I woke up this morning, on the last day of the year, and thought about writing. I consider doing this often, just getting up and writing. Then I did what I do almost every morning. I hit snooze on my alarm and rolled over. When I finally did get up, after hitting snooze a few more times, I had just enough time to run out for coffee before starting work. (My actual work that I get paid to do.) This, I thought to myself, is why I can never get any writing done. Then I proceeded to get angry at myself for not writing enough this year, for not publishing anywhere other than my own site, for giving up on the novel I’d started, for constantly feeling like I don’t have anything to say, for worrying that no one reads or cares about what I do put out there, for getting caught in this same negative thought cycle all too often.
I decided to stop being angry and to do a thing I had promised I would do more often this year and in the future. I decided to be nice to myself. All of the things I didn’t do this year? I told myself that it’s fine that I didn’t do them. I can do them or not do them later. And all of the things I did? They’re great! I did them.
This lead me to make a list of things I wrote that I liked this year. So, here are the things I wrote that I liked:
one of the many times this year i attempted to match my manicure to the book i was reading
The year is almost over and I’m probably not going to finish another book, so I figured I might as well write up my annual year in reading post. According to my Goodreads account, I read 37 books in 2015. My goal was to read 24 books and I love exceeding goals, so I feel very good and happy about reading 13 more books than I thought I could.
Throughout 2015, I wrote tiny little reviews of many of the books I read. Here are reviews from January – March, April – June, and July – September. And below is my full roundup from this year, without any commentary because I’m lazy as hell today and I didn’t write any last year either.
I’m usually pretty serious about keeping up with new music, mainly so that I can create a year end list of my favorite songs and albums, an activity I greatly enjoy. This year I was really on top of my shit until August, when I lost my job and shortly thereafter destroyed my computer by spilling water across the keyboard. Music discovery wasn’t as convenient or fun once I didn’t have work to procrastinate. And it wasn’t as easy once my main mode of internet access was my phone, which was fine for like, looking something up on Wikipedia, but not great for long-term browsing. Anyway, this is all to say that I stopped paying attention to new music this summer, except for things that I was anticipating, and I don’t feel quite right catching up and putting together a year end list at this point because I’d probably get lazy and rely on year end lists that have already been published to fill mine out and that seems dumb.
So, I decided I would write about the new music I really cared about in 2015. What follows is a collection of thoughts and feelings about albums and songs I loved or that were big parts of my year in one way or another. The list is sort of chronological and a lot of my favorite, favorite things don’t come until a bit later, but I will stop explaining and just let you read it.
The album that defined my year more than any other was Colleen Green’s I Want to Grow Up. (It wasn’t my absolute favorite album, but it’s close to the top and I had in rotation throughout 2015.) It’s kind of painful thinking about how much I related to every song back when I was first listening to this album. I spent much of this year feeling stuck, wanting unavailable people to be my friends and lovers, vacillating between deciding to change my life for the better and falling back into bad habits and old patterns, and wondering what is actually stopping me from doing the things I’ve always thought I was supposed to do, like finding love or pursuing whatever my dreams are. I listened to I Want to Grow Up on repeat for months. When I played it for a friend, someone I’ve known since I was fourteen, he told me that “this sounds like the album you would write if you played music.” His saying that made me feel a tiny bit exposed – like, “Oh, no, are my insecurities so obvious?” – but I was flattered just the same.
Recommended Tracks: Um, all of them? If I have to choose a few then I would tell you to listen to “Things That Are Bad For Me (Part I),” “Deeper Than Love,” and “Whatever I Want.” But again, I also like all of the other songs.
I was really sad at the beginning of the year. (And also maybe the rest of the year? (Haha.)) I thought I couldn’t possibly have another disappointing year when it came to dating or romance, but it all started going downhill pretty quickly. I remember taking the train up to my parent’s house one weekend in January, staring out the window at the frozen Bronx – so basically a lot of chainlink fences, felled branches, and trash covered in snow – listening to Natalie Prass’s “My Baby Don’t Understand Me,” a song about ending a relationship and realizing that the whole thing had been a “long goodbye.” All the while, I was thinking about how things could never work with the person I was seeing at the time, someone who, the more time I spent with him, seemed like more of a stranger to me. The relationship Prass sings about in the song is much more serious than the fledgling thing I was in, but I could relate to the sentiment. By the time Natalie Prass – the album – came out at the end of January, that thing I was wondering about was over. But as I hibernated in my apartment during the coldest weeks of the year, I listened to that album for comfort. I thought was beautiful and heartbreaking and maybe a little bit hopeful and very much something I needed to hear at the time.
Recommended Tracks: The aforementioned “My Baby Don’t Understand Me.” Also, “Why Don’t You Believe in Me” and album-closer, “It Is You,” which sounded to me like it could have been written by Harry Nilsson, a wonderful thing in my book.
Yumi Zouma, the New Zealand dream pop band to which I was introduced in 2014, had two songs that stuck with me this year. “Catastrophe” and “A Song For Zoe & Gwen” came out early in the year and I put them both on like 500 playlists.
I saw Sleater-Kinney for the first time back in February. I wrote about the show, which I had a lot of feelings about, soon afterward. It was at Terminal 5 and was uncomfortably crowded, but I still felt in awe of the performance and was happy I went. I saw them again last week at Irving Plaza and this second show blew me away. (I was a lot closer to the front, they covered “Rock Lobster” with Fred Armisen, they played a bunch of my favorite songs, etc. Ask me about it some time.)
Anyway, the album! It’s great and precisely what I wanted and expected from Sleater-Kinney. I didn’t connect with No Cities to Love as much as I did with some of their earlier albums – most of which I listened to for the first time years after they were released – but I still played it all the time this winter and returned to it every few months, so it feels very much woven into my year in music.
Recommended Tracks: “A New Wave” (which I have in my head right. now.), “Surface Envy”, “Price Tag”
I began this year excited for the new Chromatics album, Dear Tommy, to come out. And then it never did! They originally announced a February release date and kept releasing singles but not releasing the album. Which, I guess, has been fine because I’ve really liked the singles. “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around” and “In Films” were especially in constant rotation for me this year. Chromatics makes the kind of music I want to soundtrack my life.
Also noteworthy: “Shadow” and the multiple covers of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” that they released this fall
This is maybe…weird, but when I think about Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, I think about being at the gym. I guess I was going to the gym a lot when I was listening to this album? Every time I listen to it now I feel like I should be on the elliptical machine. Anyway, I love Barnett for her detailed storytelling and humor and general badassness. I think her music, in some ways, reminds me of Jens Lekman who I love for his detailed storytelling and humor. (But probably not badassness. Also, I’m now reminded that I haven’t listened to him in a long time.)
Recommended Tracks: “Depreston” (one of my favorite songs of this year, which is a really good short story in song format), “Dead Fox”, “Nobody Really Cares If You Go to the Party”
I crushed hard on Bully early this year and listened to the debut album Feels Like obsessively once I got my hands on it. I was drawn to the raw emotion that courses through the album and Alicia Bognanno’s confessional lyrics. I can’t yet tell if Feels Like will be an album that ages well for me, but I know that listening to it this year was a cathartic experience that I won’t soon forget.
I felt like a lot of the stuff I read about Chastity Belt focused on the song “Cool Slut”. I like that song. It’s groovy and anti-slut shaming, which I think it a good thing. But Chastity Belt is so much more than that one song. Time to Go Home was lowkey one of my favorite albums of the year, which I say because I don’t think I even realized how much time I spent listening to it. There’s a casualness, a sort of pretense of not caring, to Chastity Belt’s songs that makes it easy to forget how good they are at what they do. “Is it cool not to care?” lead singer and guitarist Julia Shapiro asks on “IDC.” Many of the songs on Time to Go Home explore caring and not caring, trying and not trying, actions that most young adults perform constantly as they try to figure out who they are or want to be.
When I finally saw Chastity Belt live in May, I was really blown away. To my ears, their performance sounded better than their album recording, which probably says something about the production on their album, but I mention this as a compliment to the women of the band, who struck me as incredibly talented and professional.
Recommended Tracks: “Drone”, “Joke” (a top ten song of the year for me), “Lydia”, “Time to Go Home”
No Joy is a band I never paid much attention to before. I listened to More Faithful on the recommendation of a friend who knows my taste well and was ultimately glad that I didn’t dismiss it. It’s a cohesive collection of shoegaze-y rock that feels at once aggressive and introspective. This album was in heavy rotation for me as the season changed from spring to summer and listening to it now gives me this general feeling of hopefulness, something I wish I could feel all the time (but, um, don’t).
Recommended Tracks: “Hollywood Teeth”, “Moon in My Mouth”, “Chalk Snake”
I know now that Wolf Alice got a lot of buzz before this year, at least in the UK, but I hadn’t heard of them until June or July. Their debut album, My Love Is Cool, is moody and beautiful and dreamy but also has an edge to it that makes it better and more interesting than most straightforward “indie rock” albums I’ve listened to in the past few years. This is another album that I would not have listened to had it not been for the recommendation of (the same!) friend, so thank you very much, Matthew.
My Love Is Cool transported me; I listened to it a lot while taking long (and hot and sweaty) walks around north Brooklyn this summer, but always felt as if I should be walking around London on a cool night just after it had rained.
I spent a solid six months in 2008 listening to Beach House’s second album Devotion. When I think of the second half of my junior year of college, the half that I spent in Evanston, Illinois and not in Paris, I immediately think of this album. Though I’ve been a fan of Beach House’s work since then, the albums that followed Devotion – Teen Dream and Bloom – didn’t hit me quite as hard.
The two albums that Beach House released this year, within two months of each other, had me feeling like I did seven years ago. When I first heard Depression Cherry this summer, I wanted to play it all the time. And I felt that urge even more strongly when I heard Thank Your Lucky Stars in October. (I actually liked Thank Your Lucky Stars so much that I forgot that I liked Depression Cherry at all until I started listening to it again recently.) Both albums sound exactly like Beach House albums should – nearly perfect collections of ethereal, dreamy rock – but Thank Your Lucky Stars especially connected more with me than their last few critically acclaimed albums.
Thank Your Lucky Stars Recommended Tracks: “All Your Yeahs”, “One Thing”, “Elegy to the Void”, “Rough Song”
Julia Holter put out my favorite album this year. Have You In My Wilderness is probably her most accessible record to date, but it’s not necessarily an easy listen. It’s dramatic and emotional, despairing and adrift in one moment, joyful and ecstatic in the next. Engaging with Have You In My Wilderness these last few months has been one of the most intense experiences I’ve had with any piece of art, musical or otherwise, in the recent past.
In “Feel You,” the album’s opener and an addictive chamber pop song, Holter begins by expressing uncertainty in a relationship, in a “mythological” person. From there, she takes us on a journey of personal discovery that alternates between moments of confusion and clarity, climaxing with “Betsy on the Roof,” in which she asks, desperately, “Won’t you please tell me the answer?” By the time the album resolves with the title track, which feels like waking from a dream to an unwanted reality, I am always desperate for her to tell me the whole story again.
Recommended Tracks: “Feel You”, “Sea Calls Me Home”, “Betsy On the Roof”
It’s hard for me to know what to say about Divers, Joanna Newsom’s latest album. Newsom is my favorite artist of all time and I waited for Divers, mostly impatiently, for five years. I fell in love with it, as I have with her three prior albums, within my first few listens. But as someone who has been a rabid fan for so long, I worry that I’m ill-equipped to offer valuable critical analysis of this newest cycle of songs.
Divers fits in with Newsom’s previous work while managing at the same time to feel subtly different, more mature and complex in its themes and composition. It’s her most beautiful album and the plain prettiness of many of the songs can obscure, on first listen, the heaviness of the subject matter. Each song deals with arrivals and departures, or the process of being born and living and dying, and the joy and pain that is implicit in that process. She makes this plain in album closer “Time, As A Symptom”, lamenting – or celebrating? – “the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life.”
