2019: My Year in Music

Hi dear hearts, this comes to you late after a month of a broken computer, a thumb I split while splitting kindling, and some good deep hard work in my community and relationships that kept away from my beloved nerdy pleasures.

But so: here’s the music that kept me alive from this year, plus an accompanying playlist. As always, it includes some treasures from last year that I just now got to.

First thing is that this is a year that contemporary jazz really opened up for me with three very different records I adored. Steve Lehman’s The People I Love is presented as his tribute to the classic saxophone-quartet format, but the record starts out with a severity that I had to reach for my limited antecedents for: Dave Liebman’s scorching live show I saw in a big churchy stone space a decade ago with other slack-jawed grad students. Lehman’s playing is dextrous, fast-moving, and extreme; I love the conversations he locks into with digressive and tuneful pianist Craig Taborn on “qPlay” (dig too the skittering synthesized drums below it) and drummer Damion Reid on “Beyond All Limits.” Music about energy, not narrative; solos about dialogue, not commentary. (Lehman’s on Bandcamp, but not on Spotify.) I also loved the Marta Sanchez Quintet’s El Rayo de Luz; Sanchez’s sense of harmony in her horn charts is eerie and exquisite, and the music’s emotional center is in the way the piano will answer, tug at, twist up, and return a melody back to her two saxophonists: it’s subtle, brainy, tender. It makes my ribcage ache. For presence and aural pleasure, I love Gerald Cleaver’s Live at Firehouse 12: again, the limitations of my listening history don’t leave me much to draw on, but I love that jazz-drummer thing of keeping the beat and commenting on it at once, riffing back to his soloists or shifting suddenly under them and forcing them to duck after him. The piano is mixed low: the attention is much less on underlying chordal structure than on all on the ideas Cleaver tosses up to his horns and gets tossed back. The horns’ melodies are sometimes twisty, sometimes downright jolly: the climax of “Detroit” is as polyphonic as Dixieland.

Two jazz reissues this year I also loved: the rangy small-group playing of Charles Mingus’s Jazz in Detroit, recorded live (with accompanying interviews) at a short-lived collective space, the Strata, in 1973. After the fun gigantism of his big-band comeback, Let My People Hear Music, Mingus seemed to be in the mood for exploring wider spaces with a smaller group: his players here are all young, some new to playing with him, and they all stretch. By contrast, Eric Dolphy’s Musical Prophet: the Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions feels not like rovings but like musings. Dolphy’s playing could be fiery-intense and rough and there are a few big full-band tunes, but for most of these recordings, Dolphy seems to deliberately downplay forward motion: instead, the music keeps collapsing into self-reflection, irony, melancholy (“Come Sunday”‘s moaning bass floating alongside Dolphy’s murmuring bari sax), buried self-assertion (the theme of “Alone Together” doesn’t fully show up until 12 minutes of musical conversation between Dolphy and his bassist), and a cerebral exploratory quality held up by an inexhaustible melodic creativity. Dolphy contained multitudes; he died of undiagnosed diabetes less than a year after these recordings. How many other jazz musicians died of health conditions aggravated by structural racism?

The mood of our big quiet hemlocks and swift icy creek are caught by Emily A. Sprague’s Water Memory, a beautiful ambient project from a musician best known in her singer-songwriter work as Florist. Sprague doesn’t wear down listeners’ distinct attention under reverb or drones: instead, each instrument is a small clearly-rendered organism– or a small repeated movement, like the flickering of a flagellum, inside an organism– and the songs’ colors vary across the album. A meeting with a perfect musical creature in 40-plus minutes.

I absolutely can’t get enough of Jamila Woods’s LEGACY! LEGACY!, an album of subtly shifting influences and musical colors, driven by Woods’s arching twisting sense of vocal melody. She’s a queenly, sharp presence (“shut up motherfucker, I don’t take requests”), and her sense of pride stretches way back– her companions and lovers and “holy books” are all drawn from way back, from a deep sense of musical and communal history. I especially treasure the little skirls of jazzy guitar on “BASQUIAT” and the soothing-then-strutting two-part “GIOVANNI.” Also word to Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs, out at some extreme where hip-hop meets avant-garde jazz and experimental poetry; Earl may still be in his Xany-gnashing, Caddy-smashing youth but he’s making a world of his own around it if so. My bangers of the year were Lizzo’s “Tempo,” with the inexhaustible and self-possessed Missy Elliott, and Normani’s perfect “Motivation,” who I first heard alongside Doja Cat, thank you Sayer for introducing me. Let’s take a moment too and be grateful for how much good pop there is right now about easy, confident pleasure in material flash or in guilt-free, un-power-tripping free-agent-type sex: if you want to, it’s easy to avoid bellows of lost entitlement, emotional blackmail, stray shots or empty bottles and stay in the Top 40. Oh and I give up, I also loved Katy Perry’s “Never Really Over.”

