventually I sought out the album it came from — Hymns Of The 49th Parallel, in which lang covers all Canadian artists — and listened to it this year. Covers are definitely her metier, I think — her own material (with the exception of Ingenue) tends to fall flat for me. Whereas when she gets a hold of something that’s already really strong, like this song, she can make it profoundly affecting.
12. LIVING IN TWILIGHT – The Weepies
Remember when I said the skies are sunnier now? I know that’s true because we spent much of the earlier part of the year in the twilight this song so perfectly describes. Parts of my life this year were like one of those movies all scored by one artist (Magnolia, Harold & Maude, Good Will Hunting). The Weepies sang the soundtrack of my movie.
13. THE SOUND OF SETTLING – Death Cab For Cutie
Last year, Pink was the artist I discovered 10 years later than everyone else. This year, it was Death Cab For Cutie. I think I listened to their album Transatlanticism for about 3 weeks straight in September. It is just amazing. I knew I’d be picking a song from it for this compilation, and the choice was so difficult I just randomized it. Fittingly, this was one of the Death Cab songs that made me decide I needed to go out and buy their albums. I find the first lyric especially arresting: “I’ve got a hunger / twisting my stomach into knots / that my tongue has tied off.” Wow! I just love that.
14. YOU JUST HAVEN’T EARNED IT YET, BABY – Kirsty MacColl
There is one reason that things are better between Laura and I, and that reason is that we have worked our asses off this year to get to where we are. We have both been very committed to learning new ways of relating, and putting our new knowledge into practice. As a consequence, our conflicts are fewer, less frightening, and more quickly resolved. I don’t mean to make it sound like we’re finished working, but we’re closer than we’ve been in years, and we’ve earned it, baby. I’ve loved this song ever since hearing it on the She’s Having A Baby soundtrack in high school. I’ve never been much of a Smiths person — I like Johnny Marr well enough, but with a few big exceptions I just find Morrissey too grating. However, I do have strong affection for some Smiths covers, and this one tops the list. I adore Kirsty’s voice, and the production is gorgeous and uplifting. I can’t get enough of it.
15. ON SUNDAY – ‘Til Tuesday
‘Til Tuesday’s Welcome Home was another of those CDs I burned from downloaded MP3s. I’ve been a Mann fan for years, but never went beyond the “greatest hits” level with her old band. I like this song a lot, and it fit my life since part of my commitment with Laura was to do a regularly scheduled session of emotional/relationship work on Sundays when we didn’t have a couples therapy appointment. “Why spend your sadness now? / Save it up for me, on Sunday.”
16. ROCKS AND WATER (LIVE AT CHAUTAUQUA 2011-08-27) – The Weepies
As a part of my Weepy year, I saw them on tour at the Chautauqua Music Hall. It was a wonderful concert, everything I’d hoped it would be and more. The “more” was composed of a few things. One of these was actually the amazing set and lighting. They had this stylized miniature city set up on one side of the stage, and then kind of a forest glade on the other, and throughout the show, the lighting would change on various things to highlight different parts. At one point, a previously unseen river gets lit up, running through the city and the woods. You can get a little flavor of it from this photo, though obviously that doesn’t get at the different lighting changes. One of the other great parts was the new songs they played — well, new to me anyway. I have their albums, but forgot all about the fact that they had solo careers before they got together! This is a song from one of Deb’s solo records, and I just adored it the first time I heard it. As soon as I came home, I downloaded both her version and one that they did in an iTunes exclusive concert. However, neither version captivated me the way the concert version had. Lucky for me, some bright soul put up a bunch of clips from the concert on YouTube, so I used my handy-dandy DownloadHelper and turned the audio from that clip into an mp3. God bless the internet.
17. SEA AND SAND – The Who
Three things about this song. 1) I listened to Quadrophenia more intently this year than I had ever done before. For reasons “I Can’t Explain”, Quad was kind of a passed-over Who album from my youth, so I ended up really appreciating it much later than most of the rest of their material. 2) This song is a major standout from that album for me. It’s one of the most perfect Who songs to me, flawlessly blending Pete’s fantastic lyrics and storytelling with the immense power of the band. 3) Given that “Sea and Sand” was already on my list, how could I resist pairing it with “Rocks And Water”?
18. HERE COMES THE SUN/THE INNER LIGHT [TRANSITION] – The Beatles
I went to Las Vegas for a trivia convention this summer — a great experience. While I was there, I saw the Cirque Du Soleil show of The Beatles Love — an utterly transcendent experience. I’ve already written about how I spent most of the show with tears streaming down my face, so I won’t rehash all that. I just new that I needed to pick a song for this compilation to represent that experience. It was very hard to choose. I settled on this one both for the reasons I mentioned in the Paul Simon entry, and because this part of the show remains absolutely indelible for me. It wasn’t the yoga poses and the trapeze artists, though those were certainly eye-popping. Instead, it was the massive ball of candles, glowing warmly and rising from the center of the stage, as robed children sit on the edge, radiating joy from meditative poses.
19. ADD MY EFFORT – The Weepies
Yep, one more Weepies song. This one returns to the theme touched on earlier in the MacColl and ‘Til Tuesday songs. It’s about loving someone who frequently lives in darkness — really loving them. I was always adding my effort, but without understanding, that effort can be fruitless or even counterproductive. However, when understanding is there, effort can be enough.
20. CHEAPER THAN FREE (FEATURING DAVE STEWART) – Stevie Nicks
Yep, one more Stevie Nicks song. This the closer for In Your Dreams, and it felt like a perfect closer for this collection as well. It is a pure love song, and for me, purely magical. “What’s cheaper than free? You and me. What’s better than alone? Going home. What does money not buy? You and I. What’s not to feel, when love is real?”
Until next year…