2016 Book, Music, & Film Highlights

With 2017 two-thirds over, I feel it’s safe to put up my 2016 book, music, and movie/TV highlights without fear of temporal-proximity bias…


In some sense the “best” books I read in 2016 were—

  • The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford by Hansen. Novelization of the end of Jesse James, later turned into an excellent film. Difficult to read James in anything but Brad Pitt’s voice & face now, but that’s ok, the movie was pretty good. The novel has a somewhat detached, documentary feel to it, just like the movie does. That works well though for the gritty, mean, enclosed lives all the characters lead. Sits well with James’ belief in out-of-the-body travel as well. The climax comes somewhat early, but the closing sections are just as good. They’re basically a quick retelling of Deadwood, with different historical characters. Very different themes throughout the book from an actual “Western.” There’s relatively little about the landscape, freedom, etc.. These guys are just all about easy money and killing, and they die cheaply and often because of it. The really big question set out implicitly by the novel is just how much did James plan and foster this end? Not just at the last moments, but from the very start?
  • No Country For Old Men by McCarthy. Excellent read about a drug deal gone bad and the multi-layered pursuit set off across city and desert. The film portrays the novel impressively and very faithfully. Notably, like in his other books, McCarthy does a lot with syntax and presentation to make the whole setting feel really off, and I think the film does similar via techniques like using music very sparingly. Both of them do a lot of things like only show you the aftermath of a scene, not the actual fight, etc.. In the film version there’s basically 1 minor character cut, a little bit of backstory cut from the Sheriff, and 1 death changed in a small but critical detail. Otherwise it’s almost identical in any meaningful comparison.

However, the book that stuck with me the most is:

  • Flight Behavior by Kingsolver. An interesting novel about climate change as well as science and elite society from the view of the downtrodden. I didn’t know anything about the story going in, so I had no idea where it was going until a good bit in. I recommend that approach to heighten the soft air of rural fantasy. By the end the novel gets very preachy and overt, but overall it’s still interesting.

Flight Behavior definitely gets too heavy handed by the end. However I really liked the perspective of poor rural people looking at not just scientists, but the scientific enterprise. The characters generally all feel well realized and have stuck in mind longer than I expected for such a quiet, uneventful story.


The household pre-k contingent’s vote for music of of the year is Feist’s visit to Sesame Street and subsequent rendition of 1, 2, 3, 4:

New-to-me music I listened to the most this year includes:

“Best” of the year though for me I would have to say are:

Jidenna’s brief appearance was by far the highlight of Netflix’s so-so Luke Cage series, which is how I really came across him (no doubt like many others).

Sleeping At Last is kind of fascinating as a business/music venture. It’s basically one guy who had some early mainstream success promoted by Smashing Pumpkins, but has since backed off into steady, smaller releases. Much of his ongoing commercial success seems to come from covers he does, as well as his own music, being used frequently in TV shows. Along the way though he’s been developing this concept compilation Atlas, which I believe is now spread across multiple volume-years, which includes East and Sun. East to me is a great sketch in the styling of a young children’s book of an adult looking back at life. Sun is the song I’ve found that best captures the feeling of being a parent looking at your child.


Standouts from previous years’ highlights, both Justified and Person of Interest came to an end in 2016. Both actually managed to conclude very satisfactorily. I highly recommend both series in their entirety.

Other quick mentions: I finally saw The Martian and thought it entertaining and shiny, but not super memorable; the book left me feeling the same. The Expanse I really enjoyed and thought it much much better than the novel(s) because it provided more depth and background to a number of characters, e.g., notably the Martians from the Donnager. The Big Short stuck with me due to all the arguably autistic and asocial personalities.


In episodic viewing: Better Call Saul I really liked and thought masterfully done, but have had an extremely hard time following it into Season 2 because Saul is just so relentlessly self-defeating.

I’ve felt somewhat similarly about Mr Robot. The first season was incredible and I recommend it highly. It does an excellent job at atmosphere and traditional but just short of annoyingly cliched hackers. The ostensible big reveal was too heavily telegraphed to be actually surprising, but the whole show is so well done that its appeal wasn’t diminished. It’s still worth revisiting earlier scenes and re-evaluating in that context. All that said, I have not yet watched the follow-on season(s) because I just don’t know if they’re necessary. Sure there’s more plot to unravel, but do I really care? The show is all about characters, not plot, and I feel like I already got from them what I wanted.

Sidenote: For a very good 7-minute riff on the hackers/finance side of Mr Robot, check out this Axel Thesleff music video for Bad Karma:


Rounding out my highlights for 2016 are two really excellent movies—

Rogue One. My favorite Star Wars movie, and possibly the best one. A timely recovery from the deeply lackluster second half of Force Awakens.

On first viewing I thought Rogue One moved too fast and there was both too much crammed in and yet not enough material. Subsequently though I’ve revisited that and think what’s there is largely what should be there. The movie is essentially a classic ensemble WW2 movie from the early ’60s, but with robots and lasers and executed with modern effects and pacing. A ton of character background isn’t needed, and if you watch closely we do get just enough for each of the main figures. We see Cassian kill two Rebel-aligned people. Chirrut notes that Baze used to be the most devout, and now the latter is clearly fighting heartbreak with jokes and pretending the temple didn’t fall. Rook we know a lot about: He was an Imperial pilot, he spent time with Galen, he had a conversion just like tons of famous Rebel figures. There is more supported explicitly by the text of the movie than it might at first seem. It just moves along so quickly that it’s easy to miss.

That said, I do think the movie needed just a few minutes of Jyn fighting with Gerrera and his terrorists, establishing her as both a true Rebel and a natural leader. Her emergence at the end as a militant freedom fighter and inspiring figure then wouldn’t be an abrupt shift but rather a return to her roots and neglected abilities. Again, you can see some of this in what is actually present in the movie, e.g., how heads turn in the transport headed in to the final battle when she says she fought alongside Gerrera. But that background could stand to be conveyed on screen more fully. It would also flesh out the rich sketch of Gerrera and his supporting figures quite a lot.

That shortcoming aside, Rogue One is a great, self-contained, satisfying story that is all the better for not being required to leave enough openings for continued spin-offs and sequels. It fits almost perfectly into A New Hope, setting the stage for that story and filling in many details to reward fans (e.g., the death of Red 5 creating a slot in the pilot roster for Luke), but stands very well on its own as a classic ensemble war movie set in the Star Wars universe. Bonus points for the female lead and ethnic character diversity.

Arrival. I saw this movie somewhat randomly, and don’t think it really needs to be seen in theaters but was glad I did. A quiet, understated film that really has a lot going on. A number of scenes really stuck with me well afterward, most especially the pivotal scene with the Chinese general at the party. This was an instant sci-fi classic that should also have broader appeal.

A small but important note, I appreciated that the aliens are vague and yet very concrete. There’s a very fine balance to this kind of alien presence and I think most movies don’t do nearly as well. Far too often they’re either too abstract or too human, too understandable or too random. Giant elephant-skinned squid things in the mist is among the best presentations I’ve seen for this kind of story.

It should also not go unemphasized that this is a movie about communication. Of course up front it’s about communicating with the aliens. But again and again Arrival hits that theme in big and small ways: The governments all cutting off discussion with each other, the troops not knowing what’s going on, the Chinese general keying in on his wife’s last words. Most importantly, much of the subtext is about Ian’s inability to communicate and express himself. This gets hits just a couple times, quietly, most notably when he explicitly says something to the effect of if he had to do it all over again he wishes he would express himself better, and again when it becomes clear they break up because he can’t talk about how Louisa could have their baby knowing what would happen. This thick layering of the theme of communication elevates Arrival from a very good sci-fi movie to a good movie above genre.

Bonus points again for the female scientist lead. On that note, Arrival is an excellent heir to Contact, which over time has unexpectedly become one of my favorite movies. They’re remarkably similar without in any way being duplicative: Two great sci-fi movies, with strong female scientist leads, that are all about communication both in the surface story and in the sub-plot relationships between people. Each warrants both repeat and general audience viewing.

It came somewhat unheralded out of nowhere, but I found Arrival deeply satisfying and engrossing, and it was certainly my movie highlight of 2016.


2015 Music Highlights

Continuing from the movie & TV entries in my long lost highlights from 2015, this is the music I acquired and listened to the most in 2015. Again, these aren’t necessarily new to the world, and in some cases very much not so. The twelve entries here are in increasing order by play count. There’s some concern there about normalizing for when in the year the music was acquired and thus how much opportunity it had to be played. But that’s both taking this too seriously, and for the most part the counts are dominated by the first couple months or so after acquisition anyway.

Honorable mentions here go to Hey Mama by David Guetta and Nicki Minaj, probably the raunchiest song on the radio last year, and Trap Queen by Fetty Wap.

#12: Wherever is Your Heart /Brandi Carlisle

#11: Awake /Tycho

#10: Please Don’t Say You Love Me (piano version) /Gabrielle Alpin

Note that this is quite specifically the quieter, slower, more broken piano recording, not the more pop-tuned mix.


#9: Intro /The XX

#8: All This Could Be Yours /Cold War Kids


#7: Mess Is Mine /Vance Joy

#6: 9 Crimes /Damien Rice

#5: Lean On /Major Lazer

The “official video” for this is super awkward, so let’s stick with the lyric video.

#4: Where Is My Mind (instrumental piano) /Maxence Cyrin


#3: Bad Intentions (original, without Migos) /Niykhee Heaton

Recently another version of this came out with an interlude of some dumbass rapping. Everything else is basically the same, but that extra bit makes it much worse. Stick to the original recording.

#2: Unstead /X Ambassadors

Renegades is the song that got all the airplay from this album, and it is also very good. But Unsteady is excellent, focusing more on ache. An important note about this is that the album, VHS, is that rarity of the streaming age: Somewhat of a concept album. The whole thing is framed and intermixed with clips of the band ostensibly watching old camcorder tapes. Nothing too lofty, but it’s really good, they’re interesting in their own right. I recommend the whole album. There’s a good range of songs, many of them are solid, and the VHS clips really bring more depth to the standout tracks.

#1: You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive /Patty Loveless

There are of course many many versions of this song. Not only do I like this audio the best, but this one is worth watching on YouTube. The stills stitched together here to go along with the song add quite a bit of oomph to an already terrific recording.


2014 Music Highlights

Following up on my movie highlights, I now present my music highlights for 2014. I (obviously) don’t keep logs of all the music I listen to & when. Fortunately Amazon Digital and my MP3 player do track what was purchased or imported when. Similar to my other highlights, these are by no means necessarily new to the world in 2014 but instead in most cases simply new to me. The first set of these are pretty well known and mostly pop-ish songs, but the collection down bottom much less so.

DJ Play

First, a bunch of actually new-ish songs that got their share of radio play last year, and in some cases much more than that.

It’s a bit too reminiscent of Breaking Bads’ use of TV On The Radio’s DLZ, but one of the seasons of Longmire ends with this used pretty well, as the hero drives literally and figuratively on Denver.

Glitch MobFortune Days
Previously noted for We Can Make The World Stop, The Glitch Mob returns with another good one, this time just outside the dub step milieu.

Kid Ink feat. Chris BrownShow Me
I’m conflicted by this hip hop hit. As usual, I have trouble with hip hop’s generally boring attitudes toward women, as particularly exemplified by the terrible opener for the official video. I also especially don’t want to support domestic abuser and general asshole Chris Brown. But the melody is really good.

This verged on being well over played on the radio, and though potentially reading too much into it, I really like the vague hints of story elements in this.

Sam SmithStay With Me
Right on the line of overplayed, but I am a huge sucker for sappy, overwrought heartbreaks and a bit of piano.

Vance JoyRiptide
An absolutely great way to seed a flowing, upbeat Pandora playlist is to throw this one in.

Mr. ProbzWaves [Robin Schulz Radio Edit]
Robin Schulz is ridiculously everywhere on my Pandora streams with his edits, but this beachy, upbeat tune from Mr Probz is really nice.


Calvin HarrisSummer
A pop-ish tune with just enough warble, everything is better in the summer.

AviciiHey Brother
Tim Berg blows away a more rock-ish tune than usual, and the video even successfully adds a bit of depth.

Pirate Radio

Now some songs that are not so or not at all present on the radio, at least around the northeast US.


To begin, a few more upbeat tunes.

Aloe BlaccThe Man and I Need A Dollar
Blacc is the singer on 2013’s Avicii hit Wake Me Up, of which he also has a good acoustic rendition. These two songs are him in an uptempo soul, R&B mode.

BakermatOne Day (Vandaag)
A fast but light, sky-ful Dutch dance song with a nice touch of saxophone.

Clean Bandit feat. Jess GlynneRather Be
Simple, fun electronic pop with sharp, clean vocals and instrumental ornamentation somewhat unique in that genre.

Tom Hangs feat. ShermanologyBlessed [Tim Bergling/Tom Hangs/Avicii/whoever he is Edit]
As far as I can tell, this is a Tim Bergling song performed by Shermanology, produced under his Tom Hangs stagename and then remixed under his Avicii stagename.  A sequence of credits as awesome as it is confusing. But this is a great, uplifting tune.

Parra For Cuva feat. Anna NaklabWicked Games
Absolutely incredible, upbeat take on Chris Isaak’s classic Wicked Games. Although there’s several ultra-slow covers I really like, this is the definitive version for me.


At the opposite end of the spectrum, some quieter thoughts.

Selah SueThis World
A great somewhat down-tempo soul song.

Jim JamesState Of The Art (A.E.I.O.U.)
Basically the only good outcome from the very disappointing The Blacklist. One headline renders this as “digital ennui,” which I think is fair. I’m not sure what genre I’d lump it into, but it’s really good.

BirdySkinny Love
The Bon Iver original is also really good, but I particularly love this even slower, quieter rendition of this folk-ish song. Probably the saddest song of the year.

Sharon Van EttenSerpents [Demo]
This ostensible demo version and the song overall is shockingly under-established to have had such major exposure— no official upload?! But it’s a really great broken folk/alternative song. Pretty popular despite basically no radio play when it was released a few years back—and really, I have little idea what station here outside XPN would play it—as it was used devastatingly at the close of the fourth episode of the fourth season of The Walking Dead.