It’s the annual summing-up ritual, the conversations at holiday parties, the directive to compile lists: what’s floored you over the past twelve months? Am I supposed to have an opinion about Gaga and Kanye, or One Direction? I think what people are really asking is, am I missing anything? Am I in the loop? And in that regard, I admit to being almost useless, because what I invariably wind up rattling off are names of artists who, to my circle of acquaintances, might as well be playing for the NHL or publishing short stories in The New Yorker. Here’s what I say: Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, The Mavericks, Pistol Annies, Kacey Musgraves, Guy Clark, Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones (cue glimmers of recognition). I also say that I’ve been listening to a recording of a concert that Bob Dylan gave in Scotland a short time ago: unlike on past tours, the setlists on the current one have been fairly static, but there is no other artist of his generation who has so thoroughly revamped his life repertoire and stripped it of vintage crowd pleasers. I count three songs from the ‘60s in a 20-song set, and let’s see The Stones or McCartney get away with that.
We’re in our separate musical area codes in a world without consensus. No one has to know anything about anything outside the circle he or she has drawn, not since Adele at any rate, and I’m sure there were constituencies where she didn’t register. What does an “album” mean, when you can take any pieces of related music from the internet (let’s say, in Brandy Clark’s case, acoustic performances of songs she co-wrote, “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two,” live versions of album cuts), and make a playlist that is premised on 12 Stories but isn’t exactly 12 Stories? Dylan’s Glasgow 2013 show isn’t any kind of album, but it sort of feels like one, and from what I can glean from the bulletins about the “new” Springsteen “album” High Hopes (his first titled after a song he didn’t write), even he’s pretty much given up sculpting and laboring over an album-length statement: it’s a bunch of stuff. New studio versions of songs that’ve been around for years (“American Skin,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad”), covers (“Dream Baby Dream,” “Just Like Fire Would”). He must figure, why the hell not? What does it matter? It’s for the committed fans, for the tour.
Foreverly, the album (in every sense: it’s cohesive, and it’s a cut-for-cut reimagining of an Everly Brothers LP, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us) by Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones, is almost certainly the quietest album sitting in the top 10 at the moment. It’s the third Everly Brothers tribute album this year, after The Chapin Sisters’ and Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie Prince Billy’s, and as Tom Stoppard says in a recent New York Times interview, “Who didn’t love The Everly Brothers?” I hope Foreverly sends people to Spotify or wherever to hear the original, and creates a little Everly boom (where’s the pure country Everly tribute album?), but I’m happy it was done at all, given the oddity of the concept and the sheer randomness of the pairing of these singers and this music.
I’d throw Foreverly tracks on my 2013 playlist that I’d burn for friends who wanted to know what music made my year bearable. And Musgraves would have a few songs on that, and every one else listed up there at the top, and the acoustic version of “Red” that Taylor Swift did on the CMA’s (see what I mean about non-album things?). And two songs that just knocked the wind right out of me, by the two Clarks. Brandy’s album has more real-life questionable behavior on it (pill-popping, joint-smoking, ex-threatening, adultery-committing, drunk-getting, out-of-wedlock-kid-having) than any other collection of songs this year, I’d guess. But in the middle of all this is “Hold My Hand,” where the singer is with her guy, and sees an old flame of his looking hot, and tells him (or thinks), “This’d be a real good time to hold my hand.” A simple request, you’d think, but with so much heart-tugging emotion that it could be a Tammy Wynette classic.
As for Guy, his wife Susanna died of cancer in 2012. You can see them, young and pretty and denim-clad on the back cover of his 1975 debut album Old No. 1, and it’ll break your heart (there are also ten songs on that album that you absolutely need to have in your life, including the classics “”Desperados Waiting For The Train,” “Like A Coat From The Cold” and “L.A. Freeway”). Clark just turned 72 this month, and he’s frail and worn, but he made an album this year, My Favorite Picture of You, that’s haunted me. It’s as pared down as can be, and starts with a sweet “Cornmeal Waltz,” and then comes the punch: the title song about memory and loss, the things we hold on to. “It’s just a moment in time you can’t have back,” he sings, and I think about all that happened this year, the sadness, the girls who came and went, the friends whose parents passed on, the dashed hopes.
“It’s a thousand words in the blink of an eye
The camera loves you and so do I