Generally “year end retrospective” and “best of” lists are published before the ball drops, and midnight choruses of Auld Lang Syne rise drunkenly in the streets, but, well, I wasn’t quite ready to look back during the final days of December. With that in mind I am going to leave the light on in 2015 a moment longer and share my 10 favorite discoveries from the year that was — 5 books, 5 albums in no particular order.
John Moreland is the best lyricist since Townes Van Zandt, and I’ll stand on Steve Earle’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.* The Oklahoman has a poetic intuition far beyond his 30 years on this, his 3rd album. When he sings, “Now I’m underneath the rubble, trying not to feel the trouble, and you don’t care for me enough to cry,” I have no reason to doubt he believes it. A sublime ode to heartbreak.
I don’t typically go for live albums, but when you record at a monastery in Northern Ireland that has roots dating to the 6th century you’ve got my ear. This is no beer hall, or cavernous arena, but a space built for choral music. The acoustics are remarkable. It’s a responsive room, and Foy Vance and his band take full advantage with a performance that blurs the line between the sacred and profane.
Jason Isbell is perhaps the only artist who can release an album that both name drops a Sylvia Plath novel and debuts at number one on the Billboard Country charts. His great talent lies in developing characters that within a few subtle lines have earned your compassion or disgust or pity or fear or all of the above. His literary eye here is matched only by his mean guitar work and some searing vocals proving that newfound sobriety suits his art.
Alta Falls was a surprise release by the Barr Brothers in the middle of their tour supporting 2014’s Sleeping Operator. The 5 songs on this EP were, in their words, some of the, “favorite misfits from the Sleeping Operator sessions.” When I saw them perform at Nashville's High Watt this past year it was just prior to Alta Falls’ release. I was dumbstruck at how congruent the sound of a harp and wailing electric guitars could be. Sarah Page’s harp, by the way, was the tallest thing on that stage towering over the quartet by a full head.
I like words, and even though this collection of post-classical piano has none I still count it among my favorites of 2015. It is quiet and contemplative. It is also beautifully corrupted. The sounds of kids at play and birds chirping bleed through onto the tracks giving them an airy and uncloistered sound. Keith Kenniff is Goldmund, a moniker under which he has recorded 7 albums of austere instrumentals.
(Note: Only one of the following was released in 2015, but I’m a slow reader, so they were new to me at least.)
William Gay, a drywall hanger turned writer, did not publish a word until he was 57 years old. When he did he came out swinging. Provinces of Night gives voice to a rural and impoverished Ackerman’s Field, Tennessee, a place every bit as fictional as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, yet every bit as real the patch of ground Gay called home until his 2012 death. The book was adapted into the film, Bloodworth starring Kris Kristofferson in 2010.
Iron War chronicles the 1989 Ironman race, one that is remembered as much for the man who didn’t win as the man who did. For over 8 hours Mark Allen and Dave Scott were literally no more than an arm’s length apart as they pushed each other to the brink of self-destruction. It was a record setting day in Kona where neither man would flinch — until the closing miles.
Grown out of an online post that went viral, The Crossroads of Should and Must focuses on that intersection where every adult has stood wondering which path is theirs. This is not simply pablum about embracing your inner child. Rather, Luna challenges the reader to take a very honest look at where the focus of his or her life is. Then do something about it. It’s pretty heavy stuff. The weight, however, is balanced by playful watercolor illustrations.
“…death seemed the most prevalent feature of the landscape.” Cormac McCarthy’s anti-western masterpiece is loosely based on the exploits of the Glanton Gang, a band of mercenary scalp hunters hired by the Mexican government in 1850 to eradicate the Apache. It is a dark and barbaric tale, and there is no hero, only blood. The book was the basis for Lucero frontman, Ben Nichols’ solo album, The Last Pale Light in the West.
“People don’t buy What you do. They buy Why you do it.” This is the refrain echoed throughout Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. With true-to-life examples he illustrates our biological and psychological attraction to leaders- whether in business, in politics, or in life- who are clear on their Why before ever considering their What or even How. As Sinek cleverly sums up his TED Talk, “Dr. King gave the I Have a Dream speech, not the I Have a Plan speech."
“And surely you’ll buy your pint cup, and surely I’ll buy mine
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
Happy New Year, all. May yours be a healthy and prosperous one.