What is it with European’s love of awful ’70s, English-language music? Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain—it’s everywhere, in cabs, restaurants, shops. Elevators seem to favor hypnotic, ’70s “New Age-y” stuff that leaves you wobbly when you exit.
On a recent visit to Alsace with our friends, travel guide extraordinaire Rossana Strunce and her husband David, we stayed four nights in the beautiful Medieval village of Obernai, in a nice hotel. At least twice a day, sometimes more, we walked up the stairs to our rooms to the sounds of “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. A week later, a coffee shop in Madrid was playing a version of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” that sounded like it was recorded by the lounge act at a Howard Johnson.
I nearly wept.
There; that’s out of my system. Actually I found The Year in Music 2015 to be another wonderful experience of discovery old and new. I find myself more and more rediscovering one particular artist every year, and this past year in was Curtis Mayfield. What a genius that man was. It was actually a ten-year-old tribute CD that rekindled my interest in Mayfield. It remains kindled. His melodic style, personal warmth and inspirational wisdom are unrivaled. And the songs are so good. The Anthology 1961–1977 album is a good place to start.
As for more current stuff, last year sealed the deal with Alabama Shakes and me. I very much liked 2012’s Boys & Girls, but 2015’s Sound & Color has me officially infatuated with Brittany Howard. That woman is a force of nature, and she’s joined Dan Auerbach as current musicians from whom I like everything they do. For Auerbach in 2015, that meant a new record from his take-a-break-from-the-Black-Keys side project The Arcs. Yours, Dreamily has more influences than I am smart enough to recognize other than saying I must like them all.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is a production masterpiece and its influence will be felt on hip-hop for years. I guess I appreciate it more than enjoy it. And while I know how cool you all are about the boundaries of artistic expression, I gotta warn you—Lamar’s lyrics can be a little hard to handle. Courtney Barnett’s lyrics, on the other hand, are as clever as can be. But clever was about it for Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, and I needed more than clever. It’ll make most top ten albums of the year lists, but not mine. Neither will Wilco’s Star Wars. I may need to slow down trying to force Wilco on myself. Not so with Keith Richards, whose Crosseyed Heart feels as smart and comfortable as a glass of really good Cab while wearing your favorite jeans and T-shirt. Keef remains one smooth dude and I loved this record.
But the music highlight of the year for me was actually a book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, by Madison writers and professors Doug Bradley and Craig Werner. Impeccably researched, creatively styled and infused with heart for both veterans of that world-changing war and music the authors correctly offer as the “soundtrack” for the war, it is a book one hears as much as reads. If you are, like me, of a certain age, the songs will evoke powerful memories and emotions. In the end, I realized that while the book itself makes the case for the role of music in helping soldiers cope with an extraordinarily complex war, that same music for me—blessed by the ping-pong-ball gods with a draft lottery number in the high 280s that kept me “out of that place”—explained the war and the times and the world as I experience them.
That’s what music does. “What’s Going On” was, and is, one of those songs. And thus, Madrid coffee shop, I rest my case.