Best New Albums
10. Faye Webster: I know I’m funny haha
We were all expecting big things from Faye after 2019’s Atlanta Millionaire’s Club, and she delivered with I know I’m funny haha. She builds on the sad girl laid-back country-tinged indie rock she was already adept at, creating a lyrically thoughtful record full of lush instrumentation that lulls the listener into a dreamy world of sake, professional athlete crushes and new love.
9. Mach-Hommy: Pray for Haiti
It’s counterintuitive that I judge rap albums more by feel than lyrical depth, but then again, hip-hop is perhaps the one genre in which vibe, as it were, is tantamount to everything else. All that being said, I couldn’t recite one lyric from Pray for Haiti from memory (sorry, Mach), but I like how it makes me feel. I keep coming back to it, over and over again, for the feeling. Plus, the cover art is fantastic.
8. Parquet Courts: Sympathy for Life
Let’s go ahead and call Parquet Courts the most consistent, if not the greatest, band of the past decade. Sympathy sees Savage, Brown and crew embrace their funkier instincts that started to shine through on 2018’s Wide Awake. The lyrics are still modern-pointed, and the guitars still have that angular sound from time-to-time, but now Parquet Courts want to make you dance, too. And they pull it off, just like they always do.
7. Tyler the Creator: CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST
Tyler surpassed Kanye as the torch-bearer for art-rap years ago, but with Call Me, he’s raised the bar even higher. What Tyler has created with this album is a song cycle-style record in which our protagonist counters every aggressive boast with a humble ego dissolution. The beats are fire, too, and Tyler’s delivery and voice are still the best in the game.
6. Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt: Made Out of Sound
Some may call this noise, and for the first few listens it seemed just that, but the beauty amidst the chaos reveals itself the more time you spend with Made. It’s a heady swirl of guitars and drums that, as you settle into it, operates as a salve, a muscle relaxer, a prayer.
5.Mancio and Broadbent: Quiet is the Star
There’s nothing innovative about this album: just a voice and a piano. But not every great album must break new ground, and on Quiet, Mancio and Broadbent prove that simplicity is a virtue. The result is an escapist album of the highest order, one that lifts the listener in the clouds, above space and time.
4. Lana Del Rey: Blue Banisters
It’s not her best ever, maybe not even her best this year, but the highs on Blue Banisters (see: “Text Book,” “Arcadia,” “Beautiful,” and others) are higher than anything else in her catalogue. Lana’s evolution as a songwriter has been improbable and impressive, and Banisters solidifies her as one of the pre-eminent lyricists of her generation.
3. James McMurtry: Horses and the Hounds
McMurtry keeps getting better with age, and Horses may be his best album to date. That’s no small statement, considering his previous album – 2015’s Complicated Game – was a classic in its own right. The Austin-based graying hippie has become a master storyteller who weaves a literary sensibility into phenomenal guitar tones and catchy choruses.
2. The Weather Station: Ignorance
Tamara Lindeman’s fifth album is her opus, an easy-listening experience that glides as weightlessly as the bird she sings about on Parking Lot. But underneath that laid-back veneer are somber lyrics that grapple with the frustrations and contradictions of existing as a human being at this strange point in history.
1. Bo Burnham: Inside
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s strange to have a comedy album top this list, but Bo captures the zeitgeist perfectly on Inside, and he does so through meticulously crafted pop songs that make the listener laugh and think in equal measure.
