Hard to believe, but 2017 is over.
Oh, there are still a couple weeks (and hence a couple columns) left in the year, but I’m writing those pieces at the same time I’m writing this one, so as far as I’m concerned, by the time you read this, 2017 will be over. In some ways this year crawled by, the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty so great that it felt like I couldn’t make it through another week of it. But in others, it disappeared right from under me, impervious to my attempts to hold on to it.
So here we are at the end of the year, with still so many things to talk about. I’m going to pull double duty this week, combining two columns that are usually their own beasts. The idea is to spend less time and fewer words on both of them, so let’s see how I do.
First up is my annual survey of Christmas music. Now, I love Christmas music. Love. It. In many ways, this is my favorite time of year, simply because of the beautiful music. Christmas carols, old-time holiday ballads, new Christmas-themed tunes, I love all of it. Christmas music fills me with peace and joy, reminds me of simpler and better times, transports me in ways I can’t explain. It is its own particular kind of magic, the kind with a dusting of snow on the ground, colored lights on trees with brightly wrapped presents beneath them, and midnight church services. (I’ve attended midnight Mass at a Catholic church every Christmas eve for the past 20+ years.)
Usually I have a rule. A yule rule, if you will. I will not listen to Christmas music until the day after Thanksgiving, and I will not continue listening to it past Christmas. But this year, I broke that rule like an ornament swatted off the tree. I found that I couldn’t give myself a reason not to be comforted by this magical music until the end of November. So it’s been a non-stop holiday jukebox at my house for the past month. And I don’t regret a thing. I may keep listening to Christmas tunes well past new year’s, and I expect not to regret that either.
Every year I buy a stocking-full of new Christmas tunes to hang alongside the Sufjan Stevens and Aimee Mann and Timbre and other favorites, and this year was no exception. Rockford, Illinois’ own Cheap Trick was first out of the gate with their first holiday record, Christmas Christmas, on Oct. 20. (Yes, before Halloween. In prior years, that might have bugged me, but not in this one.) It’s a blast. It continues the loud-and-proud vibe of We’re All Alright, released this summer, and includes a number of strange yet apt covers, including Joey Ramone’s “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight),” the Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” and most awesomely, Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz’ “I Wish It Was Christmas Today,” from their enduring Saturday Night Live skit. It’s just so much fun.
Speaking of fun, Hanson stepped up next with their terrific second X-mas album, Finally It’s Christmas. I love Hanson. I will probably always love Hanson. Seconds into the horn-driven title track of this album, I had a massive grin on my face. I had to listen to the song twice, I loved it so much. The rest of the album follows suit – it’s a fun romp through some expected classics (“Winter Wonderland,” “Blue Christmas,” a neat mash-up of “Joy to the World” and “Go Tell It On the Mountain”) and five winning originals, including the lovely “Peace on Earth.” Endless kudos to the Hanson brothers for ignoring the naysayers and doing their thing their way for 25 years now.
Speaking of individuality, there’s Sia. There’s really no one like her, as she proves once again on Everyday It’s Christmas. This record contains no covers, no carols, no classics. It’s ten new Sia songs with a holiday flavor. Who does that? Well, she does, and it works. This is a quirky and danceable album of synth-pop goodness, from the first note of “Santa’s Coming for Us” to the last of “Underneath the Christmas Lights.” Only Sia would write a song like “Puppies are Forever,” an enchanting and catchy reminder that puppies make for bad Christmas gifts. Everyday It’s Christmas is pure Sia (I mean, check out that cover) and quite unlike anything else I own.
Speaking of being unlike anything else I own, I will admit that my heart raced a bit when Ronnie Martin, he of Joy Electric and Said Fantasy, announced a new Christmas CD. Martin is a true original, working solely in analog synthesizers and creating magical fairy lands all on his own. Joy Electric’s one Christmas album is a delight, so I was looking forward to Said Fantasy’s first, Carols Gloria. Alas, despite being sold as a full-length, Carols Gloria turns out to be 14 minutes long, consisting of four instrumental covers and one new vocal tune. It’s fine, it’s just too short. I’m not sure why Martin stopped where he did, or why he bothered to press these keyboard squiggles to disc, but this feels like getting the cherry without the sundae. I like it, don’t get me wrong. Martin is always worth hearing. I just want more of it.
Speaking of wanting more of it, the big winner this year – much to my surprise – is Tom Chaplin. The hopefully once and future singer of Keane has given us his first holiday album, Twelve Tales of Christmas, and if you don’t know much about him (in and outside of Keane), you might be expecting a sugary crowd-pleaser. But it comes as no shock to me that what Chaplin has made instead is a melancholy pop album about the uncomfortable and sad emotions this time of year can stir up.
Twelve Tales is full of heartbreak and hope. Eight of its songs are originals, some with only a tenuous connection to Christmas (like “Say Goodbye” and “Follow My Heart”), and its four covers are delightfully off-kilter choices. I’m an enormous fan of the opening take on “Walking in the Air,” Howard Blake’s centerpiece song for the animated wonderama The Snowman. It’s astonishingly beautiful. Chaplin also takes on Joni Mitchell and the Pretenders with the voice of a snow angel.
But it’s the originals that will keep you coming back. In plain-spoken language, Chaplin lays bare his heavy heart, paying tribute to those who died this year on “We Remember You This Christmas,” trying to find hope on “Under a Million Lights” and grabbing on to any glimmer of encouragement on “For the Lost.” His finest here is “Midnight Mass,” a song so beautiful it makes me tear up every time. (I was not surprised to find that it was co-written by Aqualung’s Matt Hales.) I want this to be a fixture of every Christmas for the rest of my life. It’s that lovely. I’m so glad it exists.
Tom Chaplin has made a Christmas album that is true to the year. It’s been a rough one for me and everyone I know, and the season often leaves me sadder in ways I can’t explain. Chaplin has tapped into that, gracing these pretty and heartfelt songs with that incredible voice. As much as I want new Keane music, if his solo career continues to be this excellent, I’ll be happy. Well, sad and mournful, as fits this music. But also very happy.
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Of course, another tradition around these parts is the year-end top 10 list. I’ll be posting mine next week. Yes, next week. Hard to believe it’s here already. But we covered that ground.
I have only a few honorable mentions this year, and I’d like to list them off for you now. But first, we need to talk about an album you won’t see here, or in next week’s list. Brand New’s Science Fiction found its way into one of my quarterly reports this year, and might have ended up on my top 10 list, if not for these stomach-churning accusations against frontman Jesse Lacey.
Lacey has not denied the allegations, and has apologized. But I can’t see clear to awarding him a spot on my list. A friend of mine (who is a bigger Brand New fan than anyone I know) put it best: since Lacey used his position in Brand New to entice these young girls, the band has been a force for harm in the world. I can’t ignore that, and I can’t reward it. Make no mistake, Science Fiction was one of my favorite things from this year. I will probably never listen to it again. I’m glad the band has canceled their tour, and I hope Lacey gets the help he needs.
The one album this year I wish I could include is Sara Groves’ Abide with Me. As a collection of old hymns, it runs afoul of my rules requiring original songs to qualify. God knows Groves can write those, and I’m looking forward to the next time she does. But this year, she chose to sing songs of comfort, songs that got her through, and the result was stunningly beautiful. Ineligible, but stunningly beautiful.
My honorable mentions began this year with Stephin Merritt, who, under his Magnetic Fields alias, gave us his 50 Song Memoir. Merritt hasn’t taken hold of a project like this since 69 Love Songs, and this one is almost as good. The box set contains one song for each of his 50 years of life, tracing his journey from childhood to now with his usual wit and whimsy.
A couple of old geezers turned in swell new projects this year. Roger Waters took on Trump and Brexit with Is This the Life We Really Want, his first new album in 25 years. It is typically dense and foreboding, but has a decidedly atypical swing toward love and hope near the end. And Robert Plant led his Sensational Space Shifters through a set of gorgeous numbers that emphasized his weathered yet magnificent voice on Carry Fire.
One of the year’s most haunting records was all about the reality of death. Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me traces the days and weeks after Phil Elverum’s wife Genevieve passed on, and finds him trying to put the pieces of his life back together. It’s naked and painful and difficult to listen to, like much of the best and most honest art is. Death hung over the final album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman, as well. It’s a typically excellent set of songs, only made more poignant by the fact that we will never hear more.
Kendrick Lamar’s Damn has ended up on most of the lists I have seen so far, but it isn’t on mine. It’s good – he is still the very best in the game – but it’s looser and less interesting thematically than his best work. It’s the sound of the world’s best rapper letting his hair down, and while much of it sounds generic and many of the lyrics feel like first drafts, Lamar is still worth hearing.
And now we’re at the Number Elevens, three albums that could easily have been in my list. I would never argue with anyone who considers any of these one of the year’s ten best. First up is the amazing Elbow, who hit a new high with Little Fictions. These glorious songs of hope have been fine companions this year. Jason Isbell also hit a new high with The Nashville Sound, his most consistent group of songs. (“If We Were Vampires” is one of 2017’s best.) And Australia’s Husky hit the hat trick with their awesome third record, Punchbuzz. The sound is more electronic, but the songs are just as captivating as ever.
That’ll do it for this week. Next week, the top 10 list. Be there. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.