2016 was rough by most accounts, but you cannot say the same for its art. In the same vein, select pieces of journalism excelled in bringing forth truth and insight amidst the many debasements of its field. And if all else in 2016 fails, the beauty of books, films, etc. is that they far outpace our own lives, and there is always a never-ending trove of treats to consume from years past, meaning the quality of any one year’s experience is in fact what you make of it.
I care deeply about what I “consume”, by which I mean stories, ideas, information, and designed experiences (in other words, food for the mind and soul), because we are living in a world which is becoming increasingly saturated by mediocre, poor, or sometimes even malicious content. Our consumptions guide our morality and intellect, but are often guided by institutions that only care about our bank accounts or our votes. Creative content should be valued not by the dollars of ad revenue it can lure eyeballs to, but by its intrinsic value, measured in knowledge, honesty, or feeling. I am passionate about curating and communicating that value because we only have so much time in our lives to let anything we do be aimless or misguided. And for my own life, I consume so that I may have inspiration to produce my own stories and ideas which, someday I hope, will be worth consuming as well.
The types of content I would like to reflect on here are the following:
- Film and Television
- Live Performances
Of course there are many more categories I could write about, and many more beyond that I simply did not have the time or privilege to consume. I certainly hope this work inspires some of you to not just seek out these meaningful experiences, but to share some of your own, so that we may all benefit from the essential work of curation.
One last note before I begin: another way to frame this entire exercise, if I were writing much more philosophically, is that as automation takes over a lot of the manual and technical labor that humans once had to do, then what is left is not suffering as some political pundits would like to claim, but a beautiful chance for us all to produce and consume the types of content that are fundamentally human. I hope the most popular careers in 2040 will be storytelling and art. And I hope that we can reconfigure our economy by then so that those works can be traded at their true value, can sustain our livelihoods. So in other words, perhaps if more of us think critically about the value of what we consume, and aspire to produce content whose value will far outlast our own lives, we will be the true vanguards of tomorrow.
I begin with books because I think they are the most endangered species on my list. It’s not just that the time needed to read long books feels more and more like a luxury, but that our brains may be losing their ability to focus long enough on books, given all the toxic distractions they are bombarded with every moment. For the last few years I have made it a priority in my life to read and have been able to consistently increase my productivity (2013: 24; 2014: 26; 2015: 30; 2016: 44). I suspect I can realistically maintain around 40 books per year with my public transit life, especially if I start replacing late night Facebook time with Kindle time. This year and last I’ve finally gotten deeply into nonfiction, and I’m almost at the point where I’m a more avid nonfiction reader than fiction reader. Perhaps I’m starting to feel the unbearable weight of what I don’t know.
I’ll note here that I am personally not enough of a reader to be able to keep up with books that are released in the given year, so pretty much all of the books I’ll talk about were from years past. I guess that just means I have much to aspire to when it comes to bibliophilia.
In the beginning of 2016 I made a concerted effort to read the Pulitzer Prize winners and runners up in nonfiction from 2015: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, tales of biodiversity and evolution, Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos, an incisive study of the Chinese psyche, and No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal, an equally incisive study of America’s mistakes in Afghanistan. All three deeply impressed me, although I’d recommend Osnos’s work the highest.
From there I was inspired by Sam Harris’s podcast to tackle Steven Pinker’s massive The Better Angels of Our Nature, which demonstrates unequivocally that human violence has massively declined throughout history. I was especially intrigued by the idea that literature itself — the first fiction to be mass manufactured off the printing press — may have actually led to a cultural wave of empathy for the “other” whose stories had never been told so intimately, and an actual societal shift away from torture, slavery, etc. I really welcomed historical evidence of stories and knowledge actually rewiring our moral values, as I argued for in the introduction.
From there my nonfiction reading jumped back and forth between evolutionary biology, climate science, design and urban planning, politics, and secularism. Of particular note, The Language of Architecture by Andrea Simitch was a major influence on my curriculum design for my high school architecture course, and The Big Sort by Bill Bishop reminded me of the insight of Bob Putnam’s Bowling Alone but even more directly explained the political polarization that surprised us all in 2016.
Fiction, of course, will always be the cornerstone of my library. While the title of favorite novel was not usurped in 2016 (held by, in order for the last decade: the current Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See; Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love; Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife), many excellent novels entered my shelf of all-time favorites.
I read two Kate Atkinson novels this year after falling in love with Life After Life last year. A God in Ruins was a (sort of) sequel to Life After Life in an incredible way; where LAL used the plot device of the main character starting her life over after every death to demonstrate the poetic power of narrative fiction, AGIR took the same universe and told just a single timeline in a nonlinear format, to the same powerful effect if not more. It’s as if Atkinson is playing both sides of the literary chessboard and showing off that she’s simply a Grandmaster of storytelling. If you like WWII novels and want to experience a really innovative pair of stories, I highly recommend these two.
I went back in time for the Pulitzer Prizes in fiction and greatly enjoyed The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, as well as Tinkers by Paul Harding although it was significantly more enigmatic. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, which yielded a beautiful film with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander of the same name, was poignant yet forgettable among others. I really enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian and found it to be the most intellectually rigorous space sci-fi I’ve ever read, feeling essentially more like its own genre of “fiction about science”, if that makes any sense. Ready Player One was another surprisingly fun read, more YA than the others, but exploring a really entertaining fantasy world that rewards you with a satisfying journey.
Now, Murakami. In 2013 I somehow picked up After Dark as my very first Murakami work, and that led me to binge-read his Trilogy of the Rat and other early works in 2014. Then in 2015 I jumped ahead to his latest Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, leaving a gaping hole from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to 1Q84 that I finally finished off this year. Those two in particular really cemented my love for Murakami and his unique metaphysical view of the human condition. In 1Q84 especially I found myself reading almost the entire third act in one sitting, and I consider this strange and delightful novel his masterpiece.
Three more novels I want to highlight. First, the only new release I actively anticipated this year (having finally gotten deep enough into literature to actually have authors I am following) was my favorite author Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, which definitely met my expectations as a beautifully realized and rich novel, though the subject matter did not resonate with me as strongly as his last novel. What I especially enjoyed was getting to see him at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Series talking about his work. I have always suspected that JSF awoke the writer within me in my freshman year, and that I largely based my first and second NaNoWriMo novels off of this writing style. It was incredible to hear him speak directly about his process and feel like I really had developed much of the same approach — letting the work evolve without too rigid of a plan, using the fictional character as a study of reality, using the fictional story as a form of personal therapy. I’ve now seen two role models at the Nourse Theater, just blocks away from my apartment, JSF and Richard Dawkins, and I’m so grateful for this intellectual sanctuary in my neighborhood.
Second, in anticipation of seeing Les Miserables for the first time on Broadway this Fall, I decided to finally dive into Victor Hugo’s massive novel, starting on the flight. While I didn’t get anywhere close to finishing in time for the musical, a few weeks later I reached the end and felt deeply alive. I’d underestimated a lot about classical literature, especially that these writers could depict humanity and history with such grand and ambitious strokes, without the modern conveniences of technology. I regret that I did not open this book earlier in life, and now will commit to reading at least one great work of classical literature per year.
Third, the beast that I’ve been wrestling for basically the last quarter of the year has been David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. To be honest, I’m still not done with a week left to go in the year, but I intend to finish. There’s so much to say about this work that I simply cannot do it justice. First and foremost, it is absolutely worth the read, but perhaps with the caveat that you may need to be reading at the volume I read to be able to tackle it with sufficient momentum and perseverance (I had to take multiple breaks of other books to get the weight of this book off my chest). It’s the first novel I’ve ever read that truly felt superhuman in its scope and complexity. DWF is above all a master of language, as if he has somehow unlocked its secret and can make it bend to any purpose, especially through complete control of grammar. There is literally no narrative structure here, footnotes inside of footnotes that are longer than some entire novels, single sentences that are longer than some entire chapters, multiple interlocking storylines, and a complete universe of WebMD-level detail into multiple areas of nonfictional interest, including but not limited to professional tennis, hard drugs, AA, avant-garde film, international relations, and climate science. And I feel like everything works, and has gotten under my skin in strange and wondrous ways. It is a definitive account of addiction and psychosis in all its forms.
My top ten books read in 2016, starting with fiction:
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
- Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (2016)
- Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
- A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
- 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
- The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
- The Martian by Andy Weir
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
- Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Fortune in China by Evan Osnos
- The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
- The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
- The Big Sort by Bill Bishop
- No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
- The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
- Smart Cities by Anthony Townsend
- More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First by Steve Hilton (and my friend Jason Bade and his brother Scott Bade) (2016)
I’d love recommendations for what 40 books I should read in 2017!
For the same reason I had so much time to read books in 2016, my week-daily commute from San Francisco to Stanford and back, outside of sitting in my Caltrain seat I listened to podcasts on the bus or on my feet. I also listened to podcasts on my walks to Trader Joe’s, or while cooking, or basically any time besides when I was reading or concentrating on work. That made for a lot of time with my favorite new medium, one that often seemed to mirror my life in uncanny ways, and one I think will only pick up in popularity.
There are so many different types of podcasts, and so many of each, that it may seem daunting to get into them. I suspect for many of you that this the one category I’m writing about that you haven’t tried yet, and you would find recommendations quite valuable. I subscribe to about 40 podcasts, and will go ahead and introduce them in categories.
