The Best Albums of 2016

bestofbannerAs the year draws to a close, I’m compelled to compile a list of the most impactful albums of the year and, as it’s been occurring to me for nearly a decade or so now, I often find that the best albums of my calendar year are rarely those released within the year. This is because my consumption patterns are erratic and as unfocused as any other aspect of my life. I simply do not listen to music because it’s new or cool. I listen to music for the simple reason that I have needs and desires that are rarely, if at all, tied to a specific chronology or timeframe.

Despite my best intentions to follow the newest sounds and trends, I’m a poor vagrant of music. I shop dollar bins, garage sales, clearance racks and, of course, my own musical past which is now housed in nooks, crannies, and cardboard fortresses in the garage and shed out back. So, if an album on this list happens to have released in 2016, it’s only purely coincidence and nothing more than coincidence.

The most popular format of choice in 2016 is not albums, but songs…songs that are cased within albums. We have become sadly accustomed to throwing away the artwork, scrapping 80% of the creative output, and dissolving artistic vision into a couple of cheap thrills and fleeting moments of greatness. The “album” as a format is largely an archaic construct for audiophiles and collectors such as myself, so we can wistfully reminisce on the way things were and should be forever.

Well, forever came and went.

And so, as we move quicker now into the Digital Age of Music Delivery, who cares about the rest of the album anymore?

This list. This list cares about the rest of the album. Unless it’s a “greatest hits” or a compilation of any sort, which attempts to flatten an artist or scene into a small, restrictive, consumable stack of songs. These are permitted with no fuss or protest like I have in the past, questioning the eligibility on the simple fact they were specifically curated to bypass or compromise the album format. In a way, such recordings make it on here not because I chose them, but rather they chose me. 

So, without any further adieu, here are the best albums of 2016…not from 2016…necessarily.

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20 Billy Paul War of the Gods (1973)

Beautifully constructed soul record with a militant awareness of the world. Billy Paul got heavy as shit on this record. He aspired to reach the same level of political towel-ringing as What’s Goin’ On. Too bad for Billy, Marvin set the bar too damn high. But, even if he was biting off more than he could chew and chewing more than he could possibly swallow, War of the Gods is a lush and syrupy soul record with an edge that cuts like a blunt and swiftly swung machete. Respectable for a man who, just a year prior, was hawking the infidelity anthem “Me and Mrs. Jones” on Soul Train. No doubt, War of the Gods is the career-defining moment, but, sadly, Billy would never get to enjoy the spoils of his most ambitious recording.

I bought this one for $8 out of the soul section at Docs Records in Fort Worth. Always good digging. I bought it on the strength of the cover. Looked like Bitches Brew. In my world of shuffling and digging through racks of records, merely looking like Bitches Brew is good enough of a reason to pull it and walk around the store with it for a good half-hour.

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19 Van Halen Best of Both Worlds (2004)

I don’t give a good damn. Van Halen sounded really good at 4:00 every weekday, closing out the workday with the “Panama”-“Unchained”-“Hot for Teacher” block. I found it was a perfect way to honor the career work of David Lee Roth who, once again, high-kicked his way into our hearts over three decades later. Diamond Dave never disappointed with this banshee screams, air-humping, and roundhouses. In so many ways, modern rock has lost its touch. DLR was one of a kind and he might’ve been the luckiest kid ever…born with a silver spoon up his derrière, walked into the greatest gig in rock and roll, and had promiscuous sex with ten nameless women who fell at his feet…every night. In many ways, you cannot listen to any of the early Van Halen records without visualizing some of the same carnal debauchery. And, yes, this is exclusive to David Lee Roth. Sammy Hagar could not possibly capture the same Joe Camel cool as DLR. No way in hell. It’s gonna be a sad day when Roth kicks it.

No purchase necessary. I rescued this set from the garage. I was given a promo of this at the time it released by my WEA catalog rep. Probably Steve McKewin. He had one of the weirdest mustaches in the business just before he was let go. Good man.

