Monday, December 15, 2014

7 Favorite Books in 2014

I didn't read as many books this year compared to last year. I just finished number 35. Here are my 7 favorite, in no particular order:

The Orphan Master's Son


     I had read an Adam Johnson work previously--2003's Parasites Like Us--and enjoyed it, and I had heard plenty of praise of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master's Son: it didn't come close to disappointing. I read it back in January, and it still stuck with me all the way to the end of the year. Starring Jun Do (a nod to the anonymous John Doe), a North Korean orphan who becomes a kidnapper, The Orphan Master's Son's main character is really North Korea: it's totalitarian way of life, its daily acts of violence, a place where one's identity can become lost in the fold. North Korea is a place that many of us can't even imagine, but Adam Johnson does the impossible with The Orphan Master's Son: he takes the facts of North Korea and turns them into one of the most immersive and impressive fictional worlds in recent memory.

The Art of Fielding

     The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach gave me the same feeling as last year's incredible Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Not because the books deal with similar subject matter, but because both are from debut novelists and have sharply-drawn characters that you begin to legitimately care about. The book is around 500 pages, but you'll wish there were 500 more: it's intricately drawn, with every sentence, plot line and character showcasing Harbach's skill with the English language. If you know nothing about it, it may be casually referred to as "that baseball book", and although the sport of baseball plays a major part, The Art of Fielding is about so much more: friendship, love and loss in a college-era story. The heart of the novel focuses on Henry Skrimshander, a prodigal short-stop in high school who gets recruited by Westish College catcher Mike Schwartz, and his experiences playing at the next level. The Art of Fielding marks the exciting beginning for Chad Harbach, and it's a novel that absolutely anyone can enjoy.

Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

      Rob Delaney has been the king of Twitter for years now, and his first book contains a variety of painfully honest stories that showcase his darker side. It also showcases how humor is one of the best ways to overcome situations in life that can fill you with sorrow. The writing world always contains stories and biographies of men getting drunk or high and doing completely stupid shit, but Delaney is a master at portraying the lessons he's learned with an excited fervor that brings the readers in. The highlights: having to take an explosive shit while out jogging with no bathrooms available, drunken near-death experiences that shaped his life (including a drunk-driving accident that left him seriously injured), and the experiences having your first child. But the real lesson of Delaney's book is about the hard times in life: if you can laugh, you'll be much better off.

Tenth of December

I try and read a couple of short story books a year, but Tenth of December, by George Saunders, may force me to up that number in the coming months: some of the writing here is better than...well...just about anything. This is the first Saunders that I have ever read, but I'll be seeking him out in the future. He is a master at getting deep inside a character's thoughts and feelings and motivations, and these ten stories showcase a simple expertise in telling moving tales. And some of these short stories are incredibly funny and incredibly satiric, but still can surprise you with shocking twists and slow burns of surrealism. Take "The Semplica Girl Diaries", where a father attempts to please his daughter and compete with neighbors by buying her Semplica Girls, women trafficked from third-world countries to be lawn ornaments. Or "Escape from Spiderhead", a satiric look at love and pharmaceuticals--these are the works of an American original.

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

     I'll be the first to admit that you shouldn't read No Place to Hide for a completely unbiased view towards Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks: it was written by Glenn Greenwald, who Snowden contacted to divulge the dangerous information. But God Damn if this is not an incredibly exciting and shocking account of the process of the information leak. It reads like a thriller. If you think that Edward Snowden is a villain, you will hate this account, because it essentially portrays him as an American hero for divulging information that--one could argue--the public deserves to know. And Greenwald displays plenty of his own opinions about the matter. But it doesn't stop No Place to Hide from being one of the most thrilling (and shocking) non-fiction books in 2014.

The Light Between Oceans

     The Light Between Oceans
 is from yet another debut author, and the skill in which M.L. Stedman wraps the readers into the words is astounding: this book is damn beautiful. Listen to the plot and tell me that you're not interested: Tom is a WWI veteran and a lighthouse keeper on a tiny rock island off the coast of Australia. One day, him and his wife find a rowboat that washes ashore with a crying baby and a dead dude inside. Despite Tom's militaristic moral code, the couple decides to potentially raise the baby as their own, but the past--as it always seems to do--has a tendency to catch up with them. The story is great, and it's already been optioned for a film directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), starring Michael Fassbender as Tom. Like The Art of Fielding, the subject matter doesn't even matter: The Light Between Oceans can be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys reading a great novel.

