Rapinoe the Great, Russian Doll, Anatolian Psych-Rock, and Socialism: ToM's Best of 2019

Each year, we ask our editors and contributors to weigh in with their picks for the best of books, film, music, TV, tweets, and so on. Each year, our “Best of” takes a different form, marrying the eclectic and the serendipitous. This year’s picks for reading, watching, and listening can be found below:

JASON TEBBE

Best Reading

Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire is a winning combination of historiographical revision and readability. I have already incorporated it into my American History survey class and my students totally dig it.

Best Sound Recording (album, single, etc.)

Altin Gün’s brand of Anatolian psychedelic rock by way of Holland is flat-out mind-blowing. Their album Gece excited me like little else.

Best Film or TV

Since I became a parent going to the movies for adults has become as rare as hen’s teeth in my life. I usually catch up on what was really good the next year. This year my belated experience was Can You Ever Forgive Me, the kind of character study that has all but disappeared from Hollywood film. It’s a showcase for Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy, two of my favorite actors. Beyond being a well-crafted and engaging story, it’s also a takedown of the rich New York types who think that spending a lot of money on something (in this case counterfeit letters) automatically makes it valuable. 

Wild Card (whatever you like that doesn’t fit in these boxes)

Sports is not ToM’s bread and butter, but soccer is, and I would nominate Duncan Ferguson’s celebration after Everton beat Chelsea to pull out of relegation zone for best sports moment. He’s a former player and club legend brought in as a temporary manager in the midst of a terrible season. Ferguson practically willed the team to victory, giving them the fighting spirit that made him one of the most feared “hard men” of his day. His ecstasy in victory was a reminder that for better or worse, sports is a crucial part of identity for so many people. That included me, watching on my couch in New Jersey never having been to Goodison Park (or the city Liverpool, for that matter) once in my life.

Image result for megan rapinoe sports illustrated

The other best sports moment was also soccer related. Megan Rapinoe powered the United States Women’s National Team to yet another World Cup victory. In the process she faced flack from King Donald himself, but persevered to score in the final and strike an epic pose. Rapinoe is one of the few white athletes to kneel during the anthem as well. In a year that saw Deadspin gutted for failing to “stick to sports,” Rapinoe refused to be a mascot for American nationalism. Her defiance and excellence seem to have already been forgotten. That’s a shame.


MIYAKO MARTINEZ

Best Film

Parasite by Bong Joon Ho

Best Reading

Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide (2017) by Lane Windham. This book really opened my eyes to the types of labor organizing issues in the neoliberal era.

Best Sound Recording

Vanishing Twin’s The Age of Immunology

Best Meme

For all the punk fans:


ROMEO GUZMÁN

Best Reading

Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (essays)

Cherríe Moraga, Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir (review in Boom)

Aida Salazar, The Moon Within (young adult fiction)

Best Sound Recording

Helado Negro, This Is How You Smile


STAN THANGARAJ

Best Reading

Tie between Queer Activism in India by Naisargi Dave and Partition Voices by Kavita Puri

Best Sound Recording

Indigo Girls’ Rites of Passage

Best Film or TV

Zer by Kazim Öz

Wild Card

Having several Kurdish scholars affirm my scholarship on Kurdish diasporas


COURTNEY RAWLINGS

Best Film:

I may or may not have seen Midsommar six times…

Best Reading:

Everyone should be reading nonsite.org.  

Best Sound Recording:

Lana del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell and Sharon Van Etten’s Remind Me Tomorrow. OBVIOUSLY. I’m going to assume the magic lies in their having three-part names and three-word album titles.

Best Meme Tweet

And Trump…


Image result for Fischer, McCann, and Auyero Cities from Scratch

JOEL SUAREZ

Best Reading

Cooper, Holt, and Scott’s (eds.) Beyond Slavery and Fischer, McCann, and Auyero’s (eds.) Cities from Scratch aren’t exactly new and, since they are both edited volumes, aren’t normal books, but they were incredibly insightful and good reads for my own research. How did the transitions from slavery to freedom in Cuba, Jamaica, Louisiana, and French West Africa create different experiences and visions of emancipation? How does the proliferation of “informality” shape struggles over rights, citizenship, and “formal” cities? More than anything, these books affirmed my belief that us 20th century Americanists really need to read outside of our own field. There’s a whole world out there beyond the New Deal!!! 

As for fun stuff… trying to take care of a toddler has slowed down my leisure reading considerably, but instead of a novel I’d have to say that I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the essays coming out from Commune, especially this spectacular essay by Chloe Watlington: “Who Owns Tomorrow?”

Best Sound Recording

Any classic Vicente Fernandez is good. The new Vampire Weekend album is my guilty pleasure. Spotify informs me that Beirut’s “No, No, No” and Cafe Tacvba’s “Ojala que llueva cafe” are in heavy rotation for a couple years in a row now.

Best Film

Free Solo was incredible (especially since I didn’t know how it would end).

Best Meme

The American Chopper arguing meme is both funny and a really useful way to break down arguments. I’m gonna have to use this when I teach one day. This one always pops up on the TL:

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Best Trump Tweet

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The “look at this photograph” one where he’s trolling Biden.

Wild Card

I can’t really say it’s one of my favorites because it’s a very repetitive and at times tortuous read, but I’m really coming around to Moishe Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination.


SETH TANNENBAUM

Best Reading

My best-of pick Isabelle Minasian’s article “The Year in Hug(s),” The Hardball Times, February 20, 2019, on the benefits of physical contact in sports. Seriously, this is a phenomenal and very interesting article that undergraduate students in my Baseball and American History course loved discussing on the last day of class this year.


ALEX CUMMINGS

Best Reading

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. Listening to actors talk about acting or writers talk about writing is usually self-immolatingly agonizing, but Nunez’s interior narrative of a writing prof and the dog she didn’t want offers a spiky meditation on love, loneliness, and growing old.

Mother Is a Verb by Sarah Knott. A structurally daring foray into the historical and intimate, the personal and the universal, of such dazzling brilliance that I’ve been wanting to write about it all year but haven’t figured out how to do so yet.

Best Film

I have to go pretty conventional with this, as my top picks will mirror many professional critics’ lists:

  1. Parasite (pure genius from a filmmaker with a deft hand for dark comedy, social commentary, pathos, and horror)
  2. The Farewell
  3. Us (unfairly overshadowed by Get Out and genuinely scary, in this lady’s view)
  4. Knives Out 
  5. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (a lyrical meditation on gentrification that resists shopworn cliches and easy answers)
  6. Ready Or Not (sadly overshadowed by the more sophisticated Knives Out, but still a nasty good time)
  7. Crawl (the story of a girl and her alligator)
  8. Uncut Gems

Honorable mention: Pokemon Detective Pikachu. They tried.

A big thumbs down to these insufferable Important Movie jive turkeys: Ad Astra, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Marriage Story.

Best Sound Recording

Norman Fucking Rockwell (obviously). Also, Cheap Queen by King Princess. KP first came to prominence in 2018 with the genius singles “1950,” “Talia,” and “Pussy Is God,” and while her first full-length album might not always rise to those heights, it marks the arrival of a smart, funny, original voice in pop music. I have to agree with my nemesis RG and agree that Helado Negro’s body of work has been a great discovery in 2019 too.

Best Meme

#EpsteinBrain (obviously)


WILL GREER

Best Sound Recording

The album that rocked my world the most in 2019 was David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. Released in 1970, it was a response to the success of ‘heavy’ bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin, and, oh boy, does Bowie bring it. More specifically, Bowie and his guitarist Mick Ronson bring it. Ronson’s playing is a jagged, fierce onslaught that makes Clapton’s Cream-era blues wailing seem tame by comparison. Bowie’s lyrics are full of enigmatic references to Nietzsche, Aleister Crowley, and H.P. Lovecraft. The end result is a dark, spooky iteration of the pomp and panache that Bowie brought to all of his work. I’m not saying there’s no good music out there today (Why men great ’til they gotta be great, right?), but this is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard.

Image result for james holzhauer smile
Say cheese

Best TV

This has been a hell of a year for Jeopardy. Between the pathos of Alex Trebek’s struggle with cancer and James Holzhauer’s record-breaking reign, the show has never been more exciting. Whether you love or hate James Holzhauer and his magical teeth, few would argue he wasn’t a compelling figure who changed how people play the game. And then there’s reckoning with Alex Trebek’s mortality. Despite his illness, he hosted the show with his usual poise and aplomb, but I couldn’t escape the realization that even the most steadfast institutions that gird our lives are fleeting. Is there a Jeopardy after Alex Trebek? Like it or not, we will probably have an answer to that question sooner than later.

Best Reading

The most relevant book I read this year is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. Raj Patel and Jason Moore demonstrate how capitalism ultimately reduces the materials of the world around us to cheap commodities. “Cheap is the opposite of a bargain,” they write. “Cheapening is a set of strategies to control a wider web of life.” This is the world we live in today. A world that is almost totally commodified. We live in the Capitalocene. This is an era that the authors trace back to Columbus’ exploitation of the Americas, and the ‘things’ that have been cheapened are vital elements such as nature, care, and even life itself. It is an eye-opening way to analyze the present state of our neoliberal world, and I just wish they could point us to a way to re-value things we take for granted.

Best Meme

The blonde lady fighting with the cat really seemed to capture a lot of the petty divisions that help cleave a society that is already divided by fundamental weltanschauungen. I want to thank whoever invented it for reminding me that things are probably going to get worse before they get better.

Wild Card

YouTube music critic Todd in the Shadows has kept me wonderfully entertained this year. If you thought that Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” could never be interesting, then watch Todd’s series, One Hit Wonderland. If you want to revel in schadenfreude as Robin Thicke’s career swan dives, watch Todd’s series, Trainwreckords. Either way, you’ll get a well-researched, often humorous, dose of pop music history that offers a welcome respite from the complete shitshow that is American society today.

Best Film

Jojo Rabbit is a fantastic meditation on the disturbing, child-like innocence of fanaticism and the ways in which concrete experience can challenge even the most deeply-held prejudices. Set in the final year of World War II, the movie tells the story of a boy in the Hitler Youth who discovers a Jewish woman hiding in his attic. Taika Waititi plays an avatar of Adolf Hitler, who serves as the boy’s imaginary best friend. Often funny, at times poignant, the story deals with the child’s transformation in a sensitive, engaging way. Its sometimes light tone may put some people off. After all, Theodor Adorno wondered how there can be poetry after Auschwitz. Yet Waititi’s direction skewers Nazi ideology without denying the humanity of some of the people who believed in it.  


JOHN LEGG

Best Sound Recording

When we think of country music, we tend to focus our attention on contemporary blends of country, rock, folk, and hip-hop. Colter Wall and the Scary Prairie Boys, though, do not fit cleanly into these categories. Colter Wall’s music reminds us of the foundations that would transform folk music into the genre of country and western. Colter’s rugged look and deep voice, the slow-strum of his Martin acoustic guitar, embodies the life of a rancher and cowboy. His songs are about heartache, ranching, solitude, and the love of the landscape in which he was raised—the open plains of Saskatchewan. His 2018 album, Songs of the Plains, remind us of the life of white men who traveled into the distant lands of the American West—lands that were the homelands of many Indigenous communities. While his songs are unique to the music industry, his songs often reinforce a problematic history of the American West. Westward expansion, the violence of cowboys and vigilantes, and the oft-misconstrued history of Indigenous peoples who encountered these men. That said, all should check out Colter Wall’s music to embrace a traditional sound of Americana. You won’t regret it.  


MURRAY BROWNE

Best Reading

An interesting phenomenon about reading is how some authors must reach a critical mass in your mind before you pick up one of his or her books. My older daughter Cynthia mentioned Sebald in a paper of hers, and then he was mentioned in Jose Carrión’s Bookhops (from last year’s best books list) before I picked up a copy of Austerlitz (2001) at  Powell’s City of Books in Portland. Born in Germany, Sebald spent much of his life in England teaching German literature. He has a most unusual writing style described as “elliptical a combination of “memoir, fiction, travelogue, history and biography.” I read two of what Sebald himself described as documentary fictions .  The first was Austerlitz, which tells the tale of man who tries to reconstruct his childhood when he discovers that he was sent by his Jewish parents from Czechoslovakia to England on the eve of the Nazi invasion of the country. In his other book, The Rings of Saturn (1995), the narrator roams throughout the Norwich area of England discovering the connections between his walks and the world at large. Each book is characterized by long passages with very few paragraphs but interspersed with grainy black and white photographs to illustrate his descriptions (kind of like a blog on paper).

There seems to be a common theme in this year’s Best Books and that has been trying to understand 2019 better through the lens of 20th century history. It began with reading Eric Villiard’s The Order of the Day (2017) a short nonfiction book which looks how Nazi Germany annexed Austria months ahead of World War II and how Adolf Hitler was aided and supported by the German industrial giants of  Bayer, IG Farben, and Thyssen-Krupp (and others) who profited and whose fortunes were relatively unscathed by the war. 

Going to the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany this fall, I did do some “reading ahead” of the history of these countries. Two books by Czech expat Josef Skvorecky captures the dismal society under Soviet control in then Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. Another book, Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 (2002), introduces to the ghastly bloody end of World War II and how it set in motion the Cold War. My takeaway: Don’t take the threats from the Soviets/Russians lightly, they are tough, long suffering people who historically know how inflict major suffering on others.

As some sort of counterbalance to totalitarianism fanfare, I read the new edition of Charles Black Jr. and Philip Bobbitt’s The Impeachment Handbook (2018) which without mentioning Donald Trump discusses the history of impeachment, entails impeachable crimes and a discussion of the seven fallacies surrounding impeachment.

It’s a tidy short book and on a lark, I sent one via Amazon to our Georgia U.S. Senator David Perdue. I hope someone will take the lead and send a copy to the newly appointed Kelly Loeffler who is temporarily replacing our other senator. But perhaps she should consider buying her own since she’s contributing $20 million of her personal forture to her  campaign in 2020. 

I’ve also been reading Astra Taylor, Democracy Doesn’t Exist, But We’re Going to Miss it When It’s Gone (2018) just to put an historical perspective on what democracy really means and how it is distinguished from equality and freedom. You can see how obsessive I’ve become in 2019 even though I have been trying to limit watching the news on television.

One final note to ponder about democracy, in the aforementioned A Savage War of Peace one of the tipping points in that lead to the outbreak of eight years of terrorism and bloodshed was the French denying voting rights to the Algerian Muslim population through intimidation. Something to ponder in the age of gerrymandering and making it more challenging for people to vote whether it’s making it more difficult for college students to vote in New Hampshire or purging voting registrations in Georgia.

I feel I must finish on somewhat a lighter note. I thoroughly enjoyed the cleverness of Ryan Britt’s Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths (2015). Britt, a great fan of science fiction, looks at some of the oddities of this world: Sherlock Holmes as a sci-fi institution, “looking at Star Trek as a half assed religion,” and of course thinking about Luke Skywalker’s favorite books.

Best Film or TV

Movie-wise nothing sticks out, except I thought the HBO Series Chernobyl was the most riveting thing I watched 2019. First of all it was well put together as it transformed me to the Soviet world that I am a little familiar with since I lived for about 6 years in its American counterpart — Oak Ridge, TN. (I used to wear a dosimeter at work.)  From what I know, they did not take huge liberties with the plot and to think that the disaster was only the tip of the iceberg of what could happened. I admire the bravery of the Soviet citizens and especially the coal miners who sacrificed for others to live. The message of how “leaders” are willing to destroy the environment to protect their own legacies does not fall my ears without the fear that this continues and we have learned nothing.


CASEY BASKIN

Best Reading

Willie Perdomo, The Crazy Bunch (poems)

Shane McCrae, The Gilded Auction Block (poems)

Karen Russell, Orange World, and Other Stories

Sabrina Orah Mark, Wild Milk (crazy ass stories)

Best Film or TV

Natasha Lyonne’s brilliant, funny, layered, mysterious series Russian Doll. Would that we were all as cool and self-possessed as our reality-tripping hero Nadia.

Best Sound Recording

Clairo, Immunity

Weyes Blood, Titanic Rising

Black Pumas, Black Pumas

Megan Thee Stallion, Fever

Image result for aoc dancing

Best Meme

I don’t know if this counts as a meme, but the AOC Dancing phenomenon got the year off to a great start — further proof (if any was needed) that A. the GOP are stupid and B. they hate fun. (Also our great genius-hero of Millennial Socialism glows with a true light from within.)

For past years’ Best-Ofs, click here.

Author: Tropics of Meta

We are legion.

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