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18 KMD Black Bastards (RSD Deluxe Version) (2015)

This year, the company I had invested almost my entire adult working life into went bankrupt. Hastings Entertainment, a company who had been around for over 40 years, succumbed to the encroaching reality that physical goods have been replaced by cheaper digital substitutes. So, it was fitting that, as I walked the wasteland of a near-empty store of clearanced media goods, I looked down on a shelf of randomly assorted products and I saw this lonely Record Store Day exclusive of one of my favorite lesser-known golden-era hip hop acts.

It’s a beautiful repackaging of one of the greatest hip hop stories never told. Black Bastards was shelved because of the cover art, Elektra dropped KMD from the label weeks later, DJ Subroc was shot and killed, the group disbanded, Zev Luv X was reborn as MF Doom, and I rescue this “Record Store Day” deluxe edition from the ruins of a dying retailer mere weeks from closing down after over 40  years of shilling records. The sad irony of this deluxe edition is this title wasn’t even permitted in a Hastings just years prior. Record Store Day was created by independent music sellers because they felt that the big boxes and the chains had an unfair advantage in the marketplace, they got all the good exclusives and content while the independents were dying off. So “Record Store Day” was created to help the independents survive, but it, in turn, was one of the final nails in the coffin of conventional music chain retail. So, what independent retail really achieved is, while they thought they were taking a bigger piece of the pie, the pie got smaller. It would be the last transaction I would make with my previous employer.

This one was bought late in the liquidation…for 75% off. I believe that made it $9 or so. That’s “breaking the bank” for me these days.

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17 Rolling Stones Beggars’ Banquet (1968)

I pulled this record from the stacks by accident. I don’t remember what I was looking for, but I snagged this Stones album which, I’m pretty sure, I received from a label when I was a buyer, along with a handful of other Stones’ albums. I honestly didn’t even remember owning it on vinyl until I saw it this year. Kinda sick when that happens.

It’s a thick-as-a-brick, indestructible set from the Stones, but in the history of the band, it’s also one of those records that just disappears into their bedrock of timeless, solid recordings. “Sympathy for the Devil,” “No Expectations,” “Street Fighting Man.” They don’t make ’em like the Stones anymore.

Shit, they never really did.

This album was recorded nearly 50 years ago and the band is still together and even released a record this year to boot. About twenty years ago, the longevity of the Stones wasn’t really much to write on. It wasn’t unusual for a band to be alive and active 30 years into a career, but 54 years this band has been active. People, Jimi Hendrix lived only half as long as the Stones have been recording.

That’s impressive. 

The album was a free promo. The jacket is punched in the corner. Does not affect play. Until this year, it was sealed and undisturbed. Glad I finally broke it out this year.

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16 The Walkmen Bows + Arrows (2004)

If there ever was a truly random selection on this list, it’s this one. I blind selected this one from a box in the garage on a hot day in July. I don’t think I’ve listened to this album in more than ten years and I was handsomely rewarded for selecting it. How it survived the great CD purge of about five years ago, I’ll never know. This was precisely the sort of CD I would’ve sold or given away. Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve listened to so very little rock music that, if I had a gun to my head, I could probably only name about 20 rock albums over that period. I know I wouldn’t have been able to name this one.

The vocalist sings like he has sand in his throat, the band, at their best, is this droning growl and, even worse, when they swell to a noisy cacophony of hollers and ear-splitting crashes. It’s perfect in so many ways.

Promo advance courtesy of, I believe, Alternative Distribution Alliance. Or ADA.

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15 Funkadelic Let’s Take It to the Stage (1975)

In my house, you never need a solid reason to put on Funkadelic. My dad played Russian composers when I was a kid. I play Funkadelic. On any given year, it’s customary that I’ll rotate around five different P-funk albums and I’m never entirely sure which record will stick, but inevitably, one will get disproportionate play during the course of a calendar year. This year, that was Let’s Take It to the Stage. 

