2016: Our Top Fives
2016 was a nightmare in many ways, but it was also a year of significant artistic achievements. Here are some of our favorites. We continue to look to the arts for strength, guidance, and inspiration in the troubling times ahead, but also for enjoyment and amusement. Such are the many powers that art imbues us with. And so, without further ado...
FIVE GREAT ALBUMS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
Itasca – Open to Chance
Itasca channels the mellow, mournful beauty of Jodi Mitchell, singing softly to herself behind layers of intricate acoustic guitarwork. Some songs bear baroque shades of Nico’s Chelsea Girls, while others are brighter compositions akin to the work of Judee Sill or Vashti Bunyan. Augmented by a full band, complete with slide guitar and pan flute, Open to Chance is Kayla Cohen’s most realized release yet, drawing listeners into her brooding but achingly beautiful world. Available via Paradise of Bachelors.
Petite League – No Hitter
The Northeast is known for a particular strain of suburban emo, and Petite League from Syracuse, New York, is one of the better bands to come from the scene. The duo makes earnest lo-fi power-pop with easy hooks that transcend the limitations of the genre, recalling idiosyncratic acts like Home Blitz or the more popular Car Seat Headrest. Cassettes available via the artist’s bandcamp.
Uranium Club – All of Them Naturals
All of Them Naturals opens with a two-minute spoken-word introduction that sounds like an instructional record or infomercial: a buttery-voiced man talking about the secretive Uranium Club. This sets the stage for the DEVO-like post-punk that rips forth in dissonant, angular bursts, vocals alternating between frantic yelps and tranquilized hypno-speak. Highlights include the upbeat groove of “God’s Chest,” the Q&A of “Opus,” and the space-laser blasts of “Who Made the Man?” which was released as a 7” by Lumpy Records in October. Available in the UK via Static Shock (US release sold out).
Hidden Ritual – Always
Austin’s Hidden Ritual returns with their first vinyl release, another fine slice of jittery noir. Odd time signatures and minor keys abound as singer Jaime Zuverza intones over Ryan Camarillo’s bounding basslines and Matt Reilly’s steady drums. The rhythm section is wound so tight you might think it’s programmed, and the guitar and keyboards overlay for mood; they keep the songs simmering without ever boiling over. Available via Monofonus Press.
Chook Race – Around the House
A chook is Australian for “chicken.” Chook Race is an Australian band that sounds like The Go-Betweens or a long-lost Flying Nun band. They may not boast the most original sound, but slightly bittersweet guitar pop is timeless. Available via Trouble in Mind.
FIVE STANDOUT TRANSLATIONS OF WORK BY WOMEN WRITERS
Seeing Red, by Lina Meruane (trans. Megan McDowell, Deep Vellum)
A semi-autobiographical work by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red moves through the psyche of a young writer returning home to Chile to seek medical attention for a condition that leaves her blind. Trauma and strangeness penetrate her memories and consciousness as she struggles with blindness and an utter dependence on others. In swift prose powerfully cluttered with objects, emotions, and language, Seeing Red traverses palpable pain and surreal desires, leaving us with a strange joy.
Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, by Lina Wolff (trans. Frank Perry, & Other Stories)
The title hints at the zest of the novel by a Swedish writer with Spanish-style black humor: Bret Easton Ellis is one of the strays in a Spanish brothel, each provocatively named after the old dogs of literature. Challenging in form, the novel is a colorful mix of stories from lovers, friends, and an eighteen-year-old narrator, with a mysterious writer of violent short stories at the center. In this tangled prose filled with shining female characters sketched together with carnal stories of prostitution, restlessness, love, death and power struggles, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs doesn’t hide its’ feminist bite.
The Vegetarian,by Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith, Hogarth)
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is the only book written by a woman on this year’s New York Times list of best fiction. They must have forgotten a few names, but this gem certainly deserves to be there. A family’s uncomplicated life begins to unravel when a husband finds that his “completely unremarkable” wife has thrown out all the meat from the refrigerator and from that day on has become a vegetarian—all because of a dream, she explains. What ensues is the collapse of a family whose obsession to cure her results in scenes of violence and grotesque passion paired against her own growing detachment from society. A book charged with dark serenity, we watch as family structures and societal norms founder.
Cockroaches, by Scholastique Mukasonga (trans. Jordan Stump, Archipelago)
In memoriam to Mukasonga's 37 family members lost during the Rwanda genocide, Cockroaches is a survivor’s account, which stands vigil in reaffirming the existence of those lost and is a singular light for the many stories that will remain untold. What lays in this text is heartbreaking, morbid, and unbearable, but it does what memorials cannot by individualizing death in the face of mass slaughter. This serves as a poignant reminder that though we refer to parts of world history as “unspeakable tragedies,” it is only through articulation and preservation of these accounts that we embolden our resolve against these events.
Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, by Alejandra Pizarnik (trans. Yvette Siegert, New Directions)
Despite the reverence that Alejandra Pizarnik commands among many prominent male Latin American authors, there has been a dearth in published translations of her work until this year. Extracting the Stone of Madness is the first full-length collection made available in English for an author who is often compared to Sylvia Plath in disaffection (and untimely death) and Paul Celan in scope of influence in Latin American poetry. In this chronology, Pizarnik grapples with the madness of using language to express an abstract that lies on the edge of sanity. It is this brilliance and anguish that resonates with you long after you’ve read her work—so much so that you will end up wondering why she hasn’t been standing with her fellow tortured male peers in the canons of literature all along.
—Katie Lauren Bruton and Nhan Ho
FIVE GREAT MUSIC VIDEOS
Fielded – "I Choose You" Directed by Alex Mallis
Director Alex Mallis’s careful use of understated, cool pink, blue, and green light forms a low-lit, stirring undercurrent moving with singer Lindsay Powell’s vocal pyrotechnics. Unlikely scenes—a lizard slowly slinking toward a dentist’s chair, a jovial Bushwick barber shop in midday—are rendered beautiful as Powell’s voice stretches out, “I’m not too proud at all of my lost and can’t be found act.” An exacting, hopeful piece on modern isolation.
Cloud Becomes Your Hand – "Hermit" Directed by Jenna Caravello
Jenna Caravello’s animations fly, trip, and bounce with much panache over crisp layers of Cloud Becomes Your Hand performing. Her playful use of lone objects as visual props and bright psychedelic palette perfectly befits the experimental sextet known for breaking into subtly erotic synchronized dances during their live sets. Cheeky shapes shift and taunt the band as they intone, “Under a boulder was a shoe / from out which grew a shroom / for 30 odd years traipsing behind you,” making YouTube feel a little more like an enchanted forest.
Dehd – "Sunburn"Directed by Dominic Rabalais, Emily Kempf, and Emily Esperanza
“Sunburn” unfolds in an artful crescendo, like a stumbled-upon photo album found in someone else’s house, becoming increasingly risqué with each page. The directors lightheartedly build an intricate, colorful universe for immutably bored twin girls, rendering fetish themes like cake-sitting as banal as brushing one’s teeth, complementing a steady, minimal drumbeat and singer Emily Kempf’s disaffected cadence.
Oozing Wound – "Diver"Directed by Joe Martinez, Jr.
Director Joe Martinez gives viewers a frenetic, hellish peek into the life of one bumbling thrash fan who took one rip too many in the daily quest to never stop rocking. Sporting the requisite black T-shirt and long, unkempt hair, the video’s hero wakes, bakes, and headbangs heartily, spatula in hand, before things begin to go eerily wrong. The director’s rapid, stuttering cuts sync with Weil’s riffs in a tongue-and-cheek take on the band’s die-hard fanbase, as endearing and hilarious as comforting a good friend who got too high.
New Fries – "JZIII"Directed by Seth Scriver
A triumph of weird-for-the-sake-of-weird animation, Seth Scriver’s musical creatures exist in a universe reminiscent of something R. Crumb would make if allowed to go wild on Microsoft Paint while on painkillers. Cheerful monsters pulsate, melt, and step in puddles of one another to the catchy bass, each the star of a fake, hallucinatory TV channel. One click of the remote broadcasts a “Dink Nose Trillionaire” reporting from his ivory tower, another click shows a troll scrolling a smartphone. Viewers will be grateful that Scriver apparently decided to animate whatever popped into his head while surfing channels.
—Sarah Jane Quillin
FIVE GREAT AUSTIN ART SHOWS
Complex I, at Pump Project
Seth Orion Schwaiger was known for his arts coverage in The Austin Chronicle and elsewhere before stepping away to work on his own art. The trade paid off: Complex I was the most ambitious show of the year, taking up most of the Pump Project and ICOSA gallery spaces. Giant pillars topped with bones met visitors as they entered. In another room, six large discs hung suspended from the ceiling, offering skulls and grayscale renditions of the space. Complex I was more excavation than exhibit, presenting curious artifacts like a wooden bust and a glowing blue orb that hovered in the dark like a miniature version of Neptune, his imaginary ruins providing a portal into a mysterious new world.
Before I Knew You, I Missed You, at de stijl
I had the privilege of hearing Tammie Rubin discuss her latest exhibit, a remarkable set of ceramic cones covered in hundreds of tiny lines and dots. She traced the shape of the cone through time, highlighting its use as a dunce cap, traffic cone, and mitre. But staring at the dark holes cut into each piece, it was hard to think of anything but the KKK—an obvious parallel that Rubin built up to as she explained the stories behind the dots and lines. They represented maps, tracing the migration of African-American families through the U.S., her own included. The talk took place on November 18, just weeks after Donald Trump’s election, and served as a harrowing exemplar of art’s power and importance.
