Name & Position: Aaron van Dorn, Literary Associate Editor
Best Album: M. Geddes Gengras / Sun Araw / The Congos, FRKWYS, Vol. 9: Icon Give Thank
This album grabbed me by the front of my shirt the first time I put it on. As a model of how groups from wildly divergent scenes (and times) can come together and create an amazing fusion, it’s without peer. “Happy Song” squirms and lopes through an electronic nightmare version of Kingston, with the Congo’s beautiful vocals soaring above and nestled in the grinding electronics. On “Sunshine,” the Congos sound just as at home in this new sound as they did in the world that Lee “Scratch” Perry created for them on Heart of the Congos. This is the kind of experiment that I wish more older artists would attempt: working with sympathetic younger artists outside of their usual wheelhouse. When it works, as it does here, it’s amazing.
Best New Band: Goat
I don’t know anything about Goat. Well, I know they’re from Sweden. At least, I think I know that — they seem like a pretty cagey bunch. I know they released an album of world music-inspired psychedelic rock (the aptly titled World Music) in summer 2012. I know that record sounds like a Spacemen 3 live album released on Éthiopiques. That’s all I need to know.
Best Reissue: Medicine, Shot Forth Self Living
You have to wonder if the flood gates that were opened by the advent of digital archives and distribution channels will ever shut back down. Medicine were a shoegaze band from LA in the early ’90s. They got some positive notices, released so great albums and then disappeared almost entirely. I’d never heard of them before this album was reissued, and that’s a damn shame, because it’s an amazing slab of fuzzy, gloriously distorted guitars that sound like almost anything but guitars. This deserves to be in the collection of anyone who likes the sound of more than two effects pedals chained together.
Best Live Band: Willie Nelson
This isn’t even really a contest. When I went to see Willie earlier this year (just a few weeks before his 79th birthday) I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. I expected him to come out, play some songs and be the genial elder statesman he is, without the pressure of having anything to prove. But when the explosions went off and the giant Texas flag dropped from the ceiling, what I got instead was an amazing set of incredibly vital country, with Willie still playing guitar and singing with the best of them. His voice was still rich and full, and he played with an incredibly game band for close to two hours.
Best Movie/TV show: I Wish, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, dir.
This wasn’t a hard choice for me. I’ve been a fan of Kore-Eda’s films since I saw his subtle, masterful After Life back in the mid 90s. His films since then have been all over the place, style-wise, from Hana, a wry take on samurai movies to the elegant, Ozu-style family drama Still Walking, but they’ve remained amazingly consistent in quality. I Wish has that in spades, with Kore-Eda extracting amazingly nuanced performances from his child actors, made all the more amazing from the fact that the roles are almost entirely improvised. The movie is a shaggy dog story about two brothers separated both by their parents’ divorce as well as by their own temperaments. But from that simple start, the movie keeps on extending outwards to examine how the lives of the people around those boys and it develops into a fantastic, emotionally-wrenching climax, a climax that you only see being built in retrospect.
Best Book or Graphic Novel: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The debut novel from an Alaskan writer, this incredible reimagining of a Russian fairy tale hits both sides of the phrase “magic realism” with perfect accuracy. The tale of a childless, aging couple from Pennsylvania who move up to Alaska in the early part of the 20th Century to get away from a lifetime’s worth of bad memories pegs the tone from page one and never wavers from it. Magic realism is an incredibly difficult mode to pull of effectively: too much and it becomes schmaltz or hacky, not enough and it’s just plain old realism. The central mystery working in this novel is never wholly resolved, always just out of reach. A subtle joy of a novel.
Best Game: Paper Mario: Sticker Star/The Nintendo 3DS
2012 is the year that the Nintendo 3DS finally really came into its own. The eShop has been consistently producing some of the best games available: Pushmo and its just release sequel Crashmo, Ketzal’s Corridors, Mighty Switch Force and a constantly onrushing stream of classic Nintendo games. The best game of the year was without a doubt Paper Mario: Sticker Star. The Paper Mario games have always had a couple of things going for them: fantastic, addicting gameplay, beautiful, whimsical graphics and hilarious, wry dialog. This follows through on all fronts. It’s a fun, engaging game, perfect for short sessions or long marathons. It’s a fun twist on a winning formula that had the potential to become just another more of the same game. Nintendo’s ability to find new twists on old themes remains unparalleled.
Biggest Surprise (Good): Halloween show, Harismus Cove Cemetery, Jersey City, NJ
I’ve learned to not expect much from Jersey City, so when we decided to head down to the concert that was being held all day in the large, centuries-old cemetery at the bottom of the hill leading up to Journal Square, I wasn’t expecting much. Certainly not a bunch of really great bands doing fun and reverent (a hard combo to pull off) cover sets of bands like Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Danzig and David Bowie under the blustery, moon-filled October sky. The crowd was amazing: ready to be pleased and dressed in an incredible array of costumes, with not a person in black face to be seen, and only one or two Hunter S. Thompsons in sight. It was an incredible time.