Archive for December, 2011

Notice how I didn’t say “Best of 2011”?

For the past 3 or 4 Christmases I’ve made a disc of my favorite songs of the year for select friends and family members who are interested in that sort of thing. The criteria have always been there, if a little loose: it could even be a new cover of an old song, as long as it was put out that year.

With all the “Best Of. . .” lists – and sources for publishing them – proliferating of late, I’ve decided to change things up a bit this year. Instead of a disc (which I will happily make available to anyone who still wants one,) I will have a disc-length list of my favorite songs posted here. I’ll also have lists for the best shows I saw this year, as well as what I rated as the best albums of 2011.

Which brings us to today’s list, part 1 of at least 3. Unless I think of some more lists to make, and find the time to make them.

As hard as I know compiling the lists of songs and shows will be – I added over 1,400 songs to the library this year, so finding the best 20 is usually an angst-ridden exercise that takes at least four passes and countless re-listens – the album list was made relatively easy using the metadata and smart playlist abilities embedded in iTunes. (For the mathematically or statistically uninterested, feel free to skip to the list.)

I simply created a list of all the songs I added this year (after correcting a few albums that had neglected to note that fact – shame on them,) narrowed it to the ones I’d rated 4 or 5 stars, and then sorted by album. Any album that had at least five of its songs rated highly made the initial list. Then I checked each album for the total number of tracks and used Excel to figure out, lickety-split, what percentage of each album I’d rated 4 or 5 stars. Any album that had at least 50% at that level made the list below. (Which also, along with the fact that I didn’t want my list to be like everyone else’s, explains why there are 22 albums listed.)

Happy reading – and listening. I’ve made a Spotify playlist with the songs from each album that came immediately to mind when free associating about it. There were only two albums not on Spotify, so it’s not 100% complete, but I think it provides a decent representation of the albums I most enjoyed this year. (You’re on your own for those two.)

Thanks for reading, and special thanks to all of the artists who made 2011 a fantastic year for new music, at least for these two ears, and to the sources that helped me find them.

Let me know if you agree, disagree or have your own completely different lists – I’d love to check them out.

22. In Heaven, Twin Sister 50%

Love the quirky, retro feel of “Gene Ciampi,” which is why it made the Spotify list. “Kimmi in a Rice Field” and “Spain,” in particular, are also worth checking out.

21. Simple Math, Manchester Orchestra 50%

I’ve seen these guys at least three times – the most recent at the incredible Tabernacle here in Atlanta – and they keep growing in power and stature each time. Their last album snuck up on me – I really liked the first two advance singles, “April Fool” and the title track, but when I heard the full album it took a few spins for its depths to unmurk enough (never all the way, which is a good thing. . .) for me to truly appreciate it for what it is – like so much of Andy Hull’s canon, it seems a lament for questionable decisions and what appears to be a stormy, sometimes tragic past. It’s hard to pick just one from here, but what comes to mind first is its titular cut, so that’s what I chose for the Spotify list.

20. Tamer Animals, Other Lives 50%

I considered finding Other Lives’ last eponymous album a major discovery, so I didn’t hesitate at all when I saw this one come out. I wasn’t disappointed for a second. Also saw some great YouTube-like buzz around them for much of the year. The “Old Statues” video from their TLOBF session (more on TLOBF in a bit. . .) is starkly simple and staggeringly good, even with the false start. I chose “Desert” to represent the album, though, thinking that any who may have heard from them may not be familiar with this piece that sounds as sinuous, as soaring and as desolate as its namesake.

19. Circuital, My Morning Jacket 55%

I love “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” and I dare you not to get sucked in by its organ riff, but I picked “Victory Dance” for the playlist, which when it does shuffle into consciousness makes me wonder, “Where have you been lately? You need to come around more often…”

18. Burst Apart, The Antlers 55%

Not much to say here except these guys just keep getting better. Strange, unique, odd – all good descriptors in my book – and never dull. “Corsicana” is achingly beautiful, a song I imagine as part of the soundtrack of my life some days. “Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out” made the Spotify cut because, even odder than the song, I’ve had that dream more than once myself. Worry not, making an appointment to discuss soon. . .

