My 2011 Year Defining Playlist

Every year since 2007 I’ve participated in a ritual of reflection involving the music I’ve listened to throughout the previous year. Music is so emotionally resonant, and specific songs connect so tenaciously to specific moments in time. I’ve found that making a playlist of songs is a great way to both process and preserve a year of my life.

I follow a few simple rules: 1) I only use songs that I heard for the first time during the year in question, 2) I limit myself to ten or eleven songs, and 3) the songs have to flow in an aesthetically pleasing way. I also 4) match up the songs with the emotional journey I took through the year. I’ve also broken all the first three rules in service of the last one which is the most important.

This year’s list is a little different, because I also included a few audio recordings I made while in France this past summer. Here’s the list with links so you can hear the songs if you like:

1. “Bright Smile” – Josh Ritter, Hello Starling
2. “Born Again” – Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons, Death Won’t Send A Letter
3. “Love and Hard Times” – Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What
4. “The Wilhelm Scream” – James Blake, James Blake
5. “Accordion” – street musician, La Bastille Farmer’s Market, Paris, France
6. “Rewrite” – Paul Simon, So Beautiful Or So What
7. “Passengers Waiting for a Train” – Metro station, Paris, France
8. “Hymn #101” – Joe Pug, Nation of Heat EP
9. “Wedding Bells and Fountain” – church, Valence, France
10. “Helplessness Blues” – Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
11. “Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground” – Blind Willie Johnson, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson
12. “Level With Yourself” – David Bazan, Strange Negotiations
13. “Pinball” – Bendblock, You Were Here
14. “Oh My Love (Feat. Katyna Ranieri)” – Riz Ortolani, Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

This is the second form the playlist has taken so far. I very satisfied with it, though a little more tinkering might happen before I finally let it settle for good. I also kind of consider “Oh My Love” both the last and first song on the playlist, as if the playlist is circular, but there’s no way to represent that in text.

It’s important to remember that this is not a playlist of my favorite songs from 2011. While many of my favorite songs from the past year are on the list, not all of them made it. For instance, there are two or three other songs on both Hello Starling and Helplessness Blues that I like more than “Bright Smile” and “Helplessness Blues,” but those songs didn’t fit on the playlist. I also spent a lot of time listening to James Vincent McMorrow’s album Early In the Morning, but none of the songs on that album were right for this emotional retrospective. Similarly, I listened to Foy Vance’s Hope album almost nonstop for the first two months of this year, but none of his songs are on here either.

My favorite album of the year was Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What. I listened to it so often, the whole thing could have been my playlist all on its own. Paul Simon has been making pop music for over 50 years, and there is a sublimity to Simon’s songwriting that only comes after a lifetime of practicing a craft. I hope to be as skilled at something when I am his age. I also listened to the late Rich Mullins’ Jesus Demos more this past year than anything else, but of course, I’ve been listening to that collection of songs since 1998. I completed giving away my entire cd collection this past year, and that was the only cd I kept.

This was an interesting year. I saw more and did more and experienced more new this year than in a lot of years. These songs were the soundtrack to all that newness, and some of these songs’ styles were part of that newness as well. I also spent about half the year away from home, and these songs were my most consistent companions during all that traveling. When I was in Paris and my ears were inundated with a language I could not understand, these songs became respite, like a friend’s voice sounding clear through the cacophony.

The point of it all, of course, isn’t the music. The point is the reflection. Music might not be the most natural medium for you to use, but I’m sure there’s something you could do or make that would facilitate a similarly reflective process. Whatever that way might be, I encourage you to take the time to do it. Before the new can come, the old must be laid to rest. New life grows from fallow ground.

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