One thing this pandemic has done to me is exposed some of my mental health issues and turned up the volume. I was struggling with a few things pre-Covid which have been exacerbated by this crisis. For example, I don’t have many hobbies and over the past few years I’ve lost any sort of passion for things to do when I’m not at work or with friends and family. I’ve blogged about it in the past, and in fact I have a whole category of blog posts related to hobbies (or lack thereof).
Someone I trust suggested I look to my youth to try to find some spark. She thought perhaps just experiencing some past activities might help me get unstuck. I thought about this for a bit, and one thing that came to mind that I loved to do as a kid was putting together plastic model kits. I used to build cars, planes, ships, spaceships, and more. All you needed was a kit, some glue, a little paint, and some time. It was with this in mind that I found myself wandering the aisles of a hobby shop in North Phoenix a few weeks ago and leaving with a model kit, a tube of glue, and a can of spray paint.
I definitely enjoyed the experience of putting together the model, but I will say I realized I don’t have a lot of skill when it comes to detail work. I got the model together, but when I was done there were a few pieces leftover and some parts I just looked at and thought to myself no way I can do that. SO my GTO doesn’t have passenger-side seatbelts or a shifter. Frankly, the shifter snapped in my hands while I was trying to get it free from the frame that holds all the parts. Oh well, it’s not perfect. But I painted it, and chose to go with the convertible vs the hardtop, and I think it looks pretty good for my first model since I was about eight.
I’m not sure I’ve found a new hobby. I don’t have a burning desire to run back to the hobby shop and buy another model. But it was fun and I used my hands.
In the same spirit, I went to Michael’s over the weekend to browse through arts and crafts sections to see if anything else sparked some joy. It was pretty overwhelming really. There were all kids of art supplies, crafts, beads and yarn. I decided I’m not going to find much joy in knitting, or scrapbooking, or painting (I have no skill there). I did decide to buy some markers and spend some time coloring mandalas — in the past I’ve found this to be quite a zen-like experience.
Since I’m still sort of laid up with a foot issue and there’s this little pandemic going on I am still going to keep my eyes open for hobby ideas. And without a doubt I’ll continue with the hobbies I do have even though they are pretty passive — watching movies, reading, blogging.
But I’m really curious about what others do in their spare time (assuming they have any). Seriously, I want to know about your hobbies and why you like them. Reply to this post or post under the link where you first saw this blog post.
This year has been like no other, to say the least, but even while most everything has sucked one thing that surprisingly has not sucked is new music from a wide array of artists. It’s almost as if the pandemic caused musical acts to dig deeper and record special albums. Either that, or it’s just luck. Regardless, 2020 has been music to my ears.
2020 has also proven to be a very diverse year in music for me. My tastes have certainly expanded over the years, but it’s becoming clear to me that I’m mellowing with age. Oh I still like to rock out on occasion, but truthfully I’ve just been drawn to more slow and thoughtful albums. I also have to say my ears have continued to open to music that in the past I would have just written off as “country” and never given it a second thought. And while I’m still not likely to ever listen to mainstream country, I am delving deeper and deeper into the murky waters of alt-country and Americana/roots music. This is reflected in the list below to be sure.
Usually I only choose to rank my top 10 favorite albums of the year, but because I’ve enjoyed so many different artists this year and because it’s 2020 I decided to go ahead give 20 albums some love. So I’ll skip the usual honorable mentions and get right to the count down.
20. Punisher — Phoebe Bridgers. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it sure seems like the artists are getting younger these days. I have to admit, at first I was uncomfortable as a 54-year-old adult man listening to music by a twentysomething artist — especially a female artist. But I realized I wasn’t being true to my musical self by neglecting younger artists just because they are young. Yes, Phoebe Bridgers, at 26, is more than half my age. But the fact is, she’s talented, interesting, unique, a proud member of the LGBTQ community, and way cooler than I ever was at 26 or any age. She’s also a badass, having been one of the artists who called out ex-beau Ryan Adams for sexual misconduct. Punisher is a great album made up of interesting songs written and performed by a talented woman.
19. RoundAgain — Joshua Redman. The members of the original Joshua Redman Quartet—Redman (saxophone), Brad Mehldau (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Brian Blade (drums)—reunite with RoundAgain, the group’s first recording since 1994’s MoodSwing,
18. Jump Rope Gazers — The Beths. This New Zealand quartet is the definition of power pop. Jump Rope Gazers is only their second full-length record and it rocks. Lead singer Elizabeth Stokes has one of those lovely pop rock voices that for me is reminiscent of one of my favorite female pop vocalists, Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays, but with a little more rock. As they say in New Zealand, The Beths are choice.
17. Such Pretty Forks in the Road — Alanis Morissette. It has been 25 years since the release of Jagged Little Pill and while Morissette has worked steadily since then she’ll always be considered a 90s artist. That’s unfortunate because her best album in my opinion is 2002’s Under Rug Swept and now all these years later this, her ninth record, showcase’s a whole new side of her — a matured Morissette if you will. Hell, it’s downright motherly.
16. Gaslighter — The Chicks. The artists previously known as Dixie Chicks have officially shed their connection to country music (the genre rejected them in the early 2000s after lead singer Natalie Maines was quoted as saying she was ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas). Regardless, these chicks have been genre-defying from the start and I’m proud to be a fan. Gaslighter is solid rock and roll (with a country twang) and the band has continued to say “fuck you” to the Country music establishment, its fans, and anyone else who thinks they should shut up and play. I love them for that as much as their music. And if you cross Natalie, expect to be featured in their next song!
15. Shelby Lynne — Shelby Lynne. Now in her early 50s, if it feels like Shelby Lynn Moorer has been around forever that’s probably because she had her first breakthrough at 19. Over the years she’s been a rising country star, a Grammy-winning “Best New Artist,” a folk singer, an Americana artist, and a pop chanteuse. Categories aside, for me she’s just a great singer/songwriter.
14. Look Long — Indigo Girls. The first time I saw Indigo Girls live was in the late 80s in Berkeley, CA on Halloween night and it was an experience to say the least. I’ve been a fan since the first album and they never let me down. Look Long, in fact, is their 15th studio album and one of their best records in years. Emily and Amy write separately, but sing together better than any two women to ever share a stage.
13. Superstar — Caroline Rose. This New Yorker has been around for a few years but I’m just now discovering her work. I did enjoy her 2018 album “Loner” but Superstar is solid from top to bottom. She has a cool voice and plays multiple instruments. She is not a classic singer/songwriter but instead delivers really fun pop songs and has a great sense of humor as evidenced by this crazy good video. If Greta Gerwig was a pop star she’d be Caroline Rose.
12. St. Cloud — Waxahatchee. I’m not gonna lie, I’d never heard of Waxahatchee before mid-2020. Officially this band, fronted by Alabama-native Katie Crutchfield, is considered indie rock or indie folk, but I don’t care what you call it — it’s damn fine music by a wonderful songwriter. Can’t Do Much is my favorite track from the album and a good representation of her powerful voice.
11. Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas. For me London-based Lianne La Havas has the most soulful voice around with a sound that frankly reminds me of one of my all-time favorite artists — Sade. Which is to say, if you like smooth soul and music designed for a rainy day or quiet evening in you’re gonna love Lianne La Havas if you don’t already. She’s not just a singer either — she plays multiple instruments too. Plus, she’s not afraid to think outside her genre — she covers a Radiohead track on this her third studio album. I’ve been a fan for a while and trust me you should be too.