I looked forward to a dozen-plus indie rock albums this year but wound up adoring only a few. Frankie Cosmos’s Close It Quietly is Greta Kline’s absolute best work so far, a work on tip-toe balance between assertion and minimalism, small acts of emotional courage and small touches of self-deprecating humor. Kline’s songs are mostly tiny, so when she repeats a chorus (as on “So Blue”) you really feel it, and when a hook kicks in (as in the B section of “Rings [on a Tree]”) it hits you right in the shoulders. Laura Stevenson’s The Big Freeze is finally a whole album of hers I’ve loved as much as I loved 2012’s single “Runner.” But where that song’s dynamism and surge thrilled me, Freeze is more austere and spacious: it’s a big roomy recording of overdriven electric, fingerpicked acoustic guitar and an underlining of low harmony. Its sound reminds me of Brian Paulson’s groundbreaking production on Spiderland, letting distorted and acoustic instruments speak to each other without violence. I also loved (Sandy) Alex G’s House of Sugar. Alex Giannascoli’s earlier records were characterized by a lo-fi slacker shrug that, when pushed, stiffened into open resistance. He’d blast off synth rackets, snip songs short just as they took off, process instruments through a tin can. The musical ingredients on House of Sugar have evened out a little: the listener can expect close-mic’d and often double-tracked acoustic guitar, hanging looped-up synthesizers, violin, far-off wailing or pitch-shifted backing vocals, some nostalgic sax, and a fake accent or two, not easy but not self-undermining either. There’s a self-enclosed musical richness to these arrangements and a good-enough-for-me roughness that’s belied by the pathos and grief of the lyrics; Giannascoli is absolutely soaked in a fear of death and split by gender-ambiguous heartbreak. Most lo-fi albums feel smaller as they go on; House of Sugar widens instead into something big and melancholy.

I spent a week of evenings in the kitchen getting electrocuted by Mannequin Pussy’s Patience, an album of romantic longing, heartsickness, and rage all together, and a lot of drives with the New Pornographers’ In the Morse Code of the Brakelights. Brakelights is an album dominated by gigantism: cliffs of big bright reverby guitar, abrupt bangs of processed snares, melodies impossible to trace as lines of overlapping gray mountains, strings and ah-ah-ahs that swoop by like mountain wind. A.C. Newman is the last songwriter left in the group, and he’s stayed cerebral as he’s aged: he’s not particularly heated, cynical, disillusioned, etc.; he writes more about patterns of relationship than about relationships. I guess this is one way to age contentedly. Please also do not neglect the stunning big kingdom of Helen America’s Red Sun. One-off songs I loved this year: Pedro the Lion’s “Clean Up,” Big Thief’s “Cattails,” Black Ends’ “Sellout” (a freaky math-rock jam from my favorite new Seattle band), Jay Som’s “Tenderness” (though also shoutout to “Superbike” and “Devotion”: Melina Duterte’s guest-packed ensemble playing evoked less personality than she did playing every instrument on Everybody Works, but the gleaming compressed guitar and her small turned-inward voice are still a pleasure everywhere in her music), and Priests’ “I’m Clean,” an arch and nervy kiss-off that helps me feel human and brave when I need it.

A PS for the truly riveted: here are the older albums I’ve completely fallen for this year: Donato Dozzy’s K, Fiona Apple’s Idler Wheel, Jonathan Richman’s Action Packed compilation, lots and lots and lots of 80s and 90s dancehall reggae, Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas, Schubert’s piano sonatas, Team Dresch, Joe Lovano’s I’m All for You, Hank Jones’s The Trio (the 1978 one), the Spinanes’ Manos, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Orchestre Baobab’s Made in Dakar, Mingus’s big-band record Let My Children Hear Music, Arthur Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown, John Prine’s Sweet Revenge and Storm Windows, Velocity Girl’s first compilation and Copacetic, Al Green’s I’m Still in Love with You, Dave Edmunds’s Repeat When Necessary,  Bonnie Raitt, Luther Vandross’s compilation The Best of Luther Vandross… The Best of Love, Emmylou Harris’s Roses in the Snow, George Jones’s All Time Greatest Hits Vol. 1, John Fahey’s Of Rivers and Religion, Teddy Pendergrass’s TP, Pharoah Sanders’ Message from Home (produced by the mighty Bill Laswell), the Fastbacks’ Answer the Phone, Dummy, Sonny Rollins’s Sonny Plus 4 (his first album as a bandleader, the final studio recording Clifford Brown made before his death), Miles Davis’s 70s electric albums Black Beauty and Big Fun, the many treasures of Gary Giddins’ two-part “Post-War Jazz: an Arbitrary Roadmap,” The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Vol. 4: Kings and Queens of Township Jive, and— on the turntable right now— The “King” Kong Compilation collecting Leslie Kong’s pioneering early reggae productions.

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Two New Critical Publications: Poetry Northwest and Full Stop

I’m glad to have two new reviews up! I reviewed Lauren Levin’s Justice Piece // Transmission, the followup to their thrilling collection The Braid, for Full Stop. I’ve also inaugurated a new column, Other Rooms, at Poetry Northwest: this series will lift up unique, noteworthy, and wonderful work in contemporary journals. It’s starting with an appreciation of Paul Killebrew’s monster long poem “The Bisexual Purge,” from this year’s issue of Oversound.

