2016 in Review: Secondary Stars and Other Satellites

on Monday, December 19, 2016
Having resigned myself to coming in under a ton (books, not weight) this year, I still find myself trying to balance reading like a bat out of hell and working on the edit of The Book of Dirt. Gotta love competing deadlines. If I can get in four more books before the end of the year I'll be happy. If I get the next draft of the novel done, my publisher will be happy. Better off disappointing both, right? (Kidding, I'll get both done*). In the meantime, I've put my time to extra good use by taking on another task - my end of year lists. Enough with the dilly dallying, then. Let's get going.


The Door by Magda Szabo
If I ever decided to write a definitive Top 10 Books of All Time, I can I assure you of two things. First, it will contain about 47 books. Secondly, Magda Szabo's magnificent novel, The Door, would be in the top 25. With all due respect to the book that I will name as my Book of the Year, this was, without a doubt, the best thing I read in 2016. A stunning meditation on human dignity, it completely wrong-foots the reader before unfurling into a compelling character study of the crotchety, uncouth and entirely misunderstood cleaning lady, Emerence. It is, of course, the story of a relationship, a friendship borne of servitude that is turned on its head by tragic circumstance. Szabo packs the narrative with all manner of emotion-bombs but never strays into the realm of crass sentimentality. It is a masterful act to behold and a deeply moving one to read. Over the next week I'll rattle off a whole bunch of excellent books that totally captivated me but if you only take one recommendation from all that follows, let it be this one. The Door is a singular reading experience.

Burning In by Mireille Juchau
Mireille Juchau has long existed on the periphery of my reading radar. It almost embarrasses me to admit that it took moderating a panel on which she was to appear for me to actually get around to reading her. If Burning In, her last novel with Giramondo before being picked up by Bloomsbury, is anything to go by, she will fast become one of my favourite Australian writers. Centred around the disappearance of a child in New York's Central Park, Burning In is a profound vivisection of the mother daughter relationship. The child's loss causes Australian photographer Martine Hartmann to reassess her difficult relationship with her own mother, Lotte. The mystery of the disappearance quickly takes a backseat to Martine's struggle to reconcile her own grief with that of Lotte's. As we soon learn, Lotte lost most of her family in the Holocaust and is herself a survivor. The emotional wounds have yet to scar; they remain fresh, raw, oozing. Juchau's almost obsessive fixation on the image and object as vehicles for memory, especially when rendered in her almost classically beautiful prose, makes for remarkable reading. As for the panel... Let's just say I bumbled my way through. Juchau, on the other hand, was a star.

The Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
I don't think I read a more prophetic book this year than Vásquez's novel of morality and journalistic responsibility. In this new era of post-truth, we're often left to wonder what consequences any media report might have. Vásquez compounds the question with a difficult detail: unverifiable truth. What happens when you report an allegation (as opposed to an established fact) to the extreme detriment of a public figure? Is it any different if it's the kind of allegation that cannot be verified? On the other hand, does the reporter have a responsibility to report irrespective of potential outcome, particularly in a society where truth is routinely suppressed? In The Reputations, renowned Columbian cartoonist Mallarino is about to be honoured with a lifetime award for his fearlessness in the face of an oppressive (now overthrown) dictatorship. At the ceremony he is confronted by a young woman posing as a journalist. She is, in fact, a former friend of his daughter's who, as a child, might have been abused by a senator at a party in Mallarino's house. Mallarino's outing of the incident (he chose to believe the allegation without any attempt at substantiating it) led to the minister's suicide and, ultimately, the cartoonist's crisis of faith. Clumsy missteps aside (Mallarino's attempts to reconcile the girl and the senator's wife are kind of far-fetched), The Reputations is a short, searing novel of considerable depth and moral power.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Critics hailed Aziz, an Egyptian journalist, artist and commentator, as some kind of Arab Kafka for this surreal dystopian novel. And while I'm always suss about any Kafka comparison, it's not hard to see why. The Queue is a strange, unsettling book about a country where all questions of consequence are directed to a centralised authority known as The Gate. Nobody knows when, if at all, The Gate opens so they stand in an ever-growing line hoping to be let in. Through the various supplicants, Aziz tells the story of a broken society, desperate for freedom and some form of clarity. With touches of Orwell, Huxley and Sorokin to boot, The Queue gives us an unparalleled insight into life in any number of Middle Eastern countries in the lead-up to the Arab Spring.


Came for the pictures, stayed for the words...


In 2014 my top 10 had 21 albums. Last year it had 24. Just to maintain the consistency of number creep, I've upped it again by three, leaving my Top 10 at a slightly bloated 27. Some pretty regular bands haven't made it, simply because they plopped out unexpected stinkers into the porcelain listening bowl. Yep, I'm looking at you Kaiser Chiefs, Green Day, Hot Hot Heat and Ida Maria.... Also, passable but underwhelming efforts by NOFX (crucify me), Metalicca, Protest The Hero, Biffy Clyro, The Living End and Jimmy Eat World made for an easy cull. I don't really know why I stopped at 27, though. I enjoyed albums by Avenged Sevenfold, Sum 41, Against Me, Get Dead, Blink 182, Camp Cope, Nick Cave and Violent Soho. Maybe I just got lazy. Whatever. Here's what I loved, randomly stopped for no good reason at:

27. Nerd Herder - Rockingham
26. Face To Face - Protection
25. Travis - Everything At Once
24. Ignite - A War Against You
23. Lady Gaga - Joanne
22. The Cult - Hidden City
21. Weezer - White Album
20. In Flames - Battles
19. PUP - The Dream Is Over
18. The Descendents - Hypercaffium Spazzinate
17. Ben Lee - Freedom, Love and Recuperation of the Human Mind
16. The Frights - You Are Going to Hate This
15. Vinnie Caruana - Survivors Guilt
14. Brutal Youth - Sanguine
13. Venerea - Last Call For Aderall
12. PEARS - Green Star
11. The Interrupters - Say It Out Loud

We interrupt this program to bring you another important list. 2016 was, without doubt, the year of the EP. Some of my absolute favourite music came out in short form. So, breaking with tradition, here's a shout out in no particular order to Hi-Standard (welcome back!!), G.L.O.S.S. (R.I.P.), Morning Glory, Death By Stereo, Ghost, Mobina Galore, Masked Intruder, Guttermouth and Letters to Cleo.


10. Tie - Jeff Rosenstock - Worry?, Joyce Manor - Cody
I don't know whether it's the earnest dorkiness or the jagged pop songwriting genius, but there is an unmistakeable synergy between Jeff Rosenstock and Joyce Manor. Rosenstock followed his standout 2015 album, Are We Cool?, with what you could quite easily call its more reflective companion piece while Joyce Manor also dialled it down from their 2014 corker, Never Hungover Again, to bring us a fun, but thoughtful burst of punk goodness.

9. Dan Vapid - All Wound Up
Can't say I ever thought I'd have a kids' album in my top ten but former Screeching Weasel guitarist Dan Vapid's collection of punk choons for little ears was wonderfully refreshing and silly. Really, it's just a bunch of Ramonesy/Weaselly songs with lyrics about robots and fire engines which, now I think about it, makes it a typical Ramonesy/Weaselly kinda album.

8. March - Stay Put
I was pretty excited when I saw White Lung were putting out a new record. And sure, Paradise was a ripper little album. But the White Lung album I'd hoped for wasn't made by White Lung at all. Instead, I got my fix from a band I'd never heard of before - Netherlands buzzsaws March. It's fast, it's snotty, it's loud and it tears the skin from your face. 'Nuff said.

7. Pulley - No Change In The Weather
It's been 12 years since Pulley put out one of my favourite EpiFat punk albums, Matters. I was pretty skeptical when I heard there was something new in the pipeline. And given that the album came only a month or so after they announced they were making one, it smacked of sad old dudes making shitty music for the sad old dudes who used to listen to them. Ok, I was wrong. Scott and co. sound as fresh and pumped to play music as they did when I last heard them. Alas, I am still a sad old dude.

6. Taking Back Sunday - Tidal Wave
Straw poll. Is it okay to say TBS have become good? Should I be declaring this from behind some kind of protective shield? In what might amount to the blogging world's equivalent of a naked walk of shame through a nunnery, I'm just going to admit it. I loved this album. Incredibly catchy songs delivered with completely unexpected flair. Yes, I hate myself a bit.

5. Leonard Cohen - You Want It Darker
Pretty much everyone who has made a list thus far has put David Bowie's Blackstar in their top ten for 2016. And yeah, as parting gifts go it was something to behold. But I couldn't ever quite shake the feeling that, once you strip away the wonder of its genesis, it was little more than a fascinating art project. In terms of profundity and heartache, I'd take Leonard Cohen's swan song any day. A collection of dark, melancholic yet still hopeful songs, You Want It Darker is about as perfect an album as the gravelled troubadour ever made. I'd put it up there with The Future, Songs From a Room and I'm Your Man.

4. Angel Du$t - Rock The Fuck On Forever
Fast. Abrasive. Ugly. No album swung more clumsily or punched harder this year. Truly a revelation.

3. Say Yes - Real Life Trash Mag
Whenever a band boasts "ex-members of..." I usually run the opposite direction. The only thing that makes me run faster is when the ex-member is from a band I didn't particularly like. Luckily, I had no idea that Say Yes had former Alexisonfire drummer Jordan Hastings in the line-up when I first heard the album. I just liked the weird cover art. Three songs in and I was a bona fide fan. I had to know everything about this band. I wanted posters on my wall. I... Oh... Ok, so I still don't like Alexisonfire but this album is a riot of angular hooks, sleaze, abrasiveness and madcap creativity. Get it in your ears.

2. Sixx:AM - Prayers For The Damned/Prayers For The Blessed
Technically it's two albums, but the this year's Sixx:AM double shot is best listened to as one bombastic masterpiece. Think Saints of Los Angeles-era Motley Crüe (once they became seriously good) with a less annoying singer and you've pretty much nailed the Prayers cycle. It's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of giving myself to something so self-consciously over the top and I gotta say it felt pretty incredible. 2016 might have claimed the Crüe but so long as Nikki Sixx is still doing this kind of thing, I'm kind of okay with that. Out to pasture, Mr. Neil.

1. Tie: Plow United - Three, Useless ID - State is Burning
OK, so I've cheated again but I really couldn't pick between these two astounding albums. Given that I kind of I make the rules on B4BW, I can do whatever I want. Yay me. So, without further ado...

I'd never heard Plow United before this, their (I'm told) long awaited reunion album. I don't even know what possessed me to listen to it. But sometimes, the best albums are sirens - they call you to them unwittingly, lead you to crash joyously on their rocks. Three is an unassuming, stripped back masterpiece of heartfelt, speedy pop delivered with a rare kind of passion and honesty.

Useless ID, on the other hand, are a band I know very well. They've always rocked and are top dudes to boot. Twenty-odd years into their career, they have stunned (in the very best way) their fans with their most aggressive, political album ever; an album that teeters between despair and hope, anger and love without ever losing focus on melody or heart. It's a magnificent collision of everything that matters about punk rock. For what it's worth, I have to say that there really is nothing like seeing friends make the album you've always suspected that they had in them; the kind of album that is objectively your equal-favourite album of the year.

* Obligatory reassurance in case my editor reads this crap.


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