2016: Books

The best books I read this year:

1.  John Williams- Stoner

Quiet perfection.  It seems this book has enjoyed a revival of sorts in recent years, and I’m sure it will continue to endure as a bona fide American classic.  

2. Donna Tartt- The Secret History

This book pulsed with dark, tense energy cover to cover.  It’s a great story with rich character development and a meticulously constructed plot to create an irresistible, intellectually satisfying page turner.

3. Karl Ove Knaussgard- My Struggle 2

Knaussgaard, in all of his unflinching navel gazing, can be an utterly consuming voice to spend so much time with.  I love the description of how he “breaks the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel”.  Sometimes that’s how it feels- bearing witness to a 15 page digression on his yearning for fulfillment and self actualization during the middle of an awkward dinner party, you can almost hear the sonic boom.  

4. Cormac McCarthy- The Road

After sitting on my shelf for years, this book was honestly better than I had hoped.  I’d be lying if I said I slept soundly the night I finished this one.  Can’t wait for my next McCarthy.

5.  Chuck Palahniuk- Rant

A truly bizarre, disorienting story that comes this close to not tripping over itself by the end.  I would often stare at this book wondering how the hell a person came up with this story, and what compelled them to share it with the world (though I later learned that’s pretty much the author’s MO).

6.  George Saunders- Pastoralia

There is something so wonderful in how subtly off these stories feel, yet the warmth and humanity of the characters shine through no matter how absurd their circumstances.

7. George Orwell- Down and Out in Paris and London

Despite the destitute poverty depicted here, this series of mostly humorous episodes delightfully recounted by Orwell seems aimed more to amuse than induce pity.  

8.  Jennifer Egan- Visit From Goon Squad

Emotionally resonant post-modern vignettes with the whole greater than the sum.

9. Jeff VanderMeer- Annihilation

An often maddening book that compensates for its utter lack of compelling characters and satisfying plot development by its sheer atmospherics.  

10.  Nick Hornby- High Fidelity

Hilarious, endearing story of an aimless 90’s guy and his doofus buddies navigating a series of romantic mishaps.  Feels like a precursor to the late 2000s mumblecore boom.   Classic guylit.

 

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2015: Books

Thankfully I had this list drafted up in December, but after renewing this domain for another year, I swung by and realized I had never actually published this post (another strong show of blogging prowess Ben).  I’ve gone back and written up a blurb about each book- in a way I like writing about these books that I read 9+ months ago- certain elements of the reading experience have faded, but I can look at each of these and recall memorable aspects, and usually the feeling, of reading them.

The best books I read in 2015:

1. Ben Lerner- 10:04.  I just happened to start reading this book on an unseasonably warm November day riding the D train over the Manhattan bridge listening to “Everyday it Starts” by Parquet Courts.   As I typed that last sentence in my South Brooklyn apartment, the lightbulb overhead burned out.  This book has a strange power.  This hyper conscious, darkly comic sparkling object of a book worked for me 100 times over (despite/because of the writer writing about writing hook/gimmick).

2.  Adam Johnson- Orphan Masters Son.  I recall being completely absorbed in the dark, disorienting world of this book.  The plot is propulsive, the characters are haunting, and the fact that this whole book, while fictional, occurs in an actual hellscape by all accounts very similar to the one depicted here makes it all the more gut wrenching.

3.  Kaszuo Ishiguro- Never Let Me Go.  Sweet wistfulness slowly gives way to unnerving, strange, tension.  Loved every page.

4.  Adelle Waldman- The Love Affairs of Nathanial P.  As a male who went on dates with females in Brooklyn in 2015, I feel like I was contractually obligated to love this book.  And I did.

5.  Karl Ove Knausgaard- My Struggle Book 1.  “Even when I was bored, I was interested”- James Wood.  I plan to read one KoK MS book per year for the next 5 years.  Preferably in Winter.

6.  Andy Weird- The Martian.  This book accompanied me on the 10 best workday subway commutes ever.  Loved it.

7.  Ta-Nehisi Coates- Between the World and Me.  Utterly transfixing, such a personal and powerful testament to his life experience.  I can’t think of another book which truly made me, even temporarily, feel and understand the pain of the author.

