Here's the thing: those who know me know that I'm not terribly current on all the things that I love. With the sole exception of comics books, which I always will stay current on, I don't make it to the movies as often as I used to (or should, depending on your interpretation). I also don't read all the hot new books of the year. I try to listen to as much current music as I can, but sometimes, that shit just doesn't compare to The College Dropout. So I put that album on for the 5,000th time. So this is a list of the best movies, books, and music that I listened to this year. I'll have a section for each, and a note on whether it was new or old. But if that bothers you...well, no one's forcing you to read. I've also renamed this from the Best of 2011 to My Favorites of 2011 to acknowledge that my list is supremely biased and the reality that I just don't see and hear and read everything that I should.
I read a lot more books this year than last, I think. I'm going to say it's because of my Nook, but I don't know if that's the truth. I do know that it was a conscious decision and that I plan to keep it up. These aren't in any order, except for 1 and 2, and they're a mix of fiction, non-fiction and, of course, comic books.
7. Freedom - I'm putting this in the last spot because I have two terrible confessions regarding it. Number one, I think I like Franzen more than DFW. You'll find no mention of The Pale King on this list, and that's because I started reading it and I had to stop. I couldn't keep going. It wasn't that good. Maybe that means I'm not as smart as I'd like to imagine I am, but I prefer to think it means that novel wasn't ready to be released. Franzen's Freedom, on the other hand, is a perfectly crafted picture of people who are fucked up. Confession two, I'm not even done with this novel yet. I've been desperately trying to finish it for this write up, but between the end of the semester and the holiday season, I just haven't gotten to it. However, even without finishing it, I'm confident enough in what I've read so far to put it on this list. It's a fantastic look at who we are and how we get to be that way. We're not perfect, we're fucked up most of the time, and only some people really get that.
6. The Family Fang - Another novel that truly realizes that last point. Man, having kids will fuck everyone up. The parents, the kids. Everyone. It's even worse if they think of themselves as artists in some ways. Seriously. A great novel that looks at the family dynamic though that lens.
5. The Magician King - Lev Grossman is the new boss. He's writing the best fantasy. That's all there is to it. I didn't get to read The Magicians until this year, but as soon as I did, I knew that I would love the sequel. It was, perhaps, even better than the first, and there's word that there's going to be a third. Everyone knows that the best media comes in trilogies (ever wonder why we have so many names for threesomes: troika, triumvirate, trio, etc.?) and Grossman seems primed to take his place among those classic stories. The saga of Quentin continues in the tradition of "Return of the Jedi" insofar as it takes the darkest imaginable turn and yet, still manages to tell a story you're interested in continuing.
4. Born to Run - This book changed my life in a pretty literal way. I've now embarked on a journey of refusing to run in shoes for more than a year, which I'm hoping will keep me in the habit for the rest of my life. If you think of yourself as a runner and you haven't read it, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
3. You Can't Win - The other huge non-fiction book I read this year was a gift from my former roomie/best friend Derick, of tattoo fame. It was a sobering account of how some of the other people in this world used to live, and how some people still live. It was so good that I was encouraged by it to read more non-fiction; this is something I haven't followed through with yet, but something that will definitely follow me the rest of my reading life.
2. Daytripper - At this point, the books switch drastically. Daytripper was a comic that was published in 2010, but the TPB came out in 2011, so I feel OK with including it here, even though I should have been getting it monthly. This book is so damn good that I get mad at people who haven't read it. Which, you know, is most people. I don't wanna spoil some of the premise, but suffice it to say the book takes you through the life of a semi-ordinary guy in that new post-modern way that is so effective. Namely, there's a big twist and it's thoroughly entertaining.