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The Ten Best Things on the Internet: February 2019

10. The opera teacher Salvatore Fisichella’s master class with tenor Andrew Owens: when Cait showed this to me, she said, “This is why I hope humans don’t go extinct.” I don’t understand more than few phrases of what he’s saying but when his (very famous!) student gets it right, I feel it too.

9. Moira Donegan, “Sex During Wartime: the return of Andrea Dworkin’s radical vision.” In college, I knew from my radical friends to dislike and disparage Andrea Dworkin, the unfun dogmatic anti-porn scold, without having read more than a few pages. But ideas central to her work are now being shone back to our larger culture, and I was very grateful for Moira Donegan’s reflection on Last Days at Hot Slit, a new selection of her work. Donegan, summarizing Dworkin’s thinking, writes that “[rape is] not an anomaly, but the fulfillment of a foundational cultural narrative. Rape is not exceptional but common, committed by common men acting on common assumptions about who men are and what women are.” Male power-over, our reduction of women to compliant or brutalized objects, for Dworkin prefigured all other forms of oppression and societal violence; but Dworkin also remained intersectional in her thinking, advocating for accessible trans healthcare and charging middle-class white women to reject the false comforts of their relative privilege to stand alongside, and support, women of color and poor women. And what is the spiritual work of men in undoing the antagonism, humiliation, and violence we’re taught to apply to women? In 1983, she addressed a male audience: “Have you ever wondered why we are not just in armed combat against you? It’s not because there’s a shortage of kitchen knives in this country. It is because we believe in your humanity, against all the evidence.” Can we men imagine and work for a world where non-men are equal historical selves? Our humanity depends on it.

8. A cheat/double: a special shoutout to bad reviews. Most big juicy bad reviews are fun but pointless— critics implicitly flattering their own taste, giving themselves over to purple writing whose insults aren’t as evocative as they think they are. Youngish critics, in their bad reviews, tend toward an overstated outrage at the violation of their precious sensibility; oldish critics in their bad reviews turn “shrill and stale at once” (James Wood on Harold Bloom), pounding at the same advancing targets long past anyone caring. Both types of reviews are fun are fun to nibble on and have next to zero shelf life.

But there are exceptions. Literary critic Andrea Long Chu reviews Jill Soloway’s way-acclaimed memoir She Wants It, on Soloway’s self-discovery as a director and her work creating the TV show Transparent. Chu’s tone is a measured disbelief at the narcissism, sloppiness, and vacuity she finds in Soloway’s book. In Soloway, Long Chu writes, “one finds the worst of grandiose Seventies-era conceits about the transformative power of the avant-garde guiltlessly hitched to a yogic West Coast startup mindset”; on Soloway’s own performance of identity, Chu writes that “all we need remember is that being trans because you want the attention doesn’t make you ‘not really’ trans; it just makes you annoying”; as to the book’s damage-control subtext, Chu decides that “Jill Soloway has an unstoppable, pathological urge to tell on herself.”

And an ever-relevant good oldie: Eugene McCarraher, a history professor at Villanova, produced what’s still my favorite critical response to the New Atheism, a scrupulous dismantling of Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great called “This Book Is Not Good.” I went back to McCarraher’s essay after reading John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, curious to see if I still loved it, and boy I do. Hitchens’ book, McCarraher says, is a “haute middlebrow tirade” that has nothing insightful or honest to say about theology, philosophy, or history and is fed by “a gooey compound of boosterish bromides and liberal nationalism.” As to a dreamt-of world free of religion, Hitchens’ moral imagination sees only “in terms of professional and managerial expertise,” a world given over to technocratic bosses who are in reality every bit as capable of obfuscation, domination, violence, and backwardness as theocratic states. Our war in Iraq, McCarraher says, should show us the brutality and ideological folly our secular, capitalist state is capable of; Hitchens’ delighted assurance in the virtue of that very war sickens him.

7. Our president, wayward and flatterable, has wandered off from his own stated intent to withdraw troops from Syria. Too bad. But Matt Taibbi’s piece in Rolling Stone on the planned withdrawal is still outstanding. Taibbi describes the outrage Trump’s decision drew from our two war parties, and he captures the absolute mind-boggling scope of our venality, violence, and never-ending military mission drift in the Middle East. It can be easy for those of us resisting imperialism to assume our enemies are cunning and all-powerful. It’s not true. Read Taibbi to be reminded just how dumb empire can be. (See also this essay from a genuine conservative on the credulousness and bullying self-importance of two extremely famous pro-war #nevertrumpers.)

6. Obsessed— obsessed obsessed obsessed— with Tierra Whack’s 15-minute, 15-song music video.

5. Journalist Jesse Singal, with Freddie de Boer’s permission, returns to online availability three of de Boer’s bombthrowing essays on the state of Left cultural and academic discourse. I don’t agree with everything in these essays, but de Boer’s moral rage at the left’s internalization of cop culture– what Sarah Schulman would call the equating of conflict with an existential assault, complete with a pile-on on the offender led by a mob of virtuous citizens— is a tonic.

