Clare complains that every time I do one of these lists, I inevitably lighten his wallet. Oh well...
No top 10 lists this year. I'm afraid I couldn't list 10 TV shows that I loved, or 10 books that I loved and so on and so forth. Instead, this is stuff I consumed this year and stayed with me until the end of the year. Some of it is a bit of a cheat, as it may have come out in previous years (this is especially true with graphic novels, which often reprint older material), but I tried to be as honest as I could with it.
So here we go, some of my favourites from 2011.
Sadly, my offline reading habits have taken quite a beating in recent years. My glorious plans to read Steve Jobs biography, "The Hunger Games" and Neal Stephenson's new book "Reamde" ended with me getting about 50 pages into "Reamde". It's sitting on the table waiting for me to dive back into it.
But here are some books that I did manage to get though and like.
1. Life Itself, Roger Ebert - Not exactly a secret that I'm a huge admirer of Roger Ebert, so his autobiography was going to be something I snapped up. Despite a bit of a sluggish start, and the suspicion that Ebert is keeping some the truly awesome stories to himself as to not humiliate people still alive, it's a fascinating read. It made me wish I not only had a fraction of the man's writing ability, but also his memory, because the details when recalling events decades ago is astonishing.
2. Fables From the Fountain, Various - One of my favourite authors growing up was Arthur C. Clarke and my favourite book was Tales from the White Hart, a collection of tall tales of science. It was marvelous to think of scientist and writers sitting around an English pub trading stories and tall tales. About 50 years later comes this tribute to that book, with a different collection of writers and scientists telling stories of mysterious government facilities and the dangers of sex with dinosaurs. Funny, interesting and occasionally scary stuff.
3. The Wave, Susan Casey - Probably a cheat as I suspect it came out in 2010, but I read the ebook version this year. Alternately a story about surfers chasing the most insane waves in the world, and the greater occurance of rogue waves and the damage they cause, it's a fascinating read about the changes in the world, plus some pretty crazy people.
1. Fantastic Four Omnibus: John Byrne, Vol. 1 - I'm not even going to pretend this is for anyone other than me. For one thing, the bloody book is $140 (considerably cheaper on Chapters or Amazon, but still) and it's reprinting stories from 30 years ago. But for pure nostalgia value, it's hard to beat for me. The Fantastic Four was the first super hero comic I collected, and John Byrne's run is a classic. Even at the tender age of 12 I knew I was reading something different than the other comics I bought every month. Thirty years later it still holds up. Crisp, beautiful art and you can see Byrne's determination to drag greater complexity and maturity out of characters that had been stagnant for too long. Lovely stuff.
2. Stumptown, Rucka/Southworth - I'm a sucker for a good PI story and Rucka does them better than nearly anyone else in comics. Following the story of Dex Parios (Dex is short for Dexedrine, which should give you some idea of the character's upbringing) who is a great PI and a generally good person. Except for her crap luck in gambling, lousy taste in men (married) and her knack for getting beaten up a lot. It's a find a missing girl story with lots of meat, set in Portland. It drips atmosphere, menace and fun. It's also damn smart. Oh, and good on Oni Press for putting it together in a beautiful and reasonably priced ($30 US) hardcover.
3. Amelia Rules: The Meaning of Life and Other Stuff, Jimmy Gownley - I love Amelia Rules and have for years. I know it's supposed to be a "tween" book or some such thing. Except it's smarter than just about any other comic I read in the last year. Gownley can get messages across without being preachy and has a better ear for how kids "sound" than anybody else I've read lately. Oh yeah, and he's a phenomenally gifted cartoonist. Don't let the subject matter of a young girl growing up in rural Pennsylvania throw you...it really is one of the best books out there. I'm already counting down to the next book, coming out in August.
4. The Complete Battlefields, Vol. 2, Garth Ennis and artists - War comics are a fleeting breed and nobody writes them better than Ennis. Featuring three stories - Motherland, Happy Valley and The Firefly and His Majesty - Ennis brings out the personalities of the people going through World War 2. Oh yes, there's plenty of action, but really it's the characters who shine.
5. The Complete Milk and Cheese: Dairy Products Gone Bad, Evan Dorkin - Again, not really sure I can recommend this to everyone, but it always makes me laugh when I read it. It is, honest to God, the adventures of a carton of milk and a wedge of cheese ("a carton of hate and a wedge of spite") who go on violent rampages against whatever is annoying writer/artists Evan Dorkin that particularly day. Violently over the top and more than a little demented, it's still quite funny. And I'm willing to bet Milk and Cheese dish out some much needed punishment to some group you probably hate. Also, kudos to Dark Horse comics for putting together a beautiful looking hardcover book at a reasonable ($22 Can) price.
1. Castle - Yes, Nathan Fillon should be filming the sixth season of Firefly now, but sadly he's not. And if he can't be doing that, then there are worse things to be doing that Castle. It entertains week in and week out, despite a silly premise (detective writer trails detective, they solve murders), and sexual chemistry going on too long (four seasons and counting). Because it is fun, the mysteries aren't bad and there's enough chemistry between the leads that you'll forgive the protracted courtship.
