Just like last year, I’ll start off my year-end reflection with a post about the experiences in art and culture I enjoyed, followed by a post about the most important projects and ideas I worked on this year.
I have to start off this section with the biggest change in my music experience this year: I finally quit torrenting music and purchased every album and song you see below, and many more. I guess there are three camps these days: the torrenters, the streamers, and the purchasers. If you are still a torrenter and wondering what it was like to switch after over a decade of getting music for free, just think about the relative value of an incredible album that you’ll cherish for years to come, and basically one beer in downtown SF, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting artists in the coming year. As for streamers, besides the same argument of supporting artists as much as we think they’re worth, I purchased about 25 albums this year, so that would be roughly $250. That is a little over twice the cost of Spotify Premium at full price for a year. Is it worth it to me? Well, I personally carry an iPod touch around to listen to music and podcasts because I want to preserve battery on my phone, so it makes a lot of sense to me to be able to use iTunes. I also am still not convinced that some day in the future Spotify may not disappear, leaving Spotify users with none of their favorite music. Besides, I enjoy using Spotify just to test out new music, and when I find I like it, then I go and buy it. Anyway, music economics aside, there’s no argument that 2017 had some incredible new releases, and some new favorite artists for me.
Here are my top ten favorite albums of 2017:
- Big Thief – Capacity
- The National – Sleep Well Beast
- The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
- Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
- Rostam – Half-Light
- Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
- SZA – Ctrl
- Real Estate – In Mind
- Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
- Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
And my top twenty favorite songs:
- Big Thief – “Haley”
- The National – “I’ll Still Destroy You”
- The War on Drugs – “In Chains”
- HAIM – “You Never Knew”
- Real Estate – “Saturday”
- Rostam – “Gwan”
- Jens Lekman – “Dandelion Seed”
- The xx – “Replica”
- Kendrick Lamar – “LOVE. (FEAT. ZACARI.)”
- Dirty Projectors – “Up in Hudson”
- Sufjan Stevens (Planetarium) – “Mercury”
- Sylvan Esso – “Signal”
- Phoebe Bridgers – “Motion Sickness”
- Fleet Foxes – “Third of May / Odaigahara”
- Father John Misty – “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”
- Perfume Genius – “Slip Away”
- Beck – “Fix Me”
- Mac DeMarco – “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes”
- Lorde – “Hard Feelings/Loveless”
- The Flaming Lips – “The Castle”
Some brief comments, since I’ve spoken about some of this music in posts throughout the year. One of the natural differences between the song list and the album list is that the albums have to be excellent as a whole, and the kind of albums I enjoy listening to top-to-bottom, or even on repeat. So while some old favorites like HAIM, The xx, Sylvan Esso, and Father John Misty had great singles, their full albums were somewhat disappointing.
Some really exciting new finds this year, besides the #1 of the year, included Jens Lekman (yet another addicting Northern European songwriter!), Phoebe Bridgers, and SZA (who I got into just this month, but is without a doubt this year’s Solange or Rihanna). Some old bands that I hadn’t really listened to much really got my attention, including Mac DeMarco, Perfume Genius, and the Flaming Lips. I got to see quite a few of these bands and others play live this year: highlights include
- Jens Lekman at the Independent
- Lambchop at the Great American Music Hall
- Whitney (my favorite new band of last year) at the Independent
- Foxygen at the Independent
- John Mayer at Shoreline
- Rostam at the Independent
- Blood Orange at Fox Theater
- Sylvan Esso at Fox Theater (with opener Flock of Dimes!)
The top three on each list were pretty unequivocal. The War on Drugs and The National delivered fully satisfying follow-ups to exceptional albums (Lost in the Dream and Trouble Will Find Me), though I’ll need a bit more time to be able to decide whether these albums were better than their predecessors. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see either band play at the Greek this year, in the National’s case canceled for air quality reasons because of the North Bay fires. But I did get to see both of them at Treasure Island in 2015.
Big Thief deserves the biggest praise of the year. I heard them first on NPR’s All Songs Considered from their SXSW coverage, and then fell into the album like a trance for the second half of the year. Lead singer Adrianne Lenker has an immaculate voice that reminds me of blood in both ominous and tender ways, and the songs in this album are constructed like little universes, evoking Joanna Newsom and then the Weepies and then sounding utterly one-of-a-kind. Please give them a listen if you haven’t already.
I also want to highlight two albums which came out last year but that stayed with me through this year: If You See Me, Say Yes by Flock of Dimes, the solo project by Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, and American Football’s eponymous record.
Finally, of the three musicals I watched this year, Fun Home at the Curran was the stunner in its emotional poignancy and execution, even though none of the songs were particularly memorable. RENT was a delight in terms of nostalgia, but not particularly strong as a stage performance. Hamilton was, unfortunately, a disappointment, mostly because of the SF cast, but also because, seeing it all come together on stage, I just can’t quite get into the second act emotionally. The soundtrack strangely outperforms the real thing, and even that may be starting to lose its magic, 100+ plays in…
Early next year I’m looking forward to releases by First Aid Kit and Rhye (and maybe Grimes?). I’d love to hear what music you enjoyed this year, and what you’re looking forward to next year!
You probably know by now how much of a fan I am of Moviepass. This year I watched 68 movies in theaters, and roughly paid $5/ticket. I started off paying $45/month (+ another $45/month for Boanne), and then in the Fall, Moviepass pulled a Netflix and dropped their price to $10/month. Just a few weeks ago I switched my plan to an annual payment of just $90. To date, since the end of 2015, I’ve saved $1100 on movies (not counting Boanne, not counting the many free popcorns and Icees we’ve gotten through the complementary AMC Stubs membership). At this point I can’t honestly understand why anybody I know wouldn’t go order a Moviepass right this very moment.
Anyway, films are tougher to judge than music, but here’s my twenty favorite films of 2017:
- Get Out
- The Florida Project
- Call Me By Your Name
- Wind River
- Lady Bird
- Good Time
- Molly’s Game
- Logan Lucky
- Blade Runner 2049
- The Last Jedi
- City of Ghosts
- Alien: Covenant
- Baby Driver
- The Big Sick
Get Out and Raw were early winners that stood the test of time. Raw in particular is still so vivid in my memories, and so shocking even now, that it’d be my pick if I could recommend only one. But Jordan Peele’s debut deserves all the praise it gets for its timeliness and subversiveness and perfect execution.
The Florida Project and Dunkirk are an interesting side-by-side comparison: both mundane by some measure, both epic portraits of humanity. While I thoroughly loved Nolan’s massive orchestration of three survival stories poetically wrinkled in time, the thirty-second performance by the young protagonist at the end of The Florida Project was the best scene of 2017.
Wind River, Detroit, and Good Time were really satisfying thrillers, each examining violence and justice in moving ways. Lady Bird establishes Greta Gerwig as the undisputed prodigy of Noah Baumbach. Between the two driving films of the year, while Baby Driver is the critical favorite, I enjoyed Logan Lucky a lot more, because it excelled at an important type of storytelling from this year: stories about Trump’s America (other notable examples include Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Glass Castle, Beatriz at Dinner, heck even Cars 3).
Also on my list are some really great sci-fi’s — Blade Runner 2049 winning for best cinematography, Alien: Covenant for Fassbender’s two winning performances — and some that defy categorization: Aronofsky’s mind-blowing Mother! and the indie surprise Colossal.
After four years of steadily increasing my reading count (21, 25, 30, 43), I am now likely to fall just short of my goal of 40 (UPDATE: I got to 40!). This target seems about right to keep for a while. What’s particularly new is that I have achieved a near 50-50 balance of nonfiction and fiction (in fact, more nonfiction than fiction, as I’m counting some light poem collections and graphic novels). This also feels about right to keep for a while, as the nonfiction reading has really stimulated my growing interest in philosophy and other weighty topics (which I’ll hopefully do justice in Part 2 of my year-end reflection).
In fiction, I’m a bit tickled that my two favorite books ended up being Dark Forest and Forest Dark. I’ve spoken plenty about my love for the Three Body trilogy, and its complete annihilation of all other sci-fi I’ve ever read. More recently, Forest Dark really moved me with its Kafka-esque profundity. Even more, Krauss’s book paired with Foer’s Here I Am from last year were a strange portrait of a break-up in public told like competing monologues, two mammoth writers in their own right lobbying heartbreaking metaphors across a battlefield of readers. (There was a similar experience in music this year from the breakup between David Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors and Amber Coffman, told through competing singles). But I suppose it can’t be denied that a meta-layer of sadness on top of books of sadness make for delectable reads.
In non-fiction, I particularly dived into the works of Peter Singer and Jane Jacobs. Jacobs particularly surprised me with the breadth and depth of her genius beyond what was already an incredible first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I was quite surprised by how well her journey of ideas tracks my own evolution in the last few years. Singer helped me clarify some fundamental ethical beliefs in the early part of the year, and helped prepare me for the big trial that was Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. I’ll leave the reflection on ideas for Part 2.
Keeping in mind that my book lists are much less tied to 2017 than the others, here are my five favorite works of fiction read in 2017:
- The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (2008)
- Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss (2017)
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
- Death’s End by Cixin Liu (2010)
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016)
And my five favorite works of non-fiction:
- Evicted by Matthew Desmond (2016)
- Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit (1984)
- Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs (1992)
- The Expanding Circle by Peter Singer (1981)
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)
All forty books I read this year:
Lastly, podcasts have cemented themselves fully into my lifestyle, and I have had to endure a few painful purges this year as new podcasts have continued to vie for my attention. At the close of the year, my regular daily and weekly rotation looks like:
- To keep up with the news
- Up First
- NYT’s The Daily
- The Weeds
- NPR Politics (if it doesn’t look too similar to The Weeds)
- On The Media
- From there, I go to whatever’s new from the following, in roughly this order:
- Waking Up with Sam Harris
- Radiolab or More Perfect
- All Songs Considered
- This American Life
- Reply All
- Planet Money
- 99% Invisible
- Song Exploder
And that’s pretty much all I can keep up with. Special shout-out to friends Abi, Morgan, and Iris who started a podcast Imagine Human this year with some interesting guests!
Some of my favorite longform podcast episodes of the year:
- The entire season of The Polybius Conspiracy on Radiotopia’s Showcase (on arcades)
- TAL 620: “To Be Real” (including David Blaine)
- Radiolab: “The Gondolier” (on identity)
- Radiolab: “The Ceremony” (on cryptocurrency)
- Radiolab: “Oliver Sipple” (on civil rights)
- More Perfect: “American Pendulum II” (on Dred Scott)
- Reply All 86: “Man of the People” (on balls)
- 99% Invisible: “The Trails of Dan and Dave” (on Reebok)
- On the Media: “Unnatural Disaster” (on Harvey)
- Revisionist History: “A Good Walk Spoiled” (on golf courses)
- Waking Up With Sam Harris: “Forbidden Knowledge” (with Charles Murray)
I particularly enjoyed getting to see Sam Harris do a live taping of his podcast just a few weeks ago in SF, although the debate with Ben Shapiro ended up being up there among the most annoying of his tautological arguments.
I may come back and add more content here over time, but hopefully you got something out of reading! Happy holidays to all!