4. Just how much does it cost to call out love-and-light good-vibes spiritual thinkers for their ignorance of racism, persistent inequality, and state violence? Black Muslim feminist spiritual educator Layla F. Saad answers: “I Need to Talk to Spiritual White Women about White Supremacy” part 1 and part 2. The culture industry Saad identifies is associated with female entrepeneurs, but the apothecary-nice-guy subculture is just as guilty of checking out, repeating platitudes, and getting ugly when confronted. Dig the workbook on Saad’s main site too.

3. Lindsay Zoladz is one of my favorite music critics, a brainy and nimble writer who can set a scene in just a few sentences and who’s unafraid to fan out on her loves; her “December Boy: on Alex Chilton” taught me a lot about the lost years of this mercurial genius and reminded me of what I freaking love about Big Star. Growing up weird in a Navy town, my 12-year-old self found in indie music the immense relief of knowing my sensibility wasn’t alone. But most of what I found– John Fahey, Kate Bush, Aphex Twin, Husker Du, Sleater-Kinney, the Velvet Underground– wasn’t remotely utopian. These temperaments had survived, but they didn’t have an imagined better world out there to point me to. Big Star felt different: what was so cool about Big Star’s first two records was how they posited a whole alternate adolescence. In their music I could hang out, fall into a crush, break up, get my ears blasted in the backseat, watch the sunrise.

2. Who was King writing to in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? Broderick Greer gives the answer, quoting from “A Call for Unity,” the 1963 letter from white Alabama clergymen who sympathize with civil rights protestors’ “natural impatience” but call their continued direct actions, demonstrations, and protests “unwise and untimely.” King’s letter, smuggled from his cell, is his reply. The voice of the sensible middle never, ever changes. More and more I think of social justice work in terms of strategic radicalism: not “how can we reach across the aisle to create a compromise that will satisfy everyone,” but “how can we tactically force our sorta-allies in the middle to join our moral stand against what we find intolerable”?

1. And: live your best 1:14 by watching this clip of King on the origins of entrenched racial inequality, and the sole demand that will undo it. I showed this one to Finn.

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2018: the Year in Music

This is the music that got me through the year, that disrupted or seized or soothed me. As always, includes a few records from the previous year I came to late.

This year the instrumental music I’ve loved best has foregrounded somatic emotional experience, bodily sensation. I absolutely cannot get enough of PAN’s compilation Mono No Aware: it’s ambient music that foregrounds not concepts or memory-qualities but big feelings and strong transformations. Its songs can be as hot and close as tears, as intimate as a lover pressed up against you, or as creepy as feeling yourself grow hooves or wings. Some of the textures/moods near the middle are too extreme and abrasive for me to do anything else to but listen, but that’s its own kind of ambience.

Speaking of bodily pleasure, Four Tet‘s New Energy, especially “Scientists,” is a further step in a good direction for Kieran Hebden, away from the skittering nerves of his first few records, toward a beating heart and a sense of collective ecstasy: there are at least two or three other songs on this record that are on my permanent dance playlist. Jazz drummer Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings (tied for my favorite record of the year) is body-music too. It’s some of the most rich and joyful ensemble playing I’ve heard in a long time, each of its four sides–London, New York, Chicago, LA–edited from popup studios and live jams into a distinct mood. Side two, knotting itself into the breathless “Atlantic Black” (Tomeka Reid and Shabaka Hutchings twisting and feeding off each other) is the funkiest and my favorite, but each has an everything-here-now urgency, even when the soloists play harp or cello. I’ve loved to go back to again and again. A smaller-scale pleasure has the been the totally out-of-the-box improvised duet/duel from pianist Irene Schweizer and drummer Joey Baron on Live! This record is gymnastic, violent, childlike, playful, and exhilarating.

Speaking of timbre, I had to love it as a lullaby first but I’ve come around to Yo La Tengo’s sleepy subtle new record, There’s a Riot Going On: I couldn’t pay any direct attention to it on its first few plays but its presence has stayed with me, a blanket I can always crawl under even as the lyrics suggest uncertainty, dread, the brevity and fragility of consolation. And then songs started coming out of the sound: “Forever,” “Polynesia #1,” “Let’s Do It Wrong,” “For You Too.” I similarly took awhile to love the new Ought, Room inside the World. I was puzzled and put off by the polish and spaciousness of the production after loving by the loose wires and crumpled metal of Sun Coming Down, but that smooth coating covers some good medicine and Tim Darcy, writing gorgeous lyrics I like even better than his old taunting chants or aspirational cries, still sings like someone clowning on Jimmy Stewart. They’re growing into grandeur.

It’s so easy to tap through on Spotify, try the next of the million flavors, that I have to browse new music in a way that’s less attentive but more feel-sensitive if I want anything to sink in or spur a response for me: when I browse, it’s not for argument but for appetite. Popping out in a long shuffle, Maximum Joy‘s glorious new reissue (seven singles on four sides of vinyl) I Can’t Stand Here on Quiet Nights was delicious right away– spaceyness and heavy bottom of the dub bass, kiddish chanting of Janine Rainforth, spikes of guitar. There’s a sense of communitarianism, utopian hope, in the music’s borrowings and interpolations (reggae, shrieks, guitar jangle, dumb squawking sax) that makes me think of second-wave ska or African Head Charge, defiant of its desperately bleak, individualist political moment of England in the early 80s.

