At the end of every year, I get together with some dear old friends for dinner and conversation. This one of my favorite evenings of the year. I have a history of assembling and presenting a compilation of the songs released during the time since our last annual meeting. To me, these are the songs that stood out as the best representation of the year now passed.
I am of very strong opinions when it comes to the concept of “the comp tape.” There are specific rules that I believe must be followed. With the advent of digital playlists, I sometimes feel challenged by some of the old rules that I subscribe to. In an earlier, pre-digital era, there were physical restrictions imposed. Initially, it was the C-90 minute cassette tape. You only had 45 minutes per side, and some degree of “dead” space at the end was an expected consequence. That was just the way it was. Eventually, Maxell came out with the 100-minute tape that afforded at least 1 additional song per side. This was an amazing development and roundly heralded among my many fellow comp-tape enthusiasts.
For me, it was really the recordable CD-R that set the gold standard. I now had an 80-minute seamless medium to work with. It was, and remains, my comp-tape media of preference. It eliminates the need for “empty” space while retaining the requirement that I have a limited amount of space with which to make my point. You need some limits when making a compilation of worth. Decisions about what to cut are just as important as what to include. Choices must be made.
Any really great comp tape must start with a BANG. You need that “punch to the gut” that generates a bit of excitement and gets the action started. It’s just like a concert. Led Zeppelin would NEVER open with “Going to California” or “Down By The Seaside.” They would start by going for the throat, ripping into “Rock & Roll” or “Good Times, Bad Times” to start the proceedings. There are some things in life that are just non-negotiable and the start of a really good comp. (or playlist, if you prefer) is one of them. The start defines the entirety of the project and sets up what comes next.
To be effective, you need to alter the moods of the compilation, but never in a way that would truly jar the listener. A comp tape must have an ebb and flow to it to work. As much as a strong start is an absolute necessity, you also need to provide moments of some levity and a break. This is where ballads come in. You need the mid-tempo songs to gradually ease into them and then you need to bring the intensity back in the same way. Like I said, there are a LOT of rules.
Of course, playing with the rules is part of it all. As a wise old group of sages once wrote on a bathroom wall-“It’s Only Rock & Roll, But I Like It.” Wisdom is where you find it.
If there is one thing that I hear consistently from my peers is that today’s music is just not nearly as good as was “in the past.” I respectfully, adamantly, and fundamentally disagree. Paul Simon once stated that the music that a person listens to from the ages of 16 to 22 is what they will listen to, and love, their entire life. From my background in counseling, I know that is the period of life that is largely seen as the transition from youth to adulthood. It is a pivotal era in a life. This is when true identity is formed. Decisions on self, direction and internal motivations are solidified and life paths are set. Certainly, the music that provided the soundtrack for this interval, regardless of when originally released, will be of the utmost importance.
The problem happens if we stop listening after this point in life. It is certainly understandable that we would. After you move past your early twenties, the significance and realities of life move into center stage. Simply put, the mortgage, the parent-teacher conferences, the furnace repairs begin to replace the interest in planning for the release date of the new Billy Bragg album. That is just how life works. To be otherwise would be weird.
Fortunately for me, I came out of my transitional early-adulthood period fully embracing my weirdness. Along with the absurd realities of adulthood, I maintained a priority for what is next when it comes to music. While I still keep all my old favorites like Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and Jimi Hendrix, I need to continually strive to hear as much of everything new as there is out there. It is the realization that exploration and discovery are built into the very foundation of who I am. To put it plainly-I refuse to accept that the greatest song in the world has already been written. To me, it is still out there waiting. It is my job to search for it.
Because of this, I also maintain a zealot-like desire to share (or force, depending upon who you are) these discoveries with others. Sure, there are some people that might not “get it.” That is of little effect on my desires. I remain as enthusiastic about the new Bebe Rexha track as I was about “Can’t Get There From Here” by R.E.M. in 1985.
2017 proved to be a year rich in quality music wherever you listened. There were surprises at every turn. Some great discoveries this year were Hell’s Kitchen rapper Marlon Craft and the lyrical jazz trumpet of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. These are the artists that I will be watching as they hopefully begin to gain the attention they richly deserve from the music listening public. I found former 1 Direction singer Harry Styles’ new musical direction to be a rich enjoyable treat. While I always knew that he was gifted with an fantastic set of pipes, hearing him break out of the “teen pop” sound of his former group to embrace a classic “early-Seventies Rock Sound” was flat-out exciting.