8.  Haruki Murakami- Colorless Tsukuru Tsari and His Years of Pilgrimage.  This was the first Murakami book I had read in over a year (after inhaling 6 in 8 months), and it reminded me of what I love about him.  This falls into the “realist” camp of HM books (with Norwegian Wood and South of the Border).  Simple, mellow, sad.

9.  Charles Bukowski- Post Office. Not an edifying reading experience, but a damn good book.

10.  Atul Gawande- Being Mortal.  This was a moving read over the holidays while seeing generations of family.  I felt such affection and reverence for towards Gawande by the end of this book.

2015: Music

Moreso than the previous years I’ve written these up, it feels like there are a handful of consensus AOTYs bouncing around the internet.  Rather than making me feel like I’m simply losing my edge, it comforts me that a handful of artists who delivered truly engrossing albums received the acclaim they deserved.  Though I tried to throw in a few dark horses, it is clear to me now that I more or less settled on the consensus picks. For good reason; these are some incredible albums.

20. Youth Lagoon– Savage Hills Ballroom
19. Panda Bear– Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
18. My Morning Jacket– The Waterfall
17. The Weeknd– Beauty Behind the Madness
16. Kurt Vile– b’lieve i’m goin down
15. Vince Staples– Summertime ’06
14. Tame Impala– Currents
13. Protomartyr– The Agent Intellect
12. Beirut– No, No, No
11. Beach House– Depression Cherry

10. Future– DS2. It feels weird to “love” this music, but I think I really do. It’s claustrophobic and depressing and deranged and full of mostly disgusting, scuzzy songs that make no cursory nods to hooks or melody. The whole thing weighs pretty heavy.  And its awesome.

9. Wilco– Star Wars.  The most fun and playful record in Wilco’s discography, I love every song in all of their fuzzy, angular glory. Sometimes I wonder what we did to be so lucky as to have Wilco in our lives.

8. Floating Points– Elaenia. Not at all what I had expected given his steady drip of singles the past few years, and the first few listens didn’t leave me with much of an impression. Yet I grew to love this album on its own terms, and trust it will continue to reveal itself and earn a reputation as some kind of classic.

7. Majical Cloudz– Are You Alone?  I almost feel embarrassed for the guy for just how much of himself he puts out there, but man if this isn’t filled front to back with stop dead in your tracks level great songs.  “Heavy” in particular.

6. Deerhunter– Fading Frontier.  Didn’t quite live up to the billing of “an album full of Desire Lines” that I had heard, but easily the most pleasant, appealing record Deerhunter have ever recorded.  “Ad Astra” joins “Helicopter” on the very short list of Deerhunter songs you might actually want to cuddle to.

5. Sufjan Stevens– Carrie and Lowell.  This will age just as well as the best of Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, or Elliot Smith.

4. Viet Cong– Viet Cong.  An instant classic of abrasive post-punk. The Pitchfork metaphor of “like watching a bloodied hand sink into a bucket of ice” perfectly evokes the sound and atmosphere.  Death leaves me drooling each time.

3. Grimes– Art Angels.  This album is utterly impossible to resist, a fact eminently clear to me after about a month of nonstop listening. I’m a sucker for back loaded albums, and to end this with “Butterfly” is almost devastatingly perfect.

2. Kendrick Lamar– To Pimp a Butterfly.  Kendrick follows a masterpiece with a masterpiece that captured the zeitgeist like nothing else this year. Still a little bit in awe of and intimidated by all that’s here.

1. Jamie XX– In Colour. Following years of singles and remixes, this completely surpasses the promise of what his debut LP could deliver. Intensely vivid, these songs evoke such a wide range of feelings that it’s a major trip to get through at first, but the genius of the pacing reveals itself over repeated listens.

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2014: Music

Well darn it.  Well here I am in December 2015 drafting up my ’15 list, go to check back what I wrote up last year, and find this sitting in my drafts!

I’m so good at blogging.

Here is what I had written up just about exactly a year ago:

20 favorite albums of 2014! Woohoo!