The Magician's Land

     I'll start this off with a confession that will piss off many avid readers: I just started the Harry Potter series throughout the past year, and though they are (basically) enjoyable, I don't love them. I'm not sure if the movies ruined the story for me, or Rowling's writing annoys me (which it does sometimes), or I just missed the boat with the total madness when they were coming out. But Lev Grossman's The Magician's Trilogy--full of sex, magic, alcohol, and angst--is more my magical cup of tea. And The Magician's Land, the final novel in the three-book series, is a completely fitting ending. Though Grossman takes plenty from Harry Potter and Narnia, he creates a world that is completely his own, and this third book takes the characters to new, much more mature level. Even the most jaded readers, ones who never thought they could love the fantasy genre, can find something to love in The Magicians Trilogy: the only sad part is that it's over only when Grossman hit his true stride.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Top 10 Albums of 2014

10) Swans--To Be Kind

    Swans are the opposite of easy-listening music. They formed in 1982, broke up in the late 90's and reformed in 2010. In 2012 they released the critically acclaimed The Seer, their 12th album, an exercise in experimental brutality. This year's To Be Kind is similar: it's a mixture of an incredible amount of styles--industrialism, classical, jazz, rock, alternative--that is a legitimate experience to listen to. Sometimes it's an experience that is frustrating and nearly un-listenable (a weird description for an album on a Top 10 list), but it's occasionally transcendent, giving you a feeling unlike any other in music this year. At nearly two hours, To Be Kind is a commitment, but with songs like "A Little God in My Hands" (with its driving, explosive funk) and the album standout "Oxygen" (the closest thing to a normal rock song that Swans have here), it's a violent and scary trip well-worth taking.

Listen to "Oxygen"

9) Vince Staples--Hell Can Wait

      Based in strictly rap musical terms (and regardless of how you feel about the explosive subject), the recent microscope on police violence in America has sparked some impressive and real music in the rap genre. Hell Can Wait--a 26 minute, 7 song EP by newcomer Vince Staples--is a great example. It's short run-time is packed with emotion and real-life stream of consciousness thoughts that stick with you. Take "Hands Up", for instance: "North Division tryin' to stop my blackness / I'm watching for them badges when out in traffic / Them 911's been a tad bit frantic / if those lights start flashing / please don't panic." The song also offers a playful and surprising chorus of standard rap shout out "Put your Hands in the air". "Blue Suede" is another standout: its thoughts on gang violence over sneakers is thoughtful--and it helps that the beat is brutal too. The production values on Hell Can Wait matches Staples' great flow: it's the second best rap album this year.

Watch the video for "Blue Suede"

8) Mac Demarco--Salad Days


     Mac Demarco makes slacker, loungy music that is perfect for relaxing on a rainy day. This lo-fi soft rock is charming and quite an accomplishment for a 23-year old basically kid who seems to not have a care in the world. Demarco melds real observations about love and life into his mellow pop sounds, and that's why they reach far higher than most of his predecessors. Throughout the entire album--from the opening mood-setter title track "Salad Days" to the ending of "Johnny's Odyssey"--Mac maintains his tone of leisure that causes you to just lay back and enjoy the tunes, man. Sometimes the description of being a slacker can make you feel like the music creator is lazy, but Demarco clearly isn't that: Salad Days is actually a mature achievement that's a solidly great album.

Listen to "Treat Her Better"

7) Spoon--They Want My Soul


     Spoon has been one of my favorites bands for years now. But although I enjoyed the new-found poppyness of 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and the more minimalist approach of Transference, those albums never reached the greatness of Kill the Moonlight or Gimme Fiction. When lead singer Britt Daniel formed a new band with other indie legend Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs fame) by the name of Divine Fits, it became one of the best albums of 2012. Maybe that sparked something in Britt, because Spoon's new album, They Want My Soul, is a damn good one. The albums's their 8th, and it clocks in at under 40 minutes, but barely a second is wasted: you instantly know you're listening to something special when"Rent I Pay" fades into the cool groove of "Inside Out". "Do You" is another standout. With They Want My Soul, Spoon has found some additional soul, and it's the sound of a band that--even after 8 albums--is at the top of their game again.

Watch the video to "Inside Out"

6) Ought--More Than Any Other Day

    Ought is a rock band with a palpable passion that you can legitimately feel: this group of Canadians play with an emotion that's impossible not to enjoy. Front man Tim Beeler's inflections and poetic lyrics are the true stars here--he's like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's lead man Alec Ounsworth except far more accessible and better in general. Like Parquet Courts, Ought's influences vary widely from track to track, but they make material with enough of their own post-punk thoughtful urgentness to seem fully original.

Listen to "Habit" here

5) Parquet Courts--Sunbathing Animal

     Parquet Courts drew my attention with last year's Light Up Gold, a solid album from the Pavement school of slacker rock. And that fact is weird, because I find Pavement to be extremely boring--a sacrilegious comment for anyone who is even halfway into indie rock music. But Parquet Courts are a group of weed-smoking slackers who have plenty of clever wordplay, their songs filled with poignant and funny moments about living in a city, trying to connect with girls, or...who knows, because much of main singer Andrew Savage's lyrics don't make perfect sense. That's kind of the point: Sunbathing Animal is full of infectious guitar lines and moments of true excitement, but it's balances nicely with the repetitiveness of songs like "Instant Disassembly" and "She's Rolling" (one of my personal favorites since seeing it on KEXP). You can ponder the Lyrics while taking in the grooves. Parquet Courts is a band that is clearly influenced by many, but they have just enough uniqueness to forge their own path in the current-era indie rock landscape.

Listen to Parquet Courts' "She's Rolling"

4) Future Islands--Singles

     If Future Islands keep on trucking--these dudes seem like they tour for 350 days out of the year--then Singles will be known as the album where they finally broke through to the next level in the music business. By now, their album In Evening Air can almost be considered a modern classic in the indie synth pop genre, but Singles is really their first album with true-sounding production values, complete with actual marketing and appearances on the Late Shows (including their infamous Letterman performance ). It suits them well: Singles has a true character and forward momentum that lacks on their last album, On The Water. The songs are clear and concise, and although some would say simplistic, they fit perfectly into lead singer Sam Herring's inflections and outbursts of emotion. Seeing this man live in an experience that everyone should have. Though Singles shows a calm Sam on many of its tracks, he truly shines in album standout "Fall from Grace", a dark song complete with his trademark ear-shrieking screams. The music business is full of fake, money-grubbing artists and bands that assembly-line-produce shit for our tired ears. But Future Islands are the good guys--let's cheer for them.

Listen to "Fall from Grace"

3) FKA Twigs--LP1

     If you had told me to start the year that one of my favorite albums would be from an experimental R&Bish singer from London, I would have asked what you were smoking. But then I saw the video for "Two Weeks", one of the year's best tunes: It blew me away, and it caused me to check out the whole album. It didn't take me long before I was blasting these catchy, tuneful songs about sex, fame and love and loving every second of it. "Two Weeks" is the obvious peak, but other songs come close: "Pendulum" with it's minimalist approach (which always seems to work with Twigs' incredible, vulnerable voice), "Video Girl" with its chorus that gets stuck in your head for weeks, the regret of past love with "Numbers". LP1 is FKA Twigs' first album, but it's a fully-realized creation from an artist that will be around for years (if she wants to be): it's slathered in great production and surprising moments that are discovered on repeated listens. Twigs is like if Aaliyah and Grimes and Bjork all merged and had a weird, unique baby.

Watch the video for FKA Twigs' "Two Weeks"

2) Sun Kil Moon--Benji


     This album is about Death. Nearly every song deals with the loss of a loved one, a close friend, a family member, a school acquaintance, or random people. Saying that, it probably doesn't sound like much fun to listen to. But like everything dealing with Death, it gives insight into life. And what Mark Kozelek, singer and creator of Sun Kil Moon, has done is create an album that is masterful in its storytelling. It's hard to say if any of it is true, and it doesn't matter at all: it is true to the listener, even if his truck driver uncle didn't really die by an exploding aerosol can or if he doesn't really have to pee 50 times a day now that he's in middle age. These songs are about characters (real or imagined) and they are so sharply drawn in their 3 or 4 minutes of fame that they stick with you throughout. The more you listen to Benji, the more connections you make: within the album itself and with connections to your own life. There's been a lot of talk recently about Mark and his attitude (the whole War on Drugs controversy), but it almost adds to the mystique of Benji. How did someone who is seemingly such an asshole make something so incredibly beautiful?

Listen to "Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes"

1) Run The Jewels--Run the Jewels 2

     Last year, I came across Run the Jewels from Pitchfork or Metacritic or somewhere (it doesn't really matter). It was near the end of the year when I realized how fun and great El-P and Killer Mike's beats and wordplay were--So I was incredibly pumped when just one year later, Run the Jewels 2 hit the Internet as a free download. And all I can say is wow: RTJ2 is the best music of 2014, a stew of banging beats, a combination of fun and serious wordplay, memorable guest performances (especially by Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine fame), and real-world ponderous thoughts. It's tag-team rap music based in a world of drone strikes, fuckboys (a term for haters that El and Mike are very fond of) and comedic disses ("Style violent, give a fuck if you deny it, kids / you can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks") that will stay in your brain for days. In its best moments, it's relevant anti-establishment protest music, whether it's against religion ("Liars and politicians, profiteers of the prisons / The forehead engravers and slavers of men and women / Including members of clergy that rule on you through religion / Strippin' kids to the nude then tell 'em God'll forgive 'em") or Ferguson-style police violence: ("Everyday I'm in a fight for my soul / Could it be my medicine's the evidence for pigs to stop and frisk me when they rollin' round on patrol?"). Like the best socially-relevant music, it's fun and catchy and transcends rap music to something much more: a bumping soundtrack for 2014 America that rarely leaves my car CD player.

Listen to "Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)"