Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Album(s) of the Year

As usual for my "Album(s) of the Year" posts, first some meta commentary.

For me, 2013 was a back to basics year, as I worked to get grounded and rebalanced after a couple years of churn. I was fortunate to have time to reflect on the past, and explore it in the context of the present. This journey had many musical detours, including a wonderful revisiting of the Miles Davis and John Coltrane catalogs from the 50s and 60s (after 25 years, it was like hearing them for the first time).

The music I spent the most time with offered unadorned connections with truths from the past, and calls for what I hope to be truths of the future. The clarity of these truths were an inspiration for me, a welcome companion through the year.

On to the list. As usual, first some niche winners, then my overall winner.

Best Album That I Never Thought I Would Hear, Let Alone Own: Live '88 (Shawn Colvin)
I think it is hard for folks under 30 to understand the commitment required to find music back in the day. It was rare for me to visit a new town and not track down some local record stores in the hope that they had some gems that I was looking for. Inevitably, these quests would result in finding tunes that you didn't know existed. When visiting friends, inevitably the evening would degenerate into flipping through albums and comparing notes about bands, and learning about new bands. All these discussions were tucked away for reference the next time you were in that record store, as the endless quest went on.

With that context, there was a huge surge of "indie" folks acts in the late 80s: Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and newcomer Shawn Colvin. Colvin's "Steady On" album was so catchy, and had cross over written all over it. During one of these late night chat sessions, I came to learn about Colvin's "Live '88" solo concert tape that she was selling at concerts before her big debut album was released. The album was supposed to have been amazing, but no one I knew had ever heard it themselves. We'd have endless discussions about what the album must be like, and I looked for that album in what must have grown to be 100+ record stores.

Even during the initial .com music boom, there were no copies to be found on Napster or Amazon or any of the 1000s of record stores that you could find through Google. Eventually, I gave up and moved on.

Fast forward many years. I'm listening to Lucy Kaplansky's cover of Colvin's "Diamond in the Rough", and reading how she used to sing backup for Shawn Colvin (who knew?). On a lark, I do a search for Steady On on Murfie to see what market is these days and see a recommended link for "Live '88" for $1!!! Holy Crap!!

10 minutes later I'm on a time machine, listening to the definitive version of the amazing "Diamond in the Rough" (all the more meaningful now that I have two daughters), and several other classics, all with Shawn solo on the guitar in amazing unplugged aspirational goodness.

An absolute gem, and an unexpected moment of satisfying closure after a couple decades.

Best Video For the Best Song About a Mummy: The Curse (Josh Ritter)
I think I discovered this video through a link on twitter. I hadn't heard of Josh Ritter before, but I was blown away by the simple clarity and truth of his music. The video by his drummer Liam Hurley is one of the most beautiful short films I've ever seen. A joy and inspiration, and a welcome moment of magic.

Best Albums For the Hero Generation: iTunes Session (Fun.) and iTunes Session (Imagine Dragons)
As folks who know me know, for many years I've had an unhealthy obsession with Howe and Strauss's generational theories that they detailed in their book "The Fourth Turning". In "The Fourth Turning" they chart an 80 year cycle of social trends and generational archetypes that go back centuries, with each generation and social era setting the stage for the next in a series of 20 year "turnings". According to their theory, we are currently in a "Crisis" turning, where the previous social contract is falling apart and new one must be invented, kicking off the next cycle (previous Crises were depression/WW 2, Civil War, Revolutionary War, etc). Born into an Unraveling, a Hero generation comes of age during the Crisis, and uses their energy and their commitment to community to bring society back together after the Unraveling and the social failings of their elders.

As a first generation immigrant born and raised in circumstances akin to an Unraveling, I grew up with a generation that was 20 years out of phase with where I was. The Fourth Turning framework has been a great help to me in understanding and accepting these differences, but for years I have been waiting for our Hero generation to come of age, and help heal the schism that has torn our country apart. I've been especially tuned to music, where youth can most directly express their emerging values. In 2013, I heard the undeniable call of our new Hero generation in Fun. and Imagine Dragons.

My first exposure to Fun. was the silly "We Are Young" anthem that was played again and again during those Chevy commercials. I dismissed them out of hand. But when I saw them perform "Carry On" at the Grammy's, I had to sit up and pay attention. These guys had something to say, and they were in their moment of power. Watching the "Some Nights" video, and this out of time Hero was ready to march. It was a special joy when my 11 year old asked if I could buy "Some Nights" for her iPod (and so it begins).