20. Future Islands– Singles
19. Ryan Adams– S/T
18. Real Estate– Atlas
17. How to Dress Well– What is This Heart?
16. The Antlers– The Familiars
15. TV on the Radio– Seeds
14. Andy Stott– Faith in Strangers
13. Tobacco– Ultima II Massage
12. Aphex Twin– Syro
11. Parquet Courts/Parkey Quartz– Sunbathing Animal/Content Nausea. Both

10. Run the Jewels -RTJ2. F yes, that is all.

9. Tweedy– Sukierae. Ignore the easy jokes about this album being, very literally, dad rock, and let’s bask in this beautiful, oddly overlooked, collection of classic Jeff Tweedy songs. Low Key, Slow Love, I’ll Sing It, among others, would all fit seamlessly in a top tier Wilco release.

8. Liars– Mess. An interestingly paced album, with huge pummelling zombie techno up front tempered by downbeat, dread soaked electro soundscapes on the back half. Is there a more menacing song this year than “Pro Anti Anti”?

7. Beck– Morning Phase. Came as close as could be reasonably hoped in living up to the hype as the “Sea Change part II” billing. Soundtracked many weekend mornings this year.

6. Sun Kil Moon– Benji. Depressingly morbid, uncomfortably personal, groggily paced, this one reaches new levels of sad. As far as I can recall, there is a death in literally every song. Not a recommended listen if you are enjoying, or hope to enjoy, your day.

5. Caribou– Our Love. The spiritual opposite of Sun Kil Moon, this one is lighter, brighter, and dancier than anything Caribou has done before.

4. Spoon– They Want My Soul. I honestly didn’t think they had this album in them at this point in their career, but here it is- Spoon’s best album.

3. Lykke Li– I never Learn. Go Lykke (whoever you are).

2. War on Drugs– Lost in The Dream. An improvement by every measure on what came before, WOD stepped it up big time on this album. A handful of truly epic, Springsteen- scope anthemic hooks included here.

1. Ty Segall– Manipulator. Given his prolific, varied output over the past 5 years, it’s hardly a surprise a Ty Segall double album in 2014 smokes starts to finish. Manipulator completely realizes the potential of the format, and is a relentless, glorious, enduring monument built for all things rock. Any time I spend typing this and you spend reading this is time not spent listening to Ty Segall, so lets go fix that.

 

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2014: Books

Just came across this unpublished draft from December, and I am inspired to publish before it gets absurdly late.

I read some great books last year, the below 10 being my favorites:

1- Infinite Jest- David Foster Wallace

This consumed my spring. I cannot imagine anybody immersing his or herself in this book and not emerging with some type of love for this book, the author, and the entire experience of reading it.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be now, but I urge everyone to make time for this book’s universe.

2- Jitterbug Perfume- Tom Robbins

A joyful romp across centuries and around the world with delightful characters on the simple mission to live forever.  I read most of this book with a bemused grin on my face, and was actually sad for a few days when it was over.

3- Let the Great World Spin- Colum McCann

A delicate, intricately constructed portrait of a city and a few of its individuals.  I completely fell for the spell this book cast.

4- White Noise- Don Delillo

This book really only has one “note” it hits throughout, but to me it completely succeeded as a (disturbingly prescient) social satire.

5- Remains of the Day- Kazuo Ishiguro

A sweet, sad book which lingered with me.  I read this during the summer, and still frequently think of the last scene.

6- Dataclysm- Christina Rudder

The online dating and consumer internet usage insights range from amusingly trivial to actually profound, but this book deserves to be the Freakonomics for Big Data.

7- Libra- Don Delillo

This was my first Delilo, and it took a bit to warm up to use his trademark suspenseful paranoid atmospherics and distant characters, but I really enjoyed this book.

8- Zeitoon- Dave Eggars

Read this in one sitting.  It is an alarming, enraging account written with lucidity, tension, and precision.

9- The Alliance- Reid Hoffman

Presents a useful framework for reconsidering the employee-employer relationship.  I found it very helpful in my various career conversations and negotiations this year.

