MY BIG 2016 LIST
This past year has been a reminder that story is as important as ever. The media has latched on to the phrase “post-truth” world, which sounds like a scary, apocalyptic thing. In many ways, it is.
Then again, I kind of think our Western world has always misunderstood the value of facts and data.
Are they important? Yeah, totally. The basic mechanics of the world would fall apart if we ceased to rely on facts and hard evidence. But when it comes to what motivates people, what gives birth to their beliefs and values, those bits of information are less concrete.
They’re messy and they’re complicated. They’re some parts emotion and some parts memory. They’re all related to the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in them.
So while I’ve been guilty in the past about writing off pop-culture as simple entertainment, shared stories have always been one of the most important things humans have had to connect with each other.
Every year, I like to play along with all the pop-culture commentators and make lists of my favorite albums, books, and things. I do it just because it’s fun. This year, I’m also making my list while keeping in mind how important stories are at a time when people seem more divided than ever. Lessons in empathy and entering other people’s worlds should never be devalued.
Anyways, I debated for a while what I should even put on this list? Do I measure music by the song or album or both? Do I list entire podcasts and TV shows, or individual episodes? I decided to go with the following: albums, films, books, TV shows, live performances, and lectures or conversations.
25. Captain Fantastic
This movie has a bit of Wes Anderson visual kitschy-ness, some truly well-developed characters, and a premise that is just quirky enough to work. It’s all held together by a wonderful acting job on the part of Viggo Mortensen, who plays a stick-it-to-the-man type dad that insists on continuing to raise his children off-the-grid and in the woods after their mother dies. At least a couple scenes had me taking real deep breaths with feeling.
24. This Is Us
Disclaimer, I’m only a handful of episodes into This Is Us, but I’ve really been liking it a lot so far. Opening up with a Sufjan number was an easy way to win me over early. My first impression was that some of the character struggles might be too trope-based: a character struggling with weight falling off a bathroom scale, an adopted kid in search of his bio-dad. In spite of that, though, this show was so well written and produced that the characters gained so much dimension and life. It’s an emotionally rich series for sure.
23. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I get it, people, he’s nooottt Jon Stewart. I feel like I’m in the minority when I say I am fully on board Noah’s Ark. (Is that fan club a real thing? Can I start it?) I discovered him prior to his Daily Show gig because of his fantastic range of accents going around on YouTube and was sold right away. He’s bringing something important to the table having grown up in a system of apartheid, and his memoir paints that picture very well.
22. James Vincent McMorrow, We Move
Whatever you call James Vincent McMorrow’s genre, I’m so into it. His voice layers over some shimmery instrumentals just right. This album seems right in line with the sound he crafted a couple years ago with Post-Tropical, which was such a good sound that I didn’t mind him sticking with it in the least. Rising Water, We Fell, and Last Story are good spots to start on this album, but I don’t recommend skipping around. There aren’t really low points.
Brazil got both the World Cup and the Olympics in recent years, what more could they possibly need? Oh, how about a Netflix Original Series. If you’re tired of all the dystopian-society storyarcs that have popped up in the wake of the Hunger Games and hoping to cut back, I suggest that you leave room in your quota for 3%. It’s distinct enough to feel fresh, and you know, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to be well prepared for a dystopian society to emerge.
20. Sounds Good with Branden Harvey
Branden Harvey is a social media personality who launched this podcast at the beginning of the year, making it one of the most of-our-times things on this list. His trademark style just so happens to be relentless positivity, which brings a Jimmy Fallon-like enthusiasm to many of his interviews. One of this show’s biggest strengths is its diverse roster of guests, and some of my favorite chats include Jason Russell, Improv Everywhere creator Charlie Todd, and Propaganda.
19. New York Mets v. Miami Marlins, September
This evening saw the second presidential debate, which did nothing other than reinforce all the election year nastiness going around. Then there was the Marlins game, their first one after José Fernandez was killed in a tragic boating accident. Their pregame tribute was stirring, then on the first at-bat, Dee Gordon hit a too-good-to-be-true home run. It was the opposite of the debate: a reminder of how vulnerable we are as humans and how much we need each other.
18. Run River North, Drinking From a Salt Pond
This album didn’t quite capture the special place in my heart that their debut did, probably due to life events and no fault of the band. If anything, Run River North’s music grew even more sophisticated and powerful, and they’re such a good group even a mediocre release by them would get some consideration for a year end list by me. Seeing them play live in March was an added bonus. 29, Ghost, and Run or Hide stick out as a few favorites.
17. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
I’m convinced Ann Patchett can do no wrong. She’s three-for-three out of her books I’ve read so far, and Commonwealth was a real goodie. Its nonlinear storyline followed the unraveling of two families, and while the drama of divorce and growing up are hardly new teritorry, Patchett is such a good storyteller that she can take this well-trodden path and make it fresh as a squeezed orange. (That’s a hidden reference. Booya.)
16. Joseph, I’m Alone, No You’re Not
Killer harmonies. Joseph would be a very easy band to write a two word review for. The Oregon based trio of female vocalists’ album this year was loaded with tracks that showcase what they’re best at. Hauntingly captivating compositions. Smart lyrics that manage to say a lot with fewer words. And, oh yeah, harmonies like nobody’s business. Planets and SOS were two of my favorite tracks, but this album is worth taking all the way to the end.
15. Everyday Cook by Alton Brown
With all the books showing up on this list, it makes sense that at least one of them should be a cookbook– especially since this was the year I doubled down on my culinary interests. Alton Brown has been my most reliable guide to the kitchen, helping me save money by preaching against certain kitchen tools, and keeping me grounded with practical info. Surprisingly, he hasn’t really written a true cookbook in a long while, so this one is long overdue.
14. Revisionist History
I get the case against Malcolm Gladwell that I’ve heard people make. Pseudoscience and all that. But guess what– I don’t tune into academic scientific journals for fun. I do go to Malcolm. And his new podcast does what he does best– provoke curiosity and interest and all that. He’s covered school food, satire, and free throws, but my personal favorite was his episode on the origins of the song Hallelujah, made all the more timely by Leonard Cohen’s passing.
13. Kubo and the Two Strings
I heard good things, so I checked out this film. At first I thought it’s plot was pretty simple but the visuals were a gorgeous blend of CGI and claymation. Then I continued to watch and I realized that man, even the storyline wwasn’t so simple. It was symbolic and beautiful and made a very worthwhile point at the end. Plus, as an added bonus, this film’s credit sequence includes a great Regina Spektor cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
A second animated feature… but some of my favorite movies in recent years have been Disney/Pixar movies, so maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising. In spite of that, Zootopia was still pretty unexpected– in good ways. Didn’t think I’d be interested in another “talking animal society” film, but it turns out, the best word to describe this film is woke. It’s not perfect, but considering the intended audience is ten years old, it’s a brilliant social metaphor.
11. Stranger Things
Stranger Things was such a widespread pop-culture phenomenon this year that I really don’t need to get that into describing why I liked it so much. In the past, TV series were always underrepresented on this list because of the time commitment they took, but Netflix is really changing things up with these eight-episode mini-series. 3% and The OA were two other goodies that cater to the universal guilty pleasure of the binge watch.
10. The Liturgists – Black and White
Here’s an entry that was so good I wound up bending my own rules. Normally I’d feature a podcast as a whole, and not a single episode, but as a show The Liturgists already merited a spot on my 2014 list. Still, this episode featuring Propaganda and William Matthews as guests to talk about racism in America is so eye-opening and important to the year that was I couldn’t omit it. It’s some necessary insight.
9. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Beautiful. This book chronicles two branches of a family tree that became divided between Ghana and the United States during the West African Slave Trade with storylines that stretch forward into the present day. The last few chapters seemed to just keep getting better and the book eventually crescendoed into a satisfying and beautiful conclusion. This was definitely one of my top reads this past year.
This podcast takes on a similar ambition as Malcolm Gladwell’s revisionist history in that it looks at historical news events and examines what happened once the media spotlight turned away. The storytelling in this series is top notch and I’ve learned what “online” dating was like in 1965 and the social significance of Disco Demolition night. One of my favorite episodes was the The Deacons, telling the story of a group that took a different approach to Civil Rights.
7. World Series 2016
So, if it was a rough year for the world at large, it was also a rough year for most of my sports teams. The Phillies, Timbers, and Oregon Ducks all had some pretty lethargic and frustrating seasons. At least there was the storyline of the Cubs ending their 108-year World Series drought to provide some relief and remind me of how much I love baseball. Then again, it’s hard not to think this didn’t set some of the events of the following week into effect.
6. Jack Garratt, Phase
When this album came out in early January, I thought to myself, hey, I wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of the year, I’m still calling this one of my favorites. Here we are. It’s one of my favorites. Garratt’s smooth R&B style vocals layer over simplified electronic beats that still have a strong dubstep influence. It’s a sound that doesn’t fit any named genre but that’s becoming increasingly popular. I totally get why.
How perfect is it that the couple whose case ended up setting the Supreme Court’s ultimate ruling in favor of interracial marriage had the last name Loving? Obvious answer, it’s too, too perfect. The story of Loving v. Virginia made for a really moving and beautiful movie that was terriffically performed. This is a historical drama that doesn’t have an ‘eat-your-veggies’ feeling of wanting to want to watch it. It’s just flat out a good movie.
4. Gallant, ology
This album is all vibes. Gallant started to break out when going on tour with Sufjan Stevens last year, and that set him up for a beautiful year the past twelve months. His voice is pure soul and warmth. The chill sounds he sings over provide a perfect crisp complement. Whenever I’m looking to elevate the setting of my living room and make it inviting, warm, exciting, and full of good energy, this is a go-to record.
3. Johnnyswim, Georgica Pond
I loved Johnnyswim’s debut so much I didn’t know how this could live up to it. Oh man. This record is full of such meaningful, heart-filled tracks that I’ve been playing over and over since seeing them live in Portland a few months ago. Touching Heaven makes me want to have kids, seriously, and Summertime Romance is whimsically sweet. Tracks like Georgica Pond and Drunks add some beautiful melancholy, and it’s an album I still can’t stop listening to.
