Thursday, January 12, 2023

This Fluid Thrill Awards: Best Music of 2022

You can find a playlist at the bottom of this post if you want to listen while you read.

You can also find previous editions of my yearly music lists here: 2021 albums and songs, 2020, 2019, 2018 albums and songs, 2017 albums and songs, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.

Best albums released in 2022

Spanish Villager No.3 by Ondara

The Kenyan Bob Dylan. Kind of a reverse Paul Simon's Graceland. My discovery of the year. So good.

Ghost Woman by Ghost Woman

New-psych at its finest. I honestly need to listen to this again now.

Teeth Marks by S.G. Goodman

Gutsy, country-fied rock from this female singer-songwriter. I added two songs from this album to my monthly playlists twice, and then, when listening closely just wanted to keep adding new track to the list. So good.

Leave the Light On by Pillow Queens

Best Irish rock album of 2022 (sorry Fontaines DC). Go Queens!

Gemini Rights by Steve Lacy

'Bad Habit' could have been the song of the year, but the rest of the album continues the zany, lo-fi indie rock-with-hip-hop-vibes deal, and propels Gemini Rights into my top ten.

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You by Big Thief

Longer blurb for a longer album...

I had tickets to Big Thief in Wellington in March 2020, but COVID nixed that. They finally came down to NZ in 2022 (with the size of the venue increasing twice to reflect the growth in their popularity) and despite having moved to Dunedin and being a reluctant flyer for climate reasons, I had to make an exception. It was totally worth it. Big Thief have to be the most dynamic, vital, hard working band on the planet right now.

I listened to DNWMIBIY a lot in 2022, but I also listened to Big Thief's preceding four albums (and Adrienne and Buck's solo albums and pre-Big Thief collabs) as I'd picked them as the soundtrack to the short novel I was writing in the first half of the year, and was swotting up for the concert in December.

I think Dragon Long-title has too many songs on it. Classic double album failings. Reminiscent of 2019 when they released two great albums (UFOF and Two hands): so much content, with many of the songs as slow burners, that it's hard to see the whole picture at once. Let alone the fact that these albums followed albums in 2017 and 2016, plus Buck Meek's solo debut and Adrienee Lenker's Abysskiss, both released in 2018. 

Case and point, 2022 was the year that I finally paid attention to, and fell in love with, their song 'Mary' from their 2017 album Capacity. Some things take time.

Dragon has plenty of songs with instant appeal, like 'Capacity' and 'Time Escaping' and 'Spud Infinity' and 'Simulation Swarm' and I'm confident there are other favourites that will emerge over the years. 

Laurel Hell by Mitski

I was cooling on Mitski. There just didn't seem to be much in the way of evolution with each album. But I heard the single 
'The Only Heartbreaker', which hinted at a more up-tempo/raucous sound so I queued up her new album and went outside to mow the lawn. 

Unfortunately, on this first listen, the first five tracks didn't really stand out. Track 6 was the song I'd already heard, followed by 'Love Me More', which was even jauntier, though still pissed off and angular in the way that most Mitski songs are, 'There's Nothing Left for You' and 'Should've Been Me'. After this stretch of four songs I'd completely changed my mind. It's such a killer run and lends a glow to what comes before and after. 

The whole album rocks... you might just need to wait a while to find the key that unlocks its rockingness for you.

Boat Songs by MJ Lenderman

"Jason Molina with a subscription to The Athletic". I can't trace the original provenance of this description of MJ Lenderman, but it's so apt. Not just the way that Lenderman is clearly inspired by Molina's sound and references a lot of sports, but the exclusiveness of those two signifiers (I'm not sure many of my friend group would know who Jason Molina or Songs: Ohia are/were -- if that's you, go listen to 'Farewell Transmission'!; or the Athletic, let alone what kind of sports fan they cater too).

The album opener, 'Hangover Game', is a clear standout and the best example of the Molina+Athletic vibe (it's about Michael Jordan's infamous flu game).

I've since been back through the MJ Lenderman back catalogue - his EP Knockin' is vvvvv good - and it's now time to return to 'Boat Songs' for another thrashing.

If I never know you like this again by SOAK

Another Irish album! Oh, I mean, a Northern Irish album. I guess you could call it rock... it has guitars. It's more atmospheric indie pop? Whatever it is, it's gold.

The Overload by Yard Act

I feel like this album came out 5 years ago (though it was Jan 2022). And it's on Yard Act's debut. This year's Dry Cleaning - though I rate The Overload over Dry Cleaning's sophomore album which dropped in '22. More please.