A Question/Some Mild Anxiety/The Results,at Co-Lab Projects
Co-Lab Projects’ move into the DEMO Gallery's vast, undeveloped space at 8th and Congress was much welcomed, providing a perfect home for art shows, musical performances, and the Hyperreal Film Club. Co-Lab put on a year of great programming, but saved the best for last: a return by Russell Etchen, who curated this standout show featuring punk legend Tim Kerr, local stalwart Andy Coolquitt, and a host of others. Tamar Ettun’s Yellow inflatable provided the most interactive fun since Soto’s similarly yellow Penetrable came to the MFAH, but Johanna Jackson’s surreal stories stole the show, reading like comedies by Gertrude Stein on acid.
Habit, at The Mom Gallery
The Mom Gallery’s swansong was a mixed-media showcase featuring print, sculpture, and stitchwork from artists Laura Brown, Emily O’Leary, and Rachael Starbuck. The exhibit provided clever commentary on the concept of habit explored through content and medium. O’Leary’s samplers in particular stood out: her meticulously crafted miniatures of women surrounded by piles of yarn highlighted the time and effort required to craft such pieces and stood as commentary on the historical exclusion of embroidery and other “women’s work” from artistic consideration. It was a fitting finale for the gallery, which featured many talented women artists in its brief two-year run. It will be sorely missed.
The Best Available Evidence, at grayDUCK Gallery
The individual pieces were unassuming: some pictures of the sky, a snowy landscape, a cassette player. For an exhibit on UFO evidence, there wasn’t much to consider. But in totality, the work produced an effect. Listening to eyewitness accounts of UFO sightings primed the audience to believe, and suddenly anything could be a UFO: parking lot lights at night, or a gray blur next to an obviously manipulated landscape. Rebecca Marino’s work played with the concept of veracity, presenting chronicles of her time in Roswell and letting viewers decide if they were being told the whole story. Fun components like pieces of film stamped with the word PROOF added to the playful nature of the exhibit, which, like all good sci-fi, rewarded audiences for their suspension of disbelief with an expanded perception of reality.
—Sean Redmond. Co-Lab Projects photo courtesy Paul Finch.
FIVE IMPORTANT POETRY/POP CULTURE FUSIONS
Warsan Shire and Lemonade
I’ve been a fan of Warsan Shire since I first read her spellbinding poetry collection Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth in 2011, and I excitedly watched the premiere of Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade back in April. In my opinion, Shire’s influence—via the haunting spoken word voiced by, of course, Beyonce—stole the show. Many others agreed, and Shire achieved worldwide recognition for her poetic contributions. She was suddenly featured everywhere, from The New York Times to Vogue. Lemonade became a wild success, and it was great to see these two powerful talents combine to create such a stunning piece of art.
Maggie Smith's "Good Bones"
Ohio poet Maggie Smith watched her heartbreaking poem Good Bones go viral in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Though the poem needed no celebrity endorsement, re-Tweets of the poem from long-time actress and pop culture fixture Alyssa Milano (most known for her role on the Charmed TV series) certainly helped spread awareness. Milano even reached out to Maggie via Twitter to tell her “Thank you for being you.” From there, other celebrities and public figures caught wind of the haunting lines. To date, the poem has reached more than a million people and has been translated into numerous languages.
BuzzFeed and Teen Vogue
Both Teen Vogue and BuzzFeed have featured an impressive variety of acclaimed young poets this past year. Teen Vogue encouraged teenagers to embrace the art form with a piece titled “These 9 Young Poets are Actually Making the Genre Cool Again.” Poets showcased included Fatimah Asghar and fields favorite sam sax. (ed. note: Bonus points for their political coverage, which has been fire since Elaine Welteroth took over as Editor in Chief.) BuzzFeed, likewise, has amplified its spotlight on the literary world, regularly featuring pieces by poets such as Ocean Vuong and Danez Smith. It’s exciting to know a growing number of young people may become familiar with some of the best in contemporary poetry through publications such as these.
Jenifer Toksvig and the United Nations
Writer and playwright Jenifer Toksvig’s poem “What They Took With Them – a List” was inspired by the testimonies of refugees fleeing their homes in search of a safe place to land. Her words achieved fame and critical praise when an assorted group of celebrity actors and actresses (including Keira Knightley, Jesse Eisenberg, and Stanley Tucci) read it aloud as part of a United Nations project to raise awareness of the global refugee crisis. It was inspiring to see influential celebrity figures join forces with the literary community to address human rights issues, and it is exciting to see Toksvig’s work reach a wider audience.
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize Win
When singer-songwriter and pop culture icon Bob Dylan was named as recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition," controversy erupted. Some were pleased with the choice, saying that Dylan’s lyrics were in fact part of the literary tradition, or that he had artistically redefined the boundaries of literature. Others—many authors themselves—expressed outrage, believing the win undermined their own art form and hard work. Dylan himself was seemingly unenthused about his groundbreaking win, choosing not to attend the award ceremony. Still, the debate about Dylan’s literary merit raised questions about the role of poetry in pop culture and who gets to be counted among our finest bards.