17. Acrobat, Peggy Sue 55%

Found these guys by accident through The Line of Best Fit, a UK-based site and podcast that can be a little too electronic and dance-y for my tastes at times, but which has turned me onto numerous new sounds over the last year. (And I absolutely love listening to TLOBF’s Emily Mules on their podcast – how can you not? I defy you to not like her, even if you don’t like the specific song or band she’s describing at the time. . .) When I heard this one I dug backwards and immediately grabbed their previous release, Fossils and Other Phantoms, which was also amazing. I’ve quoted two of their songs on this blog over the last few months:

It’s hard to breathe
with these words in my mouth
With your lips on my own
come get them out
– from Acrobat’s “Funeral Beat” (which made the Spotify list)

and

You like the way her name fits in the corners of your mouth /
You like the way your name fits in the corners of her mouth
– from Fossils’ “Careless Talk”

16. Follow Me Down, Sarah Jarosz 55%

Sarah Jarosz was as surprising to me as was discovering that Laura Marling (coming soon. . .) was just a youngster, too, even though I knew Sarah was just 17 or so when she recorded her first album, Song Up In Her Head. The subtlety, the nuance, the quiet power in her words and her playing belie her time of residency on the planet, and her follow-up to that last record is even more impressive. When not studying at Boston’s Conservatory of Music she’s touring the world with her band, playing an irresistible mix of her own impressive originals and an inspired pastiche of intriguing covers. From the first notes of “Annabelle Lee” to the last, though, I knew this effort – and this artist – was and is something special, something unlike anything I’d heard in any genre, and I’ll be forever grateful for that. No surprise, then, that Poe’s paean to his lost love makes it onto the Spotify list. Can’t wait to see her at Atlanta’s iconic Eddie’s Attic, one of my favorite all-time venues, in January.

15. Ukulele Songs, Eddie Vedder 56%

I wrote about this one when it first came out (here) and said at the time I didn’t really know what to expect, but at least a small part of me thought it may end up being a novelty record. It’s not. Read the other words I’ve written about it, and listen to “You’re True,” and I think you’ll agree.

14. Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes 58%

I’d been meaning to check this band out for a few years now, and finally did so with the release of their newest. I promptly fell in love with this album. I remember downloading and listening to it on a Friday, and then finding that they were playing the very next night here in town. That was a month where I already had two shows lined up, though, and the entertainment budget was stretched a little thin. Now I wish I’d done it anyway. The title cut is an awesome one, but I went with “Sim Sala Bim” for the playlist mainly because of its nonsensical, Ali Baba-like incantation of a title.

13. We Are the Tide, Blind Pilot 60%

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing these Portlanders three times over the last few years, too, and though they keep gaining members with every viewing they’ve always managed to keep that intimate, almost quiet sound that first drew me in back when they were a bike-riding two-piece. Love the words and the play among the members, however many there are. Planned to include “Half Moon” on the list because of someone I know who likes the moon in song, story and life, but alas, that’s one of the two not on Spotify.

12. When You Left the Fire, The Wilderness of Manitoba 64%

Here’s a fantastic find that the moon-lover sent my way, I think, that also kind of adds to the theme of some of the top bands and albums on this list. Large-group folk bands have dominated my eardrums this year, and contrary to becoming redundant or interchangeable each has remained distinct for me, bringing something similar but at the same time unique to the party. These are not the only Canucks on the list, either, but more on their countrymen and -women later. “Summer Fires,” one of only three 5-star ratings on this list, is included here.

