Tuesday, January 1, 2013

the best and worst of 2012.

Best of 2012 – As is custom, I've made up a list of things I enjoyed (and a few that I didn't) in the last year. You can read more, if you'd like.

Books – I read more books this year than any year since I was a kid. This was a continued concerted effort, and I'm happy that it's kept up as well as it has. I'm not sure how much more it can improve next year, but as long as it maintains, that's the important thing. As usual, this isn't a list of the best books of 2012, since I didn't read many new releases (with a few notable exceptions, and that's one area I'm going to attempt to improve next year) but just the best things I read over the course of the year. My list below does not include To Kill A Mockingbird, even though I reread it for school again this year, nor any of the other so-called kid books I read, with one exception. There is no order to this list at all, until the very end, where my top five are very clear.

Worst/Most Overrated

The New 52 – More than a year in, this has proved to be a bad move insofar as actual comics being produced. Maybe they're selling more, so they consider it a success, but they're wrong. Even the good titles that we were impressed by have largely fallen off. At this point, I'm reading about a third of the DC books that I was pre-DCnU.

Marvel NOW! - On the other side of the Big 2 aisle, things aren't going much better. With relaunches being proved to be all the rage by DC, Marvel quickly ran with the idea and finished up their arcs with Avengers vs. X-Men which, sure, seemed like it had been semi-planned out, but there was more lost than was gained. It's still early, so I'll give it the same chance I did the New 52, but I'm far from optimistic.

Spider-Man 700 – As I said above, the Marvel Now initiative has been lackluster thus far. But a particular lowlight came out just last week with the pile of shit that was the end of the road for The Amazing Spider-Man. I was considering buying a copy of the issue, despite my post-Brand New Day boycott of Spider-Man, for the collector in me (and because I loved that cover>) but after I read the story, I knew I could not contribute my dollars to this epic fail. I'm sure they'll make plenty of money on this issue and on the debut of Superior Spider-Man, and my measly 8 dollars won't truly hurt a company that's underwritten by Disney, but I've got to stand by my morals.

On Other Lists, I Haven't Read Yet, But I'm Planning To

The Casual Vacancy - I'll get to it eventually.
Telegraph Avenue - The next book I'm reading, promise.

Not Quite Making the List

The Book Thief – I finally read Zusak's heavily lauded book and it was good. The approach to narration was great, and there were some lines in the novel that made me weep like a baby. But, overall? It wasn't one of the best books I've ever read.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - One of my baby brother's favorite books, I'm glad I've finally read it. It was a lot of fun and I'm glad to have it under my belt, but it didn't quite live up to the classic status that I'd been dumped over the head with.

The Best

American Gods - I'm shamefully behind on Gaiman's fiction and this is where I chose to start. I'll get to more, and some people have told me this was their least favorite of his, but I found it intriguing if not particularly unpredictable. Wednesday was great as was the cellmate Low Key. The mythos of the book was what made it clear that Gaiman is a true student of history.

Ender's Game – Another one from baby brother that I'd been painfully ignorant about. My students talk to me about this classic every once in a while, so it was good to get it done. Highly recommended.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – As good as billed and totally different than I was expecting. I didn't get it at first, I thought there was going to be some grand battle with some Big Bad, but when I finally resigned myself to the historical nature of the text, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Ready Player One - An attempt to get current, I know this came out last year, but it was damn good. Full of in-jokes for nerds and geeks, it was close to what I think the future is actually going to be like, so that was fun.

Gone Girl – My first real current attempt, and I'm glad it was here. This almost made my top 5, but it felt like kind of cheating with how much fun it was versus the seriousness of the top 5. Flynn weaves the tale of a disappeared wife with expert narration from many points of view and the twists never stop coming. Even the ending has both a twist and a chuckle. It's also meta in a fantastic manner, with tons of references to the TV shows that she's emulating, although they're thinly veiled for obvious reasons.

5. Readicide - Look, I'm not going to get into much detail here, but I am going to say this: If you are a teacher and you haven't read this book you need to do so. It was depressing and enlightening all at once and I can't imagine going any further in my profession without what I've learned here.

4. The Fault in our Stars - This was the year John Green broke through to the mainstream. As a longtime nerdfighter, I couldn't be happier. The fact that it was with this book, which served up some clearly semi-autobiographical material just made it all the better. A cancer book that isn't a cancer book and stands more tall for the blatant ways in which it deals with unpleasant truths, the love story of Gus and Hazel is refreshing in its frankness, both in regards to illness and how intelligent young people can be.

