100 Favorite Books

August 16, 2015

A foolish exercise. A year or so ago, I put together a list of my 50 favorite novels on a now-defunct site I shared with Cate. I knew right away it was a flawed list. In the first place, I limited myself to novels, which meant there were wonderful story collections and poetry collections and memoirs and other books that were not included in the list. In the second place, I made the mistake of listing books I had just read. I know myself well enough to know that I can fall victim to a recency effect. My opinion of a book often changes overtime, and so some things were ranked much higher than they should have been.

And so, because I am a sick, sick man, I’m doing it again. Over the next few days, I’ll roll out a list of my 100 favorite books ever, as of this moment. They may be from any genre. They may be on here because I love them, because I know they are great, because they changed how I thought about something, or in the case of the top-tier, all of the above.

As best I can tell, the pool I am drawing from consists of seven or eight hundred books. On Goodreads, I am currently listed as having read 624, but I’m sure I have missed many things that were read in younger days and then forgotten. Obviously, such books have no place on this list.

Additionally, I am limiting myself to books I read before the start of this calendar year, meaning I have had at least seven and a half months to calm down about them. I have read several books this year that will almost certainly push onto the list next year. I do intend to update this every year. Because, again, I am a sick man. So, without further ado, here is the first part of the list. I give a sentence or two explanation for each book because otherwise, I would die.

To be helpful, I have marked non-novels thusly:

*Story collections (10)
**Poetry (8)
***Memoir (5)
∞Nonfiction (5)
†Drama (5)
‡Children’s books (2)

