The best of 2011 so far
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We’ve passed the halfway point of 2011. What are your favorite 2011 books, movies, albums, songs, TV episodes, etc. to date? What’s likely to turn up on your year-end favorites list?
Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, the sequel to his bestseller The Magicians, isn’t out yet, but I scored an early copy, and I enjoyed it even more than the first book: It has less to prove about Harry Potter/Narnia “in the real world,” and more room to just spread out into its characters and its own story. Speaking of spreading out, George R.R. Martin’s immense, sprawling novel A Dance With Dragons was frustrating in some ways, but immensely satisfying in others, and I don’t expect to read a more ambitious or accomplished book this year. And in spite of the haters (many of whom haven’t seen it), I’m still deeply fond of Mike Cahill’s film Another Earth, which was beautiful and touching in equal measure.
If the year ended today, my favorite album of 2011 would probably be Fucked Up’s David Comes To Life. It’s simply the most exhilarating, flat-out moving rock ’n’ roll I’ve heard so far this year. (With a hat tip to Kurt Vile, Wye Oak, Bon Iver, and Bill Callahan, who will likely make my Top 10.) If I were to get really specific—which is easy to do when you have 18 songs and 78 minutes to choose from—the most thrilling part of David Comes To Life is the outro of “Queen Of Hearts,” where Damian Abraham’s scorched-earth vocal drops out and the guitars slam-dance against each other for 90 glorious seconds. Honestly, the whole record could just be that 90 seconds on repeat, and I’d still love David Comes To Life.
Despite the extensive strip-mining of the popular culture of the last 60 years or so, the home-video industry does still manage to put out the occasional treasure box. This past spring, it was The Ernie Kovacs Collection, a six-disc set from Shout! Unlike previous attempts to distill Kovacs’s work, this one eschews a greatest-hits approach in favor of full discs devoted to the weird morning and game shows his bewildered employers tossed him into. It offers a faint sense of what it might have been like to turn on the TV and see the set unexpectedly taken over by this affable lunatic.
The most underrated great movie I’ve seen this year may be Of Gods And Men, a slow, hushed, meditative film that snuck into my system and actually suggested what it might be like to have the mindset to go with a religious vocation. It even features an enormous damn tree of life, for those who are into that sort of thing.
Normally, I’m a singles guy. But this year has seemed more like an albums one to me, and the big reason for that is Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What, which I’m starting to think is the best album he’s made—period. It’s a sharply etched singer-songwriter album like his first three solo discs, with the global colors of Graceland, all effortlessly deployed. “Rewrite” is like a cross between “Duncan” and “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” (both from 1972’s Paul Simon), but deeper, sharper, more empathetic, bigger-hearted. That’s the album as well.
Those qualities apply to Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham: New York as well. It’s the most involving documentary I’ve seen in years. Cunningham is married to his work, biking all over town to take photos of fashion on the street, to edit into his “Street Style” page of The New York Times. The scene late in the film in which he accepts an award is the most surprising, moving moment of the year—I won’t spoil it, but in a very real sense, nothing could. Simon is 70; Cunningham, more than 80. I’m only 36, but I get a lot of sustenance from seeing these old guys continue to do their work so well.
If you haven’t purchased Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s new book, Writing Movies For Fun And Profit, well, then you probably don’t currently own it. But you should. Most of us had no idea how entrenched the State/Reno 911! alumni have become in Hollywood, writing blockbusters like Night At The Museum (and abject failures including Taxi). A first glance suggests their tome is for shits and giggles, and there are laughs, but it’s also a ludicrously candid, useful glimpse inside big-studio culture. The best album of the year has been Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’. No other groups in 2011 have blasted through their musical past with such welcoming, nimble warmth as the underrated soul/R&B mastermind. But when it comes to making every second count, nothing compares to the gangbuster minutes during which Breaking Bad’s silent-assassin drug kingpin Gus shows Walt and Jesse who’s the boss halfway through its season-four première. Vince Gilligan is the only guy in TV drama really trying to get inside our heads, and in one preposterously awesome scene, he and his devoted cast proved that high-rated entertainment can also be primal and unrelenting.
I second Steve on Fucked Up and Kenny on Raphael Saadiq, and I’ll add to that list a few more: Cult Of Youth’s self-titled album, Mamiffer’s Mare Decendrii, Jesu’s Ascension, Krallice’s Diotima, Iceage’s New Brigade, and Prurient’s Bermuda Drain. I’ve reviewed them all in our regular music section or in my monthly column, Loud, so I’ll skip rehashing my opinions on these six very different, very incredible discs. Suffice it to say, their freshness, darkness, uniqueness, and passion—from baby-faced newcomers like Iceage and hardened vets like Jesu—has gotten me more excited about 2011 than any music year in recent memory. Book-wise, on the other hand, 2011 feels a little lackluster so far. Granted, I’m savoring every page of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, and I’ve loved Graham Joyce’s The Silent Land, Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, and Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless. But I’m usually struggling to keep up with all the promising new novels that pile up on my nightstand—and this year, for some reason, not so much.
I really enjoyed Tina Fey’s book Bossypants: The part of me that wants to know everything about her wishes it included a bit more about her personal history, but that’s a minor quibble. I happened to listen to the audiobook, which I think is one of the rare instances where the recorded version of the book might be superior to the print version, since you get to hear Tina’s voice in her voice. I love that she’s funny and tough and thoughtful, but there’s something a little old-fashioned about her that appeals to me, and she explores that more in her book.
Also, it’s over now, but I was really drawn into the NBA semifinals and finals. Of course, a lot of it had to do with my hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, making it so far. There was something cathartic about the team of youngsters developing their own legacy, one that’s so much humbler than that of the Michael Jordan era. But maybe even more delicious was the nation’s hatred of the Miami Heat, which was 99 percentage due to Lebron James painting himself as a mustache-twirling villain the day he held us all hostage to tell us he was going to take his talents to Miami. The Heat were temporarily the Yankees of basketball, a team built more on money than heart, and they had to be beaten. Sadly, the Bulls were not the team to do it, but the Mavericks were a pretty great team to root for instead, with their ancient combined age and unlikely hero in Dirk Nowitzki. I’m not sure there’s ever been a time in my life where I felt so invested in a series in which my team wasn’t playing (and I didn’t have money riding on it, either). It was very satisfying that in this case, the good guys won.
I’ve watched more television than the average person would consider sane, but three hours in particular stood out over the first half of 2011. First up, I have to praise the best episode of the best television show this year so far. Justified exceeded the promise from its first year during its second season, with “Brother’s Keeper” the high-water mark for the show. Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and Margo Martindale were all in top form, and the various plot strands, allegiances, and simmering tension boiled over into a TV tour de force. Runner-up? The funniest episode of the best comedy on television, Parks And Recreation’s “Flu Season.” (Had this hilarious hour also contained Ron Swanson’s drunken dance from “The Fight,” it might have taken the gold.) Coming in third, the marvelous Fringe flashback episode “Subject 13.” It was an achingly powerful hour that reaffirmed the beating heart at the center of its interdimensional war. There are dozens more I could mention, but these three stand out as the finest the first half of 2011 had to offer on the small screen.
While my list of favorite albums includes plenty of overlap with others—albums by Bon Iver, tUnE-yArDs, and The Decemberists among them—a few albums “below the radar” are among my favorites of 2011. Odd Future member Frank Ocean is one of those talents who probably suffers from the group’s negative press; Ocean’s Nostalgia/Ultra isn’t filled with violent invective against women. Instead, Ocean references Coachella and Radiohead and croons about the apocalypse on the stunning “Strawberry Swing,” his lyrics flowing over music swiped from Coldplay’s song of the same name. Ocean has a silky voice that could set him apart from his Odd Future mates, and that’d only be a good thing. On the other end of the spectrum, Sit Resist by Laura Stevenson & The Cans is a slice of indie-pop heaven with a kitchen-sink mentality: chiming guitars, strings, violins, and Stevenson’s soaring voice all stack atop one another, and the results are shimmering, if a bit twee, pop songs. One more album that impressed me in the first half of 2011 was an album that, though out in Europe, has no official U.S. date pegged to it yet: Patrick Wolf’s Lupercalia. A glittery indie/electro-pop album filled to the brim with songs about love, it’s made for a great, upbeat listen, especially during summer commutes. Hopefully, the album will see a stateside release soon so it can garner the attention it deserves.
No album has brought me more pure joy this year than Lonely Island’s Turtleneck & Chain. I went through about a week when I listened to nothing but “Jack Sparrow.” I have committed the song to memory. Every part is pure genius: Who else could get Michael Bolton to really throw himself into the line, “This whole town’s a pussy just waiting to get fucked!” When I received the Pirates Of The Caribbean box set recently, I was tempted to watch it solely out of affection for that song. The members of Lonely Island understand what they’re spoofing better than their ostensible targets; T-Pain doesn’t understand T-Pain the way Lonely Island does, which is why its spoofs feel so definitive. Speaking of definitive spoofs, the godfather of funny music, “Weird Al” Yankovic, scored a fantastic comeback album with Alpocalypse, which alternated between spoofs of sticky, ephemeral pop like the pitch-black Miley Cyrus spoof “Party In The USA” and inspired originals like the melancholy character study “Skipper Dan” and the Jim Steinman homage “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me,” a spot-on, exhaustive cataloguing of everything that makes email such a powerful tool for douchebaggery and irritation. Yes, it’s been a great year for purveyors of funny music, and it’s only half over.