It’s the linguistics-nerd, sci-fi puzzle film we never knew we needed. Did we ever need the hope and optimism and present-in-the-moment message that this film is centered around. It’s Spielberg’s whimsy, Christopher Nolan’s inventiveness, and Terrence Malick’s visuals all tied into one story. I could go on and on about how cool the invented language was, or how amazing it was for them to be so obvious yet clever about revealing the twist ending. So good.
1. Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
A friend says that 2016 didn’t deserve Chance, but I happen to think this was the year he was so needed. Chance occupies a unique space in the artistic landscape with hip hop credentials, a sincere faith, a truly independent approach to his art, and his experiences as a black American in the present. Best of all, he doesn’t approach music as a place to vent his opinions, but the fullness of his experience- which includes a serious dose of hope, happiness, and positivity that is more than aware of life and society’s struggles.
The Missed-Out List
Here are five things that I suspect very well could’ve made this list… except the year is now ending and I still haven’t seen/heard/read/etc. that film/album/book/etc. Ah well, I’ll get to them in 2017.
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran Foer has never let me down with his novels, and it’s been a good long while since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close became the Tumblr darling it was during my college years. Now he’s back and Here I Am looks like it has all the best elements of his writing– a suggestion of spiritual themes drawn from his Jewish heritage, quirky characters and plot devices, and just enough mystery to keep you sucked in.
The Underground Railroad by Colton Whitehead
Out of everything that was released in 2016 that I regret not getting to during the year, it’s this book. I want to already be able to join the apparent praise chorus that is most everyone who has read this book. The pondering what if the Underground Railroad was an actual train? sounds more like an idea that came out of a childhood misunderstanding, but the magical realism turns it’s state-by-state journey into an American epic.
Comedian-rapper-actor-singer, Donald Glover has so many diverse talents but it feels like he has yet to find an outlet for all of them that does justice. From the musings that I’ve heard, Atlanta might be just that. It’s a comedy with different goals than to simply be funny, and it captures one of the most vibrant and colorful hip hop scenes in the recent past. Unfortunately it’s tough for a non-TV subscriber to access, but hopefully I find a way soon.
Local Natives, Sunlit Youth
Grouplove and The Head and the Heart also had releases right around the same time, meaning my musical attention was far too divided to give Sunlit Youth the proper attention that it deserved. From the bits and pieces I’ve heard though, it’s got such a great sound and the potential to be my favorite Local Natives album yet. As an added bonus, their cover of Ultralight Beams might be one of my favorite free-floating singles from this year.
Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon by Kelley French
Earlier this year, Radiolab reaired an episode of their show called 24 Weeks, telling the story of Juniper French- a girl who was born extremely, extremely premature. At the time of her birth, her survival was such an uncertainty that it put her parents through so much. Without giving too much away, the story was such an emotional journey that made me so thankful for the smallest intricacies of life. Her parents are fantastic storytellers so I’m sure the book will have a similar effect.
The Late-to-the-Party List
Because not every book I read in 2016 was published in 2016.
These are a few things that I discovered in 2016 that weren’t of 2016. They’re from past years, but since I couldn’t put them on a list back then, here they are now.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I was so drawn in by the characters in Ozeki’s novel, especially the way it was narrated. A red diary washes up in the Pacific Northwest, that seems to have been brought over by the Japanese tsunami. It contains the story of a young girl from about a decade ago. The worlds crafted and subtle unfolding of two storylines was both beautiful and brilliant, and surprisingly redemptive at the end.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
This book spans generations in time to uncover what happened in the lives of its mostly likeable characters. It captures the Roman Holiday-esque romanticism of the Italian coast, the artistic hustle that embodies modern day Hollywood, and the intimacy of community theatre in the Pacific Northwest. The word beautiful in the title is a good clue, by the time the story wraps itself up, it reminds us that life can look gorgeous when seen as a whole.
Krista Tippett puts out one of the most important podcasts on a consistent basis; I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to jump on board. She interviews a diverse set of guests about their spiritual backgrounds and beliefs, and these conversations are typically loaded with insight. The episode that got me hooked was this year’s interview with Jimmy Carter, but this year also featured good talks with James Martin, Thich Naht Thanh, Isabel Wilkerson, and Alain de Boton.
I started streaming this ridiculous show because of my goodwill towards Timothy Omundson after years of Psych. My oh my did this medieval musical totally appeal to that quirky side of my sense of humor that hasn’t been tickled since Psych left its void. This show had me singing great music numbers like the love song Maybe You’re Not The Worst Thing Ever for weeks.
Road Tripping by Justin Bonello
Justin Bonello writes cookbooks that aren’t your ordinary cookbooks– they’re chronicles of great adventures. They include the perfect playlist for road trips, random games and packing chronicles, brilliant photography, and stories and encounters from up South Africa’s Orange River into the Namibian desert. The recipes aren’t necessarily the most practical for day-to-day use, but if you want to make biltong on a car’s dashboard, this is for you.
Well, there’s my list! What a productive use of an unexpected snow day without wi-fi. If you’re a listmaker yourself, consider us kindred spirits.