The Bestest 2016: Filmmage

Mercury Rev

Mercury Rev, scoring Vampyr

Great TV is inflicting pain on the movie business. Not just because the most creative writers and directors are expanding their ambitions to the small screen, but also because many of the theaters where you see high-brow films have disappeared. But the Golden Age of TV has also made it possible to see these small films from the comfort of your couch, not long after their theatrical release or occasionally at the same time. This list is filled with a bunch of heavy seeming stories, fitting given the events of the past year, but in this relative gloom, there is so much beauty. Art always helps bury sorrow, even if the art is sorrowful.

1.  La La Land– Dir. Damien Chazelle (Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling)

So soon after “Whiplash,” it’s hard to imagine a director making a film as ambitious, creative, and seemingly unmakable as “La La Land” – unless you’ve been dreaming about it for years and years. Although, I am fanatical about music, I am not usually a fan of musicals, but somehow this film both transcends the genre, and but also exists squarely within it.

For it’s portrayal of ambition, celebrity, self-doubt, human magic, and of course the city that is it’s muse, “La La Land” is truly a modern masterpiece. It’s impossible to imagine this film starring anyone but Gosling and Stone, but we don’t need to. Both actors were already two of the best of their generation, but now there is no doubt. This is the kind of film that reassures me that people will always go to the theater. It is also the kind of film that reinforces my hope that greatness will always find a way to be seen and heard. Art is often magical, and the best magic is almost found in great art.

 2. O.J.: Made in America – Dir. Ezra Edelman (OJ Simpson)

Like “La La Land” this sprawling documentary about a figure you thought you knew everything about, is telling a very similar story. It is a story about Los Angeles in all its surrealism. It’s where dreams are made and destroyed; a factory town, where people are the product, and even when you do succeed, you live precariously close to failure all of the time. And often when the world gives you more than you could ever imagine, you lose perspective.

Director Ezra Edelman is beautifully even handed and revealing of one of the most accomplished and complicated people to ever live their life so publically. From genuine American hero, to the tortured product of a country still trying to resolve why we struggle so hard with race in America. This is a towering film not just about a person, but about the world we clearly still live in today. It is such a painfully timely film, that it is hard to imagine how it shouldn’t be required viewing for everybody who is trying to make a difference and understand the times, but is blinded by the obvious realities that make peace seem so far away.

3. Captain Fantastic – Matt Ross (Viggo Mortensen, Kathryn Hahn, Frank Langella)

Most parents either think they are raising their children the right way, or at least think they are doing the best with what they have. “Captain Fantastic” takes you way off the grid where the home-schooled children, living in the woods of Oregon, are the brilliantly flawed disciples of a mercilessly well-intended father. Viggo Mortensen gives a career defining performance as the dominant patriarch who manages to seemingly create a kind of unsustainable nirvana where children can grow and learn without the potent venom of the outside world.

But as we know, the world is all connected now and there really isn’t any such thing as truly off the grid. We learn this as the family boards the family bus to attend the funeral of their mother. Each performance is exquisite, the writing is exceptional and the cinematography is incredible considering the low budget. This is a film that makes you think about everything you always thought was black and white about being a parent … and a child.

4. Manchester By The Sea – Dir. Kenneth Lonergan (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams)

Medical research has proven that sad art (movies, music, paintings) actually make us happy. It forces us to reflect on the things in our lives that seem better by comparison and appreciate the relationships that we have even more. “Manchester” is an exquisitely devastating film, about love and loss and redemption. It’s about family, and friendships and the never-ending struggle to keep moving through all pain that accumulates along the way.

Director Kenneth Lonergan, long a favorite playwright and screenwriter of mine, has assembled the perfect cast, in perfect climate (a brutally bleak Boston winter) to weave back and forth through time towards some shattering truths. Casey Affleck will finally get credit as an even more serious actor than his brother, and will draw us into the kind of suffering we all hope to ward off in life. This is one of the hardest and most naturalistic films in quite a while.

