2014: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Friday, December 19, 2014

Of the measly 160-odd books I read this year (I'm still going - don't want to tap out just yet), 79 came from the cold, distant past. You know, 2013 and those forgotten years that preceded it. A few of the books were pretty damn excellent and, had I read them in the year they were actually published, I'm sure they would have been contenders for end of year honours. Then again, had I read the ones that came out before I was born in the year they were published, I'd have seriously screwed up the space/time continuum. You can thank me later. Or earlier. Mind blown.

A Meal In Winter - Hubert Mingarelli (2013). Sparse, piercing and entirely gripping, this story of two war-weary Nazis sent to find a Jew in the forest was in the top 3 books I read this year. Sure to set your moral compass spinning wildly out of control, it is an absolute masterpiece in miniature.

Christ's Entry Into Brussels - Dimitri Verhulst (2011) I've always liked Verhuslt - his sense of the absurd is second to none and he is not afraid to shove something sharp and pointy into the neck of our collective stupidity. This novel is by far his most enjoyable; an hilarious excoriation of our celebrity/religion/consumer obsessed society. The whole city goes into conniptions when word leaks out that Jesus is back and he's coming to Brussels. Yep, as crazy as it sounds.

Visitation - Jenny Erpenbeck (2008). A dense, difficult fable centred around a small town and the fate of its various denizens during the Holocaust. Kind of in the vein of Aharon Appelfeld - the horror lurks mostly in the background - it is an incredible portrait of a decimated Europe. Oh, and the writing is just sublime.

The Graveyard - Marek Hlasko (1956) A crushing portrait of life in Communist Poland, The Graveyard tells of a hapless factory worker systematically destroyed by the faceless powers that be after he drunkenly abuses a policeman. And you thought Kafka could kill you with bureaucracy!

Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death - Otto Dov Kulka (2013) A bit of a departure for me, this isn't a novel but rather a survivor's deeply philosophical account of his time in the Czech Family Camp, a small sector of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp. To my mind it ranks up there with the very best of them - think Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel or Viktor Frankl.

Special Mentions to The Property by Rutu Modan, Underwater Welder by Jeff Lamire, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang and In The Orchard, The Swallows by Peter Hobbs.


Holy paintballs there were some amazing book designs this year. Much like the vinyl resurgence in music, it's clear that publishers are giving a lot more thought to the book as physical object so that readers want to own them instead of just downloading some crappy digitised simulacrum. To that end, three books really stood out. Haruki Murakami's The Strange Library was a gorgeous experiment - the marriage of art and words. To my mind it was far better than the other overhyped thing he published this year. My other two standouts are more conventional in their format but they were just so beautiful that I had to have them on my shelves. So props to Jane Rawson for A Wrong Turn At The Office of Unmade Lists (also, best title of the year) and Wittgenstein's Nephew by Lars Iyer. Also, a quick nod to the beauties that were Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball, Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle, Leaving The Sea by Ben Marcus and The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer.


Alright, I officially give up on trying to make Top 10 lists when it comes to music. Sure, 2014 might not have been the greatest year but there were still a bunch of top notch standouts and it would be unfair to jettison them for the sake of some End of Year OCD. And yes there were some absolute stinkers from the likes of Steel Panther, The Pixies and Pennywise, but they were more than made up for by these great specimens of sound:

21. The Orwells - Disgraceland
20. Morning Glory - War Psalms
19. Hostage Calm - Die On Stage
18. The Copyrights - Report
17. Cheap Girls - Famous Graves
16. Shihad - FVEY
15. Smith Street Band - Throw Me In The River
14. Andrew Jackson Jihad - Christmas Island
13. Lagwagon - Hang
12. Linkin Park - The Hunting Party (Yes, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it is really good)
11. The Shell Corporation - Mandrake

And for the top 10 (oh well, OCD wins out in the end):

10. Weezer - Everything Will Be Alright In The End. Maybe it was the return of Ric Ocasek, maybe my defences have been battered down by the cavalcade of mediocrity since The Green Album but somehow Weezer managed to pull out something that doesn't disgrace their name. In fact, it's rather excellent. Catchy buzz pop at its geeky best.

9. Kaiser Chiefs - Education, Educatiom, Education & War. So get this - a band I've never really cared for puts out a concept album (something I've also never cared for) about the drudgery of work (about which, you guessed it, I really don't care for) and it turns out to be an absolute stunner. There's hope for Kasabian yet. Just kidding.

8. White Lung - Deep Fantasy. I've never understood why these girls (and guy) continue to fly under the radar. Fast, gutsy, fun and ferocious. Twenty something of the best minutes you'll spend with your ears.

7. RX Bandits - Gemini, Her Majesty. After a long hiatus these guys storm back with what I'd say is their second best album ever. Dreamy punk reggae as it's supposed to be done. Stargazer is a serious contender for song of the year.

6. Mastodon - Once More Round The Sun. Yeah, yeah, I'm ridiculously late to board this particular ship but I'll happily swim behind if I must because this is the most ball-crunchingly, monstrous punch in the ear I've had the pleasure of experiencing in a long time. The melodies are stupidly catchy despite the incredible density of everything else going on around them. Seriously, this album made me want to go wrestle bears.

5. Johnny Marr - Playland. While Morrisey was busy being a total douchebag, his old Smiths bandmate quietly dropped a masterpiece of guitar pop. Simple, great songs played with heart and vigour. And humility.

4. World/Inferno Friendship Society - This Packed Funeral. Gogol Bordello might get all the attention when it comes to folk punk, but these guys have been bashing it out just as long and arguably more consistently. Never before have they reached this level of madcap artistry though - a concept album based around the funeral of a woman who reminded me a great deal of Cabaret's Elsie from Chelsea. A dark, celebratory symphony.

3. A tie. Death From Above 1979 - The Physical World and ANTEMASQUE - ANTEMASQUE. I know this is cheating but I love these albums equally and for the same reason. Thumpingly good dirty garage rock from gods of the alt-punk scene. Granted, Omar and Cedric could fart in a jar and I'd think it was a masterpiece but seeing them edge away from the more chaotic style of their former bands was a pure joy to behold. And as for DFA, well who'd have thought they would up the ante like this? Two truly exceptional records.

2. Dragonforce - Maximum Overload. Three albums and one singer after THAT song, Dragonforce have finally come into their own with this orgy of speed metal excess. My fist was in the air so much that I hardly had time to reach down and pick my jaw off the floor. Technical brilliance backed with perfect song writing, this is quite simply the most enjoyable album of the year.

1. PUP - PUP. I can't remember the last time I was this exited by a new band. Listening to PUP feels an awful lot like the time I first heard Guns N' Roses in 1987 or Nirvana in 1991. In other words, a game changer for my music life. Abrasive, jangled, buzzsaw pop genius, this is the best album of the last 5 years, hands down.


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