TOP 5 ALBUMS
1. Perfume Genius: Put Your Back N 2 It (Matador, 2012) – Mike Hadreas’ haunting ballads travel deep into the dark lands of trauma, abuse, and personal struggle, and emerge offering moments of light. A short, searing record that lingers long after the final strains fade.
2. Bat for Lashes: The Haunted Man (Parlaphone, 2012) – The production on Natasha Khan’s latest record is as stark and austere as its cover art. These songs vibrate with the intimacy of a woman processing a failed relationship and finding a kind of transcendence in its aftermath.
3. The Walkmen: Heaven (Fat Possum Records, 2012) – This album resurrects the urgency of 2004’s excellent Bows and Arrows, layered with a stately wisdom afforded by the intervening years. A dramatic slow burn.
4. The Tallest Man on Earth: There’s No Leaving Now (Dead Oceans, 2012) – Kristian Matsson’s follow-up to The Wild Hunt may displease purists with its lush instrumentation, but it is hard to resist this rhythmic, poignant, and urgent record and its elliptical and rapturous treasures.
5. Niki & The Dove: Instinct (Sub Pop, 2012) – This Swedish duo calls to mind the heat of Stevie Knicks and Kate Bush’s breathy abandon, without feeling retro or derivative. This debut album is fresh and thrilling.
TOP 5 MOVIES
1. Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011) – Herzog follows two men convicted of a triple homicide, one on death row and one with a life sentence. He offers a sober, quiet narration of the weeks leading up to one convict’s execution and the impact on the lives of those that the murders affected, including the families of the victims and the families of the convicts in the small Texas city of Conroe.
2. Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010) – French film that tells the story of nine Trappist monks who were kidnapped and executed during the 1996 Algerian Civil War. They are beheaded in winter and the final sequence of the men being marched out in the snow is heartstopping. A somber, beautiful, provocative film about faith and war and ultimately, too, about love.
3. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008) – Kym’s arrival from rehab for the occasion of her older sister’s wedding reveals the complicated dynamics of family history and dependence. This is a sad, quietly incandescent film about love and forgiveness, loss and redemption.
4. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2012) – How does the fantasy of romance and desire compete with the domestic realities of a marriage after the honeymoon is over? A young writer struggles with her desire for a handsome stranger as her five-year marriage shows signs of collapse. A touching film about love and desire and the very human impulse to be seduced by the promise of the new at the risk of what is known.
5. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) – The title describes the emotional state of a young bride and is also the name of a rogue planet that is on a collision course with the Earth. A study of severe depression that is at turns absurd and terrifying. Released at the end of 2011, this film about apocalypse – in the grandest sense as well as on the scale of personal breakdown – seems a suitable film to haunt 2012.
TOP 5 BOOKS
1. Bluets (Maggie Nelson) Wave Books, 2009 – An urgent, pulsing book composed of 240 numbered fragments. An obsessive interrogation of love and its limits. A document of struggle and despair, but ultimately, a testament to a quiet resilience that allows the writer and the reader to move forward, even if haltingly:
A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake amidst all the dank providence. It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking.
2. Speedboat (Renata Adler) Random House, 1971, to be re-released NYRB Classics in 2013 – Darkly comic, energetic dispatches from a disjointed social reality of decades past that in many ways, resembles our own. A witty, abrupt, cool-eyed assessment of the people, places, and times of a young journalist in the late 1960s:
Nobody died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births of marriages. Seventeen reverent satires were written – disrupting a cliche and, presumably, creating a genre. That was a dream, of course, but many of the most important things, I find, are the ones learned in your sleep.
3. Alien vs. Predator (Michael Robbins) Penguin Books, 2012 – These poems are exuberant and fearless and sharp. They suggest an utter giddy freedom with their unexpected juxtapositions and high culture/low culture mash-ups. They are vulgar and witty. They are playfulness and swagger. There is bravado and importantly, there’s also great heart:
The Smallest Accredited Zoo in the Nation
Let’s go to Laurie in our Eye in the Sky
for a look at traffic. Thanks, Don.
It’s an hour in from the Hut of Intelligent Design
to the saddest tapir in the nation.
Nothing left of the Sharper Image but ashes.
All fall down, Laurie? All fall down, Don.
4. Are You My Mother? (Alison Bechdel) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 – Beautiful graphic novel that explores the author’s relationship with her mother. It is heady, weaving in literary criticism and psychology, but its emotional power comes from a careful and rigorous treatment of her own motivations and actions and a great sense of empathy and compassion for her family members, who are presented as whole and complicated people. Haunting and memorable:
My depression at age twenty-six lasted only a few weeks. But as a child I used to experience occasional fleeting pangs of a terrible sadness. They almost happened in church… As an adult, I have continued to experience these brief spasms of melancholy — and worse — on some of the rare occasions I’ve attended church… and also sometimes after sex.
5. Three Novels (Agota Kristof) in collection, Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 1997 – A trilogy of three short novels: the Notebook, the Proof, and the Lie. Stark and brutal, the prose is stripped of all sentimentality, which makes the descriptions of the horrors of wartime all the more shocking and haunting. These books interrogate the nature of identity and truth and the act of storytelling itself:
One day we hang our cat, a ginger tom, from the branch of a tree. As he hangs, he stretches and grows enormous. He has spasms and convulsions. When he isn’t moving anymore, we cut him down. He lies sprawled on the grass, motionless, then suddenly gets up and runs off. “Don’t worry, Grandmother, we’ll take care of the mice.” We make traps and down the mice we catch in boiling water.