Music-wise, I may be the only one who’d admit to this, but I’m really enjoying Yes’ Fly From Here, the group’s first record with new vocalist Benoit David. As a fan of Drama, which was the first time we saw the band attempt an album without Jon Anderson as frontman, I was pleased to hear that David sounds like a hybrid between Anderson and Trevor Horn. I know it’s terribly, terribly uncool to like Yes, and no, Fly From Here isn’t what you’d call a great Yes album, but it maintains enough of the band’s classic sound to keep a smile on my face throughout its run time. On the book front, it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten as much enjoyment out of a rock bio as Bob Mould’s See A Little Light… but, then, that may be because it’s so much more than just a rock bio. I got a lot of great flashbacks out of his stories of Hüsker Dü and the classic Minneapolis music scene of the ’80s, but beyond that, Mould delves deeply into his personal life, discussing the trials and tribulations of coming out of the closet, a process that took him decades to fully complete. It’s also fun to get the inside story on his work as a professional-wrestling scriptwriter. My God, I had no idea wrestling was fake…
I’ve enjoyed many solid, fulfilling pop-culture experiences so far this year, but two in particular stand out for me as deserving a spot on this year’s best-of list. Duncan Jones’ excellent Source Code was the kind of smart, well-crafted science fiction that almost never gets made anymore. I loved its exploration of the Philip K. Dick-esque themes of what it means to be human and the nature of reality. Heck, I’m even one of the few who thought the ending was fine. I’m eagerly awaiting whatever he comes up with next. In music, Telekinesis’s 12 Desperate Straight Lines keeps finding its way back into my CD player, thanks to a batch of strong pop songs that reference everything from The Cure to ELO while still maintaining a distinctive identity.
I’ve had a pretty good pop-cultural 2011 so far, but the highlight, by far, has been Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. I talk too much in this space about how my conservative Christian upbringing (and my break from that upbringing) informs my current views of culture, but it’s impossible for me to talk about Tree without mentioning it. Tree is a riff on the story of Job, on the idea of man’s relationship with God and vice versa, with the audacity to visually present the segment of Job where God talks for several chapters about all the shit He’s done that Job wasn’t around for: the cosmos erupting, dinosaurs dying, the universe expanding. In the Old Testament, especially, God is a mystery, with only a few people privy to an audience with Him. His ways are utterly foreign to us, and there’s no way to understand what He’s up to. We say He loves us mostly because we sure hope that’s true. If it isn’t, we’re done for. But the history of religion often involves sapping such a thing of that mystery, bringing God down to our level and making Him a best friend who will help us find our car keys or get that promotion, even as He probably has other things to worry about. He becomes a father figure with twinkling eyes, a Santa Claus in the sky. Tree (which takes its name from the other tree in the Garden of Eden, the one Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from, lest they become too like God) restores the mystery to God and the workings of the universe. Why do people suffer tragedy? You can never know. You can only push through it. There’s no grand plan, just things we will only, maybe, understand when we come to the end (as shown in the film’s elegaic, symbolic conclusion). After leaving the theater playing Tree, I felt like I was swimming through too-dense air for several hours, unable to deal with the physical world, so tuned in did it seem to be to whatever spiritual side I have left. Malick restores the mystery, and in doing so, he removes the narcissism of believing God really does care about our petty problems. Even if He does, we’d never be able to comprehend His thoughts anyway. Best to take care of each other and not hope an eternal Someone will do it for us.
Besides seconding the NBA Finals, let me give it up for Eleanor Friedberger’s Last Summer, her solo debut. I actually like The Fiery Furnaces half the time, but I’m glad she got away from her brother Matthew for a while. With the exception of “Glitter Gold Year” (which I like too, but which seems to annoy the people who can’t stand the Furnaces), there’s nothing on here to drive away anyone who’s found the Furnaces too purposefully obtuse; instead, there’s peppy sax solos and not-too-heavy-handed ballads. I’m also heartened by how geographically specific she is, whether she’s talking about the F train she caught, the lightning she saw coming from 38th St., or the limo she took a photo next to on Manhattan Ave. As a Brooklyn resident, it panders to me. I’ve had some good luck pushing this on people who couldn’t stomach the Furnaces proper. The video’s cute, too—a little too cute at the end, but I’ll let it go.
I’m in agreement with Kenny; the Gus Fring-shows-who’s-in-charge scene in the season-four première of Breaking Bad was the most dramatically tense, chilling scene I’ve seen on TV since… well, since season three of Breaking Bad ended. And while I agree with Ryan about Amy Poehler’s performance in “Flu Season,” the episode of Parks And Recreation that showcased what the entire cast was capable of was the eventful season finale, “Li’l Sebastian.” From Ron Swanson’s facial-hair woes to Tom leaving to work with Jean-Ralphio and Detlef Schrempf to April becoming Andy’s wifeager (wife + manager), it covered all bases. And of course, there was the big cliffhanger: Will Leslie choose her perfect romance with Ben, or the political career she always wanted?
And, even though the song “Pumped Up Kicks” from Foster The People came out in 2010, it entered most people’s consciousness this year. It hasn’t left my head since, so there’s that. Finally, thanks to The Voice, I’ve become a big Blake Shelton fan, first of all because he was funny, but secondly because he encouraged Dia Frampton to do a version of Kanye West’s “Heartless” that was as well-executed as it was ballsy. It was my favorite moment from the show, and the only song from it I’ll end up downloading via iTunes.