Marked as the Funkadelic album that basically calls to battle every other funk outfit in music in 1975, Stage is an absolute force of funk that separates the mighty from the meager with Funkadelic standing as the mightiest victor of all. It thumps, bumps, swings, and screams as Clinton and Co. are in the middle stages of perfecting that definitive Parliament sound that would take them decades into the future.

I got this copy as a promo per request from an importer. I believe it was Phantom at the time. Jim Sena with the hookup on this one.

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14 Eugene McDaniels Outlaw (1970)

Eugene McDaniels was one in a million. Born in KC, grew up in Omaha, he sang in church choirs growing up before landing a record deal at the tender age of 19. He worked with jazz greats until the 70s when he made a name for himself as the honorable Rev. McD. It was in this era that he recorded Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and Outlaw. Both are acute message-laden recordings that fortell the impending doom of humanity, explore the very evils of man, delve deep into the dark, oppressed, and alienating experiences of being a black man in America. He snarls, spits, and hollers his way through the brutal prose of Outlaw with the sneer of Kerouac and the vocal strength of Hathaway. The end result is furious and paranoid masterpiece.

I paid full price for this at Amoeba Records out in LA probably a decade or so ago.

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13 Duke Ellington Money Jungle (1963)

This record finds Duke Ellington flanked by bassist Mingus and percussionist Max Roach. Ellington, who had over two decades of age on both of them, was nearing the twilight of his career by the time this was recorded, but the result of the three of them together on one trio session is mystical. It’s a beautiful recording and perfectly preserves three jazz greats for eternity.

This was bought about twenty years ago when I first started with Hastings. This damn CD was $11.99 full price back then. When Hastings closed their doors, the same CD was selling for $4.99 everyday.

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12 The Dramatics Whatcha See is Whatcha Get (1971)

The story of the Dramatics can sadly be told in one record. Their debut album, Whatcha See, was not only the definitive Dramatics record, but it still stands today as one of the finer soul records ever recorded by any artist, in my opinion. The album is short set of bulletproof funk, buttery balladeering, sneering politics, and, of course, sexual healing. Whatcha See was a deliberate knockoff of the new Temptations sound and, even more unfortunate, the Dramatics, themselves Detroit natives, couldn’t find a Detroit label to pick them up and release it and it took nearly a decade and southern stalwart Volt Records (later Stax) to finally give it its proper chance to shine. So, it took them nine years to debut only to be eclipsed by their own masterwork for the rest of their career…that’s the most desirable worst case scenario ever. But for the many thousands of five-piece soul groups of the mid-60s, in a game of chance and probabilities, that’s probably about right.

The jacket has significant scuffing, but does not affect play. I purchased this beauty for $5 at Josey Records.

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11 Andre 3000 The Love Below (2003)

I tend to split The Love Below and Speakerboxxx into two completely different hemispheres. They’re not the same record and weren’t even intended to be. So, to honor the piece that is The Love Below, I always exclusively listen to it over Speakerboxxx. In fact, I’m positive I’ve never listened to the latter in its entirety. Appreciating The Love Below in its own weird and eclectic context can be a challenge for some who are not tuned to the ways of George Clinton, but for P-funk fans, The Love Below is like mainline mid-70s Funkadelic. I listened to this probably 20 times during the course of the year and found that the older it gets, the cooler it sounds. Even “Hey Ya,” which had every soccer mom singing ‘Kast back in 2003, sounds more comfortable nestled in this as it disappears way out into the funkmosphere. I have no doubt that, in the history of funk, The Love Below will be revered as one of the more unexpected, but undeniable successes that helped propel funk forward. Which funk record can make the claim of selling 5.5 million copies? Not many. Perhaps not any.

I bought a distressed copy of this about a decade ago for under $10. It was beat to hell. In fact, I’ve seen very few copies of this at retail that aren’t beat to hell. Not sure why.