Generational affinity aside, this geezer has never developed a taste for the over-produced/auto-tuned ethos of modern recordings. While I respected Fun.'s music and talents, their production was distracting. Enter the gift that is "iTunes Session": the band in a studio with their instruments, recorded live without distractions, sounding like they are in the room with you. Perfect.

A bit later in the year, my 11 year old asked me to purchase Imagine Dragon's "Demons" for her iPod. As usual, I googled the lyrics and listened to the song on YouTube to make sure it was appropriate.  At the end of the video they dedicated the song to Tyler Robinson, who had died of cancer at age 17. They also included some footage of their performance of "It's Time" for Tyler. Reading more about the band and Tyler and listening to more of their music, they are real deal Heros.

Thank you Iz for the hope and joy and seeing the best of what we could be. I can't wait for you and your sister's generation to set things right.

2013 Album of the Year: All the Roadrunning (Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris)
Before talking about this gem, a shout out to one of those finds that restores your faith in what music is all about. While bouncing around YouTube for some vintage Van Morrison tracks, I found a link to a bootleg to some demos he recorded back in his prime. Sound quality is terrible, with bleed through from other tracks that had gotten taped over, but hearing Van bring it on Caravan and It Stoned Me is to mainline emotional truths at their most raw. The full bootleg album is easy to find in the usual places, and well worth seeking out.

Also, a shout out to the gem that is "Frozen". Any film that would push "Taxi Driver" out of my list of top 10 films ever is something special, but the combination of images and music is really quite extraordinary. You owe it to yourself to experience this film in a fine theatre with a fine sound system. If "Brave" was what every father wishes for his daughters, then "Frozen" is what his daughters wish for themselves. An extraordinary film.

In 2013, I continued with my "what have they been doing lately" kick with my old favorites. Through the magic of murfie.com, I was able to catch up with the impressive body of work that Mark Knopfler has been doing since Dire Straits days. Although all these albums are solid, his 2006 collaboration with Emmylou Harris is the clear standout. Knopfler has always been a hero of mine: such effortless grace, combining searing power with an effortless lightness. On this album, he and Emmylou take it to a completely different level.

This is not a nostalgia kick. These are old souls with many a hard mile sharing their wisdom, with both at the absolute top of their game. It is so impressive to hear such talent embrace who they are now, and leverage their considerable strengths to create something that they couldn't have touched in their "prime". Knopfler's song writing and guitar playing are the best of his career (which is saying something), and hearing Emmylou’s generous and gorgeous perfect harmonies makes me want to help others be better. I've listened to other albums more in 2013, but "All the Roadrunning" (and especially the amazing title track) is my soundtrack for 2013 and likely the next decade.


Marcel said...

Good post, Ray. I always enjoy discovering new stuff. Ritter has been in my top 5 for a while. Go see him in concert if you can. You might also enjoy "another new world," "temptation of adam," and "girl in the war." all great ones. hope all is well. -marcel

Rain Perry said...
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Whitney Hess said...

Ray, I love how you frame your musical tendencies as a corollary to your personal development. I imagine this must be true of everyone — the lyrics, the melodies, the art we connect with is a reflection of who we are, and as we evolve, so do our connections. Or is it the music that helps move us forward? Thank you for this wonderful insight.

Ray Ghanbari said...

Thank you for the note Whitney. I've found that for me, music (and more generally art) that I'm resonating with is a window into what I'm open to and needing at any given moment. It is the resonance that has power, and what I listen for, and try to influence and stoke (an ever changing prayer bowl of the soul)

Whitney Hess said...

I am a student of nonviolent communication. I have to wonder if the feelings and needs we're experiencing in our lives are the feelings and needs we seek out in music. Example: if I'm feeling inspired and optimistic because my need for community and belonging are being met, do I seek out music that evokes feelings of inspiration and optimism, or that describes the fulfillment of community and belonging? Or if I'm feeling guilty and regretful because my need for authenticity and integrity aren't being met, do I seek out music that reflects feelings of guilt and regret, or that expresses inability to be authentic and integrated?

Ray Ghanbari said...

I'm reminded of this recent post by Maria


I'm a big believer in equilibria (the balancing of dynamic flows) vs balance (the balancing of static weights). The resonance you describe is a two way flow: the void/gap you sense in yourself needs to be constructively filled, and the abundance you feel needs to be constructively shared and expressed. The magic is linking these two flows in a dialog, and nurturing the resonance created by that dialog and being willing and open to follow the resonance wherever it may take you.

Whitney Hess said...

Great insights and resource! I will continue to explore, and hope you'll write about this more soon.