Given This American Life is still the most popular podcast, I’ll start by sharing my favorite podcasts that are similar in format, namely journalism focused on ideas and stories through the lens of everyday people. It’s also critical to note here that these types of podcasts are fully produced with excessive editing and music, and that if you don’t like that style there are other styles below to suit your needs. On TAL I particularly enjoyed the following stories this year:
- “When Your Hospital-Borne Infection Is a Bullet”, an incisive look at the challenge of mental health in our law enforcement and healthcare systems.
- “Anatomy of Doubt”, a full episode about the challenge of victim doubt in a serial killer rape investigation.
- “Are We There Yet” and “Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee”, a mini-series showing the refugee crisis up close and personal.
- “Really Long Distance”, a deeply tragic look at grief in Japan.
- “Uganda Be Kidding Me”, a hilarious story about deception in Westmont College.
- “Party in the U.S.A.”, one of the best political stories of the year.
I personally like Radiolab better than TAL because of the science angle, and an overall stronger production style, and I particularly liked the More Perfect side project by Jad Abumrad about the Supreme Court. In fact, in 2016 the best Radiolab work all-around was about political science and law. Best episodes out of Radiolab:
- “I Don’t Have to Answer That”, a valuable history lesson on politics.
- “K-poparazzi”, in which I learned a lot about Koreans.
- “Debatable”, my personal favorite Radiolab episode of 2016, an incredible story about high school debate culture.
- “23 Weeks 6 Days”, a story that helped clarify my own views on abortion.
- “Cellmates”, Good old evolutionary biology, writ large by Radiolab.
- “The Buried Bodies Case”, a dark case about ethics in law.
- “Object Anyway”, from More Perfect, the incredible story of the Batson Rule.
- “Seneca, Nebraska”, a haunting look at the power of voting.
- “One Vote”, an inspiring look at the power of voting.
However, for the average millennial I would actually recommend you start with Reply All, which focuses on stories related to the internet and has two entertaining hosts and plenty of fun features (including Yes Yes No, which, when I showed it to a friend a few days ago, basically inspired him to want to binge listen to the whole podcast). The stories are not as essential as those in TAL or Radiolab, but they certainly matter to our generation. My favorites:
- “The Cathedral”, perhaps the best podcast story of 2016. If you’ve never listened to a podcast before, start here.
- “Dead is Paul”, the Yes Yes No I mentioned above which will blow your mind and is the best way to get into Yes Yes Nos.
- “Making Friends”, about a strange but strangely relatable disorder.
- “The Grand Tapestry of Pepe”, their first essential coverage of the alt-right.
- “Very Quickly to the Drill”, which will change the way you think about advertising.
- “Voyage into Pizzagate”, their second essential coverage of the alt-right, demonstrating why Reply All is so important in our new political landscape.
If you enjoy all of the above, then there are many other great story-driven podcasts. I particularly like Strangers by Lea Thau whose voice is like chicken noodle soup for your ears. Her stories are reliably more challenging and painful portraits of humanity, but if you’re willing to take the plunge, try the entire kidney donor series, “Elizabeth and Mary”, and then try to stomach “The Truth” and “Lex” if you dare. StartUp has been doing a really interesting story about the infamous Dov Charney of American Apparel which is worth listening to if you’re interested in studying a modern Icarus. And finally, I’ll highlight Jonathan Goldstein’s Heavyweight which is a quality project of personal therapy (though I really miss Mystery Show by Starlee Kine).
Other podcasts I listen to in this vein, roughly in order of what you should try: Twice Removed (which just started but is promising), Serial Season Two (a letdown compared to Season One), Millennial, Invisibilia (a huge letdown compared to Season One) and Crimetown.
Another style of podcasts may use a story-driven or interview format but is really about presenting ideas in economics, technology, politics, ethics, etc. Besides the episodes above that entered this realm, the following are my go-to places for ideas.
- Waking Up With Sam Harris has changed my life. Sam Harris is one of the smartest and most intellectually honest people I know, and over the course of many hours listening to him think in public, I consider him a role model for my own moral and intellectual reasoning. The warning I must give is that his podcasts average 2 hours long and require serious concentration, but if you are willing to truly grow as an intellectual, I’d recommend starting with the following:
- “An Evening with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (1)”, and nice comprehensive interview to start with two of my favorite public intellectuals.
- “Thinking in Public”, the first episode I listened to, with Neil degrasse Tyson.
- “What Do Jihadists Really Want?”, a definitive podcast on how to think honestly about Islamic extremism.
- “Abusing Dolores”, a really entertaining conversation with his best guest Paul Bloom touching on the problem with empathy and artificial intelligence. If you like this one, then go back immediately and listen to his past two conversations with Bloom.
- “Racism and Violence in America”, which helped me think honestly about Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter.
- “Meat Without Misery”, a great application of moral reasoning to a great upcoming technology.
