Restricting the content of best-of lists to things produced or released during a single year is, in many ways, fairly arbitrary. Books, movies, or TV shows don't cease to be relevant as soon as the calendar changes. So we put together a selection of some of the things we particularly enjoyed in 2018. Here's hoping they bring you joy, make you think, and entertain you in 2019.
The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman
The narrator of Sandra Newman’s haunting, sublimely lyrical novel is Ice Cream Star, a member (and the eventual leader) of a nomadic group known as the Sengles, who are dying systematically in their twenties of an affliction called “posies.” The action is set against a post-apocalyptic landscape extending from the Merrimack Valley to Washington, DC; the entire story is related in Ice Cream Star’s gorgeously cryptic patois. In this passage, she pays a visit to the leader of a neighboring group, the Lowells:
We pass inside. Soon the only sound is groaning turbines and our patting feet. We walk in this loud quiet to El Mayor’s workroom. Here, windows show the purplish sunset on the glassy river. Lectric light be shining. All is neat and sugar clean.
As I read, I found myself asking again and again, “How in God’s name did she do this?” The Country of Ice Cream Star is a sustained mental and linguistic workout; when you reach the novel’s end, you still won’t know how Sandra Newman managed to pull off this epic feat of imagination. But you’ll be enormously glad she did.
P.S. If you happen to be a Twitterphile, @sannewman is a garden of unearthly delights.
The Ferryman is the first theatrical production I’ve encountered in two years that has led me to believe there really is life after Hamilton. Currently on Broadway, Jez Butterworth’s sprawling, suspenseful drama delivers a panoramic view of life in Northern Ireland during The Troubles at both micro- and macrocosmic scale. Banshees lurk and history looms as a family deals with the lingering effects of deep-rooted religious and political conflicts. With a cast of more than 20 lovingly crafted characters, The Ferryman moves seamlessly between moments of poetic reflection, joyful exuberance, and sinister intent. It’s a wild, unforgettable ride.
The Big Sick
I’m not a big fan of feel-good movies; this one comes with just the right amount of edge. Kumail Nanjiani plays a stand-up comic whose (ostensible) ex-girlfriend, Emily, falls ill and slips into a coma. When Emily’s parents (whom he has never met) arrive on the scene, the story kicks into high gear, thanks in part to Holly Hunter’s Oscar-caliber performance. The script is liberally sprinkled with comedic gems:
Emily’s father: Who goes to a math conference to get laid?
Kumail: Um...math teachers?
Nanjiani does a superb job of projecting authenticity while employing a deliciously deadpan acting style. His own parents’ ongoing (and hilarious) efforts to find him a nice Muslim girl—another key element of the narrative—deftly avoid stereotype. A winning combination of engaging script and talented actors elevates The Big Sick high above typical rom-com fare.
All The Things I Did And All the Things That I Didn’t Do, by The Milk Carton Kids
In my memories, this album will always be the soundtrack to the end of 2018; I just couldn’t stop listening to it. Haunting and tragic and somehow joyous all at once, it is a quietly bold departure for the group, who is known for the consistently moody folk tracks of earlier albums (like 2011’s Prologue, which, if you ask me, was practically perfect in every way). This one, while more uneven, digs deeper in to their musical roots and makes me feel like maybe, with age, we’re all lightening up a bit.
Call My Agent!
In a year when a break from the dogged misery of political news was so often a necessity, this show was a gift. Imported from France, the series is set in a Paris talent agency and features French stars in hilarious moments of self-derision, outrageous twists and turns, and a stellar cast playing characters who are passionate, endearing, and always getting into all kinds of trouble. It has a genuine je ne sais quoi that will hook you, and keep you hooked.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
This one, on the other hand, is not for the faint of heart. In a post-apocalyptic landscape where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virulent strain of flu, a theater group called The Traveling Symphony performs Shakespeare for the decimated towns they visit. The novel gives credence to all our fears, but it’s as beautiful as it is terrifying. And the Symphony’s fearless quest—and their Star Trek-inspired motto, “Survival is not enough”—remind us of what keeps us going, even when things seem bleak.
Musically, I’m basically a ’70s guy. It’s not all I listen to but it’s the era of music I’m most knowledgeable and passionate about. As a result, aside from reissues, I don’t tend to buy a lot of new releases in any given year. In 2018, however, I bought several brand new CDs that I dug and heartily recommend. Among them are Belly, Dove; Neko Case, Hell-On; Hollie Cook, Vessel of Love; Chick Corea/Steve Gadd, Chinese Butterfly; Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Live From the Ryman; Mark Knopfler, Down the Road Wherever; and Richard Thompson, 13 Rivers.
Jagged Little Pill
I don’t see a ton of plays. And while I love warhorse rock musicals like Hair, Godspell, and Jesus Christ Superstar, I’m not so much into the musical genre; the idea of stopping the story to break into song and dance more often than not looks and sounds silly to me. But Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is an album that kicks serious ass and so did the theatrical version that ran at the A.R.T. for too short a run this year. As Jo, Lauren Patton delivered the most showstopping showstopper I’ve ever seen with her intense performance of “You Oughta Know.”
When it comes to TV, I generally limit my viewing to Patriots games, M*A*S*H reruns, and Supergirl (with my younger daughter, though I like it, too). My older daughter, however, insisted that I binge-watch The Office in its entirety this year, which I had never seen when it was originally produced. Having watched 8 of the 9 seasons to date, I am now a certified Office nut. (And if you want my analysis of which Librettist matches which Office character, contact me offline.) You’ve probably already watched them all. Do it again. (That’s what she said.)
