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Overstreet’s Favorite Recordings of 2016 (Post 2 of 3)

This year, difficult circumstances at home and work — and, let’s face it, all across America — delayed my annual Favorite Music marathon. I know, I know… you’ve all been sitting there, postponing meals and sleep and self-care, just waiting for this to be published.

Well, here it comes! These are the albums that I played on heavy rotation in 2016 — for the poetry of their lyrics, the surprising and enthralling sounds of their melodies and musicianship, and the sustaining inspiration they brought to an otherwise dispiriting year.

Before we return to the countdown — two things:

One: Did you see my list of “runners-up” albums that I enjoyed in 2016? For each one, I’ve linked to some favorite tracks.

Now for Part Two of Three. It’s time to meet the silver medalists, in a list called…

Enthusiastic Fan Letters

25.

Wilco Schmilco

Wilco — Schmilco

Thank you, Wilco, for remaining creative, unpredictable, prolific, and personal. I’m glad you chose to keep these songs separate from last year’s fantastic Star Wars record — these really do exist in a different world of characters, stories, mysteries, and moods. I like the intimacy and honesty of these tracks — these confessions of alienation, doubt, restlessness, and longing are good for the soul. They make me feel a little less alone as I look around at an America that seems more foreign and disillusioning and hostile all the time.

Thanks also for you generosity in making so much available to share on YouTube!

24.

David Bazan Blanco

David Bazan – Blanco

Dear David Bazan,

Almost twenty years ago, I received an email in response to one of my film reviews that said, “You might someday become a formidable film critic if you learn to get over outrage.” I’ve treasured that bit of counsel. Righteous anger felt good when I was writing. And I really was angry about a great many things, especially in relationship to America’s political church. But since then I’ve observed that, insofar as I am able to write from a place of humility and curiosity and joy rather than frustration, I am able to experience more joy in my writing, and I cultivate a better relationship with my readers.

Why am I saying this? David, your songs have always engaged and inspired me, from your days with Pedro the Lion to your very public “breakup” with the church. You’ve always balanced your scathing criticisms of Christian culture and commercialized art with self-effacing (and even, perhaps, self-loathing) confessionals, so you’ve never been a scold or a hater.

But here, on Blanco, you’re surprisingly introspective, making a study of the fears, lies, and damage in your characters’ hearts (or yours?) without ever making them sound like they’re punishing anybody… or themselves. I hear lines about infidelity and its corrupting influences, about tender exchanges from a father to a daughter, about second-guessing the past-tenseness of faith.

And while I may not crazy about every flourish of synthesizers here, I’m glad to hear you constantly exploring new sonic possibilities. This album works best when I have time to really marinate in the lyrics. I recommend that everybody does.

23.

Rolling Stones Blues & Lonesome

The Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome

Dear Rolling Stones,

While I came to your material very late — let’s say the ’90s — I’ve come to a place of deep appreciation for the role your music has played in American history, and the resilience with which you have kept the band together. That has come more from movies and from the way your hits have saturated American culture than any devoted study to your records.

So perhaps it’s presumptuous of me to say this, but it seems your early material that holds up best. Your more recent albums, as impressive as they’ve been in showing your refusal to surrender, have felt too much like ideas that came from committees, not from rockers caught in fits of inspiration.

Blue and Lonesome is different. This feels like you were given an opportunity to do what you love, and to throw yourselves into it. What you love is different than what will sell, and I doubt that this record will be a blockbuster for you. But oh, wow — you sound revived, reinvigorated, and inspired. It feels like the music is leading you, this time. It makes me glad to be here, to witness the arrival of a great Stones album, instead of just looking back at them. It makes me wonder how many other veteran groups would still be capable of such a spontaneous, rootsy effort. (U2, are you listening?) It feels so live, so much like guys who love to play getting together in a room to jam until they collapse.

And Jagger, you sound better than you have on any of the solo records I’ve heard.

22.

Hope Six Demolition Project

PJ Harvey — The Hope Six Demolition Project

Dear PJ Harvey,

I bought Dry in 1992 and have been tuning in to every record ever since. And the ride never ceases to be astonishing or compelling. You’ve taken turns I don’t understand, and some I find deeply disturbing, but I’ve learned that this is true with most artists who make themselves fearless in following their vision.

I love Let England Shake in 2011, with its literary qualities, its mind on history, and its absolute refusal to play to the crowd. I love the surprising romance and dreams of Stories of the City, Stories of the Sea. I love Is This Desire? — which is so startlingly different than your guitar-heavy records, and so full of rich, surprising soundscapes.

This one? I can’t say it’s my favorite musical endeavor of yours, and I find the lyrics almost too cryptic, at times, for interpretation. But they are challenging and relentlessly discomforting in ways that ring true, and I sense here a burden of bearing witness, a deep sense of conscience, and heartbreak for the vulnerable and exploited populations of the world. It sounds like righteous lament. Your journeys through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. have inspired an appropriately dismaying work, one that is difficult to stick with, but that comes back to haunt me.

I’m particularly shaken by these lines, which seem to describe the ways in which so many have become dangerously gullible to any political promise of favor:

At the refreshments stand
A boy throws out his hands
As if to feed the starlings
But really he throws nothing
It’s just to watch them jump…

All near the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln…

You sang this as it was happening in the headlines. You did not go unheard.

Blaze on, you fearless and prophetic punk-rock comet.

21.

Daniel Lanois Goodbye to Language
Daniel Lanois – Goodbye to Language

Dear Daniel Lanois,

Birdy was one of the first film soundtracks I ever purchased. I was in high school, and I had already figured out that I had been born into this world to write stories. And when I listened to your collaborations with Peter Gabriel, I felt my head and heart fill up with creative energy. That strange phenomenon continues today, thirty years later. And Goodbye to Language is the strongest and most creatively inspiring instrumental release I’ve heard from you in a long time.

Having said that, I must also express how much I miss your songwriting. Acadie, For the Beauty of Wynona, and Shine remain in heavy rotation on my stereo, and your lyrics are good medicine. I hope that we haven’t heard the last of your poetic lyrics, or your provocations to live on love.

(We can currently listen to the whole thing here.) I appreciate your strange collaborations with Rocco DeLuca, but, for my money, the outstanding track here is your solo performance of “Deconstruction.”

Here’s Tom Moon at NPR casting a net of language around a wordless album.

20.

Jim James Eternally Even


Jim James — Eternally Even

Dear Jim James,

I’m not sure I could describe this mix of styles and instruments better than Thom Jurek does in this review: “spacey psychedelia, jazzy, multi-textured, 21st century soul, and moody nocturnal funk infused with measured indie pop cool.” But I can say, from experience, that this record caught my attention quickly and then got its funk-fueled hooks in for the long haul. I’m only beginning to wrestle with your lyrics, which seem to suggest a despairingly bleak view, one that looks heavenward and finds no hope of God. But then there is a pulse of hope and longing that suggest a deeply embedded sense of how things should be, of the importance of love and mercy. Hey, I’ll take the voice of God where I can find it.

It’s hard not to feel that these were written for today:

The stone is thrown, it’s coming fast
The next thing you know
It’s crashing thru the glass
Now we’re down on our knees picking up the scraps
Whatever it takes we’re gonna build it back…

No kidding.

Or this:

…you can’t trade today for some far off promise of tomorrow
Can’t build love out of guns, blood, and sorrow
They say we can’t live together but we know that’s a lie
‘Cause we know it in our heart we can make it if we try.

19.