I loved Maximum Joy because its roominess and blending was aspirational: one of my other favorite records of the year, Mountain Man’s Magic ShipI loved for how it too felt like an invitation to a way to live. Three-part harmonies and a single guitar around a single mic, songs to the Moon and friends named Stella and naked bodies swimming. Speaking of moods, Kacey Musgraves’s “Slow Burn” projected a serenity that’s pure gift, when you can bless and thank all of life from eight miles above it. And (Sandy) Alex G’s “Bobby” twisted on the knifepoint of its desire: my favorite crush song in years. I spent a plane flight to Cleveland completely swept up in the grief and lean hard economy of Big Thief’s Capacity, music that takes its strength from the urgency with which it treats its material.

I finally loved a Nicki Minaj record all the way through this year! Praise the Queen! Maybe it’s because on this one the best stuff is the hard stuff and there’s more hard stuff (though there’s one ballad I love too, “Come See about Me”); maybe it’s because I’m finally getting the hang of dancehall reggae; maybe all her rivalries and beefs have sharpened her writing; but the cold-eyed pride of the record is a single mood and I’m in love. Also loved Rapsody‘s album, Laila’s Wisdom: the record has old-school virtues (gospel backing vocals, live guitar) and an old-fashioned sense of legacy (Laila’s her grandmother), and Rapsody shines out with all sort of emotional colors rare in modern hiphop: curiosity, loneliness, loving exasperation. Off of albums that didn’t catch me as a whole, I really loved Janelle Monae’s “Django Jane,” Future’s “Incredible” and GoldLink’s “Have You Seen That Girl?” I grudgingly also adored Drake’s “Nice for What” (New Orleans bounce) and “Passionfruit” (something more nocturnal and sad, love that pulsing drum): his played-up tenderness and silly tough-guy routines are annoying but as a synthesist of sounds, Drake is hugely capacious, sensitive, and ambitious: he listens widely and sounds completely natural in a huge international variety of sounds. Lastly, although Finn got obsessed with “Walk It Like You Talk It,” my own recent favorite Migos single was the just-pre-Culture one-off, “Cocoon.”

My beloved pop records this year were Christine and the Queens’ Chris and Ariana Grande’s Sweetener. Chris is cocky, lonely, charged by pride and scarred by old trauma, and I didn’t know what to expect from her show when Cait and I went to Showbox Sodo. Watching Christine/Heloise, I realized she’s an entertainer rather than a witch– holding a mirror back up the audience’s longing and desire (like, say, Michael Jackson) rather than performing a transformation on herself for the sake of the audience’s soul (like, say, Anhoni or Perfume Genius). But that’s cool, the world needs more entertainers as good as her! And Sweetener, damn! Now that Grande’s not trying to Disnefy/naughty-kitten herself anymore, something superhuman has emerged in her— that incredible virtuosic voice, her poise and reflectiveness in the face of awful tragedy and ordinary pain, her radiant confidence in great song after great song. Other bangers close to my heart this year were Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” and (speaking of superhuman maturity) Lorde’s “The Louvre.” And just to agree with everyone, Robyn’s “Honey” is a gorgeous sacramental song about sexuality, the way deep shared pleasure is a sinking into time.

A special shoutout to Bob Dylan’s Trouble No More: the Bootleg Series, Vol. 13 (1979-1981), the recent live collection of his gospel years. Dylan’s songwriting had always prized instinct, conviction, and heat over subtlety, irony, and intellect, so I guess it’s not surprising that, when he became a Christian, he chose Protestant austerity and fundamentalist hellfire. I’ve never loved the gospel albums all the way through, but this collection gathers the best from this whole period and shows off outstanding backing vocalists and an absolutely dynamite band. The liner notes from the mighty Amanda Petrusich are a welcome close-reading and contextualization too. Trouble ends with Dylan’s dissatisfied live tinkering (new lyrics, new arrangements) with some of his best late-gospel songs, “Caribbean Wind” and “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar,” tunes he’d later abandon, but the first three-quarters of the set is delivered with fearsome conviction and swing. I can’t get enough of it.

Randy Newman is a singer of inversions: at his worst, he’s sentimental or he curdles into the passive ironic pessimism of rich liberals, but at his best he makes songs out of undersides and shadows, out of feelings most of us are scared to even put words to (“I Want You to Hurt Like I Do,” “Rollin’,” “Same Girl,” “God’s Song,” “Lover’s Prayer”). Dark Matter is otherwise mediocre late-career “mature record”: over-reviewed like recent Nick Lowe or Marianne Faithfull, because few critics can resist writing about their fondness for an artist’s legacy rather than the actual art in front of them. But “Wandering Boy” is a tender song for a grief I hope I never experience: at a celebration of your long life, remembering the child you lost, not to death but to life. The other songs of impossibly delicate beauty this year: Frank Ocean’s “Moon River” (points to any singer who can outdo Jerry Butler’s version of anything), “I Wonder If I Take You Home” from Meshell Ndegeocello‘s covers album, and Sampha’s “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.”