5. Sing Street – Dir. John Carney (Aiden Gillen, Ben Carolan)

 The second great musical of the year is also one of the most entertaining. I don’t remember seeing a film as nostalgically human since John Hughes was in his prime. The director John Carney (who made the hugely underrated “Once”) has tapped right into the main vein of 80’s, through the eyes of a new wave music obsessed teenager set on starting a band and winning the girl. The mostly fresh-faced cast allows you to just lose yourself in each odd character without any baggage or preconception, and the music, played by the fictional band, and that which inspired it (Duran Duran, The Jam, The Cure) is so effortlessly woven into the film that it becomes a character unto itself.

The plot is simple enough, but the execution is perfect in the quiet way that the best films of this kind are. In what is basically a coming-of-age tale, Carney weaves gold by capturing the creative process at work, as a bunch of kids learn how to write and perform music together. There is nothing new here, but that’s what makes this film so special and how it reminds you to never give up on your dreams, to always be yourself, and to never stop reinventing your life.

6. American Honey – Andrea Arnold (Shia LaBeouf, Sasha Lane)

This beautifully disturbing, sprawling epic of a film inhabits a strange and unsettling world that exists somewhere between the gritty voyeurism of “Kids” and the precious naturalistic beauty of a Terrence Malik film (Days of Heaven, Tree of Life). It’s a largely plotless road movie about runaways traveling through the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions, partying and living a strange lawless existence, and rejecting the demands of the real world.

This ragtag band of misfits is led by Shia LeBeouf who astounds as a renaissance charlatan. He discovers the young Sasha Lane at a WalMart and recruits her to drop everything and join the party. The kids here are too young to be living the life they are living, and although the director Andrea Arnold lets the movie run for 163 minutes, there is very little I can imagine cutting. From the beautiful close ups of bugs and landscapes, to the excessive and awkward moments of sex and impropriety, the film rolls like a waking dream. This is not a film for everyone, but it is important, urgent and unafraid.

7. 20th Century Women – Dir. Mike Mills (Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig)

Films about mothers and sons are a far rarer breed than those about fathers and sons. But in this exquisitely quirky film set in the late 70’s Santa Barbara, Annette Bening plays a happily lonely chain smoking oddball, who is much cooler than her son (a great Lucas Jade Zumann) gives her credit for. He stumbles clumsily into adulthood, surrounded by the communal joy of the patchwork family of colorful boarders that inhabit the slow burning remodel of the house where they live.

The film is saturated with the music, styles and ethos of the era. A looser time, long before the Internet where time was spent talking directly to each other, and wandering around the exploring the world. Billy Crudup’s hippie Mr. Fixit is a perfect faux father figure, while the lovable Greta Gerwig stands in as the adopted older sister. There is a rustically realistic charm that saturates every scene, while Annette Bening delivers the performance of her career, in a career filled with great performances. This film leaves you longing for a time long gone, but actually not that long ago.

8. Hell or High Water – Dir. Taylor Sheridan (Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges)

This is perhaps the finest “modern western” I have ever seen. In it the anti-villains, two brothers played by the always explosive Ben Foster and the calmer but more urgent Chris Pine, are contemporary Robinhood’s, stealing money from the bank that snake-charmed their ranch away from their dying mother. Sadly it doesn’t get more realistic, as the great urban migration of the past fifty years has left a sea of crumbling towns being eaten by predatory lenders.

Although most of the action focuses on a series of lo-fi bank robberies throughout these barren shabby towns of West Texas, everything moves at an effortlessly slow but thrilling pace. Even the Sheriff, a wonderful Jeff Bridges, takes his time tracking the thieves casually napping on benches and sipping cold beer while he waits for them to stumble into his lair. But mostly the film just kind of burns like a mile long fuse, crackling and hissing through the dusty landscapes of Texas. A masterpiece of patience and nuance, proving again that the American West is still alive and kicking, albeit a shell of its former self.

9. Birth of a Nation – Dir. Nate Parker (Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King)

If not for the personal controversy surrounding the director, this heart-wrenching, often painfully violent story about the life of Nat Turner would be a shoe in for awards consideration. Like all films about slavery, I watched this awestruck by how this very real history is still only 150 years old. It does as good a job as any illuminating the complexity that existed between slaves and their owners (the good and the bad).

Parker’s debut direction and starring performance is easily one of the most accomplished I saw all year. Alas, the media made this film the most talked about and highest priced film ever purchased at Sundance, and then buried before it had the chance to succeed. Like “12 Years A Slave” this is an important film, as relevant today as it would have been at any point in history. Ignore the backstory and see the film.

10. Moonlight – Dir. Barry Jenkins (Alex Hibbert, Aston Saunders, Janelle Monae)

“Moonlight” is a heavy film that doesn’t so much as feel light, but just kind of meanders weightlessly through the heat and sweat of Miami. It is the story of one man, but told in two parts by incredible younger and older versions of himself. It is also the coming of age film about a gay black child growing up in the projects to a drug addicted mother. There would be no reason for someone not from this place to have spent time considering this story, but it is a revelation to have the time to spend with it.

Adapted from a play, director Barry Jenkins, has crafted a story for the big screen that is so nuanced, and he has discovered actors that are so compelling, that each scene just slowly gets under your skin and demands empathy and consideration. Filled with some vaguely familiar faces, and few others you we will no doubt see again, this film is not so much another meditation on race, but on sexuality and circumstance, and finding a place in a world that is still shamefully rigid.

11. Indignation – James Shamus (Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon)

I loved this film for the same reason I love “The Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace.” It takes place in an era before I was born, but not so far away that I can’t understand it. Adapted from a short novel by Philip Roth, the story takes place at a tony liberal arts school in Ohio where a blue collar Jewish kid from New Jersey comes to change the course of his young life. The legendary producer James Shamus directs his debut film weaving pure magic into this elegant looking story of pride, tradition and fragile egos.

Tracey Letts couldn’t be better as the rigid headmaster of the school who spars with this stubborn Freshman, an incredible Logan Lerman, who refuses to attend the required twice weekly Chapel gatherings, pleading atheism. As he struggles to fit in, and to follow the rules, he falls for a fragile and once suicidal beauty who takes us to another place entirely. We fall so naturally into this vastly more innocent time, but bask in the realization that simplicity and innocence is always relative, and growing up is always painful, no matter when we live it.

12. The Intervention – Clea DuVall (Melanie Lynsky, Jason Ritter, Natasha Lyonne)

The funniest film I saw this year barely reached the theater, but kept me laughing out loud not just at the endless sea of pitch perfect banter, but because each character manages to nail each of the stereotypes it sets out to illustrate. Four couples steal away to a beautiful family home in South Carolina to perform a “marital intervention” on their seemingly insufferably unhappily married friends.

The irony, which drives the consistent hilarity, is that each of the couples could use an intervention of their own. Nobody realizes that ‘the invention’ could just as easily be on themselves. They drink, fight, flirt and imagine everyone else is somehow worse off than each other. Clea DuVall is confidently sure-handed in her debut film which feels like a modern day “Big Chill” complete with one of the most appealing and competent young casts of the year.

13. Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford (Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal) 

This film is all about mood. In it, director Tom Ford tells three stories: one of the from the past, one set in the present and the other abstracted from a harrowing novel written by one of the protagonists and taking place somewhere in between. Ford’s time as a fashion designer is core to the way he makes films. This one is dark and as impeccably detailed as it is emotionally complex.

Amy Adams plays both the young idealistic dreamer who marries an artsy, rustic aspiring writer played by Jake Gyllenhaal. But she thrives more as the older version of herself, having moved past her young lover only to become a richer but not happier, art dealer disgusted with the superficially of her life and the art she deals. When she receives a copy of a novel written by Gyllenhaal, the past, present and future converge into one of the most suspenseful films of the year.

