Songs of (My!) Year

So, we’re just about at the point where this blog has existed for a year. While there is something essentially arbitrary about this 365 day boundary—I mean, it isn’t like we really govern our years by the seasons any more…or something like that—but any boundary is at some point artificial (with the exception of death, I guess; there really isn’t denying that one).

There is definitely something to be said, however, for pausing a moment and reconsidering the way one has spent his or her time. As I have mentioned before, the younger Seneca, better known now for his tragedies and letters than his philosophical treatises, once remarked in De Brevitate Vitae that, contrary to popular opinion, life isn’t too short, most people just waste the time they have on this earth as to make it seem that way.

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Albums of (My!) Year

dirty-three-toward-the-low-sun-review-e1329085762752(My brother and I without really planning it authored three year-in-review posts. We apologize for piling on with the rest of the (un)-civilized world.)

I have mentioned earlier my distrust for lists and the way that they distort issues of judgment (something that on its own has issues). See, for instance, the recent “50 Best Rap Songs” offered up by Rolling Stone.  (It unfairly emphasizes older and ‘original’ rappers—for the most part not on aesthetic grounds I suspect, but rather because the polled ‘experts’ both suffer from age-laden nostalgia and from the critic-typical desire to seem authoritative by tracing things back to their origins.)

The act of publishing such nonsense is of course intentionally provocative: it invites dispute, debate and engagement with the topic. And, even such a purposeful misrepresentation of the ‘quality’ relations among various artists or examples of the artists can have the salutary effect of forcing critics and their audiences to develop ad hoc if not more evolved standards for making such decisions.

At the end, however, listing is arbitrary at some fundamental level. But, of course, arbitrariness can be quite fulfilling on its own. So, I am ending the year with a list that is doubly arbitrary. Here is a list, from worst to best, of the albums I bought in 2012. The album did not have to be issued in 2012. Nope, this is purely about whatever I acquired and how I feel about it.

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Year in Review

It has been a very weird year, both globally and personally. We are several days past the supposed Mayan apocalypse and everything appears to be normal. Christmas parties and the accompanying songs are done and we have the one big blast of New Year’s Eve before we settle into the doldrums of winter, depending on where you live.

It has been ups and downs all around from my love life to the price of fuel. I started a band, I planted a garden, I hung out with some different girls, I did a bunch of fishing, I experienced my first earthquake and I finally got my own iPod. I was sort of apathetic towards everything after the holidays and the Elder J kept giving me shit about not posting anything so the obvious choice was a year in review. I always miss things when I try to be retrospective but such is life. Here it comes.

1. Hank Jr.

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Radio (on the TV!)

So, this recent holiday season found the southern franchise of the Family J stranded in our adopted state by work obligations and the horrors of traveling with small children. We made the yearly migration to our ancestral homeland in the north during Thanksgiving week and it nearly killed us.

So, this time we hunkered down, refused to buy plane tickets, and holed up in our sunny city watching Christmas unfold with an almost emotionless detachment. Well, that’s an exaggeration. We missed our families and the idea of snow. But we did not miss the insanity of airports, the steroidal consumerism of the modern holiday, and the 24/7 repetition of Christmas classics.

Since both the wife and I work, our children spend a good deal of every day at their daycare (although, don’t call it that, it is ‘school’!). So, when they are home for a long time without their usual routine, they get a little crazy. We went on walks; we went on needless foraging expeditions; and we listened to a lot of music.

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Christmas Songs

So, my brother gave a list of holiday party jams the other day. While I heartily approve of not playing Christmas songs, I can’t let this blog stand without some nod to tradition. So, here it goes.

In an earlier post, I seemed to have almost totally denigrated Christmas as a holiday and, in the same gesture, to have dismissed all Christmas music along with it. In the spirit of the season—even if it isn’t a season that I love as much as others do—I need to clarify and be honest about my relationship with Christmas music.

True Story: We grew up in a place called Hollis, Maine. For a time, we used to change the words from this song, predictably, to “It’s Christmas time in Hollis Maine”. Another true story: I actually lived in Queens and the wife worked in Hollis.

Part of the attraction and danger of Christmas music is that it creates bit of a time warp (which is at least part of the intention). Every year we hear the same music from the same artists in contexts which, if they are not identical, they are at least similar enough to give an inebriated man (or woman) what David Foster Wallace would call the fantods. Now, this is part of the attraction and the charm. The atmosphere uses all of our senses—the smells of food and trees, the feel of full stomachs and anticipation, and the sound of music—to collapse present and past into one eerie yet familiar moment.

Yes, I had this NKOTB Album. And their Christmas album

This feeling of current satisfaction plus nostalgia isn’t what I hate about Christmas. I hate the ruthless hoards of corporate operatives who try to capitalize upon our weakness. I hate the equation of affection with spending power; I hate holiday payday loans at 5.99% APR; I hate the outsized expectations that set almost everyone up for disappointment. See, holidays will never be the iconoclastic moment that we remember from some sliver of our youths (and they weren’t that great then either). And they will never match up to the airbrushed ideals of Macy’s advertisements.

Contrary to my earlier claims, though, I do not hate Christmas music. I hate contemporary attempts to cash in on the intersection of temporary fame and Christmas mania—every asshole with a Billboard hit seems compelled to release a Christmas album. But I do not hate the classics.

One of my favorite Christmas tunes (you can have the lyrics, or whatever) goes by the current name “What Child is This?” but has as its oldest name “Greensleeves”, a haunting memory, perhaps about a prostitute, which is one of the oldest tunes in the English tradition. I probably love this song because it is one of the first tunes I learned to play when I was taking classical guitar lessons.

