My favorite books and music from 2016

Some of these works were new last year. Some were just new to me. Considering I spent almost half the year plodding through Gravity’s Rainbow, my reading list wasn’t too bad. Hoping to ramp that up this year. Most of my new music is coming from listening to my favorite radio stations via the Internet: WNCW out of North Carolina. WWOZ in New Orleans and WDVX in Knoxville, TN.


  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. Started this as 2016 gasped its last. Fascinating. And very applicable, both in Trump’s America and for people interested in understanding how we assess and understand the problems we encounter daily. Very relevant to some of the fake news discussions that are swirling these days …
  • A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe. Fascinating first-person account of London being ravaged by the plague in 1665. I’ve read a good bit about Samuel Pepys, who was a contemporary of Defoe and survived the plague, too. Defoe was only about 5 when this happened and his account is presumed to be based on his uncle’s experiences and considerable research. Then as now, the poor bore the brunt of it while the rich fled and cloistered themselves.
  • Hun Sen’s Cambodia, Sebastian Strangio. A Cambodian grad student here at Ohio University recommended this to me. Fascinating account of how Hun Sen rose in the wake of the Cambodian genocide and consolidated power through shrewd and ruthless tactics.
  • The Bricks that Built the Houses, Kate Tempest. Solid novel by the English poet and spoken word artist. I loved it initially, but after it settled into my brain I was less enthusiastic. I’d still recommend it, but not with the same fervor as I had initially. It is a fun romp, vaguely reminiscent of some of the stuff by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, etc.). And while Tempest is a wonderful poet, there’s something that just doesn’t sit right with her spoken word/rap stuff. Not sure if it’s my general disinterest in rap or the feeling that it’s just not working for her. Regardless, I doubt this is the last book I’ll read by her.
  • Study Guide: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Robert Crayola. I did this backward, I think. Probably best to read this breezy overview to the novel before or during, but I read it after the fact. In that sense, it was a great way to review a very complicated, serpentine novel and see it from 30,000 feet after spending months down in the weeds with it.
  • The Dead: James Joyce’s Famous Story Annotated, James Joyce. My favorite short story. I try to re-read it each year around Christmas, and it never disappoints. This time, i tried an annotated version, which was helpful in understanding the granular Dublin/Irish details Joyce layered into most of his work. I’m now determined to re-read the rest of “The Dubliners” in 2017. Also, I stumbled across Christian Kriticos’ great discussion of The Dead on The Millions, focusing particularly on the role of the Epiphany in the work.
  • A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel, Steven C. Weisenburger. This critical analysis was invaluable as I waded through GR. I tended to read the overview before I read the relevant GR passage and then read the textual explication after the fact.
  • Gravity’s Rainbow (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin), Thomas Pynchon. I spent a lot of time on this. More than I probably should have. But it was worth it.
  • Really the Blues (New York Review Books Classics), Mezz Mezzrow, Bernard Wolfe, Ben Ratliff. Fantastic book detailing Mezzrow’s love of jazz and his minor role in a land of giants. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in jazz. Great book.
  • Golden Years (Iranian-American Beat), Ali Eskandarian. This was billed as an Iranian-American On the Road.. I didn’t get all the way through it. Self-indulgent. No real art. Not well written. It might be that I’m just the wrong age to be reading this type of “coming-of-age” novel. I do know “On the Road” doesn’t have the appeal it once did …
  • Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock. Before Hillbilly Elegy, there was Knockemstiff. Bleak view of the white underclass in rural Ohio. A few friends, both Ohions, recommended this to me one night when we were drenched in tequila and they were trying to talk me into writing a novel. You have to read Knockemstiff, they said repeatedly. I was dubious but gave it a shot. Loved it. One of those novels that still is percolating around in my head as I watch the events of 2016 fade into the rearview mirror. I haven’t read Hillbilly Elegy yet. Adding it to the 2017 list.
  • Cane (New Edition), Jean Toomer, Rudolph P. Byrd, Henry Louis Gates Jr. I found this via a history of Washington, D.C., that I was reading. A Modernist, impressionistic look at African-American life in the District. Fascinating to see how the Harlem Renaissance played out in D.C.
  • Washington: A History of Our National City, Tom Lewis. We left D.C. almost three years ago now and still miss it at times. This book was a great survey of how D.C. became the nation’s capital.


  • The Epic, Kamasi Washington. Bought this late in the year. Still working through it. Epic is an understatement.
  • Ghosts of the Great Highway, Sun Kil Moon . Recommended with vigor by my friend Marsha. Love it. How can I not be smitten by an album that starts with an argument about which Judas Priest guitarist was better?
  • Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd. I had copies of “If” and “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast,” but I wanted the entire thing. Now I have it.
  • Hot Rats, Frank Zappa. I was surprised I didn’t already have this. After hearing Willie the Pimp on WNCW’s Frank on Friday, I downloaded the entire album. You can’t have too much Zappa.
  • Hard Luck Stories, Ike Reilly. I like Ike. A lot. Saw him in the ‘Burgh a few times recently and decided to just complete my Ike collection.
  • Poison the Hit Parade, Ike Reilly. See above
  • The B-sides, Ike Reilly.See above.
  • Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow, Funkadelic. Working to complete my collection of all things George Clinton.
  • Up For the Down Stroke, Parliament. More brilliance from George Clinton.
  • Purple Rain, Prince. I tried to care that Prince died. I really did. Even down loaded Purple Rain to try to get my head around him. Fail. I’m not saying he sucks. Just that I don’t really “get” him.
  • Blak and Blu, Gary Clark Jr. The version of Bright Lights, Big City on this album is astoundingly good. The rest of it is great, too. Fantastic guitarist who doesn’t limit himself to the blues.
  • Plays Well with Others, Buick 6. The backing band for Lucinda Williams, whom I saw in Nelsonville in 2016. They were awesome live and while I like this album, I don’t find myself returning to it with any regularity. Too instrumental?
  • New City Blues, Aubrey Sellers Like this, but don’t love it. There are several solid songs on here. But like Buick 6, I don’t find myself returning to it with any frequency.
  • The Ghosts of Highway 20, Lucinda Williams. Downloaded this before Lucinda’s show in Nelsonville. I hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to her in recent years, mostly because 2006’s “West” just didn’t do it for me. “Ghosts of HIghway 20” is Lucinda’s return to bad-ass form. At least from my perspective. After a shaky start, she blew the doors off the Opera House in Nelsonville, too.
  • Lola, Carrie Rodriguez. One of my favorites from 2016. We saw Carrie in Nelsonville, too. Great show. Great album. She’s amazing.
  • Dopesmoker, Sleep. I get to play this only when Lara isn’t around. Drone/stoner metal that is, let’s say, an acquired taste. I like it.
  • Digitonium, Turkuaz. Recommended by a jam-band friend here in Athens. I like it a lot, but I don’t return to it often. Might need to revisit this in 2017.
  • Alisa Weilerstein, Solo. I’m a closet cello fanatic. Weilerstein delivers the goods.
  • Space is Still the Place, The Bright Light Social Hour. Tried to like this. Listened a few times and never returned. Maybe give it another chance?
  • Birds Say, Darlingside. Saw them early in 2016 during the Athens Mountain Stage show. Lush, soaring vocals that remind me vaguely of CSN&Y in their prime.
  • Things That Can’t be Undone, Corb Lund. Another “discovery” at that Mountain Stage show. This is Lund’s 2015 release and was the focus of his Athens show. Afterward, I also downloaded Modern Pain, Corb Lund’s first album, which was worth it for his version of The Hockey Song alone.
  • Down With It, Blue Mitchell. Fantastic jazz album that I “discovered” last year. My knowledge of jazz is spotty as hell and I’d never heard of Blue Mitchell. Still listen to this one frequently.
  • Stay Gold, First Aid Kit. My buddy John Baker turned me on to First Aid Kit. Downloaded this 2014 album for some new music to explore. I don’t like it as much as The Lion’s Roar, but it’s a great effort that I still play frequently.
  • Me Oh My, The Honeycutters. This is my runner-up for Album of the Year in 2016 — even though it was released ion 2015. Wonderful effort. If Amanda Anne Platt sang the phone book, I’d stop to listen. Great mashup of bluegrass and Americana.
  • Beyond the Bloodhounds, Adia Victoria. This is my Album of the Year for 2016. One of my students, who goes by the nom de guerre Mad Penny, was filming the Lobsterfest Music Festival here in Athens last spring, and Victoria was one of the featured artists. She has this strange side-eye way of delivering her lyrics live that really hooked me. I look forward to seeing where she takes her “gothic blues” next.

Anyway, that’s some of the stuff I obsessed over last year. How about you? Already on the lookout for new influences in 2017. We’ll be going to Mountain Stage again later this month, and we have tickets for Hayes Carll’s show in Nelsonville in February. And once I finish Thinking Fast and Slow I have a lengthy list of books on my list, probably starting with Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. I read a chapter of this in the New York Times last year. I went in dubious (the premise sounded a bit over the top) but I came out determined to read the rest. And I loved Whitehead’s Zone One, an original and fascinating zombie novel.

2 replies on “My favorite books and music from 2016”

  1. I agree that Lion’s Roar is better, but i like “The Big Black and the Blue” the best. This is actually a trilogy. “Stay Gold” is an answer to the first one. The ” America ” EP is also very worthy of a listen.

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