T for Tom

Best Music of 2016

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on December 18, 2016

[Critically, there’s some important things to clear our before getting to this: I don’t see the point in this, ranking music, anymore, as I don’t much see in anything since the 8th of November. There are much more pressing and dire needs that demand our attention, but yet, we continue to derive meaning as we can in a world that increasingly drains hope. The little hope that exists to overcome also persists the belief that I am myself unable or unneeded to embark change, that the greater and more able world at large will work out the good from the bad; when I no longer feel that is possible, I will instead be out there working to make change. Until then, I haven’t been and probably won’t ever able to articulate exactly what I feel about these times. The fun has been drained from things I before enjoyed, and that’s depression isn’t it. C’est la vie.]

Best Music of 2016

You will notice a theme emerges among the selections, a theme not of my own doing. The songs and albums present here represent a world-wide collection of artists and people and humans and beliefs, and many if not most have reached the same conclusion: things are bad and getting worse. The music listed here is a lot bit dark, damaging, and hard to listen to for the weak of heart. It’s soul and pattern is rooted in just not being able to find positivity in the current climate, and I hope more people will begin to see that the art reflects the times. This isn’t Britney Spears’s 1996 anymore. This is Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” and Common’s “Black America Again” and Blood Orange’s “Freetown Sound” and the return of A Tribe Called Quest to say something important. I hope everyone starts listening.

Albums

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar

Honorable mention pick because I myself don’t listen to this as much as possible, though I wouldn’t ask that of anyone – this is a dying man’s pitch for relief, and by its power and circumstance deserves ever credit it is given.

  1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Opinions are divided heavily on Bon Iver’s third album, a strange amalgamation of dreams and nightmares filtered through vocoders and auto-tone. Underneath, however, is the same endearing Bon Iver that has always remained more in tune with the human spirit than many others, and yet here it is given Justin Vernon’s full voice and dynamic. I think this record is more clear and concise than his previous.

  1. Whitney – Light Upon The Lake

This album was a white light in a year of dreariness, and was the perfect soundtrack to a summer spent in requiem. It remains my place to go when I need hopeful distraction. A true return to power ballads and pop rock for the ageless.

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – We’ve Got It From Here, Thank U 4 Ur Service

There’s not a song that made my overall list, but that’s not the import of this album – it’s the first in a long line of what I hope is the anthem call for the times: of protest, of the black people, and of fuck this shit. Hip Hop will rule the future again if we hope for a better millennium.

  1. Solange – A Seat at the Table – Cover Art of the Year

See above; though in Solange’s defense, this is the R&B equivalent. The title says it all, which is more good than her sister has ever done for anything. Let’s make more music that demands protest.

  1. DIIV – Is The Is Are

I can’t ever get over just how in touch this record is with a seriously hard-to-pin feeling for our generation: one of onchalance and lack of direction amid chaos. There’s not much use in trying to understand what he’s saying, but the music drives and bloats until reaching a denouement that announces dark defeat, as we all may feel.

  1. Frank Ocean – Blonde

This is a Frank Ocean self-portrait, without his strongest tracks, but with his greatest vision. It’s the album he’s always wanted to make, and of course that means it’s top notch.

  1. Bloc Party – Hymns

This album is nowhere else found in anyone’s Best Of lists, and maybe that’s okay. The album is summed up well when Kele sings “See I don’t know what the future holds / but I hope we see it together / ‘cause rock and roll has got so old.” This is Bloc Party’s first truly sincere effort to speak from their heart, with its slow drag, empty melodies, and dark tones of growing old in a world that just doesn’t get it.

  1. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Every other Best Of list has this album somewhere at 20, which is fine, because no one seems to be able to deny how great it is. But I feel there’s a point everyone has reached where they get tired of repeatedly saying “Radiohead put out the best record of the year” which they seemingly do, and have done here again. A Moon Shaped Pool is their magnum opus, as they’ve found a way to continue to surprise us not by drifting further from the center but instead by writing from the core. The simple acoustic melodies, stripped down production, and earthy tomes are derivative of Thom Yorke’s divorce, but have more to do with coming to peace than continuing to fight. As he cries in “Daydreaming” that the dreamers never learn, but the band is “just happy to serve you.” Their just trying to reconcile that art isn’t and hasn’t been enough, that no one has really ever listened to their pleas, and that life continues. From the best review of this record I read, Pool is a “middle-aged sigh of relief.” I’m right there with them.

  1. The 1975 – i like it when you sleep for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

There are many ways to describe and even listen to this record that reaches 78 minutes full. But amid their scrawling pastiche from power pop to synth rock to disco to hip hop to jazz, The 1975 have created a truly magnanimous piece of work. It’s so rich with details and layers that I continue to discover ways to enjoy each song with every listen. I can easily pick out a few tracks for a quick listen, or take it in full without feeling drained. They’ve found a way to do every thing possible, and pulled it off gloriously.

  1. Jim James – Eternally Even

Another example of using others’ reviews, this album has been described as Jim James’s What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye) moment; that is, that James has reached a boiling point. His music cries for peace, understanding, and effort. Truly workable, physical effort from everyone. In the same way that Radiohead reconciles their place in a hopeless world, James speaks as clearly that he remains Eternally Even in a world where “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger” and things get worse. And in a year without hope, and a year full of records expressing just that, Eternally Even is the king for only just a little bit of hope.

Songs

20. “Kiss It Better” – Rihanna

“Been waiting on that sunshine boy, I think I need that back.”

19. “Angela’s Eyes” – Guy Garvey

“Good book but you got no proof.”

18. “Girl Loves Me” – David Bowie

“Where the fuck did Monday go?”

17. “Waste of Breath” – DIIV

Spot on, listen to this shit: “It’s no good, it’s a waste of breath to tell the man in me that he’s got something better to do.”

16. “Dull Times/The Moon” – Band of Horses

“Listen close wherever you go, dull times let ’em seep into your bones.”

15. “If I Believe You” – The 1975

“I mean, if it was you that made me you probably shouldn’t have made me atheist.”

14. “White Ferrari” – Frank Ocean

“So I text to speak, lesser speeds / Texas speed, yes.”

13. “Landed On Mars” – Atlas Bound

“Got to the side on what I should focus on, I’m just a participant.”

12. “No Matter Where We Go” – Whitney

“We’ll make a livin’ darlin’, down the road.”

11. “Don’t Touch My Hair” – Solange

“Don’t touch my hair when it’s the feelings I wear.”

10. “Moving On” – Roosevelt

“Moving on so I just see this is on my own.”

9. “True Love Waits” – Radiohead

Line of our generation: “I’m not living, I’m just killing time.”

8. “Different Drugs” – Bloc Party

“It’s like we’re on different drugs.”

7. “Normal American Kids” – Wilco

For everyone who’s ever wondered why people try to fit in: “Remind myself long ago, ‘fore I could drive and ‘fore I could vote, all the time holding a grudge ‘fore I knew people could die just because.”

6.“715 – CR∑∑KS” – Bon Iver

“Turn around, you’re my A-team.”

5. “Best To You” – Blood Orange

“Part of me is faking, faking it all just for fun.”

4. “Somebody Else” – The 1975

“I’m looking through you while you’re looking through your phone and leaving with somebody else.”

3. “Present Tense” – Radiohead

“This dance, it’s like a weapon in self-defense against the present tense.”

2. “Here In Spirit” – Jim James

“If you don’t speak out, we can’t hear it.”

1. “Ultralight Beam” – Kanye West

This is the greatest song of the millennium, by a wide and untouchable margin.

“I’m tryin’ to keep my faith.”

 

 

The lot from which I have collected and thus chosen:

The 1975 – i like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

Atlas Bound – Lullaby EP

Bad Suns – Disappear Here

Band of Horses – Why Are You OK

Bat for Lashes – The Bride

Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals – Call It What It Is

Blink 182 – California

Bloc Party – Hymns

Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

Bon Iver – 22, A Million

Chairlift – Moth

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

Common – Black America Again

David Bowie – Blackstar

Deftones – Gore

Dopelemon – Honey Bones

Dr. Dog – Psychedelic Swamp

Dr. Dog – Abandoned Mansion

Drake – Views

Dylan, Bob – Fallen Angels

Chairlift – The Moth

Deftones – Gore

DIIV – Is The Is Are

Drake – Views

Explosions In The Sky – The Wilderness

Gallant – Ology

Guy Garvey – Courting The Squall

Honne – Gone Are The Days [Shimokita Import]

Honne – Warm On A Cold Night

  1. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only

Jim James – Eternally Even

The Jezabels – Synthia

Kings of Leon – Walls

Lapsley – Long Way Home

Lily & Madeleine – Keep It Together

Little Green Cars – Ephemera

Local Natives – Sunlit Youth

M83 – Junk

Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are

Olsen, Angel – Woman

Peter, Bjorn, & John – Breakin’ Point

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

Roosevelt – Roosevelt

Rüfüs – Bloom

Shura – Nothing’s Real

Solange – A Seat at the Table

St. Lucia – Matter

A Tribe Called Quest – …We’ve Got It From Here, Thank You 4 Ur Service

Travis – Everything at Once

Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

White Lies – Friends

Whitney – Light Upon The Lake

Wilco – Schmilco

Wye Oak – Tween

Nico Yaryan – What a Tease

 

 

The Gap in Empathy, or Social Progress as Self-Evident

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on November 4, 2016

There was a young man I spent some hours talking to the other night. About my age, white, longer hair than I (which means long hair), thin, frameless glass, and whether part of his Halloween costume or not, a pair of suspenders exposed over a white shirt. He could be and was mistaken for David Foster Wallace. But you know who David Foster Wallace is because he did something exceptional, at least once. I didn’t know this young man across from me at first, but I knew him later as we spoke. He exists in various forms throughout this country and throughout this world.

My introduction to this man came as he knew a childhood friend of my own. They were in a probationary summer school program, by which they attained full admission into the state’s flagship public university only after attending the summer session immediately following high school graduation. There are a few other programs that exist to admit students into the university, and this one is sandwiched in between the two most prominent – the state of Texas’s Top 10% Rule, and the Continued Admittance Program. The first, the top 10% rule, requires little introduction – if a student attends any public school in the state of Texas and graduates in their class’s top 10% population, that student receives automatic admission into any public university in the state; the purpose of this rule is to increase minority populations in the state’s largest educational institutions, and it has been proven a resounding, although incremental, success, one worthy of continued defense in our nation’s courts of public law. The second admission program I mentioned, the Continued Admittance Program, is available to those students who are just outside of their high school’s top 10% population and would have normally received admission the public university of their choosing, but were not selected due to a limited amount of space; these students can choose to enroll in any branch of the university of their choosing in a separate location (as in, the University of Texas at Dallas) and after a year of passing grades can automatically transfer to another public education institution within the same university’s system (as In, The University of Texas at Austin); this program achieves a secondary goal of allowing these students, who through subjective opinion prove their value as “stewards of education” by passing their classes and filling any available slots that become available through students transfers, dropouts, etc.

The program that admitted my friend and this young man is the little-known, thinly-sliced invention that fits somewhere in between, by someone’s imagination. It can only be imagination, as though the metrics I just laid out before were somehow still not quite fair enough. Even so, there’s a small number of high school graduates who are on the outside of their class’s top 10% population but are deemed worthy of not having to wait – and by enrolling immediately, have the opportunity to attend their public university of choice via this commitment. It’s a small number of students, and their impact on the racial and ethnic makeup of the university is marginal, though relevant.

This is important because I had to explain this to my wife the other night as this young man sat across from us. He took exception to this definition by writ of its simplicity:

“Hey, it’s not that simple,” he said. “I tried really hard in high school, and I got in the way I got in.”

There was never any implication that he didn’t work hard.

“That’s fine man, and you probably wen to a difficult high school,” I said.

“Lake Travis, and it was.”

Lake Travis High School is located a few miles west of Austin and is predominantly white, if not entirely. The district exists as a confluence of rich, elite whites leaving the suburban confines of inner Austin and it now forms one of the largest tax districts in the county.

And that’s the whole point. His high school was propped up by numerous and infinitely pass tax bonds to improve facilities, salaries, and educational tools by the white resident population for the white child population. It is a highly-sought after employment location by educators, and its education reflects this increased opportunity.

“Right, my man,” I said. “And that’s why the Top 10% rule exists. There are students throughout this state that haven’t gotten the education that you already received through your circumstance of birth, and they’re given the opportunity for that education at a higher level.”

This didn’t go over well, and the remaining hours were spent toggling over his personal merit versus those whose faced many more and drastically more harrowing difficulties – this young man across from me did not struggle through poverty, starvation, and lack of transportation to get through a sub-par education system, at any merit. So much so, that for this young man, not graduating was never a possibility, as it has been and remains for a large population of ethnic minorities throughout the state (and across the country).

But I’m not here to talk about his education, at least not directly. What worries me, and what I see more and more of each day, is that this young man did in fact go on to graduate from the state’s flagship university to become an alumnus of one of the most intellectually distinguished institutions in the nation, only to sit across from me now approaching the age of 30, unmarried, working in a low-salary if not hourly wage position with little to no hope for immediate future promotion. Like so many of the people I know and continue to meet today in the city of Austin, he is visiting his girlfriend who also lives in a home with three or more roommates, stuck in a low-rent situation without hope for better by writ of circumstances they cannot control. And yet he, like the many others like him, sat there to tell me things were acceptable and improving. That he, somehow, was not a member of this nation’s increasing population of people in poverty. And I don’t know how.

These are the definitions of poverty: inability to find living wages, unable to hope for promotion, unable to seek immediate desires of family because of economic placement. These people are no longer just ethnic minorities, but increasingly consume the majority of those young elite whites who enter a world filled with older elite whites who will not make room for the youth of this nation. How is it possible that these whites who grew up in a situation where family, income, are security are normal tell me now that nothing has grown worse?

It can only be that the prejudices they were given, likely from their parents and their education, are telling them now that no matter the circumstances, their life will be okay simply because they are not black.

Looking around the party I was surrounded by 50-plus whites exactly like this man. I don’t need to speak to them individually to know that they have all come here because they have met in their jobs and in their social circles as a reflection of their status. But they remain impossibly white. Among the many other people I know like them, and like myself, are some in much worse positions: living hundreds of miles away from any family, unable to locate individual living situations and taking on roommates without furniture, without transportation or personally owned vehicles, in low-wage jobs and piles of debt, or in other words, living in poverty. Not abstract poverty, but actual, defined, real poverty. And repeatedly they say “it’s not that bad,” and go about their lives waiting for the change to come. This mindset is only possible through a framework of opinion that establishes that at one point poverty was never their possibility and therefore remains impossible for their life. Denying their circumstances in finances, health, and family, this conclusion can only be reached at the assumption of race. These conditions are taught to whites as a condition of race. Whether this young man realized it or not, he was taught as a child in Lake Travis that he will never be poor. And if the conditions for poverty exist only for minorities, then perception tells white populations that they will never possess these conditions themselves. They are not poor because they will never be poor. And that was granted to them by their race.

