As if you haven’t read enough year-end lists, I offer you a few thoughts.
Best personal experience: Adding the fourth member of Team Stokes, Lucy Carpenter, who arrived on the ubiquitous date of November 11, 2011. Gentleman beware: She will be reared on a steady diet of Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson, and I’m giving her a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue when she turns fourteen.
Best live show: Like most who are married with children, I don’t get out nearly as much as I’d like. This year I was fortunate to a handful of live performances, and a few really stood out. The highlight was probably seeing an acoustic Justin Townes Earle set in a small theatre that held around three hundred people. JTE is a real gem – just a tremendous songwriter like his father and his namesake – and the set featured a jaw-dropping rendition of the Springsteen’s classic “Racing in the Streets.” Fleet Foxes at the historic Alabama Theatre was magical (with Van Dyke Parks opening!). The most rock and roll set was fellow Greenhill, Alabama native Jason Isbell, more on whom in a minute.
Best piece of fiction I started but never finished: Moby Dick. I’ve been hunting that whale all year, and we’re still not done. I did read Our Man in Havana earlier in the year, and Graham Greene is just fantastic. Did I read Walker Percy’s Lancelot this year? I can’t remember. It might have been late last year. In any event, it was a thrill.
Favorite non-fiction: I’ll echo other Mockingbird appreciation for David Brooks and Alan Jacobs. Other writers who have, even in the middle of political commentary, provided deep insight include Rod Dreher, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam and the dearly departed and much lamented Christopher Hitchens. Martin Luther continues to be a source of great comfort and insight. So does the irreplaceable William F. Buckley, for the eloquence of his prose, if not his politics.
Favorite used book store purchase: A nice hardcover copy of the collected letters of JRR Tolkien, as well as a nice collection of Wodehouse and then some Walker Percy interviews. All out of print editions, to boot.
Best film: The only “new” movie I saw was the final Harry Potter film. And it was great. But four standouts on the DVD player. The King’s Speech – wonderful. Is there a finer actor than Colin Firth? Or Geoffrey Rush? And isn’t it hard to see Helena Bonham Carter as anything other than a deranged Deatheater? The Browning Version was as fine as my Mockingbird cohorts have claimed. The Third Man was a fantastic bit of postwar intrigue. A Christmas Tale may have been my personal highlight; dysfunction and grace, with the beautiful Catherine Deneuve at the helm. Marvelous. The last three movies are available from the invaluable Criterion Collection. (A note of warning – A Christmas Tale features a brief foray into stereotypical French sexual ethics.)
Best television: Television was something of a disappointment – watching The Office is becoming a painful experience. I’ve never gotten into Community and Parks and Recreation, but I think DVD will be the solution. Thank goodness we have embraced Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad. And Downton Abbey, too! Our love for British television even lead us to the Duchess of Duke Street over the summer. I finally took in Arrested Development, and the rewards are great. It was avoided for years due to social pressure to enjoy it. Now, though, the laughs abound. But isn’t that funny? Quickest way to turn me off from a television show is to insist that I must watch it, and then put it on. During a party. Awful. Please don’t do that.
Best new album: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake was easily the best thing I heard all year. A dark meditation on war and loss, as heartbreaking as it was energetic. The series of videos that Seamus Murphy directed for each song are nothing short of brilliant. Highlights include “In the Dark Places,” “On Battleship Hill,” and “The Last Living Rose.” Simply a fantastic album. I can’t say enough good things about it. A close second was Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest. A stirring mix of country, blues and straight forward Southern rock, the album is full of really great tracks, especially the opening track “Alabama Pines” which seems tailor-made for a Dixie cup and a tailgate in October. Other highlights include “Codeine,” “I’m Stopping By,” and “Tour of Duty.” Be sure to catch Jason’s live show when it comes around – you’ll be treated to everything Isbell’s done, including his stellar work with the Drive-By Truckers. Other highlights include new releases from Low, the Antlers, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Tom Waits, the Decemberists and the Drive-By Truckers. We’ve also got a tremendous bit of play out of the new Hill and the Wood record from our friend Sam Bush.
Favorite Musical Discovery: Leonard Cohen. It’s almost too much to admit, really, but I’ve finally discovered the great man. He’s up there with Dylan, Waits, Springsteen and Van Zandt. Hard not to love. The song that drew me in was “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” but what really worked was driving by myself to pick up my wife at the Atlanta airport and hearing “Joan of Arc” on a college radio station. It was cold and dark and all of a sudden everything clicked.
Album I’m most ashamed I’ve not yet heard: I have the new Wilco album – haven’t listened to it. Wouldn’t know the new Radiohead if it hit me in the face. I am ashamed. Wouldn’t you be?
Best YouTube discovery: The original Muppet Family Christmas. Anyone else remember this great special? It aired on ABC at Christmas 1988. The plot is simple – Doc and Sprocket from Fraggle Rock rent Emily Bear’s house (that’s Fozzy’s mom) for Christmas. The Muppets show up, the Sesame Street gang comes caroling, Ms. Piggy gets lost in the snow and there’s a Fraggle hole in the kitchen. A real gem – ignore the DVD; it’s missing some of the best sing-alongs from the original broadcast. That’s right – Muppet sing-alongs. At Christmas. With Kermit in a tartan vest and bow tie. Statler and Waldord singing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and Jim Henson does the dishes. Try not to cry.
Favorite trend: Is it a trend when it never really died? I’ve become enamored with the menswear segment of the blogosphere. In particular, I’m fascinated by the Americana phase with its simultaneous love of rugged work wear and Ivy League traditionalism. All of this is a nice relief from the fashion horror that was the late 1990s and early 2000s. There’s an air of Brideshead Revisited in all of this, but we could do much, much worse than to don ourselves in chinos, Sperry’s and Oxford-cloth button-downs. Still, gents, let us be cautious as we look backwards. Nostalgia is a cruel mistress.
Best meal: My darling wife and I don’t get out much, but we were privileged to enjoy a few nice meals this year. Gianmarco’s in Birmingham’s Homewood neighborhood was probably the highlight – a fine Italian feast. Brunch at True Midtown in Mobile was fantastic (pulled pork on a Belgian waffle? Are you kidding me?!?) and the Dauphin Street Taqueria (also known as the the OK Bike Shop), also in Mobile, shames its Birmingham counterparts for street-style Mexican. (Forgive me, Rojo!)
Songs of the year: Nothing new here, but a few songs that I couldn’t get out of my head this year: “Racing in the Streets” by Springsteen, “April Anne” by Okkervil River (cover of a John Phillips tune), and “Women Without Whiskey” by the Drive-By Truckers.
All in all, a grand year. A growing family and much for which to be grateful. Amid all of this, however, we remain trapped in ourselves, navelgazing away, and so we thank God for the word of grace that pulls out from ourselves and fixes our eyes on the Cross.