Stay tuned for the second half of my year-end top 20 albums post coming soon to a blog near you. In the meantime, enjoy these albums and let me know what you think.
I am a man of reason. By that I mean I rely on science to inform my opinions and many of my decisions, from climate change to astrophysics (no, the earth is not flat) to health. When I’m unsure of something, I look to the research. This worldview has shaped my belief system, my politics, and my health decisions. It is why, for example, after my heart attack in 2011 I continue to take the medications I’ve been prescribed, and why I eat a low carb diet. I do my own research, and then I trust the science. I’m not saying this to be derogatory to anyone who trusts faith, pseudoscience, or “holistic” treatments for illnesses — I’m just not the kind of person who sees an ad on television for a memory enhancer and decides to take a pill derived from jellyfish. Show me the peer-reviewed study, please.
I bring this up because today I was given the first of two injections of a vaccine for COVID-19 as part of a phase three medical trial being done by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in cooperation with Oxford University. I get my second shot, or booster, in four weeks. Why, you ask, did I volunteer to be a human guinea pig for a coronavirus vaccine? Because of science.
To start with, I am at high risk for developing serious issues if I get coronavirus. This is because of my heart history, but also because I’ve had asthma since I was a child. Coronavirus is most definitely more deadly among those with pre-existing conditions and I do not want to be a statistic.
Second, it is unclear how much longer we’ll all have to wait for a vaccine and I’m getting tired of living in fear. I have seen this virus devastate lives, and almost take the life of someone close to me, and why not opt in for a chance to get a vaccine early — by the time a vaccine reaches phase three it has been proven to be pretty safe and as we learned earlier this week with the news from the Pfizer vaccine trial the results can be tremendously positive.
There is not much downside to taking the vaccine during a phase three trial. Yes, I had to read and sign off on about 20 pages of legalese to receive the injection, but for the most part the vast majority of side effects have been mild with some patients reporting fever and achiness following the booster. There have been a few isolated cases of a neurological condition but there is no evidence yet as to whether or not those cases were caused by the vaccine and in fact in one of the cases the patient received the placebo rather than the vaccine. And so far nobody has grown a tail.
The upside is that by early December I may have antibodies to the coronavirus and this will limit my chances of getting the virus or having a serious issue from the virus. I am not taking my mask off any time soon, but it feels like a light at the end of the tunnel and that’s exciting. If, by chance, I was one of the 33% of trial patients who received a placebo rather than the vaccine, well I guess I’ve at least helped the medical community bring this vaccine to the world and as a study participant I may even be vaccinated as a thank you for participating in advance of the general population. Hell, even if a slew of vaccines are ready for mass use in December as suspected it could be months before any of us get it so I’m happy to have jumped the line.
Which brings me back to reason. Vaccines work. Not sure? When was the last time you got measles or polio? I trust science. Science is why when you get a cut on your finger you do not die from infection (thank you Sir Alexander Fleming). Science is why I didn’t die from a heart attack in 2011, instead I had an angiogram and had three stents placed, thus keeping the blood flowing through my body (thank you Dr. Charles Thomas Stent — not joking).
I’m no hero for participating in this trial. Yes, it will help the world. And yes, I will make a few hundred bucks. But I’m doing it for myself and my loved ones. I have spent the better part of the last six months wearing a mask when I’m in public, dining on patios rather than inside, working from home, and generally living like a hermit. I miss my friends. And I want it to end. I want to get my life back. I really hope I was one of the 66% of AstraZeneca trial participants who received the actual vaccine and not the placebo.
Despite the anti-vax movement (proof that people will believe anything if it’s repeated enough times), vaccines are among humankinds greatest achievements. Don’t take my word for it — check out what noted pro-science and bullshit detectors Penn and Teller have to say:
Last night as I lay in bed about to fall asleep, I had an existential moment. I imagined I was in a hospital bed, about to be intubated because of the coronavirus, and I had a fleeting moment to share a few dying words with my wife and son. As I literally lay there trying to think of what to say, I wondered to myself — have I had a good life? If I were actually about to die, would I be satisfied with what I’d done in my 53 years on the planet?
The coronavirus pandemic has put most of us on edge. For some of us, it has simply been an inconvenience. For those of us with underlying medical conditions, perhaps it has caused you a moment or two of panic like I had with my bedtime musings last night. I’ll be honest, because of my heart issues along with being a lifelong asthma sufferer, it has freaked me the fuck out. I know this virus is probably not going to kill me. Still, it has made me think about my life and that, my friends, is a good thing. Here me out.
In 2012 when I suffered a near fatal heart attack, I took stock of my life up to that point and decided I needed to make a few changes. In my heart of hearts, I knew I was unhappy in my career and nearly dying enabled me to find the strength to leave public relations and become a nonprofit fundraiser. Eight years on, I know I made the right decision.
It turns out, a crisis is a natural time to take stock in your life and an even better time to make a change. I don’t know if it’s the best time to make a big life change, but I’d argue it’s as good a time as any. Lord knows you probably have the extra time to do a life inventory since you’re stuck at home with nothing to do but binge watch Ozark and sleep on the sofa.
On my walk this morning I thought more about the people I know who made big life decisions and in every case, it turned out to be for the better.
…I thought about my buddy Dan, who in his forties realized he was unhappy in his marriage and his career was unfulfilling. His father died, and he used that big moment to get divorced, quit his job, and go back to school to become a doctor.
…I thought about my pal Eugene, who was divorced, hadn’t graduated from college, was overweight, and was unfulfilled in his career. He found the strength to go back to school to finish his degree, and in the past few years he has dedicated himself to fitness (he has lost a ton of weight), found a wonderful new woman, became a father again, and is doing fulfilling work.
…I thought about my friends Mike and Michelle, who moved from California to a small town in South Dakota to make a better life for their severely autistic son.
…I thought about my friend Julia who just announced to the entire world that she was transitioning to become Julian.
…I thought about my friend Cameo who in her late forties just got married and recently adopted twin baby girls.
…I thought about my friend Reggie who recently lost his eldest son to suicide who has turned that tragedy into a book and has become a champion for mental health awareness.
…I thought about my friend Sara who left her life behind in Vietnam and moved to America to find her birth father and live the American dream.
I thought about all my friends, and there are far too many of them, who are dealing with cancer, or heart disease, or some other serious medical condition. And moving forward with life one step at a time.
These are just a small handful of the heroes I know. Think about all the others out there making big moves. I guess what I’m saying is that life is short, and in times like this why not begin to take the steps necessary to live a more authentic life, whatever that means to you. I understand there are a lot of barriers to change right now with so much of the world shuttered, so just begin with what you can. Start doing research. Take some small steps. Start a plan to get where you want to go.
Refresh your resume
Start planning your retirement
Call a divorce lawyer
Start writing that novel
Start looking for a job in Bend, Oregon or San Luis Obispo, California or Durango, Colorado
Sign up for an acting class
Run for public office
Don’t get caught on your death bed wondering what if.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
You know those musical artists and bands that are supposed to be super influential but you only know like one or two of their hits? Or the bands that your hipster friend raves about, but every time you hear them on the radio you change the station because all you hear is noise?
I’ve been told I know a ton about music, and yeah I probably do know way more than the average person. But, there are still plenty of artists about which I am ignorant. This year I decided to randomly select one of those artists each month and do a deep dive, reading about them and listening to their songs and albums to get a better sense of who they are and what they are about. And more importantly, to see if I have been missing out on some awesome music.
For January 2020 I chose to do a deep dive on The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. Both the band, and Lou Reed, are Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The Velvet Underground is regarded as one of the most influential bands in rock history. Rolling Stone ranked them as the 19th greatest artist of all time, and Lou Reed is rock royalty. But I didn’t know shit about them beyond a few hit tracks.
The Velvet Underground was active for a short period in the late 1960s and early 70s. The original lineup most notably consisted of vocalist Reed, guitarist Sterling Morrison, and John Cale on bass, keyboards, viola, and anything else he could get his hands on. Maureen Tucker was the primary drummer on all of their albums. The lineup changed a bit over the years.
The Velvets were tremendously influenced by artist Andy Warhol, who was even their manager for a while. They were part of Warhol’s “Factory” community with other artists and performers and they will always be associated with pop art and the New York counterculture scene.
I found the Velvets sound to be hard to listen to. Reed’s harsh voice over acerbic guitar riffs full of feedback, most notably on the faster, louder songs, left me reaching for noise-cancelling headphones. The slower, softer songs were much better in my opinion. That said, I understand how their sound could have been seen as revolutionary in the 1960s when compared to the melodic sound of the Beatles and the rhythm and blues influence of the Rolling Stones. The Velvet Underground sounded nothing like the popular bands of the day and without question they had an influence on the punk and alt rocks bands to come.
I came away from this experiment with an appreciation for what The Velvet Underground accomplished, but still only like their more accessible hits like Rock & Roll and Sweet Jane.
Given that I liked the slower, more accessible Velvets songs it should come as no surprise that I really liked Lou Reed’s solo work. I can’t say I’ve always been a Lou Reed fan, but I definitely enjoyed his well known songs like Dirty Blvd., Walk on the Wild Side, New Sensations, and I Love You, Suzanne. But listening to deeper tracks cemented my fandom. I can definitely see Lou Reed becoming part of my regular rotation, especially when I’m feeling in the mood for something a little on the dark side.
Perhaps no other artist wrote more eloquently about the struggles of people living on the fringes of society, likely because he truly lived among them. His demons have been well chronicled over the years, and decades of drug and alcohol use led to his death from liver disease in 2013 at the age of 71. Over the years he suffered from diabetes, hepatitis, and eventually cancer.
It’s been said that we’re in the midst of a new golden age of television and it’s hard to argue with that premise. These past 10 years have brought us some of the most imaginative and creative TV shows of all time and even as the decade comes to a close, new shows are making their way into the global zeitgeist.
There are many reasons for this explosion of great television. One is that traditional content creators have found new license to innovate due in part to the ascension of streaming networks like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. At the same time, this has caused traditional cable networks to keep up, so networks like HBO, Showtime, and even FX and BBC have stepped up their quality. In turn, actors and actresses who have mostly stuck to big Hollywood movies have jumped into television. There are so many award winners on TV now it’s hard to keep up. And as we entered the final few years of the decade, we’ve seen an even more surprising shift — films like The Irishman and Marriage Story are being released on streaming services at the same time (or in lieu of) premiering on the big screen. It’s a wonderful time to stay home and watch television!
Before I get into my 10 favorites of the decade, here are some honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):
Big Little Lies (HBO, 2018). Perhaps the best example of Hollywood’s impact on TV. HBO’s take on life, love and murder among the wealthy of Monterey stars Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Reece Witherspoon, Laura Dern and other major movie stars. And if that wasn’t enough, season two brought us Meryl Streep as one nasty mother-in-law.
Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014). Definitely not for the faint of heart, no other show made me laugh out loud more over the past decade. Long live the adventures of Abbi and Ilana!
Drunk History (Comedy Central, 2013). I wish I could have been there when creator Derek Waters pitched the premise of getting celebrities blitzed and having them tell historical stories which are then acted out by famous actors and celebs. So much silliness.
Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (PBS, 2012). I’m addicted to ancestry shows and it caused me to sign up for Ancestry.com and build my own family tree. Finding Your Roots is like taking a personal tour of history. I learn so much in each episode and it constantly reminds me just how lucky it is that any of us were actually born.
Homeland (Showtime, 2011). The first couple of seasons of Homeland were as good as anything on TV this decade. Carrie Mathison is easily one of the most compelling characters ever created.
House of Cards (Netflix, 2013). It’s too bad Kevin Spacey ruined this show by being a fuck wad in real life because for a time this was the best show on television. House of Cards is like bizzaro world West Wing!
Key and Peele (Comedy Central, 2012). I never watched this show during its run on Comedy Central but going back and binging it made me realize what I’d missed. It’s no coincidence that both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are such big stars now because this was sketch comedy at its best.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO, 2014). John Oliver is the true king of late night. Week in and week out Oliver and his team unmask the worst of America and the world using unparalleled humor and darn good investigative journalism. The mainstream media should take a look at how news is really done.
Louie (FX, 2010). I know, he’s so icky. But during its run, Louie was one of the most unique shows in history. Oftentimes at the end of an episode I’d stare at the television in disbelief, thinking to myself now that was dark and satisfying.
Master of None (Netflix, 2015). I don’t know what to think about Aziz Ansari’s “Me Too” issues, but without question Master of None gave us a brilliant look into the lives of non-white America in a way that made us think and made us understand. And I’d argue the Thanksgiving coming out episode with Lena Waithe was the best 34 minutes of television of the decade.
Nathan for You (Comedy Central, 2013). I used to think nobody could make me feel more uncomfortable than Sasha Baron Cohen, but then I discovered Nathan Fielder and I realized there was a new master of awkward comedy. Nathan For You is fearless comedy that is so hard to watch you can’t help but look — and laugh.
One Mississippi (Amazon, 2015). Speaking of fearless, Tig Notaro defines the word when it comes to television. She literally bares her soul (and her surgical scars) to give us a glimpse of what her life was like during the time she lost her mother and recovered from cancer and a terrible bout of clostridium difficile. I only wish there were more than two short seasons of this wonderful comedy-drama.
Ozark (Netflix, 2017). Television can be good at making you cheer for bad people (see The Sopranos) and such is the case with money launderer Marty Byrde. Nobody in the Lake of the Ozarks of this show is a law-abiding citizen but each main character has a backstory that makes you at least feel for them. Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore is a particularly compelling “villain” who at times you can’t decide whether to love or fear.
Rick and Morty (Warner Brothers, 2013). Justin Roiland is a mad genius. I don’t know how he voices so many characters in one show, but without a doubt Rick Sanchez is arguably the most unique characters in animation history. This show is smart, hilarious, and out of this world.
Silicon Valley (HBO, 2014). Mike Judge is the king of corporate parody and Silicon Valley lampooned the hell out of the world of tech. But it’s the cast that steals this series, most notably for me Martin Starr’s menacing Gilfoyle and Kumail Nanjiani’s hapless Dinesh. One sign of a great show though is that even the bit players are memorable, and I’ll never forget Lorie Bream, Jian Yang, Erlich Bachman, Gavin Belson, and Richard Hendricks. But for my money the unsung star of the show was Jared Dunn, played by a deadpan Zach Woods, who supposedly ad-libbed many of his lines and always seemed to steal the show.
The Americans (FX, 2013). We joined the party late on this show, but eventually caught up after binging the first bunch of seasons. It’s crazy how a show could get you to root for Russian spies but that’s exactly what The Americans delivers. Matthew Rhys was particularly good in this show, which always has me on the edge of my seat.
10. Narcos (Netflix, 2015). It was only three seasons, but Narcos was a wild ride through the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels told from the point of view of DEA agents trying to stop the illegal flow of narcotics into the U.S. The acting was superb in this series, led by the Golden Globe nominated portrayal of Pablo Escobar by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura. You couldn’t take your eyes off Moura’s Escobar for two seasons, and just when you thought the show couldn’t get any better Diego Luna joined the cast as Mexican drug lord Miguel Gallardo and took the show to another level.
9. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2015). No show was more dark and disturbing this decade than the Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel. More than once over the first three seasons I wanted to quit watching because the possibilities were too real but the great acting and convincing plot kept me coming back. This, my friends, is what religion looks like when taken literally. Under his eye.
8. Killing Eve (BBC America, 2018). The biggest surprise for me this decade was Killing Eve, a British show that gave us an edge of your seat plot and perhaps the best female breakout performance of the decade by Jodie Comer as the killer you can’t help but love, Villanelle. With so many police dramas out there it was refreshing to watch this cat and mouse game.
7. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010). Plenty of other HBO shows got more recognition, but Boardwalk Empire sneaked under the radar and was so good. Yes, Steve Buscemi can carry a show. But it helps that he had arguably the best ensemble cast of the decade that included Michael Shannon, Shea Wigham, Michael Kenneth “Omar Coming” Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jack Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Patricia Arquette, and scene-stealer Bobby Canavale. You gotta love a show that’s not afraid to kill major characters. Nobody was safe on Boardwalk Empire.
6. Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013). For seven seasons I loved tuning in to the goings-on at Litchfield Prison and watching the lives of some of the most inventive and classic television characters ever created. How could you not love Piper, Red, Crazy Eyes, Tastee, Sophia, Alex, Lorna, Pennsatucky, Flaca, Nicky, Big Boo, Poussey, Fig, Caputo, Luschek, and on and on. OITNB was funny, dramatic and sad all at once. It was also female-led and female-driven and that in and of itself made it historic.
5. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, 2017). This very funny and creative period piece made a late decade charge and after three seasons is poised to be the first mega hit of the next decade. Rachel Brosnahan came out of nowhere to bring us Midge Maisel, who is as bitingly funny as she is charming and beautiful. But like most great shows, the ensemble cast really kills on this show. Alex Borstein’s Susie Myerson has already brought home an Emmy, and Tony Shaloub is surely going to win one as well for his portrayal of Midge’s dad Abe. And Luke Kirby literally transforms into Lenny Bruce and makes the viewer wish the world didn’t lose the real Lenny so soon. Tits Up!
4. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon, 2015). If there is a recurring theme to my favorite shows of the decade than surely it’s dystopia. Five of my top 10 and all four of my top shows feature a world where the future (or past) looks very different than we’d bargained for. What if the Axis won World War II and Germany and Japan divided up the United States and brought their world view to America? And what if the Nazis could use technology to bring their vile views to all worlds even those in parallel universes? Amazon did a tremendous job bringing Philip K. Dick’s horrific world to life and this show kept me enthralled for four glorious seasons. I was happy to learn series creators burned all the Nazi paraphernalia after the show came to an end.
3. Mr. Robot (USA Network, 2015). Big props to show runner Sam Esmail for never thinking inside the box with this show about a group of hackers trying to overthrow the world’s largest company and restore democracy to the people. Esmail’s vision and Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot Alderson brought us a dark, explosive look at what happens when evil corporations have too much power, something all too close to reality as we approach 2020. This series brought us some of the most suspenseful shows of the decade, playing tricks on our ears and eyes along the way. And about that episode shot in one take? I have no idea how Esmail choreographed it but it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on television.
2. Westworld (HBO, 2016). Of course a show about a theme park filled with realistic androids who begin to gain self-awareness is going to be the hit of the decade. HBO delivers a stunning version of the 1973 Yul Brenner classic with special effects that look so real you never doubt for a moment this world exists and a plot with so many twists and turns you need to watch a YouTube video to explain each episode afterward. Westworld features a world-class ensemble cast that includes Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Thandie Newton, James Marsden and at least one Hemsworth. Westworld is a roller coaster ride through a maze and I never want it to end.
1. Black Mirror (Channel 4, Netflix, 2011). It wasn’t easy to choose, but when push came to shove the show I enjoyed most over the past decade was the British anthology series Black Mirror. Every single episode made me rethink what I know about technology and gave me pause about where it could lead us as a species. Technology can make life better, and it has, but if we don’t keep a noose around it, it can and will take us to very dark places. Black Mirror preys on the hope of technology and strikes a warning blow for humankind. Because it’s an anthology show, each episode brings us new actors and actresses, most of whom are at the top of their game, with plots that leave you stunned and terrified that your Google Home device is going to kill you in the dark of knight. I used to be a big proponent of the singularity theory, the one that predicts man and machine will soon merge. Who wouldn’t want their brain downloaded into the cloud where you can live on forever? Not me anymore. Thanks Charlie Brooker for ruining the future for me. Black Mirror takes the viewer down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and deftly explores the consequences of unregulated technology. I loved every minute of it and want more.
I probably spend more time watching movies than most people, but even I can’t get to every film I want to see. While the streaming revolution has helped, there are still only so many hours in the day to sofa surf with a film. But that doesn’t stop me from trying!
The past 10 years of film have left some indelible marks on me. I try to rate every film I see on my IMDB account, so pulling together an end of decade list should be easy, right? Over the past few weeks though as I started going through my ratings I noticed a few things. First, there were no films this decade that I rated as a 10/10. That’s not a total surprise, as I reserve 10s for the films that rate among my all-time favorites. There were however a lot of 9s and 8s, which means there were a ton of films I loved in the 2010s. In fact, there were more than 25 that warranted and 8 or 9 by my system. So for this end of decade countdown I have listed a bunch of honorable mentions to go along with my Top 10, but not all of my 8s made the cut.
The following are films I really loved in the 2010s, not films I deem to be “best of” by some objective or even subjective measure. Also, I didn’t see every film I wanted to over the past 10 years, so there may be a few that get some measure of universal kudos that I just haven’t seen yet. Get Out is one example, as is Whiplash and Parasite. I have those and others on my “to-see” list so they may very well rank among my favorites of the decade but they are obviously not listed below.
Honorable mentions, in no particular order:
La La Land(2016). It may not have won Best Picture, but I la la loved it. Gotta give Damien Chazelle credit for reinventing a lost genre.
Dean (2016). Demetri Martin is understated and underrated as an actor and storyteller.
The Hateful Eight (2015). The second best Tarantino film of the decade. The tension is so thick you can cut it with a machete.
The Florida Project (2017). This film made a ton of “best of” lists in 2017. I really like films that show how life really is for some of the country’s forgotten and less fortunate — it reminds me of how lucky I am. And a great performance by Willem Dafoe.
Frances Ha(2012). If Noah Baumbach is the new Woody Allen (and I think he is) than Greta Gerwig is his Diane Keaton. The 2010s may well be remembered most for being the decade that Gerwig went from adorable indie actress to certifiable Hollywood royalty.
Gravity (2013). I went in thinking Gravity was overrated and I came out thinking Alfonso Cuarón is a fucking genius. That said, Roma is not on my favorites list!
Your Name. (2016). I never really gave anime a second thought, but my son dragged me to see this and it was awe inspiring and made me go back and add a bunch of anime films to my watch list. This one is stunningly beautiful. It is fine art.
Ex Machina (2014). Really enjoyable thriller about the slippery slope of artificial intelligence.