The logical question or conclusion to be drawn is that the status quo of race economics has never been challenged. A simple string argument delineates that a mere 1-percent or fewer of the population have the accumulated wealth to live with the singular possibility that poverty will never be their reality. For the status quo to continue unabated or challenged in any way means, therefore must mean, that a majority of the remaining plurality also believe that poverty will never be their reality, in spite of real and conflicting data. Otherwise, the system would have been changed, a revolution would have come about. It is only by the joined belief of the majority that change does not become real.

Often I have said before that these things must be fought. A simple example of this effort reaches back to the Occupy Wall Street movement, but simply mathematics tells me that a few thousand people marching around the country do not a majority make. In fact those brave few were mocked almost universally for their efforts. And if they failed to achieve real political change, they did achieve personal growth through a recognition that certain influences on our life are not within our control on a daily basis. A vast system of eternal influences exist to limit our ability for social movement, and the majority through ablution allow it to continue. The white majority of this country has never empathized about what the ethnic minorities of this nation face every day, and by subconscious inversion project on their populations the perception that existences do not meet in any way. That poverty for black and Latino populations is a poverty not achieved by white members of society.

This empathy gap denies the invention of progress. It denies minority populations the ability to find affordable housing in neighborhoods with a better education. It denies minority populations the ability to locate living wages, and precipitates that their children also will live in these conditions. Without the empathy to see what has been done to them, the real act of deducing that their struggles are circumstantial to their birth and not an effect of their own action, we cannot also see that our own circumstances might truly be the same. Because it is impossible to live in a world where things as they were remain in power.

The mere reality of time as dimension denies the possibility of static existence. Things must get either better or worse because of the contrary fact that they cannot remain the same. You will die. Death is certain. And if the value of death is worse than the value of life, any condition that pushes a person more rapidly toward death is a bad condition. That these conditions once actualized increase the possibility for other more numerous conditions implies that things are never the same, are never equal, are never static. Progress then, a merit of improved quality and improved quality of life, is the only assumptive method by which things do not get worse. And without progress because of the existing prejudices we possess, we are doomed only to perish, quickly, violently, at war with ourselves and nature.

The solution is simple. Realize that our conditions are poor, undesirable, and actively damaging. Realize that these conditions exist tenfold and hundredfold in the lives of those not lucky enough to have been born white in a Western nation state. And work to erase any continued possibility for the status quo.

Things are bad and getting worse. All you have to do is look around you and realize that it is happening to you also, and act accordingly. Your conditions will improve only when conditions improve for everyone.

Thoughts, Pt. II

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on August 13, 2016

IX

I’m tired of being immensely talented but living without action.

X

More than half of my life has now been spent with America at war. This is something that exists in photos and textbooks, can’t be touched, and yet feels real. There are children who, at 15 years old next month, will have never lived in an America not at war. It’s been five years since we killed Osama Bin Laden, since we got our man, and nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes. Faced with the possibility of taking a few steps backward to navigate a new way and new path to forge ahead, it’s easier to incrementalize a few inches on the same warring path, pick different battles, distraction, turn on the television, Cheetos.

XI

If in a serious sense we ponder at the how or why Donald Trump has made it to this point in the electoral process, we’ve failed to consider the right facts. Day after day and week after week as the nominee of a major political party continues to eschew racism, bias, xenophobia, and fear, no one has asked yet what actually can or should be done. Instead, the continued refrain is one of incredulity. But the lack of solution is not for a lack of trying. There have surely been calls to change the nomination system, to void the party lines. But that’s not thinking. That’s working within the system, and we must decide the entire system is a failure.

Donald Trump is not a product of a New York life, or a rich man’s trust fund, or a life spent outside of the trenches. He is a product of America, if not the product of America. And the longer it takes until we decide to close shop, call it a day on democracy, and find something else, this will not be the last time we are shaking our heads at a failed election. We are all to blame for this.

XII

When everyone has a voice, the smartest no longer shine through. It’s a numbers game, always going to lose.

XIII

As bad as I like to think it gets, man, it can be so much worse. There are women in Venezuela undergoing sterilization so that they don’t get pregnant and bring a child into their world. And I sit here unwilling to march on Washington. I’d like to, but it doesn’t feel like a single man or woman can make a difference in a world with so many engines moving on the same line.

XIV

Was at a concert the other night and always have a thought every time, that at some point somewhere in time there were, and maybe still are, musicians who try to use their music to impact the public, protest, what have you. I wonder why it doesn’t still happen, but then I know it clearly has never worked.

It takes a lot of money also, to not only make the music but broadcast it in a way that people will hear, especially if you want people who don’t look for music to hear it. Stages, microphones, amplifiers, cameras, water and food, broadcast television, news release. The musicians don’t have that money, not in this world. Been abused too long at the hands of those in control.

It takes sponsors to put on something that big. And sponsors have corporate interest. Never will be a big enough protest until someone takes a risk, musician or not.

XV

Still growing out my hair.

XVI

One of the things I always noticed when I came back here, to this place, and maybe I’ve talked about it before, was how there are a lot of cars on the road in need of repairs, a lot more than ever seemed to be before. People just don’t have the money to fix things anymore, and keep on livin’ with less. I wonder how deep it’ll go before something happens.

