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This month’s playlist looks back on the year in celebration and deep reflection.
This year I’ve created a monthly playlist reflective of the themes of the season and the tone of the culture, and investigating an aspect of music’s interactions with our brains and bodies—how music powers our workouts, how it calms and inspires us and why it means so much.
December brings about a celebration, an annual marker serving as both an ending and a beginning along the continuum of time. It is a reflective month, yet it is also a celebratory one.
You don’t need to know why you love music in order to love it, though, as the composer Aaron Copland notes in his 1939 book, “What to Listen For in Music,” knowledge enhances enjoyment. Understanding the reasons that we love this unique combination of sounds we call music provides a gateway into self-knowledge. Scrolling through my 2017 articles and playlists empowers you to do just that.
But for December, let’s just celebrate.
Celebration is the theme of these 15 songs—well, 13, to be exact. The final two are more reflective, as is the proper way to conclude a year. Still, in their own ways they are also uplifting. We’ll get there.
We kick off this month with an excellent hip-hop producer, DJ Vadim, and his new collaborative record with Katrina Blackstone. “Ride Slow” is funky and deep, a slow rhythm that builds in intensity as the song progresses, a guitar reminiscent of the playlist’s final artist, Curtis Mayfield. Decembers begins and ends deep in funk.
Les Amazones d’Afrique is the supergroup of supergroups. The collaborative features a dozen female African singers, which formed to inspire women to take power around the world. Nigerian singer Nneka comes strong on the upbeat “Le Dame et Ses Valises,” though I highly suggest checking out the entire album.
The R&B parade continues with 23-year-old Amber Mark’s “Lose My Cool.” Mark is a Soundcloud success story, quickly making her way into AirPods worldwide. Two tracks by my favorite singer of the moment, Anderson .Paak, keep things moving: “Dang,” in which he guests on Mac Miller’s bass-heavy roller, and “Am I Wrong,” the track with the most swagger on “Malibu.”
Sandwiched between .Paak is a cover of “Lonely Boy” by French producer The Avener, a dance number that lifts the spirits of The Black Keys original. Avener’s version shed the rock edge for a killer beat. Speaking of killer beats, Outkast’s “Call the Law” and Q-Tip’s “ManWomanBoogie” represent the collaboration between hip-hop and jazz at its best.
Then we go deep in jazz—the ‘30s to be exact. Scott Bradlee has made a career performing unique jazz-oriented cover songs. This rendition of “Thriller,” featuring vocals by Wayne Brady, has to be heard to be believed. Who knew tap dancing was so needed.
We waited a dozen years for a new Damien Marley record. “Medication” makes it worth that time. Brother Stephen Marley sounds fantastic on this ode to the Jamaican family’s favorite herbal medicine. The playlist smooths out with a midtempo stomper by Lion Babe, featuring vocalist Jillian Hervey, the daughter of actress Vanessa Williams; a sweet soulful cut by the beautiful British singer Lianne La Havas; and a punchy number from Taylor McFerrin’s killer debut, an album that certainly makes father Bobby proud.
If you ever imagined Snoop Dogg cutting an amazing gospel track, I give you “Words Are Few.” The man has a feline number of lives; his reinventions are not always top-notch—the reggae project fell flat—but perhaps he’s found new inspiration in biblical verse. Music is still the best faith to invest in.
Finally, Curtis Mayfield. In 1990 the legendary singer was paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him during a performance in Flatbush. Six years later he recorded “New World Order” lying in bed, unable to move from the neck down, singing line by line. Listen closely to the lyrics of “Here But Gone.” It’s an incredible testament of rising above suffering from a man who knew much of it.
Like all great art, Mayfield’s gorgeous song is a reminder perspective matters most. Life isn’t always going to work out as we hope, but by celebrating the moments we have, we make the most of all our moments. As we know, having a soundtrack to inspire us makes it all the more worthwhile.
Photo credit: Merlas, Thinkstock