Kill Your Darlings (2013). Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs along with murder, sex, and intrigue. Here’s more proof Daniel Radcliffe is making very smart choices in his post Harry Potter roles. Mark my word he will win an Oscar someday soon.
Lady Bird (2017). Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut proves she’s much more than Noah Baumbach’s muse. Saoirse Ronan is the best actor of her generation and her films are not to be missed.
Moonlight (2016). I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a movie theater so moved.
Motherless Brooklyn (2019). It may have taken Edward Norton 20 years to make this film about a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, but it was worth the wait. And yet again Willem Dafoe steals a film (it was a great decade for him).
BlacKkKlansman (2018). Wouldn’t be a list of favorites without a film by my favorite director Spike Lee. John David Washington and Adam Driver (who has slowly made his way up my list of favorite actors) are superb in this story of infiltrating the KKK.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo(2011). I thought it was a mistake to remake the Swedish versions of this series, but then I saw Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara kill it in this David Fincher masterpiece.
12 Years a Slave(2013). Right up there with Roots and Amistad in terms of best and most important films about American slavery. Maybe the best ensemble cast of the decade led by an incredible performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Argo(2012). Say what you want about Ben Affleck, but the dude directed the hell out of this film which kept me on the edge of my seat until the final frame. Ar-go-fuck-yourself!
Spotlight (2015). I’m a sucker for a good journalism film and this one may be the best since All the President’s Men. I still think the Catholic church has gotten off too easily on all this abuse stuff.
In order, my favorite 10 films of the decade:
10. A Star Is Born (2018). I still get chills when I think back on that scene where Ally first walks out onto the stage to sing her duet with Jack. And the way they shot it, it felt like I was at a concert while sitting in the theater. The performances were great and the music was awesome. This film made me a Lady Gaga fan and I had definitely not been prior to seeing it. I don’t care about comparisons to previous versions of the film either. This version is larger than life.
9. Call Me By Your Name (2017). I didn’t see this coming of age film until a few weeks ago but it left a huge mark. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an actor better portray that awkward time between being a teen and a young adult. Timothée Chalamet is already at the top of his game and he’s not yet 25 years old. And the scene near the end of the film where Michael Stuhlbarg tells his son he knows about his sexuality and he loves him — my heart literally exploded.
8. In A World…(2013). The world needs more smart, funny women so we should continue to encourage Lake Bell to keep making movies and TV shows. This little film was Bell’s directorial debut and she also wrote and starred in it. She is a triple threat and a treasure (I even like her silly little sitcom Bless This Mess on ABC). In A World… is exactly the kind of film I love — it sneaks up on you with its smart and clever comedy. And the performances by Bell, Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro, Rob Corddry, Eva Longoria, Nick Offerman, and Fred Melamed are wonderful. Kudos to whomever cast this funny little gem of a film.
7. The Shape of Water (2017). I loved this Oscar winner and really don’t understand the backlash it got from some who saw it only as a weird love story between a woman and a fish. Yeah, he was a monster, but the story was about Elisa and her sad little internally focused world and the creature was meant to be a symbol for everyone who feels a little different. Sally Hawkins was a revelation in this role, saying so much without words. The film is also a wonderful tribute to the monster films of the 50s and 60s, and throw in great supporting roles by Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and the brilliant and underappreciated Michael Shannon and this film blows it out of the water.
6. Green Book (2018). I never stopped raving about Green Book after seeing it for the first time and I was thrilled when it brought home the Best Picture Oscar. Viggo Mortensen is probably my second favorite actor after Leonardo and he killed the role of Tony Lip. Mahershala Ali deserved his second Oscar for playing Dr. Don Shirley, but Viggo was robbed. This was the rare buddy movie in which both characters came away as better men as they each learned something important about themselves.
5. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Martin Scorsese is getting a lot of kudos for The Irishman, and it’s good, but for my money it’s not even his best film of the decade let alone his career. The Wolf of Wall Street is an hilarious film filled with tremendous and award-winning performances, none better than Leonardo DiCaprio’s. His Jordan Belfort is a tour-de-force and one of the best acting performances of Leo’s majestic career (certainly better than the one for which he finally won an Oscar, The Revenant). This film featured great supporting performances from Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie as well, and it even provides a nice little lesson on what’s truly important in life.
4. Django Unchained (2012). You can argue all you want about Quentin Tarantino’s place among the Hollywood elite, but for my money he’s Top 10 all time among directors. He should get an Oscar just for introducing American film goers to Christoph Waltz! I rate Django Unchained second among the nine films Tarantino has brought us as a director so far (Pulp Fiction is my number one). The unusual story of Waltz’s German bounty hunter and Jamie Foxx’s freed slave as they cross the country working together to bring the worst of the nation to justice is classic Tarantino. And every small role is memorable, from Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda to Samuel L. Jackson’s aging house slave to Leo DiCaprio’s dark turn as slave owner Calvin Candie. Only Tarantino can bring us such difficult subject matter in such a prized package.
3. Baby Driver (2017). From the opening moments of this film, brilliant director Edgar Wright lets us know he’s going for something completely different with Baby Driver. Is he really going to choreograph the whole film to the music? Why yes, yes he is. Hollywood has never seen anything like it, which speaks to Wright’s unique place among today’s filmmakers. It’s part music video, and part action film, and it works beautifully. Like La La Land before it, this film literally revolutionizes the medium. Frankly, it makes the already great performances by Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and (sorry) Kevin Spacey even more remarkable given they had to take Wright’s direction and time every movement to the music. The result is a high speed, musical, and wildly entertaining film.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Look, either you love Wes Anderson films or you don’t. I happen to think he’s ridiculously talented and has given viewers some of the most memorable and interesting films of the past few decades. I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is his best film. It’s quirky and interesting and visually stunning. And it features an all-star cast of Oscar-winning Anderson regulars and a few first timers, including Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe (there he is again), Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, and of course Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman. The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for Best Picture, ultimately losing out Birdman, but it was a particularly tough group of nominees that also included the next film on my list.
1. Boyhood (2014). As with many films on my favorites list, Boyhood is not a typical Hollywood film. It tells the story of Mason from his early childhood until his arrival at college and it was shot with the same actors over a 12 year period to add to the realism of the characters. It’s really a feat of film making arrogance. But there is no director better to deliver such realism than the master of dialogue and character driven features himself, Richard Linklater. I’ll be honest, my love of Boyhood perhaps has something to do with the fact that Mason’s and his parent’s lives track pretty darn close to my own life. In fact, I watched this nearly three hour masterpiece around the same time my son, Connor, was heading off to college himself. To say that this film jabbed me in my soft white underbelly is an understatement. By the end, as Mason is left on his own at college for the first time, I was left laying on the floor in a heap of Kleenex. I was so emotional afterward I couldn’t think of anything but Boyhood for days. Were the performances by young Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater regular Ethan Hawke great? Yes, they were magnificent. But Boyhood struck me on a guttural level that I can’t say I’ve ever felt with a film in my life. It was less a film than an experience. We go to films for a variety of reasons. To escape. To dream. To learn. To be entertained. But every once in a while it’s great to go to a movie to simply feel.
As the decade comes to a close and I reflect on the music that served as the soundtrack to the last 10 years of my life, I’m struck by the fact that so much of the music I enjoyed over the past decade are from bands that made their mark mostly in the 21st century. Of course, I still listen to artists from the 20th century and once in a while one of these artists made their way into my rotation with a newer offering, but for the most part the list of favorites from below are from “newer” artists.
I blogged about the common refrain I hear from people my age that “there’s no good music anymore” last summer and offered up a tribute to many of the modern acts that I love — most of which are not surprisingly reflected in the list below. What I can say in all honesty is that the artists that made my favorite list for the past decade are now among my favorite artists, artists that in every way bring me musical joy as much or in some cases even more than the artists I grew up with. I still love listening to the music of my younger years — and do so all the time — but more often than not I queue up the artists below these days.
First, a few honorable mentions from the decade that spanned 2010 to 2019:
More Than Just a Dream — Fitz and the Tantrums (2013). Lots of folks like the debut record earlier, but their sophomore album really got me moving.
The King is Dead by The Decemberists (2011). Colin Meloy’s vocals plus REM’s Peter Buck on guitar — who could ask for anything more.
AM — Arctic Monkeys (2013). Do I Wanna Know? was my ringtone for half the decade.
Codes & Keys — Death Cab For Cutie (2011). A solid record from one of my favorite bands.
My Head is an Animal — Of Monsters and Men (2012). Breakout debut from Icelandic alt rockers.
Hozier — Hozier (2014). The best debut of the decade.
Momentum — Jamie Cullum (2013). He really should be much more popular in the U.S., but this Brit can really sing and play piano.
And in order, my favorite albums of the decade:
10. Masseduction – St. Vincent (2017). I’ve always liked Annie Clark, but this album set me on fire for a few months in 2017. It was alternative, soul, and electronic all rolled into one and I couldn’t get enough of it. She made the rounds on the late night shows and combined these incredible songs with a little performance art and I fell in love. Here she is performing my favorite song from the album, Los Ageless, on the Ellen Show.
9. High Violet — The National (2010). Boxer was one of my favorite albums of the first decade of the century, so it was a happy surprise that their follow up was so good. High Violet was a huge international hit right off the bat, and Bloodbuzz Ohio really helped the band blow up. It’s still one of my favorite songs by The National, a band I rate as among the best of the entire century. Still not sure what the hell Bloodbuzz Ohio is about but Matt could sing nursery rhymes and I’d listen and weep.
8. Bankrupt! — Phoenix (2013). French pop band Phoenix seems like an odd fit for me, but their sound really makes me happy and there’s a certain 80s feel to their music that reminds me of my youth. Bankrupt! was the follow up to 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix which launched a bunch of alternative hits. But Bankrupt! shows some maturity in their sound as they weren’t afraid to slow things down a bit on a few tracks. Still, I love the upbeat ones like Trying to Be Cool.
7. Reflektor — Arcade Fire (2013). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this album when it was first released, followed by a very strange 30 minute TV special directed by Spike Jonze and featuring Bono, Michael Cera, Ben Stiller and others. But the more I listened the more it impressed me and by the time I saw them live later in the year I was entranced by this artsy album with Haitian influences and lyrics tied to the 1959 film Black Orpheus (which I actually saw in film class in high school in 1984) and Søren Kierkegaard. Take a look at yourself and you’ll see two sides. Meanwhile, enjoy this video montage directed by Roman Coppola featuring three songs from the album.
6. Babel — Mumford and Sons (2012). I loved the Mumfords debut album but this second record hit it out of the park for me. It took the best of their folksy sound from the first record and added some pop and polish and it truly jumps off the charts. Perhaps they wore out their welcome in the mainstream too quickly with their Appalachian sound and hipster waistcoats, but I love them and Babel for me is their best record. Lover of the Light is a prime example of their unique sound.
5. Lonely Avenue — Ben Folds/Nick Hornby (2010). What do you get when you ask award-winning author Nick Hornby to write song lyrics for the first time in his life and then you put those lyrics to the piano-driven goodness that defines Ben Folds? You get Lonely Avenue, complete with songs about Bristol Palin’s white trash boyfriend, handicapped songwriter Doc Pomus, a guy hacking into his girlfriend’s computer, and an obscure American Poet with a catchy name. I love Ben Folds and Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors. This was always going to be great. As for that obscure poet, here’s a crazy good fan-made video tribute to the song Saskia Hamilton.
4. El Camino by The Black Keys (2011). 2010’s Brothers may have broke the band big, but for my money El Camino is the true gem of the bands work this decade. And what a decade it was by the way, with not just the above two albums but also Turn Blue and Let’s Rock which each scored high on my year-end blog posts. The Keys were at the top of their game when they released El Camino in 2011 with huge hit songs like Lonely Boy and Gold on the Ceiling, but my favorite track — and my favorite Keys song period — is Little Black Submarines which is often compared to a Led Zeppelin song and certainly echoes 70s hard rock and shows off Dan and Patrick’s full range.
3. Broken Bells — Broken Bells (2010). Early in 2010 the unlikely partnership of lead singer James Mercer of The Shins and super-producer Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) gave us the innovative alternative band Broken Bells. The album garnered a Grammy nomination for best alternative album and several songs including The Ghost Inside and The High Road were ubiquitous on alt radio that year. I saw them in concert in 2010 and Mercer was tremendous live and the backing band (including Burton on keyboards) was studio perfect. I never stopped listening to Broken Bells over the decade and count The Mall & Misery as one of my favorite songs of the decade (this video was shot by a fan at a secret live set in a parking garage at SXSW).
2. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — The Decemberists (2015). I don’t think there’s a better songwriter in modern music than Colin Meloy and this record is all the proof you need. Here Colin laments about how life in America in this decade is a dichotomy of love and hate, beauty and horror. Sandy Hook was on his mind when he wrote the songs, and the album is powerful and lovely. The Decemberists have grown over the past 20 years from folk-forward art music to polished rock music and both the aforementioned The King is Dead from 2011 and this record were perhaps the two best back-to-back offerings of the decade. I loved them both, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is simply genius. For a small taste of the highs and lows of this record take a listen to my two favorite tracks, the beautifully melancholy Lake Song to the upbeat, reflective love song that is Make You Better. Damn this is beautiful music.
And my favorite album of the 2010s (and it wasn’t even close):
The Suburbs — Arcade Fire (2010). The music moment of the decade for me took place on Feb. 13, 2011 when Arcade Fire shocked the pop music world by beating out a handful of the world’s biggest artists including Lady Gaga, Eminem, Katy Perry, and Lady Antebellum to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and then closed the show with a rousing rendition of Ready to Start. I literally jumped out of my seat when the award was announced, and I don’t think I’ve come down since. Award presenter Barbara Streisand was so dumbfounded she barely got the words out. The Suburbs was unquestionably the soundtrack of the decade for me and I am confident no other album in my collection received more airtime over the past 10 years. It never lets me down. It is my go-to record when I can’t decide what to listen to. It is alternative rock majesty from start to finish. It was only the band’s third studio album but it made a statement that they were a force to be reckoned with in alternative rock. The Butler brothers used their Woodlands, Texas suburban upbringing to write songs that fit the mood of suburban life and the music that influenced them (from Depeche Mode to Neil Young according to Win Butler). It has strings and horns and keyboards and guitars and it speaks softly at times and it rocks out at times. It feels like a rock opera, but it’s really just that each song feeds off the next. In a world where songs are king, it is a complete album. The Suburbs was named the top album of the year by a wide range of review sites from BBC6 to Clash magazine to Q magazine, but I’m not suggesting it was the best album of that year or the 2010s. It was simply my favorite album of the decade.
2019 has been a banner year for music for me. For whatever reason a ton of bands I like released new music this year and while it has been a mixed bag for me I can’t remember a recent year when I had so many solid albums to choose from to get to my Top 10.
More than 30 albums caught my attention in 2019 across a wide array of genres. Alternative rock is always going to be my favorite, but this year it’s pretty obvious that modern soul and R&B have leaped to the forefront. I think we’re smack in the middle of a soul revival, one that probably owes its growth to the likes of Amy Winehouse, John Legend, Adele and others who reinvigorated the genre in the early part of the century. So many soul artists have emerged in their wake, from the more classic soul sounds of Leon Bridges, Michael Kiwanuka, and the late Sharon Jones to blue-eyed soul greats like Hozier, St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Nathaniel Rateliff. This year I added two amazing new soul artists to my rotation that you’ll see in the list below.
This year also brought some disappointments from some artists I love. Sometimes it’s hard to live up to my admiration year after year and record after record, and for a few artists this year began with high expectations and left me feeling…meh. Guster, New Pornographers, Fitz and the Tantrums, Jamie Cullum, Two Door Cinema Club, Coldplay, and Of Monsters and Men released so-so records in 2019, and perhaps most disappointing was the new record from Keane, which broke up a few years back and returned this year with the dull Cause and Effect. I liked these records, but none cracked my Top 10 or even garnered honorable mentions.
Speaking of honorable mentions, here are the albums that I liked in 2019 but didn’t quite make the cut for my Top 10. Alice Merton broke through this year with her debut album Mint, which got a lot of attention for her song No Roots but which is a great listen all the way through. Santa Fe band Beirut is an artist I discovered this year and their release Gallipoli is a sweet mix of pop and horns and indie rock. American Love Call from Durand Jones and the Indications was a suggestion from a friend that proved my point about the neo soul resurgence — this is pure soul goodness that would make Sam Cooke proud. And then there was Lux Prima from the unique combination of Karen O (lead vocalist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Danger Mouse (super producer Brian Burton who turns everything he touches into gold). Lux Prima defied genre logic — Clash Music described it this way: “whirring, mysterious sounds – reminiscent of sci-fi film scores – are eventually invaded by a chirpy, poignant piano…the worlds of the two creators collide instantly.” This Land from guitar god Gary Clark, Jr. was a sweet mix of Hendrix inspired rock and soul, You’re Stronger Than You Know from James Morrison added to my soul train this year, and then there was Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves from The Ocean Blue which proved the 80s still has legs.
Here now, my 10 favorite albums of the year:
10. Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost—Part 1 — Foals. I have to admit I didn’t know much about Oxford, U.K.-based Foals until this year. Then I heard a track on satellite radio and I was interested enough to listen to the whole album. It’s really solid alternative rock, and apparently they have a reputation in the U.K. for great live shows. Check out Exits for a taste.
9. Sound & Fury — Sturgill Simpson. There was no bigger surprise for me this year than this album from country/Americana artist Simpson. I mean, he was the first country artist to make one of my Top 10 lists when A Sailor’s Guide to Earth came out in 2016, but imagine my surprise when he released his next album this year and it was straight up rock and roll. And damn good rock and roll. Dude can shred the guitar. Check out this cut, Sing Along.
8. Kiwanuka — Michael Kiwanuka. Album number three by Michael Kiwanuka did not disappoint. His voice is truly an instrument and his sound is unmistakable. This is a brilliant record that just envelopes you in its soulful softness. It was great to see him blow up a bit by providing Cold Little Heart to the opening segment of HBO’s Big Little Lies. Kick back, relax with a cup of joe or a glass of wine, and let Michael Kiwanuka take you to your happy place. Check out Solid Ground for a sample.
7. I Am Easy To Find — The National. It could be argued that The National is my favorite band of the 21st century, and this year’s release proved once again that this band from Ohio by way of Brooklyn is doing things that other bands simply are not. I Am Easy to Find feels almost like a rock opera and brings new voices to the front to go along with the baritone genius that is Matt Berninger. My favorite track from the record is Rylan, which is arguably my favorite single track of the year. Light Years is also memorable and includes a video starring actress Alicia Vikander. To describe this album as haunting would be fair.
6. Wasteland, Baby! — Hozier. Andrew John Hozier-Byrne broke through the clutter in 2014 with his brilliant debut album that proved soul can come from a white guy from County Wicklow in Ireland. Wasteland, Baby is a memorable sophomore effort that debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. I think he sets himself apart from the slew of neo soul artists breaking out lately because his voice is so powerful and his songwriting is quite memorable. I mean, did you know Take Me to Church is about a same-sex relationship? Anyway, best track off the new record is the first track featuring rock and roll hall of famer Mavis Staples called Nina Cried Powerthat’s a message about protest songs.
5. Father of the Bride — Vampire Weekend. Sometimes I’m not looking for hard hitting rock or smooth soul, but rather pure pop that makes me nod my head along. Ezra and his college boy friends write solid pop music and this album also benefits from the addition of Danielle Haim on several songs. I’ve always been a fan of their songs, but this album is good from top to bottom. And somehow, out of all the great music I listened to this year, this one got a Grammy nomination for best album. I think it’s very good, especially Harmony Hall and This Life.
4. Black Pumas — Black Pumas. I was sitting on the sofa one day a few months ago reading and listening to Music Choice Adult Alternative on the cable TV. I love this station because I often hear new music and on this particular afternoon I was struck by a song I’d never heard before called Black Moon Rising by a band called Black Pumas. I looked them up and found out this was their debut song and the story of their formation was really unique. Two years ago Austin-based guitarist Adrian Quesada was walking along the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica when he heard singer/guitarist Eric Burton busking and was blown away. He told him he was looking for a singer just like him for his new band and not long after Burton moved to Austin and Black Pumas was born. Fast forward to today and Black Pumas have released their self-titled debut album and this month they were nominated for a Grammy for best new artist. It’s a Hollywood story for sure, but truthfully their debut album is so damn good the Grammy nomination is just icing on the cake of what I’m sure is just the start for these guys. Black Pumas is soul and funk with a modern twist and I defy you to listen to their album and not feel compelled to get up and dance. Which is exactly what I did when I saw them a few weeks ago at a tiny club in Phoenix where they set the place on fire. If you listen to only one album on my Top 10 list make it this one.
3. On the Line — Jenny Lewis. The incomparable Jenny Lewis has been a staple on my year-end lists going back to her days with alt-country band Rilo Kiley. Truth be told, I’ve been a fan even longer than that as I remember her fondly from her role in the short-lived but wonderful CBS situation comedy Brooklyn Bridge on which she played teen love interest Katie Monahan. Jenny is a Renaissance woman who infuses country, rock and pop into a sound and look all her own. Her music is smart and funny, and hard to define. She usually gets put in the Americana category or sometimes the alt-country genre but no matter what you call her sound I adore it (and her). I was lucky enough to see her live a few weeks ago at the Van Buren where I was right up front and it was easily one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. On The Line is a fabulous album that any fan of her music will love. If you’re not familiar with her sound and style, check out Rabbit Hole or Wasted Youth from her set on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
2. Let’s Rock — Black Keys. Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have been together as the Black Keys for close to 20 years now and they have never disappointed me. Several of their records have topped my year-end list over the year and you should not be surprised to find at least one of their records from this decade high up on my soon-to-be-posted best of the decade list. Let’s Rock is classic Keys and it very nearly topped my list this year. It is aptly named as it consists of a dozen hard-rocking tracks. I literally love every song on the album, but here’s a couple I think stand out: Go and Tell Me Lies.
And my favorite album of 2019:
Social Cues — Cage the Elephant. I didn’t think much of Cage until 2015 when they released Tell Me I’m Pretty, an album produced by Dan Auerbach that infused their sound with a little taste of the Black Keys. This year they continued that sound with Social Cues and this is the one album I find myself listening to most this year. I think their updated sound is more mature and somehow both raw and polished at the same time. The band finally seems to be getting the attention it deserves, and while the Grammy selection committee still has no clue where to put them (this album was nominated for Best Rock Album this year when it should have been in the alternative category) it’s nice to see them get a nomination. Take a listen to Ready to Let Go or Night Running (with Beck on vocals) for a taste of this great record.
As we wind our way down to the end of the decade I will consume a whole lot of “best of” lists from magazines, newspapers, blogs and websites. I love me some lists. And I love to create my own as any regular reader of this blog can attest. In the next few weeks you can expect to see a post about my favorite films of the 2010s, my favorite albums of the decade, and my favorite albums of 2019. But I thought I’d start with a list of my favorite novels of the decade.
Please note that my lists reflect my favorites rather than what I consider to be the best. I’m not a professional critic of music, films or writing, and while I have opinions on these sorts of things I prefer instead to simply share the art that brought me joy. It’s harder to disagree when I’m not declaring that a book, album or film is objectively the best — I’m happy to do that over a coffee or an adult beverage if you are so inclined, but I write these posts to identify art you may wish to discover on your own to see if they also bring you joy.
So with that, here are my 10 favorite novels of the 2010s, starting with a few honorable mentions:
Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford (2017). This was a selection from my men’s book club this year that really jumped out. Ford weaves together a heart-wrenching story of immigration and survival that is beautifully told and very unique.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015). It’s a book about a black man living in LA who wants to reintroduce segregation. Yes, it’s a satire. And yes, it’s biting and hilarious. Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for this novel, becoming the first American to win the prestigious U.K. award.
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (2016). I was not prepared for the emotional ride that this story about a man and his canine companion took me on. It was funny and sad, but ultimately a story of growth and survival.
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (2015). Bacigalupi’s dystopian take on life in the American Southwest after the water dries up is one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. It’s fiction, but it hits home so hard I almost wanted to move to Oregon directly after reading it. Check out my full review.
Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (2012). No countdown of great novels is complete without Tom Wolfe. Back to Blood isn’t his best novel, but it’s pure Wolfe and that’s good enough for me. RIP Tom.
The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (2010). What if a man with four wives and 28 children had a midlife crisis? It’d make for a darn funny novel. Udall also happens to be a member of the famous Mormon political family that includes a host of current and former U.S. Congressmen that spans generations.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012). You’ll definitely enjoy the hidden secrets of this fictional bookstore in San Francisco. It’s a crazy, fun ride full of mystery and conspiracies.
There There by Tommy Orange (2018). One of the most talked about and best reviewed novels of the decade, Orange weaves together a selection of stories about Native Americans growing up on the hard scrabble streets of Oakland. Powerful, eye-opening, and important.
10. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011). Patchett is one of my favorite novelists and State of Wonder is a great example of why. It’s an adventure story that takes place in the Amazon where a group of scientists are searching for plants that could lead to pharmaceutical breakthroughs and the huge financial rewards that come with it. Needless to say there is intrigue and ethical dilemmas. Patchett writes unique and developed female characters that give this old man better insight into the finer gender.
9. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011). Rarely has a novel captured my teenage years as well as Cline’s futuristic tale of throwback video games and 80s pop culture. It’s dystopian and familiar at the same time, and god help us if we continue down the path toward all of us living in a virtual world. Such a blast of a novel, and just an “ok” film version if I’m being honest. If you are geek that came of age in the 80s (or just someone who loves the 80s) this novel will undoubtedly resonate with you.
8. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014). From the author of Cloud Atlas comes this hair-raising tale of supernatural beings with a not so pleasant plan for mankind and the group of mystics working to foil their plans. It doesn’t sound like a novel I’d be interested in from the sleeve notes, but damn Mitchell is otherworldly in his tale-telling abilities — perhaps the best storyteller and writer of his generation.
7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). This is perhaps the most inventive novel of the decade and it’s deserving of all the accolades it received when it was released including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, and the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Historical Fiction. I’ve read three of Whitehead’s novels now and he is clearly one of the country’s best authors. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming Amazon series based on the book.
6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (2016). Chabon has been churning out brilliant novels for decades now and he’s definitely among my favorite novelists. Moonglow is his best work in a long time and it’s so interesting in that it blurs the lines between fact and fiction. The story is a tribute to his grandfather, as told by a character named Michael Chabon. My full review is online.
5. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013). This Man Booker nominee is the story of a writer named Ruth who lives in the Pacific Northwest and one day while walking along the beach she finds a diary written by a teenage Japanese girl. The novel takes the reader back and forth to the life of the girl as well as the writer who makes it her mission (or obsession) to find out what happened to the young girl in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This story has everything I love — it spans multiple time frames, it has multiple narrators, it teaches the reader about history and about a different culture, it is contemporary, it provides life lessons, it is heartbreaking and uplifting, it is philosophical, it has rich and interesting characters, and it even includes a little physics and just the right touch of magical realism.
4. Barkskins by Annie Proulx (2016). Proulx is an American treasure and now that she is in her 80s we should cherish every word she writes before her time runs out. She is the author of my all-time favorite novel, 1993’s The Shipping News, and she also penned Brokeback Mountain. Reading Barkskins seemed like a daunting task at first because it’s so dense, but I should have realized I’d end up enjoying every sentence of its 736 pages. Here’s my full review.
3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013). This coming of age story about a 13-year-old boy who loses his mom in a terrorist attack has it all — fascinating story lines, interesting characters, intrigue, mystery, and so much more. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through and the story has stuck with me since. I haven’t seen the film yet, and I know it didn’t get great reviews, but I loved this novel so much I’ll definitely be streaming the movie once it’s available. It seems I really do love coming of age stories whether in books or movies (hint hint there will be a major coming of age story in my upcoming post about my favorite films of the decade). Don’t let the film’s bad reviews keep you from reading this novel as it’s clearly one of the best novels of the decade.
2. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’m a sucker for stories that jump around from generation to generation and take place in multiple locations (see A Tale For the Time Being above). Walter’s satirical look at Hollywood culture takes the reader from Italy to L.A. and from the 1960s to today. The lives of the main characters are weaved in and around the story of the filming of 1963’s Cleopatra and the love affair between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. I find it cool when writers mingle fiction with reality to give their fictional characters an anchor based in reality. Tarantino recently did this with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and it worked great. Walter is an inventive writer and it’s impossible not to love Beautiful Ruins. There’s been a film version in the works for years but it hasn’t gotten out of development yet. I sure hope it does.
And my favorite novel of the 2010s:
The Orphan Master’s Sonby Adam Johnson (2012). Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Orphan Master’s Son is a brilliant tale set in North Korea that pulls you in from the first moment and takes you along on a journey that seems impossibly hard to imagine. The protagonist is a young North Korean named Pak Jun Do who journeys from orphanage to soldier to prisoner. Apparently Johnson based this novel on interviews he did with North Korean refugees and it is based on stories they relayed to him about life inside the mysterious country. It is from this novel that I learned about just some of the travesties going on under the regime of the Kim family. I love a novel that can both entertain and educate and Johnson’s amazing novel does both using brilliant storytelling and beautiful prose. Johnson is a gifted writer and his future work will always be on my reading list. Plus, he’s an ASU grad so there’s a great Arizona connection. Fork ’em!