XVII

Just heard a baseball announcer say “I had asked you a question but the national anthem began, and you can’t upstage America.”

Yes you can.

Looking Back On Bob Dylan

Posted in A Dylan A Day, Prose by johnsontoms on August 2, 2016

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If we just look at the man’s best work, we can easily ascribe him the traits of a Titan. Like legends, myths, and even gods, they transcend above the level of relation to become superhuman. These are the immediate significations of Bob Dylan’s greatest work, and surely are deserved.

But looking back at it all, if you can find the time to go through every one of the pieces of work, the artist is reduced to their human qualities. Bob Dylan, like Picasso or Michelangelo or Da Vinci or Newton or Einstein or Plato or Johnny Cash, is a human being; he experiences the same range of love, hate, bitterness, regret, happiness, success, and learning that should be welcome to any modern human being lucky enough to live a full life. It’s what they do with those emotions, spread out over time, that separates the legends from the men. But we are all surely men.

  1. Bringing It All Back Home – 1965
  2. Blood On The Tracks – 1975
  3. Blonde On Blonde – 1963
  4. Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – 1966
  5. Modern Times – 2006
  6. The Basement Tapes – 1975
  7. Highway 61 Revisited – 1965
  8. Another Side of Bob Dylan – 1964
  9. John Wesley Harding – 1967
  10. Tempest – 2012

Bob Dylan’s greatest albums stand alone above the rest of the crowd. They are the works of genius that will live on forever, and for their greatness the remainder of his output will succeed in longevity as well. Ranging from the direct to the surreal, Dylan finds a way to syphon from life its truest and most mysterious meanings, leaving us with a direction that can be found in Guernica or the Mona Lisa or Newton’s Laws.

And like the best, his work is symbolic and derivative of his own life. Henry Miller wrote the best essays and novels I’ve ever read, because they are subtracted from his own life. And his most cherished, Creative Death, succeeds in discussing the merits of the greatest works of art: that those who create for us the finest pieces of beauty are utter disciples of the balance of life and death, together – “that life leads only to death cannot be avoided…” that “to seize all of life we must seize all of death.” This can be found by working with the experiences that are befallen to us as individuals.

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Bob Dylan took his life as an insignificant Midwesterner and established a prose for the whole of the country, and eventually the world. If he had a more succinct set of experiences, or a more stressful existence, his art might have been more pointed. And for it he was able to speak to the general mass, and tackle the significant issues at large. It wasn’t until he himself had struggles, those of being famous and in demand, that his music lingered into the abstract. But even still, his music progressed and changed and bettered itself – the mark of a genius is his ability to practice and improve. Nothing more.

  1. Oh Mercy – 1989
  2. Shadows In The Night – 2015
  3. Saved – 1980
  4. Infidels – 1983
  5. The Times They Are A-Changin’ – 1964
  6. Desire – 1976
  7. Self-Portrait – 1970
  8. Time Out of Mind – 1997
  9. Before The Flood – 1974
  10. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid – 1973

He was never the greatest instrumentalist, and never mastered his guitar or his harmonica. But he knew that it wasn’t important, so long as he continued to say and be the person that could stand on higher ground, even if he was misunderstood. For all the mystery he presented, it was his confidence and assuredness that brought about our affection and zeal. Even as he struggled with his fame, he never struggled with his release, manifested through his music.

As his personal hardships increased relative to his fame, the music became the focus. But like those masters before him, he couldn’t forego his strongest subject – himself. Even as he moved onto Nashville Skyline and New Morning and into the gospel years, we saw Blood On The Tracks and Desire. The only thing he knew how to do and to do well, was speak from the heart.

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His progression as a human being worked to expel the things he could devote his attention to, moving from the world while a hopeful and impassioned youth on into the personal issues of middle age and fatherhood. And even while the public demanded for works that spoke to them when it meant they needed a savior, we found out over the years that what we needed most, was music that described the things we all went through – heartbreak.

It could be heartbreak from love, or heartbreak from life, but the recognition that this life will not serve you your dreams, is the source for all our troubles. And so it is that “Simple Twist of Fate” can make most anyone with a heart cry. Again: life and death cannot be separated.

  1. Hard Rain – 1976
  2. New Morning – 1970
  3. Love and Theft – 2001
  4. Nashville Skyline – 1969
  5. MTV Unplugged – 1995
  6. Planet Waves – 1974
  7. Fallen Angels – 2016
  8. Together Through Life – 2009
  9. Bob Dylan – 1962
  10. Street Legal – 1978

For as much as he changed, I can say that one thing remained constant – he never really wrote a bad song. I’ve put together a full order of the albums, by my liking, and I can say with absolute assurance that anything above 30 is a great record and worth a listening. Those ranked 31-40 aren’t even horrible, but simply don’t measure up to this otherworldly standard.