Lisa Hanigan At Swim

Lisa Hannigan – At Swim

Dear Lisa Hannigan,

While I was more taken by the lyrics of your Joe Henry-produced record Passenger, your third record casts a particular spell, with sounds that seem inspired by your recent contributions to Tomm Moore’s film Song of the Sea. Many thanks to the National’s Aaron Dessner, for calling you up and talking you into this project — we’re all richer for it. “Undertow” is the big highlight for me here, which has a haunting, recurring melisma that tends to stay with me for hours after I hear it. But an even stronger sense that lingers is that of a heavy heart for the world, one as likely to flare up in anger (“Hang the rich and spare the young”) as to float away on a current of tears. And this, this is lovely:

We know not the fire in which we burn
But we sing and we sing
And the flames grow higher.
We read not the pages which we turn
But we sing and we sing and we sing… 

18.

Iggy Pop Post Pop Depression


Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression 

Dear Iggy Pop,

What a year you’ve had! You and The Stooges were the subject of a Jim Jarmusch-directed documentary, focusing on your defining role in a musical revolution in the late ’60s. And you released an outstanding solo record with the help of Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. Storming the stereo with the authority of Godzilla and the agility of a rock star less than half your age, you sound for all the world like a young Bowie — which seems appropriate, as you may be the giant best-equipped to inherit the Rock Godfather throne that Bowie left empty at the beginning of the year. Congratulations: Post Pop Depression is funny, campy, angry, crass, and surprisingly revealing as you rage with passion about the failure of your successes and conquests to satisfy you.

“Gardenia” is a song of self-destructive adoration for a prostitute with dangerous habits — it’s funny and flirtatious the first time you hear it, but then the deep sadness and shame of it seeps to the surface, and its playfulness turns bittersweet.”American Valhalla” is towering expression of rage against the dying of the light (“Death is the pill that’s hard to swallow / Is anybody in there? / Who do I have to kill?”), but I also hear an undercurrent of worry over unconfessed sins: “Lowly, lowly deeds / That no one sees….

And on “Sunday,” which sounds like the heart of the album, you lament how each week is a demeaning struggle to survive until the day when you can collapse, consider the damage done, and wonder what it’s all for. It’s like your cynical version of “It’s Friday But Sunday’s Coming” — one that holds no hope of Gospel deliverance whatsoever.

But I suspect that this record worked for me best as a painfully appropriate soundtrack to an America that seems to be helplessly devolving under the influence of its own worst instincts. There is wisdom in the regrets and laments that you raise here, and much to admire in the energy you still bring to your work — but it sure makes me hope that you find some grace notes after so much dissonance.

17.

Shirley Collins - Lodestar

Shirley Collins – Lodestar

Dear Shirley Collins,

This is my introduction to your work… almost 40 years since your last record. And now I know that I need to work my way back to the beginning to see the bigger picture. Your voice here is authoritative, confident, unconcerned with crowd-pleasing, and intent only on urgent truth. The prophetic quality of these songs has the immediacy of air raid sirens; despite how perfectly they answer today’s headlines, these Lamentations sound as old as Ezekiel and Daniel. No wonder Billy Bragg and Colin Meloy credit you as an inspiration. You earn our album cover’s pose as one who can read the signs of the times.

Awake, awake sweet England
Sweet England now awake
And to you prayers obediently
And do your souls partake

For our Lord our God is calling
All in the skies so clear

So repent, repent sweet England
For dreadful days draw near….

16.

Allen Toussaint American Tunes

Allen Toussaint – American Tunes

Dear Allen Toussaint,

I discovered you so late. I fell in love with your sound in 2009, thanks to producer Joe Henry, who made The Bright Mississippi with you and gave the world a record of pure musical sunshine. That record is automatic joy whenever I put it on.

This follow-up record became, alas, a memorial service: a celebration of your life, arriving a few weeks after you were lifted up by the same light that inspired you and carried away to that place where there are no more tears. Little did you know how painfully apropos the title cut, Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” would become in 2017. I weep whenever I sing along with you on that song — which is usually in the car, in the rain, after reading the latest devastating news, the latest progress report on America’s steep decline. But then, even in the midst of what seem to really be the Last Days, you make me smile irresistibly through “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” one more time. And then, to hear you and Rhiannon Giddens together — seriously, I don’t know that I could think of a better representation of the best that America still has to offer. It makes me believe — if not in America the Democracy, then at least in the beautiful possibilities that can be realized when we dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of such an ideal.

You were the realized potential of America. Thank you, good sir, for the truth with which you so beautifully blessed the world.

15.

TMBG Phone Power

They Might Be Giants – Phone Power

Dear They Might Be Giants,

You have become the most consistently imaginative rock band of my lifetime. I laugh every time. I get addicted to several tracks every time. I never cease to be amazed at the constant reinvention — the way you turn what could just be a parody into a knockout mastery of another form, the way that substance keeps emerging from the silliness, the refusal to grow up and give up on playfulness.

Every Giants fan has a different opinion on which albums are good and which are great. For me, this is a return to the levels of comic invention I heard on John Henry in 1994.

What did I need most in 2016? Hope. Hope that the world’s best will rise to the occasion and silence the increasing drumbeats of fear, racism, and fascism. But what else did I need? Laughter. Laughter is an expression of faith — that all is not lost. If we can find time to play, then we can escape the sense that everything depends on us, and we can really live rather than just insisting on the right to do so. Thank you for giving me the provocation that I needed.

14.

Joe Henry Billy Bragg Shine a Light

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry — Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad

Dear Joe Henry and Billy Bragg,

For me, there were two significant concert events in 2016: Over the Rhine’s performance at the Triple Door, which they dedicated to my wife Anne (who was recovering from brain surgery), and this one — your visit to Seattle’s Neptune Theater for a rallying cry of love, peace, and political activism. (Billy Bragg, I’ve never been more surprised during a show than when you dove into a rendition of my favorite song of the last decade, Anais Mitchell’s prophetic anthem “Why We Build the Wall.” You nearly set the house on fire.) Anne and I are grateful to the giver of our 20th-anniversary gift — reserved seats that made us feel like the whole show was designed to inspire us.

Drawing from a history of railroad songs, you focused our attention to the plight of the poor and the vulnerable in America, on the glories of what hard-working and principled Americans can achieve when they put their minds to it, and on Woody Guthrie’s way of spirit of speaking truth to power. This is a simple record in some ways, but the reverence that you demonstrate for your material invites us into a sort of timeless singalong, one that reminds us that acts of truth and beauty will outlast selfish shows of power and prejudice.

13.

Chance the Rapper Coloring Book


Chance the Rapper — Coloring Book

Dear Chance the Rapper,

Since music-review perfection was accomplished by David Dark, I’m just going to point people to what he wrote here. I can’t imagine a finer review of this joyous, richly layered work. So… “What David said.”

Oh, and by the way — I enjoyed this so much that I asked my writing students at Seattle Pacific to do some exercises in attention and interpretation while listening. That little experiment worked quite well, if I do say so myself.

12.

Laura Gibson
Laura Gibson — Empire Builder

Dear Laura Gibson,

2016 made me feel as though I were merely surviving, as life threw one thing after another into my path, constantly driving me farther from the path of my passions and creativity. That inclined me toward finding a sense of companionship in these songs. I hear that you broke your foot, that your New York apartment building burned down in a gas explosion that killed two people, and that you lost all of your lyrics and instruments.

The fact that, in the midst of this, you managed to produce your finest record yet is inspiring. It makes me want to throw myself into my work with that much more determination.

It’s hard to pick favorite tracks from this one, but I’ll go with these two….

 

11.

Leonard Cohen You Want It Darker


Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

Dear Leonard Cohen,

Thank you.

I will miss you. Who else writes lines as loaded and honest and difficult as these like these?

If you are the dealer
I’m out of the game
If you are the healer
It means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then
Mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Or these…

Seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak
But now it’s much too late
To turn the other cheek
Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today

I better hold my tongue
I better take my place
Lift this glass of blood
Try to say the grace

Your exit seems perfectly timed, as if it will spare you from experiencing more than your tender heart could bear.

Rest in peace.

(And thank you, Thom Jurek, for this fine review.)

Coming soon… Part Three: The Top Ten!

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.