1. Locke & Key - I've been repping this comic on my weekly reviews ever since Dave Jordan recommended it to me. I won't stop until it's done, and even then it'll have a permanent place with me. This is, by far, the best discovery of my comic life, maybe since I started comics. Definitely since Kingdom Come. It's an ongoing that's telling a whole story. It's got something different for so many different kings of people. It's horror. It's a love story. It's revenge. It's mythology. It's beautiful. It's an homage to Bill Waterson. It's everything a comic book can and should be in this post-modern age, and it's amazing and it's happening right in front of us and most people aren't enjoying it. It's a tragedy is what it truly is. Buy it. You won't regret it.
Other than those top 7, I read the His Dark Materials trilogy which were all good, but not as good as I wanted them to be, The Destructors which I thought was bad, The Historian, which wasn't great, but made me want to travel Europe and Asia extensively (oh yeah, and live forever), Hatchet, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and We All Fall Down for school, the last of which was great, if highly disturbing, the former two of which I'd read before but were solid reads again. I've also gotta stick up in a major way for everything that Scott Snyder wrote on Batman, whether it was Grayson or Wayne in the costume. The J.H. Williams Batwoman is head and shoulders above all other comic books in the superhero vein. Lastly, Jason Aaron's Scalped is damn near an epic saga. Great, great comics.
Same deal. The ones that came out this year make the list, and a few comments about the other great movies I saw.
1. Crazy, Stupid, Love. - The best movie I saw this year? Yep, I'm gonna say it was. Sorry, critic's favorites which I haven't seen yet. This movie had it all. Some laughs, some tears, some drama and some loving. It was great. Everyone seemed pitch perfect, playing their role and not chewing into others territory.
2. 50/50 - The second best movie I saw this year was a bit more depressing. The story of a guy my age who's a little bit anal retentive and cautious and gets cancer nonetheless is super sad in places and yet still manages to come off as a great story, without much moralizing. How? By dealing with a crappy topic head on, instead of giving us parables or inspirational montages. It says, hey, this is what it is, it sucks, but there's a chance that it'll get better. Really, really solid film.
3. Harry Potter 7.2 - You would think that the end of a story that everyone knows would kind of have nowhere to go but down, but you'd be so wrong. This might be the best Potter film since the middle of them. The ending was satisfying, I'm glad they kept the epilogue, I wish there had been even more of it. The Weasley Mom's line was satisfactory, but I wanted more. The Harry/Voldemort battle was great. The death tolls were emotionally wracking. It was great. I bought the 8 disc set on Bluray and I can't wait to relive all of them.
4. Moneyball - A good enough film, but more here for the great acting job. I knew the story, I was expecting it to be good enough. But what I wasn't ready for was how well Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill would inhabit their characters and how hard I would root for them. That, to me, was the triumph of the movie.
5. Captain America - The best of the comic books movies this year. The way it set everything up was masterful.
Hanna was fun, but not deserving of a spot on the list. Super 8 was cool, but not deserving of the worship that I was more than ready to pour on it. Thor was good, but I feel like all the ladies loved it more than the gentlemen.
I raced to see some movies at the beginning of the year that had come out previously, most of which were award winners last year. Some of these were older, such as The Darjeeling Limited, but count me as a late believer in Easy A, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, Winter's Bone, Love & Other Drugs, and Blue Valentine.
Green Lantern and Scream 4 were the notable exceptions this year, movies that I was expecting to like for a variety of reasons, and which turned out to be less than watchable.
I haven't seen Take Shelter, Young Adult, The Muppets, Tree of Life, The Descendants or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy yet and I think (hope) they would make my list. I'm probably not going to see Drive and I'm not sure I see the appeal.
8. The Weeknd's Mixtapes - Get them all here. They're worth your time, although if you're only now discovering them through my blog, you need some other kind of musical input in your life. I laughed when I heard the new wave of R&B called PBR&B, but now that's all I can classify The Weeknd as. Music to fuck or make love to. Either will work. For what it's worth, my order of greatness for these mixtapes goes 1, 3, 2. House of Balloons is definitely where you want to start if you haven't gotten anything yet. That start...Jesus...
7. Childish Gambino - I'm not gonna give it to Camp although it's the only one (I think?) to actually come out this year, but rather, him as a concept. I just found him this year and I know that lots of people rail against him as kind of indicative of the new rap that's semi-lazy, but I find him entertaining. Plus, anyone who's a true double threat as opposed to just dabbling in another genre because they're famous deserves respect. You can tell that he truly cares about both rapping and acting, and I think that's laudable.
6. Radiohead - King of Limbs - While at first I didn't care for this album, as the year has passed, I've really come to see that there are some great elements to it. It's extremely short, that's true, but I'm not sure that's the knock that I once saw it as. The mere fact that they're able to do what they want when they want, and that people will still buy their albums is a testament to the fact that they continue to put out great music. It may not be what any of us expect from them, at any given time, but hell, that's been true since OK Computer. I, for one, have come to see this as, perhaps the third or fourth best Radiohead record.
5. Wild Flag - Wild Flag - I got to Sleater/Kinney late, so when they broke up, I took it hard, with the passion of the convert. When I read that the Wild Flag record was coming, I tried to tamp down my expectations, because we all know what those flights of fancy can do to a product. But then, when the record actually dropped, I thought, "This might be the album of the year!" (It's not, obviously, according to my list. But...) The fervent energy of grrl power that infected so many of those stellar records of the 90s (not just S/K!) is present here, but some of the maturity that living the years since then (not to mention playing in a band with your ex-lover and going through the ups and downs of fame) plays a tempering role, as well. If you didn't listen to this record, and you don't consider yourself a hip-hop head, I honestly don't know what you were wasting your time with.
4. Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra - Easily the best mixtape of the year, and the one that makes the most sense as an album, too. This write up on his show presents the case that maybe Def Jam had a legitimately confusing case when they were trying to figure out what to do with this album, but the bottom line is, if you can't figure out how to make a star of this kid, you shouldn't have that job. His voice is powerful and his production is top-notch. (Remind you of anyone?) Between this, The-Dream and the Weeknd, 2011 really kind of snuck up as the year of revamped R&B, huh? Well, between all of it, Frank Ocean stands as king.
3. Wilco - The Whole Love - Wilco remains the steady companion, the one who consistently puts out great music that people seem to make less and less a big deal of since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I will never understand the undying devotion that album gets while they've done better and better things and gotten less and less press. The last three albums from Wilco's studio sessions hold up to anything they did before, while being pretty radically different. The Whole Love continues that trend, pushing the boundaries of what can truly be called pop music (they're not alt.country any more, if they ever truly were, if such a label ever truly existed) and still challenge our expectations; no signs of banality here. The way that the record starts, with "Art of Almost" and devolves even in the middle of that very song shows that Wilco is a band content to push against what people expect of them, in the best way.
2. TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light - Quietly, surely, TV on the Radio are taking over the world. When their next record drops, don't be surprised to come back here and hear me call them out as the next biggest band in the world. Their power has been there since the first album, and I'm not trying to showcase some awesome premonition skills, I think it's just a matter of common sense. They've been grinding year after year, turning out some of the most spectacular product that we as music fans have seen and yet...somehow, improbably, they haven't blown up. That's due to change. With Nine Types of Light they continue on the course, pushing the boundaries of what people will listen to, while also proving that you can thoroughly enjoy something that you wouldn't ever have had the balls to come up with yourself. Remember you read it here first when everyone, including your mother and the neighbors are wondering why they hadn't heard of TV on the Radio before.
1. Jay-Z & Kanye West - Watch the Throne - I'm not gonna waste a lot of time here. Kanye's my favorite rapper alive. I honestly think Jay is pushing the point where he's gotta be the best rapper of all time ("I'm leading the league in at least six statistical categories right now!"). When they get together for an album, even if it's got some duds in it, I'm going to put it on top of my list. The hits are hits anyway you slice it (although I can't understand all the love that "Welcome to the Jungle" is getting!) and the duds are still a lot better than most of the crap on the radio. Amazingly, some people I know still haven't heard this record. Do yourself a favor.
