2019 In Review: A Fistful of Listicles

on Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Thought I'd be quicker getting through all this but I'm still juggling my Top 10 of the decade - I have the books, just can't nail the order. In the meantime I figured I should return to regular programming and have a look at some of my highlights from this year.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)
Devastatingly, achingly beautiful. I was in awe from the outset, marvelling at just how many profound things Nunez has to say about grief, writing and the bittersweetness of having a dog. In some ways, it reminded me (in spirit at least) of Magda Szabo's The Door or John Williams's Stoner. It's quiet and subtle but packs an emotional punch that likely measures on the Richter Scale. I kind of wish it hadn't ended.

Mad Shadows by Marie-Claire Blais (1959(
I stumbled across Blais during a random Facebook conversation and thought I should check her out. Pretty glad I did! The story of a horribly dysfunctional family devoid of any moral compass, Mad Shadows is a thoroughly nasty, unpleasant, misanthropic delight. I loved it! Thanks James Bradley and your strangely eclectic social feed.

Men In The Sun by Ghassan Khanafani (1978)
Leaving aside the controversies over Khanafani himself, Men In the Sun is an astounding collection of stories that get to the heart of Palestinian life in the 60s and 70s. Khanafani's greatest strength as a chronicler of the oppressed is his ability to convey the struggles without resorting to easy set pieces or tropes. The title story, in particular - almost novella length - is a masterpiece.

The Animal Gazer by Edgardo Franzosini (2015)
There's nothing like an obscure historical footnote to get me excited about a novel's subject. Here Franzosini zeroes in on Rembrandt Bugatti, probably most remembered (if at all) as brother to the motoring legend, but a strange and intriguing figure in his own right. Bugatti was a sculptor of considerable talent and some renown, who spent much time at the zoo watching the animals before sculpting them. Interspersed with photos of his sculptures, The Animal Gazer considers the ravages of war as seen through the eyes of a very gentle soul. When the Antwerp Zoo began killing their animals at the outbreak of World War 1, it was all too much for Bugatti, setting off his descent into the suicidal abyss. A sad and timely story.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller(1949)
Is there a modern play so tense and soul crushing, yet so brilliant as this? Not a word wasted. About 15 years ago, I saw Brian Dennehy as Willy on Broadway and was totally gutted then, but had not actually read it until this year. Took me a few days to catch my breath.

Not sure how the year got away from me but, well, here we are. Yet again, I'm left with a lumbering pile of books I bought with the very best of intentions. And, yes, I still hope to read them all (Krasznahorkai will be book number one for 2020). Alas, this is just the top third of the pile. Expect to see the others in newspaper photos of the collapsed tower that crushed me to death one day. Without further ado, I hang my head in deep, deep shame and present this picture:

I don't think I've been this excited for a haul of forthcoming books in years! I barely know where to start, but I think I'd have to say the one that has me literally frothing at the mouth is Patrick Allington's Rise and Shine. If I gave you a list of all my favourite things in a book and asked you to write it and then you came back with something even better than I'd hoped, there's a good chance you'd give me Rise and Shine. No pressure or anything! Elizabeth Tan follows up the brilliant Rubik with Smart Ovens for Lonely People. I have an ARC on my shelf and it's taking all my strength not to drop everything else and read it. You might remember Timur Vermes's hilariously outrageous Look Who's Back from a couple of years back. Well, he might just have done it again with his madcap novel about a reality show set in a refugee camp, The Hungry and the Fat. Robbie Arnott's Flames was the best piece of Australian magical realism in living memory, and he's following it up with what promises to be the equally brilliant The Rain Heron. It's recently sold to FSG in the States so, yeah, it's going to be huge. Praise the book gods, Jenny Offill is back with Weather. If it's even a fraction as good as Dept of Speculation it might already be a contender for my book of the year. Speaking of, BOTY winner Garth Greenwell returns to the world of his sublime What Belongs To Us in Cleanliness. The buzz is insanely good so I'll be jumping on that the moment it comes out. Australia's finest cli-fi prophet, James Bradley, returns with Ghost Species and I can't help but feel what he has to say has never been more important. Seems like I was lamenting Charles Yu's recent silence only a few days ago and this morning I find out he has a new novel in the pipeline, Interior Chinatown. I'm a little wary, but Yu is so damn funny that I'm hoping a story that doesn't hugely appeal to me (it sounds a bit too much like Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer) can be salvaged through its execution. If you dig a smart thriller, you'll likely be as excited as I am for JP Pomare's newy, In the Clearing which promises to fuck with your mind even more than Call Me Evie. And yes, in case you think I've forgotten, Hilary Mantel rounds out her trilogy with The Mirror and the Light which means I can finally get around to reading the other two.

I've also had the immense pleasure of reading an advance copy of The Slaughterman's Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovitz. It's an absolute romp - think the Russian classics with a shot of sly Yiddish humour - and expect me to be practically forcing you all to read it when it is released. The puffs have been streaming in from across the literary spectrum - Gary Shteyngart and George Szirtes both loved it. So will you.

I had high hopes for music in 2019. So many of my favourite bands were putting out new albums, some after a very long hiatus. Unfortunately, I was mostly disappointed. There were some pretty good records but most felt phoned in by bands in mid-to-late career slumps (I'm looking at you, Dragonforce). In previous years, I struggled to limit my list to 20. This year, I barely got to ten.

Morbid Stuff by PUP
PUP's self-titled debut still stands as my favourite album of the past ten years. It was the shot of adrenalin a very lacklustre music world needed. Their sophomore offering was pretty good but a bit dull. I wasn't sure what to expect of Morbvid Stuff. Was it too much to hope that they might rediscover that spark that made them so bloody exciting? Ah... yes. And then some. Jagged belter after jagged belter, PUP shred like there's no tomorrow. Dark, funny and insanely catchy this was far and above my album of the year.

Ghosteen by Nick Cave
At the risk of committing some kind of Australian musical high treason, I'm just going to put it out that and say I don't get the fuss about Nick Cave. That's not to say I haven't liked some of his albums, and I totally dig his position as a countercultural icon, but I certainly would not consider myself a fan. Well, way to go Nick. You've thoroughly confounded me now! I... I... kinda love Ghosteen, an album as confronting as it is lush and transcendent. Cave's poetry is at its finest, and I can't help but feel that this is some kind of microscopically detailed mapping of his soul in the aftermath of deep, personal tragedy. It might just be his best album. It is definitely his most pained.

Tommy and June by Tommy and June
The true identities of Tommy and June remain punk rock's worst kept secret, but whoever they are, these two managed to crank out the sweetest, most listenable folky, punky, poppy album of the year. Think Simon and Garfunkel meets, I dunno, Useless ID and Old Man Markley (*cough cough*). I keep going back and it never fails to make me smile, some five hundred listens later.

Love Keeps Kicking by Martha
Looking for the best jangly pop from a band you didn't know existed? Well, look no further! I was drawn to this album by it's totally silly, underwhelming artwork and was blown away by the infectious guitar pop I found. Check it out. I guarantee it will be the soundtrack to your summer (unless you live north of the equator, in which case shut up, you already had summer).

War Music by Refused
If there's an upside to whenever the world looks like it's totally turning to shit, it's that righteous anger tends to breed incredible protest music. If one album stood out on that front, it was Refused, who absolutely hit it out of the park with their incendiary new album, War Music. Chaotic, abrasive grooves. Angry, thoughtful, intelligent lyrics. Denis Blixen doing what he does best. A killer album for the end times.

Don't Worry by Mobina Galore
God I love this band. The perfect combination of snarling ferocity and infectious melody. And it all sounds so bloody huge. To think they're only a two piece. Mobina Galore have consistently improved with each release, which is saying something given how bloody great they were from the outset. Don't Worry is another huge step forward. Blisteringly good.

Fear Inoculum by Tool
It was going to take nothing short of a miracle for prog metal's mad scientists to meet the hype surrounding their first album in what seems like forever. So was it worth the wait? Um... hell yes! If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be alive when one of the classical greats unveiled a symphony, this is about as close as you'll ever get. It's a layered work of such incredible complexity (try counting out any of the songs) that every listen brings a thousand new sensations. That said, I still prefer ├ćnema.

Railer by Lagwagon
It was a year that saw releases from some of the veteran punk rock greats. Bad Religion's Age of Unreason was decent (notwithstanding its atrocious cover art). Good Riddance put out Thoughts and Prayers, a good, but not great follow-up to their sensational comeback, Peace In Our Time. But it was only Lagwagon that put out an instant classic that can stand proudly among their best. This is the Lagwagon of old - think Duh or Trashed - having a blast ripping through a bunch of killer tunes. Opener Stealing Light is a revelation, one of my favourite Lagwagon songs of all time. Holy shit, that outro!

Gigantic Sike by Mean Jeans
Ramones-punk done right. Funny, silly, irreverent and urgent. I feel like these guys have been hovering in the ether for years waiting to release something this good. A total, joyous breeze. Oh, and apparently the number in Party Line works. It's all part of some huge practical joke by the band. What legends.

Sonic Citadel by Lightning Bolt
I'm not even going to try to explain this one. Fucked if I understand it. Just... just... listen. I'll be hiding in a corner, shivering.

And if you'll just indulge me a moment of schmaltz, I also need to give a shout out to my song of the year: Follow Your Heart by Craig's Brother. I already totally loved this when I found out he'd written it for his teenage daughter. And then he filmed her reaction to it and made it the film clip. Seriously, dad goals at their finest. Best song of the year with the best film clip. Fight me.


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