Of any album that came out this year, Divers caused me to feel the highest highs and the lowest lows, making it my most cathartic album of 2015. (Also, in my top three favorite albums. It was painful for me to admit that it wasn’t my absolute favorite of the year, but Have You In My Wilderness really felt more important to me.)
Recommended Tracks: “Sapokanikan”, “The Things I Say”, “Divers”, “Time, As A Symptom”
Grimes is another artist whose music I’ve never failed to enjoy, but I was actually nervous to listen to Art Angels when it came out. A lot has been written about Claire Boucher/Grimes since her last album, 2012’s Visions was released to much acclaim. And I felt like some of what I read about her in the years in between suggested that she was too fragile and temperamental to release music that wouldn’t disappoint us. I must have internalized this to some extent, because in the weeks before Art Angels’ release, I found myself wondering if I should even bother to care or listen. (Even though “REALiTi (Demo)” had been near the top of my list of favorite songs of the year since it was released in the spring.)
But of course, I never should have worried. Art Angels, to me, is nearly perfect. It sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before, yet incredibly familiar, which is I guess exactly what I want when it comes to listening to new music (or experiencing any art, really). I could hear Madonna in “Artangels” and the cheerleading chants of my schooldays in “Kill V. Maim”. The sound of “World Princess part II” reminded me of hours spent trying to beat video games like Crash Bandicoot in middle school. But it wasn’t just nostalgia that made me connect with Art Angels. I think that Grimes, better than most musicians working today, is able articulate the struggle we all face in relating to other humans. Hearing her sing a line like “I was only looking for a human to reciprocate” on the song “Pin” hits me like a punch in the gut.
Recommended Tracks: “Flesh without Blood”, “Kill V. Maim”, “Artangels”, “Pin”, “Realiti”
(This is another one where it’s really hard to choose and really recommend listening to the whole album.)
There is so much music that I loved (or just plain liked) this year that I didn’t cover here. So I made a Spotify playlist with a lot of it, which you can find below. Happy listening!
I started watching Kevin Brownlow’s 1908 documentary series, Hollywood, this weekend. It’s twelve parts and so far, I’ve gotten through eight. The series is filled with interviews with actors, directors, writers, and others involved in silent films and the Hollywood studio system of the 1920s. One of the most featured interviewees is Gloria Swanson.
I didn’t really care about Gloria Swanson until watching her interview. I saw Sunset Boulevard when I was in college out of some sense of duty I felt to watch “classic American films” that I had never seen before. I assumed that Gloria Swanson had been like the character she played, Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent film star. (But a less crazy version, obviously.) I’ve never seen her act in anything else.
Years later, I’ve discovered that I’m fascinated with Gloria Swanson. Or at least the Gloria Swanson in the 1980 Hollywood interview. In the clip above, which is from an episode devoted entirely to her and Rudolph Valentino, she describes how she convinced Cecil B. DeMille to let her film a dramatic scene with a real lion. In another segment, she talks about easily finding success as a comedic actress in her early career despite not understanding the majority of the jokes and gives the air that she was above such lowly work. She consistently comes across as having always been fearless and in control. (However, in a later episode, a story is told about DeMille forcing her to film a violent flood scene even though she was terrified of water and couldn’t swim. Even the biggest star in Hollywood had to do some things she didn’t want to do.)
I think I’m mostly obsessed with Gloria Swanson because of her whole vibe in the interview. Her hair is perfect. Her eyebrows are meticulously shaped or drawn on. (I can’t tell. The video quality on YouTube is kind of poor.) Here eyes are expressive, even with the presence of what look to be rather heavy false eyelashes. Her voice is still surprisingly girlish. But the thing I’m most impressed with about Gloria Swanson in 1980 is the fact that she’s chosen to be interviewed in front of what I think is a bust of Gloria Swanson.
As I watched her, all I could think was, “Please, please let me be this majestic when I’m older.”
Now all I want to do is watch more Hollywood and read Gloria Swanson’s Wiki and the “Scandals of Classic Hollywood” on her and also her autobiography, which is delightfully called Swanson on Swanson.
As some of you may know, I had a lot of time to read during the last few months. Even though I was furiously looking for a job during part of that time, I still had a ton of time to do anything my heart desired. And it turned out that mostly what my heart desired was to read. Reading, as an activity, was easier for me than most other things that could have occupied my time. Even after I knew I had a job lined up, reading was a way for me to escape my anxiety about the present and the future. In short, it helped me get by. (In a very pleasant and rewarding way.)
Here – almost a month after I would have liked to post this, because I am without a personal computer right now and also writing basically anything has seemed unmanageable to me – is everything I read in the third quarter of 2015.
I’ve written quite a bit here before about how the Grateful Dead has been a band that has fascinated me for almost my entire life. I would never consider myself as knowledgeable as the average fan, but I do really enjoy the history and culture and much of the music of the Dead. After I watched The Other One, the recent documentary on Bob Weir, I found myself looking for a more comprehensive history of the band. That ‘s how I got to Browne’s book, which was released a few months in advance of the Dead’s Fare Thee Well performances.
I had read – and enjoyed – Browne’s Fire and Rain a few years ago and trusted that this book would go down just as easily. And it did. Browne tells the Dead’s story by focusing on important days in the band member’s lives and careers. His method isn’t necessarily innovative, but it serves him well in that he’s able to provide a comprehensive and detailed history in under 500 pages. (I could easily see a history of the Grateful Dead ballooning to twice the size. Their five decades of existence provides almost too much stuff to write about, what with their evolving personalities of the band members, rotating cast of followers, wonderfully inconsistent and powerful live performances, and collisions with important moments in American history.)
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the phenomenon of the Dead.
I got through the first three of Edward St. Aubyn’s five Patrick Melrose novels back in July. These specifically were published in quick succession between 1992 and 1994. (The final two novels in the series – Mother’s Milk and At Last – were published in 2005 and 2012, respectively.) The series is well known for being autobiographical and each novel focuses on one pivotal day in the life of St. Aubyn’s alter ego, Patrick Melrose.
In Never Mind, Patrick is five. The story is told from several perspectives – Patrick’s, that of his dissatisfied and cruel father, his alcoholic mother’s, and those of several visitors and staff members at the family home in the south of France. The short book is horrifying – in one passage, we see from Patrick’s perspective as he is brutally raped by his father – but also beautiful and very funny. When I was done, I wondered how St. Aubyn managed to pull it off.
Bad News is equally as dark as its predecessor. Patrick, now in his early twenties and addicted to heroin, has flown to New York to retrieve the body of his father, who has died. He spends a day and a night in early 1980s Manhattan searching for drugs, hallucinating, alternately fending off and seducing girlfriends via telephone, embarrassing himself in the company of others, and spending money on food, wine, and taxis seemingly because he can. Bad News reads like a fever dream and made me squirm often. However, St. Aubyn once again infused the unpleasant with beauty and humor that made the novel a more than worthwhile read.
Some Hope was my favorite of the three Patrick Melrose novels I read. Patrick is twenty-eight, sober, and attending a fancy party in the English countryside. He is coming to terms with the world at large. The novel explores the shallowness of the English upper class and, while it does grapple with some heavy things, felt lighter to me overall. After finishing Some Hope, I was satisfied enough to put the Patrick Melrose Novels down for a while. I look forward to reading the last two later this year.
Who hasn’t read The Girl On the Train yet? It’s the Gone Girl of 2015. I’m not going to tell you anything because, I think, it’s better to go into this book knowing absolutely nothing. (I knew absolutely nothing going into it. Had I known anything at all, I may have been discouraged from reading it.) I think, if you like thrillers and you like getting wrapped up in unreliable narration and you like not being able to put a book down, read The Girl On the Train. Then come and talk to me about it. I have a few things to say.
I dove into the Red Rising trilogy at the recommendation of my roommates, who had both been talking up the first book for a while. Red Rising, the first novel, was not hard to sell to me. However, I found it very tough to get into.
