Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best albums of 2015

This year I’ve got a clear top eight and at least another ten that make up a second tier of honourable mentions.

Both tiers are stacked with female-fronted bands or singer-songwriters. And while the #1 spot was claimed by a dude’s one-time bedroom project, 2015 deserves to be remembered as a year the ladies killed it. Frances Quinlan’s Hop Along produced the year’s best rawk album. Alicia Bognanno’s Bully revived grunge as a viable aesthetic. And Courtney Barnett... Hold on, I'm getting ahead of myself. 

#8 Father John Misty – I love you, Honeybear

Josh Tillman’s Father John Misty persona is the male version of Lana Del Rey. FJM is even more overt about the facade (there’s even a song called ‘The night Josh Tillman came to our apt.’), but through this mask he’s unlocked something his eponymous work lacked. Just like Lana Del Rey, the crooning can get a bit much, though he hasn’t overdosed yet (in contract, I couldn’t make it though LDR’s 2015 album Honeymoon; while I’d rated Ultraviolence as one of my favourites last year).

I love you, honeybear has enough up-tempo numbers, like ‘Ideal Husband’, to keep things varied — and funnily enough it’s these faster tracks that let Tillman growl and prowl the stage like FJM does best. May his path continue to diverge from his Lana, I say!

#7 Will Butler – Policy

When I’m not listening to it, I begin to suspect this is just a minor album by the third most talented member of Arcade Fire, and that I’m only fond of it because of its title (for most of my working life I’ve had the word “policy” in my job title).

But then I listen to it again (I always seem to find my wake back to it) and ‘Take My Side’ starts up, dirty and jangly, a brisk Dylan-with-a-briefcase ditty, and I couldn’t give a toss where this album fits in any other list or hagiodiscography. I love it. It should be higher! (I'm listening to it now.)

#6 Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit

I saw CB and her band at Bodega in November and it was a good gig. The best of the year to that point (a title she’d hold for about three weeks). Best of all it opened up new dimensions on her album, which had been feted since before it even dropped and I’d listened to four or five times.

Till the live show, it felt like the words overshadowed the music (and, deep down, I suspected the buzz was more to do with the paucity of straight-shooting, story-telling, guitar-driven songwriters than the fact Ms Barnett was fit to stand alongside Lou Reed or Warren Zevon...) but in concert she was more like this generation’s Jack White – a guitarist-cum-historian. While White (who, it’s easy to forget, was once tolerable) called back to Led Zep, Barnett is more interested in aping Nirvana and Mudhoney. She played at ear-bleed volume, with songs drawn-out with solos and feedback. It was terribly enjoyable.

And it’s there on the album, too, if you know what to listen for.

#5 Bully – Feels like

Bully’s songs aren’t as articulate as Courtney Barnett’s. The opener, ‘I remember’, begins, “I remember / I remember my bad habits /  I remember getting too fucked up / I remember throwing up in your car.” It’s over in 1:47, and is pure 90’s grunge (even if it inverts the classic soft-loud-soft progression).

In many ways, Feels Like, sounds like a Hole record – somewhere between the too-raw to be pleasant Pretty on the inside and the too-smooth to be genuine Celebrity Skin (but rockier than Live Through This). So, pretty much as if Hole ever made an album you’d still care to hear today.

The standout tracks. still feels grungy, but also very 2015.  From my favourite, ‘Trying’:

Been praying for my period all week
And relief that I just can't see
I question everything
My focus, my figure, my sexuality

#4 Hop Along – Painted shut

‘The Knock’ is probably my favourite song of 2015. But I’ve learnt it’s not the best song for a party playlist, or a family barbeque. Quinlan’s voice is too abrasive, the pitch too unconventional, for casual listeners. This is angry-but-thoughtful music to be consumed with headphones.

So begins Painted Shut, and so it continues. Song after song of sonic-challenge. The lead guitarist who can’t help weaving notes in and out and around the groove. The over-reached “Juuuuuust” in ‘Waitress’; “People of the wooorrrlld” in ‘Happy to see me’.  But herein lies the charm. It’s the sort of album where, if you hear a track over the sound system at a cafe or a restaurant, you get this stupid grin, while those who can blank it out, and those who can’t furrow their brows.

#3 Torres – Sprinter

I first heard ‘Sprinter’, the song off the album of the same name, on a Spotify ‘Discover Weekly’ playlist. Actually, ‘Discover Weekly’ turned me onto Hop Along, Bully and artist #2 too, so that algorithm is doing something right. For some reason, though, I associate Torres with chance discovery more than the others. Perhaps because she was the first of this quartet? Perhaps, by spinning Sprinter so much in May and June, it skewed the algorithm in favour of these other female-fronted outfits?

