Inspired by my Japanese apostle, John Mark Mullan, back in the mid-2000s my friends and I started an annual tradition called the Best Ofs. It is not unique but it is special. We reflect on the year through the music we have discovered and we make selections, mix-tapes, and in one very fine contribution, an entire movie. The CD was still dominant when we began and it sets the terms of the project still, a lovely evolving testimony to the fact that we are no longer young. So the rules are as follows:
- The mix must be less than 80 minutes.
- It must be more than a minute.
- Artists can repeat.
- Songs can be from any era, but just new to you in the last year.
- Any and all genres are welcome.
- Crazy ass remixes/mash-ups of familiar songs from long ago count as new
- You can submit detailed supplementary content or just raw audio or anything in between.
- You can post us all CDs, make a Spotify playlist, or distribute the files on A4 pages hidden around a local forest – whatever way you think gets the best balance between ease for you (the compiler) and ease for us (the listener). But we have a special dropbox if you want to keep things simple.
- Anyone invited can feel free to invite others, because the Best of Project is a great way for friends to meet friends’ friends.
When I Think Back On 2015
So when I reflect on the last year I mostly think about books and the battles I wage with them. I have become ever more short-sighted, balding, grey-haired and troubled as I wrestle with my thesis and moving on from the purgatorial grey of Aberdeen. My writing becomes ever more obtuse. My conversation ever more arcane. I was never with it, and they may well have changed what it was, but right now I am definitively square. Marge Simpson is my spirit animal. Hence:
I do not have the skill or courage to write a retrospective of my year that is true or insightful. I do have the songs that resonated with me, which reveal that more than any year in my life thus far, I have been consumed with thoughts about God and life and how thoughts about God are not the same as faith and thoughts about life is not the same as living. The songs are sad or angry and only in one example deliriously triumphant. And that example is a theme tune to a TV show, so that says a lot about the state of my soul, right?
Still, I like to think in my thought and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, that I am not a morose person. I aspire to be guileless like Marge and so even if life in the TheoLab is very much square, I’m happy there, even if I still look into cameras as if they are about to ask me a question I don’t understand:
Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool
So these are the songs that made it into my best of. In the version I will upload to the project, it comes in at 77 minutes and 44 seconds. So listening to it takes a commute to work and back again, probably.
This is the album cover, which is an image from the artist Ryoji Ikeda:
Here’s a YouTube playlist:
Here’s the tracklisting:
- The Decemberists – A Beginning Song:
For various reasons, as the end of 2015 collapses on us, I have a growing suspicion while sitting in the Concrete Bunker that 2016 is going to be a decisive year for our little family. So the song that closes the Decemberists album opens mine, because in 2016, whether we like it or not, the next chapter begins.
- Dawes – All Your Favorite Bands:
Wife-unit’s advice for making mix-tapes is complex and nuanced, but I boiled it down to: “Start strong, but follow it up with the home-run.” This is my single favourite song of the year. Its gentle guitar riff runs through my head constantly and the spirit of friendship and hope that it extols is both deeply resonant and comforting to me.
- Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best:
The jury was out for a long time on this Antipodean sensation. Wife-unit instantly warmed to the 1990s production style, and it definitely tickled my nostalgia for an adolescence full of wordy female songstresses. But in the end, the most raucous track on the album lingered in my memory.
- Kendrick Lamar – i:
I did not wait with bated breath for the Kendrick Lamar album but when it arrived, it was overwhelming. Often it is hard to listen to because there is so much for black Americans to be furious about. Lamar, especially here, is a compelling voice in the midst of that injustice. This song is so damn good.
- Blackalicious – I Like The Way You Talk:
I did wait with bated breath for the Blackalicious album. I waited ten freaking years for it. And when it arrived I was positively underwhelmed. I just built it up too much, I suppose. It’s an odd album because when I play it all at once it is almost anonymous and frequently annoying. But taken on their own the songs are great. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion as the months go by. That’s often the case with me; I am so naturally unmusical that the best stuff often takes a long time to settle in my ears.
- Sleater Kinney – Price Tag:
There’s a famous Portlandia sketch where Carrie and Fred inadvertently open a sweatshop in their basement. This could be a soundtrack for that. But it is one of the most rocking of the album’s tracks (they almost all rock) and I love it because studying wealth and capitalism for the last few years, I am convinced that it is impossible to shop ethically. Best to scream about that than just lie down and accept it, right?
- Oh Pep! – Tea, Milk & Honey:
Like other people in the group, I go to NPR Tiny Desk Concert to find new music regularly and that is where I found these great Australian chaps. This is such a lovely love song. The voices are unostentiously soaring and the person speaking to us through the lyrics has such humble adoration for their partner. “She sings like a church with a choir in it.”
- Craig Finn – Sarah, Calling From a Hotel:
Craig Finn is my favourite song writer. Now that The Hold Steady are on indefinite hiatus, I am consoled that he seems dedicated to his solo career (although I’d swap it all for a novel from him!). No one tells a story like him and this song demonstrates that. This song is terrifying. “Oh God, I’ve gotta go.”
- Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved:
The last two Sufjan albums were not beloved, but they get more playtime from me with every passing year. I was expecting that whatever would happen with Sufjan’s new album, I would have to take a lot of time to get used to it. I was wrong. We all were wrong. Carrie and Lowell is a stone cold masterpiece and I could have just listed all the songs and then drawn this mix to an end. Instead I basically chose the two I chose at random.
- The Gregory Brothers – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Tune:
Certain things run constantly through my mind. Passages from Isaiah. Old Wesleyan hymns. Thomas Hardy poetry. My brain rarely rests, unless I sleep, in which case, it is busy making crap up but thankfully I rarely remember dreams. Now, new this year, the “Unbreakable! She alive damnit!” of this theme tune intrudes on my consciousness a dozen times a day. Making coffee in the morning. In the middle of a sensitive, pastoral conversation at work. Wrestling invading ninjas. At the most inopportune times this song breaks in with its exultant surprise and I submit to it. So now you’ll have to as well.
- Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta:
The week after the Charleston murders, I was in America with my bumchum Taido. We were in Princeton at a fancy conference that drew hundreds of top scholars and students from around America and around the world. In the evenings, we’d go hang out with our friends Matt and Evie and that was a hands-down highlight of the year. Matt drove us around Trenton, the underworld that makes Princeton possible. He invited us to a prayer walk being held in remembrance of the victims of the attack, starting at the local AME church and winding its way through Princeton until it stopped with prayer and song and speech in the square in the centre of the town. We told the organisers of the conference and suggested they call off their evening schedule. “Think of how awesome it would be for these Christians if hundreds of their brethren from around the world joined with them, pausing their business to do the more important work of prayer?” They didn’t agree. A famous and much revered bishop was due to speak and they were not about to sideline him. “Besides,” we were told, “we shouldn’t miss his speech because it is so funny; it’s basically stand-up!” We skipped the ecclesial comedy (which was most certainly tragedy) and went to pray in the town. Who am I to have an opinion on the cultures I do not inhabit but it seems to me that America’s racism is more deeply embedded than the toolkit of the white Ivy League elites can ever hope to reach. Lamar was again an educator for me. Cutting the legs off the slave is not a thing of the past.
- Josh Ritter – Getting Ready To Get Down:
Ritter is one of those people who I am meant to like. So many of my friends love him but I could never get into him, even though Ian Tracy had a brilliant track from him on one of his Best Ofs years and years ago. But his rockabilly Gospel record was great fun and how could I turn down a song about how, very often, studying the Scriptures distances us from the faithful and that spoke of “Just another damn of the damns not given”?
- Torres – Sprinter:
I read Torres’ music described as arena rock for abandoned arenas and I think that is wonderfully descriptive. The songs are smart and long-arched and loud. This song, like so many in this collection, is haunted by the attraction of Jesus and the impossibility of the church. It is autobiographical, I suspect. It is definitely true.
- Will Butler – Son Of God:
If pressed to explain how much I loved Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell, I’d say it is my favourite album since Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. The Arcade Fire are among my very favourites and so the first solo album by Will Butler was bound to get a lot of my attention. This song is again about Jesus and ethics. Squaresville central.
- Vandaveer – However Many Takes It Takes:
After that big fancy conference, Taido and I spent a weekend in New York, wearing holes in our shoes as we sprinted around the place. The first night there, after a heavenly dinner on a park bench in Union Square, we went to the Bowery Ballroom to see a band for whom Vadaveer supported. Vandaveer were better and this – yet another Squaresville tune about searching for salvation but not finding it – is my favourite of their songs.
- Sufjan Stevens – Drawn to the Blood:
One of the (many) reasons Christianity is so deeply bloodless in the West is that it is presented as a solution to a problem. Lonely? Find community at church! Guilt-ridden? Find serenity in the liturgy! Nihilistic? Find meaning in the Gospel! These are half-truths and full lies. When the God of Elijah is your lover, life does not suddenly have meaning. Guilt does not suddenly lessen its grip. Loneliness does not magically stop stalking. The lyrics of this song fall away half way through but the story it tells swells on. Sufjan is putting aural shape around the stumbling that faith in the West in this age consists of.
- Alessia Cara – Here:
An introvert’s anthem.
- John Moreland – Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars:
I discovered this guy in early November and I basically haven’t stopped listening to his album since then. This is basically a thesis-statement-song for Squaresville: “Life will make you homesick for a home you’ve never had.”
- Jason Isbell – 24 Frames:
I suspect Isbell was the most commonly occurring artist in the whole batch of last year’s Best Ofs and his new album is likely to also feature heavily in various playlists. “You thought God was an architect; now you know he’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow”? Squaresville: Yet another song about being unable to reconcile the deep mysteries of life’s hardness with the ever-present promises of God.
- Glen Hansard – Winning Streak:
I remember a friend telling me a story about how, as a young musician, he encountered Glen Hansard and the Oscar-winner (who was then not yet a famous Oscar-winner) was a right dick to him. I probably mis-remembered it, knowing me. But the point is that for years I resisted liking Hansard’s music because he had been mean to my friend. In retrospect, that was both petty and self-defeating because Hansard is consistently astonishing. The latest album is his best yet, richly influenced from all over the place and resounding with a realistic hope that at times appears hymnal. This benediction, this good word of a song, is a fitting way to start landing the best-of.
- Glen Hansard – Grace Beneath the Pines:
And this quiet song of resilience is the perfect way to draw the year to a close. Jason Isbell is a man of deep faith, as are many of the songwriters who feature on my list. But the most uplifting songs come from this Dubliner, who lives a few miles from my family home and from what I can gather, has no religion to speak of. However, to whatever extent the word spirituality means anything, Hansard’s songs are immersed in it.
If you want to download the album, this link should work.
Your Correspondent, He could go on talking, or he could stop