While not personally a blues guy, I loved every paragraph of David Remnick’s terrific New Yorker feature exploring Buddy Guy’s long career, the change of blues’s place in culture and what the future holds, if anything, for the genre as Guy’s been playing it. Toward the end of the piece, Remnick turns to his magazine’s own poetry editor — poet and essayist Kevin Young — for this insightful description of the form:
The blues contain multitudes. Just when you say the blues are about one thing—lost love, say—here comes a song about death, or about work, about canned heat or loose women, hard men or harder times, to challenge your definitions. Urban and rural, tragic and comic, modern as African America and primal as America, the blues are as innovative in structure as they are in mood—they resurrect old feelings even as they describe them in new ways.
Following a tradition I’ve held since 2000, I’m pleased to wrap up the year I had, primarily in terms of my favorite cultural experiences. A more personal note is saved for the bottom.
Sight, Jessie Greengrass
Design and Content, Abbott Miller
Reading Between the Wines, Terry Theise
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates
My Struggle: Book 6, Karl Ove Knausgård
The Odyssey, Homer (Emily Wilson, translator)
Paula Scher: Works
Feel Free: Essays, Zadie Smith
Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy, Ben Sonnenberg (repeat)
Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form (Pulitzer Arts Foundation)
The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes
Obama: An Intimate Portrait, Pete Souza
Architecture's Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, Hugh Howard
Yes We (Still) Can, Dan Pfeiffer
Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business, Ken Auletta
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1
Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma, Michelle White (The Menil Collection)
The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror, Garrett M. Graff
Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe, Kimberly K. Arcand
A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, Ian Buruma
Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
An Equation for Every Occasion, John M. Henshaw
Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, Michael Chabon
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath
Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Noah J. Goldstein
Books I didn’t connect with: Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord; Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success by David A. Aaker; Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (though I enjoyed the author on Ezra Klein’s podcast); and Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgård (I suppose he can do wrong in my book).
The 900-page William H. Gass Reader is not listed in my book list above, since I’ve already read everything in it. But as a new release in 2018 — and a brilliant one — it needs to be called out.
Two of my all-time favorite novels are William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and JR, both giant hills to climb. Throughout 2018, I listened to parts of the complete audio recordings in the car. If you’ve read these novels, you know how difficult narrating them might be. Nick Sullivan does an incredible job, particularly with JR, which is basically non-stop, almost-always-interrupted dialogue for 900 pages.
A Ghost Story
The Death of Stalin
The End of the Tour
The Big Sick
Meh: Baby Driver; Chris Rock: Tamborine
The Americans (Final Season!)
Atlanta, Season 1
Succession, Season 1
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 3
Bojack Horseman, Season 1
Silicon Valley, Seasons 1-3
Beyond the many hours of classical music I listened to at work through the headphones, the the albums I most enjoyed this year were Jonny Greenwood’s sublime soundtrack for Phantom Thread (nearly a daily listen for me), as well as new/newish records from Julien Baker, Boygenius, Jeff Tweedy, Pusha T, Earl Sweatshirt, Cat Power, Damien Jurado and Lomelda, whose song “From Here” has a final third that lifts off in a way that always makes me smile and sing along.
Close to home:
Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (curated by my wife and called “the year’s most beautiful exhibition” by the Washington Post)
Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma at the Pulitzer
Lola Álvarez Bravo: Picturing Mexico at the Pulitzer
Amy Sherald at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis at the Saint Louis Art Museum
During a wedding trip to Chicago, I enjoyed diving back into the permanent collection of the Art Institute Chicago and doing quick cruise through the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
While attending and speaking at a conference in D.C., museum highlights included:
Watching “Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death,” an unforgettable, gut-wrenching video work by Arthur Jafa at the Hirshorn
Baselitz: Six Decades at the Hirshorn
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
A trip back to The Phillips Collection
Less happy note: Excitedly took a morning cab to the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, but there were no tickets to be had. Great for the institution, though I was bummed.
During a day-and-a-half trip to NYC, I was able to see a remarkable amount of world-class art, including:
The stunning Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim
Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts at MoMA
Charles White: A Retrospective at MoMA
Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 at MoMA
Delacroix at the Met
Jewelry: The Body Transformed at the Met
Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance at the Met
Martha Rosler: Irrespective at The Jewish Museum (plus the permanent collection)
Odds & Ends:
During that same short NYC trip, Tamara and I were able to get rush tickets to Kenneth Lonergan's play “The Waverly Gallery,” starring Lucas Hedges, Michael Cera, Joan Allen and Elaine May. Small theater. What a treat.