The year also breathed with real poignancy. I was shocked by the suicides of both Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. Released shortly before his death, Bennington’s work with Linkin Park on One More Light is especially difficult to hear. Even without the sad situation around it, “Sharp Edges” would have easily made my list. It is just a great song that seems heavier now. Kesha’s Rainbow album was a triumphant bright spot. Emerging from a situation that was both personally and professionally abusive and oppressive, Kesha was able to return with an album that was sharp, well thought out, funny and incredibly catchy. With the “#metoo movement” happening shortly after its release, Rainbow was a breakthrough and important record in 2017 in more than just a few ways.
Typically, the “Year in Review” Comp. I present to my friends is a single disc. This year was an exception. There was just far too much. Too much to say, too much to share, and too much to get excited about. This year was a story told in two parts. Music tells a story. Sometimes it is direct, sometimes it is just an emotional journey told by the sounds contained between the notes. So, I present to you my offering of what 2017 sounded, and felt like, to me. Hopefully, there is something here that will appeal to you. Maybe it will make you smile. Whether you tap your feet, shake your head, or discover something that previously eluded you, I wish you peace in whatever moves your soul. This is what moved mine.
2017-The Year In Review
Ed Sheeran-Castle On The Hill (DIVIDE, 2017)
The xx-On Hold (I See You, 2017)
Grizzly Bear-Mourning Sound (Painted Ruins, 2017)
Harry Styles-Sign of the Times (Harry Styles, 2017)
Marlon Craft-Band Day Music (The Tunnel’s End, 2017)
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah-Diaspora (w/ Elena Pinderhughes) (Diaspora, 2017)
U2-Your’re The Best Thing About Me (Songs of Experience, 2017)
Bebe Rexha-The Way I Are (Dance with Somebody) (Single, 2017)
Clean Bandit-Symphony (w/ Zara Larsson) (Single, 2017)
Mike + The Mechanics-Don’t Know What Came Over Me (Let Me Fly, 2017)
Anne-Marie-Ciao Adios (Single, 2017)
Phoebe Ryan-Dark Side (Single, 2017)
Thievery Corporation-Ghetto Matrix (w/ Mr. Lif) (The Temple of I & I, 2017)
Kesha-Hunt You Down (Rainbow, 2017)
Harry Styles-Only Angel (Harry Styles, 2017)
Paramore-Rose-Colored Boy (After Laughter, 2017)
Ed Sheeran-What Do I Know? (DIVIDE, 2017)
Fergie-Life Goes On (Single, 2017)
Thomas Newman-Spacewalk (Passengers Soundtrack, 2016)
The xx-Replica (I See You, 2017)
Marlon Craft-The Closing Doors (Interlude) (The Tunnel’s End, 2017)
a-Ha-This Is Our Home (MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice, 2017)
Robert Plant-Carry Fire (Carry Fire, 2017)
Kygo & Selena Gomez-It Ain’t Me (Single, 2017)
Marlon Craft-Brainiacs (The Tunnel’s End, 2017)
London Grammar-Big Picture (Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, 2017)
Kesha-Praying (Rainbow, 2017)
Mike + The Mechanics-High Life (Let Me Fly, 2017)
Ed Sheeran-Shape of You (DIVIDE, 2017)
The Flaming Lips-The Castle (Oczy Mlody, 2017)
London Grammar-Hell To The Liars (Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, 2017)
Robert Plant-Carving Up The World Again… A Wall And Not A Fence (Carry Fire, 2017)
Linkin Park-Sharp Edges (One More Light, 2017)
John Mayer-Never On The Day You Leave (The Search For Everything, 2017)
a-Ha-The Sun Always Shines On TV (w/ Ingrid Helene Håvik) (MTV Unplugged: Summer Solstice, 2017)
Kesha-Learn To Let Go (Rainbow, 2017)
The Killers-Run For Cover (Wonderful Wonderful, 2017)
Joyner Lucas-I’m Not Racist (Single, 2017)
London Grammar-Bones Of Ribbon (Truth Is A Beautiful Thing, 2017)
Thomas Newman-Sugarcoat The Galaxy (End Title) (Passengers Soundtrack, 2016)
Grabbing My Ears:
On her solo debut album, the former Fifth Harmony gave further evidence that perhaps the best thing a member of a manufactured pop group can do is venture out on their own. Justin Timberlake set the gold standard of chart success for the current generation, while Harry Styles forged exciting new creative ground that could serve him well in the long-term. On Camila, Cabello brings levels of emotional shading that eludes her former ensemble. Lead-off single “Havana” has an engaging, lazy swagger that smolders with a thundering bass beat and cacophony of Cuban horns leading the way. “Inside Out” has a Broadway-like beat while the heartbreaking ballad “Consequences” offers poignant chills. While the album clocks in with a brisk 37 minutes, the 10 tracks (not including a radio edit of “Never Be The Same”) leave the listener wanting more. That is always a good sign. Camila is a solid pop album that is emotive, engaging and without filler. While every song is a winner, “All These Years” will clearly be on my 2018-The Year In Review compilation. The substance of her debut gives ample evidence that leaving her old group was just the first of a number of good decisions that Cabello has made recently.
