I know the difference between every major antidepressant on the market, so I have friends who are music writers. I do not envy them. It’s a dark line of work. They have to listen to boxsets and scrutinize remasters and have opinions about Chris Martin. Not only do they have to know what streaming services are, but they have to figure out their role in the music industry. Luckily, I am not bound by their conventions. I can live in a universe where Chris Martin does not exist. Watch this:
There is no such band as Coldplay. I can find no proof of Coldplay in my home. You cannot convince me the band exists. I’m a published writer and I have some New York City phone numbers in my Rolodex. I know what I’m talking about. They’re not real. The only way you can change my opinion is by physically restraining me and tying my hands and making me listen to them. Good luck finding me.
See that? Isn’t that a nice trick? Anyhoo, 2015’s almost over and that’s when music writers have to compile and rank their favorite albums and recap the biggest news stories and generally appear intelligent. I don’t have to do that. But it’s healthy to take stock. So what follows is my survey of the year in music. The experiences I had, the albums I liked, the songs I discovered, and the news that hit me, loosely arranged by month.
I began the year by admitting a few things to myself. First I admitted I was old and my brain chemistry had changed. In high school, I collected as much music as I could and listened to all of it as loud as possible. My goal was to get high. Music could send chills down my spine and make me feel weightless. I could be sitting on my bed and convince myself I was in orbit, with no other chemical stimulation. Every time I listened to a new album, I was searching for that weightlessness, trying to leave myself. But music is like nicotine. It only gives you a buzz until you have a tolerance. You crave it but it’s not the same. You don’t appreciate it less, necessarily, but you don’t fly off the planet anymore.
Music’s more like wallpaper now. A candle at dinner. Ambiance. In January I started doing real, actual work. I routinely thought I was dying of stress. I went to music strictly for solace. So for the first three weeks of January, I exclusively listened to Mississippi John Hurt singing “You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley.” I would put it on repeat while I was working and stress would go away. I needed that man’s voice hovering in the background to prevent panic. That’s all music was for. Passive panic protection.
Then the new Sleater-Kinney album, No Cities to Love, came out. My first active listening of the year. It didn’t make me go insane like The Woods did ten years before. I liked “Neskowin” on Corin Tucker’s solo album more than anything on this. But it was a new Sleater-Kinney album and there wasn’t anything wrong with it. That doesn’t happen. Bands that good don’t disappear for 10 years and come back with something solid. Especially in punk rock. It’d be like if The Clash reappeared overnight in 1993 and released something just as good as Combat Rock. It’s unthinkable. (Personal highlights: the way Carrie Brownstein sings “I’ve grown afraid of everything that I love” on the title track, building suspense for the chorus, and that repurposed Lita Ford melody on “Hey Darling.”)
At the advice of a friend who knows my blind spots, I began earnestly digging into country singer/songwriter Tom T. Hall. He has a voice like an all-night diner and writes songs of such sharp observational detail that it’s a wonder he’s not mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan (recently in the news, by the way, for being an asshole about poor Tom).
Tossed and turned the night before in some old motel
Subconsciously recallin’ some old sinful thing I’d done
My buddy drove the car and those big coal trucks shook us up
As we drove on into Hyden in the early morning sun
Past the hound dogs and some domineckered chickens
Temporary-lookin’ houses with their lean and bashful kids
Every hundred yards a sign proclaimed that Christ was coming soon
And I thought, “Well, man, he’d sure be disappointed if he did.”
The rest of the month was dominated by James McMurtry’s new album, Complicated Game. It was and still is my favorite album of the year. Road-weary, cinematic portraits of heartbreak and regret. Soaring choruses. Lived-in knowledge of just how hard it is to be alive. “At the end of the rope, there’s a little more rope most times” is 2015 America in miniature. The lyrics to this thing alone are a major literary achievement.
I woke up last night in the grip of a fright
Scared to breathe for I might make a noise
This life that we craved, so little we saved
Between the grandparents’ graves and the grandchildrens’ toys
I learned about Rhiannon Giddens through Letterman. The last musician I got to learn about that way. So she’ll always be special to me. Staying awake for Letterman’s musical guests is the reason I know there’s more out there than Merle and Buck. Her album’s pretty good. It’s great to hear Geechie Wiley, Odetta, and Sister Rosetta songs so faithfully rendered with modern audio fidelity. It just might be a bit too reverential. But her voice will kill you dead.
The rest of the month was pure single-minded obsession with one song: “Where Have All The Average People Gone?” by Roger Miller. It’s a meditation on alienation, on not belonging. Lines that don’t get written in country music anymore. “The government has given me a number to simplify my birth and life and death.” “Some pious people point and call me sinner.” If you need to explain what wistfulness is, it’s this, right here. (Aside: whatever the song is doing, it’s the exact same thing that makes me love the Go-Betweens.)
Dwight Yoakam’s first four albums are so stunning that it’s hard to believe they were smash hits. How did something so pure, timeless and classic and learned get through the cracks of the L.A. beast? He never recorded anything as good as the first four albums, but this year’s Second Hand Heart comes close. Really close. Bakersfield country in widescreen, exactly what he’s so good at.
Then there were The Sonics. The ’60s garage rockers who should get royalty checks from every punk rock band that ever existed, if only for recording “Psycho.” You’d think they’d all be dead though, yeah? You read about them, you think “oh, one classic album kind of trapped in amber? Canonical but cultish? Yeah, they’re all dead. Fifty is one hundred in garage rock years.”
But after half a century, they made a new album. It’s called This is The Sonics. It’s a miracle. It could have come out 9 months after Boom and stack up fine. It’s not a Major Statement Work or anything, just a Sonics record. And there’s no sign they’ve aged at all. Just hell for leather blood and guts rock and roll, better than all the revivalists. It’s the craziest damn thing in rock and roll. They’re alive. Alive and on the road with a new album. Forty nine years. And it’s not even an album about how old they are.
Imagine anyone else doing that. Imagine if Bob Dylan took 49 years off after Highway 61 Revisited and released Blonde on Blonde in 2015. What a story.
Two thousand miles of driving, mostly spent yelling along to Bruce Springsteen’s “Death to My Hometown” once I got out of the city limits of wherever I just left. Thing with Springsteen, and never mind the million words spilled about him whenever he tours, is that those anthems are all ridiculous unless you’re yelling along on a long drive somewhere. Then they’re great. You gotta meet him on his level of ridiculousness.
At some point, I saw Sleater-Kinney in Hollywood. It was tiring. Everybody in L.A. watches concerts by posting pictures to prove they’re there, and they’re unaware of how hard it is for most people to see nationally touring bands. It’s a giant horde of sweaty half-drunk desensitization. The band was great though. I saw Fred Armisen walking to his car. I think it was a Prius. Maybe it wasn’t a Prius. Maybe I’m imagining that. It might have been a Honda.
Then B.B. King, who would never die, died. (His version of “The World Is Going Wrong” in 2008 was perfect.)
A few days later, David Letterman retired. I was too grief-stricken-but-pretending-I’m-not-grief-stricken to see the show live so I left town and saw Ex Hex. Contrary to anything I wrote earlier and will write later, they are literally the only good rock and roll band that has ever existed.
Ornette Coleman died. You remember that year everybody saw Batman Begins? That was the year I spent trying to be cool enough to listen to Ornette Coleman. I never did get cool enough. But I recommend trying.
I spent half the month listening to two Blind Willie Johnson songs – “Let Your Light Shine On Me” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning.” Sanctified and perfect. People pretend “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” was the only thing he ever recorded, but he recorded lots of stuff, and it’s all that good. It feels a million years old. There should be a second Library of Congress in case somebody blows up the regular Library of Congress, just to preserve Blind Willie Johnson.
Then Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson made a new album together. It’s not dated like Pancho & Lefty, which has lots of sad reminders about what happened to country production in the ’80s. It’s more timeless. Relaxed. Two old guys hanging out and bonding over marijuana. Close your eyes and it’s floors that need swept and bourbon and cigarette smoke in a little brown room. It’s not a comeback album or a Rick Rubin situation, just a quiet Merle and Willie album. It features a cover of “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” that would be the best version of the song if there was no Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
It’s so relaxed it barely exists. And that’s a great thing. Don’t take it for granted. Nobody’s replacing them when they’re gone.
Art Bell’s gone again because somebody’s been shooting at him too much, but in July he was back, and I was rediscovering all the cosmic sounds I associate with listening to him in the middle of the night at my grandpa’s place while staring at those blinking aircraft warning lights on the horizon.
That meant mainlining “Calling Elvis” by Dire Straits and digging up anything that reminded me of his bumper music. Generally this meant polite, 80s-ish radio-friendly songs that had a sense of alienation or doom. Stuff I used to pretend was embarrassing.
First it was Suzanne Vega’s “Marlene On The Wall.” Killer chorus. Killer.
Marlene watches from the wall
Her mocking smile says it all
As the records the rise and fall
Of every soldier passing
Then it was “The Wanderer” by Johnny Cash. U2 had nothing to do with it. Don’t tell me they had any hand in its production. It fades out before that stupid AAAAH-WOOOO at the end.
Finally it was “Welcome to the Boomtown,” by David & David. That song is incredible when you’re driving alone at midnight through the nice parts of Los Angeles, back toward the bad parts. Don’t judge it until you do that.