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You’ll notice that those albums at the bottom all came between 1970 and 2000, with none before or after those dates. Most even, from 1980 to 2000. It was the only period that Dylan didn’t write music for himself. Having come out of his divorce, losing his children, and losing the faith of his fanbase, he tried to write music that people could like. This, of course, was a complete contradiction to everything before, and proved to be his weakest material. Bob Dylan never did anything because people liked it. In fact, quite the opposite.

  1. Real Live – 1984
  2. Slow Train Coming – 1979
  3. Empire Burlesque – 1985
  4. Good As I Been To You – 1992
  5. World Gone Wrong – 1993
  6. Under The Red Sky – 1990
  7. Shot of Love – 1981
  8. Knocked Out Loaded – 1986
  9. Down In The Groove – 1988
  10. Dylan – 1973

In his late age, he resurrected like a phoenix because he tapped into death – there was nothing left for him, in old age, except his music. And somewhere, though I don’t know the circumstances, he set about to keep the ideas together. Most of those records from 1997 on are near the top of this list, and some within the top 10 and top 5. By then, his heart had been broken. And he knew that only life could exist because it would end on down the line.

That’s the lesson to take from a full retrospective of a man’s work. Like studying all the paintings of Rembrandt, it takes a full read on his life and his habits and the circumstances that the artist goes through. What you’ll see is that no one is any different than you and I.

But the greats – they find the time to be great. Bob Dylan used his time only in that way.

I am extremely glad that I spent this time studying and listening to a true inspiration. Where others failed before him to represent the entirety of life, Bob Dylan never failed to discuss life as whole – one of success and tragedy, both. There was never anything to hide with him. I can only hope that I might show the good and the bad. Anything more fantastic is false, but anything more negative isn’t hopeful enough.


Epilogue

There’s a lot to say about spending 40 days listening to a single record by a single artist, chronologically until complete. But I won’t spend all the time in discussion of the act, and simply relate a few things.

It’s at first exciting, then overwhelming, meddlesome, exhausting, and rewarding, in that order. I started out looking forward to what I would learn, before realizing how it would impact my habits every day, until I let my daily habits get in the way of my goal, before sticking to my guns and dealing with the trouble I’d awarded myself, only to become extremely pleased and thankful to myself for having done something creative, if not important.

Even more, I think I’ve learned more about myself than I could have Bob Dylan. That’s something I can recommend, if you can deal with the rest.

Day 40 – Fallen Angels – 2016

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 31, 2016

 

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This has been the most beautiful, surprising, and peaceful way to end this retrospective. Fallen Angels and Shadows In The Night, both. One follows the other, and neither is forsaken for it.

Fallen Angels, like Shadows, consists of 12 tracks, all but one of which was originally recorded by Frank Sinatra. The difference this time around, and immediately noticeable in mood, is that the tracks selected for Fallen Angels were all written by Johnny Mercer. What’s that mean? Think of this record as Dylan’s Nat King Cole to his own previous Sinatra.

It’s lighter, airier, has more bounce. It’s like coming out of the fog. When the two records are played in sequence (as I have), you can really feel the air let out of your clinched lungs. It’s a sigh of relief.

Additionally, the music is once again supreme. I think that’s the greatest indictment on these two records, and why they stand out so well. It’s music that sound anachronistic and out of time. And yet, this album is only five months old, recent, fresh, modern. This is new music. And what it proves is that no one makes music like this anymore. To hear Bob Dylan do it sounds to my ears like the first time its been done. That of course is false.

Like any of the previous, oh say, five records, there’s a sure tip of the hat to the past. But with Angels, its not even a tip – this is straight up mimicry. But for his voice, which is extremely unique if not downright blasphemous at times, and the tender touch that his band gives the music, it emerges like something never done before, even though its pulled right out of 1960.

I don’t think it was meant to be anything special or ornate or gigantic. It’s meant to be exactly what it is, and that’s a little bit of time spent singing the songs that people used to cherish.

These are the songs that should live on forever. Bob Dylan was just the first to notice, and now stands as the catalyst by which the songs, and he too, become infinite.

What a career.


Song: “Skylark”

If you can find it, “Skylark” is the sweetest, most tender track from the album, with a beautiful guitar solo to end. But Fallen Angels isn’t available on Spotify.

 

Day 39 – Shadows In The Night – 2015

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 30, 2016

 

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What fantastic design.

I am full of regret that I had glossed over Shadows In The Night upon its release, because it’s incredible. I mean truly beyond belief, unbelievable that at the age of 73, Dylan can resurrect his voice and outdo Frank Sinatra at his own game. Shadows consists of ten songs all originally recorded by Sinatra, but on the strength of the arrangements and the performance of the band (again), it comes out on top. Moreover, it speaks for his age, his wisdom, and seems like something he’s been destined to do ever since he reincarnated as the Phoenix some years ago.

As a fan of Frank Sinatra’s early years spent with Nelson Riddle, before moving on to swing and jazz, this album truly speaks to me. The selection of the tunes and the treatment that each is given jerks at the strings of the heart and pulls on the wisdom of time.

This album is about the voice, as it should be, and seems like a terrible idea. This was the reason that I just, honestly, never listened to it. Even though I purchased Tempest upon release and cherished it for its languishing tales, it was the coarsest performance of his dwindling vocal abilities yet. The idea of that same voice, like a slow crawl across a concert floor, doing covers of Frank Sinatra was just too much for me to consider. But its done with finesse, class, and sincerity.