Dishonorable mention

  • Chris by Ryan Adams - Mr Adams is a dick, at best. He withdrew from the public eye for a while, then released a bajillion albums (okay 4) in 2022. I was curious what all those songs, presumably written and recorded while nursing his narcissitic, self-inflicted wounds, would sound like. Just the sheer volume of them! And dammit, there's a lot of songs that are right up my street. Chris has the highest strike rate of the lot. But, there's still, the fact he's a dick, at best.

Honorable mentions

  • Warm Chris by Aldous Harding
  • Pray for me I don't fit in by Melt Yourself Down
  • Lucifer on the Sofa by Spoon
  • Weather Alive by Beth Orton
  • Barn by The Long Lost Somethins
  • Havasu by Pedro the Lion - an important piece in David Bazan's ongoing autobiographical suite, but the songs are a little... boring at times. 

Best albums from past years I didn't encounter until 2022

  • Shallow Bed by Dry the River (2012)
  • No Medium by Rosali (2021)
  • Due North by Liam Kazar (2021)
  • People in Cars by Curse of Lono (2021)

Each of the 2021 albums would have made my top ten this year if they'd been released in 2022, or in 2021 if I'd heard them then. Interestingly, there weren't many more 2021 albums nipping at their heels.

As for Dry the River, they appeared in my ears while I was gardening and the album I'd been listening to ended and Spotify autoplayed songs in a similar vein. I think I'd been listening to Local Natives, but I might be wrong. The thing is, DtR don't sound much like Local Natives (besides there's the higher pitched vocals and the emotionally vulnerable lyrics). There's a Fleet Foxes/Animal Collective orchestral/choral vibe, but the Dry the River is more muscular and direct. There's an earlier britpop vibe, or maybe even The Bends-era Radiohead, but when I try to pin down where, it evaporates. It's like someone made a venn diagram of all the music I like and created a band than sat at the area of greatest overlap (well done Spotify!), only to find out they've long since broken up and there isn't much beyond Shallow Bed available. Better to have loved and lost, and all that!

Best song of 2022

After eliminating artists whose albums appeared above, there was a clear winner. It doesn't feature nonsense syllables like many past Songs of the Year winners, but it's very much a singalong in the car kind of tune.

Stick Season by Noah Kahan

This one might've been spoiled slightly for the seven people who looked at my 40 songs for 40 years playlist two days ago... So be it!

I like the songyness of 'Stick Season'. It's like a really good Greek statue. It's got enough detail to place it within an exact time and place ("Doc told me to travel, but there's COVID on the planes"), while being timeless (dude reduced after breakup; sad sack singing over jangly music).

If Die Hard is a Christmas movie (it is!), then 'Stick Season' is a Christmas song!

I concede that this will probably sound like Mumford & Sons when the glow of its newness has faded, but right now I DON'T CARE.

Best songs not from 2022

  • Chemtrails over the Country Club by Hayley Mary (2021) - a rocking cover of Lana Del Rey - would have been a real contender for song of the year if not for chronology... it's have to settle for being THE GREATEST COVER OF ALL TIME (maybe?)
  • Godzilla by Blue Oyster Cult (1977) - no, I can't be bothered with the diaresis. Delved into BOC's back catalogue this year and discovered this silly ol' gem, which my kids also love.
  • Hocus Pocus by Focus (1971) - fun to say, fun to listen to. Another one my kids request to hear.
  • The Pills Won't Help You Now by the Chemical Brothers (2007) - featuring Tim Smith from Midlake (original lineup) on vocals, this was the next best thing to a Midlake reunion (NB: Smith-less Midlake is pretty good, but with-Smith Midlake is god tier).
  • My Pal by God (1988) - I'd heard this song before, but it wasn't until I heard Bad//Dreems' cover (2020) in 2022 that I went back and listened to God's stuff and really appreciated what an amazing teen punk treasure 'My Pal' is. 
  • Goodness Pt.1 by The Hotelier (2016)
  • Wasteland of the Free by Iris DeMent (1996)
  • Headlines by Charlotte Cornfield (2021)

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

This Fluid Thrill Book Awards 2022: Best Books

This list is all about the best books I read in 2022, not necessarily those that came out this year.

I do this most years, see: 20212020201920182017, (...), 2014201320122011, & 2010.

And, like most years, I'm going to delve into some stats first.

I read 66 books in 2022, down from 90 in 2021, but the same total as what I read in 2020. A reversion to the mean? Probably. Sure, the additional reading I did for my doctorate and judging another writing competition likely took a dent out of my reading/listening to audiobooks for pleasure time, but there's always something. If I can hit 70 books in 2023 I'll be satisfied.

On that read/listen point, the trend continues: 3 physical books (all NZ authors) and 63 audiobooks (incl. 7 NZ... which is probably a record... hold that thought). Eye-issues plus busy life plus the fact almost 20 years of listening to audiobooks has sufficiently wired my brain to "read" for enjoyment and/or read critically through my ears.

My publisher is bringing out an anthology next year featuring one of my stories and I asked if there'd be an audiobook version (buoyed by the appearance of the likes of Noelle McCarthy's memoir and Coco Solid's novel in audiobook format in 2022). The response was... not encouraging. I wonder if it's because their business model does not adequately capture value from listeners who use library services like Libby? I know the Public Lending Right in NZ has some catching up to do in this respect also. 

My reliance on audiobooks influences my reading across every dimension:

  • Where I'm reading:

So many Americans! Some years the US and UK are neck and neck. Kinda stoked to see NZ beat the UK for once.

  • What I'm reading:

No poetry collections! For the first in a long time. I borrowed some as e-books, but never got around to reading them (there was always an audiobook that was due back in a couple of days). For shame! I might need to do something silly like set aside a month to just read poetry... Poetray? Poetruly? Sepoetry?

  • When I'm reading:

The limited (but expanding) pool for audiobooks means I'm always lurking in the deep end for new additions, which tend to be recent releases. The long tail indicates I do go into the back catalogue for authors/books that take my fancy if I can find them, but I wouldn't say I put a lot of effort into reading outside of my era in 2022.

  • Who I'm reading:

These are rough measures of diversity. I haven't researched the family tree of every author or the intricacies of their gender identities, but it gives a fair representation of the audiobook marketplace (if you factor in that I'm conscious of the biases in said marketplace and try to read diversely... which is even more depressing).

Interestingly, the splits for both the above graphs were the same in 2021. Spooky. 

The percentage of books in translation dropped from 8% in 2022 to 6% in 2022. Rounding error.

Okay, so that was my reading landscape... Now for:

My favourite books of 2022 (in a semi-thematic order rather than a merit ranking)

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson

A big, raucous, uneven slab of speculative fiction. Powerful people with vested interests in low-lying locales not being swallowed by the sea (see: real estate values) get embroiled in a plot to re-engineer the climate. Not usually the sort of people I'd want to spend 15 hours / 720 pages with, but Stephenson has a way of telling stories populated by adequate vessels for the plot, and plots that don't deal in moral absolutes or media black and whites.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

As with Termination Shock, the geek quotient is high here, as you'd expect from the author of The Martian. Project Hail Mary starts with the less-than-promising trope of the amnesic astronaut, and there's a fair amount of hard sci 'watch me do calculations', but this one goes somewhere new and unexpected (for this occasional tourist in outer space, at least). 

Liberation Day by George Saunders

Has it really been 9 years since Tenth of December? In that time, Saunders won the Booker with an over-hyped, under-whelming novel and wrote an amazeballs non-fiction book about Russian masters of the short story. 

I approached Liberation Day with trepidation. It sounded like a George Saunders title, but also a Fox News chryon. The title story opens the collection and is an amalgam of 'Escape from Spiderhead', 'Pastoralia' and 'The Semplica Girl Diaries'... and it's not the only story you can reformulate using 2 or 3 stories from Saunders preceding collections...

BUT each of them works. More than works: each is better than the best of its antecedents.

Maybe I'm still under the spell of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain... 'Liberation Day' seems to be directly in conversation with what Saunders-speaking-as-Saunders has said about fiction. The story is about the act of writing, yet avoids all the pitfalls that come with being meta. How? How!?

I was prepared not to love this collection. But it left me undone in the best way.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

In what is becoming an almost annual occurrence, Strout strides into the top ten with another book that's probably better than the last. Oh William! is the third in the Lucy Barton series, and has already been followed up with a fourth (Lucy by the Sea... which bookmakers have given short odds to appear in the 2023 This Fluid Thrill book awards!).

It's interesting to compare Strout and Saunders, two writers at the height of their powers. My fear with Saunders is always that the fireworks will explode while still in his hands. With Strout, it's that she decides to leave the matches at home and enjoy the dusk in peace. But she's too canny for that. One mustn't mistake New England restraint for a lack of narrative drive. 

I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jeanette McCurdy

I was prepared to actively dislike this memoir. The title was a little reminiscent of the novel How to Kill Your Family, which stands out as one of my reading lowlights in recent years. I didn't really know who McCurdy was, and don't think I'd ever stumbled across an episode of iCarly, the Nickelodeon kids show that made her famous as a teen. But I didn't need to.

The magic here is in the voice of McCurdy, which manages to be both frank and entertaining (see the tightrope-walk title). There's enough raw material for a full-on misery memoir here, but McCurdy doesn't belabour individual instances of her mother's narcissism and child-abuse-in-hindsight. She incriminates herself in every step down the staircase of an eating disorder, and even when absolving her childhood self of these actions, it's still not black and white.

Grand by Noelle McCarthy

Another memoir that revolves around a media personality and her less-than-stellar mother. This time, it's Irish ex-pat / NZ radio personality McCarthy and her alcoholic mother. While this relationship centres much of the telling, this book is about so much more: childhood in Ireland, emigrating to NZ, the author's own boozy past and near-misses, and becoming a mother herself. 

Grand feels finely crafted, as if each chapter is expertly placed and counterbalanced, each chapter in turn comprises of its own set of smaller, complimentary pieces, like the felt-lined compartments of an apothecary's cabinet. 

I'm excited to read what Noelle McCarthy publishes next.

Loop Tracks by Sue Orr

When the audiobook of this dropped in 2022 I leaped at the chance to re-enter this world. So much of the coverage when Loop Tracks was released in New Zealand in 2021 focussed on the extended opening scene where a pregnant teen is due to fly to Sydney for an abortion (illegal in NZ at the time). 

But this is also a lockdown novel, a neurodiversity novel, even a hooking-up-with-the-guy-next-door novel. It's the kind of book that reflects different lights from different angles.

Fantastic stuff!

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann

Another NZ-ish novel I read behind the times due to my audiobook crutch. This is quite literally the third or fourth time Vann has written this book, but hells bells, this is up there with Legend of a Suicide

(It's probably better, but I'm a sucker for the narrative tricks Vann pulled that first time out and was far more impressionable when I read it.)

The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrere

This is Carrere's non-fiction account of a man who killed his family, but that's just the start of it (the subtitle is: a true story of monstrous deception). Carrere is very much part of the telling, including why the case first interested him, his thwarted attempts to make contact with the accused, his decision to write a novel about it instead, then finally striking up a dialogue with the murderer. 

For this kind of writer-in-the-midst tale to work, the author's own circumstances and insights must be as intriguing and rewarding as the retelling of the 'monstrous deception'. Carrere does seems to come from a similar Francophone misandrist mold as Michel Houellebecq, but is somehow less creepy and thus eminently more successful.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

This was another case of my preconceptions being confounded (I guess my natural disposition is: hater). Turns out I'm a snob about YA authors and YouTubers, despite enjoying many YA novels and many, many hours of YouTube content. But even the smartest, most engaging thinkers can struggle with wide-ranging topics and the 'I'm just picking what interests me' approach (see Chuck Klosterman's The Nineties). 

But Green manages to pull it off. From plagues to the QWERTY keyboard to Diet Dr Pepper, this book is both good company and enlightening.

40 songs at 40

Hiya folks. It's my birthday today. I had some cake with friends over the weekend. None of my male friends in attendance have turned 40 yet, and I was asked if I'd made my 40 songs for 40 years playlist yet? It seems to be a thing, though each had different rules that might apply. 

I'm never one to turn down the invitation to create a playlist, so here's what I whipped up last night.

I've tried to pick one song released from each year from 1983 to 2022, though sometimes year of release can be a bit of a vague concept, especially if you consider when things might have actually been popular in NZ in the days before the internet. Each artist can only appear once. I've tried to pick songs that have some kind of resonance with me in the year of release, while also (obviously) still having appeal to me today. My annual music awards on this blog were useful in jogging my memory for songs over the last decade!

I could probably produce another three 40-strong lists without repeating any songs that might be better listens / better memoirs-in-mostly-rock, but this is my current time capsule.

I'll be back tomorrow with the best books I read in 2022, and the day after that with my 2022 music awards.

Until then, it's the hits of the eighties, nineties and today, here on Fluid Thrill FM: