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My Wildly Incomplete Musical Highlights of 2017

Not truly thorough, but thoroughly true.

Lee Hazlewood

Trouble is a Lonesome Town

I keep trying to do the full miner sweep of Lee Hazlewood’s catalogue, but it’s challenging both because of the sheer volume of it but also because I repeatedly get stuck on Trouble is a Lonesome Town. I almost named Harry Dean Kitten Emory Zickafoose Brown, but I already loved him. A good thing to remember going in to 2018 is that sooner or later, we’ll all make the little flowers grow.

Freddie Mercury

“The Great Pretender” video

Freddie Mercury was already secretly sick with HIV when he decided to record his own version of The Platters’ “The Great Pretender” and create a video that is, on the surface, a humorous send-up of iconic Queen video imagery but also functions as a final statement about his life in the fishbowl, a glimmer of insight into the existential ennui looming behind the stage spectacle and radio goo-goo. Before that, Mercury was always rising, a narrative Freddie carefully built by repeatedly posing in designed-to-be-iconic visuals: Freddie as mad conductor, leading us along from the headquarter chambers of his heart; Freddie punching his fist into the air, smashing stereotypes of weak gay men; Freddie the magician swinging part of a microphone stand like a wand while stalking the stage; and finally, at the end of a song, Freddie pausing a beat before the ballet move, straightening one leg while balancing on the other, carving a perfect semicircle into the floor, a space between us and him, a reminder that this is, after all, a trained performance. I almost don’t want the movie to be made. Who wants to live forever?

Tribe Called Quest

We got it from here… thank you for your service

The soundtrack to my pre-rowing weightlifting routine all spring. It is a perfect record. That is all.

Kristeen Young

The Knife Shift

I like lots of records for lots of reasons, but it’s rare to play something you’ve been meaning to check out forever and have every cell of bone marrow respond with FUCK YES! A Mary Gaitskill short story character is listening to the Breeders’ Title TK, falls asleep and then awakes a decade later levitating one clear moment before discovering her mangled heart pumping out “This is War.” Because it is.

Lynn Castles

Rose-colored Corner

The lady barber of Los Angeles recorded this record 50 years ago but it just saw the light of day. A true record of outsider art, the soundtrack of a woman trying to become herself while watching people watch her, trying to write while editing, pinned between wanting to become and wanting to be accepted. A transcendent, everyday nightmare and also a dream come true.

Shelby Lynne

“I’ll Hold Your Head” from Live at McCabe’s

Just Shelby and a guitar, singing about riding with her little sister in the backseat of her mother’s car, learning three-part harmony by singing with their mom to country radio. Four bald tires on an old Impala/ 17 degrees South Alabama /Mama needs money and we’re late for school / Picking out the parts of a Bob Wills tune. Of course, later their father killed their mother, then killed himself. This little song about Shelby wanting to pull her little sister away from it all and keep her safe makes me cry every time. If Shelby ain’t country, I don’t know what is.

Nicole Atkins

Goodnight Rhonda Lee

Jersey girl gone Brenda Lee. A brilliant record.

Sinead O’Connor

I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got

I’m writing about this record for a book coming out next year so, I’ll just save it. I HAVE THOUGHTS.


“Recite Remorse”

The aural equivalent of a middle-aged hangover: the need for fresh air, the shredded nerves, the feeling that you are entirely too old for this shit-- but also not built to last, and somehow like you’re trying to engineer first flight, defy the laws of the center of your own gravity, where everything falls.

Harry Dean Stanton

Partly Fiction soundtrack

I was locked in an eight-hour spiritual meditation session when Harry Dean Stanton died, and I’d like to think we crossed paths on the astral plane: him with his paper-thin skin sunk into the sockets around his eyes, cigarette dangling, slightly amused, me swimming long smooth strokes underwater, my arms carving wide moons. I woke up, was a little freaked out, heard the news, then got in the car and played Harry Dean’s wobbly take on “Blue Bayou.” I actually started writing for newspapers in part because I was pitching a column where I’d write about every single Harry Dean Stanton movie, then go to L.A. and interview him. No one picked up the column (there are like, 180 such movies, to be fair) but I was asked for more ideas and it turned out I had a lot. Anyway, for all the researching and reading about religion and philosophy I’ve done (I’m not trying to impress you but I DO have a minor in philosophy from a state college), Harry Dean’s casual fatalism and kaleidoscopic view of reality comes closest to reflecting my own so-far experience of this glide through the meatspace, and this is the celebrity death I mourned this year most. Listen to it and cry. Get it all out, because it doesn’t matter anyway. Get free.

John Cougar Mellencamp


The takeover relies on drunk sunburnt crowds happily screaming along to “Pink Houses” with jingoistic fervor, completely missing the point, riding those American flag bikinis into the sun on a kamikaze mission to gut this country, fueled by an unholy jigsawing together of persecution complexes and paranoia, stoked by talking heads on state TV, gripping their guns waiting for the tyrants to darken their door, jumping at their own shadow and shooting it down in self-defense. These times were made for vintage Coog.

Bessie Smith

“Black Mountain Blues”

Where the birds all sing bass. If you haven’t read Bessie by Chris Albertson, I strongly recommend it. Skip the movie. No disrespect to Queen Latifah, but it’s dogshit. “Black Mountain Blues” is obviously where Janis tuned in.

Nancy Sinatra

“In My Room”

This is a perfect song and also a short story, an underrated cut from Boots, co-written by the songwriters who also brought you “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” What a world.