Books and Film

Favorite Piece of Fiction (Read During 2011): Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Not just a favorite of the year, but a favorite, period. It’s a rare work of art indeed that can shed light on both The Royal Tenenbaums and the Jesus Prayer. Unbelievably wise, delightfully funny and deeply religious (in the best possible sense), I’m not sure Christ had a better spokesman in the 20th century than Zooey Glass. And has Salinger’s dialogue ever been bettered? I’m only embarrassed it took me this long to discover it. Favorite novel released in 2011 would have to be DFW’s The Pale King, which has stayed with me since I read it in April.

Favorite Piece of Non-Fiction: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Also the inspiration for the series of posts that I’m most proud of this year. A close second would be David Brooks’ Social Animal.

Favorite Work of Theology/Philosophy:The Apostle Paul and the Impotence of the Will” by Hannah Arendt, from the second volume of The Life of the Mind. So encouraging to hear someone of Arendt’s stature from “outside” the Christian establishment express the Pauline insights about human nature and the Law (and Jesus!) in such plainspoken language. Maybe we aren’t so out to lunch after all… Robert Capon’s Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus also continued to provide bigtime fuel for the tank this year. And Tullian’s Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything was a great shot in the arm as well.

Poetry Discoveries of the Year: Jane Kenyon, Brad Davis and Sherman Alexie’s “Facebook Sonnet”.

Seven Favorite Documentaries With Sympathetic Themes, Watched But Not Necessarily Made in 2011:

  1. The Interrupters (Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Suffering, Non-Violence, Grace)
  2. George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Music, God, Identity, Humor)
  3. Bill Cunningham New York (Vocation, Fashion, Identity, Beauty)
  4. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. (Law, Gender, Mortality, Humor, Media)
  5. Herb and Dorothy (Marriage, Art, Strength in Weakness)
  6. Into The Abyss (Death, Deserving, Judgment, Sin, Werner Herzog)
  7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Anthropology, Religion, History, Albino Alligators)

Musical Discoveries

Guided By Voices. Can anything good come out of Dayton? The answer is a resounding Yes. Also known as the gift which never stops giving, GBV’s 4-track aesthetics, absurdly prolific output, and beer-funneling image may not make their music terribly easy for casual consumption, but listen closely to Bob Pollard and you’ll hear the work of one of the greatest American songwriters since that other midwestern Bob. Poetic, hilarious, profound, virtuously brief, catchy as all get out, occasionally subversive, totally unconcerned with non-essentials and unafraid to rock, I’ll be sifting through their records til I shuffle off the coil. All sorts of Nazareth happening here.

The Marvelettes. Everyone knows “Please Mister Postman” but for most of us, that’s where familiarity with Motown’s other girl group ends. After Diana Ross came on the scene, The Marvelettes may have gotten the short end of the stick publicity-wise, but not necessarily music-wise. Smokey Robinson took them under his wing, and the quality only improved. It took Morrissey’s hyperbolic endorsement for me to hunt down their albums, and man was it worth it. Their final three records, with Wanda Young as sole lead vocalist, are simply wonderful.

From The Inside – Alice Cooper. Another major discovery, Cooper’s 11th record is something of an anomaly in the “shock rock” auteur’s discography. He’s made a number of concept records, but this one was especially close to the bone – written in collaboration with Bernie Taupin of all people, it took Alice’s then-recent stay in a mental hospital as its inspiration. Throw out whatever conception of Cooper you might have: this is anything but sophomoric. In fact, imagine a more intellectual and sober Bat Out of Hell, add a dash of Billy Joel (no joke), a pinch of Mott the Hoople and you’re almost there. It’s painful, vulnerable, funny, conflicted, a tad sinister, with more than a few moments of arresting beauty. A proto-Use Your Illusion, in other words.

Three Dog Night. It took Elvis Presley to expose and correct my bias against artists that don’t write their own material. Three Dog Night is one such group, and as such, they’re often dismissed as a silly relic of 70s Top 40, more a collection of Behind the Music stooges than a proper rock band. But listen to any one of their golden era records and you’ll be knocked over by the muscular ‘sound’, exuberant vocals, and superb song selection. And on their later LPs you’ll even find some hidden Gospel muscle, “Into My Life” and “Heavy Church” being two particularly inspired examples. And then there’s “Murder In My Heart For the Judge”, which has to be in the top ten Mbird song titles of all time.

Late period Squeeze. The promise of Squeeze’s classic singles (“Up the Junction” “Pulling Mussels” “Black Coffee in Bed”) guaranteed something in their post-fame/mach 2 phase being worthwhile, but it’s still remarkable how long it took the band to hit their stride again after reforming in 1985. It really wasn’t until 1993′s Some Fantastic Place and 1995′s Ridiculous that the Difford/Tilbrook team got their mojo back, but get it back they did. At first blush, some of the songs might sound a little overwritten/-wrought, but that just means they require a few extra listens. Both sides of the songwriting pair turned in much of their best work during this period. Difford in particular began addressing his alcoholism (and recovery) with surprising candor.

Hollywood Dream – Thunderclap Newman. I’d always loved “Something in the Air” but had considered the band a quintessential one-hit wonder until hearing about their connection to Pete Townshend, who, at the height of his powers in 1969, produced their one and only album. The record is so uniformly strong, it’s remarkable/tragic that this was the last anyone heard of them.

The Jayhawks Mystery Demos. Included as the second disc of the Tomorrow The Green Grass reissue, they are even better than rumored to be. A full album’s worth of unheard songs from a truly great American band, treasure is not too strong a word.

Speaking of Reissues, it was a great year for archival releases. Just sad that it took the demise of the CD format for labels to get serious about opening their vaults. Other than The Jayhawks, this year saw the breathtaking SMiLE boxed set, an Achtung Baby! extravaganza, the double disc Suede remasters, Phil Spector’s ridiculously overdue Phillies Album Collection, to name a few.

Other

Favorite Columns/Web Discoveries: “Riff” in The NY Times Magazine shot to the top of my list this past year, not just for Mbird material, but for inspiration in general. Consistently insightful, surprisingly counter-cultural and always well-written, I can’t remember a bad entry. Especially those by Heather Havrilesky, my personal favorite columnist of the year. Whoever’s in charge of it, please keep doing what you’re doing. Jonah Lehrer‘s Frontal Cortex on Wired has been another invaluable source for all things human fallibility-related. Same with David Brooks in the Times, who hit new (and far less partisan) heights in 2011. Pop-culture-wise, three of The A/V Club’s regular columns seldom disappoint, “My Life of Flops,” “No. 1″ and “Primer.” Tina Fey’s work for The New Yorker was heads and feet above the last few seasons of 30 Rock, ruminating on the realities of Judgment and Mercy better than pretty much anyone. And in terms of theology, it doesn’t get better than Mark Galli’s Soulwork column. While they’re not exactly columns per se, I’ve found Wesley Hill’s Writing in the Dust and Alan Jacobs’ More Than 95 Theses tumblrs particularly edifying this past year. There’s no shortage of other great work out there, but those are just a few quick thoughts.

Still The Funniest Video I Watched This Year:

Two Favorite Onion Articles: “Fully Validated Kanye West Retires To Quiet Farm in Iowa” and “Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults”

New Yorker Cartoon of the Year: