Monday, January 31, 2022

This Fluid Thrill Awards: Best Books I read in 2021

Not the best books that came out in 2021, just the best books I read in that calendar year. Same story as for 20202019, 2018, 2017, (...), 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, & 2010.

I first tweeted out my 2021 top 10 (with GIFs!) in December, which kinda took the heat out of me actually doing this post. But when I finally got around to it, I realised my list of  89 books read was missing one. 

And that book should have been in my top 10. 


How did this happen? I must've read this book over the crest of two months, thereby leaving it out of my monthly/bi-monthly consumption diary, which I used to create my Excel list of titles for ranking and statistical dissection.

So let's start with #1 and taiho on the pie charts for a tick.

1. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (novel, audiobook, NZ, 2020)

This novel is funny. This novel is dark. It's like a perfectly weighted handgun. Like someone you hate saying the quiet part loud. Like the thrill of having your stitches pulled and the anticipation of whether your flesh will hold.  

There's a caesura at the centre. An illness afflicts the narrator, Martha. It's mental, it's genetic, it explains a lot... only it's referred to as "--"in the physical book and "x" in the audiobook. It's not meant to stand in for any one particular real-life illness. In the wrong hands, this vagueness, this game-playing, would cheapen everything. But Martha is so completely rendered, so real, such good company on the page, that we feel this diagnostic void as she must have in all those years before its absence, and even since. What power does naming have over chemistry? Over years of interpersonal muscle memory?

I wanted to read it again immediately after finishing it. This is a thing people say, but I rarely ever feel.

I want to read it again now. For a raft of reasons, both to do with the book and events in the lives of friends and family.

None of this has anything to do with the fact Meg Mason was born in Foxton, but that, too, is awesome.

2. Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan (novel, audiobook, UK, 2020)

What I said about it in October:

So good. A top ten book of my reading year for sure. Friendship, youth, music and loss all intertwine. 1980's Glasgow and Edinburgh shine through, as does this novel's winning heart.

The best book about mates, mortality and music I have read.

3. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders (non-fiction, audiobook, US, 2021)

What I said about in in August:


Maybe I'm starved of down-to-earth literary criticism, but this book was probably the biggest encouragement to start writing again of anything I've read, done, seen or heard this year

A degustation menu with an avuncular, expert guide. The slow food revolution for the short story. Read me more, Daddy!

4. Earthlings by Sakata Murata
(novel, audiobook, Japan, 2020)

What I said about in January:

A gem. I loved it from the first sentence. I worried for a bit that it was going to swerve too much into the territory of Convenience Store Woman, but it remained enough of it’s own thing to be a triumph!

Go weird into that good night! 

5. No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (novel, audiobook, US, 2021)

What I said about it in June:

Gonna call it now: this is the funniest book I will read all year.

Is it a novel? Is it another autobiography, veiled this time by the third person pronouns? Is it longform poetry?

Answer: it is the natural end result when language and attention and logic come out the other side of being "extremely online".

Buy a ticket, buckle up and enjoy the ride.

6. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (non-fiction, audiobook, US, 2013)

What I said about it in June:

Right book, right time. One test of a book is how often you bring it up in conversation and I've been able to refer to, and evangelise about, Braiding Sweetgrass often in the weeks since reading it.

It ranges widely - and does drift in parts, being rather long - but the topic is so broad (see that subtitle) and the process of decolonising the thinking of a reader such as me when it comes to plants takes time.

7. Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta (non-fiction, audiobook, Australia, 2019)

What I said about it in December:

Wow. Read this immediately after reading this piece by Angela Meyer. Thank you Angela and thank you Tyson (and thank you Audible and I guess, grudgingly, Amazon, for making this book free to all members so hopefully many more will read/listen to this and extend the yarning).

Books like this raise interesting questions about form. As an audiobook narrated by the author it more closely resembles the kind of yarning and sand talk at the heart of the culture Yunkaporta shares, but the listener misses out on the sand talk symbols as visual things (my brain, at least, cannot follow extended descriptions of unique symbols). In the end, all books are imperfect and incomplete in whatever form they take, and it's the work of the reader to complete the circle.

8. Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (short stories, audiobook, Canada, 2013)

What I said about it in May:

Wow. This book is exciting. It starts out with short stories in a recognisable, North American mold. It felt a little like a first nation's Jesus' Son - and then the stories lean more into Nishnaabeg modes and language. Another bad comparison: it felt like the bait and switch in David Vann's Legend of a Suicide where the death (the dyer?) in the second half is unexpected and makes you re-evaluate everything. This time, it's like: where those first stories good on their own terms or were they bait to lure me in.

9. The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary (novel, audiobook, UK, 2019)

What I said about it in June:

Okay, so, hear me out. I enjoy reading romance...

The set-up (a male hospice nurse who works nights rents out his flat 7pm to 7am to a junior book editor so he can pay legal fees for his brother, and the two flatmates only converse through post-it notes...) is super hooky.

Sometimes the beats felt like they came with signposts: THIS IS A BEAT.

But I devoured it. I like romance. It only took me 38 years.


Which brings us to the 10th spot... Which I'm making two white dudes share because they made my Twitter list and I can't decide who to boot... This is also the point where those of you playing along at home realise that, I've put a romance novel in my top 10 by not Marcel Proust. Yup. Swann's Way came in at 27th, beating 2020's Booker Prize Winner but not the latest Stephen King. Good thing no one is paying that much attention, eh?

10th= Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (non-fiction, audiobook, US, 2011)

What I said about it in May:

Published in 2011, collecting magazine pieces from even earlier, but it didn't feel dated. Sullivan was tapping into the racial, religious and economic discontent that would propel Trump into the White House - that's part of it. But his voice is so clear, distinct. I really want to read a collection of his essays from the last 10 years...

10th= Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O'Connell (non-fiction, audiobook, UK, 2020)

What I said about it in June:

This is the book I thought I was going to read when I picked up End Times by Bryan Walsh in May. I wasn't sure if I was ready for more apocalypsia so soon, but O'Connell's book lived up to my (deferred) expectations. Maybe it's homerism, but I enjoyed the section set in NZ the most. Often, that would be the part where the hollowness of the European correspondent rang through, but not here.


Interpretation: My eyes suck. I've worked hard for nearly two decades to be a good reader with my ears. This enabled me to read 90 total books this year, a significant step up from 66, 61, 42, and 66 in the preceding years.

Interpretation: Nothing to see here. Novels were 56% of my reading the year before. Moving on.

Backslid from 2020 when on 41% of authors identified as male (52% the year before that).

Still a 'work on' (the same old saws about audiobook availability etc etc). 18% in 2020.

Interpretation: In 2020 UK and US tied as most common countries of origin with 20 titles each. US more than doubled its count. Wha' happened?
Interpretation: Kinda follows from the above  levels of diversity. Page count might've been different thanks to Proust!

Interpretation: A stab at intersectional analysis. To help decide my top ten list, I rank every book I read out of 100 in a not-very-scientific way (for reference, Sorrow and Bliss got a 95 and Is This Anything by Jerry Seinfeld got 60). But it shows that non-white females out-perform the average. And women edge men in general. There may be some selection bias (perhaps I only read "diverse" books I really think will be good, while I'm more willing to read dudes without knowing much about the book?) or maybe I give these diversity titles a higher score to make me feel like a better person when I'm making my list? Am I really that sad? The jury is still out.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

This Fluid Thrill Music Awards - Best Song of 2021

I did albums yesterday. Anyone who got in the top 10 for that list can't make this one.

Before I get to my fave songs released in the year of false hope, here are two songs from 2020 that would have made the list if not for chronology:

  • 'Glenfern' by Kathleen Edwards 
  • 'Big Wheel' by Samia 
And here's a sprinkling of progressively older songs I didn't discover or properly fall for until 2021:
  • 'Edge of Town' by Middle Kids (2018)
  • 'As the Earth Caves In' by Matt Maltese (2018) - even better slowed down for use in memes
  • 'Ballad of Big Nothing' by Julia Baker (2016 - from an album of Elliot Smith cover songs, Say Yes!)
  • 'Be Forewarned' by Pentagram (1994) - thanks to Monster Magnet
  • 'A Penny More' by Skydiggers (1992)
  • 'I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight' by Richard and Linda Thompson (1974)
Best songs of 2021: Highly commended

Cluster 1: Great artists with great new songs... waiting for that next great album
  • Time Escaping by Big Thief
  • Old Peel by Aldous Harding
Is Big Thief morphing into tUnE-yArDs? Will Aldous actually release an album in 2022 or just tour (will she even get to tour?)?

All this and more will be revealed in the year of hope's faults.

Cluster 2: Songs that I can see all the arguments for NOT listing, and yet...
  • 'See the World' by Brett Dennen
  • 'That Funny Feeling' by Bo Burnham
Dennen sounds like Tom Petty, which is a good thing but doesn't make him original or current or whatever. Also, a retiring ESPN journalist quoted the line 'Now I'm planting trees I'll never climb' as she bid adieu. I should hate this song. But I'm not hip enough, I guess. I love it. 

I tried watching Burnham's Netflix special but quickly got bored, so I'd never heard his version of 'That Funny Feeling' until Phoebe Bridgers covered it. Burnham's supposed to be funny, while Bridgers is walking a knife-edge between po-faced and wry... but Burnham's version is the only one that hits. It's like James Taylor doing 'We Didn't Start the Fire', with lyrics rewritten by Patricia Lockwood. It's the Don't Look Up of popular music. And it's singable as all hell.

Top three

Every time I come back to this list I change my favourite, so for the first time ever I'm not naming one song of the year and copping out with a top three. Maybe it's because none of them rely on nonsense syllables - more's the pity.

  • 'Andy Sells Coke' by Declan O'Rourke
There's something incredibly earnest about this song, from the jangly Cat Stevensy guitar intro, to way the first line echoes the title and the general big brother looking down on younger fuckup tone ("What kind of life has he got? Maybe none soon if he doesn't stop being something he's not"). 

But then fissures start to open in the 2nd verse. Who is the singer in all this? Might he be Andy singing in the third person? "He'll be dead in five years if he doesn't change something" hits different in that context.

But then Andy disappears from the third verse and it's all about the "I"

How did I end up at the party?
I'm the fool who passed out in the chair
Just came up to the smoke for the weekend
Got a wife and a baby down there

And I wake up to these three fucking ghosts
Fumbling round for a five in my coat
More fool I to be thinking that I could still drink
Like I did twenty years ago
Flirting with my ego
The only thing I need is a one way express out of here

I'm too old in the tooth to be around this shit

(some outro strumming and end song)

Typed out like that, it looks as if the "I" of the song is back where he started, holier than thouing despite a minor slip. But the more you listen to the song, the murkier it gets. Both versions of aging are fucked: the guy who never got it together and the guy who did but the veneer is so thin it cracks within hours of hitting the big smoke.

  • 'Heroes' by Natalie Hemby
Natalie Hembry is a Nashville singer songwriter who has written for lots of big names, including a song on A Star is Born. She was also part of the Highwomen in 2019 with Brandi Carlile & others. So when she sings:

I don't wanna meet my heroes
I just wanna be a face in the crowd
If I ever meet my heroes
They might let me down

There's a lot going on. I think the first is a sense of irony. SHe's not going for Carlile and probably not Lady Gaga or Sheryl Crow. It's probably about dudes (the versus refer to male superheroes like Superman and Spiderman). Which starts to sound very #MeToo, as in lots of the big stars are creeps or worse. Maybe it's a 2021 version of Liz Phair's 'Soap Star Joe'? And there's something BIG about the song sharing a title with one of Bowie's biggest singles.

But she doesn't want to cancel her heroes, just not meet them and thus avoid being let down and facing the conundrum. Is this the Schrodinger's Cat of pop culture consumption? If I don't get proof he's a creep, I can still enjoy his music / films / comedy?

There's too much irony at play here, all of it couched in the catchiest, slicked production you'll find (for starters: if you want to remain a face in the crowd, stop sounding so amazing! I catch my six year old son singing the chorus sometimes!), for any one reading to win out over another. 

  • 'I Wanna Make Promises (That I Can't Keep)' by Whitehorse
I love song titles with parentheses. 

I love couplets like: "Let's argue in Ikea, make a scene, go home and fuck / On unassembled furniture fresh off a moving truck"

(This song comes from an album called, Modern Love*). 

*What is it with these possibly inadvertent Bowie references?

I love how dark and 2021 this love song is. We're done pretending the rules apply. The parenthesis drop away. We'll say it to each other's face, "knowing that we slowly die / with each and every breath". 

But let's still promise to love each other forever, especially if it sounds like this.


And with that, I give you... A PLAYLIST:

Monday, January 10, 2022

This Fluid Thrill Music Awards - Best Albums of 2021

This annual tradition has lasted long enough [2020201920182017, (...), 2014201320122011, & 2010it deserves a nickname... 

The Fluidies? Ack! 

The Thrillies? Better, but still no.

Maybe a statute? I'd be tempted just to print this image of the fluid thrill test on some perspex and mount it on a stand:

I mean, it IS musical. From the percussive nature of the test itself (the doctor taps part of the abdomen and listens for the sound of the fluid rippling elsewhere) to the soundwaves (or perhaps the patient has been marked up ahead of an elaborate sawing-in-two) to the cock-ward point of the patient's hand (rock'n'roll, baby!).

Okay, yeah, let's just do another blogpost like it's forever 2008.


Last year I floated the idea of doing a rolling two-year list so that I could consider 2020 music I'd missed, reconsider 2020 albums I may have over- or under-rated, and pit them against new music from 2021...

But it's actually quite tricky. Looking back at my 2020 list, I haven't really listened to many of these albums again (except Dua Lipa on family roadtrips). I feel like cueing up Lo Tom's LP2, which is a good sign, and I don't have any 'Really?' reactions to the others. It was a solid list. 

Along side of this, I'd add short list of 2020 albums I didn't get into until 2021, but really rated:

  • Will Butler - Generations
  • Blake Scott - Niscitam
  • Uffe Lorenzen - Magisk Realisme
  • Kathleen Edwards - Total Freedom
  • Big Wheel - The Baby
  • Ghost Woman - Anne, If (which appears to have disappered from Spotify)
  • Liza Anne - Bummer Days
As for 2021, here's my top 10 albums released in the calendar year, presented in an order I've picked more for the sake of the flow of the resulting playlist rather than the comparative virtues of the albums...

  • Monster Magnet - A Better Dystopia
2020 and 2021 were a golden age for covers as artists were locked down, short of audiences and inspiration but big on time to jam. So it's only fitting that I kick this list off with an album of covers.

MM's covers have always been one of my favourite things about them. Dave Wyndorf has this incredible, off-kilter taste which means every cover song sends me off discovering a new original. There are 13 tracks if you count the bonus (I do!) and they all felt new to me. That is, I must've heard the original version of 'Death' because I had The Pretty Thing's S.F. Sorrow on my iPod back in the day, but I didn't recognise it. And, maybe I'd heard the Hawkwind song (Born to Go), but it didn't ring any bells beyond sounding like it could have been a Hawkwind song.

Not only this this album send me down Pentagram and Poobah and Scientists wormholes, but the covers themselves are good and the album hangs together as a twisted, grungy pysch affair that was perfect for its time and place.

  • Like a Stone - Remember Sports
I like to think I have a reasonably wide-ranging musical tastes. But I have my weaknesses. For example, if you take muscular guitar-driven indie rock, add an idiosyncratic female vocalist and produce songs that get you dancing while you vacuum, I will have A LOT of time for that band.

Remember Sports follows this formula. Sometimes there's a strong Hopalong vibe. Other times, it's Cayetana or Bully or Camp Cope. 

I've enjoyed RS's previous albums All of Something and Sunchokes without them ever quite sticking out as TOP TEN MATERIAL (whatever that is). 

But Like A Stone finally cracked it. Or cracked me. Or I cracked. One of those. 

And now I listen to older songs like 'Clean Jeans' and I'm like, 'How was this not my favourite song of 2016?'

  • Slothrust - Parallel Timeline
I loved Slothrust's last album (The Pact, 2018), but came to their new album (released in Sept '21) late and it almost missed this list... but now I've corrected my omission and can't stop listening to it. 

Harkening back to "the formula" above, Slothrust is rockier than Remember Sports, and the singing more tuneful, the lyrics less angular and look at me, and I am here for it!

  • Dry Cleaning - New Long Leg
Speaking of angular, look at me lyrics... This band sounds a bit like Life Without Buildings (who only released one album, but 2001's Any Other City is *chef's kiss*) or Arab Strap. So not great for housework dance sessions, but unbeatable when walking to work.

I can never decide if they sound retro (as old-making it is to consider music that came out when I was at university retro), or very now. Either way, here's hoping they aren't another one-and-done outfit.

  • Allie Crow Buckley - Moonlit and Devious
Same vibe as ACB's amazing EP So Romantic, with more songs. Who's complaining!?

  • Middle Kids - Today We're the Greatest
I heard 'Edge of Town' from their 2019 album at the end of an episode of the UK show, Defending the Guilty and not long after Middle Kids dropped their new album and they were periodically the greatest in my books.

  • James McMurtry - The Horses and the Hounds
Son of Larry 'Lonesome Dove' McMurtry has been releasing albums for three decades but I only started listening to him in 2021. His song, 'Just Us Kids' from the 2008 album of the same name is one of those Straight to the pool room tracks that you keep finding excuses to crowbar into playlists.

As for 2021's The Horses and the Hounds, it's classic McMurtry country-fried story telling with politics that subverts the red-state twang. Think Drive By Truckers. Think Alejandro Escovedo, Chuck Prophet, Joe Ely. And he often put me in mind of a certain era of Warren Zevon.

So yeah, goddam fantastic.

  • Foxing - Draw Down the Moon
I had a big Foxing phase this year. 2014's The Albatross is crazy good. Like Local Natives go Emo. There are two more albums between that and 2021's Draw Down the Moon, in which time Foxing morph into... Manchester Orchestra? Unknown Mortal Orchestra? MGMT? The National? Vendetta Red (remember them?)?

They are all over the shop and I can't decide if it's their taste or mine that's dubious*, but all of it is glorious.

* Who am I kidding: it's definitely mine. Vendetta Red? 

  • Mdou Moctar - Afrique Victime
The Tuareg guitar god and his band "rip a new hole in the sky" with this album, according to the blurb they posted on Spotify. I love that. It's so cool that Saharan Africa is transmuting rock and taking the mantle of prog, glam and metal blowhards along the way. 

I can listen to Moctar's music for hours. The only thing that can convince me to stop is when I picture a white guy with dreads who busks in Noosa with a strat and an effects pedal and probably loves this shit as much as I do.

  • The Weather Station - Ignorance
I have issues with the boring quotient of band name + album name + song titles, but I am working through them.

'Atlantic' was the only song I put on two different monthly playlists in 2021. It's a hell of a song, only disqualified from song of the year consideration because the rest of the album is almost as good and artists can be on both lists.

Rules is rules.


Two other albums deserve special mention:
  • Assertion - Intermission - sorry lads, there was only one boring band name + album name slot available this year, but that's for the year's best straight-ahead rock album.
  • Taylor Swift - Red (Taylor's Version) - I am now a bigger fan and Taylor than my 9 year old daughter. I stan what she's doing with the rerecording. I concede there's a bit less pep in her new versions of 'I knew you were trouble' and 'We are never ever getting back together' but this is more than made up for in the chutzpah of 'All Too Well (10 minute version)(Taylor's version)' [greatest song title with parenthesis ever?] and more unlost gems than we mortals deserve.