Pop Rocks: It's never too late for a bit of reflection

Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free feels inspired by the sound of classic Nashville.

People who know me will tell you that I am often late. This is not, I’m sad to say, late as in fashionably so. No, I’m the other kind of late. The ordinary, pedestrian sort of late that comes from not quite managing my time efficiently, letting my mind wander as seconds turn to minutes and perhaps misjudging the travel time between points A and B. And while I’m rarely wildly tardy, it’s a pretty good bet that I’ll never be the first to arrive at the party.


I mention this because it’s nearly February. It’s been 2016 long enough that we have all become accustomed to writing it as the date. But I still have some essential 2015 business to attend to. You see, I’ve not offered up my favorite things of the year. And while my privileges as an arts writer have not yet been revoked, I imagine if I let another week slide by without addressing the past year as well as looking toward the future, they’ll pull my card.

So, with that in mind, here is a look at some things I really loved this year:



Bull Mountain – Augusta-area writer Brian Panowich’s debut novel is a blend of noir twists, family drama and a seeming effortless grasp of character, pacing and plot. Not only would I be hard pressed to come up with a book I read last year that I enjoyed as much, I’d find it difficult to come up with any work that inspired me as an artist more.

Possibilities – The story of Brennan Simkins is well-known in the Augusta community. His, and his family’s, relentless assault on the cancer that some felt was unbeatable became a source of inspiration not only in the local community, but across the country. This year Brennan’s father, Turner Simkins, released what he calls his ‘war journal’ – an edited version of the online posts he wrote during his son’s treatment. The result is a riveting and ultimately uplifting story that encourages optimism without ever becoming saccharine in its message.

Dead Wake – Writer Erik Larson captures, communicates and breathes life into history as well as, and perhaps better, than any writer working today. His latest, a look at the sinking of the Lusitania and its relationship to the United States’ participation in World War I, is paced like a thriller and that much more engaging because every word is true.



Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – The debut LP by this Aussie singer-songwriter manages to make the mundane feel miraculous through an astonishing command of language and phrasing, a sense of low-key likability and the uncanny ability to balance rock and sweet melody. Despite a Grammy nod and critical acclaim both in this country and abroad, Barnett hasn’t quite hit here – yet. But mark my words – the day is coming.

Wild Throne, Harvest of Darkness – A courageous record, Harvest of Darkness draws inspiration from a wide variety of rock motifs – metal, prog-rock and, when it segues into the occasional sing-along section, arena rock. The result is a record that is unquestionably heavy, certainly challenging and surprisingly engaging. A true power trio with no shortage of power.

Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free – While Isbell’s previous release, 2013’s spare and haunting Southeastern, documented the newly sober singer’s battle with the bottle, Something More Than Free is a far lusher affair. While still drawing from stories of very human struggle, the record feels inspired by the studio sounds of classic Nashville, and Isbell sounds like a singer, player and writer who is finally comfortable with his place in a still-emerging pantheon of new outlaw country artists.



The Revenant – I have heard it argued that this a ‘guy’ movie. Perhaps. There is certainly merit to that argument. It’s also beautifully shot, features some spectacular performances and manages to capture moments on film that feel fresh and new – a very difficult task. That said, I may be biased. I am, after all, a guy.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – I turned nine in 1977 and a few months later the original Star Wars was released. I was the demographic. And while I do believe there was some lazy writing and underdeveloped ideas in the new movie, it was fun and I am sentimental.

Mad Max: Fury Road – An amazing amalgamation of Aussie exploitation cinema and art house techniques, the first Mad Max movie in decades proved to be powerful, beautiful and very, very exciting. Some have written this off as an extended car chase. The car chase is the medium. The relationships are the message.