3. The Marriage Plot - Heartbreaking. The title maps on to the plot and we can see the poor choices that Madeleine is making while she's making them. This came out last year, and if you haven't read it yet, it should jump to the top of your list - with 2 exceptions.

2. Freedom - Just a tiny bit more heartbreaking. Franzen knows how to take a simple thing like a family unit and just expertly break them down. All the plot points have stayed with me, despite the fact that it was the first book I read this year, and many of the pet causes of Walter Berglund have become things that I am passionate about discussing. He is my favorite and least favorite protagonist that I encountered this year and my love for The Corrections was only enhanced by the fact that this novel was so clear cut and down to earth. It never got too self-obsessed with the language of itself and always put the story ahead of pretentiousness. Read it.

1. Cloud Atlas - Easily the novel that I spent the most time in 2012 obsessing over. Because of leaving America, I still haven't seen the movie (which I'll discuss in more detail below) but I finally got to cross this one off the list, which it'd been on for a while, because I knew I had to read it before the movie came out. Thank God I did. I think that this is one of the most ambitiously sprawling, epic in scope books that I've ever read. It's incredible the way the stories seem to weave together and the differences in writing style that David Mitchell masters in the course of this book will give anyone who thinks they're a writer a serious case of envy. Unbelievable that it sat on my list for as long as it did. If you haven't read this book yet, give it a go. I'm not sure that it's for everyone, and the first section is intensely difficult to get through, but if you do, I think you'll be hooked.

*

Movies – The order of the films, for me, is easier than music, so these are pretty firm spots, other than the second section where I acknowledge that I haven't seen some of the things that people thought were really amazing, and that, if I had seen those, my list would probably look a bit different.

Worst/Most Overrated

Moonrise Kingdom – Maybe it was watching it on a plane that didn't allow me to give it the attention that it deserved, or maybe Wes Anderson is just slowing down. I thought The Darjeeling Limited was terrible and while this wasn't nearly that bad, I don't think there's a lot more to be said about his telling the same type of story over and over.

On Other Lists, I Haven't Seen Yet, But I'm Planning To

The Master
Argo
Skyfall
Zero Dark Thirty
Life of Pi
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Lincoln

Not Quite Making the List

Looper – It was good, but it wasn't grand. I thought it was going to be more intelligent, and I'm OK with the fact that it wasn't, but it could have been so much more.

The Hobbit - I knew going in that it was going to end before we got to really see Smaug, and I knew that I was more excited for him than anything else so, while the movie was great fun, it wasn't what I wanted. I don't fault the movie for that, I fault myself, but I also won't give it a spot on the best of list, even if that list is ridiculously small.

The Best

3. Avengers - Not the best superhero movie, as some are claiming (that still goes to Iron Man) but it proved that we can do team movies and they'll work and, even more importantly, it proved that Joss Whedon is the guy to do that. The Avengers was so much fun, not just because I got to work on it (cough cough) and it will hold up for a long time. The fact that they've got such immaculate plans for the future cinematic universe bodes well, too.

2. Django Unchained - Sure, there were plenty of times where I felt uncomfortable and, yeah, there were some over the top bits, but if you didn't think you were going to get that in a Tarantino-helmed take on slavery and its terrible ramifications, you're shitting yourself. The movie was great, the soundtrack was hilarious, and the overall message...? Well, I'm not sure there was one. And if you're projecting one on it, you're probably doing that more from your own experiences than from the movie itself. I enjoyed it.

1. The Dark Knight Rises – I don't care if you didn't like it, it was damn good, and all the things that you thought were bad about it, I didn't really see, and I think you're not looking hard enough or you're looking too hard. Seriously. I can't believe that it's come to the point where I have to defend this movie as best of the year. It was so, so, so, so good, but it just seems that, as the year's gone by, more and more people have felt emboldened to say that it wasn't good. It was. And Chris Nolan is a damn fine filmmaker.

*

TV

Just a quick section here to say that the Newsroom was better than the haters want you to believe, Homeland was amazing, Game of Thrones is great, Breaking Bad is going for the glory with its finale, and Community was the king but will probably never be the same.

*

Music – As usual, this is in loose order, counting down from what I thought was good to what I thought was the best.

