I’ll start with a downer: 2015 was an awful, miserable beast of a year, and bidding it good riddance and wishing for a better 2016 kind of strikes me as perverse magical thinking. Bad luck, human caprice, and institutional corruption and racism don’t really obey the artificial thresholds of calendar years.
But nonetheless the end of a year provides a time for reflection. There were good and beautiful things too. But some of these bright spots in a dark year are below.
I didn’t seek out new music in 2015 with the same fervor of previous years. I wonder if it’s connected to middle age and a general unplugging from the current. I hope not. But for what it’s worth I wouldn’t recognize a single note of any of Adele’s songs, and I say that with only a teensy bit of smugness.
This year I listened to a lot of Yes. The insularity of prog rock seems appropriate somehow for middle age. I think all the rhythm and chord changes helped with my writing somehow, all that pompous complexity whizzing in the background. I mean, even an FM-radio staple like “Roundabout” had massed vocal sections, little Rick Wakeman keyboard flourishes, all that good stuff. I learned nothing revelatory about them that the casual fan wouldn’t know already: Their first two albums are gold (debatable, but I stand by it), the next three (The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge) are masterpieces, the next two have good moments, but forget everything after Relayer. (I have a soft spot for “Leave It” though.)
This year I listened to a lot of Nat King Cole, both to comfort my father at his bedside, and to comfort myself after he passed away. (I realize I’ve written about Nat King Cole before.)
I went to way less shows this year than I usually do, but the highlights were way up there: Caribou at the Fox, an acoustic show with Yo La Tengo and Dave Schramm at the Masonic, Alvvays at the Independent, and the California Deathfest at the Oakland Metro (Loss, Dispirit, and Morbosidad being the highlights).
But Chic opening for Duran Duran was at the Greek Theater was just incredible, a reminder that its mastermind Nile Rodgers was the creator of a sound heard through decades — I mean, look at this setlist:
Everybody Dance / Dance, Dance, Dance / I Want Your Love / I’m Coming Out / Upside Down / He’s the Greatest Dancer / We Are Family / Get Lucky / Let’s Dance / Le Freak / Good Times / Rapper’s Delight
And of course Rodgers came out to play bass with Duran Duran on “Notorious.” (He also shared a different perspective on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which was his own reflection on having survived cancer.)
Alvvays’ debut album from 2014 was my favorite discovery this year: a perfect and lovely combination of everything good about Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura and, I don’t know, the Primitives, wrapped up in one package of bright guitar lines, melancholic lyrics and sunny melodies. [Thanks to my brother who sent me the link to “Archie, Marry Me” at a difficult time; it worked.]
Liz Vice’s R&B-tinged gospel album There’s a Light, also from 2014, was an unexpected delight, partly because it’s a genre of music I hardly, if ever, explore, and when I do listen to gospel it tends to be of the Harry Smith-collected variety. But this is vital, catchy stuff.
Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, aka AFX, aka aFx, aka user48736353001, released, what, 24 hours of (new old) music this year? It would be almost ungrateful, in the face of such musical generosity, to point out that some tracks are fluff, some deliberately annoying — just like a regular Aphex Twin album — but as a whole, an illuminating survey of almost two decades of electronic music genius. Here’s a YouTube playlist of all the songs that magically appeared on SoundCloud this January.
First, a real short list of pieces, fiction and non-fiction, in alphabetical order, including one from 1988 and one from 2014:
- Claire-Louise Bennett, “Morning, Noon and Night” (The White Review)
- Mariya Karimjee, “Damage” (The Big Roundtable)
- Goldberry Long, “The Kingdom of No” (New Orleans Review)
- Ian Penman, “Swoonatra” (The London Review of Books)
- Ursula Vernon, “Jackalope Wives” (Apex Magazine)
- David Foster Wallace, “Little Expressionless Animals” (from Girl with Curious Hair)
- Isabel Yap, “Good Girls” (Shimmer)
I also tackled some big multi-volume works, and they were the best things I’d read all year: Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach trilogy (of which Authority, I thought, was the high point), and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. The former is of smaller scale than the latter, but equally strange (by which I really mean estrangement) in their imagining of a new world. Both are also complex character studies of unstable narrators (and sometimes their instability is unknown even to them, too), which makes for challenging but rewarding reading. It’s not often that I want to reread something immediately (like Dhalgren) to puzzle over the work further. (The problem is that the books are so damn heavy.)
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is on a lot of year-end book lists for a good reason: it’s brilliant. As a book it now carries the burden of Importance — the comparisons to Baldwin were, after all, explicit — and as it finds its way onto school curricula across the country (one hopes!), I wonder whether the quiet but angry essence of the book — a letter from a father to his son — would be overshadowed by its Message. Read this because it’s important, kids will be told, and they should, but they should read it also because it’s an eloquently written and moving interweaving of the personal and the political. But yes, read it because it’s important, to understand how the legacy of slavery overwhelms all.
I came across Robert Kloss in the pages of Unsaid a little while back, and finally got to read The Alligators of Abraham this year. It’s an intense, hallucinatory take on American history and I want its diction to echo in my own writing.
Isabel Yap (full disclosure: we discovered we were related after we were introduced and I became a fan) is a freaking great writer, and a mighty prolific one, publishing fiction and poetry this year at an astonishing clip. “The Oiran’s Song” and “Milagroso“— of which I was lucky to have read early drafts — are unsettling and satisfying pieces of work, but my favorite is “Good Girls” (see above). Actually, if you can’t decide what to read first, she even has a quiz to help you figure out where to start.
Barbara Jane Reyes’ new book of poetry, To Love as Aswang: Songs, Fragments & Found Objects, is a work of fury. It blends, as the subtitle suggests, headlines, comment sections, and news stories; her lines, beautiful and angry, both illuminate and confront a systematic violence and abjection. It makes for challenging reading, but the poet gives voice to the broken and silenced Pinay body. This collection startles and sings.
Veronica Montes is having a great time over at Medium — a testament, I think, to the importance of online writing communities and of course Veronica’s own talents, especially in painting an indelible scene in so few words. Hard to choose which pieces are my favorites, but check out the second installment of “The People You Meet” and “The Girl Who Invented ‘Hella’.”
I’m never pleased with my productivity, and I can’t imagine I would ever be, and sometimes I choose to focus instead on “failure:” on the many half-finished drafts, on stories picked up and put away, on the two pieces I have sitting in slush piles which I’ve only remembered just now because it’s been so long. But hey, I managed to have two pieces published this year, a couple of firsts: my first creative nonfiction piece (in Entropy), and my first flash fiction piece (in SmokeLong Quarterly, which the editors nominated for a Pushcart).
There’s an obvious comparison here to physical books and e-books, and the importance of tactility in the former. I’m a big fan of video games (the mobile implementations of Ticket to Ride and Splendor are pretty great), but physical board games are somehow more engaging, forcing me to slow down and think of different tactics. (I also rather enjoyed discovering how a particular game mechanism that seemed opaque at first becomes clearer with every play; recognizing the same concept in different games and how they differ has also been pleasingly revelatory.)
And the thrills! Activating the air lock in Space Hulk Death Angel and flinging aliens into outer space, searching a room in Zombicide and coming up with a bottle for a Molotov just as the Abominator comes lumbering down the street, finding the last artifact and being airlifted to Fools Landing in Forbidden Island just before it gets flooded again.
For various reasons I play mostly solo games, partly because I’m too shy and antisocial to look for other gamers in my area (although this Christmas my wife finally let me teach her Pandemic!). I can’t say I have an actual year-end list; I’m a newbie to so-called modern board games, so it’s more like a collection of moments, like: