Staunton and Charlottesville, Virginia.

My draft blog post on Jeff Hoffman is up for Insiders, as is a short reaction to Baltimore signing Nelson Cruz. Look for another draft blog post, on UVA hitters, on Tuesday.

Esquire ran a piece last week that profiled a new, tiny restaurant called the Shack, located in the Virginia mountain hamlet of Staunton (pronounced like Giancarlo’s surname), while also somehow praising the writer for finding this hidden gem. That link’s serendipitous appearance in my Twitter feed came a few days before my scheduled trip to Charlottesville, itself a wonderful food town, but just 45 minutes away from Staunton – a bit of fortuitous timing I couldn’t pass up.

And the Shack is indeed a fantastic experience, both for food and for value: $40 for a prix-fixe menu, only available on Friday and Saturday nights, that comprises three courses (one choice each among three starters, three entrees, and two desserts) with huge flavors and a great focus on produce. I’m not sure how much of what I ate was local, given the time of year, but much of it was at least seasonally appropriate, and the deftness of the execution was remarkable.

The first course was my favorite of the night: sweetbread-filled tortelloni with beech mushrooms, basil leaves, and a Meyer lemon paste (possibly from confit) underneath, with the pasta itself made fresh in the back. Cooked perfectly al dente, the tortelloni had an ideal dough/filling ratio, and the mushrooms brought a huge earthy note to the dish that seemed to increase the potency of the minced sweetbread inside the dumplings. (I concede I am a sucker for any pasta dish made with good mushrooms.) The lemon underneath the pasta was hidden, requiring a little extra effort to get it into each bite, but the balance of sweet, sour, salty, and umami flavors was spot on – and never during the meal did I have a thought of “this needs salt.”

My entree was a seared trout with cured trout roe, brussels sprouts, and parsnip puree. The trout itself tasted unbelievably fresh – I don’t know if it’s even the right time of year for it, but the fish tasted as if it had just been caught – and this was the best trout skin I’ve ever eaten; even at home I often just skip it because of the work required to make it this well. Imagine the texture of a potato chip, so thin it’s nearly translucent, taken right out of the fryer, and you have a sense of how the skin tasted. I’m quibbling here, but the dish tended a shade too much toward the sweet side because of all of the natural sugar in the parsnips, and I’d have liked a little more of the finger lime vinaigrette to balance it – but I only noticed it because everything else was so perfectly done. (Finger limes are new to me, a citrus plant native to Australia and only recently commercialized and grown in the United States.)

The dessert was described in the most basic terms on the menu: “apples + bananas + vanilla wafers + terragon [sic],” but as the other option was full of hazelnuts, one of my least favorite flavors in the culinary catalog, I chose the fruit dish with no idea what I might get. What I got was sparse but bursting with flavor, centered around beautifully browned chunks of banana, with crumbled vanilla wafers underneath like a deconstructed pie crust. It lacked something to bind all of the elements together – a little crême fraîche, perhaps, or some honeyed labneh – but the flavors on the plate were beautiful.

The Shack is waiting on its beer/wine license, which should arrive by early March, and seating will likely remain limited – the tiny space seats about 32 people, all in tables for four, so while I had a table to myself for a while, the server asked me if I’d mind sharing with a couple who had just arrived. I said yes, of course, and ended up having a long conversation with the couple, a bit closer to my parents’ age, about Staunton, food, and places we’d traveled. I had just seen Alton Brown’s Edible Inevitable tour, during which he expounds on the role of food as a shared experience – the act of eating is what brings us to the table, together, to break bread. I would never have met that couple or had that conversation without word of The Shack’s amazing food spreading to the point that it reached me and made me want to make the trip. The food alone was worth it – $40 for that kind of quality, both in execution and in inputs, is a screaming bargain – but the experience as a whole was one-of-a-kind.

* Of course, leaving Charlottesville for dinner limited my dining time in that town to just the next morning’s breakfast and a stop for coffee. Breakfast at the Blue Moon Diner was fine, nothing remarkable other than bad service (I sat at the counter, where two servers were more interested in doing things like organizing the vinyl records for the turntable). Coffee at Shenandoah Joe’s, a reader suggestion, was much better: they offer pour-overs with a few dozen options, all roasted in-house, although the folks at the register didn’t seem to know much about which beans were the freshest. (Older beans tend to lose some of their brighter notes, like acidity, something I just learned very recently.) I had their Guatemalan El Tambor offering in a pour-over, only offered in 16 oz size for about $2.50, and other than lacking some acidity it was a great cup, with deep roasted cocoa nib and rum/molasses notes.

Takenoko.

Takenoko is our new favorite family game, easy enough for my 7-year-old to understand (and, after two plays, completely memorize) the rules, just complex enough to require some serious decision-making, with beautiful components and a kid-friendly theme. Aside from one small hiccup in the rules, it’s about as perfect as any adult/kid boardgame out there.

In Takenoko, the emperor of Japan has been given a panda as a gift, and the panda does what pandas do – he starts running around the emperor’s garden eating bamboo, frustrating the royal gardener. The board changes each game as players lay hex tiles in three different colors on the table, starting with the central pond tile, then irrigating each tile so they can add bamboo stacks to it – although the panda will move around the board and eat bamboo when the players need to collect some.

On a turn, a player takes two actions and may not perform the same type of action twice. Action choices include adding a hex tile (draw three, choose one to place, return the other two to the bottom of the stack); add an irrigation canal; move the gardener to an irrigated tile, adding bamboo to that one and any adjacent, irrigated tiles of the same color; move the panda, eating one bamboo section from the tile where he lands; or take another objective card to try to score more points. After round one, each player rolls a “weather” die before his/her turn, allowing him/her to take a third action, perform the same action twice, or do specific tasks like moving the panda for free.

Players all work to build up the royal gardens, earning points by completing “objectives” on three types of cards. The first kind involves creating patterns of hex tiles on the board, with the player scoring points once the tiles are placed in the right pattern and are all irrigated. The second requires the player to collect bamboo sections, scoring once he’s obtained the whole set shown on the card. The third and most difficult kind, the gardener cards, require constructing specific bamboo stacks – four sections of a single color on a specific tile type, or sets of three or four stacks of exactly three sections, all of the same color. Task rewards range from 2 points up to 7, and the game ends when a player reaches a specific threshold based on the number of players in the game (equal to 11 minus the number of players, if you don’t mind a little arithmetic). The player to reach that threshold first gets the Emperor card, worth an additional 2 points.

The tile types I mentioned above involve improvement tokens, some of which are printed on the hex tiles already, with 9 more miniature tiles available for players to add to tiles as they see fit. One type prohibits the panda from eating bamboo sections on that tile (which means the stack can never shrink); another makes the tile particularly fertile, so it adds two bamboo sections instead of one each time the gardener drops by; and the third, the watershed token, adds irrigation to a tile regardless of its access to the central network of canals. These can make reaching certain objectives easier, but the gardener cards that call for building a bamboo stack of four sections specify what improvements are required to earn points – some cards call for a specific token, and the others can only be scored if the stack is on a hex tile with no improvement tokens at all.

The lone hiccup in the game comes from the existence of multiple objective cards with the same pattern or requirement within each deck. In the gardener and tile-pattern decks, that means a player could draw the same card twice and, in theory, score twice for fulfilling its requirements just once. The rulebook points out this possibility and suggests a house rule to cover it; we’ve played with the simplest solution, that no player can score the same objective card from these decks twice. The panda objective cards don’t present this problem, because to score such a card you have to return the bamboo sections you’ve collected to the central repository; if you draw the same panda objective card again, you have to start collecting from scratch anyway.

Takenoko has a high interactive element with a low screw-your-opponent factor; you can sometimes infer what your opponent is trying to do, but you probably won’t be certain, and making a move to stop him/her just sets you back from achieving your own objectives. You can, however, benefit from what someone else does, or find an opponent has inadvertently blocked you, so choosing what steps to take when is a big part of Takenoko strategy. The time required to run irrigation lines out to hex tiles placed two or three spaces away from the central pond is also a big factor in deciding when or whether to go for a hex-pattern objective, and because the panda and gardener can only move in straight lines, you may also find yourself trying to position them in your current turn so you’ll have a fighting chance to get them ready to strike in your next one.

Games run very quickly, maybe a half hour for the three of us to complete a game, in large part because the rules are straightforward enough for my daughter to make reasonably fast decisions and to decide before her turn arrives what she wants to do. (This also involved her making vague threats to my wife and myself about what might happen if we screwed up what she was trying to accomplish on her next turn.) The components are well-made and attractive, with a sensible box for storage and the right number of small bags to keep the bamboo stacks and other pieces separated.

Sherlock, season three.

Sherlock, season three, executive summary: fun, amazing, disappointing, in exactly that order.

When your seasons are just three episodes long and each one of them is the length of a short feature film, it’s hard to build up longer story arcs or engage in large-scale character development. For the third season of Sherlock, Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffatt’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character and stories into a modern setting, we do get some surprising alterations in Sherlock’s character, but unfortunately some of it comes at the expense of what makes him who he is: The deductions.

(I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the series already; you may want to start with my reviews of season one and season two.)

We last saw our titular hero taking a dive off the edge of a building in a staged suicide attempt that was intended to foil the evil plans of evildoer Moriarty and save John Watson, a riff on the short story “The Final Problem,” where ACD killed off Holmes, only to bring him back a few years later in response to public outrage over the character’s death. We knew Holmes didn’t die here, but the first episode had to, as it were, un-kill him – and the writers had a bit of fun with it, posing increasingly preposterous solutions before showing what might be the actual one, only to have Holmes himself cast doubt on his own explanation of actual events. (Gatiss has pointed out that there are only so many ways to jump off a building and survive, so I think we can accept Sherlock’s last answer as the correct one.) “The Empty Hearse” thus brings Holmes back to life, to London, and to Dr. Watson, the last of which provides some of the series’ darkest comedy to date – as one might expect Watson to be a little peeved that his BFF faked his own death and disappeared for two years without a word. The series of reunions that bring Sherlock back, more or less, to his old circle of partner-antagonists takes up the bulk of the episode, but we do get an actual case, this time an act of domestic terrorism that Sherlock has to stop both by deduction and by action. The balance of intellectual crime-solving, the interplay between Sherlock and Watson, and the filling in of the blanks of the previous season’s cliffhanger differs greatly from the formula for the previous six episodes, but Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) carries the extra weight beautifully and the episode felt like an appetizer for the remaining two parts of the season.

The second episode, “The Sign of Three,” was a high point for the series, perhaps my favorite episode to date, in large part due to a tour de force performance from Cumberbatch, balancing Sherlock’s discomfort with social situations (here, as the best man in Watson’s wedding) against his intense fascination with the puzzle of any case – here, two mysteries that intersect at the wedding in a third incident that Sherlock has to try to prevent while giving the traditional speech. Cumberbatch owns the screen, pushing the boundaries of the character, mostly showing more humanity through his evident affection for Watson (hey, the short stories were one of literature’s original bromances), radiating huge quantities of energy through his voice, his body language, and his facial expressions as he first stalls for time and then solves the case without ceding the floor. It’s a peculiarity of the episode that Watson is relegated to a side character in an episode devoted to his own wedding, but as great as Martin Freeman is as the good doctor, we are here to see Mr. Holmes do his thing, and in “The Sign of Three” (an allusion to the short novel The Sign of Four) he does it superbly.

That peak made the third episode, “His Last Vow,” an even bigger letdown than normal. Sherlock has disappeared again, this time for a shorter period, and Watson finds him working undercover, in the middle of a case, with the target the media magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen, a blackmailing version of Rubert Murdoch who holds a trove of damaging information on virtually everyone of importance in the Western world. The client is unclear, at least at first, although the case eventually takes on a more personal aspect for Sherlock, leading him to an emotional reaction that puts his ability to solve the case rationally in jeopardy.

Aside from the return of Janine (played by the Irish-Pakistani comedienne Yasmine Akram) from the preceding episode, “His Last Vow” fell short in every aspect that has made this series so great. The interplay between Holmes and Watson is limited, and strained when it occurs; the rapid-fire His Girl Friday dialogue that populates most of the first eight episodes is nearly absent here, and their chemistry with each other is short-circuited by Watson’s ire over Holmes’ initial disappearance and later by the personal nature of the case. We get very little of Holmes’ deduction, and what we do get is short of the mark. Lestrade doesn’t appear – in fact, he’s in far too little of this season overall. The villainous Magnussen is too odious, comically repugnant beyond the point of realism. I don’t wish to spoil the twist, but my understanding of that method of information storage is that it works for short-term storage but not the kind of long-term solution Magnussen would require.

So while “The Sign of Three” was revelatory, a leap forward for the series by developing its central characters while meeting or exceeding its previous standards for intelligence, the rest of the season was a disappointment. Had “The Empty Hearse” been the only deviation from the series’ main formula, the season could have been as good as or better than the first two, but the decision to craft a melodramatic finale that deemphasized Sherlock’s essential Holmesness did not succeed.

The Last Dragonslayer.

In case you missed anything, here’s the full set of links to the top 100 prospects package. The piece on 10 prospects who just missed the 100 will now run on Wednesday, rather than today.

I’m a longtime fan of Jasper Fforde’s novels – the Thursday Next series, the two Nursery Crimes books, and the dying-for-a-sequel Shades of Grey – and just tackled his first young adult novel, The Last Dragonslayer, last week. The first in the “Chronicles of Kazam” series, the book is quite Ffordian, just without the sex and swearing we’re used to from the Thursday Next books, yet still very ffunny and still willing to address big themes like death, moral choices, and greed.

Set in an alternate version of our world where magic exists (albeit in decline) and the U.K. has splintered into the Ununited Kingdoms, The Last Dragonslayer revolves around 15-year-old Jennifer Strange, the temporary manager of the Kazam employment agency for sorcerors and, as it turns out, the next in the line of dragonslayers. Here be dragons, or at least nearby, thanks to the Dragonpact that set up boundaries between dragons and humans – but the dragon nearest Kazam is dying and every human wants to rush in and claim some of the soon-to-be-unoccupied land. Fforde loves to riff on capitalism run amok and spares no one here in his assaults on human and corporate avarice, not even the local idiot King of Hereford, who believes Jennifer should be acting in his interests as one of his subjects.

Strange herself has no magical abilities, although she’s running the shop at Kazam, which rents out the services of its various mages for things like home rewirings and pizza deliveries (all those magic carpets have to find some use). She’s the ideal Ffordian hero: uncertain, underconfident, stronger than she realizes, female yet not overtly feminine, and fiercely loyal to her friends and to her principles. One of those friends, filling the role of Pickwick the dodo, is the Quarkbeast, whose only dialogue comprises the occasional interjection, “Quark.”

The successful completion of Jennifer’s mission involves more cunning than fighting, and she outwits several opponents to her half-formed plans to try to do the Right Thing, even though she’s far from clear on what that is. The story moves quickly, unfettered by much in the way of subplots – the missing owner of Kazam will likely wait for another day to resurface, and I imagine we’ll hear more of the origins of both Jennifer and her fellow foundling “Tiger” Prawns in a future book – with plenty of the dry wit that makes Fforde’s books such a pleasure to read. I think it’s appropriate for ages 8 or 9 and up, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any adult.

State of Wonder.

Thursday’s Klawchat had a lot of Hall of Fame talk plus some prospect content. The Top 100 prospects package will run the week of January 27th.

Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder marks a return to form for the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, Bel Canto, where she pays homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain while drawing on the real-life hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru. In between those two books, Patchett wrote just one novel, the embarrassing Run, a not-even-thinly-veiled love letter to then Senator Barack Obama, whom Patchett clearly hoped would run for President and win. That novel lost all of what made Patchett special, even in the quality of her prose, but State of Wonder brings everything back together.

Marina Singh is a pharmacologist working for a major drug researcher that has been funding a long-running development project deep in the Amazon basin, where the women in a tribe of natives, the Lakashi, maintain fertility well into their 70s. The eccentric researcher running the project, Dr. Annick Swenson, has cut off nearly all contact with her benefactors, and another researcher sent to locate her and report back on her progress, Marina’s colleague Anders Eckmann, died of fever while still in Brazil. Marina, who studied under Dr. Swenson over a decade earlier before an incident pushed her out of obstetrics into pharmacology, draws the short straw and has to go track down her former mentor, but finds that her mission is more complicated in both a practical and philosophical sense than anyone realized.

The lead characters in State of Wonder, Marina and Dr. Swenson, stand alongside Patchett’s best characters from Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant as smart, three-dimensional personas. Their thinking is complex and real without becoming unrealistic; Dr. Swenson is a genius, and a different sort of person, but her character is logical and thinks and behaves in logical ways. Marina’s back story is more involved, and her character, while very intelligent, is less mature, and she’s still grappling with the fallout from that incident that caused her to switch her specialty during her residency. (The novel would also pass the Bechdel test if it were made into a film.)

