A Year Through Music
There’s something about the end of the year, more particularly the last column of the year, that always brings music to my mind. I synthesize the events of a year in the context of the music I listened to, discovered, sometimes tried to play, and was thus influenced by. Politics, elections, global affairs, love and loss are tempered for me by the soundtrack I cobble together each year. Thinking back on what I heard and what it felt like and meant to me helps me make sense of what twelve months ago was an uncertain future and now is history.
I discovered Fado this year during a visit to Portugal, where its recognition as a musical genre dates back to 1820 or earlier. I’ve never heard a description of Fado that does not include the word mournful and usually melancholy, loss and longing as well. I’m still learning from the fifty collected songs and 260-page book I picked up in Lisbon, but I can’t imagine trying to understand Portugal and its people without understanding Fado. A year ago much of the music of 2013 accompanied my regular drives to Milwaukee to visit my father. He died this June, and the last few drives to hospice inevitably included some Fado.
Of the musicians who died in 2014 (and I’m always struck by the realization that I’ll never see them perform again), one truly will never be forgotten. Pete Seeger influenced a lot of the music of my life. His loss leaves a hole in the world. Jesse Winchester’s work in the late ’60s and early ’70s after he fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War, especially the album Third Down, 110 to Go, was an important part of my life in those days. I’m sorry he’s gone.
But the guy I’ll miss the most is Charlie Haden, the incomparable bassist I so wanted to emulate when I dreamed of playing that exquisite instrument. His last album, a duet with another of my favorite musicians, pianist Keith Jarrett, was recorded while Charlie was actively dying. It’s called Last Dance and it tops my Best of 2014 list.
JJ Cale died in 2013, but this year his close friend Eric Clapton and a number of fellow Cale admirers like Tom Petty and Willie Nelson released The Breeze: An Appreciation of JJ Cale. Clapton and Mark Knopfler do a version of a Cale song I’d never heard before, “Someday,” that tops my list of best songs of the year.
While I try to be a little careful about anything that smacks of novelty, I can appreciate a one-hit wonder as much as the next guy. I may be wrong about St. Paul & The Broken Bones, but even if they do nothing else, “Call Me” from Half The City was a great find. Do yourself a favor and check out the video version online.
Neil Young released two new albums at the age of sixty-nine, and while A Letter Home is Young at his quirkiest—it’s recorded in an old-fashioned, do-it-yourself, recording contraption the size of a phone booth—and half of Storytone is done with a ninety-four-piece orchestra and the other half solo, which some folks just won’t like, I liked them both. They were both better than David Crosby’s new album. I also liked the mammoth, four-CD release that captures the tumultuous 1974 tour by Young and Crosby with Stills and Nash, new stuff from Broken Bells, The Roots, U2, Jack White’s terrific Lazaretto and Turn Blue by the Black Keys, my second favorite album of 2014.
I bought a new guitar this year. I have a feeling it’ll be my last. I love the ones I have, and I really don’t need any more. Still, it’s an interesting feeling. It certainly defines the year for me more than most of what passed for news.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.