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – I simply have a hard time imagining someone doing a better job painting a full and nuanced picture of humanity.
  2. Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – I could draw parallels between this and Anna, but let’s just say this might be number one if you caught me on a different day.
  3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville – Or this might because, well, it makes you feel that there are no answers in life, only questions.
  4. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson* – Sort of a story collection. Sort of a novel. This book has certainly had a greater effect on me than anything I’ve ever read. And like any of those above it, could be number one on a given day. The last time I read it was probably the 10th or 11th overall and I found I’d gotten too close, I saw too much of Anderson’s process. Anyway, this is the lowest it will ever be.
  5. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – I think Byatt understands sexual desire as well as anyone I’ve ever read. That, plus fairy tales, plus 1900s England. It’s great.
  6. Orkney by Amy Sackville – I read this last year or the year before and I have never been able to stop thinking about it. The definition of a haunting novel.
  7. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – My favorite Hemingway and maybe the most powerful ending of any book I’ve read.
  8. All the Days and Nights by William Maxwell* – Short stories perfected. I’ve never read a better story writer than William Maxwell.
  9. The Great Enigma by Tomas Tranströmer** – My favorite collection of poems ever. No contest.
  10. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – This isn’t as famous as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it should be. A brilliantly constructed mystery with all of the usual Atwood themes.
  11. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – The protagonist in one of my unpublished novels is named after the protagonist in this book. There is a reason for that. This is what I think about when I think about Southern Gothic.
  12. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri* – Lahiri does a better job talking about cultural disconnection than anyone I’ve read.
  13. Rose by Li-Young Lee** – While The Great Enigma is my favorite volume of poetry, these may be the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read.
  14. The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee – Lee has a quote about how the best fiction is about when exactly the wrong thing happens and that this can celebrate life. He’s onto something, and this is his best run at it.
  15. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – I do not understand how Mitchell can so easily write inso many radically different voices, but he is a master at it.
  16. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – Colum McCann’s best work, which is saying something, since everything he’s written is pretty well a masterpiece.
  17. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I am always impressed at what she does with a plot that seems ridiculous. A real and good exploration of love.
  18. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – I recommend this over the first draft that was recently published.
  19. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez – When I first read this book it confused me. Once one accepts that it is a novel of place and not of people, it reaches new heights.
  20. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – I have taught this a great deal in recent years. I think it takes at least two readings to really appreciate. No book I know says more wit fewer words.
  21. Stoner by John Williams – A perfect novel. Truly perfect.
  22. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris*** – Everybody knows about Sedaris. I think this is his best, most of the time.
  23. Zoli by Colum McCann – Here’s Colum McCann again, get used to it. Zoli is one of the best drawn portraits of a single character I have read. Deft and sensitive.
  24. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri* – The book that made her famous. Great stories.
  25. Selected Poems by Robert Frost** – “Mending Wall.” That’s all I have to say.
  26. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser – When this was initially published it was heavily edited without Dreiser’s consent. Read the edition published by UPenn in 1981.
  27. The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell – Such a quiet book. Not the novel of his that gets the most attention, but his best, I think.
  28. A Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov – Nabokov knew how to write creepy and insane. The construction of this book is fascinating.
  29. Taft by Ann Patchett – The setting of this book isn’t nearly so ambitious as much of what Patchett has written, and that allows for more focus on character.
  30. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson*** – The best of Bryson’s many wonderful works. The only thing of his I’ve read that feels like an entirely coherent story rather than an assortment of amusing tales.
  31. Complete Poems by T.S. Eliot** – I took a class on Eliot in college and it sold me on his poems. We should all be so careful with the things we make.
  32. The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene∞ – The world is not made the way you think it is made.
  33. Transformations by Anne Sexton** – Eerie and critical of society and honest.
  34. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn – The saddest book I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something.
  35. Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann* – These stories showcase McCann’s ability to empathize with the least among us. Something he does better than any writer I’ve read.
  36. Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem – When real people get super powers.
  37. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver* – Carver’s stores are always raw. And that rawness is always true and accurate.
  38. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – There are not enough books like this.
  39. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – Or like this. O’Brien takes possession of meta-fiction in a way I’ve never seen anyone else manage.
  40. Possession by A.S. Byatt – This is subtitled: A Romance. Which is good. I always like when people venture into genre and really show how it can be handled by creative mind.
  41. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Startlingly true. Atwood has said that everything in the book was happening somewhere in the world when she wrote it.
  42. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – It’s easy to understand why so many find Steinbeck to be the great American novelist.
  43. The Street by Ann Petry – The best books, I think, deal with huge issues through the smallness of the individual. This shows race in America in the most honest way I’ve seen.
  44. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – Wharton was wonderful at seeing through the gilded age, even if she was part of it.
  45. Walden by Henry David Thoreau*** – For a certain kind of person, the idea of being alone in a cabin in the woods and contemplating oneself is extremely appealing. I am such a person.
  46. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – The best possible response to Heart of Darkness, but not just a response. The story is too human to be mere protest.
