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Good Letters

First, a note: I think this might be the last time I do this. If you’ve followed my writing about music for the last twenty years (in which case you are my mother, so thanks) you’ve heard me say things like this off and on for at least the last ten, so I don’t mean to be overdramatic.

Music continues to be an enormous force in my life (apparently I listened to over 700 hours of it on Spotify alone this year, according to a creepy algorithm that also correctly guessed my age and told me I’m basically stuck in 2003 in terms of my musical tastes), but this is my tenth year writing a year-end music list for “Good Letters,” and as I try to expand its focus to listening in a broad sense, I think I’m going to call it a day and try something different next year.

Plus, I’ve been in the habit of calling the list “XX Songs for 20XX,” and I’m not sure I can come up with eighteen songs next year.

So here are seventeen songs, albums, radio shows, podcasts, and other things I listened to that stuck with me in 2017. No theme, this time. Just me listening to my life. Feel free to listen along. And get in touch with me, or anybody really, so we can listen to yours, too.


  1. The SYNTHAR album Evenings & Weekends. I helped start this band over a decade ago, and I’m only responsible for about ten seconds of actual music on it, so I’m allowed to say I think it’s a beautiful record. We re-released this album on its tenth anniversary this year, and I’ve still never really heard anything like it. The Postal Service meets MGMT meets dance music meets M. Ward, maybe? Listen or buy here.


  1. The songs I played guitar along with on Spotify. The aforementioned algorithm let me know my top five most-played songs of the year, and they were all songs I was trying to learn on the guitar (#1 was Weezer’s “You Gave Your Love to Me Softly,” which is the greatest pop song of the last thirty years). I didn’t do a great job, but I had fun. Listen here.


  1. The Early Edition with Rick Cluff. I’ve been listening to CBC Radio One’s Vancouver morning show pretty much every day for eight years—since I moved here—and Cluff just retired as host after a forty-year career in radio. I’m struck by how much my sense of place, of what it means to be a Vancouverite, has been shaped by listening to this show. Listen here.


  1. “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire. I’m not sure I like the record this song comes from, but I dig this song. I heard it at the dentist this week and it felt like exactly the right place to hear it—even though it sounds like an ABBA track from forty years ago, it’s also an indictment of modern technological alienation. (“Sprawl II” is still better, though.) Listen here.


  1. The Signal/Pondercast with Laurie Brown. My other favorite CBC show, The Signal, ended earlier this year, too. Laurie Brown, a former MuchMusic VJ, on Canada’s version of MTV, was my guide through brooding downtempo soundscapes on late-night drives across town. New podcast, Pondercast, is similar, but goes in new thematic directions, sometimes with ambient music, sometimes with no music at all. Worth listening to as you fall asleep, or if you can’t. Listen to my favorite episode of Pondercast so far here.


  1. “North South East West” by Japandroids. I’m proud of how Vancouver-centric this list is. Local music, man. Reading all that Wendell Berry must finally be getting to me. Anyway, this is a song about travel, love, and places that matter. Listen here.


  1. My son’s Advent concert. My oldest child, a kindergartener, goes to a Catholic school now (I’m a lifelong evangelical, welcome to my religious confusion), and I’m not saying there is anything wrong with public school—public school is great—but he is currently wandering around the house humming the 400-year-old hymn “O Come Divine Messiah” while other kids are singing songs about how they hope Santa Claus will bring them a puppy (which again is fine). Listen to the hymn here.


  1. The new (old) Radiohead songs from the reissue of OK Computer. I was not a huge fan of A Moon Shaped Pool—I absolutely loved about four of the songs and didn’t really understand the rest—and it was so refreshing to hear the big, brash, ambitious rock-band Radiohead again—“I Promise” and “Man O War” were standouts, but all the songs were wonderful. Listen here.


  1. A podcast called Calm Pills. I am a little embarrassed about this one, but I suffered a concussion in August and I’ve been up against pain and anxiety for the last four months. This show, which is pretty much just whole albums of ambient music occasionally interrupted by a man with an Eastern European accent telling you where you can buy the music, has helped. Listen here.


  1. The album Bird World by Leon. Leon Chang is a guy who mostly does funny posts on Twitter, but he also made this astonishing, fully-realized soundtrack for a video game that does not exist. This is my kids’ favorite album of the year, hands down, and they constantly ask to listen to it. Listen or buy here.


  1. “Anxiety” by Jason Isbell. Isbell was pretty much the only artist I listened to for the first half of the year, and although my wife chided me for listening to “country” music (which I don’t think he really is, and, even if he was, that’d be OK, right?), he’s amazing. This song was cathartic for many reasons (see #9 above). Listen here.


  1. Gregorian chant. Just Gregorian chant, in general. We listen to it almost every single night before bed. (See #11 and #9 above).


  1. “New York” by St. Vincent. I heard an interview with Annie Clark where she said this is the first song she’d ever written that already felt like a “classic.” I have to agree. The first time I heard this song I thought I’d heard it a hundred times before. A masterful ballad. (Note: there is a very prominent swear word repeated a number of times in this song.) Listen here.


  1. The annoying sounds of my upstairs neighbors’ thumping bass. (See #12, #11, and #9 above. They moved out.)


  1. Everything Sufjan Stevens put out this year. There was a lot—Planetarium, Carrie & Lowell Live, The Greatest Gift, songs from the film Call Me by Your Name, and, just last week, a tender ballad about Tonya Harding. Listen here.


  1. Effectively Wild, a baseball podcast. I got way, way back into baseball this year, after a nearly twenty-year hiatus. I love listening to this show—the indie rock bumper music, the understated, nerdy banter of the hosts, and above and beyond all the talk about newfangled sabermetric baseball stats, the overwhelming sense of love and care for the game. Listen here.


  1. “We Called it Love” by Stars. Yes, Stars is never not on my list. This band is everything pop music is supposed to be, and their songs are never bad. (OK, that’s not technically true. But they never put out a record that is less than 70% amazing.) I could have picked any of four or five songs from There is No Love in Fluorescent Light but I love the bouncy, mid-tempo groove that masks the remarkably profound coda: “I don’t believe people ever change / but I’ve changed.” Listen here.

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Written by: Joel Heng Hartse

Joel Heng Hartse lives in Vancouver, BC. Visit for more information.

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