It sounds like Bob Dylan is actually speaking for himself again, in the same way that “Sara” closed off Desire, and how Blood On The Tracks is all truth. It can only make sense. He’s 28 years into the Never Ending Tour and continues to shell out albums like its passing out candy for him. But at the age of 75 after a life lived hard, there comes a moment of introspection that must make him wonder, how much longer? How much deeper and further can I go before its over?

These questions can only lead to here, to Shadows In The Night. Like Frank Sinatra Sings Only For The Lonely, these are the albums that must be listened to in quiet, mostly alone, with only your thoughts and, worse, your memories to keep you company. It’s the sound of life gone by, the reflection. Naturally, the cover features Bob Dylan sitting in the Thinking Man pose facing left – staring back.

And really, nothing makes me cry like songs like these. Empty, hollow, with only a drooping trombone and the occasional trumpet spur to greet our ears, I feel older just with a listen. But I also feel better.

I am not alone as I go through this life: there are always shadows in the night to walk alongside.


Song: “What’ll I Do?”

It’s hard to pick a single song off this record, some for their similarity, some for they’re all great. I find this one to be most on point, “what’ll I do when I am wondering who is kissing you?”

Day 38 – Tempest – 2012

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 29, 2016

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Another bit of speculation led to people thinking that Tempest might be Bob Dylan’s last record, because Shakespeare’s last play was titled “The Tempest.” Bobby struck this down saying emphatically, “Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain “Tempest”. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.” Whatever, man.

Of course he’s written more records since, but Tempest comes as a charge, a dark reach into the ether. Furthermore, I can say that it’s the strongest collection of stories he’s written since the start of his career.

Chief among them is the title-track, a thirteen-minute screed on watching people react to the sinking of the Titanic, “some nobly, some horribly, when put to the ultimate test.” It can rightly be called an allegory for today’s fate, as it sings and swims over the waltzing melody, like a carnival eulogy for fools. There are other great stories among the songs, and it feels again like he’s gotten hold of that chord inside him whereabout he wrote such classics as “Bear Mountain Picnic” and the “The John Birch Society Blues.”

For the strength inherent in tapping into his best work, we’re given a surprisingly great album. The split opinion of all the critics ranges from “among his best work” to the “best album of his late career.” I can see both sides of the argument.

Like Modern Times, the sound is direct and on point – the voice comes through strong, even though it sounds like leather these days. Where Together Through Life had just a bit too much arrangement going on, there’s only the sweeping dancehall tunes to greet us on this harrowing record.

It’s another achievement in art and sound, as well, as the duotone photograph on the cover depicts the face of the Moldau goddess of the Pallas-Athene Fountain in front of the Vienna congressional hall. More interestingly, it’s an edit of a photograph he found on someone’s personal Shutterstock, and not a professionally contracted work of photography. Nonetheless, the striking cursive TEMPEST across the top with a beautiful, subtle yellow script of his name in a simple Times New Roman font. It carries that fateful feeling, like the stories within.

And that’s the summary of life, according to Bob Dylan. Storms and shelters.


Song: “Pay In Blood”

I had put “Duquesne Whistle” here because it gets me dancing, but “Pay In Blood” is the best track that symbolizes Tempest, and it’s a damn good song. The drop groove heading into the chorus gets me every time.

Day 37 – Together Through Life – 2009

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 28, 2016

 

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With his legend solidified and his status certain, Bob Dylan returns again to the true source of his complexity, lost love. Together Through Life features ten songs about heartache, longing, and spite. And while some things come back around, some things are still new.

And by new, I mean there’s an accordion on the entire record. The whole thing. But its not out of place, as the whole album carries a saloon feel from the bard on the stool singing to the sad, lonely crowd. And in spite of its weight, there’s a feeling of resignation, as though the end is near or arrived and life will carry on anyway.

It’s a fitting feeling after all, having reestablished himself so well in the previous ten years. Here on out it feels like Bob Dylan is going to keep carrying on. With what, we can’t be sure, but we’ll know he’s going to keep doing it.

This time there are backing performances from members of the Heartbreakers again, and all but two of the songs were co-written with a member of the Grateful Dead. But what I enjoy most in this late stage career move, is the combination of art and sound.

There’s a photo on the album cover of two lovers intertwined in the backseat of a car, the male without a shirt on staring out the back window. The picture was taken off the cover of a collection of short stories, but borrowing is unimportant and even less surprising by now. It could mean a lot of things, but pictured in black and white it gives a representation of the past, ghosts of loves before. You can see in it the feeling that for awhile everything was right, and good, and together in place.

We hear the stories then and are implied to “say hello to Mary-Ann” if we ever go to Dallas, and tell “her sister Lucy [he’s] sorry” if we ever go to Houston. Travelin’ isn’t new to this story teller, or any American storyteller for that matter. Some people just can’t stop moving.

