My Top Ten Musical Moments of 2014

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Music means a lot to me. I suspect there are a few of us out there. We are the kind of people who burst into spontaneous song if prompted by the right phrase or even just the right word (my kids think I have a song for everything… they may be right). We are people who, when asked, “What’s your favorite band?” or “What kind of music do you listen to?” give blank stares for a few moments, urrr and ummm, look at our shoes and feel quite awkward and often totally speechless. Why? Because those are such huge questions you might as well be asking, “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”

Forty-two.

Okay, so that was an easy question to answer. But for we the Uber Music-Lovers, we the Pop Music-Snobbists, we the Keepers of the Backbeat, asking us to pick a favorite band, album, song or genre is like asking Ma and Pa Ingalls to pick a favorite daughter – It is unthinkable that there is even an appropriate response to that question!

Life is music. Music is life. I could not give you an accurate autobiography without the inclusion of lots and lots of music. In fact, when I think of my own life there is a soundtrack playing in the background: age 6, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce; age 10, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John; age 16, “Truckin'” by the Grateful Dead; age 20, “Radio Free Europe” by REM… you get the picture. Music, life. Life, music.

So it is probably not a stretch that when I consider the year that was, I think in terms of musical moments. These are not just favorite songs or albums from 2014, they are moments in time; moments that defined my year and helped to keep me sane and alive. To paraphrase Bono when he was talking about the Clash, Music isn’t life or death to me; it is more important than that. 

So here are my Top Ten Musical Moments for 2014. There is no way I can put these in any order of importance so I present them unadorned with numbers and in random order…

  •  Seeing the Strumbellas live in concert
The Strumbellas at Ottawa Folk Fest 2014. I'm one of the heads near the front!

The Strumbellas at Ottawa Folk Fest 2014. I’m one of the heads near the front!I

I was able to finally take in this up-and-coming Canadian pop-folk band at Ottawa’s Folk Fest this past September. I first heard the Strumbellas just over a year ago and was immediately taken in by their sound, song craft and dance-able tunes about death. Since first hearing them it has been a Strumbellas year for me; whatever else I was listening to, I always gravitated back to listening to them. They helped me through the year, no doubt about it. But getting to see them live was a magical musical moment for me. They were fun, full of life and so damn accessible – everything I imagined they’d be and more. Stomping, singing and clapping along on that unseasonably cold September night was bliss.

  • Listening to “Bad Blood” from beginning to end

bastille_2Like so many people, I had heard Bastille on the radio and been transfixed by the songs “Pompeii” and “Bad Blood”. Once or twice a year I am blown away by hearing something that sounds so different and fresh from the usually stream of crap. Bastille provided those moments for me this year. But purchasing and then listening to their album Bad Blood from beginning to end was a profound musical moment for me. So many artists are trapped in the new singles-creation mode demanded by our i-Tunes world. Often it seems like albums are once again just collections of individual songs. But Bastille made an album that grabs you by the throat and will not let you go from first song to last. I was gobsmacked.

  • Song leading and inspiration at Grow
The Grow Guitar. Tempera on canvas by me.

The Grow Guitar. Tempera on canvas by me.

Not only do I listen to a lot of music but I am fortunate enough to be someone who plays and sings music on a weekly basis. I work for a day program called Grow that serves adults with developmental disabilities. One of my duties there is song-leading in what we call “music class”, two to three times a week. With the beat-up salmon-colored Grow guitar I lead people through a wide variety of songs, from “Old MacDonald” to “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Hey Ho”. These times are really a collection of musical moments, each with their own personality; sometimes routine, sometimes fun, sometimes something almost indescribable. What I experience in these moments, however, is music as pure as it can be; a form of communication that cuts through the divisions of who is “normal” and who we deem is not. At times, I have tapped into music beyond performance or expertise; it is music as conversation, often with those who do not have words to express what is in their hearts. It is transcendent.