14. Hunt For The Wilderpeople - Dir. Taika Waititi (Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rachel House)

Great films that my still young kids also love get an extra bump when I look back. I’m also a sucker for all things quirky and Kiwi, so this tale about a misfit kid, and his kooky adopted uncle who end up on the lamb crisscrossing the New Zealand bush for a series of crimes they didn’t really commit was destined to win.

After being bounced around from foster home to foster home, Ricky (played by the wonderful Julian Dennison) winds up with Aunt Bella and a grizzled Sam Neill as Uncle Hec. After Bella dies, and child services threaten to put Ricky back in foster care, he runs away from home and an over the top national manhunt takes place. You haven’t seen two less threatening outlaws than these two, but the journey is an outrageous mixture of comedy and bizarrely exciting action. Hard not to love.

15. Green Room – Dir. Jeremy Saulier (Anton Yelcin, Imogen Poots, Patrick Stewart)

There is almost nothing more punk rock than a great indie horror film, especially when that film is about a punk rock band trapped in the green room of a neo-Nazi bar in the Pacific Northwest. As seemingly outrageous as the plot might be, everything about the way the film unfolds is as plausible as it is perfectly executed. A hardcore band Ain’t Right is trying to scrounge up enough cash to pay for gas to get them back to the relative calm of the East Coast.

After playing a predictably hostile show for a room of angry skinheads, the band witnesses a murder and is forced to fight their way to safety against a well armed group of thugs led by the wonderfully acted character leader played by Patrick Stewart. There is blood and violence and a kind claustrophobic creepiness that drives this slim 94 minute tour de force. No zombies, no aliens, no hockey-masked psychopaths, only the angry drug dealing white supremacists … that we know exist on the fringes of todays hinterlands.

A few more …

16. The Witch – Dir. Robert Eggers (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie) This is easily the creepiest 17th century horror film I have ever seen, reminding you how incredibly uncertain and utterly helpless the earliest settlers must have felt out there in the woods.

17. Eye in the Sky – Dir. Gavin Hood (Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul) There was almost no film that had me thinking about the moral complexity of terrorism and the awesome and frightening power of drone warfare more than this film.

18. Arrival – Dir. Denis Villeneuve (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner) This visually stunning, thrillingly crafted sci-fi voyage, explores the possibility of life beyond earth through the more human lens of basic communication. Director Villeneuve is quietly following in the footsteps of Kubrick, focusing on every detail and reframing all of the hard questions about what it means to be alive.

19. Everybody Wants Some – Richard Linklater (Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman) Although Linklater doesn’t quite hit that same perfect note he did in “Dazed and Confused,” this whimsical “spiritual sequel” is an easy going romp through the wonderful feeling of that first weekend back at college. I wish I could do it just one more time.

20. Bleed For This – Dir. Ben Younger (Miles Teller, Aaron Eckhart) Miles Teller is well on his way to becoming one of the finest actors working today. In this gritty real life story about the boxer Vinny Pazienza, he has elevated the genre, and done justice to one of the most incredible comeback stories in the history of sports.

21. Paterson – Dir. Jim Jarmusch (Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani) In some ways this is one of Jarmusch’s most accessible films, on the other hand, this somber story about a bus driver poet, is exactly the kind of film he has been making his whole career. Brilliant.

22. Hacksaw Ridge – Mel Gibson (Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington) Say what you will about Mel Gibson, but he is still an incredible storyteller and filmmaker, and has made one of the most astonishing war protest films ever made, and given Andrew Garfield yet another career making role.

23. High Rise – Dir. Ben Wheatley (Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller) There wasn’t a slicker, starker or more beautifully stylized dystopian film this year than “High Rise.” Like the bastard child of “A Clockwork Orange” and “ The Road”, there is a beauty and horror in the bleakness of modern life.

 24. The Free World – Dir. Jason Lew (Octavia Spencer, Elizabeth Moss, Boyd Holbrook) This was one of my favorite films at Sundance last year. Holbrook and Moss are two of the most beautifully damaged souls, who together try to escape the injustice of their brutal circumstances.