2. Fringe - Still the best sci-fi show on TV by a mile. It's not just that the individual stories of the week normally featuring some kind of science going horribly wrong are great, because they are. It's not just that the overall multiple earths story arc is holding together remarkable well, because it is. And it's not just because John Noble and Anna Torv put off acting clinics last year. It's because no show has as much heart, or the ability to break your heart with ease, on air right now.
3. Storage Wars - Everybody needs a bad habit tv program. One that you can't believe you actually sit down and watch this shit. Storage Wars is it for me. It really does say something about America. I'm not sure if it says anything particularly good about America, but it says something. Besides, you would be hard pressed to make up better characters than the ones in the show.
4. The Amazing Race - Because I've loved it for a long time, because I love watching Americans try and deal with the world out there and because nothing made me laugh harder last year than watching a former professional football player lose his shit cheering on a rabbit though a steeple chase course.
5. Sherlock - I'm not sure you can count three episodes totally about 4.5 hours as much of a TV show, but in terms of quality over quantity, then Sherlock wins hands down. Benedict Cumberbatch is the best Sherlock Holmes in many years (certainly better than Robert Downey's) and normally setting Sherlock in a modern setting is a recipe for disaster. But with some hellaciously smart writing and a fantastic and smart sense of humour, the show works. Season 2 is airing on the BBC right now, but not in Canada until May. I'm resisting the urge to download episodes now. I'm holding out so far. Barely.
6. Honourable mentions - Chuck (the last half of season 4 was fantastic, the first half of season 5 was wretched), Person of Interest (when it's good, it's fantastic, when it's not, it's unwatchable), Republic of Doyle (1/3 of the season was great, 1/3 average, 1/3 awful. Figure out some consistency please. Oh, and write the women in the show better).
1. Live at the Royal Albert Hall, Adele - Look, I know some of you are getting tired of Adele, as massively overplayed as she is. But you have to accept the reality that she has the best voice in music right now, that "Rolling in the Deep" may well be on the only song from 2011 still being played on radio (or whatever) in 2031 because it is that damn good. Plus, she's hilarious. This live concert DVD/CD is a gem.
2. El Camino, The Black Key - Considering it feels very much like rock and roll is dying, or at least on commercial radio (good-bye OZ-FM, rock of the rock, hello Top 40), it's nice to see that The Black Key are going to go down with a fight. Plus, they publicly talk about how much Nickelback sucks. Give them your money.
3. Ceremonials, Florence and the Machine - Adele has the best voice in music, but Florence Welch is right up there. But where Adele feels intimate and confessional, Florence feels...cinematic. It feels bigger. Plus, she's a bit more daring in trying different things than Adele. Regardless, a fantastic album.
4. Seeds, Hey Rosetta! - I understand instrumental rock is not everyone's cup of tea. Hell, I can't get into Broken Social Scene at all and Hey Rosetta! gets compared to them from time to time. But whereas I feel BSS feels entirely too much like wankery (look at what awesome musicians we are!) Hey Rosetta! always feels fun. There's an energy there that puts a smile on my face.
5. Lights of Endangered Species, Matthew Good - If you want meticulously crafted rock music by a man who always sounds like he's on the verge of doing some serious harm to himself or someone else, it's hard to beat Matthew Good. It's not his best album, but it's still better than just about anything else that came out of Canada this year.
6. Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, S/T - As long as Noel Gallagher keeps putting out records like this I could honestly give a shit if Oasis puts out another record. "The Death of You and Me" was a better single than anything Oasis has put out in more than 10 years. Considering Liam Gallagher's album with the band Beady Eye left me indifferent, it's no problem to figure out where the talent in the band lay.
7. How to Become Clairvoyant, Robbie Robertson - His last couple of albums, lo those many years ago, made me wonder if he wasn't just done. When I heard he had a new one coming out, I remained pretty skeptical. Until I heard "When the night was young". Then I relaxed. It's not as good as Storyville, but it's in the ballpark. And considering Storyville is one of my all time favourite albums, then that makes this one pretty damn good.
8. Ashes and Fire, Ryan Adams - There's little doubt Adams is a musical genius. His problems included knowing he was a musical genius, being an asshole and not realizing that the world didn't need to hear everything he ever produced. But Ashes and Fire is his first record in years, he's mellowed out considerably and the result is just a finely crafted record that calls back to Gold and Heartbreaker, when he took some time with his craft. As long as he keeps putting out records like this, he can take as much time as he wants.
9. Man of the Year, Sean Panting - I'm always going to like Sean's music unless he screws up totally. Not even close to a screw up, just more excellent pop/rock from one of the best, and most underrated, lyricists in Newfoundland.
10. Bad as me, Tom Waits - Not everything that Waits produces is entirely listenable, but this is just good stomping fun. Cathy hates his voice, but I love it. Unlike other singers whose voices are autotuned into generic trash, Waits is a finely abused instrument of destruction. There's character there. The fact he's also a brilliant lyricist and can craft a song that can make you laugh and break your heart all in 30 seconds, well, those are rare treasures.
I'm holding off for a few weeks. Because of the way Astro Theatres works, there's a ton of movies right now I want to see that haven't made it here yet. So until they stagger into the local theatre over the next month or two, I'll reserve judgement on the movies.
1. God only knows - The Beach Boys*
2. Crazy love - Paul Simon
3. National steel - Kathleen Edwards
4. Cry on demand - Ryan Adams
5. You know you're right - Nirvana