  • The Strypes convincing me Rock n Roll isn’t dead
Ireland's own The Strypes

Ireland’s own The Strypes

Despite the popularity of bands like Foo Fighters and the Black Keys, there seem to be no shortage of alarmists proclaiming the imminent death of Rock n Roll. This happens every few years. I remember the same discussion happening right before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out and knocked us all back on our collective ass. The reality is that Rock n Roll ebbs and flows but it never dies. Likely it never will, at least not in my lifetime. How can I be so sure? Because of bands of teenagers like the Strypes. I was blow away when I first heard them on the radio this year. Here are four young lads from Ireland blasting through songs that take 1960’s British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Yardbirds as inspiration. They kick out the jams and, more than that, have given a kick-start to Rock n Roll for the digital generation. Long live Rock! Long live the Strypes!

  • Lorde emerging as the voice of her generation
Lorde on the cover of Rolling Sone, January 2014

Lorde on the cover of Rolling Sone, January 2014

Speaking of teenagers… Certainly the biggest teen sensation in music this past year was likely the most unexpected. Lorde is the anti-diva. No twerking, no sex-kitten pouting, no headline-grasping alcohol-drenched antics, just some of the most riveting music produced in the last decade. When I first heard her sing “Royals” it was like someone putting me in a trance. And that someone turned out to be only seventeen at the time.

After getting the chance to listen to her whole album I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t just another pop star on the rise; this was someone who would redefine music and popular culture for her generation. If that seems like an overstatement, consider what a very young Bob Dylan became. He had a voice and a songwriting ability far beyond his years. She has that same ability to rise above her contemporaries and take her own unique place in music. This year I caught a glimpse of the future of pop music and, Lorde, it looks good.

  • John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett saving me from a Super Blow-Out
Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, ON, Feb. 2, 2014

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, ON, Feb. 2, 2014

I am a huge music fan, which has already been established. I am also a fan of the Denver Broncos. Having grown up in Colorado, it was hard not to be indoctrinated into the religion of Blue and Orange devotion. Guilty as charged. So last January I was ecstatic when they were going to play the Super Bowl on my birthday! When I told my wife, she started to tear up. Not because she was so happy for me but because she had bought two tickets to a concert for the night of Feb. 2, 2014 – my birthday and the night of the Big Game. She was hoping to surprise me.

I love music and I love the Denver Broncos but I love my darling wife a whole lot more. I told her there was only one option for me: Going with her to the concert and setting aside my Broncos-infatuated self for those few hours.

Turns out the concert by two wonderful songwriters, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, was a dazzling musical moment in my year. Not only did I get to go out with my bride, not only did I get to hear some incredible music and hilarious banter from two legends, but I also got to miss the agony of watching my team being humiliated and dismantled by the Seattle Seahawks. In a ’round about way, my love of music kept me from wasting three hours of my life and instead gave me three hours that I will treasure. Touchdown!

  •  Creeping out to Reuben and the Dark

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Another Canadian band that latched onto me was the Alberta-based Reuben and the Dark and their album Funeral Sky. I first heard their song “Rolling Stone” on the radio and I liked it a lot but it sounded very derivative of a band like Mumford and Sons. However, I decided to give their album a try and, well, it is creepin’ good music, man! Dark (as you might guess), forbidding, but very listen-able. Like the best blues and folk music that doesn’t shy away from the shadows of life, Reuben and the Dark go places in their music where most pop groups fear to tread. For that, they earned my praise.

My life this year was full of shadows. The specters of depression, anxiety, relationship conflicts, financial struggles and the usual host of issues that make life a bitch have haunted me this year. Music like this doesn’t bring me farther down, it helps me cope. Maybe that seems funny but music like this takes away the feeling that I am all alone in the dark. Music can do that; it can hold your hand or give you an embrace just when you need it to.

  •  “Hallelujah” and a Christmas reminder of my Mom
My Mom, Eleanor, and my two kids on her 80th birthday, 2012

My Mom, Eleanor, and my two kids on her 80th birthday, 2012

Two years ago, on December 7, 2012, my Mom died after years of struggling through the unrelenting hell that is Alzheimer’s disease. I was there by her beside when she died. I was looking into her eyes as she let out her last rattling breath. I felt so unworthy to be there at that moment but also felt so privileged to be one of the last people to say “I love you” to her and give her permission to “go home”. It was unforgettable.

