mini-reviews: kill ’em and leave and metallica: back to the front

As a musician I always have my eye out for great books on music and other musicians, and two books I read this year on the subject did not disappoint.

I’ve had James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave on my radar ever since it came out last year, and finally decided to get to it this month. It wasn’t a typical biography, and I would have liked more about Brown’s experiences touring and more from/about some of his personal relationships, but this is a great book outlining James Brown as a real man. McBride doesn’t sugarcoat Brown’s flaws, but drives the point home how Brown was a powerful influence on generations of Black Americans and musicians. There was more of McBride present than I expected (he complains about his own divorce as the impetus to taking on this writing project, for example), but it bothered me less as I got further into the book. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

I read Metallica: Back to the Front by Matt Taylor to get myself amped for Metallica’s January concert here in Singapore, which was amazing and just what I needed at that time. I waited in line for eight hours and got a spot right up front close to the stage. I moshed for the first time in probably 20 years (still got it!) and was sore for three days afterwards. Anyway! This book is definitely a must for die-hard (and probably even cursory) Metallica fans. It reads like an oral history from all the important players (the band, managers, engineers, road crew, family, friends) about the making of and tour for its seminal 1986 album Master of Puppets. It also serves as a poignant tribute to founding bassist Cliff Burton, who tragically died during the tour in a bus accident. The book itself is beautiful, with tons of gorgeous professional and candid photos. I loved it. [Read in January 2017.]

reading recap: january 2017

I think I’m getting my stride back with reading now in 2017. I’m not participating in any creative reading challenges this year, just the Goodreads and 50 Book Pledge ones, which takes some (admittedly imaginary) pressure off. So far I set my goal at 50, but I’m hoping to get back up to around 60, closer to my normal yearly amount. Bad bookish news, though: my Kansas City Public Library account expired! I was hoping I had at least another six months, tears. I’ve been using it for ebooks and audiobooks through Overdrive, and it’s been great. I’ll get a new account at my local Wisconsin library on my next visit back, but still. I liked having one last connection to Kansas City. Sigh.

I had a good January for reading, and enjoyed all of these books:

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  • Born a Crime (ebook) … Trevor Noah
  • Packing for Mars … Mary Roach
  • Metallica: Back to the Front … Matt Taylor
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) … Margaret Atwood, read by Claire Danes
  • March, books 1–3 … John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Almost all non-fiction… one could make the joke that I read all non-fiction… (weeps). But The Handmaid’s Tale was my favorite book of the month. I read it once before, in early 2010, and loved it then. I’ve had a little celebrity crush on Claire Danes for years and years—she was my spirit animal in My So-Called Life—and hearing her read one of my all-time favorite books gave me life in this state of political unrest. Just a terrifying, disquieting book. I read once that Atwood based things in the book (women losing agency over their finances, property, eventually their own bodies) on real-life events throughout world history. I wanted to start it over again from the beginning right after finishing (and I just may listen to it again before the year is out).

I was so excited to also read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, an immigrant, when it came through my (last) library holds at the beginning of the year. It was a wonderful, sharp, insightful memoir to start of 2017. There were some utterly hilarious scenes, and I really admired his honesty about his relationships with his country and family, especially his mother. I loved his reflections on language and how that can effect interpersonal understanding and empathy. I only wish I had been able to listen to the audio version!

I’ve enjoyed a couple other Mary Roach books, and Packing for Mars was no exception. My husband got it as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago and recommended it to me this month. I realize now that it was another pertinent read for these times, with anti-science and anti-education mindsets becoming more rampant. RESIST!! But truly, Packing for Mars is signature Roach, making you feel as though you’re right alongside her as she investigates the “everything-you-want-to-know-but-are-too-embarrassed-to-ask” questions surrounding any given topic. Bonus: after I finished Nick and I visited the NASA: A Human Adventure exhibit currently on at the ArtScience Museum here in Singapore. It was a treat to see artifacts of the very things I’d just read about in person, including the space toilet!

The March graphic novel trilogy by John Lewis had been on my TBR for at least a few months now, but skyrocketed to the top thanks to events that took place on Twitter, you all know what I’m talking about. I snagged the only set at the Kinokuniya bookstore and devoured all three books in a matter of days. I usually struggle with graphic novels just in that I focus on the words so much I forget to take time absorbing the art too, but I made an effort to pay attention to both text and image and the experience really paid off. March is a very engaging work that clearly connects events and people through the civil rights movement of the 1960s via John Lewis’s involvement. I really hope young people are reading this right now.

Finally, for some much needed mental catharsis, I read through Metallica: Back to the Front, the authorized story of the Master of Puppets album and subsequent tour, as prep for the band’s concert here in Singapore on January 22. I listened to (almost) the whole discography as I read, which really enhanced the experience. This book is obviously a must-own for any die-hard fan, but I think even casual fans and listeners would really appreciate this round-table style recounting and images of the band starting up, the making of its first three albums, and the epic (and ultimately tragic) tour of 1986. Besides the history, this is a beautiful tribute to the band’s unforgettable late bassist Cliff Burton.

Looking ahead, I’d like to read Duff McKagan’s It’s So Easy and Other Lies before we see Guns N’ Roses on February 25 here, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis, Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips, You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson, and Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I’m already almost finished with Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, which I simply haven’t been able to put down. We’ll see what I can get through!
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best albums of 2016

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This was another challenging year in many ways, but one indisputably good thing that happened was my renewed love of vinyl in late 2015. My husband and I discovered a new favorite store in Kansas City, Mills Record Company, where we quickly became regulars. I had my mother’s early-1970s Dual 1019 turntable in my bedroom through my teen years and I just loved it. I didn’t bring it to the dorms, of course, and didn’t think it would be smart or feasible to move it to any of my apartments. But last year I decided to hell with that, and I finally got my turntable set up in Kansas City. I’m sad it was so short lived—we had to bring it and all our records back to my folks’ house when we moved to Singapore. But this experience got me into listening again, really listening, and falling back in love with discovering new music. Here are my top 10 favorite albums released in 2016, in alphabetical order by artist:
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• Lemonade … Beyoncé
My #1 anyway. A bold, experimental, aware, and emotionally raw masterpiece. I had this on repeat for weeks after I first got it. I’m still in awe of this album, its unabashed statements on race, women, society, culture, and more. The whole thing is just stunning and important on multiple levels.

• Are You Serious … Andrew Bird
My favorite since his debut, The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Less pretentious, more personal than most of his catalog. I loved seeing him perform live in Kansas City (April 21, The Midland).

• Blackstar … David Bowie
Dark, strange, haunting, bleak, brutal. It took me a few listens to fully appreciate this avant-garde art-pop album, with each track more unexpected than than the last. A beautiful magnum opus from a legend.

• Changes … Charles Bradley
There’s something warm and familiar about Bradley’s sound, no matter what he’s singing. The pain he emotes on Black Sabbath’s “Changes” twists your heart.

• You’re Dreaming … The Cactus Blossoms
A timeless alt-country sound by Minneapolis brothers. Their songs are clean, simple, and refined. Those harmonies! Sigh. They put on a great concert at Knuckleheads in Kansas City (June 11).

• Black America Again … Common
My favorite since Be. I love Common’s poetic, socially conscious way of commenting on the political landscape today, as well as themes of love, and social justice. It reminds me of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On in a lot of ways. I still get goosebumps when I hear “Letter to the Free.”

• Hardwired… To Self-Destruct … Metallica
It’s long, but this album is a fun composite of what people have loved about Metallica for the past 35 years. It’s not the “old” Metallica, but Hardwired feels like Metallica refreshed.

• A Sailor’s Guide to Earth … Sturgill Simpson
An ambitious country album with soul, psychedelia, southern rock, and more, Sailor’s Guide breaks free of any one genre label. It’s striking and memorable not only for that reason, but its intimacy and authenticity, too.

• Emily’s D+Evolution … Esperanza Spalding
This album blew me away the first time I heard it. Spalding blends jazz, folk, funk, and rock into this ambiguous style that’s wholly all her own. She’s been one of my favorite artists for a long time, and Emily’s is a prime display of her creativity and originality.

• The Suffers … The Suffers
This feel-good old-school R&B-meets-ska debut album is damn irresistible. Kam Franklin’s voice is one of the best and most soulful I’ve heard in years. There’s a lot of infectious joy on here. I can’t wait to hear more from this band.

Honorable Mentions:
The Last Hero … Alter Bridge
A Seat at the Table … Solange
Weezer (The White Album) … Weezer
Victorious … Wolfmother

There are a few albums I wanted to listen to in 2016, but haven’t had a chance yet: A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got it From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, Bonnie Raitt’s Dig in Deep, Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered., Angel Olsen’s My Woman, Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s Skeleton Tree, Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression, and Frank Ocean’s Blonde. I’ll get to them!

I only have a vague inkling of what’s on tap for new releases in 2017, but the ones I’d be interested in hearing are those from Ani Difranco, The Roots, Justin Timberlake, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, St Vincent, Jay Z, and Zack de la Rocha (and more than that, I’m sure, once I know about them!). I hope I can hold on to this drive to discover new music, even without my turntable here in Singapore. For now I’m just getting excited to see Metallica perform here next weekend, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam right after that (playing Debussy and Bruckner 4), Then, in February, we’ll go to the Periphery and Guns N’ Roses (with Wolfmother) concerts!