Best and Worst of 2015


The skinny: 2015 was a great year for music, books, and art. It totally sucked for movies. Here are my personal cheers and jeers.


Best Recording of the Year:
Patty Griffin, Servant of Love: Her breakup album will made you sad, mad, and bowl you over with its power and beauty

It's mildly unfair to honor Patty on a blog generally devoted to with fewer resources on hand, so let me also give a shout out to amazing efforts from: Holly Arrowsmith, Drew Holcomb, Maura Kennedy, and Hannah Miller.

Worst Recordings of the Year:

A recording from an artist called Honeybird struck me as an exercise in shallow, attitude-laden, self-indulgence masquerading as profundity. A re-release of a 1989 Blake Babies concert was an unwelcome reminder of how boring and sloppy grunge had become just before it died.

Concert of the Year:

Wailin' Jennys
My toughest pick, as I saw so many amazing performances. I'd have to call it a toss-up between the Wailin' Jennys at the Academy of Music on May 1, and Tom Rush at the New Bedford Folk Festival on July 5—the Jennys for the ineffable beauty of their harmonies, and Rush for a textbook display of what experience and professionalism bring to the table that no new artist can.

Honorable Mentions to: Mairtin Connor Band (April, Parlor Room); Martin Hayes (July, West Whately Chapel); Milk Carton Kids (September, Academy of Music); Slaid Cleaves (September, Parlor Room); Patty Griffin (October, Academy of Music); Dan Bern (October, Parlor Room); Loreena McKennitt (October, Calvin Theater).

Most Surprising Performance of the Year:
daisy mayhem
It's rare that a warm-up act upstages the main event, but that's exactly what Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem did at the Academy of Music on November 27. We expect Arbo to be wonderful, but she absolutely killed it that night. Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky gave their usual solid performances, but they never came close to generating Arbo's  passion. 

Worst Show of the Year:

There wasn't a thing wrong with the music, but Nora Jane Struthers acted like a petulant 15-year-old in her February show at the Parlor Room. Even worse, her lame chat and lamer still attempts to exhort the audience brought some of it down to her level. Lose the smarm, Nora Jane–you didn't fool me!

Best Novel:

T'was a glorious year for fiction. In the end, though, Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North gets my nod for keeping me riveted to a subject toward which I'd not generally gravitate: a Japanese World War II POW camp. It is gorgeously written, profound, moving, and humanizes both victims and their tormenters.

Just a tick below: Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop and Kristin Hannah, The  Nightingale.

Worst Novel:

Is Sara Gruen a one-hit wonder? She sure as hell bombed with the trashy At the Water's Edge.


I didn't see a bad show this year, but one show stood out for being innovative, important, and unique: Coney Island: Visions of an AmericanDreamland, which I saw at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.


I didn't see a single film this year likely to be labeled 'art' a decade from now. American films were so dire that I suspect Hollywood is on its last legs. So here's the best of a desultory list. Note: I rank only films that most people could have actually seen in 2015, meaning they must have opened somewhere other than Los Angeles or Manhattan.

Best Films:

View for a silly treat!
It's not an 'important' film," but for sheer enjoyment, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Directed by Jonas Jonasson) was hands-down the most enjoyable time I had in the cinema. It's in Swedish and is subtitled, but its hilarity needs no translation.
The best American film was Whiplash, Director Damien Chazelle's look at a budding young jazz drummer and his interactions with a mentor who might be a father figure, a monster, or both.  It is technically a 2014 film, but see my criterion above.

The most surprising film of the year was Brooklyn (Directed by John Crowley), which is much sweeter than my usual cup of tea, takes on a well-used subject (immigration), and is sunnier than a poached egg. And it still won me over.

Worst Movies of the Year:

Clothes do not make the movie
This is another tough one—so many contenders. Low-budget indie films can be bad, but it's not fair to hold them to the same standards as one would expect from a seasoned crew. Nor is it entirely fair to demean the artistic merits of films that have no pretense of being anything other than escapism. I choose to dishonor films with big budgets, big ambitions, and big names. Two stuck out: Mr. Turner (Directed by Mike Leigh) and A Little Chaos (Directed by Alan Rickman). The first film reduces English painter J.M. W. Turner to the value of a velvet Elvis; and the second imagines a female landscape architect at Versailles in a role her real-life counterpart never played, and makes feminism into frippery in the process.  

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