Released separately, these three albums released between 1977 and 1979 by the late David Bowie remain among the bravest and most innovative of his career. Initially exploring the German minimalism found in recordings by artists like Kraftwerk, Bowie emerged from his drug-induced Ziggy Stardust “glitter/glam phase” to emerge as the stark Thin White Duke. It was stunning, unnerving and unexpected. His work with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno on songs like “Heroes” and the foreboding instrumental “Sense of Doubt” set new standards of what creativity in music could sound like and influenced untold future generations of music. It is also REALLY good to listen to in the cold of winter where the darkness and lower thermometer readings only help to accentuate the bleakly nihilistic nature of the recordings.
Lovato goes full-on “Tour de Force” on her sixth album. Of all the words that can be used to describe this album, “subtle” is clearly not one of them. Every track features Lovato hitting maximum vocal volume in the studio. While lead-off track and first single “Sorry Not Sorry” is a relatively mediocre song, other songs like the brutal, kiss-off “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore,” “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Daddy Issues” are significantly stronger. While Lovato’s lyrics may be even more explicit this time around, the themes she explores relationships, weaknesses and desires with refreshingly direct honesty. Production is crisp and bright while the beats sizzle and explode throughout. While Taylor Swift remains more interested in using her current album to prop herself up and settling old scores, Lovato is quietly moving closer to the top of ranks of delivering pure pop gold.
That’s The Ticket:
Rod Stewart with Cyndi Lauper-Xcel Energy Center August 15, 2018
At first glance, this appears the most unlikely of parings. On one hand, it could be viewed as a couple of artists who both had giant hits in the Eighties in an appeal to the Generation X crowd. I think it is something more than that. Both Lauper and Stewart possess distinct, stellar singing voices. While neither is technically “great,” they both possess voices that are absolutely unique and instantly identifiable. While it is easy to expect hits like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “True Colors, “ “Maggie May,” “Tonight’s The Night” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” I am really hoping that both artists dig deeper into their rich catalogs or work in a duet or two along the way. In a perfect world, what kind of a blast would it be to hear them tackle “Three Button Hand Me Down” or “Stay With Me” by Stewart’s earlier band, The Faces?
One Last Thing…
I was shocked by the sudden death of Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan in January. “Dreams” from the Limerick, Ireland band remains one of the quintessential classic songs of the Nineties. Her ability to blend the realities of Ireland into the bands music was of utmost importance. “Zombie” from 1994’s No Need To Argue was a crucial song for the band. This protest song about the 1993 IRA bombing in Warrington, England it referenced the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin as well as honoring two young English boys killed in the attack to reflect on the banal insanity of the armed conflict of “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland. Their Irish status gave them credibility and an understanding, waiting for the audience to discover, are rare among artists who hit the top of the charts with “just a catchy song.” For me, it was the song “Twenty One” from the same album that was most haunting and what I listened to first upon hearing of her death.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen anymore
You took my thoughts from me, now I want nothing more
And did you think you could just take it all away
I don’t think it’s happening, this is what I say
Leave me alone
Leave me alone
Leave me alone
Cause I found it all
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, part-time DJ and baseball enthusiast. Mostly, though, he is among the most passionate music fans and aficionados of our times. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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