As a recovering cultural critic, one of the things I need to let go of is the sense that I have to write about some quota of things to see the Old Year out and the New Year in. I am a part of a core group of friends who have shared year-end mix-tapes (playlists) and annotated lists and reflective columns for close to three decades. Friends still send me their year-end playlists, and I am so thankful for that, but I also have this needling guilt that I should produce one.
But no one's really asked for one for years, AND I never liked making them, not much. For one thing, I'm a slow listener. Some of my friends have a Top Ten for each month. I tend to listen to the same new thing all month long, and, then, maybe move onto another new thing the next month. Same way with reading and viewing. I plunge headlong into some things on impulse and ignore the rest of the world. What I come up with at the end of the year is anything but an overview of the year that was.
But the thing that troubles me most about year-end lists is how the bulk of what I'm discovering in any given year didn't come from that year at all. This was a year full of anniversaries that sent many of us back to the music of ’68, while ’78 was an absolutely formative year for me. I also think of albums like Rage Against the Machine's debut, which took a year to catch on, or Soul Asylum's breakthrough Gravedancer's Union, an album that languished on the charts for twelve months before that moving video of "Runaway Train" made that band superstars (for a couple of years). Music, movies, literature and art take their sweet time reaching people. Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh weren't making "year-end lists" during their lifetimes.
Still, I understand the need to assess the past year and mark progress of some sort on the calendar. I do know the two most important books for me this year were C.J. Janovy's No Place Like Home and Sarah Smarsh's Heartland because they drew such rich portraits of the environment in which I was raised (and where I still live). Janovy did it with her remarkable observational and listening skills coupled with her intuition about truth and story. Smarsh did it by simply raising her voice and keeping herself honest.
Both books refuse to shy away from the ugly truths of the texture of the world I grew up in, but they fight that with portraits of dignity and courage that for the most part go untold. Again and again, the embattled characters in Janovy’s book are embraced and encouraged by neighbors who love them and appreciate them as human beings. Stephanie Mott, a transgender woman who spent a significant portion of her life homeless, so places faith in this decency that she engages in a statewide tour to diners, truckstops, practically anywhere she can talk to everyday people in order to discuss who she is and what she's been through and what needs to happen "if she's going to be okay." The truly inspiring thing is how many people hear that statement in the universal sense, something we often associate with the Black church, "if we're going to be okay."
Smarsh describes what it took for her to tell the stories of those who didn’t get the chances she had. She doesn't romanticize a damn thing; if anything the romantic notions are her confessions of her own sense of self-importance in this quest. But she uses her family to check herself, to root her perspective, and in the process she draws a portrait of lower income Kansas that's, as it must be, a tribute with its textured depth, love and admiration. She helps me see my own friends and family from a slightly different perspective. She has a grandmother who helps me understand things about my own, particularly her sometime disapproval of my attitudes.
Thom Zimny’s Elvis: The Searcher documentary worked some territory close to these books. By focusing on Elvis’s artistic biography, this film shows the oft-stereotyped and simplified artist's core power, celebrating the dignity and vitality of all of us abused and neglected every day, all day, all our lives long. In this framework, Elvis seems more important than ever because it's that overwhelming sense of division and hopelessness that tears at everyone these days, perhaps no one more than our youth.
2018 was a year when my younger daughter made me a 50+ track playlist. Just the list of artists is a lot to wrap my head around--K. Flay, Anarbor, Broods, Ruth B., Kurt Vile, Bea Miller, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, Bazzi, AJR, Alec Benjamin, Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear, The Killers, The Bleachers, Panic! At the Disco, Wild Bell, King Princess, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Matt Maeson, Lea Michelle, Ingrid Michaelson, Tegan and Sara, Troye Sivan, M.A.G.S., I Monster, Marina and the Diamonds, Kendrick Lamar, MELVV, Grace, G-Eazy, Bo Burnham, Janelle Monae, Imagine Dragons, Adam Lambert, Jon Bellion, The Maine, Lorde, The Cab, Kane Strang, XTC, Elohim, Molly Kate Kestner, Twenty One Pilots, Avril Lavigne, Gabbie Hanna, Linkin Park, NF, Quadeca, and an endearing young political rapper called “grandson.”
Plenty of familiar names here. I went to college with XTC. I took Trionna to the Electric Lady tour. I think I wrote one of the better early pieces on Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear. I'm familiar with a slim fourth of the people she's listening to.....It's a reminder there's so much going on, always, and there's so much left to learn.
I rediscovered that on a few interesting nights, two with my friend CJ seeing Kamasi Washington (opening with a beautiful set by Victory Boyd) and Logan Richardson, rethinking jazz's role in an era that's largely post-rock (and almost post-hip hop) in the story it tells itself. When Richardson declares from stage that it's Charlie Parker behind all of pop music--way shy of the Louis Armstrong I might have picked or the logical choice of, say, Louis Jordan or Elvis for the Rock 'n' Roll Revolution--well, it's a reframing worth noting. Since the late 1940s, the self-consciousness of be-bop has never left us--whether it took the form of Dylan's beat poetry or Marvin Gaye's sexual and political visions or those two generations later from Janelle Monae. There are new frames to the story, and they're there to help us see it from more objective perspectives than our old windows (not that we should throw those out).
2018, for me, was a year of letting go of my fixed perspectives of everything and allowing myself to hear fresh again. It made me think of a comment a friend of mine made, another music writer equally involved in politics, at least 25 years ago. We both agreed the erosion of the basis of our economy (money=labor) would mean a revolution in our society. Something I would say we are experiencing quite painfully today, fraught with confusion about what it means and where we are going. Anyway, my friend said, you know, when this new class of people thrown out of the system try to unify around culture, it won't look anything like what it's looked like in the past.
2018 was a year where I saw that prophecy come true. Nothing means quite what it once did. Everything we thought was dead and gone may have fresh life, and things we thought were eternal may seem illusory. But it's a time of great possibility. I just have to look at my daughter's playlist. Over 50 songs by 48 artists that bear little resemblance to each other much less the fairly narrow canons I thought were revolutionary when I was 16.
To learn what we need to know about one another, where we are going and what we might accomplish, we have to listen closer than ever before. To learn what we need to know, we have to be open to things we wouldn't have considered worthy of openness in the past. To learn what we need to know, we need to recognize the table's been hit, the chess pieces are flying through the air and so are we.
But we can and must land on our feet, and we can only do that if we keep our eyes out for each other, if we offer a helping hand. 2018 showed me that necessity to be open and aware in new and unique ways. I'm not sure it had anything to do with what was released this year. It had everything to do with what was in play.
Love to you all. We're going to find each other and hold on, and we're going to make it through this storm. It all depends on recognizing our unity in the struggle. The struggle can and should and must bring us together. Happy New Year to all my fellow fighters.
To quote one of my dearest friends, "Love, love, love!" Love is just about all we need, but it takes some work, and a little science, to figure out the rest.