Marina spends a few weeks in the (real) Brazilian city of Manaus before finding Dr. Swenson and heading into the remote jungle location of the research labs, encountering some oddball, entertaining side characters that make up for some of their two-dimensionality with their injection of humor. But Patchett’s renderings of the settings, both Manaus and the Lakashi region, are beautifully detailed, and she represents the natives, by any Western definition a “primitive” people, without resorting to condescension over their way of life, even though it would likely be warranted.

Patchett has commented in interviews that her book was inspired by several films, notably Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (TL;DW), but there’s also a clear evocation of Evelyn Waugh’s demented A Handful of Dust, where one of the protagonists, Tony Last, meets perhaps the worst non-death fate of any major character in literature, all in the remote jungles of the Amazon basin. (Patchett slips in some Dickens references which make the allusion to Waugh obvious.) State of Wonder also steps back from the overwrought political leanings of Run, instead presenting soft arguments, pro and con, on environmental subjects and treatment of isolated peoples like the Lakashi, without detracting from the central story, one of delayed emotional development for Marina. Her professional success hasn’t been mirrored by happiness, and Patchett matures her without giving her a forced Hollywood ending. Marina ends up having to make a choice with huge moral implications before leaving the Amazon, the kind of decision that ages you emotionally when you face it but that was necessary to conclude the story without turning it into a saccharine mess.

Next up: Still slogging through Robert Tressell’s socialism-pamphlet-cum-novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Top 100 songs of 2013.

Last year I discovered (for myself, that is) enough good new music to do my first serious annual music ranking, listing my top 40 songs of 2012, a list that I originally intended to just go to 20 titles but that kept expanding as I kept writing and exploring. This year, I started the exploring a little sooner, and also ended up on a few promotional lists that exposed me to even more new stuff, so by midyear it was very clear to me that I’d have more than enough songs to get to 100. I had over 150 candidates if you count all of the album tracks I liked enough to consider, but forced it down to 100 (which didn’t work out that well, as you’ll see shortly).

As with my list of the top albums of 2013, this list is my personal preference. If I don’t like a song, it’s not here. That wipes out some critically-acclaimed artists entirely, including Daft Punk, Haim, Vampire Weekend, Deafheaven (and please, people, death metal and black metal are not the same thing), Rhye, the Lumineers (more like Ho Hum), American Authors, James Blake, Foxygen, Majikal Cloudz, Phosphorescent, Jason Isbell (I just do not like country music), and My Bloody Valentine. Other folks liked that stuff. I didn’t.

Some songs that were among the last ones I cut from my list, in no particular order, looking just at artists that didn’t make it: Birds of Tokyo – “Lanterns;” Midlake – “Antiphon;” Harrison Hudson – “Curious;” Cumulus – “Do You Remember;” Young Galaxy – “Pretty Boy;” The 1975 – “Chocolate;” Blondfire – “Waves.” The last two got the axe for lyrics too stupid for me to abide. I’ve mentioned several other songs I liked, but not enough to get them into the top 100, within the comments below.

I’m going to start with two extra tracks that were the final two cuts from the list, ones I actually wrote up at first before realizing I’d forgotten two other tracks that belonged on here.

Wild Nothing – Dancing Shell. One of my biggest misses from my 2012 list was Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, which I picked up in January on the recommendations of several readers and loved for its dream-pop leanings with experimental twists – but with more guitar than most bands in this subgenre employ. “Dancing Shell” is more dance/electronic than straight-ahead rock but showcases the creativity of Jack Tatum, who records all of Wild Nothing’s music himself, with other members joining him just for live shows. His 2013 EP wasn’t as good as Nocturne but including this song lets me mention again how badly I whiffed by not including the album on my list from last year.

Ejecta – Jeremiah (The Denier). A side project for Neon Indian’s keyboardist Leanne Macomber, Ejecta offers spacey electro-pop, although I think they’ve received more press for their debut album’s cover, which features a nude Macomber posing as if one of the great Renaissance masters was about to paint her. That might just be overshadowing the music, which has the early-80s New Wave leanings of most electro-pop but pairs it with Macomber’s languorous, breathy vocals to temper its brightness. “It’s Only Love” is also worth checking out.

And now, to the top 100. This entire list, including both of those bonus tracks, is available as a Spotify playlist, in order. Amazon and iTunes links go to full albums, where you can just buy the specific song I mentioned (this reduced the number of links I had to create).
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Top 13 albums of 2013.

This year was so fertile for new music that, for the first time, I felt like I heard enough records I liked to put together a ranking of my favorite albums of the year. The expansion of Spotify’s catalog didn’t hurt, as now I didn’t have to own every album (or pirate them, which I won’t do) to review them, and I’ve received a few of these via publicists or record labels, including the albums at 4, 5, and 6.

This list represents my personal preferences. The omission of some critically-acclaimed albums, like those from the National, Vampire Tweekend, Daft Punk, and Haim, is deliberate. I don’t like ‘em, ergo, they’re not here. The same goes for Mercury Prize winner James Blake, who wasn’t even the best solo male artist nominated for the award this year. If you’re looking for alt-J’s An Awesome Wave, that was my favorite album of 2012, as it was released in the U.S. last September.

I’ll post my top 100 songs of the year on Thursday, and mention in each review how many tracks from that album will appear on that list.

13. Teeth of the Sea – Master. (amazoniTunes)Part of me isn’t even sure why I’m putting a record I don’t even fully understand on this list; like Field of Reeds from These New Puritans, Master is aiming for something well beyond the scope of what I enjoy and appreciate in modern music. While plenty of electronic acts earned airplay and mainstream plaudits in 2013, I don’t think anyone produced anything as ambitious within that subgenre as Teeth of the Sea did here, creating a dark, immersive record that at times seemed to draw more inspiration from symphonic death metal (like a vocal-free Hollenthon) than it did from the heart of current electronica. The record placed one song on my top 100, but that’s in part of a function of the album working better as a whole than in singles.

12. Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart. (amazoniTunes)Turner’s brand of punk-folk, or whatever it is, is incredibly endearing mostly because he seems to cram more lyrics into each minute than Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell spat out in His Girl Friday. It’s the kind of album that should be enjoyed along with two fingers of your favorite distilled spirit, or a pint of a good, not-too-cold Irish or English beer, even though the album’s best song is about the difficulty of drying oneself out. Turner hides nothing, and his writing skills lie in his ability to translate sadness and hurt into darkly humorous lyrics. The album placed one song on my top 100.

11. Wooden Shjips – Back to Land. (amazoniTunes)Can I just pronounce this “Wooden Shyips?” Because that’s what I want to do every time I see their name. Like Teeth of the Sea, Wooden Shjips are better consumed as a whole disc than as individual singles, here because everything is good and nothing stands out in a huge way from the album’s mean. They get the “psychedelic” tag a lot, although I think some of that is just because they use a Hammond organ, but it’s guitar-driven rock with extended song structures and maybe a little too much reverb in the vocals. It might be more fair to think of them as a jam band that keeps things tight on record. It didn’t place any songs on my top 100, with “Ruins” my favorite track because it sounds like a party’s about to break out in the studio.

10. Carcass – Surgical Steel. (amazoniTunes) I actually don’t listen to much metal, let alone extreme metal variations, with the exception of melodic death metal – very fast, heavy music with lyrics that are often screamed rather than sung, but with tremendous technical musicianship and actual melodies that require a little work to find but that provide balance for music that can be brutal and intense. Carcass was probably the progenitor of the subgenre but hadn’t released any new material since 1996’s disappointing Swansong, but their comeback album this year, Surgical Steel, is a true return to form but with a newer maturity, including tighter song structures and lots of allusions to their heyday as grindcore pioneers. Other metal albums I liked from 2013: Children of Bodom’s Halo of Blood, Trivium’s Vengeance Falls, Born of Osiris’ Tomorrow We Die Δlive, and Týr’s Valkyrja.

9. Naked and Famous – In Rolling Waves. (amazoniTunes) The sophomore album from this New Zealand act is more lush than their debut, giving lead signer Alisa Xayalith more room to sing rather than shouting vocals over louder, heavier music as she had to do on their first two hits, “Young Blood” and “Punching in a Dream.” It’s a more serious album, with slower builds and more modest payoffs, weaving textures rather than building off giant hooks – if anything, the catchier tracks are among the album’s weaker ones, except for lead single “Hearts Like Ours” and the duet “The Mess.” I don’t award points for a band making progress per se, but the result here of the band maturing from a shorter singles-oriented sound to a more ambitious overall sound made it among the year’s best discs. The album placed one song on my top 100.

8. Arcade Fire – Reflektor. (iTunesiTunes) I’ve had multiple readers ask me if I’ve changed my mind on this album since giving it a middling review about a week after its release, which I find strange mostly because … well, is it that important that I like the album? I don’t pretend my opinion means anything beyond giving you guys something to read and talk about, so I don’t think the fact that I found this album disappointing is such a big deal. I loved The Suburbs, but Reflektor went so far in the opposite direction – bloated song times, pretentious lyrics, too few musical ideas – that I couldn’t help but feel let down. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, himself known for songs about twice as long as they needed to be, produced the album, and he was probably the wrong choice for a band that can’t rein itself in. This was a good album relative to other releases this year, but it could have been so much better. The album placed three tracks on my top 100.

7. Jake Bugg – Shangri La. (amazoniTunes) I whiffed on Bugg’s self-titled debut album for last year’s list; the album came out last October and I didn’t hear anything of it until well into 2013. I’ve caught up now, as Bugg’s second album came out in November and features more of the same Dylanesque sound, but better, including the punkish “What Doesn’t Kill You?,” the rockabilly opener “There’s a Beast and We All Feed It,” and the shuffling ballad “Me and You,” itself a late cut from my top 100. Bugg is just 19 and has only begun to scratch the surface of what could be an enormous career as Dylan’s spiritual heir. The album placed one track on my top 100.

6. Polvo – Siberia. (amazoniTunes)The second post-breakup (and post-reunion) album from these 1990s noise-rock cult heroes might be their best effort yet, packing plenty of weirdness into its eight tracks but never losing the plot. It’s heavy on twin guitars, even though they often sound like they might not be playing the same song, and the lyrics are trippy if you like them and nonsense if you don’t. I particularly like how the album feels heavy without being loud or extreme, an example of where modern metal often goes wrong; you don’t need to sing like Cookie Monster to create the impression of weight. The album placed two tracks on my top 100.

5. St. Lucia – When the Night. (amazoniTunes) One of the best debut albums of the year and one of its best pure-pop records, When the Night is the first effort from the South African-born New York native Jean-Philip Grobler, who has remixed many better-known artists and produced the debut album from HAERTS. St. Lucia’s sound is sweet synth-pop with global influences in the rhythm and percussion sections, along with a detour into darker electronic sounds on one of the album’s best tracks, “September.” Grobler occasionally veers too far into twee territory but the album has more than enough moments of balance, placing three tracks on my top 100.

4. Drenge – Drenge. The self-titled debut from these two English brothers actually isn’t out yet in the U.S., which is one of the stupidest policies left in the digital age. Why would any movie, record, or book publisher stagger release dates internationally? Ones and zeroes know nothing of your national borders. If you don’t want to encourage piracy, release everything on the same day across the world. Drenge’s album is on Spotify and I received a promo copy in November, so you can listen to it before its early 2014 release here, and it’s well worth it, with a slew of high-energy guitar/drum songs that show influences from each of the last four decades, going back to early Black Sabbath and running up through the White Stripes. The record placed three tracks on my top 100.

3. Savages – Silence Yourself. (amazoniTunes) This was my album of the year until September, when the two albums higher on this list both came out, and still wins the prize of the year’s angriest album. The all-female quartet known as Savages have produced a short eleven-track masterpiece of seething and indignation, led by French singer Jehnny Beth’s punctuated style that has her practically spitting the words at the undeserving audience. The music is post-punk in its original sense – Suicide, Television, Gang of Four – not pop, even though songs like “She Will,” “Shut Up,” and “Strife” boast strong hooks. The album placed two tracks on my top 100.

2. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe. (amazoniTunes) The debut of the year was a little uneven in spots but so exultant during most of its length that it feels captious to point out its flaws. Singer Lauren Mayberry is an emerging star, one whose future probably goes beyond the electro-pop confines of this record and perhaps the band in general, but for now the Scottish trio has crafted the year’s best pop record, with five tracks on my top 100 and one that was in the set that just missed.

1. Arctic Monkeys – AM. (amazoniTunes)Their best album since their debut, but with all that several years of maturity and musical meandering incorporated into a disc that brings an enormous range of influences to produce the year’s most compelling and most complete experience. Turner has long been one of rock’s most clever wordsmiths, but took his form of snarky-witty modern beat poetry to new heights on AM. The album placed five songs on my top 100 and could have placed two more, plus one track, “R U Mine?” that appeared on the 2012 list because it was released as a one-off single.

Drenge & These New Puritans.

My analysis of the Josh Johnson and David Murphy signings is up for Insiders.

Drenge is a duo act comprising brothers from Derbyshire, England, whose self-titled debut album dropped in the United Kingdom in mid-August and will come out here in January. First recommended to me by one of you, a promo copy Drenge came across my desk this week (figuratively, since it was via email), and it’s promising if uneven, an intriguing blend of rock styles from post-punk to grunge to garage with at least three standout tracks. (If you’re in the U.K. you can buy the album via amazon. Otherwise, you can stream it on Spotify below.)

Although the White Stripes have set the standard for guitar-and-drum rock duos, Drenge have a little more in common with Jeff the Brotherhood, another sibling act that opts for heavier riffs and a chunkier sound for the guitar, without Jack White’s peripatetic musical style. Guitarist Eion Loveless’ rhythm lines are loud and aggressive, with abrupt tempo changes and shifts from the cleaner post-punk of Gang of Four to the fuzzier sounds of early Soundgarden or vintage Mudhoney. You can even hear bits of darkwave in some of the slower tracks, like the latter half of “Nothing” or nearly all of the eight-minute non sequitur closer “Let’s Pretend,” which might also be the result of distant influences from Black Sabbath or Angel Witch.

Where Drenge separates itself from similarly lo-fi/garage acts is in the five-song stretch from the album’s second track, the grim “Dogmeat” (which reminds me of a slowed-down take on Shed Seven’s “Dolphin”), through the pleasantly annoying “Face Like a Skull.” That quintet includes the album’s first single and best track, “Bloodsports,” where the brothers Loveless start to borrow more heavily from UK superstars the Arctic Monkeys in sound and melodic strength. The energy on “Bloodsports” starts with the fast-paced guitar line behind the verses, a la the intro to Nirvana’s “Breed,” but kicks up another gear with the drum-less riff right after the chorus, a trick Jack White has long used to great effect. “Backwaters” is the disc’s closest thing to a pop track, like Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong” tidied up for mass consumption yet still sinister enough to deliver lines like “I never seen blood or milk mix so divine/I never seen such beauty so malign,” a line followed by a riff so heavy you think the boys are shifting into mid-80s thrash mode. “Gun Crazy” turns the tempo back up to punk speed, a song to make Mark Arm proud for its first half that adds some complexity with off-beat staccato strumming in its final thirty-second coda.

The remainder of the album is far less consistent, including “Let’s Pretend,” which feels out of place and thoroughly bombastic for clocking in at twice the length of the next-longest song, “Fuckabout,” which is about as intellectually or aurally pleasing as the title indicates. “I Wanna Break You in Half” works as a suitably obnoxious fast-paced sub-two-minute track, but the same conceit flops on the unfunny “I Don’t Wanna Make Love to You” or the opener “People In Love Make Me Feel Yuck.” Eoin seems capable of lyrical subtletly, but too often settles for a sledgehammer to the forehead with a joke that feels like we’ve heard it a dozen times before. That can improve with experience and maturity, but Drenge’s ability to craft memorable hooks and evoke so many different eras in songs typically just two to three minutes long is already plus.

I also received a copy of the new album Field of Reeds by another English act, These New Puritans, which comprises twin brothers plus a third member, although the disc includes prominent contributions from over thirty-eight session musicians (per Wikipedia). I’ve previously mentioned the lead single, “Fragment Two,” which is also by far the album’s most conventional track in song structure, although even its music rarely follows the rules of modern rock music. I feel underqualified to talk about the album, given its experimental and highly artistic nature, with only Talk Talk’s Laughing Stalk coming to mind as a reference point (and I wouldn’t even say I know that album that well). The overwhelming sense I got from Field of Reeds was one of vastness, of the attempts to fill enormous ranges of space with haunting sounds that expanded upon release but never managed to reach the area’s borders. There are moments on the album of beauty, and just as many moments where it appears the band is trying to create a form of anti-music. As someone who tends to choose singles over albums, and gravitates towards melody over sonic textures, however, I found myself coming back to “Fragment Two” and the hynpotic “Organ Eternal,” the album’s two most accessible tracks. Field of Reeds is for mature listeners only.

Middlemarch.

This week’s Behind the Dish podcast reunited me with my old Baseball Today co-host Eric Karabell. And you all thought I died when I went over that waterfall with Bias Cat, didn’t you?

George Eliot’s Middlemarch appears on the Bloomsbury 100 and ranks 9th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, but after my intense dislike of her novel Mill on the Floss*, I expected a similarly arduous read, with slow prose and distant, even odious characters. Middlemarch feels like the work of a different author, however, less bleak and moralistic, with stronger, better-rounded characters (and a few jerks), and every bit as pointed a perspective on the restrictive nature of Victorian society, especially regarding the rights of women.

* Not to be confused with Millon de Floss, one of the great biographer-stalkers of his time.

Middlemarch weaves several related stories together, all centered in the fictional English town of the title, revolving around idealistic young characters whose desires go beyond the traditional spouse-seeking of English literature prior to the 1860s. It begins with Dorothea Brooke, destined to be the semi-tragic heroine of the novel’s first major plot, as she rejects a suitor nearer her age and emotional temperament to marry the dour, chauvinistic theologian Edward Casaubon, a blowhard who is the first of the novel’s many comic side characters. Dorothea’s other suitor, Sir James Chettam, marries Dorothea’s sister in what becomes a far happier marriage. Edward refuses to induct Dorothea into his intellectual life, perhaps because it is nearly bankrupt, leaving her bored and unhappy until his early death, at which point an absurd codicil to his will forbids her to take up with Edward’s distant cousin, Will Ladislaw, who is a far better emotional match for Dorothea.

Middlemarch is also home to the Vincy siblings, Rosamund and Fred, a financially irresponsible pair who have very different aims in romance: Fred wants to marry Mary Garth, with whom he’s been in love for years, while Rosamund sinks her claws into the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, because she sees him as a path to upward mobility. Fred’s ability to marry is hampered by his dissolution, which leads him to bankrupt himself and nearly do the same to Mary’s father, while Rosamund manipulates the idealistic Lydgate, who doesn’t plan on marrying because it would interfere with his professional endeavors, into a betrothal he didn’t desire.

Eliot takes the usual themes of marriage and inheritance as the starting point for deeper explorations of character and societal mores than contemporary novels typically explored, helping usher in an era of fiction where independent women were increasingly found as central characters and where their lower standing in a male-dominated culture was fodder for entire novels. Dorothea begins as a high-minded, emotionally immature woman who reaches for some ill-defined goal in marrying the old pedant Casaubon, only to realize she’s grasped at a cloud and lost her independence without any intellectual gain. Fred has to be shamed into a life of industry and diligence, in a career that seemed beneath him, to have any chance to marry the woman he loves. Lydgate’s match with Rosamund turns out to be disastrous, as her extravagance nearly bankrupts him, his researches grind to a halt, and he’s caught up in a scandal involving the local squire Bulstrode, who makes ill use of the doctor to try to hide his own mistakes. While some characters face consequences for their own sins, others find their lives constrained by the need to keep up appearances, or by the effects of gossip about untoward appearances. Even in the epilogue, Eliot grants most of her characters middling outcomes, where financial success and happiness are mutually exclusive; Dorothea may at least fare the best, as she can find happiness even in an imperfect situation, telling Ladislaw that “if we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for,” marking why she stands above the rest as the novel’s real protagonist and most empathetic character.

As much as Dorothea stands at Middlemarch‘s moral center, Lydgate struck me as the most fascinating character because of the small window he provides into Eliot’s own views on the rise of science and research in English society and culture. Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch intending to work as a doctor to fund his researches, bringing ideas for reform and for greater service to those unable to afford proper medical care to a small town with decidedly staid ideas on what a doctor should do and say. The obstacles he encounters from the town’s aged, established medics slow his practice significantly, even when he has some success in treating difficult cases, but it is the marriage to the dim-witted, materialistic Rosamund that destroys his intellectual curiosity, because he can no longer devote time to research or volunteer work because he has to pay the debts she has accumulated. Coming from a male author, this might read as misogynistic, but Eliot imbues all of her characters, male and female, with strengths and defects, so even the venal Rosamund is multi-dimensional, while the reader cannot exonerate Lydgate of blame in his own downfall. (It’s also hard to accuse Eliot of anti-feminism when she has Mary say, “Husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order.”

Middlemarch might be the most-praised novel ever written in the English language. Virginia Woolf referred to it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” A.S. Byatt used that quote in her 2007 review, saying it was possible to argue – seriously, can you get more wishy-washy? – that Middlemarch is “the greatest English novel.” Daniel Burt’s top 100 only lists two English-language novels ahead of it – the abysmal Moby Dick and the abstruse Ulysses, the latter by an author who’d abandon English entirely in his next novel, Finnegan’s Wake. Eliot’s prose is far more pleasant to read than Melville’s and easier to digest than Joyce’s, with incisive wit (as in the “husbands” comment above) or profound renditions of human emotions:

When the commonplace “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die – and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.

Writers who craft realistic characters typically exhibit this understanding of emotion and thought, whether the feelings depicted are negative (fear of mortality) or positive. Eliot can drift from compassion to disdain – Mary, the novel’s most insightful speaker, points out that “selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything in the world,” which is undeniable – over the course of a few pages, but there is always the sense that she reveres character, even if she doesn’t always revere her specific characters. I don’t share Woolf’s and Byatt’s veneration of Middlemarch, as the Lydgate/Rosamund thread tended to meander and Rosamund was the least compelling character in the book, but it is a marvelous novel, a broad study of many brilliantly rendered characters, and a lesson in integrating multiple storylines into a single narrative.

