So, what a strange, unpredictable, frustrating, horrific, and ultimately inspiring year, right?
The horror is still strong in our memory (Mandalay Bay); so is the frustration as our politics lurched from one pseudo-crisis to the next. That old line by Yeats – “the center cannot hold” – once again came to the forefront, complete with some rough beast, “its hour come round at last,” slouching into the corridors of power, dressed in waxed green fatigue jackets, looking like the tail-end of a 10-day bender, bellowing in 140-character screeds and leaving the pavement cracked by all the dropped jaws in its wake. Half-way through the year, I started using the hash tag #YCMTSU because it was exhausting to keep repeating “you can’t make this shit up.”
So where was the inspiration? Well, everywhere if you looked around. This year’s Top 10 is extremely eclectic, perhaps reflecting the refracted nature of our culture, amplified even more by the ubiquity of the hyperventilating media-industrial complex. It was a year when you took pleasure wherever you could find it, regardless of genre. One of the best moments of the year, for instance, was a waiter Kit and I had for a lovely dinner in Charleston. In addition to introducing us to a great, unexpected new wine, he improvised a 5-minute dissertation on the history of Phish. It didn’t make the Top 10 list, but it was indicative of the kind of unexpected and small ways that inspiration snuck up this year. There’s a bit more emotion in this year’s Top 10, coming from a sense of loss and mortality, of transitions and shifting ground. As difficult as this year was, it helped a lot of us see more clearly and become more grateful for many things we’ve taken for granted. So if there’s any “theme” here it would probably be gratitude – thanks for the things we’ve lost and regained, for bravery in the face of loss and abuse, for joy and resurrection springing from the most unlikely of places. Enough already, here’s 2017’s Top 10:
Gord Downie, RIP For more than 30 years, Gord Downie was frontman for The Tragically Hip, until his death in October from brain cancer at 53. There are few bands and artists that established the kind of enduring connection that The Hip did with fans in their native Canada. And very few “rock stars” with as much humanity as Downie. It’s hard to overestimate that connection. When The Hip gave their farewell concert in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario the Toronto Police Department tweeted “Dear world, Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 p.m. Have a #TragicallyHip day.” For a quick immersion in The Hip phenomenon, check out the documentary on Netflix, “Long Time Running.” And just try not to cry.
Grateful Dead, Redux The deep well of the Dead continues to flow. We had two major releases this year, the excellent (and long) documentary by Amir Bar-Lev on the Dead’s history and (finally!) the release of the Barton Hall concert from 1977. This is the show that was entered into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress and it captures the band at a point between their psychedelic roots and their arena-rock future. There’s no such thing as a “best” Dead concert, but this comes pretty dang close. I confess that I’ve danced to this show, tubes glowing, late at night. And been happy.
Diana Krall at Wolftrap/TajMo and Los Lobos at Wilson Center, Wilmington We didn’t see a lot of live music this year, but what we saw was great. Diana Krall was timeless at Wolftrap, with a backup band of journeymen that could play Cole Porter upside down with their hands tied behind their back. Taj Mahal and Keb Mo were a cross-generational delight. Taj was the center of gravity, which Keb Mo duly acknowledged, but several times they blended together into something unique and deeply American. Los Lobos drew a paltry crowd in Wilmington, NC and their disappointment showed in the first few songs, but then their professionalism took over and they gave a master class in the great American songbook, highlighted by a raucous, loving version of “Bertha.”
Stranger Things 2/Big Little Lies These two limited series, one on Netflix and another on HBO, created their own worlds and we were glad to live in them. They allowed you to escape without being escapist. Added bonus: the Big Little Lies theme song, “Cold Little Heart” by Michael Kiwanuka.
“Fix You,” Coldplay/”They Dance Alone,” Sting/”Eyes of the World,” Grateful Dead/”Bouncing Around the Room,” Phish How to feel happier when you only have 45 minutes.
“Jungle,” Tash Sultana The version on her EP is great, but the passion and ingenuity she shows in her one-woman band version on YouTube is a thing to behold. Lo-fi, emotional, simple and complex at the same time. How many young girls will this inspire to pick up a guitar and turn their caps around? A bunch, I bet.
The Force, a novel by Don Winslow If the power of good fiction is to transport you to another place, this book takes you there with the speed of a hyperloop. It’s hard to watch Denny Malone descend so inexorably in a life of drugs and corruption as a NYC cop. This is a tragic opera that teaches a lesson – some tragedies may happen suddenly, but others happen incrementally. And even then, we may not have the power to avert them.
“Astral Plane,” Valerie June She mixes instruments and styles into her own thing and she’s got a voice that sounds as old as the hills and fresh as a spring rain. This song just lifts you up. “Dancing on the astral plane/Holy water, cleansing rain/Floating through the stratosphere/Blind, but yet you see so clear.”
“A Deeper Understanding,” The War on Drugs Adam Granduciel is a little like Tash Sultana – a one-man band locked in a room emerges with a masterpiece. This record has both scale and scope. Granduciel’s America is like Springsteen’s – vast, panoramic, pulsing – but he also goes deep. The sounds he builds are layered and intricate, like parts of a personality slowly unfolding. There’s a little danger of shoe-gazing at times, but the beat obviates that. The songs are propulsive, always leaning forward. “But it just stopped raining/I’m stepping out into the world/I’m stepping out into the light, yeah.”
Truth From the #metoo movement to Bob Corker (“Alert the day care staff”) to the portrayal of JFK as a philandering druggie in “The Crown,” we moved away from denial, sycophancy and hagiography toward the light, or at least the truth (which can also be dark). Maybe we are losing patience. Maybe it’s because the stakes seem too high. Maybe we’re just tired of all the bullshit. But many of us seem more inclined to stand up and say what needs to be said. I’m not claiming we’ve reached a state of national enlightenment. There’s still enough fantasy, ignorance, wishful thinking and manipulation in this old world to float a big boat. Harry Frankfurt, the Princeton philosophy professor, noted in his book, “On Truth,” that “We live at a time when, strange to say, many quite cultivated individuals consider truth to be unworthy of any particular respect.” But here’s the deal. In the end, cynicism and bullshit are unsustainable. They collapse under their own weight. Truth opens up paths forward. And there was just a little bit more of it in 2017.