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10 Black Moon Enta da Stage (1993)

I’m never far away from a copy of Enta da Stage. The fact that I’ve mistakenly purchased three copies of this on wax over time speaks to my emotional connection with this record. Any time I see a copy of it, I’m like a child stupidly blowing his allowance on one transaction. I drop everything, snag it, pay full price for it like I don’t already own two copies of it at home. Enta da Stage is such a perfect hip hop record and so very under appreciated that I feel it’s my duty to wave their flag for all future hip hop generations. In the way that Straight Outta Compton captured the street-level madness of L.A., so too Stage takes you high into the housing projects of Brooklyn with its thudding murky bass hits, its luscious jazz samples, and its razor-sharp lyricism of Buckshot and Five-Foot. Enta is the slouchy stick-up kid of the inner city coming to take everything and it did just that. There were few records that were comparable to matching the sentiment of the City in the early-90s as the market was shifting into a new sound. And those records are now classics.

Enter the 36 ChambersReady to DieInfamous. And, there at the top of all of them, is Enta da Stage.

I own three copies on vinyl, one copy on CD, and have all remixes, unofficial fanboy mixes, instrumentals, and alternate mixes digitally.

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09 Metallica Master of Puppets (1986)

As mentioned, Hastings, a 120-store entertainment retailer, went bankrupt this year and I was on that sinking ship. Another reason that 2016 royally sucked. Like 2016 could do nothing right. It sucked all over. At Hastings, I had the distinct pleasure to work with some tremendous people, many of which have become life-long friends. Master of Puppets was an emotional pick because, as the fate of my company was written on the wall, I felt myself reminiscing to the many moments that built that experience for me.

When I was hawking CDs to mindless customers on my way through college, the store shut down late. Especially for a national retailer. The music department sat right in the middle of the store so, figuratively and physically, we were central command. We were the what drove the mood of the store. And the music we played over the speakers could lure them in or drive them out. Master of Puppets did both. During the last hour of our weekend shifts, we’d put on Master, turn the volume up two ticks past the maximum permitted levels, and let that shit ride. You’d get smiling faces on nodding heads. You’d get scowls, grumpy book customers prairiedoggin’ from the aisles and aisles of books, you’d get requests to talk to a manager.

But it would be the sounds of a revolt, if just a small and insignificant revolt. It was our musical middle finger to the man…the man that I would eventually work for. So, as the our offices were closing and many had moved on or were in the process of moving on, packing boxes with their personal belongings while new faces from the liquidators would circle around like vultures, I queued up Master on my desk speakers, turned that shit up way louder than it would’ve been permissible during happier and more productive times, and blasted it so loudly that it echoed throughout the empty cubicles that surrounded me.

I purchased my copy of that record at Hastings #9621 in Lubbock by the recommendation of Scumdog Steev who could, occasionally, be a shaky hand at recommendations.

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08 Led Zeppelin III (1970)

One Saturday in Benbrook, Ellison and I were driving around hitting garage sales and we walked up this long driveway that had junk just thrown out on the ground. As spotted a small shoebox that had about twenty CD’s in it and had a postcard on the outside that read “.25 each.” It was worth the dig. Mostly mid-90s rock with no cover art, some CD-R’s. But then I spotted a gently used copy of Led Zeppelin III with cover art and all. I ran to the car, snagged a quarter, and the transaction was done. I gave it to Ellison and told her, “This is yours. Take good care of it.”

We put the CD into the car player and, from the moment it kicks into the blitzkrieg of “Immigrant Song,” Ellison’s eyes open wide and her jaw falls down. She was hooked. So much so, she ran in showing the CD to her younger brother when we came home. From there, Led Zeppelin’s III has hijacked our listening throughout the year and has laid a solid foundation for my kids’ musical taste. And imagine the delight when I told Ellison that Zeppelin had nine other albums and I owned all of them. I learned a long time ago that one of the hacks of parenting (besides garage sales) is delayed gratification so, to create some of the mystery and intrigue of Zeppelin, we won’t be listening to the other records for a while. Get our miles out of III, first. As a testament to Zeppelin’s greatness, though, they released Led Zeppelin through Zoso in four years. They released a definitive rock record every year for four years. Man, they just don’t make ’em like they used to.

Undeniably classic album and countless musical memories for one shiny quarter.

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07 Kool and Together Kool and Together (2011)

There are eight billion stories in the funkmosphere. Kool and Together is just one of them. A family band with brothers in the back and pops in the lead. They’re rocking church to church down in deep southern Texas. Pops wants to play seven days a week, the boys don’t wanna play the Sabbath. Pops leaves the group. The boys go on. They start playing bowling alleys, small clubs, and find themselves in a studio to record a number of songs that, unfortunately, disappear into the annals of Texas music history.

Until about 40 years later.

The sides are unearthed, they’re remastered, and properly released on vinyl and compact disc. And the world gets to hear the sweaty, sticky, swampy funk of Kool and Together.

There are few moments when I’m hooked by a funk record from the first ten seconds, but the moment I put on Kool and Together and “Sittin’ on a Red Hot Stove” came on, I was buying stock. How such young and underdeveloped family musicians are capable of producing a funk so strong and a groove so genuine, I will never know.

It’s a raw and magnificent explosion of screams, hollers, catcalls, bells, bass, wah-wahs, and perspiration. This is highly recommended for any core funk fans.

I bought this beautiful set at End of a Ear in Austin on a record shopping trip. Full price on this puppy…I think it was near $17 or so. Thanks to Josh at Light in the Attic for giving it a proper release and handling the packaging so delicately. Fine treatment.

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06 Harry Nilsson All Time Greatest Hits (1989)

That guy. That Nilsson guy.

Harry Nilsson wrote a ton of great records. And, as many great records as he wrote, he got credit for so very few of them. This set helps shed light on his many credits and, still, nowhere close to all of them.

But none of that matters to my kiddos. They like “Me and My Arrow” and “Coconut.” We listened to hours of Nilsson over the summer because of those two songs. It’s funny how two songs are enough to hook in a six and a three year old and then it gives you license to expand their musical horizons far beyond preschool “London Bridge” type of soundscapes.

Nilsson was a beast, though, and while playable, this set does little to honor his legacy. It’s a cheap RCA repackaging of his hits with a dinky, four-panel sleeve of sparse liner notes. Just the basics, really. But the songs are there and they’ve been properly mastered.

I bought this at a warehouse sale for Hastings which, now, was the beginning death rattles foretelling the bankruptcy. I bought this sucka for $.50, which was far beyond fair. I would’ve much rather saved the company, though.

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05 D’Angelo and the Vanguards Black Messiah (2014)

I’m a year late on everything. That’s being super conservative. It’s more like about three to four years late on everything. Part of it is being lazy and the other part is being naturally resistant to hype. The more people talk about something, the less I want to experience it. I like finding things on my own. That’s the appeal, or the thrill of it for me. Finding it myself. 

But I’ve always liked D’Angelo. So, given the opportunity to buy it cheap, I picked up Black Messiah this year. It’s a wonderfully packaged set that perfectly captures transitionary funk and soul as, once again, D’Angelo finds himself at the forefront of a genre shift, either by leading it for quickly following. Black Messiah is sometimes oozy, sometimes punchy funk, that relies heavily on D’Angelo’s voice as an instrument behind, sometimes sparse, instrumentation. While, in other moments, the record explores otherworldly soulfulness as the long-form song structures leave enough room for the music to go stratospheric, before landing safely back on earth before ending.

I bought this for 75% off during the Hastings clearance sale, so, $3.50.

