Friday, January 3, 2020

Best Albums (& Song) of 2019

Previous editions: 2018 albums and songs,  2017 albums and songs, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.

As for 2019, here goes...

Best albums #20-#11

20. Julia Jacklin - Crushing
19. Matthew Logan Vasquez - Light'n Up
18. Purple Mountains - Purple Mountains
17. Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell!
16. Jim Jones and the Righteous Mind - CollectiV
15. Sharon Van Etten - Remind Me Tomorrow
14. Jim James, Teddy Abrams & the Louisville Orchestra - The Order of Nature
13. Jenny Lewis - On The Line
12. Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center
11. FONTAINES D.C. - Dogrel

And a little slower for the top ten...

10. Death Machine - Orbit
Image result for death machine orbit"

This album came out in November and I only seriously listened to it in December. When I was playing with the order of my top 20, it cropped up and I had to drop something off, then it kept climbing when I compared it with albums higher up the list.

Maybe it's recency bias, but I just couldn't keep this Danish downbeat gem out of my top 10.

Perfect music for writing, or the arrival of a climate apocalypse.

9. The Murder Capital - When I Have Fears
Image result for murder capital when i have fears"

Ireland produced the two great rock debuts of 2019. Where FONTAINES D.C. is more straight-ahead punk, The Murder Capital is post-punk - less angry, more articulate, but prone to the odd art-school-dropout overreach.

I'm excited to see where both these bands go next.

8. Big Thief - Two Hands
Image result for big thief two hands album cover"

Big Thief put out their third album, UFOF, in May 2019, and it has some good songs and one great track ('Cattails'). But the band wasn't quite done after recording UFOF and went back into the studio to record its "Earth twin", Two Hands, which is the stronger, more cohesive, more urgent album.

Looking forward to seeing them in Wellington in May 2020!!

7. Orville Peck - Pony
Image result for orville peck pony"

Roy Orbison eat your heart out, cover your face in leather fringe and confess your love for a fellow cowboy!

I'm not averse to gimmicks and alter-egos in music (see the way Lana Del Rey always seems to squeak onto my best of the year lists), but the music has to stand on its own feet - and Pony certainly does that.

6. Angie McMahon - Salt
Image result for angie mcmahon album cover"

There are a lot of female singer-songwriters on this list. McMahon's sounds is probably the most rock-adjacent. There's echoes of fellow Australian Courtney Barnett in the self-deprecating humour (see 'Pasta'), but McMahon is a more traditional singer, which means she's good company in most any situation.

5. The Rails - Cancel the Sun
Image result for the rails cancel the sun"

On first listen I thought, "This sounds like an updated version of Richard and Linda Thompson", and then I found out that the lead female vocalist, Kami Thompson, is their daughter. This is another husband and wife duo (the dude is James Walbourne) but it's not just a carbon copy of the previous generation.

It sounds fresh and timeless. Great stuff.

4. Marika Hackman - Any Human Friend
Image result for marika hackman any human friend"

If Angie McMahon is rock-adjacent, Hackman is the pop-adjacent singer-songwriter on this list, with more electronic blips and beats and the kind of melodies you find yourself humming when hanging out the washing.

But it's when you focus on the lyrics, which are dark and mordantly funny, that these songs take on their full power.

I loved her debut in 2017, and she's taken it to another level here.

3. Allie Crow Buckley - So Romantic
Image result for allie crow buckley so romantic"

'So Romatic' only has six songs, so it's better described as an EP than a full album. And the final track, a cover of Black Sabbath's 'Changes' I can take or leave. But the other five songs are so great, each a world unto themselves, that this feels like a major event.

I've listened to these songs so much over the last 11 months, and have no reservation putting So Romantic this high.

2. Pedro the Lion - Phoenix
Image result for pedro the lion phoenix"

I've praised Dave Bazan before on this blog (see: 2018's song of the year). I was excited about his return to the Pedro the Lion moniker, if only that it meant new material in early 2019. But Phoenix exceeded my expectations.

'Yellow Bike' is the greatest song about childhood and the melancholy of nostalgia. (Bonus points for my son, who got his first pedal-bike this year, liking the song, too.)

'Quietest Friend' might be the best song Bazan has ever written. 'Model Homes' is surely in his top 10.

Just a great fucking album from a new hero of mine.

1. Aldous Harding - Designer
Image result for aldous harding designer"

I appreciated Harding's previous album, 2017's Party, without properly loving it. But in Designer, it felt like the weirdness and idiosyncrasy fully fused with the music and I couldn't help fall madly for this album.

My kids love 'The Barrel' (though the blue alien mask in the video freaks them out) and 'Fixture Picture' - a sure barometer of Harding's pop-hit chops. 'Zoo Eyes', 'Designer', and 'Pilot' compete for the best song on the album from an 'adult contemporary' perspective, if that category was applied to grown ups who enjoy being challenged (rather than the opposite).

These songs are great live - or maybe it's better to say that Harding is great live: no song is ever sung quite the same way. It's so powerful to see someone sit inside their oddness, to be their oddness, and make art you know will hold its power as the years pass.

There's no artist, from NZ or otherwise, I'm more excited about seeing where they go next than Aldous Harding.

Song of the Year

As with previous years, if an artist has an album on the list above they're automatically disqualified from this category.

In researching this year's winner, I grew to love the album on which this one song appears, but I figure it's better to have the number 1 song than an album somewhere in the 8-16 range. 

Before I get to the winner, some highly commended ribbons:
  • 'Scare Easy' - T Hardy Morris
  • 'Exit Stations' - NE-HI
  • 'Monster Moon' - Sun June

But the champ this year is 'I Get No Joy' by Jade Bird

Image result for jade bird"
Catchy, angry, ironically joy-inducing, in and out in two and a half minutes... what a single!

Jade Bird has such a great voice. Despite the song hurtling forward at 90 miles an hour, her phrasing is immaculate. The fast-twitch version of Phoebe Bridgers. 

Check out her self-titled debut album, too, please and thank you. I certainly will be listening to it a lot in January.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The best books I read in 2019

Yesterday I crunched the numbers for the 61 books I read in 2019 and how I did with my reading targets.

Today, it's time to look at the books I enjoyed the most.

You can find similar lists for previous years here: 2018, 2017, (let's not speak of 2015 or 2016), 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.

Boom - there's your best of the decade list right there.

In scanning through those best reads posts just now, some books have stuck with me more than others and I'd rejig there orders, but there's a lot of books I love on there.

Here's to another decade of great books!

Okay, here's my list for 2019:

#1 How to be Both by Ali Smith

What I said about it in November:
Loved it... even more than I liked Autumn, which was in my top ten a couple of years back. It pushed a lot of buttons for me: it's about (partly) art and artists; narrative invention; a sense of whimsy without being flippant... Stuff it in my veins!

#2 The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

What I said about it in December:
The combination of David Attenborough's narration, Baker's en pointe nature writing and the avian subject matter... och!

#3 Feeld by Jos Charles

This was my favourite poetry collection I read in 2019. I stick to 6-word reviews for poetry collections, coz I'm a bastard, and this is what I wrote in December:
Brain re-wiring, trans Chaucer nature writing.

#4 There There by Tommy Orange

What I said about it in May:
Wow. I loved this.
...I was still like: How's he gonna land this plane?
And he fucking does!
There's so much heart in here it's easy to overlook the head required to corral so many moving parts.

#5 A Death in the Family (My Struggle Book 1) by Karl Ove Knausgaard

This is my annual multi-book fudge, as I read Books 1 and 2 this year and loved them both. Book 1 edges Book 2 because it felt more radical. I enjoyed Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet in 2017, but My Struggle is just extra. 

Here's what I said about Book 1 in February:
So I've finally got around to reading Knausgaard. I resisted because did I really need to read the inner workings of another white male writer? But golly, is it good. It had me thinking about life (and Life) and writing almost constantly.