25. Hidden Figures – Dir. Theodore Melfi (Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Taraji Henson) I don’t know anyone that knew this story before seeing this film- and I live in the Bay Area where scientists are rock stars. An incredible story about three black women working for NASA 50 years ago.

 

 

 

The Bestest 2016: Tunage

OL

Radiohead, Outside Lands, 2016

2016 was a year to forget … but also to remember. We lost at least a dozen of the most important artists we will ever hear. As much as the music business is still adjusting to the new frontier, great music seems to pour out of every corner of the world, no longer hostage to major labels, walled garden distribution, and a handful of gatekeepers. This list, my 20th, is filled with as many truly incredible records as ever. They cross every thematic genre I can think of, and pay tribute to everything that has come before. I don’t buy that the “album” is dead. Great artists still make albums, that is why they are great. Try to listen to them that way, playlists can be great, but they only tell part of the story.

1. Rufus Du Sol Bloom (Columbia)

One thing modern streaming services can tell you that records, tapes, and CDs never could, is what you “really” listened to over the course of a year. In my case the sophomore album by Sydney’s Rufus Du Sol was far and away the album I played more than any other. Having stumbled into their set at Coachella in April, and being literally blown away by their melodic and more song oriented approach to dance music, I had no idea what to expect from the recorded version. What I found was eleven of the most lushly produced, instantly addictive songs of the decade. Although somewhat unrelated, I remember feeling the same way in the mid-90’s when first hearing Morcheeba, Zero 7, and Air – beautiful traditional songwriting and structure layered on top of ultra-clean electronic beats.

Because this is also the most consistent album of the year, almost every song is my favorite. From the infectious “You Were Right” whose lyrics “You were right, I know I can’t get enough of you .. the things that I would do” just keeps rolling hypnotically for just the right amount of time, to the broodingly upbeat closing track “Innerbloom” which glitches and grooves along until we get the triumphant chorus “If you want me / And you need me / I’m yours.” For me, everything I love about music is packed into these 11 songs.

2. Andy Shauf The Party (Anti-)

Some artists come out of nowhere (or in this case Saskatchewan) and record something so perfect its almost inexplicable. Last year Tobias Jesso Jr. (another Canadian) released the near perfect “Goon” which was that record, but this year the orchestral brilliance of “The Party” fills that slot. If you’re as old as me, you’ll remember records piano based chamber pop like this from artists like Epic Soundtracks and Eric Matthews, but this is a very modern sounding affair.

Shauf has a sweet but distinctly low-key voice perfect for the largely slow and moody “The Party.” You’ll hear a bit of Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, strings and brass wafting from the piano on this concept album about young people at “The Party.” On the gorgeous “Early to the Party”, he dials perfectly into the inevitable banality “early to the party, you’re the first one there / overdressed and underprepared / standing in the kitchen, stressing out the host / pulling teeth ’til anyone arrives.” Like most of the selections on this list, this is an “album” – one that pulls you in, warms you up, and takes just takes you away to a better younger place where things were way less complicated.

3. Day of the DeadDay of the Dead (4AD)

There was no record as ambitious and sprawling as the 59-song, four-year project constructed by the The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Indie rock and jam band enthusiasts have always seemed to have been disconnected both by age and cultural orientation, but below the surface there has always been a connection much tighter than there appears. I can think of no better bridge than these modern interpretations from one of the most important bands of the past half-century.

Whether it’s The National’s sublime “Peggy-O,” Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s jangly “Rubin and Cherise,” Real Estate’s “Here Comes Sunshine,” or Kurt Vile’s “Box of Rain” the spirit and songwriting and instrumentation of the Dead’s catalog is unquestionably magical. Recorded over four years in Dessner’s Woodstock studio, there was no collection of songs that connected the history of modern music as impressively as this one. This is truly a musical masterpiece, and one that creates a new relevance to one of the most impressive musical catalogs that we will ever hear, but also critical exposure to some of the most important artists of today.

4. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate (Polydor)

 Michael Kiwanuka, a young British born child of Ugandan refugees, has single handedly resuscitated the classic soul and R&B of the 70’s. Like Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield before him, he channels a kind of laid back politics that manages to not so much preach but to remind us that the world still suffers from the racist, classist instincts that just won’t seem to disappear.

This time out he is produced by Danger Mouse, whose silky production just adds a bit of lightness to an otherwise heavy themed affair. “Black Man In A White World” is a funked up confessional that is as potent as it is unshakable. While “One More Night” is more a universal anthem about just getting through the bad days, because eventually there will be a good one. In the midst of a terrible year personally, this one made all the difference.

5. Whitney- Light Upon The Lake (Secretly Canadian)

 There were few better debut albums released this year than this new project by ex-Unknown Mortal Orchestra drummer Julien Ehrlich and former Smith Westerns guitarist Max Kakacek. This is a whimsical jaunt through the world of modern indie pop, filled with hazy strings and brass, and the kind of familiar sounding guitar lines that have you just kind of smiling without really knowing why.

Each of the 10 songs seem to glide along filled with low burning jams reminiscent of early Luna or the short lived but brilliant Girls. These are indie-pop songs in the purest sense, they ask only that you lay back and bask in the beauty of everyday emotions. On standouts “Golden Days” and “The Falls” we hear about relationships gone bust, despite the longing. This is a tiny little gem of an album, and one we hope begets a long career of jewels.

6. Lambchop – FLOTUS (Merge)

For almost 20 years Nashville’s most quietly rocking Americana big band of hipster musical geniuses has been making some of the most consistently beautiful music I can think of. At the center of it all is bandleader and vocalist Kurt Wagner whose hushed storytelling meanders along like a waking dream. On ‘FLOTUS,’ which needs to be considered among the best of their long career, the band still paints a beautiful country rock symphony, but this time along the music is decidedly electronic.

Lambchop has long been that sadly beautiful brand of music that pre-dates Bon Iver. This time out we hear a deeper more electronic sound with Wagner’s vocals passed through a vocoder while a variety of keyboards and synthesizers flesh out something considerably more modern. The exquisite 9 minute opener “In Care of 8675309” sets a kind of patient groove tone for what comes next: warm waves of meandering rustic beauty.

7. Angel Olsen My Woman (Jagjaguar)

Sometimes an artist, naked with guitar and microphone, and a short book of stories, projects a kind of greatness that is hard to extrapolate. Like Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen is that rare singer-songwriter whose earlier confessional acoustic efforts have given way to a fully formed band oriented masterpiece. Her voice is a powerful blend of Lucinda Williams and PJ Harvey, at times quiet and restrained but eventually building into a glorious riot of sound.

“My Woman” is a massive step forward in fidelity and musicianship. Where her earlier efforts were sparse and intimate musings, songs like “Not Gonna Kill You” are bigger more ambitious anthems that just tend to explode into the darkness. Others like “Sister” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me” represent chorus heavy almost accessible pop songs, but tattooed with all the signature elements that have come to define her. This is a masterpiece.           

8. RadioheadA Moon Shaped Pool (XL)

Twenty-five years into one of the most consistently extraordinary runs of any band I can think of, Radiohead delivers another languidly exquisite album of patient contemplation. Unlike the last few dubstep experiments that were beautiful, sparse and cold, the orchestral texture of “A Moon Shaped Pool” proves that old bands can continue to evolve without sounding like they are trying too hard. Although it is easy to focus on the sublime vocals of Thom Yorke, this time out it is really the musical composition of Johnny Greenwood that saturates each song with a profound depth of feeling.

There are barn burning ragers like “Burn The Witch,” rootsier jams like “The Numbers” and more somber tunes like “Present Tense” where we hear Yorke whisper “ No don’t get heavy / Keep it light and / Keep it moving.” If there was ever a album that attempted to understand the world we live in today it is this one. I am counting on them to neither burn out or fade away.