Worst/Most Overrated

Chief Keef – Inside this year, this kid was poised to take over the world. Words cannot express how glad I am that he did not. I don't really understand people who continue to defend him but, on the other hand, I'm a bit old. Maybe I'm not supposed to.

Mirage Rock – Not sure how it's ending up on so many lists, this was the weakest album from Band Of Horses ever. Really bummed by how bad it was.

Danny Brown – I don't get it. I can't go with his voice. I've never enjoyed anything I've heard him on (notable exceptions for “Black and Brown” on Black Milk's Album of the Year, all of which stays on repeat, and “1 Train”) and I can't see why people want to fall all over themselves to crown him.

On Other Lists, I Haven't Heartd Yet, But I'm Planning To

Sean Price – Mic Tyson – I have no excuse for not listening to this album yet, but I'm going to and I'm sure I'll love it.

Not Quite Making the List

Cat Power – Sun – It was good, but only halfway there.
Passion Pit – Gossamer – This was a fun album, but I didn't go gaga over it like others apparently did.
G.O.O.D. Music – Cruel Summer – 5 good songs don't make an album, even if they were some of the best songs of the year. (Spoiler alert.)

The Best

The Shins – Port of Morrow – I thought Wincing The Night Away was their weakest album thus far, so I was really pleased with this return.

Kendrick Lamar – good kid, maad city – The album that everyone thought was the best album of the year almost didn't even make my list. “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe” is great and “Swimming Pools” was fantastic, but the comparisons to Illmatic are insanely overblow. Come on. Just because he has skits? In that case, give Album of the Year to Big Boi! Nah, it's good, but it's not the best. Also, I don't know why this isn't a bigger issue in everyone else's estimation, but it's a mistake to sequence 2 Dr. Dre features back to back. “Collect Calls” is insanely underrated, it's too bad it got relegated to bonus track status.

Beach House – Bloom – Loved it. Perfect chill music.

Meg Myers - Daughter in the Choir - A great, great album that you can get for free. If the world was a just place, we'd know for sure that she's going to be huge someday, but as it stands, you should grab it just so you can know something that your friends don't.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist – Although I'm glad that “Thrift Shop” is getting radio play and the video is admittedly hilarious, it's definitely one of the two worst songs (along with “Castle”) on the album. This is not up for debate, nor is the fact that part of the reason both of those songs suffer is their blatant pandering for radio play. It worked in the case of the former and I kind of hope that it does for the latter, just so more people will be exposed to the album. But I mean, those are some seriously bad songs. Fortunately, the rest of the songs on the album are incredible. We can start with “Same Love” but it's so much more than that. The crazy love he's got for Seattle (“My Oh My”), the sequel-of-sorts to “Otherside” where he confesses that he's relapsed (“Starting Over” - way better Ben Bridewell than on the Band of Horses album), and the instrumental (“BomBom”) show the diversity of one of the best new white rappers. Anyone who tells you it's overly sentimental is crazy.

Progressive Era - Joey Bada$$ is the best sure, and 1999 was great, but this whole crew is good! The SECC$ Tape was one of the better downloads of the year, more worth your time than anything from Ross ("Triple Beam Dreams" aside) or Weezy, for sure. Get on them now, cuz it's almost too late to claim you were early.

The xx – Coexist – I have a complicated relationship with The xx. I thought the "Intro" track on their last album was a failed promise, one of the best songs I've ever heard, and that the rest of the album could never live up to that brilliant 2 minutes. This album, then, weighed pretty heavily on me when it came out. I was relieved to hear "Angels" as the first track, since I'd already heard and loved it, and the rest of the album, at least in my opinion, more than lived up to that track. For my money, the album continues to ramp up as it moves through its tracklist, culminating at the end, with perfect precision in the shoegaze fashion.

Killer Mike – RAP Music – Personally, I'll take this over Kendrick Lamar's album. I know that might (probably does) put me on the outside looking in, but I'm OK with that, too. Southern rap plus production by El-P is better than West Coasters every day, in my mind.

5. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangers Rumors – Sir Lucious Leftfoot was slept on. This one came out earlier than we had any right to expect, but it still didn't get the respect it should have. All over the world, kids are clamoring for the return of Outkast, but while 3K seems to have no interest in rapping whatsoever, Big's been holding it down for rap fans for years. He's consistently overlooked, which is ridiculous. This album presents a great circle (beginning with "Ascending" and ending with "Descending" gives the whole thing a sense of intention that's missing from a lot of rap albums) where, admittedly, things get quite a bit scatter-brained. The album wanders at times, but that's going to happen when you've opened yourself up to as many avenues as Antwan Patton has - he's still the guy who looked at Andre and thought he'd make a great partner, after all! But for all the wandering, the songs are pretty great most of the time, and even when they go off the rails ("Shoes For Running") they do so in spectacular fashion. "Tremendous Damage" should be a single, it's a winner in the department of songs that can be on the radio and not suffer for that.

4. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel... - Listening to it again gives it a depth that you might miss on your first go-through. However, this album suffers from one of the worst endings I've ever heard in a near-masterpiece. If she'd left “Hot Knife” off this record entirely, or replaced it with something else, it might have been top 2 material. As it is, there's an R&B singer below who took her spot for sure.

3. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange – It took me about five listens to really appreciate it, but once I did, it stayed in my head forever. On first listen, I dismissed it as not nearly as good as Nostalgia, Ultra, but there's so much more going on with this album. I think it might have been overshadowed (and I know that's probably the wrong word, but...) by his orientation letter on Tumblr, and maybe I was distracted (again, wrong word) by that. But, honestly, if it didn't hit you over the head right away, go back and listen to it. We all know “Pyramids” was epic and “Thinkin Bout You” was (and is) a personal favorite, but there's so much more to the whole record.

2. Nas – Life is Good – The album that we've been waiting for as hip-hop fans: someone has finally grown up and made a real-ass record about it. Nas never could have made Watch the Throne, for a variety of reasons, but this album trumps that one in so many ways. It's not an album of excess, but it's not a record of depression either. It's simply an accurate reflection of the way most of our lives go: we get a little older, we still feel like we did ten years ago, but we can't do a lot of the same things. Nas isn't out of touch with the common man and that's never been a better thing than here.

1. A$AP Rocky – Long Live ASAP – So much better than so many other things that got five times as much hype. “1 Train” deserves all the praise it's getting, but there are so many great songs on this album. Remember when “Goldie” dropped and we all thought it was the best thing we'd heard and that it put “Peso” to shame? Well, then the album came out and “Goldie” was (is) a highlight, sure, but it's nowhere near the best thing on the album. The A$AP Mob has lived up to all their hype and that's one of the most rare things in our current era. Rocky succeeds in repping the East Coast in the way that everyone is tripping over themselves to declare that Kendrick has done for the Westerners. In this case, though, the hype doesn't overshadow the product and we'll be listening to this album for a long, long time. Head and shoulders above everything else, with the exception of Nas, who would have grabbed album of the year if this hadn't leaked. Sorry God's Son, there's a new King of NY.

Songs

Worst/Most Overrated - I don't listen to the radio much, so I don't have much to say here. As always, no hate is intended, but if you loved these songs, we're probably not friendly anyway, so to hell with it.

“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” It's cute the first time, and maybe it's my Kanye-love, but give me a break already with this BS, TS. It's old.

“Okay Cupid” Annnnd, I lied when I said no hate was intended. This never should have been released and if John Green isn't honestly trolling with his affection for this song I just don't get it.

The Best - Pretty firmly in order.

“Call Me Maybe” - Sure, it's pop music, but it's almost perfect pop music. Infectious, fun to hum and ultimately meme-worthy.

“Some Nights” - Way better than the first single and an authentically fun song (honestly, no pun intended, although I'm sure they're nigh-unavoidable).

“Stay Schemin'” - I can't believe this song came out this year. It was clear it was going to be one of the best immediately and it's incredible to see that it holds up a year later.

“Mercy” - Cruel Summer may have been a disappointment, but that's only because we'd heard the gems a million times before it dropped. Of all the great music to come off the album (the first half is solid), this got the most press and had the video that everyone loved. "Swerve!" gets tons of love, as it should, but the fact that Kanye continues to (successfully) push 2 Chainz is probably the most remarkable thing.

“New God Flow” - While "Mercy" got the love, "New God Flow" got the hip-hop heads' attention. It's an incredible song and it's got the best in the game doing their best work. Kanye is inspired by Pusha the way Jay used to be inspired by Kanye. Ghostface getting in on the album cut just made the song even better, as Kanye's always been pretty good about acknowledging where things come from. If you didn't get Cruel Summer, you missed out on the best version of the best song of the year.

No comments: