So I read 26 books in 2011, which is pretty good for me. 5 of the books were re-reads, so I’ll only be worrying about the other 21 (if I didn’t Ella Minnow Pea would be on the top of my good list every year). Like the CDs from this year, there wasn’t a whole lot of bad this year, though a few were disappointing for the reasons below. I hope to have the best books up before 2012, but we’ll see. Oddly enough, a surprising amount of the books – about 20% – were books written before 1950.
5. The Davinci Code – Dan Brown: It is perhaps unfair that this appears on my “bad books” list. The truth is that it was a pretty fun read – a little sleuth romp. At worst, when I finished it, I felt rather ambivalent about it. So why does it make the list? My biggest problem with the book was the short bit he put at the beginning, where he tries to validate all the things in the book by saying “But all this stuff is based on real facts!” To me, it’s these few paragraphs that have polarized everyone’s opinions of the book. If it were just a work of fiction, nobody pays much attention to it. Instead, readers who don’t know that he’s based much of his work on theories walk away having their faith shaken to the core. They’re really silly, that lot.
4. The Age Altertron – Mark Dunn: I think I have myself to blame. As soon as I’d heard that Mark Dunn (author of the revolutionary Ella Minnow Pea and Ibid) had a new book coming out, I ordered it immediately. Had I done the research to discover this was a young adult book, I might not have been so disappointed by it. However, I can look past it being a book geared for kids. It seemed to be dumbed down too much – Dunn’s a smart guy and a clever author, and I think he underestimates kids by writing this book as basically as he did.
3. Baby Signs – Linda Acredolo & Susan Goodwyn: Bought as part of a Grassroots Bag sale, this book probably only cost me a quarter. I was interested in learning the “official” method for using signs to communicate with a baby. I have two major problems with this book. First, the book seems like a billboard for the book. Seriously, every other page is just reinforcing that no matter what you do, continue to do everything in the book. Second, and here’s my real beef: there already exists a system to communicate with your hands – it’s called sign language. Yet they invent a whole bunch of signs to communicate, several of which are far more difficult for klunky fingers to attempt than their ASL counterparts. I walked away from that book thinking, “Forget this, I’m going to get out my ASL book and just work on these.”
2. Ender in Exile – Orson Scott: There’s a very important reason that Orson Scott Card had skipped a large portion of time in Ender’s life – from the end of Ender’s Game to the beginning of Speaker for the Dead. That reason is because that period in his life is mind-numbingly boring. Simply put, this book did not need to be written. I’m okay with the large gap in Ender’s life, especially because it is touched upon a bit in the subsequent series. It’s be like finding the missing years of Jesus’ life’s manuscripts, only to realize he spent nearly all of it watching “Cribs”. Also, it seems like OSC forgot to put any sort of dramatic tension in the book, which he crams into the last few chapters. An uneven, uninteresting read, probably only for true Ender fanatics, and even then a weak link.
1. Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society – edited by Bill Bryson: This is probably the book I was most disappointed by. Ash got it for me last Christmas, and at the time I didn’t even know it existed. I was super excited. Not only was it [edited] by Bill Bryson, but it was about a subject I didn’t know a whole lot about. Turns out this isn’t a history of the Royal Society. It is a collection so essays about science that are each, in one way or another, somehow related to the Royal Society – often times tangentially. It would be like calling a book “The History of Baseball”, then having Ch. 1 be about ERA, Ch. 2 be about Pete Rose’s gambling problems, Ch. 3 be about home run records, Ch. 4 being about grass vs. astroturf… etc. Add to that that some of the chapters were downright uninteresting (I’m looking at you, several chapters about meta-physics). It wasn’t all bad; a few of the chapters were interesting reads, like Margaret Atwood’s chapter about mad scientists, and most of the ones about astronomy. But all in all, unless you want to read a collection of unrelated essays written in MLA format, this book probably isn’t for you. And that’s really a shame.
All right, time for the best music I bought in 2011. Same rules apply to the Worst of, which can be found HERE.
7. Ken Burns Jazz – Louis Armstrong (2000) – It’s no surprise that I like big band music. But I have very little Louis Armstrong for a guy who likes it so much. When I saw this one, I had to pick it up. It’s a great collection, from his early Dixieland-esque work with several groups, to his later more familiar style. It’s just a great selection of songs. That Ken Burns knows an awful lot about many things.
6. The Rhythm of the Saints – Paul Simon (1990) – Here is an admission – I think this CD is on the list because I WANT to like it so very badly. The truth is I do like it, and although Simon gets a bit too much credit for his inclusion of “world musicians” (read: pretty much strictly African), you can’t deny that the music on this album is pretty great. Noteworthy tracks include “Can’t Run But”, “The Coast”, “Thelma”, and of course the famous(ish) “The Obvious Child”.
5. Undercard – The Extra Lens (2010) – I was pretty stoked to hear that John Darnielle’s side-project The Extra Lens (formerly Extra Glenns) was coming out with a new release. For a while, this album was my favorite thing that Darnielle had released since Sunset Tree. However, after repeated listenings, it is very good, but perhaps not on quite the pedestal it once was. First off, it’s only 12 songs, and one is an oldie he’s done for years, and another is a cover. However, two of the songs on here are probably among the best in his entire massive catalog: “How I Left the Ministry” and “Some Other Way”. In fact, the only real dud on the album is the version of “Rockin’ Rockin’ Twilight of the Gods”, which is particularly not-rocking. They should have just given it the frenzied energy they give it live. Definitely worth a listen, especially if you are a Mountain Goats fan.
4. All Eternals Deck – The Mountain Goats (2011) – Speaking of Mountain Goats, Darnielle somehow sneaks onto my list twice this year. That seems unfair. This is his 7th release with his full band, and like the last few, it seems to have few stand-out blow-your-socks-off songs, but conversely no duds. That’s right, not one song that’s worse than 3 out of 5 stars on my iTunes. I will say this – unlike the last few, he did at least play with the sounds of the songs a bit. I found that, before this album, their songs tended to start to sound much too much alike, and on this one, using instrumentation and composition, he varied up the sounds, particularly on “Age of Kings”. Oh, and for the record, “Never Quite Free” might be the best song of 2011.
3. Jurassic Park Sountrack – John Williams (1993) - I always assumed Danny Elfman’s soundtracks would comprise pretty much all of my top 10 lists. But I think as much as I love the man, and as much as his soundtracks are the BEST accompaniment for the film they belong to, you can’t deny that Williams is probably the best theme-writer out there. It showcases here, as Jurassic Park may have finally vaulted over Edward Scissorhands and Braveheart as my favorite score of all time. Epic.
2. Mighty Wind Soundtrack – Various (2003) – I’d seen this movie first probably a year or two after it came out, thought it was charming with a few chuckles, and was happy to have seen it. Then, many years later, I was still haunted by the song “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”. When the came on television recently and I watched it again, I was just captured by the music in it. Sure, it was written by Michael McKean and not an actual folk artist, per se, but man does he do the genre justice. I always felt all the styles that the Christopher Guest movies parody are less about parody and more about homage. That is most true here, where they write genuine folk music that’s tongue-in-cheek, and not trying to be super funny. I rated about half this album as 4-star songs, including all the songs that are featured in the movie and “Fare Away”, “Blood on the Coal”, and the harmony-solid “When You’re Next to Me.” This is a great buy for anyone even remotely tolerant of folk music.
1. Artificial Heart - Jonathan Coulton (2011) – I was nervous that Jonathan Coulton was going mainstream. He made his calling as an internet darling, doing the Thing a Day series, and that was great. He was the lovable nerd. Now that he was under the tutelage of John Flansburg of TMBG (who was once a loveable nerd, but has become too mainstream for my liking), I feared that the album would fall into some of the same traps as TMBG’s recent efforts. How wrong I was. Sure, the first 10 seconds of the album sound exactly like a TMBG album, but after that, it is pure Coulton from start to finish. At 17 tracks, I get the impression he put most of what he recorded on it, and there are a few ones that I pass over (I’m looking at you “Je Suis Rick Springfield”), but the album showcases what Coulton does best: has you cracking up one minute, and quietly reflecting the next. There’s few artists who can achieve this: Moxy Fruvous and Eddie From Ohio are pretty much the only other two I can think of. What I appreciate most about the album is that it is a return to melody. I swear, music today has completely unforgettable melodies, and Coulton deftly carves out a dozen of them on this album alone. The first half of the album is great, but it is the second half, tracks 10-16 specifically, where it takes off. Aside from “Good Morning Tucson”, that clump of songs is possibly the strongest string of songs on any album I own, reaching its apex in the trilogy “Down Today”, “Dissolve” and the simple-but-amazing “Nobody Loves You Like Me”. I heartily recommend this to anyone you know.
So it’s that time of year again, for my Best-of and Worst-of entertainment (books and music). To see last year’s entries, click here:
This year, I’m stretching this into a four-part series. I’ll start with the Worst CDs. In all, I’ve obtained nearly 70 new CDs last year, not counting random online downloads from Amazon (free!). For this list, a few notes: these CDs didn’t all come out in 2011, they were just obtained this year. I’ve included release date years. Also, I will NOT be including any kids CDs that we had, nor any music I bought specifically for Ash (because some of that country and the Black Eyed Peas would probably appear on the list). One other note, the music from this year was not nearly as big a failure as last year, so this is probably the hardest list to come up with.
4. Join Us – They Might Be Giants (2011): The reviews I’d read on this album were across the board. Many say it was a nice throwback to their old shorter-song style, some said it was the same miserable stuff they’d poured out of their last few albums. I was skeptical, but I bought it. I have to say I lean toward the second. It’s not the actual songs that are bad; in fact I feel there are a few pretty good songs on the album (When Will You Die, Spoiler Alert, and Three Might Be Duende), but it’s the fact that they’re no longer a band playing songs they wrote. They are constantly experimenting with different annoying sounds, silly voices, and in my opinion trying to be weird in an attempt to recreate their olden days, rather than writing and performing songs like they used to. Disappointing.
3. Weezer – Green Album (2001): I know nobody says to buy this CD as the best example of Weezer, but given the catchy hooks of the Blue Album and songs like Beverly Hills, I expected more from this than album. This is some of the blandest music for a band with theoretically as much personality as Weezer. I’ve had the CD for 4 months and I couldn’t sing you a single lyric from it.
2. Past, Present & Future – Rick Wakeman (2010): I was so excited when Ash bought me this 3-CD collection of new piano music. Almost anything that Rick touches is gold. However, I think there should be a disclaimer that this isn’t a collection of 40 well-composed songs. It sound more like him just improvising and recording it. I mean, if you listen to the bass hand in each song, it sounds identical in different key signatures. Sure they’re pretty, and if they pop up randomly on my player, chances are I’ll like the song a great deal, but you simply can’t listen to these CDs in order, it is simply too non-descript.
1. Monkey – UNLV Orchestra (1999): Okay, yeah, I bought this one because of the name. It’s basically a collection of orchestra pieces from a college orchestra. And the playing is fine. But man, they picked an assortment of really lousy songs. There’s a number of them I skip outright, and few others that I make it a ways through before thinking, “Wow, this is a lousy song.” The band sounds fine, at least.