9. Ryley WalkerGolden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)

Ryley Walker is late twenty-something Chicago guitar prodigy who could have just as easily been the poster child of the 60’/70’s British folk scene along with Nick Drake, Van Morrison and the Fairport Convention. On “Golden Sings” his pure folk instinct gives way a bit to a more modern jazz folk lineage. This long-playing 9-song masterpiece is unlike anything that you have heard for decades.

“The Roundabout” is one of my favorite songs of the past decade. He opens with the profound but ambiguous lyrics “There’s no instance / In conscience or convenience / Even though you stand / On heavy shoulders.” As much as he is a clever lyricist, it is his intricate guitar strumming that puts him way out there on a different plane. Music like this doesn’t fit anywhere in a modern age filled with electronica, dance pop, and festival sized rock and roll. Perhaps this is why this album is so precious and beautiful.

10. Hiss Golden MessengerHeart Like A Levee (Merge)

If you are looking for an old school rock record fashioned from the ashes of the best of American country rock music of the 70’s, Hiss Golden Messenger’s gorgeous “Heart Like A Levee” is like some sort of gift from the gods. The band is really the work of Durham, NC’s MC Taylor, a master songwriter and gifted bandleader writing from a time long gone.

With his nasal Dylan meets Petty vocal styling’s, he is a straightforward storyteller who seems so important in an age of screens and feeds and ‘alone togetherness.’ There are a handful of instant classics this time out from the twangy “Biloxi” to the rambling title track “Heart Like A Levee”. This is an album that will help you block out everything, at least for a moment, and remember the past as you’d like it to be remembered.

11. The Radio Dept.Running Out Of Love (Labrador)

It’s no surprise that the cleanest, crispest piece of New Wave nostalgia is yet another product of the great Swedish music scene. The Radio Dept. has quietly and sporadically been making records for the past fifteen years, never quite spiking a main vein in the US, blending the tween sensibility of Belle and Sebastian with the keyboard buoyancy of the best 90’s Brit pop.

Thematically the album is a modern day protest album, bathed in the bright jangle of casio beats. From the infectious “Swedish Guns” to the even more timely “This Thing Was Bound To Happen,” the band is looking at all of the global political chaos crashing down around us, and creating the kind of art that feels more like a reminder than a call to arms.

12. AHNONIHOPELESSNESS (Rough Trade)

It is hard to think of another singer whose angelic and other-worldly voice can even compare to that of Nina Simone, but the British born, US transplant Antony Hegarty deserves that kind of unique praise. In an age of both radical openness and extreme hate, the transgender Hegarty, whose most recent project AHNONI, has managed to create the most political dance record of the year.

Despite it’s ominous title, the record creates irony out of real chaos. On “Drone Bomb Me” she sings “Blow me from the mountains, and into the sea … Explode my crystal guts / Lay my purple on the grass” and on “4 Degrees” she tackles climate change singing “I want to see this world, I want to see it boil / It’s only 4 degrees, it’s only 4 degrees.” Heavy stuff indeed but performed with a strangely euphoric touch. Amen.

13. Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial (Matador)

Will Toledo was born in 1992, which was coincidentally the year we first heard from Pavement- the band probably most sonically and lyrically similar. Between 2010-15 he self-released a dozen albums on Bandcamp calling himself Car Seat Headrest. 10K hours later, he has emerged as one of the most gifted songwriters of his time.

This lo-fi guitar rock, which has recently lost it’s gravity to the electronic DJs of today, seems to be making a comeback with bands like Car Seat Headrest and fellow wunderkind Courtney Barnett. On the surface the dozen melancholic mini rock anthems seem like more millennial whining, but the joke here is that he seem to be poking fun at all of this undeserved entitlement. He says it better than anyone on “Fill in the Blank” where he wails “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” Yup, game on.

14. Mike Snow iii (Downtown Records)

The third record from the NY and Swedish dance pop supergroup was about as immediate and consistent as anything I heard this year. I also managed to see the band play live four times in 2016, so with this added context I can’t help but excuse the slickness and embrace the mainstream tendencies – after all these guys have produced albums by Britney Spears, Madonna and Kylie Minogue

From the massively addicting “Ghengis Khan” to the even deeper “My Trigger” the band taps into everything from classic R&B and Soul to the most modern electro dance beats. If I believed in ‘guilty pleasures’ this would fit the bill, but anything that delivers this much joy requires no guilt.