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04 Queen Greatest Hits I (1992)

I have never been a big Queen fan. No good explanation why, even though, I feel forced to provide one. When the opportunity came up to buy a three-disc set of their greatest hits for $.50, you kinda gotta take the dive. As it would happen, again, it wouldn’t by insistence to listen to Queen, but rather it was the beckoning of my kids that did it. Songs like “Bicycle Race,” “We Will Rock You,” “We are the Champions,” “Another One Bites the Dust” are instant favorites with kids. But the strange magnetism of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a peculiar one that I can’t explain (something about hearing your three year-old walking around the house singing the words “I don’t wanna die, sometimes wish I’ve never been born at all”). Either way, we would become a monstrous chorus of Queen as we rolled with the windows down daily to the swimming hole this August after I was laid off. There’s definitely worse gigs than driving around blasting Queen with your kids.

If I paid $.50 for the three-disc set, then the first disc cost me a whopping $.17.

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03 Childish Gambino Awaken, My Love (2016)

As a purveyor of the funk and honorary disciple of great George Clinton’s funk legacy, I’m always frustrated to see the man go uncredited on even the slightest lifting of his influence. Awaken, though, is such a deliberate and intentional nod to Uncle George, that it is clearly more homage than dishonor. Like D’Angelo, Erykah, Andre3000 before him, borrowing from the Funk or, in this case, jumping in headfirst, produces a remarkable output with infinite playability for those who have been waiting on George Clinton to return to his throne. Even if this is a momentary mastery of the funk, at least we know there are funkateers still hard at work pushing forward George’s vision. This album is the 2016 Mothership.

I downloaded this shit for free because, one, it’s 2016 and, two, I’m jobless.

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02 The Frights You are Going to Hate This (2016)

I never said I had a good ear for rock. But when I hear something I like, I buy in hard. The Frights are one such record. When I joined back at Hastings in March, I was blessed with the opportunity to scour the promo cart (basically a cart of promos sent to us by the labels that go unclaimed or unwanted and are free for the taking) for some new music. Rarely do you find anything good on there and, perhaps, that’s why I connected with this Frights record, You are Going to Hate This. 

But it’s so good, people. It’s a fuzzy, smoky, reckless set of surf-goth that’s tinged with lovely bittersweet melodies and softer cuddly moments. It’s beautifully undone and hits with a ferocity and anger of any good teenage revolt records. I immersed myself in this record for a good week or two before finally giving it a shot on a more discernible ear in Brad Green. Brad sat on it for a week or so before listening to it, at which point, he replied via email with an overwhelming “meh.”

So this Frights record is, admittedly, a sneaky Jeff-only pick and has the unlucky designation of being “that one rock record that Jeff listened to for almost an entire year and no one knew why.”

But it was free. And free always fits in the budget.

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01 David Bowie The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)

Like many, Bowie’s passing hit me like a ton of bricks to the chest. I wasn’t the biggest fan, but as a fan of music, his impact was undeniable and permeated so much of my existence here on earth. Now, I know that many lists out there will have his last record, Blackstar, but I just wasn’t having it. There’s very little beating out Ziggy. When he died, I went home that night, snagged Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, and Pinups from my collection.

As I played Ziggy, I became increasingly convinced it was his masterwork. I found it infinitely listenable, providing moments to bookmark and come back to listen to in repeated listens. It’s a marvelous symphony of the most imaginative soundscapes and David, even though so young and explorative, is a master of his own creation. He’s so deep in the pocket and in such control that it’s hard to believe he was only 25 when he recorded Ziggy. For most musicians, a work such as this would be a destination, but for Bowie, it was just another stop along his journey as an artist.

That’s insane.

Undoubtedly, we lost many greats this year. I won’t get into the discussion of which one sucks worse because losing great people just sucks. I lost both of my great aunts, Sean died of cancer and Bobby took his own life leaving behind two kids and a wife. Losing great people sucks. I don’t put much value in 2016 being cursed or, somehow, divinely or cosmically selected to be the worst year ever, but it was a brutal one. And Ziggy continued spinning throughout the year as the sound of healing, of yearning, of weeping, of resurrection, of promise, of heartbreak, of angst, of delight, of yesterday, of tomorrow, of wild imagination, of inspiration, and of life. It’s the sound of life…even in the face of great sorrow and despair.

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