Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Favorite Books from 2014

Each year I set a goal of reading at least 52 books. This past year I came close to reaching my goal finishing 46 books. (And, that’s if you don’t count all 22 volumes – more than 2,800 pages – of The Walking Dead comic book series that I binge read in October.)

In 2014 I read numerous books on the theme of racial justice. Most notable was Blood Done Sign My Name, Tim Tyson’s amazing history/memoir of a racist murder in a small North Carolina town in 1970. I also read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, an oral history of the Chicago high rise housing projects, and New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als’ extraordinary White Girls, a collection of essays exploring race, gender, and sexuality.

This past year I also continued on my quest to read every book published by McSweeney’s Press. To date I’ve read 194 of the 222 books published by McSweeney’s.

The most usual book I read this year was Paul LeGault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader. I read this alongside the complete collected poems of Emily Dickinson. What Paul LeGault did is an act of both genius and obsession. In The ED Reader he offers a one line “translation” of each of Dickinson’s 1,789 poems. These tweetable translations are often witty and sarcastic. I’m a big fan of art projects that demonstrate obsession on such a large scale.

I tend to read a lot of fiction and I’m especially a fan of short stories. My favorite novels from this past year include Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story about a technological dystopia, Courtney Moreno’s In Case of Emergency, Bill Cotter’s The Parallel Apartments. My favorite short story collections included Pastoralia by George Saunders, Further Joy by John Brandon, Jess Walter’s We Live in Water, and Painted Cities by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski.

In non-fiction I read several books in the Voices of Witness series. These collect oral histories to illuminate human rights abuses both within and outside of the United States. I read oral history collections from survivors of Hurricane Katrina as well as from prisoners who had served time on death row but were later exonerated. Cory Doctorow’s manifesto about copyright law in the information age – Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free – was an interesting analysis of a topic I had never considered. No book I read this past year was as fascinating as A Very Bad Wizard by Tamler Sommers. This book includes a dozen interviews Sommers conducts with leading philosphers, psychologists, and biologists who think about the topic of morality.

My favorite book on the topic of religion from this past year was Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I don’t completely agree with Bell’s theology but I’m a big fan of his project of trying to write both honestly and popularly about doing Christian theology in our contemporary culture.

What does 2015 hold in the way of books? My immediate to-read list includes six volumes from the Voices of Witness series illuminating Human Rights crises in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar, Columbia, and Palestine; the complete essays of James Baldwin; the last two Marilynne Robinson novels, Home and Lila; the latest book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Living With a Wild God which deals with mystical experience; and all the short story collections by George Saunders I haven’t read yet.

Feel free to friend me on Goodreads if you want to follow what I'm reading.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

My Favorite Music of 2014

Writing about my favorite new music of 2014 immediately poses a conundrum. What am I to do when the best two albums of this year, by far, are from bands whose names are so profane that I can’t print those names on my minister blog? I asked Anne for her advice on how I should write about these records and her advice was, “You just don’t.”

My favorite album of the year is by a Canadian hardcore punk band. My second favorite album of the year is the debut album from a noise rock / punk outfit from New York. While both bands have utterly profane names, the subject matter of their songs isn’t scandalous or repulsive. They’ve just chosen to give themselves names that utterly foreclose any possibility, however unlikely, of commercial success. They’re punk, after all. These albums are both earsplittingly cacophonous, but they are also immediate and honest. And, I might tell you the names of the bands / records if you decide to ask.

Other Albums Worth Checking Out
My favorite new record of 2014 by a band with a clean name was Jack White’s Lazoretto. The best song on the album is the swaggering title track but the rest of the record is a good mix of bombastic electric guitar rock and more polite acoustic tracks.

With Shriek, Wye Oak reinvented their sound. Jenny Wasner put down the electric guitar and picked up the bass and drummer Andy Stack added in synths. Check out the song “Logic of Color.”

Also worth noting is Teeth Dreams, the new record by The Hold Steady. The record is actually pretty inconsistent and somewhat of a disappointment, but the first single off of it, a song called Spinners was one of my favorite songs of the summer.

New Bands
The AV Club is my go-to site for finding out about bands worth listening to. Their annual best music lists, as well as other features, turned me on to many of the musical groups I listen to the most, including Frightened Rabbit, Wye Oak, Japandroids, and even The Joy Formidable.

When they came out with this year’s list, I immediately checked out a few of their recommendations. Here and Nowhere Else from The Cloud Nothings has been stuck on the stereo of my car for the past week and will probably stay there for a while. With a sound and energy similar to Japandroids, songs like Now Hear In are songs you have to listen to if you’re a fan of indie rock.

The AV Club said that Angel Olsen’s indie rock record Burn Your Fire for Now Witness. I’m quickly becoming a fan of her sound. Her solo performance with NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series is worth a listen, as well as songs she performed with her backing band on KEXP.

I was also inspired to pick up Heal by Strand of Oaks based on the fact that J Mascis – my favorite guitarist of all time – contributes a blistering lead guitar riff on the song “Goshen ’97.” (J Mascis also appeared in 2014 on the song “Led by Hand,” which is an even better song.) His music is a cool mixture of folk rock and electronica. Plymouth is another song worth checking out.

Best Live Album
Lucero’s double live album, Live from Atlanta, is a great showcase for the hardest working band in America. They mix alternative country and southern rock together with Memphis soul and boogie. I’ve seen them live a bunch of times and their sound has only grown on me more now that I’m living in the south.

Best Release of Old Material
I listen to everything that Minus the Bear puts out. So I had to pick up Lost Loves which consists of songs that weren’t included on their last three studio albums. There are some gems here including songs like "Electric Rainbow" and "South Side Life."

Biggest Let Down
St. Vincent’s self-titled album was one of the most critically acclaimed records of the year. I gave it a number of listens and while I didn’t hate it, I found it a difficult record to connect with. I found it quirky for the sake of quirkiness and lacking in passion and immediacy.

Best Live Performance
With a two year old at home I don’t get out to live shows any more nearly as often as I should. But the show I enjoyed the most was my first bluegrass concert in North Carolina, hearing Mipso play at the Durham Tobacco Campus. These guys put on a great show. (And, at least one member of the band joined us at Motorco after the show for beer and late night food truck snacks.)

New Music from People I Know
Church member Danny Gotham released a 2 disc collection of music called Repast. I’m lucky and honored to get to hear him play regularly.

Church member Petey Greene spins some fantastic beats on his collaboration with Novakane on their release Soul TrainRobbers. Body moving hip hop with socially-conscientious lyrics.

I don’t usually listen to shoegaze, but when I do I listen to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, a band fronted by Reed College alumnus Kip Berman. Days of Abandon was their new record in 2014.