10- Financial Lives of Poets- Jess Walter

Not exactly the deep or even particularly unique take on the financial crisis as experienced by average joe it was sold to me as,  but an entertaining enough book about a relatable guy in desperate circumstances with spots of serious hilarity (treehouse anyone?).

2013: Running

Running

Since high school, I’ve always been casually acquainted with running’s stress relief powers, and would casually jog a few miles per week whenever school/work/girl problems would bubble up.  I was aware of the power of a 30 minute jog to clear my mind, put problems into perspective, and earn a few beers later that night.

However, I never ran for the sole purpose of getting better at running.  I didn’t track time, distance, or pace.  I didn’t race, I didn’t think about how to eat for fueling and recovery, I never dragged myself out of bed painfully early for a run, and I probably couldn’t hold a 30 second conversation about running (much to the delight of the Chad Stafkos of the world I’m sure).  I wasn’t a runner.  I was happy sticking with my familiar 2 mile loop every once in a while, and never seriously considered what a significantly longer run would actually feel like.

That all changed in March, 2013.  I had recently started to take lifting more seriously, and was happy with what I saw.  Lifts were going up, and I felt and looked stronger.  Yet I was gaining weight, and I didn’t feel particularly nimble or agile on my feet.  I started looking into how running could compliment lifting, with no particular goal outside of being a pretty fit guy.

That March, my little sister told me about a half marathon in August she was planning on running, and mentioned it would be fun to do together.  Without much consideration of how much longer 13.1 was from my previous longest run (7 miles…a year back), I took this as the spark I needed to really get into running.  It was March, New York was thawing, so what the hell, I got started.  I wasn’t exactly starting from scratch, and it didn’t take me long to see results; the runs got easier, the miles ticked off faster, and I was definitely trimming up.

I based my training loosely on Hal Higdon’s plan, and a few weeks in it was clear how well designed it was.  The weekday runs were short-medium, in distance ranges I was already fairly comfortable with, but at a much higher frequency.  The weekly long run gradually increased, culminating with a 10 miler a week before the race.  I had about 5 months to prepare when the plan only required 3.  The extra time was great mentally, as I never stressed too much when my social life, a weekend trip, or a particularly lazy Sunday morning interfered with a run.  In the weeks before the race, I did two 9 milers and a 10 mile with no issues.

The race was one of the best experiences of my life, plain and simple.  Perfect weather (low 60s and sunny), beautiful course (bucolic rural VT dirt roads), and I felt strong and in control the entire time.  Crossing the finish line was a moment I’ll never forget, and a sensation any runner knows and cherishes; a combination of immediately wanting to laugh, cry, vomit, and lie down on a couch with a stupid smile on your face.  Best of all, I beat my goal by 11 seconds (1:59:49).  Race stats here (guess where I stopped to pee?  Twice.)

Yet in the days after, I didn’t feel like this was the ultimate cumulation of a spring and summer of hard work, a crowning achievement to rest my laurels on and move on with my life.  Crossing the finish line, underneath all the burn, exhaustion, relief, and joy, I (secretly) knew I could have gone further, could have gone faster, and could have finished stronger.  I wouldn’t have uttered it out loud, but I felt it loud and clear.

After flirting with the idea of registering for a fall full, I decided to register for a couple more halfs, a 10mile, and a Tough Mudder.  Although all 3 halfs were tons of work, I grew to love 13.1: far enough to take training seriously and be a hell of a workout, but manageable enough that, after a short nap, your legs still work well enough to walk to the nearest diner and consume a 3,000 calorie brunch.

I’ve tapered the running into the winter (aiming for a measly 6-10 miles/week these days) but my first half in 2014 is already on the calendar, and I’m going to be doing the Philadelphia Marathon next fall (if I don’t get into NYC that is).

New York has an amazing running community, with races almost every weekend, hundreds of running(/drinking) clubs, and fantastic paths and parks.  Between the races, the clubs, and the generally happy vibes in Central Park on a Sunday morning, it is simply the most positive and welcoming community I’ve ever encountered.  Runners come in all shapes and sizes, from different ethnic and professional backgrounds, and are all running for different reasons.   Yet seeing someone with a race shirt you were at can be a great conversation starter, and can quickly delve into comparing training plans and strategies, upcoming races, and favorite routes.  You plan to meet up at the next Run and Chug.  Bam, new running buddy.