MacKenzie Scott is 24, but sounds ageless. For her sophomore album, she’s surrounded herself with smart cookies and strong musicians, and gone for a gutsier sound, but it’s still very much a personal, confessional work.

Absorbing and addictive.

#2 Du Blonde – Welcome back to milk

Du Blonde is another Father John Misty / Lana Del Rey mask. After releasing her debut under her own name, Beth Jeans Houghton had a breakdown, scrapped an album and reinvented herself as a brasher, Stones-ier self and very nearly won 2015. She certainly won best refrain of the year with the chorus of ‘Young Entertainment’: “What is like, what is it like, what is it like to fuck your mistress with her hands tied?”

One of the album’s strengths is its cussing. Every swear is well deployed – it’s power doubled by the contrast to the nu-folk fantasy of Houghton’s first album. It does mean Welcome Back to Milk isn’t family friendly – but the album cover tells you that! – but, unlike Hop Along, this is music for company. From the chugging opener, ‘Black Flag’, to the more languorous but no-less muscular ‘Hunter’ and the full-on ballad ‘Four in the morning’, this is an album full of great songs, great contrasts, great bile and great bravado. Brave Beth!

#1 Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love

Some people find God. Ruban Neilson found Prince. For Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s third album, Neilson’s project actually approaches orchestral levels — one highlight of the live show is when his dad chips in with the brass instruments — without losing the lo-fi, glitchy feel of previous outings.

Lyrically, the album can be obtuse in its details, but is centred on a simple enough narrative (set running on ‘Multi-love’). It feels fresh and brave and unlikely.

The title track and ‘Can’t keep checking my phone’ are two of the best singles of the year, ‘The World is Crowded’ is probably the best slow-jam, and the whole thing is perfect plug and play music for a range of settings.

I saw UMO perform at Bodega in mid-December and it was easily the best concert I’ve been to since I was in the States in 2013. If there was any doubt about which album would top my list, those ninety minutes sealed the deal.

Honourable mentions

·         American Wrestlers – American Wrestlers
·         Speedy Ortiz – Foil deer
·         Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife
·         Tame Impala – Currents
·         Laura Marling – Short movie
·         Viet Cong - Viet Cong
·         Silicon – Personal computer
·         Waxahatchee – Ivy tripp
·         Holy Holy – When the storms would come
·         Art of Sleeping – Win your heart

And, for a more fulsome steer on what I was listening to in the second half of 2015 (when I disappeared from the face of the earth / this blog), here are links to my monthly playlists:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Comme ci comme ça: Updates

So we had a son in late April. We named him Caio -  a nod to those of his roots that are Italian (and a dozen other subsidiary factors that seem trivial when explained). Then we discovered some phones autocorrect this to "Ciao". Even when autocorrect doesn't intervene, some still misread it as "Ciao". Oh well.

We fuck them up, the mums and dads.
          We may not mean to, but we do.


So the essay I wrote after reading about e-sports and video game spectatorship (see my last post) that went up on the Horoeka site last week.


So I'm not sleeping much. When I'm able to get up at 5am, I'm doing work-work. As in "Craig Cliff, Senior Policy Manager, Education Infrastructure Service" work. Not "writing a short novel about a location scout in Italy retracing the life of St Joseph of Copertino" work. Yet.


So my story about a Kiwi at an ANZAC day barbeque in Perth, 'Recessional', was published in the Griffith REVIEW in April.


So I went to the inaugural conference for the Historical Novel Society of Australasia in Sydney in March. It was equal parts interesting (so many panels about hist-fic - couldn't help but read new ground) and excruciating (being the 'host writer' at a table for the conference dinner was not a good idea).


So I bought a little city (it was Galveston, Texas).


So I went to a conference in Canberra about designing school facilities in May. At a dinner at the National Arboretum I met a young architect called Caio.


So here's three playlists:

March 2015
April 2015
May 2015


So I saw Ned Kelly's death mask at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.


So my story 'Copies', written way back in the Summer of 2006/07, was translated into Spanish and published online in March ('Copias').


So these days I have a two and a half year old and a baby whose age is counted in weeks. My daughter's a sponge. The other day she saw leaves over the ground and said, 'It's a deciduous day, today.'

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Spectacles: A tourist in e-gaming

So I'm reading a lot about video games at the moment.

I read SUPER MARIO BROS. 2 by Jon Irwin, and learnt about speedruns (and lost hours watching people churn through old console games, exploiting every glitch and mastering every jump, on YouTube).

I read A MIND FOREVER VOYAGING: A HISTORY OF STORYTELLING IN VIDEO GAMES by Dylan Holmes and got all sentimental about Return to Monkey Island and Metal Gear Solid, then wham, suddenly I didn't know these games anymore, but it was still interesting. Most interesting (perhaps) were the experimental game designers, like Dan Pinchbeck's mod of a first-person shooter that removed all the shooting.

I read CLIPPING THROUGH: ONE MAD WEEK IN VIDEO GAMES by Leigh Alexander and again was most taken by the mention of Rachel Weil, founder of the Femicon Museum, who makes "nostalgic NES games from an imagined alternate history, one where Girly Stuff was also part of the narrative" (p31).

I read a bunch of academic papers on the rise of e-sports (video games as a spectator sport / pro sport), and each lead me to watching more YouTube clips: of League of Legends clashes, Tekken tournaments, Starcraft carnage.

I read a ton on articles and watch some mainstream TV clips about e-sports. Most present it as a confounding phenomenon (can you believe these kids are willing to sit and watch other people play video games?). Some are so bad they seem bent on provoking generational rebellion. The best so far has probably been this longer article by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker.

And I read WOLF IN WHITE VAN by John Darnielle, because I thought it was about video games (turns out the protagonist actually runs a text adventure via snail mail - how quaint). But it actually has some interesting things to say about gaming and narrative and escapism and delusion and depression and, and, and.

It's a stunning novel. It'd probably top my Best Books of 2014 list if I'd read it a few months earlier. It feels both focussed and sparse.

It's plot is driven by three lacunae that are slowly painted in:
1) What happened to Sean's face?
2) What's the legal trouble he's in/been in?
3) What's the text game 'Trace Italian' all about & how does it work?

To this, I guess you could add a broader question ("Who is Sean?) and a more specific one ("What does 'Wolf in White Van' refer to?).

The novel slowly works through these questions. At times the suspense and the narrator's circumlocution feel mechanical (standard literary fiction grasping for page-turner attributes), but every time I receive more information (or outright answers when it came to the title being explained) I'm satisfied.

Like I said, 'Trace Italian' is played via the post, but could easily be one of those earlier text adventure games. Which makes Sean the equivalent of a 248-bit processor. I suspect this comparison isn't lost on Darnielle. Yes, Sean created this game in his late teens (in the wake of his 'accident'), but now he's stuck performing mechanical tasks to enable others to play the game. His legal trouble stems from a player taking the game too seriously -- or: taking it too imaginatively, perhaps. This is a novel about the ways in which we can become trapped. Most of these traps are of our own making, and most of these are entirely in our heads.

Monday, February 2, 2015

(Belated) Best Reading of 2014

I've struggled with this post for over a month now (obviously). In 2014 I read about half as many books as I would in a normal year and compiling a top ten seemed too generous. But then, why not be generous? What does it matter if I make it sound like I enjoyed number eight on my list more than I really did? Well, what if you took my advice and read the book and were similarly un-wowed... Because there are 'wow' books out there.

So here's my list of the five wow books I read in 2014, and here's to more quantity and more quality in 2015!

#1 THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness (novel, audiobook)
The Knife of Never Letting Go
What I said about it in October
"KNIFE is packed with more ideas than almost any novel I've read this year. It has better characterisation, is funnier and braver and is the sort of book I'd give a Milton Bradley 'Ages 12 and up' label to (coz everyone should read it) rather than 'YA'."

#2 WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead (novel, audiobook)

When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery)What I said about it in February:
"My wife and I listened to this on two separate car trips up to the Kapiti Coast over the summer. Haven’t done much in-car listening before., but found it an enjoyable experience. Probably helps that this YA novel about time travel is simply told…"

What I'll add now: "That YA dig was a bit iniquitous. With time away from the book I can say that it held together well, which is rare for time travel stories."

Blood Meridian: Or, the Evening Redness in the West (Picador Books)#3 BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy (novel, audiobook)

What I said about it in May:
"Vivid, violent, unhinged, mythic, vile, meandering, arch... Blood Meridian is an Elmore Leonard western written by the bastard love child of William S Burroughs and Henry Miller.

Now I get why people rave about CMcC and Blood Meridian in particular."