15. Jagwar Ma – Every Now and Then (Mom & Pop)

On their second effort, Aussie psychedelic dance powerhouse Jagwar Ma, continues to channel that bouncy 80’s Manchester sound with a totally modern groove based electronica. Like fellow countrymen Rufus Du Sol and Tame Impala, they both pay tribute to the riches of history managing to create a sound that is genuinely original.

On “Say What You Feel,” the trippiest ballad of the year, the band croons “Cause it’s all you ever wanted / And it’s all you ever dreamed of / And you wake up and you try to / Try to make amends for what you had.” Like a glitchy, bouncy explosions of sound, Jagwar Ma aren’t afraid to stretch out each of these pop songs into deep groovy colorful jams. Let them wash over you.

16. Banks & SteelzAnything But Words (Warner Bros)

On paper a record featuring the singers from Interpol and Wu Tang making sweet music seems like a bad recipe, but “Anything But Words” is not only the most successful experiment of its kind, but one of the best albums of the year. It’s neither a hip-hop record nor is it a dark new wave indie rock.

Trading vocals throughout each song, Paul Banks and Rza, have written songs that flow effortlessly into and out of their own personal comfort zones but co-existing neatly within a wonderfully familiar zone. The raging “Giant” is one of the best songs in the past decade, a guitar and keyboard driven masterpiece filled with Rza’s rhymes and Banks understated intensity. It almost doesn’t matter if there is another collaboration between the two – this one says all it needs to.

A bunch of other stuff that you must hear …

17. Cass McCombs Mangy Love (Domino Records) A quietly loud, often moody collection in an age where rock music struggles to make a ripple in the wake of manufactured pop songs and synthesizers.

18. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seeds Ltd.) 33 years into one of the strangest most prolific and darkly beautiful careers imaginable, Nick Cave has delivered a somber masterpiece as he dealt with the loss of a child and the fragility of life.

19. BadBadNotGood – IV (Innovative Leisure) This is not jazz from your parent’s generation, but something wholly different, a fusion of traditional R&B, classic jazz, and spacier Sun Ra meets Miles   expansiveness. Breathtaking.

20. The Last Shadow Puppets – Everything You’ve Come to Expect (Domino Recordings) The second wonderfully orchestral release from Artic Monkey’s leader Alex Turner and Miles Kane is a darkly optimistic string soaked voyage into something both theatrical and cooler than ice.

21. Bon Iver22, A Million (Jagjaguar) Few albums were as technically and sonically ambitious as this oddly gorgeous evolution from one of the most innovative singer songwriters of our time.

22. David BowieBlackstar (Columbia) One final eerily gorgeous collection of jazzy, interstellar genre bending songs from the man who inspired so much of today’s most important bands. Great not because it was his last, but because he always lived in the future.

23. Local NativesSunlit Youth (Loma Vista Recordings) Another solidly confident, distinctly authentic effort from one of the finest SoCal art pop bands of the past decade.

24. Weyes Blood Front Row Seat To Earth (Mexican Summer) Natalie Mering’s sublime, and patiently confessional third effort is a hauntingly otherworldly affair ripped seemingly from some other time and place that is impossible to place.

25. Porches Pool (Domino Records) Aaron Maine’s sophomore effort features dozen of the cleanest electro-pop songs of the year, alluding to 80’s New Wave, but staying consistently modern and bright.

26. The Avalanches – Wildflower (Modular) 16 years ago a bunch of Aussie music scientists weaved nine-hundred song samples into one of the most important albums in the history of electronic music. Then seemingly out of nowhere, despite years of rumors and hope, they dropped “Wildflower” on the world. Still great.

To listen to the Bestest of the Bestest listen here: https://open.spotify.com/user/ruxputin/playlist/7jEo6HP5Nadtmh7StRNqzc