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 Floyd – Wish 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 Girls – Fugitive
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. Adele – River 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 Cutie – We 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 Event – Gasoline
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 Smithereens – Yesterday 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 Party – Way 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 Floyd – Us 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 Enemy – Fight 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 Miranda – What’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 Wayne – No 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 Coulton – I 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 Collins – It 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 McVie – Game 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 Straits – Hand 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 Krall – Simple 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 Franklin – Dr. 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 Heartbreakers – Even 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.