- “Evolving Minds”, a wonderful conversation with Jonathan Haidt (whose book The Righteous Mind was a great read last year), demonstrating the proper way to debate different perspectives, concluding with a great takedown of our new illiberal campus culture.
- “The Best Podcast Ever”, which you should tackle once you’re fully comfortable with Harris, because this is three hours of torture but essential to experience if you want to see the dishonesty of the illiberal left.
- The Weeds by Vox is an excellent nourishment for the mind on policy and economics, a chance to sit in on a conversation among three intelligent and well-informed journalists. Every single episode is high quality and worth listening to, but given its positioning as relevant to current events, I would just recommend you start now and never miss an episode. I particularly like that they discuss an economics white paper at the end of every episode. BTW, for general news, though I don’t read as much as I would like to, I generally look to Vox for my preferred coverage, based on my satisfying experience with this podcast.
- Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell is, like his books, big ideas packaged a little bit too convincingly, but is a really successful debut in this new medium which I prefer to his books. Especially notable episodes are “Food Fight”, “The Big Man Can’t Shoot”, “Hallelujah”, and “Blame Game”.
- Planet Money has emerged as my favorite economics podcast. I especially liked their series on Oil and their analysis of the Wells Fargo scandal, and would generally recommend this podcast for its brevity and concision to the first-timer interested in ideas.
- Freakonomics is still very much worth listening to for the talented production of Stephen Dubner, and for a breadth and depth of behavioral economics ideas. I found the following particularly useful: the Bad Medicine series, “Ten Ideas to Make Politics Less Rotten”, “The Longest Long Shot”, and “The True Story of the Gender Pay Gap”.
- 99% Invisible started it all for me, and is still creating great pieces about design (I now happily own a challenge coin though I don’t carry it with me). My favorite episode this year was “Mojave Phone Booth”.
- The Theory of Everything by Benjamin Walker has not delivered anything as great as last year’s “New York After Rent” series, but is still a fresh dose of intrigue throughout the year. I particularly liked the miniature story “pass (r)” about self-driving cars.
Other podcasts in this category: Song Exploder, TED Radio Hour (increasingly less interesting to me), TEDTalks (audio) (which I’m starting to prefer to Guy Raz’s product), StarTalk Radio, Science Vs, Surprisingly Awesome, The Allusionist, Undone, and Generation Anthropocene.
News, Interviews, Criticism, Etc.
For news, I really appreciated NPR Politics Podcast coverage throughout the year, and would recommend you try it out if you want to be informed about the first year of Trump in a light-hearted way (but for more technical analysis, go for The Weeds). I also listen to KQED’s The California Report which has been somewhat valuable.
For great interviews, I still enjoy WTF with Marc Maron when I know the person he’s talking to (great guests this year include Ethan Hawke, Louis CK, Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland, and Lin-Manuel Miranda), and have also enjoyed some episodes from The Nerdist. There were some great interviews on The New York Public Library Podcast, largely thanks to great interviewing by Paul Holdengraber; check out the episodes with Junot Diaz and Robert A. Caro. I’ve just started listening to The Ezra Klein Show and suspect I will have glowing praise for it this time next year.
Miscellaneously, I’ve started listening to criticism in film and music, specifically Filmspotting and All Songs Considered. Homecoming, a fictional radio drama by Gimlet, was worth the listen, and has convinced me that the medium can be successful for storytelling. Finally, when all else failed, I enjoyed good old comedy. So far I’m just enjoying 2 Dope Queens and have just started the British satire The Bugle.
I would love recommendations for anything great I missed in 2016, and what new podcasts I should subscribe to in 2017!
Film and Television
As you probably know, I’m now officially a cinephile, having passed through the gauntlet of freezing cold waiting lines at two Sundances and one Berlinale, the less painful trial of a B-movie horror film and wine festival in the countryside of Slovenia, and an average of about 90 movies watched per year over the last two years. I’ve been able to afford this excessive movie-watching through a wonderful product called Moviepass, which, if you haven’t already heard me go on about it, is a debit card + app that lets you watch one movie in theaters per day for $35-45/month. Basically I found in the first half of 2015 that Boanne and I were essentially spending that much in movies already, so we got the Moviepass in August 2015, and, according to my careful accounting, since then I’ve paid $600 through the service but have watched nearly $1500 worth of movies in theaters (not to mention the perks through AMC Stubs). It’s basically the only reason I’ve been able to fully become a film junkie, and I seriously recommend it for anybody who wants to enjoy film without worrying about the cost.
I tried to do a Top 25 Movies list on Facebook but ran into trouble with a dozen or so films I expected to be contenders but hadn’t watched yet; alas the problem with film is that so many great ones come out right at the end of the year in limited release. But as best as I can do, I will highlight my favorite films that came out in 2016. Basically I rate films on a scale of 5, and would recommend anything I give a 4 or above.
Early in the year, besides watching the excellent ones I missed from 2015 (The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa, and the Oscar nominated shorts), there were some excellent early arrivals like Hail, Caesar (with a hilarious performance by Alden Ehrenreich which should not be forgotten as we gear up for his next role as a young Han Solo), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds fully redeeming himself), Where to Invade Next (a really solid, optimistic documentary by Michael Moore), The Witch (with a breakthrough performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, an actress to watch), 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Eye in the Sky. But the standout from the first quarter was Zootopia, which is my favorite animated film of the year.
In the spring, I fell in love with Everybody Wants Some!!, a perfect little film by Richard Linklater following the much-deserved success of Boyhood, Green Room, my personal favorite of 2016 as a study of pain, and Sing Street, a joyful little punk musical. Civil War definitely satisfied my superhero needs, while Batman v. Superman and X-Men Apocalypse really disappointed. Hardcore Henry was actually a pleasant surprise; it reminded me of District 9 in its daring concept and perfect casting of Sharlto Copley, and made me an instant fanboy of Haley Bennett. Other good films from that season: Jungle Book (not interesting enough for me in plot but certainly a visual effects masterpiece), The Nice Guys, Finding Dory, and The Shallows. The Lobster was highly anticipated, but just didn’t work for me overall, although there are some great deadpan moments of comedy.
Summer brought the absolute trash of 2016 to sweep out, specifically Suicide Squad and Snowden, but otherwise delivered with excellent films like Our Kind of Traitor, Hunt for the Wilderpeople (cementing my love for Taika Waititi) and all things New Zealand, The Infiltrator, Captain Fantastic (with breakthrough actress Annalise Basso), Sausage Party (a potential pinnacle of achievement for Seth Rogen and friends), Don’t Breathe, Light Between Oceans, Pete’s Dragon (which worked beautifully for me in the climax), Hell or High Water (a perfect modern western), Sully, War Dogs (with impressive performances by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill), and the entertaining Magnificent Seven. I also got a chance to catch a documentary I missed in 2014, The Look of Silence, which is an incredible follow-up to one of the best documentaries ever made, The Act of Killing.
In the last quarter of the year, the gems started to show up, like the masterpieces Handmaiden, Moonlight, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, and La La Land (see my Facebook wall for my profusion of love for these). Other excellent films around these included Don’t Think Twice (which has put Gillian Jacobs on my watchlist), Girl on the Train (again, Haley Bennett stuns, and Emily Blunt pulls off a really convincing drunk), A Man Called Ove, Hacksaw Ridge (with the most intense war scene I’ve ever seen), Moana (the future of Disney ‘princess’ films), Nocturnal Animals, Edge of Seventeen (the best film about being a teenager I’ve ever seen, with an outstanding performance by Hailee Steinfeld), and Your Name (an excellent new anime). I’ve got quite a few films left which I’m excited to see in theaters, especially Jackie, Fences, and 20th Century Women, and quite a few I missed throughout the year which I’ll have to catch up with, like Krisha, The Fits, Certain Women, Neon Demon, Born to Be Blue, Love & Friendship, Weiner, and April and the Extraordinary World.
My top 25 list, as of now:
- Green Room
- The Handmaiden
- Everybody Wants Some!!
- La La Land
- Manchester By the Sea
- Sing Street
- Hell or High Water
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople
- Don’t Think Twice
- Captain Fantastic
- Little Men
- Finding Dory
- Nocturnal Animals
- Edge of Seventeen
- Your Name
- Hacksaw Ridge
- Our Kind of Traitor
- The Infiltrator
- Pete’s Dragon
Just like last year, I simply could not make the time for television that I would like to. I’m generally really cautious of television because of its incredibly slow pace compared to film, but I can’t deny that we are in a golden era of television. In 2015 I finished up Breaking Bad and basically decided that I didn’t need to watch any other television for the rest of my life. Early this year I retracted that view after watching Louis CK’s mini-series Horace and Pete, which unfolded like a classic American stage play and was just perfect all around (I’m happy to share the episodes if you haven’t seen them). Otherwise, I succumbed to my guilty obsession with The Great British Bake Off, once again, with Boanne, and can happily flaunt that I guessed the season winner correctly from Episode 1. We also binged Stranger Things recently, which had a nice overall design but was much too uneventful to me, and watched a few Black Mirror episodes. Based on recommendations, I think next year I will try to finish off Black Mirror, binge Westworld, and then maybe make a dent in Mad Men. Any other recommendations will have to directly compete for my timeshare, but are very much welcomed.
