Dance, Dance Revolution

Sometime back in the halcyon days of 2000, before George W Bush and 9/11 and Katrina, before the War on Terror and Social Media and Sarah Palin, before Brexit and Trump and Taylor Swift,* back when not only Prince and David Bowie were still alive, but also Joe Strummer and MCA and Johnny Cash and album sales, back in the day  before “Back in the Day (feat. Jay-Z),” I remember discussing the upcoming presidential election with a musically-minded friend of mine. I was planning to vote for Gore. My friend was undecided, bordering on indifferent. He found all the candidates dull and uninspiring. He thought Gore was a tool of the Establishment who would usher in nothing more than the same old Status Quo. He found Bush loathsome, but unlikely to win. But even if he did, “I mean, there are some benefits, right? Like music always gets better when people get angry. And Bush will make people angry.”

I spent the couple years of the Bush Administration writing record reviews and the next six working in a record store. I’m here to tell you my friend’s sound of the revolution, if it came, went largely unheard. There was a lot of post-punk revival and dance-punk and manic pixie dream indie rock and backpack hip-hop and major label garage rock and Nelly and Eminem and “The Black Album.”  Some bands were putting out explicitly political records. But either the bands were too obscure or too old or they were too Green Day, and they failed to coalesce into the kind of wide-spread “protest music” wave the Baby Boomers have literally never shut up about since they first heard Dylan back in ’64 and it changed their life.

And that brings us to now.

So, like, 2017 nearly broke me. Some of you will take a long, pitying look at the playlist attached here and think, “Yeah, right. Nearly? That’s cute. You. Are. Totally. Broken.”  It was certainly a year when I’ve listened to less new music than I have in years past. It was definitely a year in which I’ve sort of avoided whole genres—genres I’ve traditionally liked– because I didn’t think I just could handle being yelled  by angry white dudes on my own time.  Whenever anyone has asked me, I’ve told them I’ve been listening to Smooth Jams. And I don’t think people have realized that I was being 100% totally serious. I’ve also listened to a lot of hip-hop. A fair amount of straight-up pop music. And really just a whole, whole lot of women.

There’s a lag-time in making art that’s explicitly topical. In last week’s book list, I remarked on it (for novels, it’s about 4-5 years, which accounts for the staggering number of 9/11 books that all seemed to come out at exactly the same time). In music, the turnaround is usually a little faster, which means there could be some critical mass of Trump records next year or the year after. Maybe that’s okay. I’m not sure I could have handled the full-throated Sound of the Resistance during the first half of the year, back when I was still showing up stunned at protests and trying to suss out how scary (pretty darn scary) things were going to get and how fast (kinda speedy) they were going to get there, but by the middle of the summer I was kind of hoping for something for more than what I was getting.

And yeah, that’s not really fair. I’m pretty sure a lot of artists out there were as gob-smacked, and indeed, broken by recent events as I’ve been. I will say that 2017 has had a lot of beautiful,  fragile, heartbreaking music. Maybe that, in itself, is a kind of protest, an aria in the face of a roar. But lord, if there were ever a year I needed beautiful to be furious and not just sad. I needed the voices from the darkness to come calling out with poison on their tongues and an eye to tomorrow instead of a poetic sigh and a litany of regrets.

But that’s fine. We’re allowed to grieve. We’re allowed to chill. We can indulge in self-care, when everything else feels impossible. Remember the small things. Enjoy what you can.

So yeah, there’s some fury. Kendrick. Vince Staples. Algiers.

I listened to that Thundercat record for about six weeks straight in the spring (I wasn’t lying about it). I finally figured out what you guys were all on about with Waxahatchee and Big Thief. I finally gave up trying to figure out why everyone loves War on Drugs so much. Slowdive, is, if anything better than I remember. It’s the sort of year where telling you I liked most of the Lana Del Rey record doesn’t sound like a guilty pleasure admission, but telling you that I really liked one track on the Spoon record does. And did you listen to that SZA record? It’s great. And all that weird, jazzy broken up soul—Ibeyi, Nai Palm, Jhene Aiko, Moses Summey. There were some great singer-songwriter albums (the musical equivalent of Coming of Age novels for me—like, I always approach with a lot of trepidation), Aimee Mann, Laura Marling, Joan Shelley. Also enough peppy, 90s-aping, girly pop punk (Charly Bliss, The Courtneys, Alex Lahey, et al) to make me go searching for all of my old Fastbacks records (Millennials: have you heard this?). It’s becoming increasingly clear that I’m just going to be on board with whatever musical situation Sabrina Ellis is involved in (A Giant Dog, Sweet Spirit), so there’s that.  And you know, I’m still buying every Thee Oh Sees record that comes out, no matter how they spell the band name. That Priests record was marvelously terse, right? And the Mount Eerie record is maybe the most perfect grief album I’ve ever heard, and so utterly, wonderfully devastating. Oh, and I slid a couple of full-on pop song earworms on this list, for which I will make no apology.

I didn’t include “Despacito.”

You’re welcome.

I will conclude with this:

The Spotify year-end analysis widget told me that the song I’d listened to most this year was none of the above, but, in fact, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to The Feeling,” a song so bright, cheery, and relentlessly upbeat that probably caused tooth decay and heart attacks in broad sectors of the population. Now, I mostly listen to Spotify while exercising, so there’s a definitive skew. But maybe 2017 was the year that I finally got around to Poptimism in its truest sense. Like, “the only thing getting me through the day is this relentlessly chipper, breathless, sugary pop song” and I have to believe in something so it might as well be the fact that I can break the ceiling and dance on the roof (and maybe that’s not a metaphor, but just fucking literal).  Because everything else is so broken. And I’m broken. And as we’re all shattered and bruised and still trying to figure out just how fucked up we actually are maybe it’s okay to imagine that we can fight the Nazis and the racists and the entitled patriarchy and the evil oligarchs and the religious zealots and the casual rapists and bigots of all stripes with ridiculous, over-the-top dance, pink glitter, fake eyelash dance parties. Maybe now what we do is dance and cry and go like there is no tomorrow because the real work of fixing everything that’s wrong is going to be a lot more work and a lot less fun.

Someone–I’m sure it was a dude– told me that math rock is coming back.

Figures.

Here’s 8 records(in no particular order) that I really liked. I may add more to this list as I think about it.

Thundercat–Drunk

Kendrick Lamar–Damn.

Vince Staples–Big Fish Theory

Waxahatchee–Out In The Storm

SZA–Ctrl

Mount Eerie–A Crow Looked at Me

Big Thief–Capacity

Nothing Feels Natural–Priests

Jay Som–Everybody Works

Here’s your 2017 playlist, friends. It includes a few things (they’ll be pretty obvious) from other years that I’ve listened to a bunch this year as well.

PS: I have a good, solid feeling that Batfangs are going to put out one of my favorite records in 2018. Prepare yourself.

 

 

*FYI: my visceral, possibly irrational dislike of Taylor Swift only seems to grow with each passing day. I can’t seem to help it, but she’s not doing herself any favors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading List: 2017

I have other places to put stuff like this, or I should have other places to put stuff like this. Because no reason to sully a good run of anecdotes with a fairly drab year-end list, but, for now anyway, the list resides here.

This is what passes for my Best of 2017 book list.  I’ve tried to limit to books that came out in 2017-ish (with a few exceptions ).  I don’t like ranking things, so in no particular order:

Days Without End Sebastian Barry.

A chatty, romantic young Irish immigrant lights out for the territories with his best friend through the tumult of  war and manifest destiny in the tumult of America’s middle 19th century.

Short review: This is a gorgeous book. It’s a western, sort of, and a love story, definitely.  Do not be turned away by its Booker shortlist historical fiction white dude pedigree. There’s way more to it than that.

Line I Underlined: “In the darkness as we lie side by side John Cole’s left hand snakes over under the sheets and takes a hold of my right hand. We listen to the cries of the night revellers outside and hear the horses tramping along the ways. We’re holding hands then like lovers who have just met or how we imagine lovers might be in the unknown realm where lovers act as lovers without concealment”(108).

Semi-Related: Grace by Paul Lynch is a dreamy, grim road novel about a teenage girl trying to survive the trials and tribulations of Famine-era Ireland. It has a whiff of early (Tennessee-era) Cormac McCarthy about it and if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll probably like this.

The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry

An unconventional widow and scientist removes herself to a small English seaside town rumored to be visited by a cryptozoological creature and strikes up a friendship with the local minister and his family.

Short Review: If you know me at all, there’s a reasonably good chance I’ve recommended this book to you this year. Months later, it haunts me, and not just because of its smart, sort of steamy collision of science and faith, but for its language, its humanity, its expanse of silvery water.

Semi Related: Jennifer Egan’s  Manhattan Beach is, depending on who you ask, one of the year’s best books or one of the year’s biggest disappointments. I have my quibbles, but I thought it was a well-researched page-turner. And if you’re looking for a Christmas gift that will delight the member of your family that most loved Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow  allow me to give you my unqualified recommendation.

 

Autumn—Ali Smith

A short novel that vacillates elegantly between the reveries of a 101-year-old dying man and the day to day of his 32 year old occasional mentee, sometime caretaker and good friend, as it grapples with the business of living (and dying) in 2016.

Short Review: In general it takes a few years for novels that process current events to be release, because writing takes a while. That means we’re going to get a lot of books about the absolute horrors 2016/17 in a few years (they’ll be doozies). But the meantime, Ali Smith managed to publish a post-Brexit state of things novel (the first of four, evidently) before most had time to even process it. Ali Smith is a fantastic writer. Her slim novel is not a rant, but a elegiac, sometimes playful, sometimes shattering meditation on loss, displacement and the indifference of the changing world.

Line I underlined: “All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was shipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic . . .”(59, but actually all of 59-61).

Semi-Related: Exit, West by Mohsin Hamid.  Hamid’s lyrical, magical realist fable of two lovers and refugees trying to find a home after leaving their unnamed, war-torn Middle-Eastern nation origin will probably end up on syllabi and summer reading lists for the indefinite future.  You could cut to the chase and go ahead and give it to your college-bound cousin so she doesn’t have to buy a copy next fall.

 

The Changeling--Victor LaValle

A contemporary fairytale about a rare book dealer, his librarian wife and their child and a true parenting nightmare.

Short review: Someone described this book to me as the scariest novel they’ve read all year. They weren’t wrong. LaValle weaves myth and legend and the literal supernatural into a book about monstrous children, monstrous parents and, like, actual monsters. Reader: I jumped.

Semi-Related: The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge. In fact, the book that literally concerns itself with famed horror writer (and outspoken racist) HP Lovecraft is not scary at all, but a literary mystery that moves from New England to New York to Florida to avant-garde, post-war Mexico City, in a tale that constantly turns on itself asking questions about identity and the nature of truth. Also a total page-turner, friends. Like, “you could take this on your holiday to the tropics” page-turner.

 

White Tears—Hari Kunzru

Two young white men produce an ersatz Delta blues record. All hell breaks loose.

Short review: This clever, biting satire on cultural appropriation, race, class and white privilege is the second scariest book I’ve read all year and a breathless, roller coaster of a read. Buckle in.

Bit I underlined: “My memory is a mystical conspiracy of connections. Everything has already happened. I am a man, sitting in a chair, listening to a recording made long ago. The needle is traveling in a predetermined track. Eventually, sooner or later, it will hit the run-out groove at the end.”

Semi-Related: I’m still trying to decide whether I even liked C.E. Morgan’s Sport of Kings, which technically was out last year, but I didn’t get to until the summer. I have a lot of thoughts that I won’t share here. Suffice to say, it’s a super-ambitious–big, bloody, nasty gothic novel about two families (one white, one black) about race and horse-racing and why heritage sounds like a dirty world. Come for the skeletons in the attic, stay for the worst white people in Kentucky not named Mitch McConnell. If your Aunt Denise is still talking about “Mudbound” and is not afraid of a doorstopper-weight novel, she might like this one.

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness—Arundhati Roy

The last half century of Indian history is viewed from the margins by a collection of outsiders.

Short Review: A lot of reviewers famously didn’t like this book. I don’t know what the fuck was wrong with them. I mean, it’s possible that not everyone wants to read a sweeping story about transformation and revolution and politics (in all derivations)and  what we talk about when we talk about beauty and the awesome power of created family. But for real, though, why don’t you?

Line I Underlined: Loaned out copy, TBD.

Semi-Related: Hey, you’ve probably already read Roxane Gay’s Hunger, right? It’s a hard book to recommend because it’s a hard book.  But it’s bracing and honest, reading it feels like having an intimate conversation with the author. But some piece also feels much bigger, almost universal in how it is to occupy space and grapple with some so simple as inhabiting a female body, no matter its size.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo—George Saunders

The souls inhabiting the graveyard where young Willie Lincoln has recently been entombed observe the 16th president as he mourns his son.

Short Review: This is maybe the funniest and the saddest book I’ve read all year at the same time and throughout. Written mostly in dialogue (with a few news clippings), the novel is clamorous and naughty and ridiculous and sublimely heartbreaking. Fans of the straightforward (and haters of too much talking) will complain, but I full-throated LOVED this book.

Semi-Related: So now that we’ve addressed the other book with the bawdy theological debate, philosophical conversations, literary allusions and the soul of a child at stake, it’s time we addressed the only actual kid’s book on this list. Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage is the first volume in his Book of Dust series, which will evidently bookend the His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ll go on record as saying that Pullman is my favorite living writer of books for young readers. His worlds are finely wrought, richly imagined and equally entertaining for adults, who like a rich adventure, rife with magic and a touch of finely honed iconoclasm.

 

Moonglow—Michael Chabon

A sprawling autobiographical novel that tells the story of the author’s family from (roughly) World War II to present, touching on science, politics, art and culture.

Short Review: I have overrated Chabon in the past, so I get that you’re dubious. But this was a fantastic story and of all the contemporary white male writers that goateed, beanie-wearing blowhard you went out with that one time wouldn’t stop yammering on about, Chabon is the only one I still genuinely like.

A bit I underlined: “Like most wonders, the fire in the hickory tree was of short duration, and when its meal was through, it winked out like a candle snuffed. The suddenness of its departure, my grandfather said, was a measure of how thoroughly it had consumed the available fuel. One minute it was there, a comet plunged to earth, dazzling the January darkness, its heat so intense that it stopped my grandfather in his tracks. The next minute it was gone, along with the tree fort, the tree, and the cult of gentle New Jersey ecstatics who had planted it long ago” (89) .

Semi-Related: I read Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. I think it shows its work a little too much for my taste, but if you’re after another sprawling, not-entirely-linear tale of a family during the middle of the 20th century, give it a go, or, better, give the hardback (pleasingly dense) to your dad or your uncle or whichever member of your family most likes Philip Roth novels

Idaho—Emily Ruskovich

A History of Wolves—Emily Fridlund

In the first, two women reflect upon a horrifying tragedy that occurred in a remote part of northern Idaho. In the second, a young woman, raised on a commune in a remote corner of Minnesota, develops a friendship with her new neighbors and tragedy ensues.

Short review: It’s not fair to lump these books together, but they’re both very good and slightly similar and brutal, especially if you are the sort of person who struggles with terrible things happening to children. The latter got a surprise inclusion on the Booker list this year, which means you’re probably more likely to read about it elsewhere  (and possibly find in the Little Free Library, come the new year). They’re both also very good at convincing me that I never want to live out in the country.

Semi-Related: The desperate, self-destructive teenagers at the heart of Julie Buntin’s Marlena have a whiff of “the characters in my rehab memoir” about them, but if you can get past the occasional stretch of grown-up moralizing, this is 100 in a 55mph zone in a busted car with the best, worst friend you ever had. You know the one your mother told you was a bad influence and you knew she was right and you didn’t care? That one.

 

Kintu—Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

A multi-generational, centuries-spanning  magical realist epic concerning the plight of a supposedly cursed Ugandan family from the middle of the 18th century to present.

Short review:  Makumbi is a marvelous writer and this big story full of history and mythology and enough characters to require a chart (fun fact: I made one) deserves the positive comparison to 100 Years of Solitude . Kintu flew under just about everybody’s radar this year, which is a shame because it’s a hell of a book. Don’t let it fly under yours.

Line I Underlined: (Loaned Out, TBD)

Semi-Related: Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is another big, sprawling, multi-generational family tale set in Korea, through much of the mid-late 20th century. It’s a fast read for a big book, full of engaging characters, even though it struggles in its conclusion to find its footing. Go ahead and get your Mom a copy for her book club.

The Hearing Trumpet—Leonora Carrington

An elderly woman is shipped off to a most unusual nursing home in Mexico. Chaos ensues.

Short Review: Unlike all the other books on this list, The Hearing Trumpet was not even written in this century. I just got around to it this year though. And what an absolute joy! If you’ve ever sat back and thought to yourself, “God, I wish there were an uproariously hilarious, surreal novel about richly imagined, capable old ladies on an adventure with angels and demons and transgressive nuns and other magical creatures through time and space to the end of the world and beyond,” I have some fantastic news for you.

Semi-Related: Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God is the sort of dystopian novel that even someone like me (who doesn’t really like dystopian novels) can get behind. Come for the trenchant commentary about reproductive rights in an end-of-the-world situation, stay for the Goth teenagers and the jovial, hyper-educated Ojibwe convenience story owner and tribal council member who writes down daily, often witty reasons to keep going in the face of the void.

Things That Happened Before the Earthquake—Chiara Barzini.

An Italian teenager is relocated to LA in the early 90s by her filmmaker parents.

Short Review: I really do try to avoid coming-of-age novels, but this one really is worth your time. Barzini’s heroine is a total disaster area in a lot of familiar teenage ways, and her story almost has a bit of a seedy picaresque quality as she shuffles from friend group to friend group from Italy to America to Italy and back. There are tragedies. There are triumphs. There are hippies in  Topanga Canyon. There are drive-bys at the mall. And there’s an extended summer vacation in Siciliy that is almost reason enough to read the whole book.  Don’t be scared off by the godawful cover art. It’s great.

Semi-Related: Kiese Laymon’s Long Division is one of the best books I read all year. Even though it did come out in 2013. And I read it then too.  This year’s  re-read proved that it holds up. Its subjects are still painfully relevant, if anything in the #blacklivesmatter era, its even more so. And besides, who doesn’t love an odyssey through post-Katrina Mississippi in a time machine with a failed Spelling Bee champion and his crush?  That’s what I thought.

Other Recent or Recent-ish Fiction I read and enjoyed this year:

House of Names—Colm Toibin

The Idiot—Elif Batuman

Homesick for Another World—Otessa Moshfegh

The Kindness of Enemies—Leila Abouela

Augustown—Kei Miller

Outline—Rachel Cusk

The Lesser Bohemians—Eimear McBride

Man Tiger—Eka Kurniawan

The VegetarianHan Kang

The Refugees—Viet Thanh Nguyen

Nonfiction:

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail—Oscar Martinez

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys—Viv Albertine

The Unruly City: London, Paris and New York in the Age of Revolution—Mike Rapport

The Rules Do Not Apply—Ariel Levy

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City—Matthew Desmond

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (Edited by Jesmyn Ward)

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America—Nancy Isenberg

 

Still on the To-Read* list:

The Leavers—Lisa Ko

Grant—Ron Chernow

Five Carat Soul—James McBride

Home Fire—Kamila Shamsie

Sing, Unburied, Sing—Jesmyn West

Mrs Osbourne—John Banville

The Ninth Hour—Alice McDemott

Reservoir 13–John McGregor

 

Happy Reading, friends! See you in 2018.

If you’re interested in the rest of the stuff I read this year (fiction, non-fiction and otherwise), you can check it out here.

And as a total anecdotal sidenote: I have finally nearly finished every single book I bought at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway back in fall 2015, when a couple of the employees explained that if I didn’t stop myself I’d have to rent a container to get all of the books I bought home with me. A fair point. And while we’re on the subject, you should absolutely find an excuse to go to Ireland just so you can visit Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop. It’s the best.

 

 

 

 

 

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