Once again, I'm pretty sure I got through the whole year without listening to 10 total new releases, so doing a Top 10 list seemed a bit absurd. Here are a handful of shorter lists that hopefully you will find interesting:
Top 3 New Albums I actually listened to this year:
3. The Roots, How I Got Over
Another great album from a great band. I even loved the bonus track "Hustla" with the weird baby-crying sample.
2. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot
I hope he and Andre 3000 do more work together in the future, but if Big Boi's solo output remains this good, there will be nothing to complain about if they don't.
1. Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I'm going to have to go with the critical consensus on this one. I've just been obsessed with this album, and there's no denying that it was my personal favorite of the year, despite its flaws, and despite my reservations about it. In fact, with the possible exception of some albums by The Roots or Lupe Fiasco, I might have to go back to The College Dropout to find a new record I played this incessantly. I'm glad Kanye has been able to harness his batshit craziness to create something so compelling!
Top 3 Joni Mitchell albums besides Blue:
I've been listening to tons of Joni Mitchell this year, much more than I've been listening to new music. I started with Blue, which unsurprisingly is an incredible album. What I didn't realize, however, was just how much first-rate material she created in the 1970s. There are a number of absolutely classic albums that I had never even heard of before. Below are three albums which, in my opinion, are as much worth listening to as Blue, even if they are all less immediately accessible, and may require more time and attention to appreciate.
3. The Hissing of Summer Lawns
Weird, unsettling, and wonderful. This album is strange enough that it probably shouldn't be anybody's first encounter with Joni Mitchell, but there is some seriously great material here to explore.
This album is a huge grower. For months of listening to it, most of the album seemed like sort of an easy-listening blur (even if a couple of the songs, such as "Amelia" and "Refuge of the Roads" were undeniably great from the first listen), and I couldn't understand why so many Joni Mitchell superfans on the internet claimed that this was her best album. But slowly, the extremely wordy complexity of Hejira began to open up for me, and I discovered it to be full of some of the best songs about how traveling affects the soul this side of Townes Van Zandt.
1. Court and Spark
If you haven't heard this album, you should give it a shot. It's the most accessible of her classic albums besides Blue, and it really has it all: sad folk songs, weird jazz experiments, a rare dash of unexpected humor, and even a couple of songs where for once Joni Mitchell just rocks out. I was hooked from the moment I heard about the character who "buried the coins he'd made in People's Park/and went looking for a woman to court and spark."
Top 3 Literary Giants Whom I Somehow Never Got Around to Reading Until This Year:
3. Thomas Pynchon
I really enjoyed The Crying of Lot 49, and I've been surprised how much this extremely short and strange little book has stuck with me since reading it. I'll even go so far as to say that it's made me think about the concept of a "mystery" in a new way, and has informed some of my teaching on the subject. Despite his reputation as being an impenetrable writer, this book is a fun, fairly quick read, that any of you might enjoy.
2. Franz Kafka
I started out by reading some of his short stories, and very quickly couldn't believe it had taken me so long to get around to him. Reading "Metamorphosis" reminded me of the sense of wonder and dread I used to feel as a kid when reading Stephen King...except that Kafka is almost certainly more terrifying. I also wondered if the strange torture machine from "In the Penal Colony" might have been J.K. Rowling's inspiration for the magic quill that carves "I must not tell lies" into Harry Potter's arm. Actually, much of Kafka's writing on the surface is so simple that it could almost pass for a pulp thriller or horror story; the further you go, however, all the details start to pile up into something far more obscure and disturbing than you first expect.
1. Marcel Proust
I'm currently reading volume 2 of Proust's 7 volume mega-novel A La Recherche Du Temp Perdu, and I am very excited that so much of it still lies ahead of me. Proust reminds me of James Joyce, at least in one sense: both writers have a way of looking at the world partly through the prism of art and literature, and try to make sense of life by finding surprising parallels between great art that they admire, and their own mundane, bourgeois, sometimes sordid lives. In other words: it's right up my alley. Proust is also dense in the best possible way. Every page is so packed with evocative descriptions, philosophical asides, and unexpected doses of comedy, (not to mention the surprisingly frank--and weird--discussions of sexuality), that you need to read it extremely slowly in order to take it all in (which is fortunate, since I'm attempting to read it in French, and slooooooooow is the only way I can go). A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu has even served as a sort of crash course in art history for me, as Proust assumes of his readers a certain level of familiarity with European painting, and often chooses to shed light on characters, or create interesting juxtapositions, by making extremely specific references to particular paintings. For someone like myself, who has only a passing familiarity with that material, regular internet searches to track down the relevant paintings become a must in order to fully understand the narrative. That may sound like kind of a chore, but honestly, I've found it to be kind of like an awesome treasure hunt. Not only does knowing each painting help me to more fully enjoy the book, but the book is actually helping me to appreciate European painting in a way I never have before. It's hard to ask for more!
Best Book I (Re)Read This Year:
Voltaire's Candide may be my favorite book. It's so short that I've actually read it once a year for the past several years, and it never seems to get old no matter how often I come back to it. I think what separates Candide from other snarky, remorseless take-downs of human vanity (such as may be found in the work of Jonathan Swift, Kurt Vonnegut, or sometimes Mark Twain, all of whom I also enjoy) is that there's something strangely life affirming and even uplifting about Candide. At the end of the book, after going on countless adventures in search of love, wealth, and philosophical glory, the main characters all decide that the only thing that will really make life bearable is to settle down and work hard at jobs that they enjoy. "We must cultivate our garden" is how the novel ends, and it's a phrase I often remember when the world seems unbearably depressing. In the end, life is never going to be easy, and sometimes it's going to be awful, so you might as well try to find something that makes you happy. There's no point in worrying about the rest.