And here's what I said about Book 2 in April:
Book 1 hooked me with its obsession with death, particularly the death of a father, and the brutal honesty (or the convincing facsimile of brutal honesty) of being a writer.
Book 2, as the title suggests, is more concerned with romance and what comes on its heels (in Knausgaard's eyes: the emasculating labour of the modern father), and the challenges of balancing family and writing, doled out with equal depth and brutality. So, again, it spoke to me...

#6 Normal People by Sally Rooney

What I said about it in February:

Yeah, so, this deserves the hype. And the fact Will Self can't see it? Even better.
...despite the fact Rooney's characters are a decade younger, there was a lot that cut close to the bone.

#7 The Angel's Cut by Elizabeth Knox

What I said about it in June:
It only took me ten years to get around to reading the sequel to The Vintner's Luck but boy howdee this was good.
It sent me scrambling for reasons for how a sequel could be this good. Like, it helps when the main character doesn't age, so the sequel can take place at any time or place that takes your fancy up until the present day... but it still takes a massive amount of  skill to pull off!

#8 Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter

What I said about it in December:
I was partway through this book when I did a wee "fave books" thing for the NZ Women's Weekly. I said: "I’m also loving my current read: Shayne Carter’s Dead People I Have Known, which struts and sneers and sulks like a great rock memoir should."
I meted out the remaining chapters, in part because it was such good fun, but also because there's a lot of darkness and loss in the book.

#9 An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira

What I said about it in May:
There's a particular kind of story that suits the level of compression and focus required to make it feel bigger than a short story but not leave you wanting more. The title of Aira's 2000 novel, translated by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions in 2006, tells you a lot about how this one works.

#10 Basketball & Other Things by Shea Serrano

What I said about it in July:
Like the slow food revolution for NBA-heads. A wormhole back to the not-too-distant-past when you had to take some of these feats on faith, until the VHS arrived with the proof.
It helped reduce my screen time and open windows into a more creative application of my own NBA addiction.

#11 Radicalized by Cory Doctorow

What I said about it in December:
...Would I have got more out of any of these stories if they were blown up to four-times their length so I could spend more time with the characters? No.
Give me the bare essentials rather than bloat.
Give me four high concepts for the price of one.
Give me the hack to ensure my toaster can brown whatever the fuck I want.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

2019 reading in review

I set myself some reading targets for 2019. I checked my progress at the end of August. And here's how I did overall:

1. Read great books

41% of the books I read this year I rated 85/100 or higher (up from 38% in my August review). My ratings are unscientific - mostly just a way to help me choose my top ten - and I didn't say what percentage would justify a pass... but I reckon it's:


2. Read at least 52 books

Actual: 61 (16 physical; 45 audiobooks)


3. Read at least 10 poetry collections

Actual: 6


The remainder of the 61 were made up of 26 novels, 6 story collections, 1 graphic novel & 22 non-fiction books.

4. Read more than 40% female authors

Actual: 48%


5. Read at least a third non-white authors

Actual: 25%


This was interesting, as I read 27% non-white authors in 2018 without a target, but I only hit at 6% the year before that, so hovering around a quarter isn't that bad, though it's not that great, either.

6. Read less than 40% US authors

Actual: 31%


7. Read from at least 10 different countries

Actual: 14


8. Read at least 5 works in translation



9. Target median age of books read: 2009

Actual: 2018


By decade:
  • 2010s: 55 (25 just from 2019)
  • 2000s: 3
  • 1970s: 1
  • 1960s: 2
The allure of the new and shiny is hard to resist, eh?


6 of 9 targets met. I think the first two are the big ones: quantity and quality. The rest were prompts for me to read diversely. And while I read a number of highly enjoyable books this year, something about these targets made reading feel a bit like box ticking. I'm interested to see how I go without explicit targets or mid-point reviews. So I only have one target for this year:

2020 target: read 70 books

But I will look at how I went against these other metrics at the very end of the year and do some trend analysis over the last 5 or so years.

Up next, my top 11 reads of the year...