I have a real weakness in general for the older arrangements of the more popular religious Christmas songs. Songs like “Joy to the World” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” have traditional four part harmonies in older hymnals that can be both festive and challenging to sing. Too often, rather than trying to sing the older tunes, people either pen new ones or jazz them up. In “Angels we have heard on High” I especially like the vocal alternations in the famous “Gloria” chorus.

My real weakness, though, is for Christmas music in other languages. I love Latin carols. I absolutely love the Latin version of “O Come All ye Faithful” (“Adeste FIdeles”). It has a seriousness and raised register that too many contemporary carols (ok, all of them) lack. Truly, try singing “Natum videte” instead of the English lyrics and deny the attraction.

Speaking of foreign languages: for a time, the family J attended a Lutheran church during my youth. One of the odd things about this experience, for me, is that it seemed like almost as much Sunday School time was spent learning about Martin Luther as Jesus. (And, like some others I have talked to, led to the embarrassing juvenile confusion between Martin Luther and MLK that only a very white child from Maine could make…) One of our pastors, told us about “Silent Night’s” original shape as “Stille Nacht” and the night it was first performed. Later in life, I would sing the German version exclusively.

Seriously, German is not always the prettiest language. But the German of this song is so much better than the English. By comparison, our consonants seem harsh and abrupt.

Now why do I have all these songs in my head? For another period of time in my life, I often sang on Christmas eve either alone or with groups. I never had the strongest or most remarkable voice, but I had a little training and was the only one around my age who could pull it off. The hardest song I ever tried to sing was “O Holy Night”—which is like Christmas’ “Star-Spangled Banner”.

She has the voice to pull this off. I never did.

The year I pulled this song off I had my wisdom teeth removed a few days before. My wounds were infected and smelled terribly. I was on vicodan and was probably sneaking bourbon on the side. I remember the red and white of Christmas vestments; the gleam of candle on the gold of the altar and the hush of nothing else but my voice.

And the fear of the death smell coming out of my mouth.

As an adult, I carry these songs around with me and the memories they evoke are almost always a blend of the embarrassing, the chilling, and the lost charm of youth. I don’t regret the passage of time as a loss most days of the year, but I can’t escape Christmas without a little bit of remorse and a few moments spent contemplating my own mortality. It only gets harder as we get older and sense the empty chairs around us.

Yeah, Merry Christmas. Seriously, let’s lighten it up with some Toots:

And you, my brother? Merry Christmas. I am sorry that there are so many miles between us.

Songs of the Year—2001

Growing old and I want to go home
Growing old and I don’t want to know
–Nick Drake

Songs of the Year: “Black-Eyed Dog,” Nick Drake, “Life During Wartime,” The Talking Heads
Runners-Up: “Hash Pipe,” Weezer; “Time Has Told Me,” Nick Drake
Honorable Mention: “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk”, Rufus Wainwright, “Smooth Criminal” Alien Ant Farm

In the year that for interesting debuts we had Gorillaz (Gorillaz) and Weezer finally returned with the Green Album, Rufus Wainwright almost made it to cool with Poses while the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Stripes delivered what would prove to be memorable albums. Unfortunately, in 2001 Britney Spears and ‘NSync still ruled the world. And they were cruel masters.

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Taking Up the Numbers Challenge Again

So, my brother’s recent post about bands with numbers in their names originated not just from a conversation he had with a childhood friend, but also from some riffing that he and I did on the subject. Yes, as the commenter Jake keenly observed, my brother left far too many bands out of consideration. And, as my brother insisted, this is not accidental: he really just wanted to (1) denigrate Third Eye Blind while (2) defending an under-remembered and muscular-sounding band named Seven Mary Three.

The list below will be going through “Changes” too

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Bands with numbers in their name from the Nineties.

It occurred to me the other night that there were a lot of  bands with numbers in them from the Nineties. I think  Seven Mary Three was the best. I came to this conclusion after a long conversation with an elementary school friend last week  with whom I enjoyed many of these songs. The football game was not very exciting because the Patriots were like seven touchdowns ahead. I decided to have a mixed drink and this turned into why Seven Mary Three was a better band than Third Eye Blind.  We had to first determine which bands were up for consideration. For instance was 311 up for the best band with numbers in it from the Nineties?

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(Jazz) on the Radio: Monk, Harris and Mcrae

As I have talked about before, I have a weakness for the piano. A great deal of this may be my upbringing. My mother has always played the piano and I had lessons (aborted) at several times in my youth. I find the hegemony of the guitar in rock most disturbing because so few young ‘rebels’ even try to play the piano and too few pianists make it into popular music.

One of the things I like about jazz—or at least the potential of the genre—is that it can feature so many different types of instrumentation from the vibraphone to the flute, jazz is still jazz but remains fascinating regardless of the lead sound.

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On The Radio (Flashback): Josephine Baker

I have written before about how music just bubbles up to the surface of my consciousness from the past. Over the past few days, without clear provocation or invitation, I remember a song I might have heard two or three times nearly two Baker_Banana_2decades ago: “Josephine Baker” by a band called Fossil.

I distinctly remember driving at night with the windows down in a friend’s Ford Fairmont hearing this song on the local college radio. I know what road we were on. I know we were heading home.

I have no idea where we were coming from. It was spring or early summer. The moon was out and the air had that blend of grass and humidity that belongs to a very particular time of year. I remember hearing this song. I remember thinking about the song. And then, it disappeared from my mind for years.

But I couldn’t revisit the memory without the song. All I could remember was the first line. Thank god for google. You know something has been pretty much eradicated when it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and the most information you can find about it comes in the form of brief album reviews and an discussion board. Or, and this is quite bizarre, in the discussion thread on a political website.

But, and truly, thank god for youtube which has the song in all of its “glory”.

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