  47. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy* – Meloy’s stories remind me of Chekhov in their ability to find deep meaning among the seemingly ordinary and to lead us forth in a truthful, if sometimes hurtful, way.
  48. The Tempest by William Shakespeare† – My favorite Shakespeare. Prospero is wonderful complex.
  49. Macbeth by William Shakespeare – I hated this in high school. Related: In high school, I was dumb.
  50. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon – Here’s Chabon again. This book, perhaps like nothing else he’s written smiles like only the reformed can smile.
  51. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – Whenever I read Irving, I feel a sense of mourning. Even his light is tinged with darkness.
  52. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Sometimes, we go to great lengths to excuse ourselves from what we have done and thought.
  53. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Expury‡ – Is this a children’s book? Maybe. Maybe not. Everyone should read it either way.
  54. The Sea by John Banville – A deceptive book. It seems ordinary enough and then, well…
  55. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – Sprawling and Russian and honest in a time and place where honesty was forbidden.
  56. Dancer by Colum McCann – Oh, just Colum McCann convincingly writing lots of different people in lots of different place. Largely Russia and New York. Jerk.
  57. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – The only reason this isn’t taught as much as other coming-of-age novels is because it was written by and about a woman.
  58. In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin∞ – A splendid explanation of a side of reality that makes no logical sense to those of us in the macroscopic world.
  59. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – I think everyone know about this book.
  60. Dubliners by James Joyce* – I like Joyce best before he gets too pretentious.
  61. A Book of Birds by Amy Tudor** – The only book on here by someone I know. Beautiful poems. Indispensable.
  62. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller – I read this much later than most, I guess. At the perfect time, probably, as I saw fully the struggles with defining the value of a man.
  63. Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett*** – Friendship, in all its functional disfunction.
  64. Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine – Everything you think you know about gender is wrong and here’s the science to back it up.
  65. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – What do others see when they look at us? Something like this, probably.
  66. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – A disturbing book, but disturbing in a way that we all need to experience.
  67. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – This was required reading in freshman English in high school. It was the first book that made me understand what great literature is.
  68. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – In some ways, this is to war what Invisible Man is to racism. A brilliant exposition of the absurdity.
  69. First Love by Ivan Turgenev – I’m about to delve more into Turgenev, but this one was heart breaking, even more so because of it’s brevity.
  70. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey – Just a perfect retelling of an old fairy tale. Perfect.
  71. No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe – People forget that Achebe wrote books other than Things Fall Apart. They shouldn’t. This follows that story. It’s wonderful.
  72. King Lear by William Shakespeare – Imagine if you kept making the worst possible decisions.
  73. The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne‡ – Milne has a wisdom in the second set of Pooh stories. They are gentle and earnest and true.
  74. The Stranger by Albert Camus – I don’t know why Pooh is sandwiched by such grimness, but there it is.
  75. American Pastoral by Philip Roth – To quote my college lit professor: “I’m no Philip Roth fan, but American Pastoral…
  76. Tinkers by Paul Harding – I didn’t think this was a great book when I finished it, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. It still hasn’t.
  77. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – All this did was remake the world.
  78. Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov* – Oh hell, pick any collection of Chekhov short stories. They’re all great.
  79. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver* – Carver’s stories are brutal. He holds up a mirror and shows you how you really are.
  80. A Model World by Michael Chabon – Bright, shining stories.
  81. Love Is a Dog from Hell by Charles Bukowski** – I am terrible and you are too, and that’s just fine.
  82. Selected Poems by Langston Hughes** – I love the sound of Hughes’ poetry. If anyone wants to come read it aloud to me, just say so.
  83. Rabbit Hole by David Lindsey-Abaire – I’ve taught this as often as any text, and it happened entirely by accident.
  84. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – If you want an overview of physics, this is where you start.
  85. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris*** – Sedaris normal humor but with a little more heart than he often shows.
  86. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – The opposite of what Hemingway is supposed to be and still wonderful in the ways Hemingway is nearly always wonderful.
  87. My Antonia by Willa Cather – A wonderful novel about frontier America and its settlers.
  88. The Awakening by Kate Chopin – One of the great rule-challenging books.
  89. Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee – Two of his in a row. Both about different kinds of regret.
  90. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee – And how responsible we are for the things that happen around us if we do not try to stop them.
  91. Middlemarch by George Eliot – Give me Eliot over Austen any day of the week. A wonderfully wry book.
  92. 2666 by Roberto Bolano – I will never read this book again. It is a masterpiece and I am glad that I read it. But it is a soul-killing masterpiece.
  93. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangaremba – I read this for an African lit class in graduate school and it’s always stayed with me. At its heart, it’s about the pressure to do better.
  94. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – This book is as misunderstood by the general population as anything I’ve read.
  95. Home by Marilynne Robinson – I like this better then Gilead and in my circles, at least, that makes me weird.
  96. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers – Like The Sun Also Rises but with characters who are 15 years older.
  97. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima – This feels like a forerunner to everything Hideki Murakami does.
  98. Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – A wonderful book for showing us how stupid the world is. Not for the optimist in you.
  99. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – Dreiser did not think well of America and its obsession with wealth. It’s hard to argue with the case this novel lays out. A tragedy that really is distinctly American.
  100. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon – What if Jesus came back as a a gay man? Also, a murder mystery.