Red Rising is the story of Darrow, a “Red” who lives in a colony beneath the surface of Mars, mining a substance that will allow for terraforming above, ensuring humanity’s survival outside of Earth. Darrow eventually discovers that the surface of Mars is already hospitable and home to a society of upper classes. (Classes are divided by color.) He and his fellow Reds have been living in ignorance for their entire lives. And that…is all I’ll tell you! It takes a while to pick up, but about 100 pages into Red Rising, my expectations were blown away. In spite of its weak beginning, Red Rising is an incredibly fun, suspenseful read. It does contain some tired themes and devices, but I think it’s a book that most fans of “young adult” science fiction and fantasy would enjoy.
I liked Golden Son much less than Red Rising but it wasn’t horrible. It just seemed like it was written in a rush and I found myself distracted often. However, I was still very attached to many of the characters and needed to see it through. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what the final book of the trilogy brings.
I’ll start off by reminding you that I’m a Tana French fangirl. Her previous novels have provided some of my favorite reading experiences in recent years. I think that all of her work is well written, well plotted, and generally some of the best stuff out there in the mystery genre.
The Secret Place, though practically un-put-down-able for me, didn’t measure up to my French favorites. (The Likeness is definitely my #1, followed by Faithful Place.) The book takes place at St. Kilda’s, an all-girls school outside of Dublin attended by Holly Mackey, the daughter of Faithful Place narrator Frank Mackey. The girls at the school are haunted by a murder of a boy from the neighboring all-boys school the year before and Detective Stephen Moran – another Faithful Place character – gets in on the reopened investigation. French is wonderful at characterization and dialogue and she absolutely nails the way the teenage girls in The Secret Place think and act and speak. However, some of the plot mechanics didn’t work for me and in the end, I was left disappointed by the whodunit aspect of the book.
Old Man’s War is a poorly written science fiction novel about a man who, at age 75, gets his consciousness transferred into a superhuman version of his younger body and becomes a part of an intergalactic army that fights aliens in order to secure habitable planets for the human race. It’s also pretty fun. This was an easy, breezy vacation read for me – and also the first thing we read for the sci fi/fantasy book club I joined – and a decent diversion from real life.
During the summer of 1965, Linda Rosenkrantz recorded conversations that she had with two friends in East Hampton. She turned those conversations into Talk, a book that I believe is a “novel” only in the sense that the names in it are not those of real people. It is entirely comprised of dialogue – conversations between Marsha and her friends Emily and Vincent. They are all approaching or just over thirty. They all make art of some kind. They are concerned with the small-ish scene in which they exist, their romantic relationships, their childhoods, their futures. They all have experience with psychoanalysis, which informs many of their discussions.
I read this during an incredibly introspective period, when I was spending most days alone, making plans only so I would have a reason to talk to someone. I wasn’t depressed, but I also was. I was truly between jobs and I felt like I was just waiting for life to begin again. I found the discussions in Talk relatable and helpful in organizing my own thoughts and feelings. And I’m certain it’s a book that I’ll return to in the future.
I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m saying that before I say anything else because I don’t want you to get turned off by the description, which was something that happened to me. I’d read a lot about this book before I picked it up and I didn’t think I could handle it. Turns out I could.
Yoli, a woman who grew up in a western Canada Mennonite community, narrates All My Puny Sorrows. She deeply admires and loves her sister Elf, a famous concert pianist who is hell-bent on killing herself. When Elf tries to commit suicide again, Yoli searches for a way to help her sister, her family, and herself.
This book is beautiful, honest, funny, tragic, and a hundred other things. Toews perfectly captures the pain that comes with loving other people.
Of course I loved The Story of the Lost Child. Over the last year, I devoured the three prior books in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and told everyone I’ve ever known that they had to read them. I went to a midnight release party for this one and was quoted on The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog. If I – or someone else – haven’t sold you on Ferrante by now, then…I dunno. Maybe you won’t ever read her. Or maybe you will read her, but just in the future?
As this last book begins, Elena and Lila are grown women with children. Elena is preoccupied by her affair with Nino Sarratore, her childhood crush and Lila’s former lover. Lila is preoccupied by her computer business. Their lives eventually collide again when Elena moves back to Naples and both give birth to daughters around the same time.
I don’t know that I can really compare this to any of the other novels. Now that I’ve finished reading the series, they seem like one wonderful, extremely long book in my mind.