And for all the places it goes, it never loses touch with gratitude. There’s not one song that doesn’t leave you with the feeling of satisfaction, and I’m left wondering if he actually made it together through life with someone, or was just grateful that he got to try. Unimportant, I guess.


Song: “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”

This sounds like old love, and talks like life: “I feel a change comin’ on, And the fourth part of the day’s already gone.”

 

Day 36 – Modern Times – 2006

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 27, 2016

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Modern Times coasts near to perfection. I want to get that out of the way, to let you know. In case you’ve never listened to it, go now and do so immediately. A couple facts to back that up: it was Bob Dylan’s first number-one-charting record in 30 years since 1976’s Desire, and went number one in a total of 11 countries, including Germany, Canada, Australia; it sold over 4-million copies in the first two months after release, and has sold over 6-million copies total; and Dylan won his 7th and 8th Grammys, for Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Rock Vocal Performance (no seriously, he won for his voice). It remains one of his highest acclaimed albums, and is worthy of all praise. I’ve been waiting for today ever since I started this retrospective, and finally I can see it for more than the record I already loved – Modern Times is validation.

It hits you like lightning from the start, as the “Thunder On the Mountain” kicks off with a booming, rolling introduction of guitar and drum before giving way to that outlaw country rhythm. It sounds like the prairie, but feels like triumph. Within the first opening seconds, listeners can immediately tell – something’s different here. But man, it’s confident.

Where Dylan was trying to recreate something with both Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, he manages to recapture something with Modern Times – quite possibly the spirit of America. This album is notably the first record to feature original artwork not including his face since Knocked Out Loaded, and the blurred taxi itself speaks volumes for how in-touch this record is, with one foot planted squarely in the past and the other moving forward. Iconography like this reinforces the power of the industrial imagination, and even if you don’t believe in the American Dream, it can make your own dreams possible if you embrace it well enough. This is our music, after all. And when you can imagine tales of the frontier west told through cowboy folklore, the idea of a bright light bright city future isn’t far off. The contradiction that naturally exists in filling a record called Modern Times with songs like “Rolling and Tumbling” and “Thunder On the Mountain” feels right – we got to where we are by looking up from where we were, the quintessential mobility narrative.

Most of the album reimagines traditional tunes in foot-shuffling ways, including “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” “Nettie Moore,” and “Spirit On The Water.” By simply reworking the songs into a two-step, Bob Dylan makes his most commanding vocal appearance since Saved, drifting and swooning easily in and out, high and low through the stories of rainy days and dark skies. “Spirit On The Water” is one of my favorite songs he’s ever sung.

And where the previous records failed, Modern Times succeeds in spades. The sound, as compositionally different as it can seem from his rock’n’roll hits, still comes at you like a Dylan record – his voice upfront with a band that plays to it, and not the other way around.

Every time I hear it I think of that image on the front, and it just all makes sense. Then again, New York exists as an idea to me, having never been there. But if I were to go, I hope it would feel like Modern Times. The kind of New York that exists in the finest American literature, where the people never sleep and the music plays loudly and everyone moves in all directions under dark nights and lamplights and dances to jukebox tunes of jazz in smoke-filled rooms built with American dreams and moving fast into tomorrow. That’s Modern Times.


Song: “The Levee’s Gonna Break”

This song always sounded like the slow motion of a big city at night, which goes hand in hand with the album art.

Day 35 – Love and Theft – 2001

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 27, 2016

 

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Love and Theft came out on 9/11, for what it’s worth. It doesn’t actually mean anything, but it’s always a piece of trivia. Using the pseudonym Jack Frost, Bob Dylan produced his 31st studio album on his own. It was released to universal praise and acclaim, and this is the first time I’ve ever listened to it.

It would undergo scrutiny for having lifted lines directly from Diary of a Yakuza, but I don’t understand the point of that line of thinking. Only the people who’ve never written anything or done anything creative can stand back from creation and say, “you can’t take others’ ideas.” And so it goes that the author of Yakuza said he was honored if it was true that Dylan stood on his shoulders a bit.

Which is most of the point of Love and Theft, as Bob Dylan stands heavily on the musical shoulders of those before him. I’d call it Americana rock’n’roll, but I guess the official term is roots rock – whatever it is, this album sounds like the old frontier, or at least the beginnings of rock’n’roll in the age of television. While it’s great, it’s an homage, less a beginning – in order to start over, Bob Dylan has clearly had to go back, back to recreate the sounds of youth.

Coming after Time Out of Mind, it’s exactly what the man needed (or at least sounds like to me, as a listener). He found something good with Time Out of Mind, and the people liked it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned after all these albums and all these songs, Bob Dylan cares deeply about what the people want, even when he purposely contradicts their expectations.

And Love and Theft defers, comes in the fact that for the first time, he’s composing fully arranged tunes based on traditional music, rather than just acoustic guitar tunes. The result is good, but missing slightly on the spirit of the man.

This is a good album, though not quite as ornery as Time Out of Mind. And I know through personal favor and foresight, that it all comes together a few years later. I’ll tell you more about how when that album arrives tomorrow.


Song: “Sugar Baby”

In an otherwise upbeat and rocking record, it’s the stormy lullaby at the end that stands out.