10 Enormous Tomes

November 28, 2010

Okay, as promised, here are ten enormous tomes.  Nothing under 500 pages here, but these are all masterpieces.

  1. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, 560 pages: I read this in college and it really stuck with me. A book that was so aware of the problems of its time that it could pass for a historical novel if written today. Make sure you’re reading Dreiser’s original text and not the sloppy editing that was out there for years because what he originally wrote was “indecent.”
  2. Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, 641 pages: This is the only Russo I’ve read that truly and totally blew me away. This is a sprawling story, but it sprawls enjoyably. And, most importantly, necessarily.
  3. The Amazing Adventures of  Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, 656 pages: Maybe my favorite book. I read this every year and it is always wonderful. Wonderfully fantastical without quite crossing the bridge into unbelievable. The best ending of anything I’ve ever read.
  4. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, 576 pages: The best thing about Kingsolver is how honest her narrators tend to be, even when they aren’t reliable. There are a bunch of them in this book and their honesty is fantastically compelling.
  5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 544 pages: This is the first great book I remember reading while being conscious of its greatness. It still holds up.
  6. Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: I made Cate read this and I think it might be the most impressed she’s been with any of my recommendations. This is one of those, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like it” books. Lethem’s best, and he has a lot of good ones.
  7. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, 672 pages: Cate made me read this and I’ve never been so impressed by a recommendation. It instantly became one of my favorite books. Unlike Kavalier and Clay, it is a bit unbelievable, but as with many great books, suspending your disbelief is a big part of the joy of reading it.
  8. I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, 928 pages: Other than The Lord of the Rings, this might be the longest book I’ve ever read. Another recommendation from Cate and another great book. I was skeptical because it was so long, but it’s a surprisingly fast read both because the language is so good and because the story is so compelling.
  9. Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides, 544 pages: This is such a neat story. I don’t mean that to sound trivial, but it goes so many interesting and unexpected places. The whole book is truly fascinating.
  10. Possession by A.S. Byatt,  576 pages: This might be the most complicated book on this list. Byatt really needs every page to pull it all together, which she does, just at the right moment. Lots of story-within-a-story stuff and it’s all totally necessary. This is a brilliantly assembled book. I can’t imagine writing something like this.

Well, that was a fun exercise. I love doing lists like this. Now, everyone go read these.

10 Slim Volumes

November 23, 2010

Not long ago, I read a post bemoaning the decline of short books. I am personally ambivalent on the issue. It is certainly true that a terrible long book manages to be more terrible than it would be were it shorter, but there are some really wonderful long books out there. Correspondingly, I am going to do two posts. Today, I will present you with ten slim novels/story collections that are very wonderful. When I get to it, I will provide a list of ten wonderful behemoths. There will be no middle ground.

Go pick one of these up and read it tonight.

  1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin: 120 pages – A splendid book. The world would be better if everyone read this in high school so that they could, perhaps, learn to challenge societal norms.
  2. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: 198 pages – I read this not long ago, and it is absolutely fantastic. I was speechless trying to write about it then, and I find the same thing to be true now. I’ve never seen anyone cover every angle of something the way she covers the Indian-American immigration experience.
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy: 230 pages – This book has been written about a lot, and with good reason. It’s among the most compelling books I’ve ever read. It might be the quickest read on this list.
  4. Summer by Edith Wharton: 228 pages – I love Edith Wharton, and, among what I’ve read, this is my favorite. It’s a novel about extreme situations that I nonetheless find believable and relatable.
  5. As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem: 224 pages – The book that got me hooked on Jonathan Lethem. It’s so wonderfully weird. One of the more unconventional love stories I’ve read, and it’s always oddly fun to find yourself really identifying with totally unlikable characters.
  6. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: 128 pages – I read this one night when Cate was pregnant with Simone. She passed out early, but I couldn’t sleep. I take back what I said about the road. I found this impossible to put down until I finished.
  7. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel: 228 pages – I don’t think Yann Martel gets nearly enough credit. These four stories are so moving. I love that he is unapologetically sentimental. There is too much irony and smirk in modern culture. It’s refreshing to see something different every now and then. This is that.
  8. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell: 144 pages – He has several short novels, but this, I believe, is the shortest. Still, he manages to tell a complicated story while fully developing a moderately large cast of characters. Maxwell was a master of writing. He is not remembered well enough.
  9. Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes: 176 pages – When a poet tells a story, and tells it well, it’s going to be hard to beat. The language in this is so smooth and crisp. Word economy at its best. I don’t think there’s a wasted syllable in this book.
  10. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson: 238 pages – This book floored me when I read it. Just thinking about the ending still moves me, and his descriptions are so perfect. I need to read more of his work.

20 Albums from my 20s

September 17, 2010

I’ve been wanting to write some kind of post commemorating the death of my youth when I turned 30 this past summer, but I’m not, at the moment, in the mood for a truly introspective, wishy-wash reminiscence. Still, I entered my twenties as a junior in college and ended them a month after buying my first house with my wife and our daughter. That’s a pretty stark transition from youth to full-fledged adulthood.