The medium that is nearest and dearest to my heart is music, based on an entire childhood of musical training and the degree to which music has shaped my emotional growth. As I have written before, music has the added bonus of placing me in the past unlike any other stimuli (although podcasts have been doing this recently as well). I’ve already written quite excessively about my 25 favorite songs of 2016, as summarized below (with an extra 5 for good measure):
- Whitney – Follow
- Blood Orange – Best to You
- Bon Iver – 715 – CRΣΣKS
- Lambchop – In Care of 8675309
- Frank Ocean – Self Control
- Drake – Fire & Desire
- Kevin Morby – Black Flowers
- dvsn – Another One
- Francis and the Lights – Friends (feat. Bon Iver)
- Kanye West – Famous (feat. Rihanna & Swizz Beatz)
- Flume – Say It feat. Tove Lo
- Tegan & Sara – Boyfriend
- Mutual Benefit – Getting Gone
- The 1975 – Somebody Else
- Regina Spektor – Bleeding Heart
- M83 – Atlantique Sud
- James Blake – I Need a Forest Fire (ft. Bon Iver)
- How To Dress Well – Can’t You Tell
- Rihanna – Kiss It Better
- Radiohead – True Love Waits
- Angel Olsen – Sister
- Ra Ra Riot – Call Me Out
- Kendrick Lamar – untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.
- Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
- American Football – Give Me the Gun
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – Peaceful Morning
- Solange – Where Do We Go
- NxWorries – Scared Money
- Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
- La La Land Soundtrack – Audition (The Fools Who Dream)
(Let me know if you want this as a playlist and I’ll be happy to share.)
I have a top 15 albums list, but I’ll start by talking more broadly about the music that moved me throughout the year.
At the start of 2016, I was still listening to some favorites from 2015, like Joanna Newsom’s Divers, Adele’s 25, Grimes’s Art Angels, Majical Cloudz’s Are You Alone?, and Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness.
The first exciting new albums to be released, in February, were the hip hop stunners ANTI by Rihanna and The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. TLOP in particular amazed me with its seemingly arbitrary design, getting revised and added to all the way to the last moment. We also got the much awaited sophomore album of The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, which didn’t produce any single incredible tracks like their debut but delivered an impressive soundscape. I also got recommended the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw and Roomful of Teeth, which was a wonderful classical addition to my playlist.
In March I got mildly obsessed with The Microphones’ “I Want Wind to Blow” thanks to an episode of Song Exploder, as well as Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter thanks to a feature on 99% Invisible. I totally fell in love with that Nick Drake album which evoked (or perhaps inspired) the essential bucolic sound of Belle & Sebastian. Other songs I discovered from past years included “I Decline” by Perfume Genius and “Run Away From Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen, which fully convinced me of her talents (far above the likes of Taylor Swift). Kendrick Lamar came out with untitled unmastered. which was like an effortless encore to last year’s huge To Pimp a Butterfly. Ra Ra Riot also came out with their new album Need Your Light which did not meet my expectations from Beta Love but was still a fun listen.
In April, still riding the Yeezy wave, I decided to go back to some old albums I hadn’t really gotten into (having ‘come to Yeezus’ on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and got pretty obsessed with 808s & Heartbreak, especially “Paranoid (feat. Mr. Hudson)” and “RoboCop”. I fell in love with newcomer dvsn and his sensual songs on SEPT. 5TH, as well as the retro sound of M83’s new album Junk. While I didn’t get deeply into Andrew Bird’s new Are You Serious, I did particularly enjoy “The New Saint Jude”. Beyonce’s Lemonade came out this month, but I just did not find anything exciting about it, compared to all this other great music. Perhaps I just reacted poorly to a lot of the negative energy inside of it, which I didn’t want my music to exude.
May was a huge month for music, with Drake’s Views, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, James Blake’s The Colour in Anything, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and Mutual Benefit’s Skip a Sinking Stone on repeat. Chance has definitely moved into my radar but I still can’t quite love his work the same way I do Kanye’s or Drake’s; I think it may just be his voice and a fairly monotonous style. I did particularly like the sound in “Summertime Friends”, which introduced me to Francis and the Lights as well.
In June, I found my favorite new artist of 2016, Whitney, and my second favorite new artist of 2016, Kevin Morby. Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes delivered with his new Freetown Sound which, above all, showed him moving towards Michael Jackson in style. I’ll also note that his music videos have been some of the best all year. Tegan & Sara came out with Love You to Death which was just as solid as their last album, while Flume mostly disappointed with his sophomore effort Skin.
In July I didn’t discover much new music besides a new concept album by Bat For Lashes, The Bride. It wasn’t nearly as good as A Haunted Man, but the last few songs on the album were some of the most beautiful I’ve heard from her.
August brought the long-awaited return of Frank Ocean, in this case more than enough music in two complete albums, Endless and Blonde. I particularly liked “Rushes” from the visual album, and then pretty much everything off of Blonde. I got into a little bit of Mitski, though I’m not a fan of her overall rock sound, as well as a little bit of the new Metronomy which does not live up to the excellent songs from The English Riviera or Love Letters. Boanne and I got pretty obsessed with “Friends” this month, and for some reason I found myself digging through old Fleetwood Mac and listening a lot to “Second Hand News” and “Never Going Back Again” from Rumours.