Really getting into running the past year has been an amazing experience for me.  Along with moving to the city, working hard at my job, maintaining an active social life, I love how I can continually challenge myself towards self improvement through running.  It has turned into so much more than just a way to relieve stress and clear the mind.  I’m still relatively new to it all, and I’m not especially accomplished by any standards, but I literally cannot imagine living in New York without running being an important part of my life.

Plus…pancakes.

My sister and I post Kingdom Run half marathon
My sister and I post Kingdom Run half marathon

My 2013:  Reading.  Music.  Running.

2013: Music

Live music

Ever since discovering the Grateful Dead as an awestruck 15 year old, and the subsequent and thankfully temporary detour I took towards jam bands,  I’ve been a big believer in the power of live music.  My tastes have since widely diverged and expanded (yes, beyond just Phish), and I’ve always gone out of my way to see bands and artists I’m interested in or have heard something good about.  Moving to New York presented opportunities to see an amazing array of concerts, from aging arena headliners to the latest Pitchfork-approved scrappy upstart.  I had a good group of concert going friends with similar tastes, and don’t think I ever went more than 3 weeks without a show lined up.

The ten best shows I saw this past year:

10.  Built to Spill, Irving Plaza.  One of my favorite bands plays a virtually flawless setlist at a great venue.  Yeah, I loved it.

9.  Phish, Madison Square Garden.  I’ll never not love seeing Phish live.  Even though I don’t scour the internet for Phish analysis and discussion as I used to (yes, these websites exist), epic Phish jams still actually sound epic to me.  This show was an old fashioned Phish barn burner in a legendary venue.

8.  Nine Inch Nails, Barclays Center.  NIN kills live.  That simple.

7.  Japandroids, Webster Hall.  I wasn’t really aware of all the hype the album was getting, and had only given it a cursory listen or two pre-show, so I was in the right mindset for getting blown away.  I kept being surprised there were only two of them up there, it was just so big sounding.

6.  Wilco, Hoboken Pier A.  This was the first time seeing maybe my second favorite band of all time, and it was a gorgeous summer night with the Manhattan skyline framing a setting sun in the background.  They sounded crisp, played a great setlist with fun covers and guests, and looked happy to be there.  Never underestimate a band having fun in front of an adoring audience.

5.  Flying Lotus, Terminal 5.  This was my second time seeing FlyLo, and after his ridiculous late night Bonnaroo set, I had big expectations.  His 3D stage set up was literally dizzying, and the balance between huge hip hop beats and his trademarked space-jazz-techno was masterful.  He is simply one of the most creative people making music today, and his live show is worthy of his already classic recent albums.

4.  Fuzz, Mercury Lounge.  I’ve seen Ty Segall 5 times in 2 years, and this may have been the best.  The place is tiny, the crowd was raucous, and the music was ear splittingly loud.  Woke up with several (not so) mysterious bruises the next day.  Meeting and chatting with Ty over beer beforehand made it all even cooler.

3. The National, Barclays Center.  A triumphant hometown show by the easiest to root for band in indie rock on the heels of their excellent new album.  Awesome.

2.  Four Tet, Webster Hall.  I actually saw FlyLo just a few nights before this show, and was totally prepared for Four Tet to be unable to live up to that mindfuck of a show.  Not as dynamic a sound or as animated on stage, but he was locked in the entire time, playing an uninterrupted set weaving familiar melodies in and out for the spellbound crowd.  $5 tickets to boot.

1.  Yo la Tengo, Maxwells.  They’ve been playing 8 Hanukkah shows at Maxwells each year since the late 90’s, and little did anyone know 2012 would be their last run.  In light of a gentrifying Hoboken with sinking interest for sleepy indie rockers, Maxwells closed its doors this past summer.  Even though in hindsight this made it an even more special night, the show still more than held its own.

