2. My Top 10 Songs of 2017
In December Spotify rolled out its annual Wrapped feature, which enables users to analyze their music listening habits from the past year. Wrapped reveals how much time you spent streaming music in 2017, plus how many songs and artists you listened to. You're quizzed on how well you know your own listening preferences, then the program generates two playlists: 100 of your most streamed songs, and 30 songs released in 2017 that you missed but might have enjoyed.
The feature plays into our inherent narcissism, of course. "How well do I know myself and what I like?" But that's par for the course in an age where artificial intelligence has made it cheap and easy for companies to personalize the experiences they deliver us in exquisite detail. So of course, I had to find out if I could forecast my own listening habits.
The playlist generated included many of the usual suspects, as well as few surprises. As I approach 30, I'm finding that my musical taste has begun to crystallize. Dad always loved listening to Chicago and Elvis Presley in the car, because that's what appealed to him most when he was in his twenties and thirties. I'm finding I care less and less that preferences become predictable. When I was younger, being predictable meant you were boring and unoriginal. Now I'm beginning to see it as just getting more comfortable in my own skin.
Nick Hornby wrote in the introduction to his essay collection Songbook that, "if you love a song, love it enough for it to accompany you throughout the different stages of your life, then any specific memory [of first hearing the song] is rubbed away by use."
Some of these songs do attach themselves to specific memories. During my junior year of college, I distinctly recall listening to Gregory Alan Isakov's This Empty Northern Hemisphere while driving down Pacific Coast Highway to my tutoring job in Pacific Palisades. On the trip home, I'd witness some of the most breathtaking sunsets. The Calfornia mountains turning black while the sky burned orange and purple. I don't think I've ever felt lonelier than I did that year. But when I hear Isakov sing, I don't remember the loneliness. Just the warmth of his voice filling my car as the cold ocean wind blew past my open windows.
Below are 10 songs that accompanied me throughout the last year. I've also included a few extras that didn't appear in the playlist but should have been.
Hurricane by Gungor from One Wild Life: Spirit (2016)
2017 felt like a year in which up equaled down. Nothing made sense or could be foreseen. Injustice followed tragedy after tragedy. By the end of the year, it seemed little could shock me. A numbness to world's evil settled into my skin. I found myself craving songs that could wake me up, that exposed the horrors of the world but also reminded me of its splendors. "Hurricane" by Gungor identifies a common reaction to brokenness — helplessness, and dismay — and counters it with the supernatural love of God. The comparison of God's love to a massive storm also felt strangely apt in the months that followed Hurricane Harvey's devastation of Houston and Louisiana. No matter how great the obstacles we face, our Creator possesses a power we cannot fathom.
Hello Miss Lonesome and Arahura by Marlon Williams
I discovered New Zealand native Marlon Williams when he opened for City and Colour at the House of Blues this past August. His uncanny ability to evoke Hank Williams or Willie Nelson in one breath, and Elvis the next enraptured me. When sung live, Williams can sustain a single note, like the one in the chorus of "Hello Miss Lonesome," for a full 12 seconds. Listen at the 1:20-minute mark in Williams' performance on Conan:
Williams' song "Arahura" doesn't appear on any of his albums (yet), but I also heard this performed live at HOB, and found it to be achingly beautiful. I love it when singers introduce little-known parts of the world to their fans, and his song about the Arahura River in his home country was probably one of my favorites from his set.
I had the privilege to see Williams again in October when I booked a spontaneous trip to New York. He played to a crowded room in the back of the Brooklyn record store Rough Trade. While there, I struck up a conversation with another young woman who'd come by herself, and we wound up grabbing pizza by the slice after the show. We had little in common besides loving Williams' music, but it seemed a fitting occasion to make an unexpected friend.
Mountain by Strahan from Feel the Night (2015)
This song never fails to stir me. The melancholy opening and wistful yet triumphant ending encapsulate the feeling of waiting on the Lord, trusting that he will come through even while you fail to see how.