For our living room we bought a used piano from the wonderful folks at STL’s Jackson Pianos. Leo’s starting lessons in 2019, and I hope to get back to it after several decades away.
Amid lots of technology, Mac OS Mojave’s new screenshot feature — where you can drag a just-taken shot into use without it being saved to your computer — is something I’m grateful for daily.
While I still read Twitter, I didn’t post much this year, particularly the last six months. I tried to spend a bit more time posting what I would have shared there on my website, which had previously grown very quiet.
Speaking of web publishing, I spent a few months trying Micro.blog, which I found to be a wonderful, light-weight micro-blogging service. I was tempted to move entirely to the system, since so many of my posts are short links to content of note, but I’m going to stay with the system I have. I’m not much interested in the social/timeline aspect. But I’m keeping an eye on it.
It’s been inspiring and humbling to be part of the 2018-19 Leadership St. Louis class, the 43rd since this program began. I hope to post some reflections on the program when it ends this coming spring.
For whatever goodness 2018 brought, it’s been a sad year for our family. This summer, my father-in-law, Omer Huremović, died after battling cancer for several years.
Tajkic, as I called him, was perhaps the bravest, most resourceful and resilient man I’ll know.
He was also an artist. Little made him happier than hand-making and shipping off one of his wire-tree sculptures — some massive, others that could lay in the palm of your hand — to buyers around the country, improving their lives one sculpture at a time.
We miss him daily. We live with his art, and all that he taught us.
Fantastic piece at The Ringer by Lindsay Zoladz. Can’t wait to read his new book.
For reasons that should by now be apparent, Jeff Tweedy never struck me as the candid-memoir type. In fact, whatever the exact opposite of the candid-memoir type is? He struck me as that. Although I have been listening to his music for 20 years, he’s always felt like an enigma. And that has always sort of felt like the point—here was this ambling, mumbling, Sour Patch–voiced guy who’d much rather put his life into oblique lyrical metaphors than say anything about it outright. The closest he’d ever come to a statement of self was “I am an American aquarium drinker”—and as gorgeous a lyric it is, I am still not sure what the hell it means. Even in Jones’s documentary, which is generally considered (incorrectly, Tweedy would like you to know in his book) the most revealing document about Wilco, Tweedy comes off as a little prickly, withholding, and slyly deliberate in what he chooses to share. It might seem like a lot—infamously, he lets the cameras follow him into the bathroom to film him vomit from his habitual migraines—but the closer you watch the more he recedes. “There is no sunken treasure,” he insists in one of the songs he performs in the film, “rumored to be wrapped inside my ribs, in a sea black with ink.”
For GQ, Alex Pappademas gets unusual access to one of my favorite songwriters.
Cat Power is back. I’ve had her new record on repeat.
With a nod to Kottke's monthly "Media Diet" posts, I'm experimenting this year with short monthly recaps of interesting things I've read, watched or listened to. (This is as much for myself, as noting what I took in can help me better recall it.)
- Paula Scher: Works — Terrific, from the opening essay and interview to the work itself. (A)
- Abbott Miller: Design & Content — Intelligent and beautiful. Especially loved reading about Miller's co-founding of a "content-based studio" years before 'content strategy' became a thing. (A+)
- We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates — I'd read most of these essays when they were published in The Atlantic, but they were even more powerful here as a package. I liked Coates' brief introductions to each one, noting any changes (to what happened in the world, to how he thought about the issues) since original publication. (A)
- Obama: An Intimate Portrait, by Pete Souza (A)
- "Old Woods and Deep: Traces of Cormac McCarthy's Knoxville" — A rare deep dive into McCarthy and in particular Suttree, my favorite novel of his.
- The Big Sick (B+)
- Columbus (A) — Unique and sensitive debut with such lovely and surprising architecture.
- The Sopranos, Final Season (A)
- Lomelda, "From Here," — Stumbled on her via Spotify Discover. The last-third build-up gets me singing.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on "Discovering America" — On this recent New Yorker Radio Hour interview with David Remnick, Adichie was incisive and funny. Moved me to pick up Americanah, which I'm reading now.
- Slow Burn — Binged-listened to this podcast about Watergate. Hard to believe.
- Saint Louis Symphony Concert Family Concert — First time taking Leo, who looked up with wide eyes at Powell Hall's magnificent ceiling. It was a treat that the special guest was the 442s, friends and collaborators on this Forest Park Forever project. A week since going, Leo's been loudly 'conducting' in the kitchen.
With this terrific Kottke.org guest post — "Bill Callahan, the only sad man worth loving" — Carmody had me immediately returning to the handful of albums I own. (As Carmody points out, Callahan's not on Spotify, my own daily streaming service: "This means his legacy risks being eclipsed for a whole cohort of fans. I find this unacceptable.")
Below, one of the gems Carmody highlights at the post:
Thanks to a surprise purchase by my wife, I've been enjoying the new issue of Lapham's Quarterly, which takes music as its cover-to-cover subject. (How that theme was still open to them after several years of publishing is surprising.)
I've enjoyed reading Lapham for years, but hadn't known that he'd studied piano as a youth, or that he'd spent time in New York City as a young writer waiting (and waiting and waiting) to write about Thelonious Monk. After several months of sharing late-night space in the Five Spot, this happened:
At four AM on a Thursday in late March , the Five Spot’s waiters stacking chairs on tables, Monk stood up from the piano, snapped his fingers, thrust his palm in my direction. “Time to play, man,” he said, “time to hear what you know.” Out front in the back of a Rolls-Royce, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter was come to carry Monk home. She did so many mornings, but I never had been around at four AM to see Monk nod to the chauffeur holding open the door. A beautiful woman of uncertain age, wrapped in fur and wearing pearls, the baroness smiled, pointed me toward the seat in front. I can’t now remember if she spoke more than four words in my direction, either in the car or after we arrived at Monk’s apartment on West Sixty-Third Street at Eleventh Avenue.
Monk didn’t mess with preliminaries. Not bothering to remove his hat (that evening a fine English bowler), he pointed to the piano, opened and closed the wooden door of the bathroom directly behind it, seated himself on the toilet to listen to whatever came next. Nellie and the baroness sat upright and attentive on the small blue sofa they shared with a rag doll and a rocking horse. I played Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27 in two movements (the first in E minor, the second in E major), run time fourteen minutes if taken at the indicated tempos. I don’t say I played it as well as Lipsky might have played it, but I’d been practicing it six days out of seven for two months, and to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I didn’t miss many notes, never once felt ill at ease or afraid. Monk stepped out of the bathroom, looked me square in the face, said simply, straight, no chaser, “I heard you.”
By then I knew enough to dig what he was saying. It wasn’t the personality of Lewis H. Lapham he heard playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 27. He didn’t care who or what I was, clubfooted and white or blue-eyed and black. It wasn’t me or my interpretation, it was the music itself, off the charts beyond good and evil that somehow and if only for the time being I’d managed to reach.
Following his exceptional profile of Father John Misty, Paumgarten goes deep with the intriguing, shrewd and self-aware St. Vincent:
When she listens to a playback, she often buries her head in her arms, as though she can hardly bear to hear herself, but, really, it’s just her way of listening hard. Once, during a mixing session, while she was at the board and I was behind her on a couch, surreptitiously reading a text message, she picked up her head, turned around, and said, “Did I lose you there, Nick? I can feel when attention is wandering.” Her cheery use of the name of the person she is addressing can seem to contain a faint note of mockery. There’d be times, in the following months, when I’d walk away from a conversation with Clark feeling like a character in a kung-fu movie who emerges from a sword skirmish apparently unscathed yet a moment later starts gushing blood or dropping limbs.
Fascinating, entertaining profile in The New Yorker.
Just a demo — but among the most beautiful three minutes of music I know.
A Happy Fathers Day nod to a dad who passed down his now-40-year tradition of logging the culture he took in each year. He turned 75 today, and said he’s going to go back through his decades of notes and see what’s risen to the top.
Our conversation moved me to page through my own logbook. Here, a few pics of pages covering books, films and concerts during the late 90s/early 2000s, a few years before my process went digital.
Where have I been to miss this marvelous podcast for its first 101 episodes? Hrishikesh Hirway interviews musicians and asks them to break down a single song, which we hear in bits ... and bits ... and then in its entirety. It's a fantastic idea executed with great polish, sensitivity and humility (Hirway is almost never heard from). I've so far enjoyed Jeff Tweedy/Wilco, Ghostface Killah and Bjork, with many more in the queue.
This was such a great memoir — probing, entertaining, funny, self-deprecating, insightful into the craft of songwriting and record-making.
Brought me back to decades ago, when I'd play "Greetings" & "Wild" over and over, learning from the vivid imagery and swaggery storytelling. It had been years since I'd listened to any of Springsteen's records, but it's been fun to queue them up on Spotify as I read about each one's background. (Small note: I appreciated his unapologetic use of all caps and exclamation points when an insight or memory or confession called for them.)
Whether you've read it yet or not, Springsteen's recent interview with Terry Gross is worth a listen.
Continuing my 16-year tradition, here are a few favorite (mainly cultural) things I experienced during 2016:
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter
How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World, Michael Bierut
Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast
My Struggle: Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgård
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
My Struggle: Book 3, Karl Ove Knausgård
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante
Known and Strange Things: Essays, Teju Cole
The Monocle Guide to Cosy Homes, Monocle
Nobody Grew but the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis, Joseph Tabbi
Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power, Mark Landler
Notorious RGB: The Life & Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
Seven Interviews with Tadao Ando, Michael Auping
Max Beckmann at the Saint Louis Art Museum: The Paintings, Lynette Roth
Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, David Axelrod
The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens, Paul Mariani
The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, Katie Roiphe
Eleven Museums, Eleven Directors: Conversations on Art & Leadership, Michael E. Shapiro
Manchester By the Sea
The Big Short
Love and Friendship
Straight Outta Compton
Better Call Saul, Season 1
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Seasons 1-2
The Americans, Seasons 1-3
The People vs. O.J. Simpson
The Night Manager
Broad City, Seasons 1-2
Veep, Season 5
The Good Wife, Seasons 5-7
One of the things I like most about being a Spotify subscriber and daily listener is being able to quickly tune into new artists — whether I read about them or they’re served up via the app’s “Discover” tab. New-to-me folks I enjoyed this year include Eskimeaux, Father John Misty/J. Tilman, Florist, J. Cole, Laura Gibson, Alina Ibragimova, My Bubba, Agnes Obel, Angel Olsen, Andy Shauf, and Sun Kil Moon. Among the artists I’ve long loved, I couldn’t get enough of Radiohead’s beautiful 2016 record, “A Moon-Shaped Pool.”
Last year I had a whole Podcast section. Many of my favorites this year are the same (Design Matters and Longform remain must-listens), so I’ll just note new ones I enjoyed: The Design of Business | The Business of Design; The Axe Files; The New Yorker Radio Hour; and the short-lived Mystery Show.
Select highlights from another fun, productive year at Forest Park Forever include our first-ever “Artists in Residence” program; the audio project Listenforestpark.org; our exclusive series of posters from friend and artist Michael Eastman; and a short-video project with Once Films that came in parts one, two, three, four and five. I also enjoyed sitting down for conversations about the Park and our conservancy with Don Marsh on “St. Louis on the Air” and Andrew Davis on “STL Community Cast.”
In terms of side projects, in September of this year, I was honored to be part of “The William H. Gass Symposium: International Writing” at Washington University in St. Louis. I joined Lorin Cuoco, who co-founded the International Writers Center with Gass in 1990 and was its associate director until 2001, in giving some opening remarks, then discussing Gass’s work with William H. Gass Fellow Matthias Göritz and Ignacio Infante, associate professor of Comparative Literature and Spanish at the university. I was also pleased to move “Abstractions Arrive,” which had been an iPad-only e-book pairing a Gass essay with photographs by Michael Eastman, to the open web via Medium.
We enjoyed spending some time with my brother’s family in Minneapolis — return trips to the Walker Arts Center and MIA (International Modernism was memorable), catching a show at the Dakota Jazz Club and enjoying a great meal and beers at Surly Brewing Co.
A special cultural and family highlight for me this year was taking in four shows at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation that my wife, Tamara, was a part of either as curator or co-curator: The Ordinary Must Not Be Dull: Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Sculptures; Exquisite Everyday: 18th–Century Decorative Arts Objects from the J. Paul Getty Museum; Ellipsis (Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” was unforgettable); and Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form (nice video overview).
Of the many hundreds of photos I took of our son, Leo, this year, the one up top is a favorite, as is the one below. Background: Tamara was in the midst of a work trip to Italy, and when Leo saw this beam of light on the floor, he sat down and asked, while tracing the line with his finger, if it was Mama’s plane in the sky.
I was hugely impressed with Ratliff over the years. It’s a treat to hear him talk about listening deeply and writing carefully, both early on and within his NYT critic’s role. Best wishes to him.
Really enjoyed Carrie Brownstein’s impressive, observant, terrifically titled memoir.