For all the music I covered in the last two posts, if I’m honest with myself, there are three records that really defined the year for me. Whether the rest of the music world thinks so or not, these connected deeply with me in some season of 2011, reminded me why music matters, and continue to move and surprise me with every listen. I hope you’ll forgive the lengthiness of this post and hear nothing but my enthusiasm.

Spring: I always sort of liked Paul Simon. I Just didn’t know it until this year. As a kid nurtured on the music of my parents’ generation, I was familiar with a number of his songs from the Simon & Garfunkel days — “The Sound of Silence,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Homeward Bound” — and more recently, my dad showed me the delightful video “You Can Call Me Al,” which I’m pretty sure was in rotation when he rocked to sleep with MTV. (True story.) It took a very convincing review from The Rabbit Room to finally make me investigate his solo work, starting with his newest record So Beautiful Or So What. And oh, I’m glad I did.

As impressive as his creative sounds and career longevity are, there’s a reason he’s considered one of our greatest living songwriters. He’s a modern bard for sure, with lyrics that are evocative and ring with truth. In a few lines, he can create a character you care about and weave a story with incredible wit and pathos. “Rewrite” is a fantastic example, in which a father holding down at a car wash talks about “working on a rewrite” that reveals itself to be a reimagined life.

I’ll eliminate the pages 
Where the father has a breakdown 
And he has to leave the family 
But he really meant no harm 
I’m gonna substitute a car chase 
And a race across the rooftops 
When the father saves the children 
And he holds them in his arms

I could cite many more songs that captured my inner poet’s heart and imagination, but why do that when I could send you to the review that made me buy it? After this, I picked up Graceland, saw him in concert, and started digging into the Paul Simon: Songwriter set. Needless to say, I’m a fan now.

Listen to “Rewrite”

***

Summer: It all begins with 8 seconds of silence, a pregnant pause before a wandering lone guitar melody cracks through. Ambient vocals add atmosphere, a soft yet militant drum beat and layers of plaintive falsetto join in. This is “Perth,” setting the stage for Bon Iver’s eponymous new record, and taking Justin Vernon and his band far beyond the “broken hearted indie folk singer in a cabin” lore surrounding his career. 
Up until now, I was largely unfamiliar with Bon Iver, but this… This was magic to me, a record I revisited over and over. It’s neither flashy and bombastic, nor is it simple. It builds layers of sound, vocals, and instrumentation so thickly you can hear something new with every listen. Pitchfork described it as an album about memory, and given the abstract nature of everything from the cover art to the song titles, I can see no other explanation. The tracks are named after places real and imagined; the lyrics are largely nonsensical, until a powerful line stands out in stark relief, grabs the heart, and holds on. For example, these from “Holocene”: “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent… I can see for miles, miles, miles…”
I can’t express what I love about this in words beyond that. Sometimes, I play it on my drive home, as the sun is going down and the world becomes a darkening dream. I play it loudly in my car and forget, or remember. Sometimes I listen close for new sounds or let myself get caught up in the music. That kind of music is a rare sort of magic.

Listen to “Perth” / Pitchfork Review

*** 
Autumn: It was a rainy, gloomy Saturday morning (at least, it’s gloomy and rainy as I remember it) at the end of a draining week, at the start of a day marked by a tired, empty feeling. I slipped a CD into my car stereo just to break the silence. Part of me wanted to pray, vent it out, but the words wouldn’t come. And then by chance or maybe grace, words I knew by heart broke through my clouded thoughts and settled there as if I heard them for the first time: 

“I’ve spent some days looking for a length of rope
And a place to hang it from the end of my hope
Where I thought hope had ended, I always find a little bit more.”
So I cried. And found the words to talk to God… or maybe they found me. And my quieted soul said thanks, mostly because somewhere a writer had the courage to commit them to a record and send his own pain, hopes, and fears out into the world. For that, Jason Gray’s third album A Way To See in the Dark is, if I’m honest with myself, my album of the year.
I’ve already written enough about this record from the music reviewer’s perspective. When I received my pre-release six months ago, I confess that excited as I was to hear what a favorite artist had been up to all year, I was a little scared of it. Would it be the best, or, in my mind, eclipsed by his last record? And how in the world would I keep myself objective?
So I listened, with walls up. By the third spin, I was realizing that it really just might be his best work. By the fifth, I was emailing Jason just to tell him thanks.
Over time, this quiet, unassuming album, so catchy and poppy on the surface, eased its way into my heart and stayed in rotation long after the review was posted. What I respect most is the difficult balancing act he manages, somewhere between keeping it accessible enough for the masses, but honest and true his folk singer roots and convictions about great art. In a way, the lyrics in this album do the same thing Bon iver’s music did for me; they unfurl slowly, a new turn of phrase or perspective emerging on every repeat. (once, just a month or so ago, I yelled out loud because I finally understood the second verse in “Without Running Away”… Or do I?) 
I know this didn’t top a lot of last year’s lists, and perhaps, even in CCM circles, it may be woefully left behind with so many higher profile releases surrounding it. But for me, this is a special record and a kind of grace. My friend Emily said it “meets you in the dark, then takes your hand and shows you the way out.” I say I started out listening because I needed it for a review, then never stopped because I needed it for my soul.

Listen to “Without Running Away” / Again, my JFH review.

***

Honorable mentions (because my list was too long and ridiculous): EisleyThe Valley (indie rock with beautiful harmonies), Mutemath – Odd Soul (grungy 70’s funkified indie rock), Florence + the MachineCeremonials (the best things about Lungs turned up to 11), Sara Groves – Invisible Empires (a truly beautiful and quirky songwriter folk/pop record), Hyland – Weights & Measures (fun alt-rock that reminds me of old-school Anberlin and fills a void in my collection) The Hawk in Paris – His + Hers EP (80s throwback synth side project by Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine and friends) and M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (22 tracks of grand and glorious electronic soundscapes)

Next Awesome of the Year: Books. It won’t be this long, I promise.
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