Amsterdam by Gregory Alan Isakov from The Weatherman (2013) and Gregory Alan Isakov with the Colorado Symphony (2016)
Gregory Alan Isakov is probably one of my favorite artists of the last decade. I discovered him in 2009 when his album This Empty Northern Hemisphere released right as the indie folk movement was gathering steam. Mumford & Sons released Sigh No More the same year, and Seattle-based Fleet Foxes had dropped their self-titled album, with its hit song "White Winter Hymnal" the previous year. Isakov's melodies are endlessly hummable, but what I find most arresting is skill as a lyricist. Unlike Sufjan Stevens, Isakov does not have a graduate degree in Creative Writing, but has stated he's a fan of short stories and poems like those of Billy Collins. His poetic sensibility manifests in lyrics like, "I threw stones at the stars but the whole sky fell," and "I walled up your kingdom with radio wires."
I was fortunate to catch Isakov on his 2016 tour, on which he played arrangements of his most popular songs with chamber and concert orchestras across the country.
Intertwined by Dodie
What appeals to me most about "Intertwined" is if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, the sweetness and simplicity of the strummed guitar lulls you into believing this is merely a love song. But upon closer inspection, the saccharine melody becomes ironic. Dodie describes a toxic, deeply co-dependent relationship, and how those in them try to fool themselves into thinking everything is okay. Brilliant. And scary.
Motion Sickness by Phoebe Bridgers from Stranger In The Alps
I just love this song and everything else Phoebe Bridgers has put out this year. Her LP debuted in September and has been the soundtrack to the latter half of my 2017. Her combination of dreamy indie pop with mournful yet playful lyrics feels like the embrace of a best friend after you've just broken up with a dude. She's been there, too.
The Only Thing by Sufjan Steves from Carrie & Lowell (2015)
Sufjan Stevens has occupied a starring role in my music collection ever since my New Testament professor played his arrangement of “Holy, Holy, Holy” for the class. In “The Only Thing” the subdued vocals and dark yet hypnotizing melody convey a spiritual anguish that won't let you look away no matter how gruesome. The song refers to Stevens' mother, a drug addict and alcoholic who moved Stevens and his siblings to Eugene, Oregon, when she married Lowell Brams. Stevens began writing the album to help him process the depression he experienced when his mother died. "In writing about [my mother's death] on this album, I was in pursuit of meaning, of justice, of reconciliation," Stevens said in an interview.
Stevens uses vivid imagery from the Oregon Coast — a place he visited frequently as a child — to convey his spiritual and emotional turmoil:
The only reason why I continue at all
Faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb
Signs and wonders, sea lion caves in the dark
Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart
While I've yet to experience the depth of depression Stevens describes in the songs on this record, the metaphysical wrestling match at its core gave words to feelings I've experienced in times of doubt, of wondering when and if God will come through.
I had the opportunity to visit the Oregon Coast this summer. I already loved this album to pieces, but visiting places mentioned in this album, such as the Sea Lion Caves and the Dalles (along the Columbia river east of Portland), made this music come even more alive.
Wallowa Lake Monster by Sufjan Stevens from The Greatest Gift (2017)
Stevens' most recent album release showcases a few new singles mingled with new arrangements of his greatest hits, and features this brand new gem. "Wallowa Lake Monster" has got it all. A synthy backtrack, heavily reverbed guitar, distant choruses that evoke sirens wailing at the bottom of the sea, and references to Demogorgons, the monster from Dungeons & Dragons and Netflix's Stranger Things, plus additional broody references. What's not to love?
Dog Years by Maggie Rogers from Now That the Light is Fading (2017)
Maggie Rogers vaulted to fame when a video featuring her and Pharrell Williams went viral in 2016. In the video, Williams listens to a demo of Rogers' song "Alaska" and is visibly moved. "I have zero notes," he responds at the song's conclusion. Rogers' EP dropped in February 2017, and as much as I love "Alaska," "Dog Years" won me over with its bright percussion, layers of natural sounds including waterfowl calls, Maggie's serene vocals, and a music video that looks as though it was partially inspired by Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.
The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams
English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams drew his inspiration for "The Lark Ascending" from the 1881 poem of the same name by George Meredith. Williams' musical interpretation was composed before the outbreak of WWI, and first performed on piano in 1920. From 2007 to 2010, and again in 2014-2017, "The Lark Ascending" was voted number one in the Classic FM annual Hall of Fame poll. The piece also appeared in Man On Wire, the 2008 documentary about tightrope walker Philippe Petit. My favorite performance of Williams' piece features violin soloist Janine Janson. I brushed tears from my cheeks the first time I heard it.
I look forward to discovering new musical companions in 2018.