Continuing with the year-end nostalgia, the theme for today is popular music.
In a year when I spent a considerable amount of time listening, it is discouraging to arrive at year’s end with so little to show for it. For whatever reason, I didn’t hear much this year that interested me.
Until a few weeks ago I wasn’t sure I would have any full album that I’d be comfortable calling my favourite of the year, but Leonard Cohen came to my rescue. You Want It Darker deserves the accolades it has received. It’s a dark record — I’m not sure that I, personally, would like it darker — but it has moments of real tenderness (“If I Didn’t Have Your Love”), and the haunting bleakness of the words is moderated by Cohen’s own warm humanity. Musically he retreats from the “live band” sound that I appreciated so much on Old Ideas in favour of synthesized sounds, but this, I take it, was in part because he was largely confined to his home during recording. His voice sounds great — limited, to be sure, and sometimes more speaking than singing, but still great.
Of course, we lost Leonard Cohen this year, which lends an extra poignancy to these songs. We knew it would happen one day. Each of his last three records I’d thought would be his last, and, sadly, I was finally right. He was ready, my Lord.
No other records made a strong appeal to me. I gave serious consideration to Nick Cave’s latest, but I don’t at present have the desire to spend much time with those devastatingly sad songs. I had high hopes for Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, but it slid away without leaving a trace. I have a feeling that Gillian Welch’s Revival revisit will be pretty terrific, but I haven’t yet had opportunity to hear it.
One song I loved this year: “Gale Song”, by The Lumineers. I find it mesmerizing:
My runner-up is Audrey Assad’s “Death Be Not Proud”, from her 2014 EP of the same name. The song is, of course, a riff on Donne’s sonnet:
To round out a top 3, I rather liked the Avett Brothers’ “No Hard Feelings”:
Last year I praised the children’s records of Justin Roberts, and I’m going to do the same this year. We’ve been listening to him all year, again, and have not grown weary. This year we acquired two old records he made under the name “Why Not Sea Monsters?”, one consisting entirely of songs “from the Hebrew Scriptures” and another of songs “from the New Testament”. Collections of songs about Bible stories are a dime a dozen, but songs of this quality are not. There are songs on well-worn stories like Daniel and the lions, Noah and the ark, Joseph and his brothers, the Good Samaritan, the miracle of the loaves and fish, and the three wise men. But there are some lesser-known subjects too: a very lovely song about Ruth’s plea to Naomi to allow them to stay together (Ruth 1:16-17), and a superb song based on God’s reply to Job, for example. These records can be ordered directly from Justin; he signed those he sent to us.
He also released a new record this year, Lemonade, and it’s pretty terrific too. I like it better than that other Lemonade. It’s an all-acoustic album, with real people playing real instruments, and he’s written songs up to his usual standard — about rolling down the hill, about a pet octopus, about having a tree house, and, my favourite, a touching song called “How Lucky We Are” that captures that quiet feeling of security that comes from being in the company of loving family and friends. Thanks, Justin, for these fine songs.
And that, all too briefly, was the best of my year in popular music.