My siblings and I had got Mom a gift for her birthday that previous spring. It was a digital photo frame that scrolls through photos. We thought this was a nice gift for a woman who treasured family, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The frame had a built in MP-3 player and my brother had put in a number of CDs that my Mom loved. One of them was a recording of Handel’s Messiah.

As my Mom lay dying, the photo frame was gently playing music in the background. My brother had set it to random but at this time it was playing music from Handel’s most famous oratorio. I was aware of the music playing behind a very, very real life drama. But what happened after my Mom died still takes my breath away.

This past Christmas I put The Messiah on our CD player. It was Christmas afternoon, the brunch had been eaten, the gifts had been opened, and my wife and I were just hanging out in our living room. Then the “Hallelujah” chorus kicked in and in that moment I was flooded with memories of my Mom and of being there at the moment of her death.

Two years ago as my brother and I wept and comforted my Dad, grieving the loss of his wife and partner, the “Hallelujah” chorus was playing in the background. I know it sounds like a made-for-TV moment but I am not making it up. It was as if, through music, God was embracing all of us and making it clear that my Mom truly was home.

There are times when musical moments push us beyond self and beyond the pettiness of everyday. That was one of those moments for me.

  •  Playing live music in Whoville
The Whoville house band?

The Whoville house band?

Each year at Christmastime my workplace puts on a Christmas Ball for all the people we support in the Ottawa region. We usually end up with about one hundred clients and staff attending. There is always a theme that gets expressed in the decorations, food, costumes, etc. This year we had “A Very Who Christmas” complete with decorations of the Grinch’s Lair and a Who house, servings of Roast Beast and Who Hash, and brilliantly bright decorations, costumes and crazy hairdos. We also decided to go with live music this year.

I have performed music live in many different settings with many different forms of music. I am not much of a guitar player (“three chords and a cloud of dust” is how I describe it) but I can sing well. However, with my limitations on guitar, accompanying myself as I sing only goes so far. When I can just sing with a group of awesome musicians backing me up, that is a heavenly musical moment. This happened for me at this year’s Grow Christmas Ball.

My favorite moments as a musician are when you feel the joy of collaboration and the joy of being part of something alive and fun. Playing music with four other talented musicians was an early Christmas present to me. The crowd was dancing and singing along. When we were done, one of the people we support asked their staff, “Where did the house band go?” We were the Whoville House Band for a night! It was enough to make anyone’s heart grow three sizes that day.

  • Receiving the gift of a fine acoustic guitar

LHAs I mentioned, I’m not much of a guitar player. But that doesn’t keep me from trying! My other job is as a pastor of a great group of people who know me well; so well in fact that for Christmas they gave me the beautiful guitar pictured above. It was the first acoustic guitar owned by one of the guitarist in the church. He generously has passed it on to me.

Indeed, this was my gracious musical moment of 2014. And it encapsulates so much of what music gives to me to sustain me and lift me up at just the right times.

I’m looking forward to 2015; I may not get any better on guitar but I know for sure that there will be more musical gifts and memories in store.

A very Happy New Year to you all. May it be full of magical, mystical, melodious musical moments for you.

Kids, Your Music is Alright

How do you know you’ve officially entered middle-age? Is it the wrinkles? Is it the grey hair? Is it the socks worn with sandals? No. I believe you’ve officially hit middle-age when you complain about the music of the young generation.

I’ve seen the posts on Facebook: Smug 40-to-50-somethings, no doubt with The Biebs or Miley in mind, proclaiming a generational superiority of music over the teenagers around them. This is nothing new, of course. Each generation believes its music to be vastly better than that “noise” cranked out by the younger generation coming after it. No doubt some adults in Vienna back in the 1770’s thought that new music by that snot-nosed Mozart kid “sucked”. Though they likely said it in German which would’ve sounded even more derisive.

The reality is that our age of pop music has driven musical wedges between generations. We come to associate so much of who we are, what generation we belong to, by the soundtrack that accompanied our youth. Many cling to that music through middle-age and with it clings a sense of it being “real” music, music that mattered, not like the over-produced, pre-packaged crap churned out by no-talent kids and their pushy record companies these days.

Well, as a sometimes smug 40-to-50-something myself, I want to say something to teenagers that maybe they don’t hear so often: “Kids, your music is alright.”

Recently two albums have been in heavy rotation on my playlist. Both albums are created by teenagers. Not twenty-year-olds or thirty-year-olds: teenagers. There are teenage-type themes in both albums but neither is “teeny-bopper” banality. Both are musically satisfying and full of creative energy. Yet the two albums could not sound more different from each other.

The first album is Pure Heroine by the Kiwi ingénue who calls herself Lorde. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, you have no doubt heard her song “Royals”. The song has been played so heavily as to almost feel omnipresent. Lorde’s music is extremely minimalist, very electronic, with an emphasis on an hypnotic beat and her surprisingly wide range of vocal expression, given her young age (seventeen, same age as my son!). Guitars are nowhere to be found on her album. This is atmospheric music dealing with teenage themes of alienation, boredom, and cynicism at the adult world; full of critique of her society and culture. This kid sings intelligent, solid stuff.

Then there is Snapshot, the album by a group of young Irish lads who call themselves The Strypes. From the opening blast of feedback to the final thump of foot pedal on bass drum, these boys take off at full speed and leave clouds of dust behind them. These four, aged 16 to 18, play an extremely guitar driven form of electric blues which brings to mind ’60’s British invasion bands like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds while having the incredible energy of ’70’s English punk rock. This is infectious and highly boogie-able music unapologetically reminiscent of so much great rock-n-roll that came before it. In the song “She’s So Fine”, when they sing one of those great nonsensical blues lines – “She float like a bee but she sting like a butterfly” – I can’t help but smile. Every time. The kids absolutely kick arse.

The kids are alright. The fact is that every generation has produced great music. And every generation has produced drivel. Even the ’60’s generation, a generation that redefined pop music perhaps forever, has to answer for Herman’s Hermits #1 hit, “I’m Henry VIII I Am “. For every classic like  Paul Simon’s hit from 1976, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, there is a “Disco Duck” or a “Muskrat Love”. For every era-defining moment like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” there is a Michael Bolton and his ersatz emoting on his #1 hit cover of “When a Man Loves a Woman”. This is the legacy of popular music: Each generation gives us songs and moments for the ages but also earcandy and earworms that cannot be exorcised from our collective cultural soul.

Why then do grumpy middle-aged folks like myself persist in lambasting the music of the young? I suppose it could be chalked up to revisionist history on our part, conveniently forgetting all the ridiculous music that blared out of our car stereos and cassette-playing boomboxes. It could also be that music moved on and we did not. Pop music is an ever-evolving thing that never really sits still. As you get older, you settle for the music that becomes your “comfort food”, your “happy place”, as you navigate the stresses and harsh realities of adult life. One day you hear some Rap or Emo or Electronica and you scrunch up your face and think, “What the #!@*!# is that???” It’s the sound of music, whether or not it is your generation’s music or not. And it is like a rolling stone; it don’t gather no moss.

So based on my definition to begin this article, have I hit middle-age? Sadly, I think I hit it ages ago as I have always been a multi-generational complainer about popular music. I was griping about young people’s music when I was a young people myself. That’s part of being a music snob, I suppose. So I don’t wear socks with sandals (except if my feet are really cold) but I do most definitely exercise my cranky-old-guy right to rake pop music over the coals when I deem necessary. Guilty as charged.

However, I do keep an ear wide open for what has energy, creativity, insight; for what is pushing boundaries, saying new things, jumping out of the mass of musical mush and screaming, “Here I am!” I love music no matter what the era, no matter what the genre, no matter if it is made by people the same age as my own kids. Even though I’m getting older I don’t want to sit still and miss out on the fun of new music, new expressions, new sounds and new perspectives. Life is too full of great musical opportunities to just gripe at them as they pass by.

So, once again, kids – your music is alright. You’ll contribute your fair share of drivel but don’t believe for a second that you won’t also give us music that is epic, too.

Here’s a link to the Strypes performance of their song “What a Shame” on the Letterman show: