Friday, January 16, 2015

That Song Belongs To Me: 2014 in Music

The 16th of the January is, by some reckonings, too late to bother spending time reflecting on the previous year, but this blog has never been all that concerned with timeliness anyway. I also, famously (as famous as I can be to the three regular readers I have) am not a huge fan of regular year-end lists: while they can be useful, I certainly didn't listen to enough music myself throughout the year to form any kind of authoritative list. I listened to a lot of good music - some of which was from this year - but the year ended early for me on that score.

Back in July, I found out the store where I'd worked for nearly 5 years was closing by the end of September. I wasn't devastated exactly, but it meant an upheaval. There were times over the course of the next three months that I felt broken and lost, confused how to proceed. It wasn't just that I was losing income (I was fairly sure I could find a way to make money) it was that I was losing something that provided a lot of stability in my daily routine. Something that, in a way, had defined me since the middle of my undergrad years.




It was kind of fitting that, up to that point of the year, my favourite album had been - and I still think it's the best thing I heard in 2014 - Beck's Morning Phase. It wasn't a breakup album per se, but it dealt with a lot of complex emotions, this kind of guilty, misbegotten happy-sad. Trying to reconcile the despair at the end of something with the possibilities presented by the new beginning. There were other personal issues floating around in those days, and the giant amorphous bummer capped by the glimmer of hopalreadye that the Beck album represented became the soundtrack to my summer.

I was also working a lot. Not that I wasn't already pretty much doing full weeks, but when the closeout sale kicked into high gear, work suddenly felt like work. There was a ton of upkeep to be done with the store, new temp co-workers to train, and the customers required more attention than they usually had. It was like Christmas in August. It was my job to keep customers aware of what the sales were (and more importantly, what they weren't) and what the store going out of business meant (for the record, it was due to the mall wanting to downsize us and raise our rent - basically pushing us out - rather than actually going out of business.) The days were longer and harder than I was used to and I felt very on-edge for a lot of it. I listened to "The Message" by the Furious Five and "The Magnificent Seven" by the Clash on constant repeat because I felt those songs best summed up my state of mind at the time. Granted, they're about urban angst and I was feeling a thoroughly suburban angst, but that's the power of music.
We turned the radio off. We already took every opportunity to shirk our head office-mandated playlist, with 8-hour days spent listening to a 3-hour playlist getting on everyone's last nerve. Now that we were circling the drain it seemed really pointless to bother. We started picking CDs off the shelf that we figured everyone would like. Sometimes it was new stuff that we could really get into, like First Aid Kit, sometimes it was something old and dependable like Fleetwood Mac or Paul Simon. Over the years, I'd gotten very good at picking the exact right common ground between my tastes and those of my current co-worker. 80's mixes with Bev, Queen with Oral, Billy Joel with Meg.
On our last day of business, I devised a few lengthy playlists designed to run until our last minute (when of course "Closing Time" by Semisonic would play.) It was designed to feature as many epic "goodbye"-related songs as I could devise, some of which were explicit ("Freebird," "The Final Countdown") others were more abstract ("Hey Jude," "You Shook Me All Night Long," whose inclusion my co-worker Sarah told me she didn't understand.) Some were obscure, like R.E.M.'s "We All Go Back To Where We Belong," and some were just songs I liked hearing. The killer moment was when I booted up the third and final playlist after a brief pause calling everyone's attention to it - and it began with Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." The crowd didn't go wild, but my managers did. I almost wanted to just play that song on a loop for our final half hour of business, but I didn't want to troll anyone. I got a little greedy though, including the whole Abbey Road medley in a flourish of pretention - especially since Oral turned it off about ten minutes before close to get people to hurry out of the store. I did manage to get Semisonic in as the final song played as the last customers filed out (Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end, after all.)
Before I even knew the store was closing, I would often tell people that as soon as I no longer worked there I would immediately stop being current on music. That wasn't far off, although I did get a Spotify account and occasionally peruse its new releases. But for the most part, I sank into the comfort of old favourites... sort of. Since late 2012 I have been completely obsessed with R.E.M., so I took the time to listen to some of their lesser-known albums and I wound up listening to the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (from 1996) on a constant repeat. It didn't have a lot of hits on it ("Electrolite" and "New Test Leper" were on the 2-disc album I had been devouring for 2 years, and "E-Bow the Letter" was also a minor hit.) It's actually a really excellent album. Most of the 14 tracks have their own vibe, which feels contemporary to '96, in a way that enables them to feel fresh nearly 20 years later. Most of the experiments they lace into their sound, (as in the slinky opening track "How The West Was Won and Where it Got Us" and the 7-minute-plus "Leave") work well. The songwriting and playing is often profoundly affecting ("Be Mine,") or otherwise roaringly awesome ("The Wake-Up Bomb," "Binky the Doormat," "Departure") They show what a smart and versatile band they are without sacrificing their rock cachet. If I could recommend one thing I listened to in 2014, it would be an album from 1996.
Possibly the best thing to come out of the year 2014 was the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy. To me it was perfect, even if every single track on it wasn't already a favourite of mine (I wasn't alone, as Meg particularly hated The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb," but otherwise loved the disc.) It had a great combination of tunes you were vaguely familiar with ("Moonage Daydream" is not even the fourth Bowie song you would think of when you think about Ziggy Stardust) tunes you genuinely loved (Hey there "I Want You Back" and "Aint No Mountain High Enough") and tunes you could just associate with moments from the movie (Chris Pratt's amazing "Come And Get Your Love" dance.) Peter Quill/Starlord hadn't been on Earth since the 80's, when his mom, who obviously had Rob (High Fidelity) Gordon-liked senses when it came to mixtapes, left him the Awesome Mix. It gave him an impression of his home planet that was varied and kitschy, pulling from several different corners of culture across several decades. One of the best lines in the film is when Quill, offended that one of his jailers is listening to his tape of "Hooked on a Feeling" by Blue Swede, proclaims that the song "Belongs to him," and you know it's not just because the Walkman is his property, but because the contents of that tape are who he is.
The success of that mix kind of validates my idea that music exists beyond its time and place. Most of them were already pretty old and out of style when Quill was taken into space, and are of course much older now, and much of the audience only knows them from that movie, but that doesn't make them any less special or important. They belong to all of us, at whatever time we choose. As I always say, a lot of great music came out this year, some of it I discovered in time, some of it I have yet to hear. But this was what the year 2014 sounded like to me. I'm doing a bit more writing about music now, so I can't wait to see what 2015 brings.

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