#4 I'M WORKING ON A BUILDING by Pip Adam (novel/short stories, NZ)

I'm Working on a BuildingWhat I said about it in July
"The boldness... is most evident structurally, with chapters ordered in reverse chronology. The main (human) character, Catherine, isn’t present in every chapter, and when she is, we’re never that close to her. We slowly unpick her past, from earthquakes to failed relationships, but the book, like Catherine, seems more focussed on buildings. Structure trumps character, quite deliberately.

At one point a minor character admires the Rankin Brown building at Victoria University, a boxy, concrete, characterless thing, but an amazing structure if you know what to look for. Same goes for I’m working on a building, I think."

#5 ARMS RACE by Nic Low (short stories, NZ/Aus)

I read this in December and the first week of January, so I haven't written about it yet. And maybe I'm breaking my own dumb rules by including it in this list. But this is my kinda story collection.

I first read Low when I was judging the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His story, 'Rush', was the funniest of the several hundred I read. It was also risky, sharp, political. You can read 'Rush' for yourselves now in ARMS RACE and see what bowled me over.

Sometimes there's a sense of trepidation when reading a full collection from a new writer you've loved in a small dose. But there was none of that when I cracked open ARMS RACE. Low can write, but he can also think. I was ready to be challenged. And entertained. I was not disappointed.

Monday, January 12, 2015

December Promises

So before I do my annual 'best books I read last year' post, I'd better put down a few thoughts about those books I read in the last part of 2014...

Here's some reading writing about my reading music:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (novel)

Ferris is hot or miss for me. His debut novel, Then We Came to the End made my top ten in 2008. His next novel, The Unnamed, did not impress in 2010. I really liked his short story, 'The Dinner Party' when it appeared in the New Yorker... then went off it when I heard it again as part of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast.

From the first few pages, it was clear that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour - despite its titular similarities to Ferris' debut - was more like The Unnamed, ie: focussed on a middle-aged white dude going through a kind of breakdown / meh.

What's new here? Well, depends what you mean by new. There's a definite Phillip Roth ("ranty" as my wife would put it) quality to TRAAADH's first person narration that's new for Ferris, and there are moments when the rants sublimate and I started to enjoy myself.

I know exactly where - page 70 - because I folded the corner of the page over and said to myself: "Oh, this is getting good." Paul O'Rourke starts ranting about Google and me-machines...

She'd also forget who starred in what, who sang this or that, and if so-and-so was still dating so-and-so, and for those things, too, she'd abandon our conversation to secure the answer. She no longer lived in a world of speculation or recall and would take nothing on faith when the facts were but a few clicks away. It drove me nuts. I was sick to death if having as my dinner companions Wikipedia,, IMDb, the Zagat guide, Time Out New York, a hundred Tumblrs, the New York Times and People magazine. Was there not some strange forgotten pleasure in reveling in our ignorance? Couldn't we just be wrong?
This region of ranting is enjoyable as it's still tied up with character (Paul, the narrator, is explaining why he ended his relationship with Connie, but also giving us more evidence why Connie wouldn't want to get back with Paul), as well as being an angry reflection on contemporary life.

Unfortunately, before and after this period in the book, the rants are less connected to plot or character (except for the "Look at how grumpy/fucked up Paul is!" effect).

The result of all of this is I'm afraid how Then We Came to the End would hold up to a second reading. Especially since I'm not the same office-hating 25-year-old I was when I first read it...

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (novel, audiobook)

Honesty box: I'd read Dirt Music and Breath and one of Winton's story collections, before tackling Cloudstreet... and I'd always thought Cloudstreet was Tim Winton's first novel. Guess this goes to show how little New Zealanders are schooled in Australian Fiction.

'Wow!', I thought after a couple of chapters, still labouring under my misapprehension, 'he could write like this from the get-go??'

Maybe he could. But Cloudstreet isn't evidence of a savant. It's the work of a talented writer with years of practice, a life of observation, and a good dollop of gumption.

It still feels like a younger man's book, with too much crammed in, those elements of surreality (the pig that talks in tongues; the times we slip inside Fish's head), and the sheer weight of misfortune that befalls its characters (near-drowning, losing a hand, miscarriage, death, death, death). And it did seem to go on forever (a fact not helped in audiobook form, I suspect).

I can see why teachers make 16 and 17 year old Australian kids read Cloudstreet. And I can see why most of these kids would be left cold, or bemused (the book a quarter-read),

I mean, I liked this book. But I prefer Dirt Music and Breath - which are more focussed. Less ambitious, perhaps, but more accomplished.