Best New Albums: Honorable Mention
Wes Chiller: Buffalo John and the Rainbow Crew
Riley Moore: sweet boy
Vijay Iyer: Uneasy
Delbech: The Weight of Light
Body Mena: The Work is Slow
Natural Info Society: Descension
Boldy James: Bo Jackson
Myriam Gendron: Songs of Love
Vanishing Twin: Ooki Gekkou
Explosions in the Sky: Big Bend
Eris Drew: Quivering in Time
Helado Negro: Far In
Anthony Naples: Chameleon
Belle Orchestre: House Music
Lana Del Rey: Chemtrails Over the Country Club
Jeff Parker: Forfolks
Patricia Brennan: Maquishti
The Bell Orchestra: House Music
Cassandra Jenkins: An Overview of Phenomenal Nature
Nala Sinephro: Space 1.8
Jon Hopkins: Music for Psychedelic Therapy
Sarah Davachi and Sean McCann: Mother of Pearl
Best New Songs
10. Tyler the Creator: “SWEET/I THOUGHT YOU WANTED TO DANCE”
9. Vanishing Twin: “Big Moonlight”
8. Myriam Gendron: “Cest Dan’s les Vieux pay”
7. Cassandra Jenkins: “Michaelangelo”
6. Bo Burnham: “Welcome to the Internet”
5. Wes Chiller: “Buffalo Highway”
4. Lana Del Rey: “Beautiful”
3. James McMurtry: “Canola Fields”
2. Lana Del Rey: “Arcadia”
1. Bo Burnham: “That Funny Feeling”
Best New Songs: Honorable Mention
Weather Station: “Atlantic”
Faye Webster: “Kind Of”
Cassandra Jenkins: “Michaelangelo”
Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt: “Distance of Sleep”
The Bell Orchestra: “Dark Steel”
James McMurtry: “Decent Man”
Parquet Courts: “Marathon of Anger”
Explosions in the Sky: “Chisos”
Myriam Gendron: “Poor Girl Blues”
Best Albums New to Me
10. Chicago Underground Quartet: Good Days
9. Roberta Flack: First Take
8. Pantha du Prince: Conference of Trees
7. Seefeel: Quique
6. John Prine: In Spite of Ourselves
5. Gary Clark Jr.: Live
4. Pink Siifu: Ensley
3. Nancy Sinatra: Start Walkin’ 1965-1975
2. Chilly Gonzales: Solo Piano
1. Nick Cave: Idiot Prayer
Best Albums New to Me: Honorable Mention
Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life
The Roots: How I Got Over
Stephan Moccio: Winter Poems
Makayla McCraven: Universal Beings
Chicago Odense Ensemble: Chicago Odense Ensemble
Taylor Deupree: Invisible Architecture
Taylor Deupree: Shoals
Laurie Anderson: Big Science
Best Songs New to Me
10. Nancy Sinatra: “Sugar Town”
9. John Prine: “(We’re Not) The Jet Set”
8. Gary Clark: “When My Train Pulls In”
7. Nancy Sinatra: “Summer Wine”
6. Pink Siifu: “pray everyday”
5. John Prine: “In Spite of Ourselves”
4. Gary Clark: “Next Door Neighbor Blues”
3. Nick Cave: “Sad Waters”
2. Chilly Gonzales: “Gogol”
1. Robert Flack: “Trying Times”
Best Songs New to Me: Honorable Mention
Conference of Trees: “Tickle Shining Grace”
Laurie Anderson: “From the Air”
Nick Cave: “Nobody’s Baby Now”
Nick Cave: “Far From Me”
John Prine: “In a Town This Size”
Nancy Sinatra: “Bang Bang”
Pink Siifu: “Birmingham Skies”
Best Books New to Me
10. The Wine of Youth by John Fante (short stories)
This is Fante’s collection of stories about, you guessed it, youth, and while his writing here isn’t as timeless as it is in Ask the Dust, he does a lot of thing right within these pages, like capturing the complex nuances of an alcoholic dad, the youthful feeling that sports are the be-all end-all and, perhaps most notably, the single-minded obsession with women that reaches its peak in heterosexual males during one’s 20s. Fante is one hell of a writer. He makes it looks easy with his deceptively poetic and unhurried prose.
9. Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder (novel)
Bachelder manages to brilliantly capture the inner monologue of a distressed-but -loving father in this special little book. The most notable feat here is the universality of the protagonist, Abbott, who is by turns bumbling, poignant, self-loathing, admirable and hilarious. Any father who occasionally dreams about what life could be like without children, while simultaneously loving said children more than anything in the world, will find themselves nodding in agreement while reading these small tales.
8. Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (novel)
If the movie Waiting and Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea had a lovechild, this is what it would look like. O’Nan’s attention to detail is so precise, and his characters so real, that Last Night could easily pass for an accomplished work of nonfiction. As it stands, it’s a phenomenal novella that never bores despite a lack of quote unquote action. Anyone who’s spent time working in the service industry will appreciate what O’Nan has done here.
7. Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace (short stories)
Is Wallace a genius? Yeah, pretty sure of it. Has he written some of my favorite short stories of all-time? Also yes. Does he occasionally infuriate me with his pretentiousness and an apparent affinity for being difficult for difficulty’s sake? Yup. But at the end of the day, his virtues outweigh his indulgences, and he’ll certainly be remembered as one of the most important writers of the Digital Age. This collection is one of his best.
6. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (novel)
This book came so hyped and with so many awards that I figured there was no way it could live up to expectations. But it did, and then some. I rarely read for plot (I look more for style and character), but LFE made me feel like I was reading a thriller, without any cheap gimmicks. Ng manages to weave a complex plot without convolution and create characters that leap off the page, all while subtly commenting on race and class in a manner that never feels heavy-handed or preachy. LFE is a joy to read, perhaps even a modern classic.
5b. Plainsong by Kent Haruf (novel)
Haruf is a master of plain, direct language, and Plainsong is his classic of literary realism. He weaves the lives of small-town folks together with such grace that the reader feels like a resident there, watching little dramas unfold like clouds across the Colorado plains.
5a. Eventide by Kent Haruf (novel)
Empathy is perhaps Haruf’s best characteristic, and he never punches down at his characters, no matter how vile they may be (I’m looking at you, Hoyt Raines). Instead, Haruf writes with the even-handedness of a journalist who simply has a story to tell: Holt, Colorado, is full of people with complex lives who experience beauty and tragedy in equal measures, and Haruf aims to report on these fictional lives in marvelously understated prose and with no judgment passed.
4. Ask the Dust by John Fante (novel)
Endlessly strange, often vile but always beautifully written, Ask The Dust is a perverse comet that streaks across a desert sky, simultaneously illuminating and enhancing the darkness. Anyone who’s spent time wandering aimlessly through their 20s will appreciate Fante’s prose, and understand Bandini’s simultaneous lust and revulsion for life. Ask is a beat generation book that appeared a full decade before the beat generation was a thing. Freewheeling, fearless, immoral and foretelling of the decades to come.
3. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (novel)
A tender and heartbreaking story of love, loss and the violent power of mother nature. Ward writes with a rare grace — her words appear to float on air, even when she’s recounting tragically brutal scenes. Salvage has been called a literary classic, and I tend to agree: her characters, her world, feel as real as the devastation exacted by Hurricane Katrina.
2. All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (novel)
Miriam Toews has written a singular book that somehow manages to be heartbreaking, hopeful, hilarious and stone-cold serious in equal measure. Toews’ stream-of-consciousness style would devolve into tangential rambling in the hands of a lesser craftsman, but Toews is so on top of her game that she’s able to reel it back in just when you think she may spin out of orbit. More than anything else, though, AMPS poses this perhaps unanswerable question: what’s the proper way to love somebody who only wants to die? Instead of attempting to answer this inquiry, she leads us along the path, and forces us to draw our own conclusions: about morality, about dignity, about life.
1. Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan (fiction/memoir)
Crapalachia is the kind of book I wish I could write: lean, direct, unpretentious, humorous, heartbreaking and poignant. McClanahan has managed to capture the spirit of podunk Appalachia not only with the stories he tells, but the way he tells them: in a voice pulled straight from the holler. A strangely beautiful work that ranks right up there with The Things They Carried in its deft melding of fiction and memoir.
Best Books New to Me: Honorable Mention
A Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (non-fiction/essay/travel)
A short, sweet poem of an essay that captures the eternal magic and mystery of beach life. A classic, maybe, but it doesn’t quite stick in the mind like a classic should. If nothing else, A Gift is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon lost in a gifted writer’s ruminations on life, feminism and the sea.
The End of the Road by John Barth (novel)
The End of the Road is a strange and brutal novel, and perhaps the only book I’ve read in which I hated every character yet didn’t want to put it down. Seriously: everyone in this book is awful or weak or pretentious or grotesque, or sometimes all four at once. Barth’s writing, though, is visceral and incisive, and at the end of the day, End does have something to say about the human experience: namely that’s it’s messy and violent, and that sometimes things don’t work out.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (novel)
No character in this prize-winning book is particularly likable, and especially not our protagonist, a pretentious academic douche who sleeps with everyone he can get his slimy little hands on and rarely expresses regret. But there’s an honesty to the writing, a willingness to “go there,” as it were, that makes all the annoyances worthwhile — if for no other reason than we witness our narrator change, just a bit, from a hopeless soul to a middle-aged nethario who wants, on some level, to become a better person.
The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews (novel)
After reading All My Puny Sorrows I realized I needed more Miriam Toews in my life, so I picked up The Flying Troutmans, which is her take on a road trip epic. It was almost as good as Sorrows. There are three aspects of Toews writing that I find exceptional: dialogue that’s true to life, characters that always feel real, and a style that adheres to craft while embracing a freewheeling charm. Toews is a writer’s writer: clever, grounded, whimsical and above all else, literary.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (novel)
Eleanor is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary literature, and Honeymoon is highly skilled at showing the subtle ways in which Eleanor is changing, so that by the end we’re left with an Eleanor that’s much different (and in a much better place) than she was at the start.
The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich (non-fiction/travel)
Gretel Ehrlich writes about Wyoming as poetically as Annie Dillard did about Oregon and Virginia. Her reflections on the Great Wide Open are dreamlike, with one foot in the divine and the other deep in the mud. In reading Solace, one gets the sense that Wyoming has captured Ehrlich’s soul like only strange and beautiful places can.
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway (short stories)
Not peak Hemingway (this was his debut, after all), but a few of these stories stuck with me as much as The Old Man and the Sea, most notably My Old Man, which lulls the reader into a sense of security until the very end, when Hemingway does what he does best: that is, describes death with a singular combination of brevity and grace.
A Boy of Good Breeding by Miriam Toews (novel)
Not quite on the same level as AMPS or The Flying Troutmans (this one feels a bit more, how should we put it, cartoonish), but there’s still plenty for Toews fans to enjoy, like her full-bodied characters, her quirky subversiveness and her powers of composition.
Factotum by Charles Bukowski (novel)
I try to dislike Bukowski because the better part of me loathes him, yet he never fails to win me back, mostly because of his humor, but also because he’s willing to embrace life’s underbelly. Only Bukowksi could write about shit-stained underpants and make it beautiful. God bless him for that, because so many so-called writers don’t have the balls or the talent to pull it off. I know I wish I did.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer (short stories)
I will never truly understand what it’s like to be black in America, but by reading this exquisite Z.Z. Packer collection — especially the finale Doris is Coming — I feel as though I’ve caught a brief glimpse of it. And this is what good literature should do: force us to transcend our myopicness, and in doing so, see the world more clearly.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind (novel)
On par with Death on the Installment Plan in terms of weirdness and misanthropy, Perfume feels like going for a swim in a hot stale pond. The main character is as deplorable as he is fascinating, and Suskind does an outstanding job of allowing us to see the world through his sociopathic perspective. It’s the images, though, that stick with me the most: Genouille’s sloppy birth, Genouille’s seven-year sabbatical in a cave, Genouille shaving the heads of his victims, the massive scent-induced orgy in the final scene. Et cetera and so forth. What I mean to say is there’s no other book quite like Perfume. Read it and you’ll see what I mean.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (short stories)
Berlin’s genius lies in her seamless melding of word economy, lyricism and grittiness. Pulling from a lifetime of struggle and hardship, she creates worlds that feel as real and visceral as the hot sands of West Texas. The reader never questions the authenticity of Berlin’s words. That’s because she follows the golden rule of writing to a T: write what you know, and the rest will work out.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (novel)
Easily one of the weirdest, funniest and most imaginative books I’ve read in a while. Beatty, through hilarious absurdism, tests the limits of what a novel can be, and like some of the greatest writers of the past 100 years (see: Dostoevsky), has managed to create a work of fiction that remains cohesive despite threatening to veer off into unmitigated insanity. A singular work of art and a valuable comment on American culture.
I drummed up a little contest for the two adults in the car. I grabbed a tin of Mr. Planters cocktail peanuts from the passenger seat. Placed a single nut in my mouth.
And all of a sudden my dead grandpa and I were walking side-by-side down a desert highway.
You take a couple sips of the hot, earthy liquid, and off goes your mind. Now you’re floating. Near the ceiling, mingling with the smoky coffee bean scent. You’re settling into your body again.