11. Little Hell, City & Colour 64%

Though I still don’t get the trend of singular artists giving themselves pluralized names, this one makes sense. Dallas Green (a City and a Colour) makes deeply moving introspective music that lingers long after the last note. Not depressing, at least not usually, even though in the hands of a lesser artist the subjects he tackles likely would be. The a capella take on “At the Bird’s Foot,” a simple but scathing account of the BP oil spill, pairs those haunting vocals with Florence Welch, sans the Machine, and enrages while it saddens. I included “O’ Sister” for sampling, though any of the others would have served just as well.

10. Come Back to Us, Release the Sunbird 64%

Can’t say enough about this project, which finds a Waveless Zach Rogue with Caitlin Gutenberger making beautiful, deceptively simple music that reveals more with each listen. Check out one of my favorite cuts, another titular track, this time recorded in the excellent Subway Sessions series: “Come Back to Us.” Bonus: “Why Can’t You Look at Yourself” is on the Spotify list.

9. A Creature I Don’t Know, Laura Marling 67%

I’ve loved listening to Laura Marling ever since I bought her last album, purely due to the fact that she used a little-known group of guys called Mumford & Sons as the studio band for it. They subsequently toured India and other climes together, and in the process made some magical, otherworldly music. From the first cut I was simply blown away by the depth and power of her voice, so I was amazed to find that she’s this relatively small young girl – she writes and sings like someone thrice her age. The newest disc is full of goodies, but I think my favorite is the first one I heard, both because of its use of the universal female archetype “Sophia,” and because of the way the song – and Marling’s tender but powerful voice – changes so during its progression. Masterful stuff from one so young.

8. Within and Without, Washed Out 70%

Only recently found out that this guy, another singular gone plural, hails from Perry, GA, just south of Macon. Moody, ambient keys and plaintive voices make this one standout from the rest of the pack, and it definitely gets my vote for favorite album cover of the year. “Amor Fati” is included on the playlist.

7. The Head and the Heart 70%

Getting into the really consistently good stuff here. Loved these guys the very first time I heard the very first song, and it kept getting better. They were also probably the first of several of these large-format folk/rock bands that included beautiful harmonies with or without their female members (but mostly with) that I fell for this year. Their eponymous album is bursting at the seams with soul-soothing sounds. Saw them less than two months ago at the Variety Playhouse, so they’ll get some more plugs on the “Favorite Shows” list as soon as it’s out. Don’t know what it is about the magical, mystical PNW, but it must have just the right mix of weather, people and temperament that it takes to produce great songwriters and collaborative instrumentalists. Super hard to choose just one THatH cut to include on the sampler, and since show-closer and first favorite “Rivers and Roads” is probably the one most people know, and though “Down in the Valley” has one of my favorite lines as its opener (“I wish was a slave to an age-old trade / like ridin’ ’round on railcars and working long days / Lord, have mercy on my rough and rowdy ways. . .”) I went with “Winter Song,” one of the only other 5-star cuts from this list.

6. The King is Dead, The Decemberists 70%

Another constantly astounding, consistently impressive band for me, this follow-up to last year’s weirdly majestic The Hazards of Love would have been amazing even without the likes of Pete Buck and Gillian Welch along for the ride. I listed its first single, “Down by the Water,” as one of my favorite songs of last year since it was released just ahead of the rest of the album, and it’s still one of my favorites. One of the finest results, though, of Colin and the gang’s taking this one on the road was that they recruited Sara Watkins, a perennial favorite of mine who now seems like practically an honorary band member, playing not only fiddle but rhythm guitar onstage and on several TV appearances I caught throughout the year- and, most impressively, when I saw them at the Cobb Energy Centre here in Atlanta, one of the most beautiful and acoustically perfect venues I’ve ever been in. It was my second time seeing them, and they didn’t disappoint – but more on the show later. I chose “Don’t Carry it All” for the sampler because I love its anthemic, triumphant and cathartic feel – Meloy practically screams at us, “Let the yoke fall from our shoulders / don’t carry it all, don’t carry it all / we are all our hand and holders / beneath this bold and brilliant sun / THIS I SWEAR TO ALL!” (Caps mine.) Honorable mention also goes to the six-tune EP of tracks that didn’t make TKiD cut, cleverly titled Long Live the King and filled with the now-standard inscrutability of songs like “E. Watson,” (what did this poor bastard DO to deserve getting buried “all face down, with a good view into Hell”?) and “Burying Davy.” Good to find that Colin has lost none of the affable morbidity that we’ve come to expect from their oeuvre – the body count remains steadily on the rise.

5. Civilian, Wye Oak 70%

I guess it’s becoming redundant to describe anything in this Top 10 as “grabbing me from first listen,” but this one certainly did that, and hasn’t let go yet. I heard such power, such deep underpaintings being laid down to support the structures being built by this Baltimore two-piece, and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Assuming that they’d either had a brace of musicians helping them in the studio or that they’d played all the instruments themselves and multitracked the lot, and that they’d need at least a few more supporting players on tour, I was further astounded to find when I saw them at The Tabernacle this Fall that it remains just the two of them onstage: Jenn Wasner playing all the masterful, many-hued guitar sounds, and the equally incredible Andy Stack playing drums, keyboards and working the BGVs – all at the same time. To see his left hand and foot playing a staggered stack of keys while his right appendages played a small but explosive drum kit left me reeling. Check it: I won’t spoil too much since the description of the show will be on that future list, but I was completely blown away, and remain so. Everyone’s probably heard “Holy Holy” by now, and though I love the titular track on this one, too, I included “Hot as Day” on the sampler as that was the first one I heard, and some days I can still see the ghosts of its fingerprints on my throat.

4. Sunshadows, The Echocentrics 71%

This was a very late-in-the-year find – just a few weeks ago via another of my favorite finds from last year, Daytrotter. If you haven’t checked their site out yet, stop reading and do so now. Daytrotter is blowing up pretty big now, so I hope they don’t lose any of the small-time charm that I first discovered there a little over a year ago – and so far there are no indications that they’ll let that happen. Daytrotter and Paste account for fully one-quarter of the 4- and 5-star additions to my library this year – about 115 songs. Not to mention the bands I first heard there and then dug deeper and bought more of. But we’re supposed to be talking about The Echocentrics, so here goes: charmingly unusual quasi-world music that’s partly instrumental but whose lyrics are a sultry mix of Portuguese, Spanish and English. One description of their music that I came across after hearing their session, and which played at least as much of a part in my decision to buy the whole record as anything else, said basically, “when their music comes on, clothes come off, and parts of bodies crash together in interesting ways,” or words to that effect – you get the gist. I was surprised, though, that this many of their songs made the tops, but I have not tired of any of them yet and don’t expect to any time soon. Was going to include “Esclavo Y Amo” but it’s the sole remaining tune not available on Spotify yet. (It means “slave and master,” which I didn’t know until a few minutes ago, either. You’re welcome.)

3. The Cold Still, The Boxer Rebellion 83%

Here’s one that I remembered I’d loved, but that I was surprised had so very many 4’s and 5’s. Great balance between lighter and harder rock guitars, the textures just sucked me in and the highs and lows kept me wondering what was coming next. Tough choice between “Step Out of the Car” and “Locked in the Basement” as to which comes to mind first, but I went with “… Basement” on the playlist.

2. His Young Heart, Daughter 100% **

The asterisks on this one mean that I felt that there needed to be an exception made here. I really like all four songs, especially the lyrics, which were some of most open and raw I’d heard all year, and her voice suits them perfectly. But it was just four songs (“Just?” she’s probably saying somewhere right now, without knowing why. “JUST?!”) so I felt that while it definitely deserved to make it onto the list, and with high placement, to boot, I couldn’t list it as number one, mainly because I knew when I started this overlong treatise which one would have the highest percentage of 4’s and 5’s, and which one had made the strongest impact on me this year. “Candles” is the Daughter track that made the sampler.

1. Seeds, Hey Rosetta! 91%

Like I said, I knew this would be the top dog this year. It’s just too good not to be. I found it the same week as The Boxer Rebellion, so after a pretty long spell of hearing albums that had one or two great moments, to find two in the same week that were that good all the way through was a revelation. (Thanks again, Moongirl! If Paste and Daytrotter are responsible for 25% of the great songs I added in 2011, I’m sure you can account for more than 50% of the rest.) Where to start? From the multiple changes in “Yer Fall” (which could itself be three separate tunes,) to its thematic counterpart “Yer Spring,” to the straightforwardness of “Bricks” it all shines and comes together brilliantly. But it’s “Bandages” that struck first, hardest and deepest, drilling straight into my heart for a number of personal reasons and nesting there, making room for the others to follow and take up permanent residence. Based in the Great White North (which may be importing some of the PNW’s magic, or – more likely – sharing some of those same traits,) their misleadingly simple music is anything but. When I first saw this video for “Bandages,” an extended cut of the song, I was transported, and I knew I’d be a fan for life. I’ll bet I’ve heard the song over a hundred times now and it’s lost none of its emotional punch; when it hits the chorus it still gets me every time, and the incredible settings and enhanced choral harmonies in the extended video are crushingly effective. (And its drunken, healing revelry at the end will stay with you, too, as it has for me.) I hope they come down South soon, or I may have to make a road trip to see them. Easily, far and away, and without question my favorite album and band of the year.

Honorable mentions: SO many great albums missed the cut by just a few percentage points – good thing, though, or this entry may never end. Fleet Foxes was just under the required 50% and I still listen to them quite a bit. The newest Greencards offering was right on the cusp, too (and they killed in concert, as well,) as were efforts from Chris Thile, Yoyo Ma and the rest of The Goat Rodeo Sessions players. Young Galaxy has several from their latest that I know will stay in heavy rotation in coming years, just like I’m sure Pajama Club (the last of the 5-star recipients for “TNT for 2,” which is completely infectious in the best possible way) and St. Vincent will, too. Fleet Foxes, Fruit Bats and Seether round out the list of this year’s almost-theres for me.

So that’s it. Let me know what you agree with, and what you don’t – and if you like anything from this list that you’d never heard before, let me know that, too. And be on the lookout for the Favorite Songs and Favorite Shows of 2011 lists, too – don’t forget to send me yours!

Safe and happy holidays, everyone!

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I’ve finally done it. All twelve volumes, all 4,730 pages (not including Indices, Appendices, or Glossaries.) Christopher Tolkien’s incredible achievement in literary archaeology, The History of Middle-earth, has been read.

Back in January of this year I set myself that challenge: after reading The Lord of the Rings once a year since I was 15 or so, and finally making it through The Silmarillion (thanks, Tolkien Professor!) and Children of Hurin, and better yet understanding and appreciating those more esoteric works, I vowed to read all twelve in the History series prior to year-end.

By July I was already on Volume 9. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘this’ll be a snap.’ I didn’t know it yet but I’d hit the wall. When December 1 came around the last 40 pages or so in Volume 12 were still unturned.  But just like the other 4,690 pages, those last words – literally some of the last things penned by JRR Tolkien in his final few months of life – succumbed, and I was through.

So now what?

There’s plenty of Tolkienite literature to be had out there, but had I exhausted the supply of things written by the great man, or his equally erudite offspring?

Turns out I hadn’t.

So next up is The Letters of JRR Tolkien, a large book that’s an apparently very small representation of the thousands of letters he wrote to friends, family and business associates, all related to Middle-earth and its denizens.

So I’ve got that going for me.

But what to make of the overall achievement of finishing The Histories itself?

In the first part of this recap, which took us up to volume 9, I’d just gotten past the middle set of four that described the notes and deep background of the writing of The Lord of the Rings, which remain the most impactful volumes of The Histories for me. I’d seen some Tolkien’s earliest writings already, many of the so-called “Lost Tales” and what was essentially the framework for what would appear in all of his future works, large and small. Many or most of these earliest stories would be written and re-written, edited and re-edited over the course of some sixty years, as Tolkien realized he had to make some of this extensive History fit the major pieces of the canon, namely The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings itself. That he wrote all of that back story at all, much less that he took the time to rework it so many times over the years, knowing that in all likelihood nobody would ever read it, is simply astonishing.

The Tolkien shelf, including the Histories, Tolkien’s Letters, and collector’s editions of The Hobbit, Children of Hurin, and The Lord of the Rings

What remained after those four volumes was in most ways similar to what had come before: extremely scholarly dissections of relatively short bursts of actual stories and explanations from JRRT himself. But, also like the earlier pieces, there were gems that shone brighter than the very Silmarils themselves, and when I turned those pages I practically had to shield my eyes. There were plenty of goose-bump moments, plenty of, “No way! Really?” asides from yours truly, that made all of the other knowledgeable but sometimes dry diatribes more than worth it.

I had been anticipating reaching volume 10, Morgoth’s Ring, as it had been mentioned on numerous occasions in the good Professor’s podcasts, both the in-class sessions and the subsequent Silmarillion discussions. Volumes 10 and 11 were subtitled (one thing Christopher was not at all leery of was subtitles. . .) “The Later Silmarillion, parts 1 & 2,” and dealt mostly with either further, deeper explanations of the underpinnings of that critical work, or corrections of items appearing in the earliest volumes, which Christopher had made more sense of through new findings – again, sometimes only scribbles on small scraps of re-used paper.

The last volume describes The Peoples of Middle-earth, their origins, their genealogies, and their languages. There were also a few odds and ends that Christopher tacked on that were written in the very last months of his father’s life.

Examples of the previously mentioned brightness and goose-bump inducing passages abound. Here are a few.

From Morgoth’s Ring, volume 10, this touching excerpt from a letter JRRT wrote to a friend in 1963:

Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over the Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil.  – Morgoth’s Ring, History of Middle-earth, vol X, pg 366

Volume 11, The War of the Jewels, yielded these gems, the first an almost biblical who’s-who of the lineage of Man, and the beginning of the line of Numenor: (This also gives a bit of the flavor of some of the more impenetrable paragraphs; while full of useful and interesting information, it really does feel like reading one of the Old Testament books of the Bible at times.)

The sons of Hador were Galdor and Gundor; and the sons of Galdor were Hurin and Huor; and the son of Hurin was Turin the bane of Glaurung; and the son of Huor was Tuor, father of Earendil the Blessed. And the son of Boromir [not that one. . . ed.] was Bregor, whose sons were Bregolas and Barahir; and the daughters of the sons of Bregolas were Morwen the mother of Turin, and Rian the mother of Tuor; but the son of Barahir was Beren One-Hand who won the love of Luthien Thingol’s daughter and returned from the dead; from them came Elwing the wife of Earendil and all the Kings of Numenor after. – War of the Jewels, pg 224

Now that may not seem or sound all that exciting to the casual reader, but for someone who’d not long ago finished The Silmarillion as well as the preceding ten volumes just about all of these names hold great weight and importance in the larger tales. These include additional clarity around Hurin, some of whose tragic story I provided in the last post, and his line; Barahir, whose ring ends up on Aragorn’s finger as proof of his claim to the throne of Gondor; Beren and Luthien, whose long story runs throughout nearly everything Tolkien wrote; and Earendil, who not only played a crucial role in these early stories by convincing the all powerful Valar to come back to Middle-earth and help vanquish the evil there, but who then ascended into the heavens to become “our most precious star,” the one whose light was captured in the phial given to Frodo by Galadriel thousands of years later.

In one paragraph Tolkien has laid out the lineage of thousands of years of Middle-earth’s history, Men and Elves combined, that ties in seamlessly with his more popular works. I say again: astonishing.

Added to the long list of things I never knew about the people of these histories was that Celebrian, wife of Elrond and mother to Arwen, was Galadriel’s daughter. Nor did I know of what befell her in the forest one day when she had left Rivendell to visit her mother in Lothlorien:

… but she is taken by Orcs in the passes of the mountains. She is rescued by Elrond and his sons, but after fear and torment she is no longer willing to remain in Middle-earth, and she departs to the Grey Havens and sails over the sea. – The Peoples of Middle-earth, pg 236

No wonder Elrond is so concerned about Arwen and her decision. Of their parting, Tolkien wrote:

… bitterest of all the sorrows of (the Third) Age was the parting of Arwen and Elrond. For they were sundered by the Sea and by a doom beyond the end of the world. For when the Great Ring was unmade the Three Rings of the Elves failed also, and Elrond was weary of Middle-earth at last and departed seeking Celebrian, and returned never again.  – The Peoples of Middle-earth, pg 266

There is more – so much more – like that. An even more tragic retelling of the end of Hurin’s days; little things like the very brief story of the five Wizards that came to Middle-earth and became Saruman, Gandalf, Radogast, Alatar and Pallando (and the alternative and much more cumbersome names of the last two); an amazingly heartfelt description of the last days of Legolas and Gimli’s unprecedented friendship; and perhaps most movingly, descriptions of the days of Aragorn and Arwen, and their own parting.

After too many words here, about a work that some might say includes too many words itself, I can only say this: I’m very glad I read it. It’s given me an even deeper and richer understanding of Tolkien and his world than I ever thought possible – this coming from someone who’s already ready The Lord of the Rings 25+ times, The Silmarillion thrice, and Children of Hurin twice. I can’t recommend it for everyone, simply because it’s not for everyone. For someone who wants to pick and choose which bits may be of interest, however, I can recommend the middle four volumes on the History of The Lord of the Rings, though even its style makes The Silmarillion look like, well, The Hobbit, almost.

I’ll close with as good a description of how all of these stories tie together as any I’ve found. It’s from The War of the Jewels, volume 11.

In these versions my father was drawing on (while also of course continually developing and extending) long works that already existed in prose and verse, and in the Quenta Silmarillion he perfected that characteristic tone, melodious, grave, elegiac, burdened with a sense of loss and distance in time, which resides partly, as I believe, in the literary fact that he was drawing down into a brief compendious history what he could also see in far more detailed, immediate, and dramatic form. With the completion of the great ‘intrusion’ and departure of The Lord of the Rings, it seems that he returned to the Elder Days with a desire to take up again the far more ample scale with which he had begun long before, in The Book of Lost Tales. The completion of the Quenta Silmarillion remained an aim; but the ‘great tales’, vastly developed from their original forms, from which its later chapters would be derived were never achieved. – The War of the Jewels, pg 245

So Christopher did what any good son would try to do, and he did it in the spirit and with the reverence it deserved: he finished it, and published it, and shared the first, last and greatest visions of his father with the world.

When I started these books one of the questions I hoped to answer was, “Why are the Elves in the Third Age so solemn and sad, and why do most of them want to leave Middle-earth?” After reading The Silmarillion and now The Histories, I know. The weight of all those years, and all that evil, and all the tragedy that accompanied the (usual) triumph would make the hardiest of beings tired, and ready to return to a brighter, more promising place. I won’t be able to see them in the movies or encounter them in the books without thinking of the nearly crushing weight of their own history.

One last personal point. To commemorate the completion of the series, I wanted to do something unusual, something lasting – and something slightly unexpected. So I got a tattoo:

That sigil is on the cover and/or the title pages of every Tolkien book I’ve ever read, so I wanted it to be on me, too, as a symbol of how much a part of my life – young and old, serious and not-so-serious, in times both troubled and good – these stories have been and will continue to be. I can only hope to read them to my grandchildren one day.

Updated 6/1/12: