Best of 2016



What a strange, intense year it was. There was a lot of transition and a little heartache in the Yarrow household this year, so we gravitated quickly to things that lifted us up. Fortunately, there was a lot to choose from, so this year’s installment is a little on the long side. Enjoy.



Patti Smith, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Nobel Prize Ceremony, Stockholm     Once we got over the shock of Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in literature, the questions came: is Dylan “literature” . . . does that mean The Beatles could get a Nobel too . . . did the Nobel Committee actually listen to that dumb song about Ruben Carter? Then we had to process Dylan’s reaction (or lack thereof): is he trying to piss off the Nobel Committee . . . does he even care . . . is he doing his Zen/rabbi bullshit again? But finally, in December, performing in Stockholm at the Nobel ceremony, Patti Smith answered all the questions. She reminded us that, in the end, it’s all about the art. She illuminated Dylan’s powerful genius. She broke through the artifice of performer when she stopped and apologized to the audience for flubbing the lyrics (“I’m so nervous”). She resumed the song, then broadened and deepened her interpretation (by now, she totally owned the moment). The audience was stunned. There were tears. It became emphatically clear that the music amplified the power of the words. It produced a different kind of engagement than words alone. It was also clear that this is indeed literature – Patti’s reading of the song had the ability to make one stop for a moment and see one’s environment in a new light, with a deeper and more personal meaning. Two codas: Patti wrote a great piece for the New Yorker on her experience. And, oh yes, Dylan completed the circle by sending the Nobel Committee a short acceptance speech that was profound and home-spun at the same time.



Grateful Dead, “July 1978” Box Set    The resurrection of the Betty Boards continues. Betty Cantor-Jackson produced some of the best live recordings of the Dead at the peak of their career while she was running the soundboard. Her sonics are impeccable. Betty once famously said that she wanted to put the listener “inside” the music. She does that here, creating a huge soundstage with crisp articulation, rounded tones, bright highs anchored by a deep, rolling bottom. And the music – from the incendiary “Music Never Stopped” to the big, rocking “Not Fade Away” and the Miles-ish jazz undertones of “Scarfire” – is some of the best of the Dead’s vast catalog. This is what a box set should be – conceptual, well-defined, limited quantities.



Bob Weir, “Blue Mountain”     The buzz was this would be Bobby’s “cowboy record,” prompting fears of 10 different versions of “El Paso.” Not so. This is a suite of sorts, homage to a brighter, warmer America. He brought together a seasoned, seamless band, harkening back to country, blues, and psychedelia, with Bobby playing the role of rabbi, or witness. It has a biblical feel to it – songs of redemption, resurrection, reverence. Bobby once said one of his passions is singing, and it comes through here, in a shining, shimmering way.



U.S. Presidential Election   C’mon, we never saw anything like it! How many times did we all say you can’t make this up? Slack-jawed, we witnessed new political paradigms created and old ones mutate or die. There was a dark energy that was different, disconcerting, and a general visceral shock at the end. Whatever your political proclivities, there is a little thrill being at the center of a new historical narrative. God only knows where we go from here.



Twenty One Pilots, “Stressed Out”     Super cool song, and a good soundtrack for the election.



David Bowie, “Blackstar”     Bowie processes his own death (“Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”) and creates a moving, subterranean, brooding soundtrack for it. What a gift he left us. It’s the sonic equivalent of Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” or the documentary “Dying to Know,” in which Ram Dass and Tim Leary explore the meaning of the ultimate and final passage. Brothers and sisters, we are all walking toward the same home! Here’s to the great ones who made the passage this year, including Prince, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell, Merle Haggard, Sharon Jones (“They said I was too fat, too black, too short, and too old. Look at me now”), Maurice White, Paul Bley, Paul Kantner, Dan Hicks, Keith Emerson, Bernie Worrell, Thunderclap Newman, Scotty Moore, Harper Lee, Gary Shandling (“I once made love for an hour but it was the night the clocks were set ahead”), Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, and Muhammad Ali, one of the great rock and rollers of all time.



Various Artists, “Day of the Dead” Box Set     Despite the title, this enormous collection of music (10 LPs) is brimming with life, joy and passion. The Dead’s body of work was a diamond sutra of sorts and admirers ranging from The National to Vijay Iyer interpret the many facets of the Dead songbook, some reverent, some shockingly new. A true labor of love.



Rolling Stones, “Blue and Lonesome”     Welcome back home guys.



Frank Ocean, “Siegfried”     I’m late to “Blond,” Ocean’s new LP from which this song is taken, but first listen is exciting. “Siegfried” is pure creation, genuine, sui generis. The strings rising up in the middle of the song are like a sunrise. And he closes out by channeling Eno.



Solange, “Cranes In the Sky”     We have little patience in our household for the Beyonce music-industrial complex (sorry!). But her kid sister can kick it. She sets the mood of “Cranes” in the first three seconds and then stretches it out for the next three minutes. A little old school, a little new, all fresh.



Donald Glover, “Atlanta,” FX     Glover created a gem, an Atlanta-based, hip-hop version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Brilliant.



Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”    I’ve often thought of Radiohead as the 21st Century Beatles. They grow by leaps and bounds, and their art seems effortless and limitless. This is dark, insistent chamber music, propelled by acoustic guitars, strings, and Thom Yorke’s perpetually cynical and haunting voice.



Chicago Cubs     After decades of hand-wringing and heartbreak, they finally did it and even if it was at the expense of my Cleveland Indians, it was a sight to behold.


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