I walked into my grandpa’s living room to get some coffee and he was listening to “Summertime,” the only Sam Cooke song I didn’t know somehow. The room was a cloud of smoke and he explained a theory about why Sam Cooke got killed. He believed it was gambling debts. I disagreed. The experience made this song fifty billion times more evocative.
Then a whole bunch more driving and no new music. I got hung up on John Prine’s “Sweet Revenge,” because of the joyous way he said “all of my friends are now dead or in jail.” Then I got hung up on “Whirring,” by the Joy Formidable. No stadium could hold that song, and they don’t even play stadiums.
Darlene Love had a new album out. Great fun. Production is characterized by a hilarious lack of restraint on the part of Little Steven. The Elvis Costello song was my favorite. Her voice is magic.
Dave and Phil Alvin had a new album out too, called Lost Time. It might as well be a new Blasters album. Loud, old-fashioned rhythm and blues. Phil Alvin does the best cover of “Please, Please, Please” you’ll ever hear. And the only cover of Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Mr. Kicks” you’ll ever need. Dave and Phil were always old guys, spiritually, and now that they are, they’re doing the most effortlessly enjoyable work of their careers.
I went to go see Iggy & The Stooges in Hollywood back in 2011. They were playing Raw Power with James Williamson. The show had been delayed for months because Iggy broke his foot in Romania.
There are reunion shows and then there are “there’s no way, there’s no way these people are alive on this stage” shows.
It was enough that they were there. It was too damn much that they played Raw Power and made it all sound so huge and confrontational and triumphant. Iggy Pop was all over the place. He’s a beast. Nobody works crowds like him. I won’t turn into Henry Rollins with the hyperbole. But when they played “Search and Destroy” and “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” those eternal celebrations of doing bad things, they were literally the only good rock and roll band that had ever existed.
The Ashetons are both gone now. In September, Steve Mackay died too. It’s hard to imagine there will ever be another Stooges show. But it’s nice that they pulled it off as long as they did. Listen to “Raw Power Live,” a document of that tour, and let them beat you up for awhile. It’s cathartic.
Now there’s a man with a plan
With a pencil in his hand
And he’s strong about it
So he write a song about it
Now there’s a man with a plan
With a pistol in his hand
Is he right about it?
Tell me, should he fight about it?
There’s a man with a plan
With a Bible in his hand
Does he show about it?
What does he know about it?
Now there’s another man with a plan
With your future in his hand
Can you live without him?
What can you do about him?
Victims of the darkness
What will they do?
Allen Toussaint, a genius, the high priest of New Orleans rhythm and blues, went and died on us. Spent most of the month with his stuff on repeat wherever I went.
I closed out November by finishing Elvis Costello’s autobiography, fifteen years after I started it. It’s a great book of remarkable insight. Every last one of its two hundred and seventeen thousand five hundred and eleven pages is necessary reading if you care at all about anything. Highly recommended.
Something about the Christmas season makes me nostalgic for a certain kind of melodically decadent adult contemporary. Not histrionic post-Titanic adult contemporary, but, you know, “look at me being smart in this suit” adult-contemporary. So I revisited Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach’s album Painted from Memory, which I once thought I hated. I’m glad I turned into the prisoner from Chekhov’s The Bet to read Costello’s book. Now I understand this album.
But do people living in Toledo
Know that their name hasn’t traveled very well?
Each one of those songs has about fifteen billion melody lines on it, and absurdly precise detail. You’ll find something new in it each time you hear it. It’s never exciting, but alone at night looking out your hypothetical kitchen window toward the hypothetical snow, it’s incredibly evocative. And if “cellar door” is the most musical phrase in English, “Toledo” makes a case for “citadel” being a really, really close second.
The holidays are lonely. The collective unconscious tells us that during the season, friends are supposed to come over with warm food and somebody plays something at a piano and love is all around. A lie. A mean lie. So at night, I’ve been listening to Willie Dixon sing “Weak Brain, Narrow Mind.” I don’t know what it is. It’s not blues to my ears. It’s just someone in the loneliest place in the world. It sounds like it’s coming from a place where humans never go, or a place they stopped going. There are a million ghosts circling that song. Now, Willie Dixon wasn’t some mythic rural hobo bluesman. He died in 1992, in Burbank. I don’t say this as a matter of mythologizing. He doesn’t have other songs like it. He just found himself some ghosts. Two parts of it jump out at me:
If you got a weak brain and a narrow mind
The world gonna leave you way behind
You know the strong overpower the weak
And the smart overpower the strong
I don’t know. What other blues songs have the word “overpower” in them? What was haunting him so bad? It’s an unresolved mystery. All I know is it’s very, very alone. It’s perfect desolation. A fine way to bring the curtain down on a desolate year.