In September, I got into the rest of Francis and the Lights’ Farewell, Starlite! as well Kishi Bashi’s new Sonderlust. But mostly I fell in love with Angel Olsen and the second half of My Woman.
In October I mainly listened to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, but also found time for new albums from Regina Spektor and How to Dress Well. I also got into Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, which presented a nice derivative of Vampire Weekend’s sound.
November was time for catch-up on great albums I had missed, like Solange’s A Seat at the Table, NxWorries’ Yes Lawd!, American Football’s second eponymous album, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION Side B (especially the last three songs). I also got semi-obsessed with “Gemini Feed” by Banks, though the rest of her album is much too basic for me. The big new releases for me were Conor Oberst’s simple Ruminations, Jimmy Eat World’s epic Integrity Blues, and Leonard Cohen’s dark swansong You Want it Darker. But mostly I fell in love with the new Lambchop album FLOTUS and the Hamilton soundtrack.
Coming into the last stretch, I’ve mainly been reviewing these favorites throughout the year to create my Top 30 list, as well as checking in on critical acclaimed or friend-recommended albums I missed, like Wilco’s Schmilco, Kid Cudi’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, The Weeknd’s Starboy, Crystal Fighter’s Everything is My Family, Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial, David Bowie’s Blackstar, ANOHNI’s Hopelessness, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, and Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens. On Christmas Day my favorite rap group Run The Jewels put out their much anticipated RTJ3 which has been sounding pretty good so far. I also fell in love with the La La Land soundtrack, one of the highlights of a film I’m still overall struggling with, and its showstopper “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is the last song to sneak into my Top 30 list.
Top 15 albums of 2016:
- Bon Iver – 22, A Million
- Frank Ocean – Blonde
- Whitney – A Light Upon the Lake
- Lambchop – FLOTUS
- Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
- Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
- Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
- Solange – A Seat At the Table
- Drake – Views
- James Blake – The Colour in Anything
- Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
- The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
- Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
- Angel Olsen – My Woman
- American Football – American Football
I’d love to know what other music you liked in 2016, and what you’re looking forward to in 2017!
As I mentioned in the intro, the future of automation may lead us all inevitably to careers in creativity and art. Within that space, live experiences may be the most valuable and essential content we create. I have consciously tried to invest more in performances, immersive experiences, and gatherings for ideas, and will share some of the most valuable ones below.
Building off of my musical journey this year were some wonderful concerts, particularly:
- Majical Cloudz at The Chapel, SF. Devon Welsh is enigmatic in his music but wears his awkwardness out in the open when he performs live. It was really incredible to see his endearment towards his own music. I basically was holding out for his performance of my favorite song “Downtown”, and he absolutely nailed it.
- Cyndi Lauper at Hardly Strictly, SF. What a joyful performance from an older woman who still has all the energy in the world. I honestly hadn’t known that she was the original writer of “True Colours” and absolutely loved her performance of that song, as well as, of course, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Yo La Tengo was also wonderful right ahead of Cyndi Lauper on that stage in Golden Gate Park.
- The Tallest Man on Earth at The Greek Theater, SF. Kristian Matsson was actually just opening for The Head and the Heart, who I’ve now seen four times and was mediocre, but Matsson totally impressed me with his stage presence and fluidity with his instrument. I’m definitely going to catch him every chance I can now.
- Bon Iver at Fox Theater, Oakland, my third time seeing him live. I’ve already praised Justin Vernon’s new sound, and you rarely come across a concert in which the artist simply plays the album exactly as you love it, top to bottom. I particularly loved seeing him use the Messina live, and his huge fleet of saxophonists. While he didn’t pull out the classic “Re: Stacks” or “Skinny Love”, I really liked his performance of the single “Heavenly Father”. Opener Francis and the Lights, unfortunately, was a huge disappointment.
- Peter Silberman of the Antlers at Swedish American Hall, SF. When I saw him I wasn’t aware of his bout with hearing loss and the bare record he had put together as a result, but I thoroughly enjoyed his expansive solo set and the quaint venue.
In 2016 I got to see a bit of contemporary dance by Tanya Chianese’s wonderful dance company ka·nei·see | collective, which reinvigorated my personal love for dance that grew out of some social dance classes in freshman year of college. I also got to see my favorite author Jonathan Safran Foer at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures series. Next year I’m looking forward to seeing a broadcast conversation with Edward Snowden there.
