Archive for December 26, 2023

My 5th Annual Music “Year In Music” Review: Top 20 & 35 Honorable Mentions

I feel like every end-of-year list should begin with a series of apologies. I’m sorry for not listening to everything. And for not listening closely enough, for not fully attending, for not hearing what’s there, for not being enough to do any of this justice.

In other words, I am not worthy. 

And then there’s the second thought which is: Lighten up, Jimmy. Stop dithering. Nobody cares. So, yeah, these are just albums from the year that hit me, that stood out, that seemed distinct and fresh and different and valuable.

Mostly, it’s my hope that this annual exercise helps you find something that you like, just as it helps me clarify my own listening umwelt. What I hear within the confines of my particular bubble. 

I am struck, often, by how negative (and infuriating) some people are about music. So narrowly dismissive, closed off and elitist. It breaks my heart. So if, on the other hand, you arrive to this list as a springboard for checking out something you haven’t heard before, or if it prods you to listen again, maybe with fresh ears and an open heart, then . . . thank you. You are my kind of listener.

And third: Every list I read includes a too-long preamble that I almost invariably skip. So: more apologies for lacking the strength to resist that temptation.

Quickly about my process: I keep track of every full album I listen to, a practice I started five years ago. I listened to 131 (& counting) full-length albums that were released in 2023. Not nearly everything. 

This year, I listened to 505 (& counting) full-length albums overall. That number used to be in the 700s. Two factors: I’m more committed than ever to repeated listens, and I’m quicker to abandon an album that isn’t working for me. 

If I wait another week, or six more minutes, the contents here would likely change. There will be mistakes. Things I’ve missed or over- or under-rated. That’s why I embrace the “nobody cares” aesthetic. It’s liberating. I’m free. I’m not going for perfection. It’s all for fun, folks.

Here goes . . . 

TOP 20 (in alphabetical order)

Ahnoni, Antony & the Johnsons: My Back Was a Bridge

Ambrose Akinmusire: Beauty Is Enough

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: Dynamic Maximum Tension

Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die ((world war)) 

Julie Byrne: The Greater Wings 

Margo Cilker: Valley of Heart’s Delight

Feeble Little Horse: Girl with Fish

PJ Harvey: I Inside the Old Year Dying

Irreversible Entanglements: Protect Your Light

Jason Isbell: Weathervanes

Lankum: False Lanky

Lydia Loveless: Nothing’s Gonna Stand in My Way

Matana Roberts: Coin Coin Chapter Five: In the Garden

Jeff Rosenstock: Hellmode

Ryuichi Sakamoto: 12

Sufjan Stevens: Javelin

Veeze: Ganger

Wilco: Cousin

Yo La Tengo: This Stupid World

Youth Lagoon: Heaven Is a Junkyard





Altin Gun: Ask

Daniel Bachman: When the Roses Come Again

Blue Lake: Sun Arcs

Lonnie Holley: Oh Me Oh My

Blake Mills: Jelly Road

Tirzah: Trip9love . . . ?



Natural Information Society: Since Time Is Gravity 

The Necks: Travel

Gogo Penguin: Everything Is Going to Be Okay

Mette Henriette: Drifting

London Brew: s/t



Bar Italia: Tracy Denim 

Beirut: Hadsel

Bully: Lucky for You

Margaret Glaspy: Echo the Diamond

Hotline TNT: Cartwheel

The Lemon Twigs: Everything Harmony 

Mitski: The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We

Palehound: Eye on the Bat 

Ratboys: The Window 

Joanna Sternberg: I’ve Got Me

The Tubs: Dead Meat 

Water From Your Eyes: Everyone’s Crushed 

Wednesday: Rat Saw God



Meg Baird: Furling

Shana Cleveland: Manzanita 

Cut Worms: s/t

Iris DeMent: Workin’ On a World

Margo Price: Strays

Paul Simon: Seven Psalms

Kassi Valazzi: Kassi Valazzi Knows Nothing

Jamila Woods: Water Made Us


Janelle Monae: The Age of Pleasure

Noname: Sundial

Cleo Sol: Heaven

RAYE: My 21st Century Blues


The Lure of True Stories — Better Than Nonfiction!

Author Steve Sheinkin shared this on social media:

I’m seeing this more and more in schools – and I love it. Librarians keep telling me that circulation goes up right away when “nonfiction” is replaced with “True Stories” 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #332: Carli Didn’t Dig the Ending

I received two quick emails from Carli . . . 

Hi James prellee I read your book bystander and I don’t really like how you ended it you should have ended it with more conflict but over all I really liked it and is there a second book

And what I really did like about the book I like that there was a lot of conflict and I like how Mary was a good friend to Eric and was introduced herself to Eric when he first arrived 

I replied . . . 
Sorry it’s taken me a couple of weeks to get back to you. I blame the turkey!
You sent two brief emails and I’ll try to answer them both here, toggling back and forth.
Let’s see: the ending.
Ah, the ending.
I know, I know. It doesn’t wrap things up in a tidy bow and it doesn’t conclude with a dramatic flourish. In many respects, you are not wrong to wish for those things. I usually do, too. But in this story, I wanted it to be as true to life as I could make it. So I sort of sidestepped “drama” in favor of “truth.” For better and for worse! I actually did write a more dramatic and “satisfying” ending w/ Eric helping to get Griffin caught for stealing bicycles, but it felt false (and forced) to me, so I ditched it.
I think in real life we kind of endure these things. We move past them over time. That annoying kid in 7th grade moves on, time passes, and we realize it’s behind us at a certain point. There’s no tidy resolution. In terms of artifice, of a fictional story, maybe that’s not the most satisfying way to go. But, hey, to be honest, I like the open-ended nature of the book. That these characters live on in our imagination, and that it’s up to individual readers to speculate about where things will go after that. I do leave a number of hints along the way.
Yes, I love Mary, too. She’s a minor but crucial character in Bystander. And one that was, I think, underwritten. My primary focus was on Eric’s experience. But Mary has guts, stands up to her friends, suffers the consequences of that decision, and undergoes the greatest change in the novel. I liked her so much, in fact, I made her the main character in my recent book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander. The book follows Mary closely, some time before the timeline of Bystander begins. We see her meet and become friends with Griffin. We learn about her troubled home life. We learn more about her uneasy friendship with Chantel. And halfway through the book, we pick up on meeting Eric on that basketball court (chapter one of Bystander) — this time told from Mary’s point of view. We also see that horrendous, painful moment with David and the ketchup.
Everyone has a story. And if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s to withhold our judgment on other people. We just don’t know what’s going on in their lives. For Upstander, I wanted to pull back the curtain and get to know Mary much, much better.
I hope you read it. There’s also an excellent audiobook available, if you prefer to read with your ears. 
My best,
James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #331: “Maxx Trax” Remembered, 37 Years Later






I’ve been randomly sharing samples of Fan Mail & my responses on this site since 2008. However, I haven’t posted as much Fan Mail the past couple of years, largely because I haven’t gotten as much. The pandemic shut it down — publishers don’t seem to forward mail the way they once did — and who knows. Maybe schools aren’t focusing on that kind of thing as much anymore. Everyone’s exhausted. Maybe it’s my own fading star. The ebbs and flows of a long career. I don’t know. 

But look at this: an email from a reader who remembers a beloved book that I published in 1986, my first book ever, Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue!

Pretty amazing, huh? 

What a gift to receive such a message. 


Dear Mr. Preller,

I was reading Maxx Trax to my daughter and decided to look you up.  I am happy to see that you continue to write children books.
Thank you so very much.  Your book has been in my life since 1986.  When I chose it out of a school book fair.  You’ll have to thank the artist as to a kid the picture on the cover caught my eye.
This book has traveled with me to Japan back to the US and again Japan.   I’m not military so that says something about the books importance while moving.
My son has a special place on his shelf.
I just wanted to let you know all these years later it is still one of my favorite books.
Keep up the fantastic work.
I replied . . .
Dear Jeremy,
Wow, what a great letter. Thank you so much.
The Irish have an expression, “Flowers for the living.”
We don’t have to wait for someone to die before saying something nice to them.
You did just that and I appreciate it.
Yes, yes, yes, that was my first book, written at age 25 in 1986 and, I think, a story that stands up today. Long out of print, of course. I wrote a sequel but for insane reasons (money, I suppose), Scholastic changed illustrators and went an entirely different direction. A total failure and the end of that.
The first book, your book, sold more than a million copies out of the gate. I was a junior copywriter at the time and I people were pretty surprised. However, I doubt there are many copies left in the world today. Hold onto your beloved, ragged copy.
Gratefully yours,
James Preller
P.S. You might enjoy more background info about my very first book by clicking here!