Lupe's Lasers disappointed in a pretty significant way, but other than that, I didn't have any albums that I was really looking forward to that threw me off track. I didn't listen to the new Foo Fighters, so I'm not bummed by it, and the Strokes' album probably deserves a note about how much better it was than I expected. Cut Copy's Zonoscope also has earned its playcount in my library. I came late to the bandwagon for Fiction but I'm more than pleased to ride it.
Tyler's "Yonkers" has no place on my list, nor does any of Adele's material. While I appreciate their brilliance, in totally different ways, I just didn't like them that much. Wayne's single ("6'7"") has no place on here because it came out so much earlier than the album and the album sucked. I've never listened to Gaga.
7. Chris Brown featuring Busta Rhymes and Lil' Wayne - "Look At Me Now" - The production and the Busta guest verse make it. I hate Chris Brown with a deep passion, so I'm not going to talk about anything else.
6. The Weeknd - "House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls" - Even with "D.D." out on the new mix, I think this stands as the highlight of a year ruled by dirty, dirty, dirty R&B. It's damn near impossible to truly separate these songs and if you haven't heard any of them, I guess I'd suggest you start with "D.D." but if you're looking around all three albums, I'm not sure I'd believe you if you said one was better than "HOB/GTG".
5. Mr. Muthafuckin' Esquire featuring Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown & El-P - "Huzzah" (Remix) - In a year where underground hip-hop seemed to make a comeback, this stood out as the best. I can't believe this didn't make it to the radio, except for a few totally believable reasons: the main artist's name, Danny Brown's voice, and the total sonic dissonance with everything else that's popular right now.
4. Lana Del Rey - "Videogames" - I don't care at all about the controversy regarding her creation. All I care about is the fact that this song got stuck in my head and it was good as hell. I can't wait for her record. If this is what we get due to market-testing and A&Rs creating what they think the people want, I'm all for it. I dare you to listen to this song, sans knowledge of who she is and where she comes from, and tell me it's not solid.
3. M83 - "Midnight City" - I had this track as my number one for a long time, but it just felt dishonest. As crazy as "N****s in Paris" makes me "Midnight City" does so even more. This is the song that single-handedly slapped me and made me ashamed that I hadn't listened to M83 before. Great as "N****s in Paris" is, I'm not sure it'd be anyone's choice for introducing Kayne or Jay. The atmosphere of this song, on the other hand, the way it didn't care about anything that was on the radio, the way it was refuge from the too-sweet-ness of Adele (which was everywhere and I liked, but shit, enough is enough) made it just overwhelming in a manner that was necessary and is always welcome. Easily one of my favorite songs of the year...but not the best.
2. Pusha T featuring Tyler, the Creator - "Trouble on my Mind" - When it comes to sound, the Neptunes ruled this world, once upon a time. (And speaking of sound, this has gotta be the incestuous cousin of "Huzzah" - both so spare, both so dark, and yet...so different.) Between this and Buddy's "Awesome, Awesome," things really picked up for them. But that's not the sole reason for this track making it. (You'll notice no Buddy here.) The way that Pusha T raps, I really feel, he has potential to go up against the greatest to ever do it. I'm not sure he's got the potential to be the best, but he's so menacing. This song, more than any other, conveys that menace. It's the sonic equivalent of bullying and it's so damn satisfying to put it on, close your eyes and picture some serious shit-wrecking.
1. Jay-Z & Kanye West - "N****s in Paris" - The biggest song of the year and easily (through their own doing) the most over-played. When people started flipping for this song (on the very night the album dropped, we could tell it was going to be the biggest), nobody had any idea they would eventually play this song 11 times in a row. (Not. Exaggerating.) However, even overplaying their own song that many times hasn't managed to dull its impact. It can be critical studies or it can be pure pop enthusiasm but either way it's a hell of a jam.
That's it for me, for 2011. See y'all next year.