My bolt of left-wing disbelief, rage, and hope this year was Superchunk’s What a Time to Be Alive. Unlike most long-lived groups, Superchunk’s overpraised “grownup” phase came mid-career, with four albums of stuffy overproduced 60s-ish classical pop. Then, somehow, miraculously, they aged out of it backward into the righteous Majesty Shredding, the death-haunted and youthfully heartbroken I Hate Music, and now this incredible bright-burning sparkler of a punk record. Speaking of lefty rock, I believe Merrill Garbus and I wish I loved all of Tune-Yards’ I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life, but it’s hard to make communitarian and body-moving art from the kind of chastened, newly-awoken, and frequently paralyzed white-anti-racist perspective of the record: “Colonizer” sounds like some true pain went into it, but I just can’t bear to listen to it, a guilt-plumbing that plays like reverse self-obsession. But a few songs did get me– “Honesty” is my favorite– and I still can’t wait for the next record. Other rage to dance to: !!!’s “Five Companies.”

Ending with my (see Universal Beings above) tied-for-first: Dear Nora’s Skulls Example. Katy Davidson began their career fully-fledged making subtle complicated funny indie that called back to Henry’s Dress, Tiger Trap, and Sleater-Kinney. Over a decade, their band has grown into something more spartan and more preoccupied with Davidson’s obsessions: our eerily-fake social reality, weird cacti, climate change, and the impassive barren gorgeousness of nature. What else do you need?

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Readings

“Takes,” poems, Tweet threads, reviews, and editorials I’ve read over the last six months that have stuck with me, and why. Punctuated with pictures so no one’s eyes have to cross with exhaustion.

Mary Margaret Alvarado, “On Memory with No Devices.” This is an essay you will never want to end.

Dan Arnold and Alicia Turner, “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?” While I take issue with the piece’s implicit “we,” the authors make an important point about secular-dominant progressive American political consciousness. Most of us know Buddhism primarily through the ecumenical, culturally-mixed forms of Buddhism introduced in the last 50 years in colonizer states, which emphasize individual meditation and mindfulness and largely forego the religion’s incredibly varied forms of belief and ritual life throughout Central and East Asia. Because of our American context, it can be difficult for secular progressives to fathom how Buddhism— in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and now certainly in Myanmar— is used to justify horrible mass ethnic-national violence. The causes of this bloodshed are never simply religious, but in each case involved ethnic and state power; and in each case, the violence had passionate Buddhist critics. But Arnold and Turner are at pains to remind readers that any religion can be an instrument of nationalist violence.

Emily Bazelon, “When the Supreme Court Lurches Right.” Though this survey understates its own major point (that the Supreme Court has spent most of its history as a fundamentally reactionary and anti-egalitarian body), it remains a good overview of the shifting history of the court in American public life.

Peter Beinart, “American Jews Have Abandoned Gaza–and the Truth.” Beinart deeply identifies as a Zionist— he rejects the idea that the formation and expansion of Israel is intrinsically a settler-colonialist project, and strongly opposes the B.D.S. movement— but he’s been a consistent progressive critic of settlement expansion and of the corrupt, reactionary presidency of Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s also filled with moral horror at the consequences of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and the spiritual costs to Israel of the human suffering that the state has brought on Palestinians. (His association with Israeli peace groups and his authorship of pieces such as this one are likely behind his recent detention at Ben Gurion Airport.)

Patrick Blanchfield, “The McCain Phenomenon.” This is the best piece I’ve read— free of sentimental glow but also of contrarian reflex— on the meaning of McCain in American public life: it’s a progressive’s examination of McCain as a symbol of America’s reverence for individualism, military honor, and matured rogueishness.

Zach Carter and Paul Blumenthal, “Former Obama Officials Are Riding Out the Trump Years by Cashing In.” Lockheed Martin, Uber, Covington and Burling, Booz Allen Hamilton, Morgan Stanley, Amazon: as soon as their government tenures ended, many of the most powerful figures from Obama’s administration stepped through the revolving door into comfortable positions selling weapons, subprime loans, union-busting regulations, and more.

Jeff Chang on De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. A joyful essay, an in-depth history of a unique cultural text: a work of incredible lyrical skill and bonkers musical invention, one that you still can’t get on Spotify.

Thomas B. Edsall, “The Democrats’ Gentrification Problem.” Educated middle-class white people and urban black communities exist across a widening fault line of money-mobility, neighborhood history, and a wealth gap deepened by racist housing policies. While this article says little about the role of organized multiracial communities in pressuring lawmakers from the bottom up to create housing equity, it’s still a top-down view of a deep tension between two important Democratic constituencies and the continuing power of white racial kinship networks in maintaining a black economic underclass.

Eve Fairbanks, “Well-Off Millennials Are All Julia Salazar. I Wish We Weren’t.” This piece diagnoses a real social problem— affluent folks feeling they have to exaggerate, or invent, a hard-luck biography to be seen as authentic, especially in high-stakes elite institutions— but avoids looking right at the sources of, or responses to, this phenomenon. My response is: yes. But privileged folks also just need to stop lying about our privilege. First, because it trivializes the reality of suffering we pretend to have experienced. Second, because it’s built on the cancerous belief that a safe, materially-comfortable upbringing makes us inauthentic. But how can we believe this, if we hope to create a world that (while growing beyond capitalist definitions of safety and comfort) actually is safe and comfortable, rich in possibility and relationship for all people? A sense of possibility and comfort isn’t the toxic aspect of privilege: emotional numbing is. The cost of buying in to privilege is choosing to ignore the dehumanization of those on which our comfort depends. (I also think that this habit of exaggeration leaves us less likely to honor the actual pain, our own or others’, that comes with any life. This is its own form of dehumanization.) Fairbanks does describe the transmutation of pain– into visible, nameable forms— she witnessed among her privileged cohort. But I wish she’d gone way, way further– and perhaps even ventured into encountering lives characterized by the suffering our material comfort is built upon. Or questioning the social value of high-stakes elite institutions altogether.

Max Fisher, “Israel Picks Identity over Democracy. Other Nations May Follow.” We’re in a global moment of parliamentary democracies shifting toward autocracy and ethnically-defined nationalism. The question for radicals is: what does the call to solidarity look like as states contract toward reactionary politics? How can we ourselves live out an alternative to the deep comfort of seeking company only in others like us? What is genuinely collective about collective liberation, and how can we articulate the value of the collective when compared to the shortfalls and exclusions of parliamentary democracy?

Paul Gilroy interviewed by George Yancy, “What ‘Black Lives’ Means in Britain.” Gilroy speaks about the power of corporate multiculturalism in Britain and the US; argues that inequality is a relationship, not the possession suggested by the term “privilege”; and describes the difficulties in black-solidarity organizing in a country defined (as Britain is) by economic-imperialist ventures and migration pressures different from the US importation of chattel slaves.

Jack Goldsmith, “Uncomfortable Questions in the Wake of Russia Indictment 2.0 and Trump’s Press Conference with Putin.” Bush II’s former Assisant Attorney General (who left in the wake of the Iraq War and the revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib) asks: What rules of international espionage did Russia break, that the US is willing to pledge to respect? What blowback or unwelcome reciprocity is the DOJ inviting by issuing subpoenas to foreign nationals? What vulnerabilities remain in our e-mail and voting systems? And: what unthinkable disasters are journalists inviting on themselves by encouraging the prosecution of Wikileaks?

Briahna Joy Gray, “How Identity Became a Weapon against the Left.” Gray has argued, here and in The Intercept, that as center-left institutions become fluent in the language of intersectional politics, they employ the signaling characteristics of that language to attack the left as racist and sexist for its emphasis on class. Doing so requires erasing the women and queer folks of color active in movements for (e.g.) single-payer healthcare, fighting Wall Street corruption, strengthening the green economy, or raising the minimum wage, but the center-left has a fabulous track record of doing so already.

N.K. Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her third consecutive Hugo Award win for the Broken Earth trilogy. It’s “a massive, shining, rocket-shaped middle finger” and a reflection on creative and spiritual survival against a steady deluge of racist shit.

Tim Maudlin, “The Defeat of Reason.” Phew, there’s a lot here. This article reviews two huge, argumentative, intellectually ambitious books: Adam Becker’s What Is Real?: the Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, on the puzzles, obfuscations, and final hope for clarity in quantum mechanics, and Errol Morris’s The Ashtray (or the Man Who Denied Reality), an attack by a former student on the philosophical and cultural legacy of anti-foundationalist intellectual Thomas Kuhn. In the first part of Maudlin’s review, he explores Becker’s historical work and conclusion that the conclusions popularly attributed to a quantum mechanical view of reality— fundamental smeariness, observer-dependence, and inconsistency— are bogus, the result of Niels Bohr’s Kantian dogmatism in defense of his version of QM and the physics community’s shut-up-and-calculate attitude. But Becker suggests that, though quantum mechanics may in fact be more deterministic than Bohr believed, it’s still spooky: electrons must be able to change from waves to particles in an instant, even if the waveform showing the electron’s possible location is immense: a faster-than-light change effected at a distance. Meanwhile, Morris, who despises his onetime teacher Kuhn as a relativist who discounted the importance of reason and evidence, charges at the legacy of Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn introduced the notion of paradigms (the rules, practices, and examples that bound a theory of reality) and their importance in shaping scientific thought. A paradigm never wins out “by logic and experiment alone” but by power, persuasion, and culture. Further, no two paradigms are commensurable: the inhabitants of two different theoretical frameworks live in two different realities. Therefore, no neutral adjudication is possible– only conflict, and later history written by the winners. In a time where politics and philosophy were questioning the legitimacy of received authority, this idea was a sensation. Morris, now an investigative documentary filmmaker, hates it: “It is one thing to remark how hard truth can be to establish,” Maudlin writes, “and quite another to deny that there is any truth at all.” Morris’s book explores the nature of the reference of terms (the theory of how any noun picks out or denotes something in the real world) and ultimately argues that a belief in shared, neutral, objective truth is a moral issue. “If… we all live in worlds of our own manufacture, worlds bent to conform to our beliefs rather than our beliefs being adjusted to conform to the world, then what becomes of truth?” What are the consequences of believing that we impose, rather than discover, structure in reality? Maudlin’s essay falls short of exploring the appeal of Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Idealism at the root of both Bohr and Kuhn’s philosophies. I want to hear his argument for why we’re tempted to believe that we merely impose, rather than actually experience, things such as time or cause-and-effect, etc.

Philip Metres, “Imagining Iraq: on the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Iraq War.” How can Americans hope to understand Iraq as more than a backdrop of our imperial history? Metres, author of the intricate and morally damning poetry collection Sand Opera, explores possible paths out of imperial memory.

Ann Pettifor, “Irish House Prices Sky-High Due to Finance Not Scarcity.” Dublin’s housing crisis is even worse than Seattle’s. And, as in Seattle, this is generally justified in microeconomic terms: massive demand on a limited supply. But in reality, the main driver is macroeconomic: housing is such a good investment that there’s a worldwide rush from the wealthy to buy in. If you buy a house, you don’t need to live in it to make money off it, especially if its value grows 6-10% a year. If you invest in a townhouse block and all six units are bought at 10-20% over list price in two months, you’ve just made a handsome return. Until we start taxing investment in things like condo development (or in buying a home you don’t intend to occupy or rent out), house prices will keep exploding.

Hilary Plum, a poem I love called “Lions” and an essay on war, Orientalism, historical memory, and the moral position of citizens in empire “Narrating Forgetting.”

Sebastian Purcell, “Life on the Slippery Earth.” An introduction to what’s survived in the historical record of Aztec moral philosophy, especially its emphasis on group– rather than individual– virtue.

EDIT to add this single tweet from Dana Regev, which– out of the whole spectacle of vicious male backlash and horrible retraumatization for women and femme folks in Kavanaugh’s nomination, Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony, Kavanaugh’s ugly response, and his subsequent appointment to the Supreme Court– felt like the thing that I as a man/cismen most needed to sit with, journal about, talk with other men/cismen about, let haunt me.

Nate Silver, “There Really Was a Liberal Media Bubble.” It’s incredible the extent to which many professional journalists and think tank intellectuals are able to make a living having opinions while talking to almost no one but one another. Silver is, of course, not exempt from this himself, but it’s to his credit that he includes his own organization, FiveThirtyEight, in the scrutiny of this article.

Tim Urban, “The Fermi Paradox.” Why don’t we see evidence of the presence of other intelligent species in the Milky Way? This article, chirpy listicle style and all, is a good look at a scientifically and philsophically significant question, a different perspective on literally every sort of human problem I can imagine.

Blanca Varela, “Material Exercises” (tr. Jeannine Pitas). A great, strange poem, beautifully translated.

Bonus feature, “now without clip art!,” on the institutional Catholic Church: The Church as an institution is in a state of huge crisis; here are some readings about it.

A grand jury report of widespread, decades-long sexual abuse by priests, and coverups by leadership, in Pennsylvania coincided with the revelation that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had preyed for decades on seminarians and altarboys.

A bomb-toss of a letter from pissed-off former Papal Nuncio (ambassador) Carlo Maria Vigano alleged in August that Pope Francis was aware that Cardinal McCarrick was a serial predator, and that Francis had nonetheless lifted the sanctions imposed on McCarrick (a lifetime of prayer and penance and withdrawal from public life) by the previous pope, the traditionalist Benedict XVI. Vigano claimed that Francis was willing to tolerate McCarrick’s behavior as he sought McCarrick’s help as an ally in fundraising and the appointment of more-progressive archbishops.

So: what to make of it? Well, Vigano’s letter is full of awful homophobic sinister-gay-mafia bile equating gay relationships, same-gender sexual abuse, and pedophilia. In its direct attack on Francis himself the letter is clearly intended as a means for right-wing European and American Catholics to concentrate their rage at Francis’s attempted reorientation of the church (toward suspect things like mercy, political egalitarianism, inclusivity, environmental stewardship, and concern for migrants and the poor) and build power for their own political projects. Finally, Vigano’s letter has since been revealed to be wrong in its particulars: it now seems that Benedict had never formally sanctioned McCarrick, but as of 2010ish informally asked him to keep a low profile. Nonetheless, there’s strong circumstantial evidence that Francis, like popes before him, was willing to trust his advisers in overlooking credible evidence of abuse to rehabilitate a potential political ally.

Here’s a Tweet thread from a Catholic with whom I imagine I’d agree on very little except for the moral parallel between two clubby, secretive institutional cultures that would tolerate those credibly accused of abuse: the Catholic hierarchy’s welcome for McCarrick and the Yale-Federalist-DC world’s support of Brett Kavanaugh.

And, you ask, where are the voices of actual gay clergy, in the midst of a shitstorm of fingerpointing, secrecy, and homophobia? Here’s one voice, from Fr. James Alison.

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New Poetry in COAST | No COAST

Hi friends, the excellent upstart cross-country journal COAST | No COAST has published another section from a long poem of mine, Like Honey, along with great poems by Sierra Nelson, E.J. Koh, and Roberto Ascalon, as well as some truly amazing and unclassifiable work from Mary Margaret Alvarado. Check it out here; you can get a physical copy at Open Books too.

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New Poetry in The Spectacle

Hi friends, I just had an excerpt of my long poem, Like Honey, published in the fabulous journal The Spectacle. Dig it here.

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