I can’t really talk about live performances without praising Broadway musicals. I got into musicals with Wicked in high school and actually saw it for the fourth time this spring. I also happily supported a Heathers independent production by some wildly talented and motivated students at the high school I teach at. When I went to New York for a week in August, I had to re-experience my favorite ‘theatrical’ experience, the enigmatic Sleep No More by Punchdrunk, which is quite simply my #1 recommendation for how to spend $100 in New York. And I finally got to see Les Miserables, a musical I performed in field show form in high school marching band and have always loved. The stage production itself may have shot up and beat Wicked as my favorite musical, though I suspect it will be quickly usurped by Hamilton which I am super excited to see in 2017 in SF. I rounded out the year’s musicals with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a really exhilarating, fourth-wall breaking musical experience right at home in liberal SF, and a second viewing of The Lion King.
I want to highlight stage comedy, which I have learned a lot about through episodes on the WTF Podcast and the excellent film Don’t Think Twice but have never really had a chance to experience until this year’s NY trip when I got to see cheap shows at The Comedy Cellar and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. I definitely think the interactivity of live comedy is a nourishing and valuable experience to take advantage of and to invest in if you have good comedy venues in your city (does anybody know of any in SF?).
I’ll highlight some new museums I visited in 2016. In the Bay Area, I enjoyed the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (though I hate the overall architectural concept by Diller Scofidio + Renfro), the new SFMOMA (which had a much more successful architectural solution by Snohetta), and the Academy of Art & Science which I finally got to experience on one of its Nightlife events. In NY, I visited the American Museum of Natural History for the first time, as well as the new Whitney at the southern end of the High Line which I think is Renzo Piano’s most successful public building. I also really enjoyed the observation deck at the top of the One World Trade Center, which holds a special place in my heart because I had been at the top of one of the original towers one month before 9/11, and had watched this new tower be built over a summer internship in NY. On my brief trip to Washington D.C I didn’t have a chance to see David Adjaye’s new Smithsonian Museum, but really enjoyed touring the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, as well as walking around Tidal Basin and viewing all of the national memorials in the empty stillness of midnight.
In terms of natural environments, I didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked, but did enjoy new hikes in Yosemite, Muir Woods, and Lake Tahoe, adding to my love for the Bay Area as a whole. On a trip to China over Thanksgiving I got to see Zhangjiajie National Park, which has unbelievable geological formations which inspired environmental design in the Avatar film. I think those natural canyons are some of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen on this planet.
Mostly I found experiential nourishment this year by exploring my new hometown, San Francisco, in all of its urban and natural beauty, for many weekends with my girlfriend, racking up those Fitbit badges.
I really don’t have the energy to get into food, which could be its entire own chapter of consumption, except to list my ten favorite establishments in the Bay Area:
- El Farolito in the Mission, for the best Mexican I’ve ever had, especially the Super Suiza. I had this a lot over the summer when I was working at Gray Area.
- Good Mong Kok Bakery in Chinatown, for dim sum at proper price point and bluntness of service.
- Yamo in the Mission, for delicious house noodles and the smell of cooking oil all over your clothes.
- The House of Prime Rib on Van Ness, for the kind of carnivore’s delight I feel is actively worth building up a carbon budget for.
- Arizmendi Bakery in the Mission, for excellent cheese wheels and fresh pizzas.
- San Tung in Inner Sunset, for delectable chicken wings.
- Saigon Sandwich in the Tenderloin, for solid $4 bahn mi’s.
- Golden Boy Pizza in North Beach, for clam and garlic pizzas and a convenient excuse to visit City Lights Bookstore as well.
- Pedro’s Brazil Cafe in Berkeley, for heavenly tri-tip approved by your favorite President.
- Momoyama Sushi in Pleasant Hill, for a perfectly sized dinner special for two.
Coffee enthusiasts: I simply will drink nothing but Philz Tesoras and Coupa drip unless you can show me something better.
On the personal cooking front, I’ve made it a regular habit to buy fresh baby bok choy from the U.N. Plaza Farmer’s Market and all other regular groceries from my local Trader Joe’s, though every once in a while I need to replenish something from 99 Ranch or succumb to the guilty pleasure of a Costco whole combo pizza in the freezer. I have tried consciously to reduce my meat consumption or to switch mostly to chicken, though have not done useful tracking of this. Next year I will try to limit red meat consumption to two meals per week and have at least two vegetarian lunches and dinners per week, for starters.
That concludes all I have to share of my essential consumptions of 2016. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve found something worth agreeing with or trying out for yourself here, and definitely would welcome any additions or feedback you’d like to share. As I said, I do this because I love the things I love, and want to spread that experiential wealth in as effective of a way as I can, multiplying the value of my own time spent looking for gold in soil that is increasingly toxic. Perhaps I’m posting the kind of content I hope to see more of on social media, the kind of value that is not mined by advertisers, but reaped and shared with friends.
Here’s to what moved us in 2016, and what will move us further in 2017.