Pizzeria Vetri and Barbuzzo (Philly eats, part one).

Today’s Behind the Dish podcast featured physics professor Alan Nathan plus my thoughts on the World Series and the two Cuban free agents who just signed.

I’ve now had two meals at Pizzeria Vetri, the latest outpost of the Vetri family empire of Philly restaurants (including Vetri and Osteria), and am thoroughly impressed by their authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas and commitment to simple recipes with a handful of fresh ingredients. The pizzas come with the appropriate char on the exterior, moderate air bubbles in the exterior crust, and enough interior crust to hold together but not enough to support the weight of the toppings (which is correct, oddly enough). That exterior crust was softer than some other authentic Neapolitan pizzerias I’ve tried, but it was a net positive as it didn’t become tough once it cooled.

The margherita is dominated by the bright, sweet flavor of San Marzano tomoates, with huge basil leaves and a few dollops of fresh mozzarella, light enough that my daughter, age 7, could eat five of the six slices and still have room for dessert. I preferred the crudo, with prosciutto crudo, mozzarella di bufala, and shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, which had better balance across all the flavors with a slightly salty profile from the meat and the hard cheese, but the crusts on both were very good and cooked perfectly from char to center.

Vetri also offers a rotating special of Silician-style pizza (thicker crust, cooked in a sheet pan), which often reflects the chef’s caprices on that particular day. For our last visit, the “pizza al taglio” (pizza by the slice) special was roasted quince that had been cooked with red wine, along with fresh herbs including rosemary, and mozzarella and shaved pecorino romano. It was peculiar, a little like a wine-and-cheese course on top of a thick pizza crust, but the sharp crunch of the crust was the main selling point of the slice, with a little dose of olive oil like the underside of a good focaccia (which is pretty much Sicilian pizza dough cooked without toppings).

Vetri’s non-pizza offerings are limited, but they do include a Caesar salad and a “wood-fired” salad, the latter coming with roasted corn, green beans, and chanterelles, along with a generous portion of sliced prosciutto cotto and some Microplaned ricotta salata. With a drizzle of olive oil and a hint of vinegar, it’s an earthy mixture bound by the powerful umami notes of the roasted chanterelles and sweetness of the corn, and far more satisfying than I’d expect an item in the salad section of the menu to be. Vetri also offers a few dessert items and my daughter would like you to know that the fior di latte (sweet cream) soft-serve ice cream is the best soft-serve she’s ever had, although I warn you her affections can be fickle.

My daughter also accompanied me to Barbuzzo earlier this month, a restaurant I’d wanted to visit since coming across their salted caramel budino recipe in Bon Appetit several years ago; I’ve made them four or five times and wanted to compare my results to the real thing. Aside from a small lapse in service, the entire experience was superb, with some huge highlights from the savory part of the menu.

The kale salad was the surprise hit of the meal for me, featuring thinly sliced ribbons of dino kale (a.k.a. Cavolo nero or Tuscan kale or lacinato, it’s all the same damn leaf) tossed in a pistachio pesto dressing, served over a few slices of roasted red and yellow beets with soft goat cheese. I find kale an incredibly versatile ingredient, pairing up well with other flavors from across the spectrum, from bacon to nuts to cranberries or pomegranate arils, so I wasn’t shocked that it played well with pistachio, but was shocked by how much body the pistachios gave to the entire salad; kale can be a little tough, and a little bitter, but the broad coating of the dressing reduced the feeling that this was just a pile of leaves. The only problem with the dish is that the menu refers to it as a roasted beet salad when that is maybe the third or fourth ingredient on the list; this is a kale salad, plus some beets and goat cheese.

Although the various pizzas on the menu were hard to ignore with the wood-fired oven right in my line of sight, I went with the server’s suggestion of the pan-seared gnocchi with bacon, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes, with no sauce but the slight glaze of the bacon fat. The gnocchi were the lightest I’ve ever eaten, strong enough to hold a brown crust from the searing but light enough that an entire plateful was more like an appetizer than a full entree (so it’s a good thing I was full of kale salad by that point). They were powerful bacon-infused pockets that crushed all other comers, the rare example of a plate delivering a bacon punch without delivering a similar blow to your gut. My daughter was satisfied with the burrata plate with several kinds of fresh tomatoes, nut-free pesto, and sliced onions along with a serving of grilled country bread (an add-on for $2), all of which was fresh across the board, even the tomatoes, which surprised me with their sweetness given the time of year.

The dessert … well, the salted caramel budino didn’t quite live up to expectations; the recipe may have changed, but there’s nothing tangy in the version I make at home, whereas something in the mason jar I received at Barbuzzo was, possibly due to the incorporation of crème fraiche somewhere along the line. I can’t say mine is better, since it’s their recipe, but I prefer it without that sour note. My daughter ordered the apple raisin bread pudding with bourbon sauce and malted buttermilk gelato, which tasted strongly of bourbon and, not surprisingly, which she loved. The only real complaint I had about the meal was the 15-minute lag between when we ordered dessert and when it arrived; to a seven-year-old, or her anxious father, that’s a long time. The bread pudding had clearly just come out of the oven, though – it was practically in flames when it reached the table – and their expediter was otherwise on the ball as everything reached the table quickly and at the right temperature. I’d love to go back and sample other parts of the menu, including the pizzas, the other house-made pastas, and the wild mushroom bruschetta and sheep’s milk ricotta starters.