I made the last minute decision to buy a ticket through Craigslist and make the trek solo to catch what was probably my most treasured recent band discovery.  What I saw was the best possible YLT show I could have wished for- Crazy Horse-esque long jammy abrasive guitar pieces sandwiching shorter, concise, buoyant pop.  The crowd was a whopping 200, and I was right up front (and not even a little bit squished).  This experience cemented my love for this quirky band, and I now celebrate their entire discography (especially in the dreary winter months).  I’ll never forget this concert.

Albums

(Note- I’ve posted my top albums of the year each year since 2006 here).

In 2013, it seemed I always had a favorite band’s new album to look forward to, and I was constantly discovering great new listens.  This was my favorite year since 2010, and I have no choice but to expand my list to 25 this year.

25.  Atoms for Peace– Amok
24.  Sigur Ros– Kveikur
23.  Washed Out– Paracosm
22.  Fuzz–  Fuzz
21.  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds– Push the Sky Away
20.  Thee Oh Sees– Floating Coffin
19.  Ducktails– The Flower Lane
18.  Yo La Tengo– Fade
17.  James Blake– Overgrown
16.  Parquet Coruts– Light up Gold
15.  Bill Callahan– Dream River
14.  Four Tet– Beautiful Rewind
13.  Disclosure– Settle
12.  Phosphorescent– Muchacho
11.  Kurt Vile– Wakin on a Pretty Daze

10.  The Men– New Moon. Rock and roll for the rest of us.  A pretty big departure from their earlier hardcore punk towards something not too many degrees removed from John Fogerty. Great, no frills album start to finish.

9. My Bloody Valentine– mbv.  I make no claims to be a true My Bloody Valentine fan (I had tried and failed to “get” Loveless for years.) Yet the internet hype was impossible to ignore, and I slowly found myself enthralled by this music.  It was hard to listen to anything else for a while after getting into this one.

8. Arcade Fire– Reflektor.  The biggest band in the indie-verse, with everybody watching, teams up with captain DFA and just flat out delivers. The James Murphy-ization was actually less dramatic than I had expected, and is really no more of a sonic leap from its predecessor than The Suburbs was from Neon Bible.

7. Boards of Canada– Tomorrow’s Harvest.  In a year of super hyped comeback albums, this was perhaps the most underrated and probably the most triumphant.  Somehow even subtler than their previous offerings not exactly known for their sonic dynamism, this is a back-loaded, meticulously paced, hypnotic darkhorse.

6. Kanye– Yeezus. Abrasive, barbed wire rap.  Not sure we saw anybody execute a specific vision so flawlessly in 2013.

5. Haim– Days are Gone.  Almost impossible to believe this is a debut album, these tightly wound, infectious songs are so catchy and fully realized this could easily pass as a greatest hits album.  I can’t imagine any fun loving person not enjoying this music.

4. Vampire Weekend– Modern Vampires of the Weekend.  For some reason, I had chosen to ignore this band up until now, so I went in to this album with an unfair advantage.  It is lively and fun throughout, and to my ears sounds more mature than their earlier output.

3. Jon Hopkins– Immunity.  I’ve accepted that I’m especially horrible at describing electronic music, but here you go- I’m tempted to call this working/studying/reading music, but anytime I tried to get something done with this on headphones, I ended up having to put down whatever I was doing, stare at the wall, and contemplate the mystery of life.  This almost sounds like the soundtrack to an IMAX feature on the millennia of human evolution (I’m picturing epic Neanderthal tribal battles over fertile hunting grounds to “Open Eye Signal”).

2. The National– Trouble Will Find Me.  An album of great National songs start to finish from perhaps the most deserving band in rock. (Mostly) gone are the uneasy, dread filled atmospherics of their last two, and more of a content, warm, and even celebratory (relatively speaking of course) collection of songs.

1. Danny Brown– Old.  This album is a manic masterpiece.  Technical, rowdy, hedonistic, and underneath it all, kind of touching.  For a double album this long and covering so much territory, it is compulsively listenable throughout with not a single weak track.  I didn’t even have to think too hard- this is my favorite album of 2013, and you need to listen to it immediately (just be prepared to feel the strange urge to run to your nearest weight room, therapist, or drug dealer afterwards.)

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My 2013:  Reading.  Music.  Running.

This is where my writing goes