Sunday, May 1, 2016

(belated) 2015: Album(s) of the Year

Yes, we're four months into 2016, but after a crazy crazy roller coaster of a 2015, I'm finally able to squeeze time (and emotional energy) for my usual ”Album(s) of the Year" post.

I mentioned in my end of year 2014 post that we would be transitioning to new life chapters in 2015, and boy did that play out. The year began with my wife and I letting our kids and families know that we were separating, and me moving into a new place. The process has been amicable and respectful and (from what I can gather) a relatively easy one compared to what others have gone through. But after 25ish years, the prospect and reality of starting over was a bit other worldly.

The middle of the year marked another major transition, with my eldest graduating from high school last summer. There is no greater blessing than a child who is both the best of you and the better of you, and I am beyond grateful for the multitudes of blessings my older daughter has brought into my life. After an absolutely insane process, she is now a freshman at Swarthmore. For all my pride and hope for the wonderful young woman she has become, I left the best part of my heart behind while I left my baby girl at her dorm and joined the other families on the very long trail of tears back to our cars.

The end of the year found me as a new home owner in North Park (or South Park, depending on your map), laying down what I hope to be deep roots for the next 25 years.

Needless to say, 2015 was a fairly serious year for me. After devoting the first couple months of 2015 to easing the transition for family, I was confronted by a painfully blank canvas, surrounded by a densely entangled tapestry of memories and life experiences. So many choices to be made, both enabled and burdened by history. The same sun that was shining so bright just up ahead was making a 50ish-year-long comets tail very very hard to ignore.

The light burned bright, and at times burned, but I am beyond grateful for the lessons and purpose I found along the way, and for the friends and family and colleagues that were there for me. Thank you.

My albums of the year list for 2015 reflect my journey in the chrysalis, and the foundations for 2016 and beyond.

March - Best Reflection On Truths Newly Visible: I’m Gonna Be (500 miles) (Sleeping at Last)

I got to enjoy the 2015 Super Bowl with a couple beers and a nice steak dinner for myself. Besides being a great game and giving us Left Shark, there was a particularly memorable Budweiser ad featuring a pretty amazing cover of the old sk00l “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by Scottish twins The Proclaimers (1988!), leaving Scotsman all over the world sort of scratching their heads.

I was a bit distracted at the time, but I finally got around to tracking down the cover a month or so later. What I found was that a fun but completely forgettable party/dance song had been transformed into one of the most romantic and emotionally true songs I had ever heard.

Turns out Sleeping At Last has a history of doing interesting covers of classic songs (for Grey’s Anatomy, among other shows), and had put out an album compiling these efforts. The entire album is fantastic (including a particularly awesome version of Safety Dance...if I ever have a one hit wonder, I want Sleeping at Last to record their version of it), but "I’m Gonna Be" is truly a gift: real emotional truth, delivered with with love and not a shred of irony. A wonderful and timely reminder of what was and what could again be.

An early and strong contender for album of the year, but this was literally just the beginning.

April - Best Song For Dancing in a Hurricane: The Eye (Brandi Carlile)

Through the magic of NPR, I heard good things about Brandi Carlile’s new album The Firewatcher’s Daughter. I took a chance and ordered it sight unseen when it came out, and was blown away.

Many strong pieces here (some very strong). Brandi and her collaborators the Hanseroth twins have a knack of cutting to the core, without being sentimental or evasive. The person in the mirror is stark, but the reflection is true, and worthy of attention.

By far my favorite song on the album (and my then to that point favorite song of the decade) was “The Eye”. Watching the beautiful video (see link above) was like a loving intervention from your closest friends and family: a call to honesty and courage and acceptance, all as a precursor to purpose.

My clear choice for album of the year (and song of the decade). How could anything get better than this?

May - Best Soundtrack For Rebirth: River (Ibeyi)

Getting out of ruts and being open to new people and new ideas can be like spring after a long and cold winter: lots of mud and you can see the messy refuse from the previous fall, but the smell and taste of new life breeds boundless optimism and openness to possibility.

Into this place I was introduced to the remarkable Ibeyi, who a year before had released their debut album. The Diaz twins (Ibeyi is “twins” in Yoruba) brought a spare but powerful fusion of African and Cuban and French sensibilities, from a couple sister who seem too young to realize how breathtakingly original and vital their voices are. Remarkable talents, evoking instead of telling, and tapping into genetic memory and instincts (“goosebump music”).

At about this time, I had started to spend my weekends walking different San Diego neighborhoods for hours at a time, getting to know what they had to offer and trying to get a sense of the spirit and fit of the place (I wasn’t going to stay in that apartment forever). Ibeyi was a constant and welcome companion on those early walks, and an encouragement to be open and reflective. Beginners Minds is precious and fleeting, but this soundtrack helped get me there.

Their song “River” was particularly evocative and meditative. If you are intrigued, I highly recommend watching their KEXP concert, and catching them live when they come to your neighborhood (we caught them in LA and they were wonderful!). These ladies are something special, and Ibeyi (to my great surprise) bumped The Firewatcher’s Daughter off its perch as my album of the year.

(And a bonus for May, my favorite modern poet Shane Koyczan released a reading of his poem For Lois. The measure of any Superman story is does it make you want to put on a red cape and fly. This poem makes me want to soar...)

June - Best Hope From a Green Flash: Take My Love (The Lone Bellow)

For many years, it has been challenging for me to get to concerts and see my favorite musicians live. Until I managed to snag last minute tickets to see Paul Simon and Sting at Madison Square Garden in 2014, I had bought tickets for and missed concerts maybe 5-6 times in a row over a decade? With Ray 2.0, it was time to put that right.

I learned that Birch Aquarium in La Jolla hosts several concerts each summer. For those that haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Birch, it is a fantastic aquarium, and a remarkable venue. From the hillside location, you look out over the Pacific Ocean and La Jolla Shores. It is a small place though. How the heck could you host a concert there?

On their website, they had links to the various acts that were scheduled to perform that summer. They were all wonderful, but I was **BLOWN** away by The Lone Bellow, and their NPR Tiny Desk concert.

After seeing their performance of “Teach me to Know” on their NPR Tiny Desk concert, I grabbed both their albums, and had them on continuous loop as I spent my weekends wandering the neighborhoods around Balboa Park. I simply could not believe how good this band was. Wow!

A week later, I was at the Birch with maybe 150 other people, drinking a Green Flash beer, and hanging by the tidal pools with the band, with the sun setting over the Pacific. They were spectacular!

“Take My Love”, “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold”, “Diners”, “Teach Me To Know”, the list goes on and on. Out of a riding accident that left his wife paralyzed for some time, Zach Williams found a voice and found ideas that demanded to be shared and heard. The Lone Bellow is a precious jewel, shining bright after enduring terrible hardship. After 14 years of a generation scarred by war and stagnation, voices like The Lone Bellow are leading forward.

My new favorite band, and what I thought for sure would be my 2015 album of the year.

July - (For Realz) 2015 Album (and Artist) of the Year/Decade: Southeastern (Jason Isbell)

I tell you, 2015 was one heck of a year for discovering new music, and finding new resonances in myself and in the world around me. Some time in late June and early July, I started to hear virtual whispers and collective excitement about an impending album release from Jason Isbell. When The Lone Bellow tweeted about the album, I decided to jump in and see who this Jason was. Boy, am I glad I did.

Isbell is a former guitarist/songwriter/singer for The Drive By Truckers, with a legendary reputation for hard drinking and hard living. His music channels the essence of Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen, with the guitar playing clarity of Marc Knopfler. I had heard some things about Americana several years ago, but hadn’t checked him out, and didn’t know what Americana was as a genre. That all changed.

Isbell’s song writing and playing is remarkably precise and effortless. He speaks and evokes in the perfect stillness between notes and words, building an emotional resonance and connection that is ambrosia for this ronin. I’m not from Alabama, but I always wish I was after hearing a Jason Isbell song.

For a taste, here is his hat tip to his dad “Outfit” from Drive By Trucker days:
Six months in a St. Florian foundry
They call it Industrial Park
Then hospital maintenance and Tech School
Just to memorize Frigidaire parts

But I got to missing your Mama
And I got to missing you too
And I went back to painting for my old man
And I guess that's what I'll always do

So don't let them take who you are boy
And don't try to be who you ain't
And don't let me catch you in Kendale
With a bucket of wealthy-man's paint

Don't call what your wearing an outfit
Don't ever say your car is broke
Don't sing with a fake British accent
Don't act like your family's a joke

Have fun, but stay clear of the needle
Call home on your sister's birthday
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus
Don't give it away, don't give it away

Needless to say, this hit this father of a college freshman (and son of a first generation immigrant) pretty damn hard.

Jason hit bottom pretty hard a couple years ago, and had his girl friend (and now wife) Amanda Shire and producer intervene to get him clean. He sobered up, can came back even better than before with what is my album of the decade (no one even close) Southeastern. Southeastern cleaned up every award in the Americana world, and Jason and Amanda got to perform their hit “Cover Me Up” at the Americana awards.
A heart on the run

Keeps a hand on the gun

You can't trust anyone

I was so sure

What I needed was more

Tried to shoot out the sun

In days when we raged

We flew off the page

Such damage was done

But I made it through

To somebody new

I was meant for someone

So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room

Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom

It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood

So cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good

May we all know this sort of love and redemption, and find this this clear a voice coming out of the darkness. Southeastern is a gift, a bright shining beacon casting a path in the dark. Thank you Jason for this.

To close it out and bring it full circle, Jason’s new album Something More Than Free is also fantastic. Here is the man himself explaining my favorite track from his new album . The title track “Something More Than Free” has been my personal anthem for the past year, and will be a cherished source of grounding and inspiration in the years to come:
When I get home from work
I'll call up all my friends
And we'll go bust up something beautiful we'll have to build again

When I get home from work
I'll wrestle off my clothes
And leave them right inside the front door
'cause nobody's home to know

You see, a hammer finds a nail
And a freight train needs the rail
And I'm doin' what I'm on this earth to do

And I don't think on why I'm here or where it hurts
I'm just lucky to have the work
Sunday morning I'm too tired to go to church
But I thank God for the work

When I get my reward, my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son
No more holes to fill. And no more rocks to break
And no more loading boxes onto trucks for someone else's sake

And the day will come. When I'll find a reason
And somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb, my hands are freezing
What I'm working for is something more than free

Don't give it away...

1 comment:

Whitney Hess said...

Beautiful, Ray! Thank you for sharing a little bit of your soul with us.