Taylor Swift’s Reputation Stadium Tour
Following a dramatic fall from grace (by pop music’s standards) due to her ongoing feud with Kanye West, Taylor Swift’s 2017 release of reputation was greeted with mixed reactions. But after the hot takes cooled and the drama lost its allure, Taylor got back to doing what she does best in 2018 when she launched her first-ever stadium tour. The show offers everything one could hope for from one of today’s leading pop artists at the top of her game: massive pyrotechnics, stunning visuals, multiple stages, aerial components, and more. Perhaps most impressive, though, is Taylor’s ability to connect with her audience—all 70,000 of them. It’s not a phenomenon easily explained. The actual emotion of her lyrics and songwriting has always belied the manufactured persona that some find distasteful. Even on tour, in the most manufactured setting of all, she still finds a way to communicate something authentic. You can check it out yourself when the tour movie drops on Netflix this New Year’s Eve.
This year I settled on a standard routine of daily podcasts to keep me informed and entertained throughout my hourlong commute. Depending on the amount of time you have in your morning—and the extent to which you can stomach hearing the news of the day—you may find these worth a listen.
The Indicator from Planet Money – This brief, ten-minute show focuses on a relevant topic in economics—from predicting the health of the stock market to explaining how tariffs can impact businesses and consumers. Trust me, it’s much more entertaining than that last sentence made it sound.
The Daily from the New York Times – Michael Barbaro has become something of an indie darling thanks to his reporting on The Daily, which uses its twenty- to thirty-minute runtime to cover one of the Paper of Record’s recent stories through interviews with the reporters and subjects involved.
Up First from NPR – Up First is a true daily digest—a fifteen minute primer that touches on all the latest and greatest headlines, ensuring you’re prepped to comment on the stories you’ll see pop up on your Facebook feed over the course of the day.
Stand-up comedy is not what you might call the wokest of mediums these days, which is what makes Nanette such a revelation. An excellent stand-up comedian, Hannah Gadsby understands the art of joke-telling and the challenges comedians face in the age of identity politics. But as a non-gender-conforming lesbian who was raised in a painfully intolerant environment, she also brings an outsider’s perspective that’s deeply informed by her own experiences of prejudice, victimization, and hate. She wields her razor wit and palpable rage as weapons to interrogate and deconstruct the power dynamics that exist in comedy—between audience and performer, joke-teller and joke-target. Nanette is simultaneously stand-up comedy and performance art, a TED talk and a browbeating. And somehow, in the midst of all that, the show is still funny. Find it on Netflix.
The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley
This haunting, hypnotic novel is so much more than just a modern-day reimagining of Beowulf. Dana, an injured former Marine, flees to a mountain overlooking the glamorous gated community that has replaced the small town where she grew up. She raises her son, Gren, in the abandoned tunnels of a defunct railroad. Meanwhile, dutiful housewife Willa lives with her husband Roger and son Dylan in their pristine, seemingly secure home below. When Gren sneaks down the mountain, the two boys develop an unexpected friendship that has disastrous consequences for the mothers—and the entire community. In prose that roils like fog over a mere, Headley explores the ways in which we cast those we don’t understand as the Other, and the painful results of tribalism, insularity, and xenophobia.
At this point, the increasingly complex and interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe defies accessibility. It’s not enough to have seen previous films featuring the same titular hero—to have any idea what’s going on in most of the recent movies, it’s essential to have seen all the earlier entries. Thankfully, Black Panther stands almost entirely on its own. All you need to know is that our hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), has recently become king of the African nation of Wakanda after his father’s death in a terrorist attack. As fun as it is to watch T’Challa pounce around in his vibranium catsuit, Michael B. Jordan is absolutely mesmerizing as Killmonger—not just because of his performance, but because of the shockingly relatable thesis on which his villainous plot is built: How can wealthy, technologically superior Wakanda justify its fierce isolationism while black people are oppressed and murdered across the globe?
New England Theaters
I was fortunate enough to see several excellent productions around New England this year, including performances at Granite State stages like the Winnipesaukee Playhouse in Meredith and the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, Boston’s own Wheelock Family Theatre, and Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor, Maine—the Northeastern-most professional theatre company in the country. Some of the cast and crew included close friends of mine from college, including my girlfriend, but you don’t need a personal connection to enjoy the programming from these hard-working houses. With season picks that range from classic adaptations like The Graduate to best-selling musicals like The Producers to locally-written dramas like The Waltz (Winnipesaukee’s captivating tribute to Camille Claudel), these regional theaters satisfy a range of appetites and are worthy of your patronage.
Room 25, Noname
Fatimah Nyeema Warner raps so fluidly and articulately over the jazz-inflected instrumentation on her latest album that her voice occasionally seems to morph into an instrument of its own. Like John Coltrane’s dense harmonic patterns on A Love Supreme, Noname’s sophomore effort is layered with rich, exuberant sound that encourages multiple listens—during a year when I tried to check off as many new records as possible, I found myself constantly returning to Room 25 to soak it in all over again.
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, by Alan Lightman
This year, the last book I read was the most memorable. Lightman, the astrophysicist and novelist, has written an educational, enlightening, and all-encompassing collection of essays that explore the seemingly contradictory space between the scientific and the spiritual. Accessible and digestible, you don’t need a background in theology to enjoy Lightman’s musings on Saint Augustine’s conception of absolute truth or a Ph.D. in physics to savor his discussion on the discovery of subatomic particles.