Additionally, I’d really like to write more about music on this blog. So here, presented chronologically are twenty albums that had some kind of significant impact on me (even if I just thought they were totally awesome) during my twenties along with a brief explanation of why, exactly, I care. The only rule is that they have to have been released during that decade. This prevents it from looking like a top ten list minus a few albums I discovered when I was seventeen and should, I think, cause it to speak of a time period in the world as much as one in my life…

Radiohead – Kid A (2000): I still think this is the best album they’ve done. It always fights for a spot in my all-time top ten. It came out at a time when I was playing guitar all the time. I was starting to feel knowledgeable about music for the first time, and I was pleased to recognize this as a turning point in the world of music from the moment it came out.

Branford Marsalis – Contemporary Jazz (2000): This is one in a run of really fantastic Branford albums that stretch from the late nineties until about 2005. As noted, I was playing the guitar a ton. I was starting to be able to play along with jazz, and I spent some serious time with this album.

Buddy Guy – Sweet Tea (2001): The early part of the decade was, somewhat obviously, a period of discovery for me. I already knew about Buddy Guy, though. This album is, I think, the best music of his career. It’s raw and urgent and I couldn’t stop listening to it for a year. It changed how I thought about the blues.

Doyle Bramhall II – Welcome (2001): Late 2001 and into 2002 was the happiest period in my life for a while. I was finding all kinds of wonderful music and having a wonderful time in college. This is when I started writing seriously. I also had big musical aspirations. I had a vision for the kind of music I wanted to make, then I found Doyle Bramhall who was already making it. This was, for me, a modern day Layla. I don’t know that anything has ever affected me more on the first listen. One of my favorite albums ever.

The Derek Trucks Band – Joyful Noise (2002): This is one of two artists in my life that I have seen in a small club when no one really knew who they were and thought, “Damn, this is awesome. I’m glad I’m here for this.” After hearing Trucks, I pretty much had to at least try slide guitar. The songs on this album are excellent, too. An album that really reflects a happy time in my life.

Mark Knopfler – Ragpicker’s Dream (2002): This is where a change happens for me. The first few years after college were a dark time for me. This is a very wintry album and still one of my favorite things to listen to in cold weather. It is a very down album, but there is an air of hopefulness to it. Again, this is more or less reflective of my state of mind at the time. Things were bad, but I was sure they would get better.

Richard Thompson – Old Kit Bag (2003): My first Richard Thompson album. I still don’t understand why he isn’t ridiculously wealthy. I don’t think there’s a better song writer alive. This was an album that I almost hid for a while. I didn’t want to share it or have it associated with anyone else.

Scrapomatic – Scrapomatic (2003): A duo album featuring the future vocalist for The Derek Trucks Band. Mike Mattison is such a soulful singer and the songs are excellent. This is one I shared with almost everyone I knew, and everyone liked it. A great rootsy album that almost no one knows about.

The Garden State Soundtrack (2004): 2004 was a bad year for me as I had let a woman more or less ruin my life. It was, to borrow a phrase, my dark night of the soul, so it’s fitting that there’s only one album from the year that I remember feeling strongly about at all… and it was a soundtrack. I’m thankful for everyone who remained friends with me at the time. I think I was pretty unpleasant to be around.

Shannon McNally – Geronimo (2005): I was climbing out of the mess I had put myself in (I started graduate school) and branching out again. This is pretty country album, which is odd for me, but I love it. I specifically remember feeling like this was the album that kind of woke me up and brought me back to life. I don’t know why, but it did.

Buddy Guy – Bring ‘Em In (2005): Buddy Guy does R&B. This is the coolest album on this list. Everything about it is just so-fucking-cool. It’s hard to look at the cover and listen to the album and not want to be Buddy Guy, at least a little bit.

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife (2006): I was dating a girl from Michigan at the time. This is an album that fit perfectly with the long, bleak drives of a wintry Ohio. I’m always a sucker for concept albums and songwriters with good vocabularies.

Teddy Thompson – Separate Ways (2006): Teddy is the second artist I saw in a small club before he was known at all. He was the opening act and totally blew the headliner off the stage (better band, better voice, better songs). This is the second album by Richard Thompson’s son, and a real keeper. This might be the saddest album on the list, but it is so, unbelievably good. This is the most ridiculously talented family. I was totally blown away by this album and I still am whenever I put it on.

Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior (2007): Now, we’re entering into the happiest period of my life. I ditched a job I hated and met the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. It was a good year. As a bonus, Richard Thompson released the best album of his career. This was the first album in a long time to rearrange my top ten. “Guns are the Tongues” is one of the best songs ever.

The Swell Season (mostly) – Once Soundtrack (2007): Once was the first movie Cate and I went to see together. It might be the best date movie I’ve ever seen, and the music is so romantic and really really good. This was a really happy time in my life.

Ben Harper – Lifeline (2007): Fall and leaves changing and sunsets as I drove back and forth between my house and Cate’s. If you’re going to write and record an album while visiting Paris, this is what it should sound like.

Teddy Thompson – A Piece of What You Need (2008): Established happiness was an odd experience for me, so an album that contains the lyrics, “What’s this, what’s this?/Am I happy or something?/Oh shit, oh shit/ am I happy or something?” resonated. Every bit as good as Separate Ways, but more mature. It fit me perfectly.

The Watson Twins – Fire Songs (2008): I don’t know what to write about this album except that I love it. Cate introduced me to them, and I continue to be very impressed. Another album that I associate heavily with fall. This was a good time for Cate and I (when she wasn’t vomiting with morning sickness).

B.B. King – One Kind Favor (2008): The most mature album I’ve heard from him, but at the same time, very bold. He is a very old man and he went out on a limb and did something different and it worked really, really well. This might be the best thing he’d done in thirty years.

Eric Clapton and Stever Winwood – Live at Madison Square Garden (2009): People who know me well, will be surprised that this is Clapton’s only appearance on this list. What can I say? Most of the music he put out in the decade ranged from blah to pretty good, but nothing really stuck with me. This has everything I want from him though. It’s fiery and passionate in way that he hadn’t managed in at least ten years, and I can’t believe Winwood still has that ridiculous voice. I listened to this for weeks and never got tired of it.

There we go, that’s a decent musical summary of my last ten years, I think. I’m curious to see what the next decade is like. I’ve often heard the your first ten years of having children ends up being kind of a lost decade where books and movies and music are concerned. The last year has certainly been like that for us, but lately we’ve started to come out of it. I’ve been listening to Spoon and Phoenix and Alison Krauss and yet another awesome Richard Thompson album. Clapton has an album coming out in a little more than a week and I’m cautiously optimistic. Let’s see what happens in my thirties…

Best Albums of 2008

December 31, 2008

That’s right, it’s time for me to express my nerdiness in all its fully-formed glory via a top ten list. This was a down year for me musically in the sense that I did not a get a chance to buy a lot of stuff that I am sure is quite good. However, I did manage to get a goodly amount of brand-spanking-new music this year, and I liked a great deal of it. To that end, I present my ten favorite albums of 2008.

1. Fire Songs – The Watson Twins: It makes me really proud to have a Louisville group on top here. Though, truthfully, I had no idea they were from Louisville until well after Cate bought the album. Yeah, that’s another thing. My number one album this year came via my wife. Times change. Anyway, this album is fantastic. The song writing is varied and interesting, and they have a really wonderful sound that is familiar without being derivative. It’s a wonderful slightly rockin’ singer-songwriter album. And man, they sing some sweet harmonies. I’m a sucker for good harmony. This is a 5 star album to me. Stand out tracks: “How Am I to Be” and “Dig a Little Deeper”

2. A Piece of What You Need – Teddy Thompson: Honestly, I could have put this at number one, and I might have if it wasn’t for the fact that a few years ago he put out Separate Ways, which was also unbelievably fantastic, and shares a lot, sonically, with this album. Also, I love Teddy Thompson, but he has such an unfair advantage. I mean, when Richard and Linda Thompson are your parents, how can you be anything other than brilliant. Anyway, I will say that “What’s This?!!” is probably my favorite song of the year: “What’s this, what’s this?/Oh shit, oh shit/Am I happy or something?” That’s gold. Other standouts: “Things I Do” and “Jonathan’s Book”.

3. One Kind Favor – B.B. King: “There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you/One kind favor I’ll ask of you/There’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you/See that my grave is kept clean.” These are lyrics from the Blind Lemon Jefferson song that opens the album and from which the title is taken. King has not put out a good solo album for a long time. Makin’ Love Is Good for You is the last thing that wasn’t entirely throw-away (excluding a collaboration with Clapton). His last few albums have been extremely disappointing, but he seems to have done something different here. Bringing in T-Bone Burnett to produce certainly helped; the sound is much leaner than other recent King albums, but more importantly, he seems to acknowledge, finally, that he is one the downward side of life. This is an album by a man facing and contemplating death. He does it well. He sings and plays with passion. There is no show in this album, and even though it’s all covers, it feels much more genuine than anything he’s put out in years. Standout Tracks: “See that My Grave is Kept Clean”, “Get These Blues Off Me”.

4. Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis: I actually got this for Cate for Christmas, but it’s fantastic. Lewis does the horse-trot country-rock thing really well. Excellently arranged and well written songs. I’m still getting to know this album, but I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. Standout Tracks: “Black Sand”, “Bad Man’s World”, “Trying My Best to Love You”.

5. Guitars – McCoy Tyner: This album and the next two are virtually tied in my mind. Tyner wins the tie-breaker because he’s been here then longest and is still trying new things. On this album he collaborates with five guitar players: Marc Ribot, John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Bill Frisell, and Bela Fleck. Tyner has never recorded with guitarists before, which is remarkable given that his career is more than 50 years old. The whole album is just the best kind of jazz. It’s complex and strange and easily accessible all at the same time. I absolutely love it. Standout Tracks: “Passion Dance” (w/Ribot), “Blues on the Corner” (w/Scofield), and “Greensleeves” (w/Trucks).

6. Volume One – She & Him: Normally, it’s a terrible idea for actors to make albums, but Zooey Deschanel is REALLY good. This is such a fun little album. It has a great sixties lounge kind of feel. All of the songs are singable, and the two covers reinterpret the songs enough that they sound almost new (which is quite remarkable ona song like “You Really Got a Hold on Me”). M. Ward does a great job supplementing her with bakcing vocals, guitar, and production. Standout Tracks: “Sentimental Heart”, “This is Not a Test”, and “Take It Back”

7. Rockferry – Duffy: Man, I wanted to hate this album. I heard a bunch about it, and it seemed like she was getting the standard girl-pop-star promotion bullshit, but this is just a wonderful album. If you ever wondered what it would sound like for a Welsh girl to sing Stax/Motown songs, here’s your chance. I know that sounds likea bad idea, but it really works, and she has a fantastic voice. I hope she keeps this up. Stand out tracks: “Warwick Avenue”, “Stepping Stone”, “Mercy”.

8. Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings – Counting Crows: I am pretty sure Adam Duritz is going slowly insane. It took several years to make this album, and by all accounts it was a struggle pretty much the whole way. However, he is still a hell of a lyricist and the acoustic-electric juxtaposition works very well here when it has failed in many other places. I continue to think that the Counting Crows are an extremely underrated act. Standout Tracks: “Los Angeles”, “Washington Square”, and “When I Dream of Michelangelo”.

9. Seeing Things – Jakob Dylan: I suppose, it is always obvious to try and compare him to his dad, but Jakob really, really reminds me of an acoustic Springsteen on this album. There is the same working-man’s plight vibe to this album and many of the melodic phrasings also feel lifted from Springsteen. He definitely got the song-writing gene from his dad, good lyrics all around. Standout Tracks: “All Day and All Night” and “Everybody Pays as They Go”

10. Where the Light Is – John Mayer: I am a sucker for live guitar albums and this is an excellent one. John Mayer probably should have come of age in the sixties. If he had, he’d probably more fulfilled creatively and more accalimed critically. His throw-away hits keep him underrated as a song writer, but he really is fantastic and has a wonderfully intimate knowledge of his instrument. Standout Tracks: “Daughters”, “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”, and “Gravity”.

Honorable Mentions: Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst: Good, but just not as good as the other albums I listed. Plus, he’s so damn pretentious. It bugs me.
Skin Deep – Buddy Guy: Good, solid, enjoyable elctric blues, just not quite up to the considerable standard he has set for himself. The title track is beyond terrible.

Most Disappointing/Worst Album of the Year: Evil Urges – My Morning Jacket: I loved Z. Loved it. But fuck, this is terrible. Jim James needs someone to tell him no. I’ve never had a band go from an automatic buy to “I have to hear a lot of good things before I’ll even think about it” so quickly. Even the songs that actually sound like My Morning Jacket are mediocre. Worst track: “Highly Suspicious”