Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014: Album(s) of the Year

After another year of intending to post more to this blog, the end of year has arrived with no other posts, and it is time for my usual ”Album(s) of the Year" posts. In 2015, I will have more time, and hopefully things that are worth sharing.

In many ways, 2014 is a transition year for me my family. Our eldest turned 18 this year, will be graduating from high school in a couple months, and will be leaving home to attend college on the east coast this coming fall. Our younger daughter has a couple months of pre-teen-hood left, which we are enjoying very much, but she too will also soon start her transition to adulthood.

The anticipation of change has been stressful, made all the more so by the crazy (and crazy making) stress of the college application process (for those that are still enduring this ordeal, it does get better). What equilibrium I found in 2013 was helpful, but we’ll be transitioning to new life chapters in 2015, and will need to find a new equilibrium.

Through these stresses and changes, I found resonances in music from the heart and music that gave glimpses into what will come. I don’t know what the next chapter will be, but I know we will be reaching higher, for the better.

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

Best Good Song Made Transcendent: From a Distance (Nanci Griffith)
A random tweet from Joss Whedon sent me to the Google, where I came across a live performance of “From a Distance” by the great Nanci Griffith. When I was younger, the Bette Midler version saturated the airways, and sucked the life out of what should have been a quiet personal prayer for a more peaceful and more sane world. What a pleasure to watch Nanci sing a song that obviously had great meaning for her, acknowledging the songwriter Julie Gold, and honoring the inspiration she obviously felt by amplifying it for the rest of us.  From the heart, with words and ideas that can come from nowhere else.  A reminder that when you open your heart to be moved, your heart has the power to move others.  So lovely, and so right.

Album I Most Wanted To Make Fun Of, But Is One Of The Best I've Ever Heard (Tie): Pure Heroine (Lorde) / 1989 (Taylor Swift)
"Royals" got a lot of air play in 2013, superficially coming across as a cynical millennial anthem to irony. This is a time for the new Hero generation to rise, not wallow in Gen X dysfunctional angst, so no thank you.

Then late in 2013, one of my favorite YouTube cover artists posted her version of Lorde's "Team". and it most definitely got my attention. Here was a Hero struggling to grow into her own.

I took a leap and bought the album, bracing myself for disappointment that I would then mask with ridicule. Boy was I wrong with my first impressions.

Pure Heroine (unfortunate title, but we were all 16 once) is an amazing album, with the highest production values I've heard since getting lost in Pink Floyd albums back in the day. This young woman (who is the same age as my older daughter) embraced the cynicism and detachment of my generation, and stood tall with a worthy rebuke and response, taking ownership of something she is not yet old enough to appreciate nor understand: she instinctively knows that we were messing it up, so how much worse could she and her generation do?  I've lost hours in this album, and it did much to help me give my daughter the space she needed to claim her place in the grown up world.  Lorde is a major talent and a major voice. I can't wait to see how she helps change our world for the better.

Toward the end of the year, I braced with the rest of humanity for the onslaught of a new Taylor Swift album. I've always appreciated the sincerity and openness that she has brought to her music and her fearlessness in confronting the worst parts of the music business, but the tsunami of global-superstar-class attention was something I wanted to avoid.

Color me shocked, but 1989 is is very very good. Pure pop, but still the trademark Swift honesty. You don't have to sell out to sell up.  A young woman truly coming into her moment of power. So inspiring to see, and so plain fun to listen to.  Well done Taylor, and much respect and thanks to you for your example.

Best Album From the Heart: The Ocean Way Sessions (Christina Perri)
This year I went searching (and finding) one of songs that had caught my ear over the years on TV (like the wonderful "Be Good" by Waxahatchee...thank you Walking Dead!). One of those songs was "Jar of Hearts" by Christina Perri.

Christina's debut album Lovestrong is a remarkably strong effort. After wondering where the strong/vulnerable singer/songwriters have gone, it was a pleasure to see that "Jar of Hearts" was not a fluke.

For all the wonderful production values in Lovestrong, I think the original from the Ocean Way Sessions EP is closer to the heart of the matter.

2014 "Album" of the Year: NPR Tiny Desk Concert (K'naan)
Before this year, my only exposure to K'naan was from his ubiquitous "Wavin' Flag" anthem for the 2010 World Cup. I danced to it with my daughters, as we celebrated the joy of a continent rising to meet the world. It rang with the truth of a generation stepping forward to claim their future and their dreams, for both themselves and their continent.  So powerful and so joyful. 2010 is a World Cup I will never forget, mainly for the excitement of watching my children sing and dance when the various anthems came on before and after the games.

While bouncing around the wonderful NPR Tiny Desk Concert archive, enjoying Glen Hansard at his best, I saw a link to a K'naan concert from 2009 before his break out album Troubadour was released and before the World Cup.  I've always been fascinated by how hip hop and hard rock artists interpret songs in a small acoustic setting so I checked it out.  I'm so glad I clicked through.

When a simple, acoustic version of "Wavin' Flag" started (9:10 in the video if you want to jump there), I finally made the connection that this was the same guy that did the World Cup song (cool!). From the very first, it was clear that this was a very different song, coming from a very different place:

When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,

Born to the throne, stronger than Rome
But violent prone, poor people zone,
But it's my home, all I have known,
Where I got grown, streets we would roam.

But out of the darkness, I came the farthest,
Among the hardest survival.
Learn from these streets, it can be bleak,
Accept no defeat
Surrender retreat

So we struggling, fighting to eat and
We wondering when we'll be free,
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day,
It's not far away, so for now we say

When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,
And then it goes back, and then it goes back,
And then it goes back

This isn't some pop fluff brought to you by Coca-Cola...this is seriously heavy shit he's laying down. Who is this guy?

So many wars, settling scores,
Bringing us promises, leaving us poor,
I heard them say, love is the way,
Love is the answer, that's what they say,

But look how they treat us, make us believers,
We fight their battles, then they deceive us,
Try to control us, they couldn't hold us,
Cause we just move forward like Buffalo Soldiers.

But we struggling, fighting to eat,
And we wondering, when we'll be free
So we patiently wait, for that faithful day,
It's not far away, but for now we say,

When I get older, I will be stronger,
They'll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag,
And then it goes back, and then it goes back,
And then it goes back
These are hard truths, delivered by a true poet. I can't imagine what this man lived through as a boy growing up in Somalia, but I am moved by his strength to turn that pain into art and his ability to revisit it and share it.  After watching an interview with K'naan, it was clear his is a wisdom and light that shines very bright indeed.

It is remarkable that the same song from the same artist can so honestly and meaningfully capture such truths of pain and suffering, and such truths of celebration and hope.  Watching the same song reimagined for Haiti earthquake relief makes it even more so.

When I get older, I will be stronger. Wave your flag of truth high K'naan. We're all made better when you do.

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