Originally published in 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas has stood the test of time as one of the finest ever written. It tells the story of an ambitious young sailor Edmond Dantes who is wrongfully convicted of treason when a letter conceived by three of his acquaintances is sent to the authorities. Edmond then spends several years in jail before returning to seek revenge on those who wronged him. At 1200 pages, it is an extraordinary work that feels like it could continue for another 1000 pages. An absolute marvel and one of the best books I’ve ever read.
The 2017 novel by Celeste Ng is a New York Times Bestseller and now a mainstay of book clubs with an adapted TV show from Reese Witherspoon. The story follows the Richardson family from Shaker Heights, OH who rent out an apartment to an Mia and her daughter Pearl. Soon Mia is working for the Richardsons and Pearl is best friends with the kids. The book is a straightforward telling of their lives with a mystery built around Mia’s past. Highly entertaining, it is one that makes you think of what you would do if you were in the character’s shoes.
This high brow short novel by Ian McEwan won the Booker prize in 1998. The death of a former restaurant critic brings many of her former lovers together at the funeral. From there if follows the lives of composer Clive Linley and newspaper editor Vernon Halliday as they handle some of the most important work of their lives. The book is very well written and keeps the reader engaged through its arguments, decisions of its main characters and the ever-present wine drinking.
Flash Boys, the Michael Lewis book from 2014 dives deep into the world of the US stock exchange, big banks, and high frequency traders. The book starts by speaking of the industry’s need for speed where transactions are timed by milliseconds. It also follows the story of the Goldman Sachs case against former employee Sergey Aleynikov for stealing code and Brad Katsuyama, the RBC employee who wanted to change the way the markets do business by creating IEX (Investor’s Exchange). At times the book reads like a movie where the story telling is brisk, funny and exciting. At other times it gets bogged down in financial details. For most people, this would have made for a very engaging article rather than a nearly 300 page book.
5. Haim – Women in Music Pt. III: Released in the early summer, it took another six months before I really listened to the third album from the Haim sisters. Employing a number of musical styles, the band released another set of great songs including their three stellar singles from 2019. Highlights include first track “Los Angeles” and the pop rock of “Don’t Wanna”.
4. Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death: The fiery rock of the band’s debut Dogrel was our favourite album from last year. The band further expanded their sound with added atmosphere and nuance particularly on “Living in America” and “Love is the Main Thing”. Second single “I Don’t Belong” was a highlight as the minimal instrumentation allows singer Grian Chatten’s weariness to shine.
3. Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Fiona Apple’s first album in 8 years was a staggering accomplishment. It caught many ears when it came out to a locked down world reeling from the early throws of the pandemic. The lyrics are raw as Apple recounts terrible dinner parties, arguments with bandmates, and the fury of “For Her”. “Shameika” is the standout track for it’s uplifting childhood story one liner told over a rollicking piano.
2. Grimes – Miss Anthropocene: Over the past few years, Grimes has been in the media spotlight due to her relationship with billionaire Elon Musk. Not always putting her best boot forward, it’s not always easy being a Grimes fan. But then the latest album drops and all is forgiven. An atmospheric and cinematic delight, the highlights are many. After a few dense soundscapes, the acoustic guitar of “Delete Forever” is standout as is the club beats of “Violence” and pop chorus of “You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around”. Grimes is an enigma and truly wonderous musician.
1. Taylor Swift – folklore: Famously in the summer of 2019, pitchfork.com went back and reviewed all the Taylor Swift albums they had otherwise ignored over the years. A year later, Swift released a surprise album in July. She once again worked with Jack Antonoff but also with new collaborator Aaron Dessner from The National. This news was catnip to introspective 40 year old rock fans the world over. At 17 tracks, the album might be a tad long but jumping around, it’s hard to find a wrong note anywhere. Swift makes it sound easy on a run of tracks from “Mirrorball”, “Seven”, the pop of “August”, and the heartbreaking “This is Me Trying”. Then right at the end of the year, Taylor Swift released yet another surprise batch of songs that once again sent music fans scrambling to download and endlessly listen to while parsing through the lyrics.
10. Jessie Ware – Spotlight: One of the most surprising tracks of the year was hearing the first single from Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? album. As Ware sings the intro, suddenly the beat comes in and moves the song in an unexpected disco direction. A revitalized Jessie Ware was a joy to listen to in 2020.
9. The Fiery Furnaces – Down at the So and So on Somewhere: The Fiery Furnaces have always been a bit hit and miss but their first song after being gone for 10+ years was all hit. Simple keyboards and beats that hit in all the right places. At times it sounds like an accomplished 12 year old put it together which made it all the more charming. “Don’t you remember we were happy there?” We do!
8. Gia Margaret – body: A late comer after hearing it on the excellent Cillian Murphy BBC6 Radio show. Set over the sound of twinkling white lights, this beguiling track uses a speech from philosopher Alan Watts that is beamed in from a different era. It is beautiful, sad, and inspiring all at once. Regardless of what Watt says, I feel the feelings.
7. Justin Bieber (Feat. Quavo) – Intentions: One of my favourite beats of the year, hearing Bieber sing – “picture perfect you don’t need no filter” is a lyric tailor made for the social media age. The top 5 single is a winner with its laidback groove and positive vibes. Not to mention the Raptors shoutout.
6. Bad Child – HI DEF: Randomly found this one while listening to the Adult Alternative Channel on Stingray music. One of the few rock songs on this year end list, it’s a great one to jump around to as the girls in the video do. After this 2020 BS is over, looking forward to once again being “…wasted with my friends”.
5. Fontaines D.C. – I Don’t Belong: Besides Bieber, this is the only other returning artist from 2019. The first guitar lick sounds like it was airlifted from a Lil Peep track while Grian Chattan sounds tired but also manages to expand his vocal delivery. “I don’t belong to anyone, I don’t want to belong” is surely an anthem for those locked in their bedrooms after a rough break-up… or breakdown.
4. The Blaze (Feat. Octavian) – Somewhere: There’s a few tracks that come out of nowhere and just stay as a favourite all year for no discernable reason. This year it’s The Blaze which rides a groove that builds then comes back down to earth. This is for the dark corners of the club, where the people move “quick like Ferrari” when the lights come up again.
3. Z Berg – Into the Night: The track appears on the 2020 solo debut from Elizabeth Anne Berg that feels like stepping into a fantasy world. The cinematic song sounds like a fairy tale showing both the light and dark as she sings, “as life got too heavy, so I got too light” before she disappears from sight and back into the night.
2. Keeley Forsyth – Start Again: The second song released by the actress turned musician is the oldest track here having appeared in January 2020. The minimal arrangements are not much more than a beat a few synth stabs but are nonetheless haunting, like a disturbing dream as she searches “over and over and over and over”. Leave the lights on.
1. Fiona Apple – Shameika: Fiona Apple’s 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters received ecstatic reviews upon release in June. The basis of this standout track is a childhood acquaintance that tells Apple that “she has potential”. The clattering beat and piano form the backing track that all comes to a stop as Apple delivers the “potential” line before the drums and piano bang back in to drive the point home. To hear the positive message delivered by a teenager from about 30 years ago is disarming in this era where people spend hours fighting online. It’s an amazing track on an excellent album that is hard to get out of your head once it’s in there.